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Notes Toward a Love Poem
by Sheri Benning

The night you held my face in your hands, your eyes were the worn metal colour of clouds heavy with snow. In your eyes I could see the season turning.

Everyone has advice. Sarah says: “Dance wildly, but try to keep one foot firmly balanced on the earth.” Though I don’t say, I’m afraid this will only make me trip. And I wonder – what would this look like if we weren’t so cautious?

Because my favourite poet, the recluse I told you about, had a lover who, before she was certain they would be together, bought a bed that she knew would fit the length of his body.

Maybe what’s needed is a recipe. Or potion. The kind my sister and I used to stew in old mason jars: yarrow, dandelions, spear grass, water from the rain barrel, July sun. We were just kids, though; magic was possible.

Later your eyes were the green of morning frost on pasture grass. They reminded me of his in which I first learned to steady my gaze.

What can I give you? When first snow falls in the pre-dawn hush, softly as moth wings closing, softly as the departure of last night’s dreams, the crooked stitches of my grandmother’s hand, the quilt-heat of breath, unruly hair, my flushed cheeks, hands here and here, the tender flesh and warmth of my inner thigh. The one high note in “How Great Thou Art,” which contains both how to come undone and the path back.

Because my favourite poet’s lover knew for certain all along.

I should’ve shown you my heart earlier, but I was embarrassed by how it was dressed in the torn and washed-out cotton of the poor – detritus of last season’s poplar leaves and bark. So instead I got drunk. Spoke out of turn. Insulted your friend. Ignored you. I know. I’m not so good at this.

Because I can’t help but wonder what colour your eyes are right now as I listen to the passing cars and the low hiss of night rain on the city streets.

I haven’t written a love poem for years. I don’t know if that’s what this is. But I want you to tell me your sorrow. And for you to listen to mine. I wish I could sing you all the songs I know – loudly, off-key, and without shame.

What can I give you? Fiery death of leaves. Deer on a sand bar, the sickle shadows of their bodies on the slowing river. A hot bowl of soup for you to thaw your cold and work-chapped hands against. Root cellar musk of onion, carrots, pepper.

The more I want to show you, the further away you become. Just try to touch the horizon.

Because the story you told me about your grandfather. How before the Russians captured him in Greece, he buried beneath a tree his wedding ring and locket, the small, sepia photo of his wife’s face.

Everyone has advice. I know, I know; what I want to believe and the way things are seldom matches up. I guess I didn’t realize when my fortune cookie read “your romantic obsessions will come true” that this could mean so many different things.

What’s needed is a recipe. Or potion. Outside the glow of the dance hall – breath, cologned- sweat, beer, your hand on my leg while you sing Elvis songs in my ear, the prairie’s last gasp of nettle and sage, “love me tender, love me true,” and if they could sing along, the stars would sound like crickets.

“Look,” I say. “All’s I know is that falling in love, or whatever this is, well, it’s always a logistical nightmare.” But even as I speak, I know I’ll go home to the empty cupboards of uncertainty and old mail. I’ll drive too fast to beat the low sky, and though autumn has been exhaling all along, the sudden shift of light to winter will wind me.

The next day we have an awkward conversation on the patio of some bar. All elbows, and sawdust tongues. I tear apart fallen elm leaves at their seams. You pull a parched flake of leaf from my hair. You love me.

A recipe. A potion. Something. The rain outside Muenster bar clinging like wet wool. The Weisner boy’s worthless and sodden crops. Look south and then east. Beyond that stand of evergreens. See the porch light tunneling through damp night? That’s where my father farmed his whole life. That’s where I learned that sometimes there’s no choice but to leave.

You love me not.

Because on the car ride that day when you pointed to the magpies teasing currents of air with tail-feathers the blue beginning of flame, the erratic lift and fall of their glide reminded me of my heart at recognizing the length of your forearm, your one silver hair.

What can I give you? Funeral pyre of burning stubble, damp grass, leaves, but then sweet smoke and ash, the rich, black earth of my heart. All I ask in return: if you notice in the dashboard light that my hair has fallen in my eyes, that you might hold it briefly between your fingers, smooth it behind my ear and then linger there.

Sheri Benning takes note of the prairie.


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