Three Poems by Charlotte Mandel

Cousin Anna

At seven, my favorite grown-up cousin
was Anna
who stood out from her six siblings
by her orange-red curly hair, freckles
sprinkled over white skin, and eyes blue
as the painted ones on my doll
with porcelain head and stuffed
brown cloth body.
When my years of pulling at
pink-flowered ruffled sleeves
tore off an arm, Anna’s needle and thread
overstitched it back to the shoulder.
I kissed the stitches while Anna
kissed the top of my head.

Nearly thirty, Anna was close to
“old maid” disgrace when
Nathan in a green/blue
striped tie made her a bride.

Nobody took me to the wedding
but I woke next morning to buzz-swarms
of shocked voices between my parents
and cousins. Nathan and his stripes—
suit, ties, cheap valise—was gone,
his bride of one night, abandoned.

Anna’s red-brown freckles polka-dotted
above blue-white cheeks, wordless lips.
Her red-veined eyes
looked past me and my doll.

No longer “old maid”
Anna ever after
wore a new epithet:
“the kissless bride.”

*

Old Maid

My mother’s friend Jenny
sewed a pale green satin
trimmed with ecru lace
dress for my doll. She made
her living with needle and thread.

Thick dark hair dyed the color
and texture of black suede, face
dusted with white powder, rouge
circle on each cheek. “She was
the prettiest of all of us—

but nobody was ever
good enough.” More than once,
I heard Jenny say, “People,
they are rotten.” Sometimes,
she slept over, shared my bed.

“Rosie, keep this for me,”
her one precious jewel—
a diamond and sapphire ring—
she knew of my mother’s
safe deposit box. Had there

been a fiance? As an old maid
she ended up in Welfare Island
Insane Asylum. I was thirteen
when we visited, her bed far
against the wall of the ward.

“Am I meshuga to be here?”
and kissing my hand, “You come
to visit Jenny,” and “Rosie,
“you have my ring?” Against
my mother’s mute

lips like a line crossed out
on a bill of sale, I say,
“It’s safe, Jenny,
it’s safe.”
The subway
doors clang like prison gates.

*

At Eighty

My shadow leads me on—
shoulders narrower
hips wider
than the body feels.
Chalk a dotted outline
to mark the shape of difference.

Watch out for
up-ended corners of sidewalk.
Safeguard breakable parts
formerly ignored.

Note the doubled self-portrait—
perfect smile
somewhere in a photograph.

Blood-memory—
pulses beating
syncopated heats
soft against hard against soft against
exquisite rush of
power
and the slow
sense of waterfall
quieting.

Stand back a bit from the mirror.
Fluff hair rinsed
the color of schoolgirl desire.
Tint the lampshade rose.

*

Charlotte Mandel’s eleventh book of poetry is Alive and In Use: Poems in the Japanese Form of Haibun. Her awards include a Lifetime Achievement Award from Brooklyn College, the New Jersey Poets Prize, two fellowships in poetry from New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Visit her at charlottemandel.com.

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