Maryfrances Wagner’s books include Salvatore’s Daughter, Red Silk (winner of the Thorpe Menn Book Award), Light Subtracts Itself and Dioramas. Her chapbook Pouf is forthcoming later this year. Her poems have appeared in literary magazines, anthologies and textbooks including Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry (Penguin Books) and The Dream Book: An Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women (winner of the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation). She is co-editor of The I-70 Review and the Whirlybird Anthology of Greater Kansas City Writers.
Excerpt from Dioramas
© Maryfrances Wagner 2015
Learning to Be Small Here’s my corner in our house for tea with Alice and Carroll poems, my royal towel-cape, my altar where I know the prayer of Shhhhhh, where I wait to be spoken to, to be blessed with bon bons for being a quiet girl. I imagine myself a molecule, snow falling. I know not to jump or wiggle. I don’t fidget when I brood. I tuck into chairs, a mannequin, my hands two lap rocks. I don’t run through houses, scratch floors, blow whistles, shriek. I know laughter will give me worms. I am a child mime: I watch myself watching myself watch. First published in Downgo Sun Lessons Children should be seen, not heard. Mirk’s Festial I hide in a bedroom closet, past winter’s nubby sweaters, past hem-torn drapes where she can’t find me. I fold myself into a basket, a blanket over me, quiet, as the child combing pink doll hair, while Nonna kneels into prayers, her fingers finding each bead; quiet, as the child sitting while Nonna snips rosemary and basil into a garlicky red sauce, quiet, as the child Nonna teaches to roll transparent dough, to loop yarn through a hook over and over until the room feels as heavy as wet wool and dark silence. Nonna taught me to push back words that try for speech from the throat’s darkest basement. The child who learned to be quiet isn’t saying, here, here I am when Nonna calls. Not enough to have an unfindable place. I don’t save her from poking under beds, from shuttling outside, sandbox to bushes, her call more and more broken, Dove sei, Bedre Madre, where are you? I creep from closet to couch, wait, and perfect French knots on a pillowcase for my hope chest, needle through cloth the only sound. First published in Imagination and Place Furnace-Room Escape Its octopal arms stretch across the room, its face the cast-iron furnace door, crooked and slightly ajar. Flames I fear shift and arc from that core. Coals breathe red then shed gray-blue ash through a grate. At eight, I see its rage each time it roars back on—— its flames dancing devils with forks, in the room I always sneak past. One winter day, the furnace becomes a womb, a respite from my mother’s pursuit, her raised broom a war-axe. I don’t remember what I did that would stoke such wrath, what act could make trees creak, wake Baba Yaga from her hut. In that chase, I run into the furnace room to hide behind its arms, into a nook she can’t reach. She thrashes at me as if I am a moth, a black widow, a rat, her arms as persistent as the flames. First published in the Medulla Review Uncle Newtie’s Collections Thimbles, lanterns, Depression glass, Uncle Newtie hunts all, down to the sideboard he restored with the nicked Chippendale. It began when he found his mother’s ivory comb in the attic with two pearl-handled pistols and a ruby glass bowl. He remembers how everything he owned as a kid fit into one drawer with his hat on a nail. If anyone asks, out come baseball cards or tins that once held cotter pins or Doan’s pills. He says someday he’ll be rich from paintings he’s found and necklaces his wife keeps in an armoire he refinished in the garage. Gives him something to do, Aunt Maggie says when he disappears to sort buttons. She likes the hunt too when they rumble off on Saturdays. From vacations, we buy them spoons or jiggers. They thank us with canned jam or green beans. We say Uncle Newtie, nearly 80, should sell some of those clocks and teapots as we side-step past walls of displays. He tells us his neighbor auctions off in four hours what people spend a lifetime saving. From the window, as we drive away, Newtie and Maggie, dodging rows of dusty thimbles, wave. Columbus Park Neighborhood Zia Lena didn’t hear the cries her neighbors describe. Only Zia Rosie was awake, pinching ravioli. Lena wakes to yellow tape outside, hears a husband lessoned his wife with a hunting knife. Ms. Rinella traces the wife’s bloodstains to the Impala where she pulled herself. From Columbus Park wires, grackles hunch. Zia Lena watches wind toss twigs. Neighbors huddle against a cold gust, talk about another woman shot in a drive-by: Her car slammed into the building where my Zio once ran a drug store. Brown leaves swirl up the sidewalk, give way to another winter moving in. Across town, we read the story, see photos of the scene. Outside, sparrows adjust their feathers on feeders. Soon they will start their songs. First published in Thorny Locust Cut and Inked “Of course they hurt, but in a good way.” Sparrow Meade Like bees, the needles open blossoms of blood. The artist stipples tracings, pounds ink into red and black blurs, invades that secret hideout where grief sleeps in skin’s cellar. With each carved line, the dark melds with pain’s elixir——a temporary fix. Too quickly the cuts close and heal. Map Directions through Woods I followed the smooth stones you said would be there, the arrow pointing toward the less-cleared path. I read the birch carvings, found crossed sticks, creek curving back to the dead oak. I found the blue rag tied to the ash, rose-petal path, bread crumbs still not nibbled. I didn’t know what to think of the blood drops near the clearing, then saw the cabin by the only campfire along the Kaw. First published in Imagination and Place Beneath the Trees Along the sidewalk, limbs nod like listeners through long stories. But the air has nothing to say. No more clicks and trills from cicadas. All week I have found them still as stones, twig feet folded like ironing board legs. Their hairnet wings glisten in sunlight, frame blunt thumb bodies, marbled olive and black. In the grass, one cicada is a toppled spinning toy. A smaller insect hollows out another cicada that rattles like dry seeds in a gourd. Another cicada gives its last moments to pivoting like a pencil on a compass. They hang onto summer——his lusty drone played out, her fanfare flutter stilled, beneath the trees. First published in The Midwest Quarterly