Poetry

To find published work of mine other than what is listed here, please check out my Bibliography.


May 12, 2002: Co-winner of The Sea Shell Game #53, a contest for haiku. To view the contest, click here. (The identity of the winners is not revealed until the end.) To find out how the contest works, click here and scroll past the list of games.

My Travel page contains the poem, To a Squirrel on the Bright Angel Trail. Note: the Travel page is accessible only from this page, the Sketches page, and the Resume page.

I wrote Solstice after my wife, Mary ("spousal equivalent" in legal parlance), and I returned from a visit to her sister Anne, after our community garden season had ended in 1997. Anne gave us two exquisite pomegranates to take back with us. I had never eaten one before, but had known about them from readings in Greek mythology, particularly the story of Persephone.

The Tides at Dorchester Bay, a pantoum, first appeared as an entry of mine on The Open Diary. The bay, teeming with life, is where I go to get many of the materials I use in my mixed-media work.

Moist is a sestina that also first appeared as an entry of mine on The Open Diary.

My original note to this poem read as follows: "My cousin Jayne has done years of refugee work in war zones ranging from Indochina to Latin America to the Middle East, as well as in undeclared "war zones" in her native U.S. ##I wrote Still Life: Jayne & National Election when she was in El Salvador during their 1983 national election -- where, she said, the press was 'always looking for a good massacre.'" The poem was written in 1983, when I believed what she was telling me. I continued to believe her stories until April 2000, when I found out that they were fabrications that also served to hide a severe drug problem. Jayne died of morphine poisoning in 2001.

I wrote Natural Selection in 1998. Mary is a recycler extraordinaire. We live in an area where the line between "urban" and "wild" is oftentimes blurred.

Sanctuary, Mount St. Helens was inspired by my visit to that volcano a year after its eruption.

The Shrine on Horn Pond Mountain pays tribute to what had been an impromptu place of magic near home, when I lived in Woburn, Massachusetts. To read the full story about the shrine, click here.

Climbing the Darwin Steps takes place at a location a bit more distant. In 1984 I spent a week in the Galapagos Islands with 11 other people on a 40-foot fishing boat. This poem came to me almost as automatic writing, from somewhere beyond my head down through my arm and onto the page. I knew, when I wrote it, that the word "sere" meant dry. It was only after the fact that I discovered the second meaning of the word: "The entire sequence of ecological communities successively occupying an area" (American Heritage Dictionary). Given the poem, that discovery left me with the distinct impression that I had not written it alone.

My mother, Sylvia Alkoff, wrote around 100 poems and a dozen short stories in the 3 years between her retirement and her death. Those 3 years afforded us a truce of sorts. From her attempts to limit my writing time when I was growing up and my hiding a notebook and flashlight under the covers at night, we had reached the point where we shared our stories and poems with each other, commiserated on both rejection slips and acceptance letters, and communicated writer to writer. Two Sestinas/Across the Border consists of her poem, "The Reality of Dreams," and my reply, "Dreaming the Reality."

I wrote Thanksgiving Weekend: Two Rites of Passage after I visited my mother following her second heart attack in 1981. Her first, in 1969, had occurred shortly before my eleventh birthday. This poem was my way of preparing myself for her death, which would occur in July 1982, shortly after her 57th birthday. I was 23.

I remember my mother holding me in her arms for my first ride on the New York City subway. Back then, the trains were made of black cast iron (or so it seemed), with scratchy wicker chairs and windows that you could open, if you didn't mind getting your hands covered with soot. Thus began my love affair with subways, which I started riding solo at age 12. When I moved from New York to Boston, one of my biggest adjustments was to go from all-night transport to one that remained closed for several hours after the midnight oil had burned out. New York also offered the freedom of traveling from car to car and -- if you could manage not to get caught -- riding between the cars. She Leaves No Footprints is a celebration of my mobile "home away from home."

Rush Hour Story embellishes upon a true incident. For several years I commuted to Manhattan using the Staten Island Ferry. One hot summer day, a very pregnant woman was in the crowd. Although the ending scene of the poem is fabricated, the crowd, the pushing, and her blood-curdling screams were very, very real.

From an early age, I've been fascinated by Greek myth, which tends to make its way into my poetry from time to time. Persephone, mentioned in "Solstice," was Queen of the Underworld. Atropos, mentioned in "Dreaming the Reality," was the Fate who determined when to cut, and therefore end, the thread of each person's life. In Wings, a figure of Greek myth is updated into the genre of science fiction poetry. Icarus, wearing the waxen, feathered wings fashioned by his father Daedalus, met his death by flying too close to the Sun and melting the wax. His science fictional counterpart has a somewhat different problem. (Those interested in science fiction poetry can check out the Science Fiction Poetry Association Web site.)

Snake Goddess also makes reference to Greek myth, but takes its inspiration from my first encounter with a boa constrictor. In this case, the boa was named Agamemnon and his owner belonged to a rock band made up of college classmates. Perhaps I took to Agamemnon as I did because when I was a toddler my favorite stuffed toy was a 6-foot-long purple snake. Agamemnon was somewhat smaller, but decidedly more affectionate.

Until a visit to Armenia, the only sun goddess known to me was the Japanese deity Amaterasu. I was further educated when I visited the site that inspired The Temple of the Sun-Goddess, Mehezh.

In 1987 I spent two weeks in Florence, Italy, which yielded both A Question of Perspective, and The View From Fort Belvedere, .

Sometimes I draw inspiration from work-related events. Cross-cultural marketing was being addressed during my employment at the Harvard Business School, and led me to write Marketing Plan for the Alien Product Line.

Labor Intensive and Cog (see above, under Fiction) came from the same inspiration. At the Harvard Business School I worked behind the scenes as the school hosted a series of lectures called the Senior Editors Seminar. I was told to spend my lunch hour guarding the coats and purses of the editors attending, and I arrived at the lecture hall as our guests were filing out. A talk had just been given by Professor Shoshana Zuboff on factory automation, and I overheard one editor exclaim that he couldn't believe her assertion that some factory workers actually enjoyed their repetitive work and did not want to see it automated. I smiled to myself. In college I had taken a course in Industrial Psychology and my professor (Dr. Lee A. Borah; see the Hallucinations page under Articles, above) had told us about his own factory experiences. His stories confirmed Zuboff's findings. As I sat in the empty lecture hall, I knew I wanted to write a story that somehow conveyed this point, but could only come up at the time with the sonnet Labor Intensive. I sent it to Zuboff, who unbeknownst to me was on the editorial board of the Harvard Business Review. HBR was looking for business-oriented poetry. Hence, my sacrificed lunch hour ended up being both productive and profitable. It took two years before the story Cog took shape, and I sent it immediately to Tales of the Unanticipated, a magazine of the Minnesota Science Fiction Society, in honor of my former professor's college days at the University of Minnesota.

I have a stag beetle to thank for All Creatures Great and Small. Watching one negotiate, laboriously, the unevenness of a brick walk, inspired the poem.

Sometimes my science fiction poems attempt to translate a mundane item into an otherworldly counterpart, while maintaining its human soul. Such is the case with Hardhat.

The Moebius strip, named after German mathematician August Moebius, is a one-sided surface formed by rotating one end of a strip of paper 180 degrees and attaching it to the other end. The Dutch artist M.C. Escher took this strip and presented it from such an angle as to also suggest the symbol for infinity. Running Moebius makes use of these, and other, symbols.

In addition to giving me an alternate universe to inhabit when this one became overwhelming, science fiction enabled me to express the reality I endured in metaphor. Escape Velocity uses those metaphors. Conversely, Wreck Beach is set wholly in this world. Both poems tell the same story, but in different ways.

For eighteen years, from menarche (menstruation onset) until I went on the Pill, my menstrual periods debilitated me, to the point of vomiting, extreme pain, partial paralysis, and convulsions (doctors called them spasms, but I knew better). The Pill, miraculously, rescued me from suffering that at its worst could last as long as three weeks out of the month. Hence, my relationship with menstruation was an intimate love/hate relationship. Hate for the suffering I endured. Love for my ability to survive it and to learn the strength that comes with that survival. Hence, the poems Menarche and Invoking the Ruby Serpent. The latter was inspired by a meditation I had performed that provided some, though temporary, relief.

Solstice

You teach me about pomegranates.
The one your sister gave us
before we flew back across the continent.
Tough-skinned, unwilling to yield,
opened only by those willing to delve deeper.

Red trickles down your fingers
as you pop the seeds
from their spongey beds.
First I take your fingers into my mouth
and then the seeds, sucking,
savoring their tartness.

It is still warm where your sister lives
but here we've put the garden to bed,
buried the stalks and leaves,
cut the crops into pieces
manageable by worms.
Life infused seed and seedling, gave us
peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, corn, squash --
Now we've dug their graves, with cliffs of dirt
the height of our knees.
Pulled them up by the roots and laid them to rest
in the netherworld, returning their treasures to the soil,
covering the friends that had nourished us,
leaving naked burial mounds.

And I thought of Persephone, Queen of the Underworld,
six months beneath the snows, six in the sun,
her mother Demeter spreading wild fecundity
in summer heat.
Persephone, who ate pomegranate seeds,
the blood on her hands
condemning her to winter darkness.

I know better now.
I know better, because beneath the snow
our compost is steaming.
There's churning life burning up those dead leaves,
a bacchanalia turning moldy rinds to soil.
There's Persephone's sticky heat
sweet with pomegranate juice,
her belly holding hot promise of spring.

She's not dead. She's got work to do.

We paint each other with red fingers,
spill multitudes of bloody seeds into an enamelled bowl.
Our mouths fill with tartness
as we roll them around with our tongues,
as we lick the stains off each other's skin
and paint anew, learning Persephone's code
in the bubbling heat of winter.

© 2003, Elissa Malcohn. Excerpt published in We'Moon '04, Mother Tongue Ink.




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The Tides at Dorchester Bay

When the tide is low and the mud flats widen,
The crabs and snails conduct slow pas-de-deux
Amongst the rusted bike, discarded drums,
The flotsam tossed by children on the pier.

The crabs and snails conduct slow pas-de-deux,
Encrusting rocks, ensnared in fishing line.
The flotsam tossed by children on the pier
Obscure the buried clams, their water spurting,

Encrusting rocks, ensnared in fishing line.
An easy catch for gulls before the tide comes in,
Obscured, buried clams send water spurting,
Mysterious, tiny geysers in the mud.

An easy catch for gulls before the tide comes in:
Hard crusts of bread descending from the pier.
Mysterious, tiny geysers in the mud
Tickle bare, young feet careful of sharp shells.

Hard crusts of bread descending from the pier
Fall with fishing lines, a reel whirrs overhead.
Tickled bare young feet, careful of sharp shells,
Advance to higher ground as sea returns

To falling fishing lines; a reel whirrs overhead.
Mud flats give way to rocks and rocks to sand.
Advancing to higher ground as sea returns,
We watch the pylons of the pier submerge.

Mud flats give way to rocks and rocks to sand
And sand to grass and asphalt. Turning from the cityscape,
We watch the pylons of the pier submerge.
The ducks return, wary of human scent

On sand and grass and asphalt. Turning from the cityscape
They fly in search of food. The wind picks up.
The ducks return, wary of human scent,
But following their instinctís wise direction.

They fly in search of food. The wind picks up
And blows the water in, submerges kingdoms
Waiting to follow instinctís wise direction,
Now that they are hidden, somewhat safe.

As water blows in, submerging kingdoms,
Creatures of the deep exult beneath,
Now that they are hidden, somewhat safe,
The moon pulling their mantle to the breakwater.

Creatures of the deep exult beneath
Their slick exteriors, feeding and mating in darkness,
The moon pulling their mantle to the breakwater,
Raising high, then letting go their world.

Their slick exteriors, feeding and mating in darkness
Live in the moment, race against that larger force
That raises high, then lets go their world.
They teeter on the brink of life and death.

Living in the moment, racing against that larger force,
Amongst the rusted bike, discarded drums,
They teeter on the brink of life and death
When the tide is low and the mud flats widen.


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Moist

Listen -- you can hear the liquid heartbeat,
Moisture drawn from dirt, old growth replenished,
New growth amazed at life, at sun.
The pollinators abuzz amidst petals riotous
With glee, sticky with seed,
Pistil-packin' mamas lookin' for stamen's juice.

Listen -- tiny bugs squirming after rain, the juice
Of clouds, the pitter-patter after thunder's heartbeat.
Moist messages to the brains of germinating seed,
Crackling dryness passed, crumbling soil replenished.
A bacchanalia of nightcrawlers voracious and riotous,
Churning the soil, escorting new shoots toward the sun.

Listen -- the screech of redwinged blackbirds crossing the sun,
Swooping toward the dirt in search of worms, sweet juice
Feeding the breeding and the young, nests riotous
With the calling of chicks. Beneath each wing a fevered heartbeat
Drunk with spring. The chorusing air, replenished
With songs chirped, twittered, honked, planting the seed
Of sound. Listen -- we must remember the seed
Before we plant more concrete, building toward the sun.
We must remember, when we take, to then replenish,
So that we do not squeeze dry that precious juice
Of life itself. So that we do not bring this massive heartbeat
In which we live to silence. Let the waters be riotous

With fish, the wind be riotous with birds, the land be riotous
With sounds as minute as the opening of a seed.
Listen -- we exist amidst a plethora of heartbeats
Unique and unimaginable, powered by the sun,
Springtime warmth pumping the world with juices
Sweet and electrifying. Feel your soul replenished,

Each cell exuding energies replenished.
Listen to the nerve cells firing, crackling, dendrites riotous
With messages that leap the body's juices,
Swimming toward resolution, planting the seed
Of renewal. Basking underneath a gleaming sun,
Warm rays priming the pump of springtime's heartbeat.

Listen to the cresting flow, our juices replenished.
The sun enwraps our souls, and bursts that seed
Of joy, initiating the dance, our heartbeats riotous.


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Still Life: Jayne & National Election
for J.W.S.

1.
Today you are in El Salvador.
Today you eat lightly, or not at all,
dodging snipers on the open strip
as you pass food and medicines
in the People's bucket brigade.

Today you hope
the crates will meet eager hands
of hungry children. In Nicaragua,
you said:
the junta and U.S. advisors
got to them first. I asked:
the food
#####or the medicines?

And the children#####
you said.

2.
Up North you volunteer as angel in a hospice,
trying to keep pace with 80-year-old nuns
of divine, unstoppable energy.
You race in black dress, white pearls,
ebony hair secure as ivy on your back
to hide undeveloped wings.

You spend evenings
in a hand-modeling studio
willing flesh to porcelain, your wrists
and fingers painfully shut into
camera-ready petrification.

You spend nights
studying for Law Boards,
reading between the lines
for hint of Justice.
You fill your head
by memorizing its absences.
You keep on looking.

3.
Today, in pants and baggy shirt
You blend into trees
and melt into jungle flora.
Your shoulders doublejoint
to fit you into small, safe places,
or so I hope.
Warm and tiny
they almost fill the lines in my palms.
When tested, their muscles
are molded of tungsten.

I kept thinking of you:#####
in Laos.
I kept thinking of you:#####
in Nicaragua.
And in El Salvador
I am holding you alive in my mind
and I refuse to let go.
Alive or dead I keep thinking of you.
Alive or dead I keep holding my breath
for a time
when you may have need of it.


© 1983, Elissa Malcohn. Published in Black Maria, Vol. 4 No. 3, 1983.


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Natural Selection

You showed me
the piles of feathers
by the gully next to the train station --
heaped like the innards of pillows
save for stray sinew.

Told me
how the hawk glared at you,
then bent down and resumed its ripping
unintimidated,
scant feet away.

One pigeon fled
only to meet its death
under a wheel at the strip mall.
"Trash provides," you said
as the wind brought you a plastic bag.
You turned it
inside-out, like a pillowcase,
picked up the dead bird
never touching skin to remains,
then flipped the bag corpse side in.

In the garden, you dug a small, deep grave
between the basil and the pole beans.
You joked of how you planted a pigeon
so we could get chick peas.
Knowing that soil is more appreciative
than asphalt.

After the planting
the cats would not leave you alone.
They sniffed you everywhere,
eyes feral-wide, lips pulled back.
Couldn't get enough --
trembling with wildness, ancestral bloodbeat.
No plastic barrier could mask that scent.
Fixing you with a gaze of respect
reserved for a master predator.

Amidst the blare of commuters,
the turnoff to highway and subway roar,
close to the projects, near the industrial park,
I watch the hawk perched on a streetlamp.
It oversees an oasis of wetland
in the urban desert
and ignores the taunts of circling crows.

Silently,
it lifts and glides
back to the gully.

Starlings take brokenly to flight, shattering the sky.

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Sanctuary, Mount St. Helens

The softened grey plain under my feet
tames roaring magma. I sink gently,
in a free-fall
of weights made light
and unfamiliar,
buoyed in a slate tide,
poured in volcanic stasis.

The dull floor etches my footprints
in shattered glass, on a field
with no vanishing point --
and all around me
chipped, denuded peaks
change distance,
edge upon stark edge.

Today I must trust this mountain,
stepping carefully on muffled ground
cued to tremors, murmurs, the silence
of halted growth. A timid fern
curls around a dead, twisted birch woven
in a tangle of birches.
Wild greens lay their thin stalks
over macrames of charred wood
in gauzed lava, shaded
neither wholly black,
nor wholly white.

At any time, the earth might shake
and sway, sifting centuries of dust,
tripping young deer, swallowing pumice and wildflower,
and the air crackle with sirens
echoing like birds off the mountain face, or caught
in the hollowed bones of melting rock.
Below me are pulverized graves, layers
of life and death and
life again.
I hold my breath
to read quick
cryptic traces of seismic thoughts.

And if I stare outward long enough,
I can see new shoots from a simpler age
rise, reborn and ancient
out of motionless ash.

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The Shrine on Horn Pond Mountain
(discovered July 4, 1985, Woburn, Massachusetts)

I.

They call this hill a Mountain --
as though it were meant for
medicine wheels, henges on ley lines,
limestone caves
that shelter yogis, swallow suns.

Horn Pond Mountain
takes eight minutes'
steady climb: a helixed path
of split asphalt and acorns
mortared underfoot. In warm weather
there's runoff; in cold the runoff
freezes; the road ice-gouged
wrinkles
like elephant's hide.

To reach the shrine, you walk
past the public water supply
and toward the electrical works.
If you stand still
you will hear the drone of voltage
echoed in manic cricket song --
and you will vibrate between them.

You will see the pond below,
whale-shaped, glistening
with colors spat
from a dozen cast lures, and light
tucked into shadows under sitting-rocks.

II.

The shrine
is spray-painted
on a cement block eight paces squared.
A simple, blue circle
cups the Zodiac in crimson,
the planets in gold,
the four alchemical elements in black.

In the center of the circle, there are twigs
singed, and renewed.
The number Pi blazes a tangent;
and prime numbers lie splashed
on outcroppings of stone.

The visitors who made this place
have named it: 1-1-2000 A.D.
I have never seen them -- only the man
in the orange truck from the Reservoir
who waves as he drives by.

III.

The Reservoir
is the highest point in Woburn.
You can see the whole town from here.

Sundays
I stand inside the circle
and clasp my hands,
and hear the church bells
peal. Past fish and tackles leaping,
past electric cables strumming
they summon#####
over#####over#####over
Saint Charles#####
Saint Joseph#####Saint John's Baptist
First Congregational#####
United Methodist
Unitarian#####
Trinity#####Greek Orthodox#####Church
of the Open Bible#####
Church of the Living God...
Chimes -- like a chorus of angels,
like doves, like palms uplifted rise
toward the sun. They crest the top
of the Mountain.

Below the hill, beyond the pond
streets fill. Houses call
their congregations. Pastors tend
their flocks.
I kneel
smiling, solitary, as squirrels chitter
their hymns.

When all the bells stop ringing,
the crickets gather in the grass
and buzz, and the air shimmers.
Then I turn my face to the sky,
bluejeans warmed
in waves from concrete.
And I welcome the Goddess
into my New England town.


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Climbing the Darwin Steps
(Bartolome, Galapagos Islands, July 1984)

As though we were
creatures submerged, who needed to get out
somewhere, surface
some way out of some fathomless
ocean, this is what it is like,
we knew, to evolve.
To pass some barrier to change
and thrive.
It is natural,
that we should have had to climb
as Darwin climbed.
To lift cameras and backpacks,
notebooks and vestigial preconceptions
up those torturous logs anchored by posts,
sunworn-white and designed for the footsteps
of giants.
To cover
what from a distance
looked like the bleached bones
of a snake's spine
coiling to the top of a volcanic cone.
So that once we reached the summit
we were, indeed, chemically altered,
unable to explain ourselves
as we gazed back through layers of time
under a sere, equatorial sun.

© 2003, Elissa Malcohn. Published in Anthology Twenty-One, Florida State Poets Association.



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Two Sestinas/Across the Border

The Reality of Dreams
by Sylvia Alkoff (1925-1982)


At night I sleep with tight shut eyes
And a mind wide open,
Receptive to diverse ideas,
To fantasies and magic words
That weave the shimmering fabric
From which I shape my dreams.

I am the product of my dreams,
Dreams that have opened my eyes
To see life through a gossamer fabric,
A lace so delicate and open,
You cannot describe it in words,
Yet it wraps me in my ideas.

Only unfettered ideas
Come to me in my dreams,
Pure and simple the words
Which reflect the truth seen by eyes
That are alert and open,
And discard what is merely a fabric.

For in truth I can find the fabric
That will shape the pure ideas,
But will your mind be open
To listen to my dreams?
Will you see with my eyes
And understand my words?

Or will you just hear the words
Without their substance or fabric
And will only the obvious reflect in your eyes
While you ignore the true ideas
And shatter my dreams,
Leaving me hurt, my wounds open?

Can you not see that my mind is open
To listen and hear the words
Which are born in the depths of your dreams
So that together we can shape the fabric
Of new and better ideas
As we see the world through each other's eyes?

-- Creating a vision as open as a fairy fabric
Using our words to mold great ideas
Until our dreams become realities in the world's eyes.
Dreaming the Reality
by Elissa Malcohn


Mother, I saw you in a dream --
We met each other through a fabric
Of your mist, my blood, shared words,
As though a bolt of lightning pierced ideas
And gave them form; I found the threshold open,
Met sustenance and soul through visioned eyes.

People tell me I see through your eyes,
My life the culmination of your dream.
What was closed to you, to me is open,
Your mysteries woven clearly in my fabric,
Your fate a driving force of my ideas,
Your death reversed to life within my words.

We changed the face of matter with our words,
Our secrets hidden deep behind our eyes.
We parried rage and passion with ideas,
Intruding deep into each other's dreams,
Masking the hurt that daily broke us open,
Realities that sought to rip our fabric.

You taught me of a different, inner fabric,
One that thwarts our speech, escapes our words,
That settles on a heart left lying open,
That blinds unwary sight and untrained eyes.
And so I had to see you in a dream
To bring you what I found, these non-ideas

Reflecting those primeval sub-ideas
Once sketched on walls, imprinted on rough fabric
Called skins, called hides, the images of dreams
Before the first of sounds that was a word.
I cannot help but gaze into your eyes,
Perceive the unmarked path, the way laid open.

The door of life and death is one left open.
You gave me life: a form for my ideas
And yours. The day I first opened my eyes
Your courses changed, your destiny-clad fabric
Waited for the Fates to give their word,
For Atropos to take you in a dream....

I weave for you my words into a fabric,
An open letter to the world of dreams
While somewhere, you are opening your eyes.

© 1990, Sylvia Alkoff and Elissa Malcohn. Published in Tales of the Unanticipated, No. 7, Spring/Summer/Fall 1990.


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Thanksgiving Weekend: Two Rites of Passage
Miami, 1981

(November 25)
I sink my footprint
#####
in bonecolor sand
on a beach artificially thick'd
#####
and thinned#####rearing up
the collins avenue strip
#####
like glazed
ceramic termite mounds
#####
my mind quiescent
as lunar landscape

/i take inventory:/

anticoagulant, antibiotic,
#####
insulin#####catheter#####oxygen --
electrocardiogram with gel
#####
my mother lies wrapped
in the wires#####
somewhere
#####
stapled and white
blank manuscript
#####
struggling
to speak
#####
green waves lash
froth#####
with light: her heart-
#####
beat#####ebbing#####electronic
surge#####
irregular hiccough;
#####
i cannot believe
what her chest is doing to her.

(November 26)
Washed ashore
#####
a jellyfish
awaits a pickup#####
i squat
#####
in my robe#####hooded
like a bedouin#####
shade
#####
the soft gemmed golem --
soon enough the sea
#####
floats out palms
flat#####
wet
#####
pulls herself back#####and her jewel
in her#####
such implicit trust
#####
this call to come home again --
this creature
#####
whom i cannot cross

/####################
/

my father and i
#####
hold vigil
cold and quavering in our hands
#####
despair corkscrewed
into each eye
#####
misted in diners#####reflect
inert#####
knowing only
#####
to feed#####set teeth
in motion#####
blurred lives
#####
under the tongue
impossible
#####
to swallow
and remember whole.

(November 27)
The sea leaves rocks
#####
at my feet
honeycombed and pocked
#####
thrust out
defying gravity#####
each tide
#####
is a purge
an offering#####
a test of my greed --
#####
i form pictures
of rocks#####
pass them back
#####
each tide
each offering#####
to her milkwhite
#####
fingers#####confess
my greed for my mother's life
#####
so fluid#####her veins
filled with formulae; the sea
#####
nuzzles my ankles --
feeling her touch me
#####
i touch her unfolding hands
for the first time#####
remember her
#####
as she recedes

/####################
/

my mother's heart
#####
wants to burst
from her skin
#####
to be everywhere
and forever
#####
to be the universe --
she wants to cage it#####
in her hands
#####
make it fulfill
its labors#####
restrain her
#####
fluttering lungs --
i show her a seashell
#####
so tiny#####and complete
the universe encapsulated#####
i hold it
#####
against her heart --
this tiny fist of shell
#####
beating#####away
from the shore.

(November 28)
Saturday: the day
#####
of my birth#####my secession
from the womb
#####
airborne
in plane's skin#####
my blood knows no tides
#####
the sea below
blue maw#####
a fear sewn into inflatable
#####
jackets#####an umbilical belt --
we race the gulf stream
#####
my eyes#####fill with sand
with saltwater#####
sleeplessness airbrushed
#####
over muted expressions
i cannot tell the sky#####
from the sea
#####
in my dreams#####once rocked
to sleep#####
i cannot tell the womb
#####
from the universe

/####################
/

and she?
#####
her pulse swaying
to an alien earth#####
her pills
#####
in her hands drawn down
like pebbles thrown back#####
the beat
#####
in her throat --
she swims upstream all year
#####
pushing back the tide
leaving the moon behind her#####
the sea
#####
not her sea
barnacle-clung to life her heart leaps
#####
again#####again
flashes from eye to eye --
#####
it will not
conquer the universe

without her.

© 1983, Elissa Malcohn. Published in Velocities, No. 3, Fall-Winter 1983.


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She Leaves No Footprints

She is gifted in straddling the tracks.
Back foot at the front, front at the back
of jostled cars, she rides them
like drifting continents and her legs are
thick redwoods
pulsing out from the third rail.
The halves of her body
grind, one against the other
and her mind
feels her as a pair of lovers
intent at getting under one flesh.

She pushes the walls,
the windows latched
and catching glint of chains.
At once holding this train together
and pushing it apart
she hones her Samson's hair
into a fine wedge,
surviving her great quakes
by sheer feat of strength.

She is dancing
at superhuman speed,
a dance of burrowing, of
carving veins into the fleshy earth.
Her face strobes with bent lantern light
and phosphorescent rock. She dances
metallic and more metallic
clattering between stops
stopping between breaths
wheezing and combustible,
warm-spread
lubricants in the pools
of her eyes.

In another moment she will derail.
In another moment
the crack under her feet will meld
into a cohesive, unsplit brain.
Stable as bedrock the platform
holds her leglocked, aching for a rumble
before the underground breeze
pushes her from the clutch of solid ground
and she hops into the next slamming gate.

© 1984, Elissa Malcohn. Published in We're Working On It!, New York, New York: Seven Poets Anthology Collective, 1984.


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Rush Hour Story

The less imaginative of us
dream we are sinking
a gauzy sleeve in the Caribbean
#####
flicking spots of sun off our nails
breeze so fine
#####
our hair inches wryly off the neck.

Two hundred people? Four hundred people?
Feet bound to flotsam, shoulder to shoulder
we sweat as fans chop, circulating rust,
cursing the Ferry that doesn't roll in
(no children around for rush hour).
One stamps, we all stamp
waiting for the boat to carry wages home.

Only the ones awake and in front can smell the boat.
Quicker than musk can
the salt draws us closer together,
an orgy in a steambath in our clothes
(no children around for rush hour).
One stamps, we all stamp, marching on each other.

Only those awake and within a mile radius
can hear her scream
#####
AIEEE! MY BABY!
Can see her choke on tweed.
Can hear attaches cleave into her belly;
no children -- no children! -- allowed
in the belly of the rush hour woman.

She gnaws welts
on her tongue as the boat rolls in.
She is bobbing on the flotsam and the jetsam.
She is losing her child.
Her legs stain wobbly in the mob
a seersucker red.

She is crushed up to her chin she screams a last time.
Those of us
awake, alive, those of us
menstruating and pregnant in the hot dust
those of us pushed, hemmed, trapped
under a heaving chest those of us
hit, slapped, gutted daily
awash in the same sea the same foam
kicked from the same mouths
know how
to breathe life into the rush hour dead.
Know to support the yoke of pain
balanced between the head and the gut.
Know to push out,
to ram our heads against the small of the back
to make the room.

A last briefcase follows the tide.
A last file
folds cruelly in the canines of crocodile teeth. On board
she still cries hysterically.
We soften a bench with newspaper.
We massage her cramped legs.
We hand her leftover fare for the bus.

Quiet now, armed with her tears,
#####
the less imaginative of us
#####
dream we are sinking.

© 1984, Elissa Malcohn. Published in We're Working On It!. New York, New York: Seven Poets Anthology Collective, 1984.


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Wings

1.
My name is Icarus.
Today I am a drifter.
Tomorrow
I will be a corpse.

2.
My arms are sails
and they glitter
only when I remember --
silicate cells so fine
they weigh as feathers
buoyed in a wind of light.

3.
I was my own invention:
unsuited for Lagrangean city-states
I clamped into life-support,
walked highwires between stars,
secretly placed photovoltaics
with desperate precision.
I tested the fit,
brushed wingtips delicate as smoke,
shaped silver mosaics of nebulous,
reflected incandescence.

I aimed my wings.
Furled -- unfurled.
Pursued a thousand
different eclipses.
Changed course
with the crook of an elbow,
my intent
spelled in the mirrors
on my mylar skin.

4.
Landing at port I would combust
in red watchlight beacons,
folding myself into human form...
Slaved only to the need for air.
Then, tiny in the great bays,
in the baritone hum of corpulent ships
I would rise, spectral, no more than a flash
flitting away, safe in my own
small majesty.

5.
Sweet air
rushes in my memory.
I have faded too long,
have flickered out; my sails hang limp.
I cannot go home again.
Once more
I have reached for Heaven
with open arms --
and flown too far:
soaring, lifeless...

Away
from the Sun.

© 1983, 1984, Elissa Malcohn. Published originally under the name Elissa L.A. Hamilton in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, mid-December 1983. Reprinted in Burning With a Vision: Poetry of Science and the Fantastic. Robert Frazier, Editor. Philadelphia, PA: Owlswick Press, 1984.


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Snake Goddess

For the boa, cacophony is heat:
the drumrolls under his belly, the
electronic twang bounced off the far wall
is the pulse of a territory, the vibratos flung
from crevassed rock and cobblestones of glass.
The wave-beats crest and trough,
swelling around him orange to the touch.
His sun, his scirocco, his burrowing place
lie in the loud songs
wailed and wavering in her voice.

The boa is her pet, her prop,
the element of fright under hot lights
and vertiginous strobes, her baby in
brown and green.
And she grooms herself wild on pretense,
slicks her knuckles down electric guitar;
vaporizes inner ears to decibelled sparkles.
In the dark of the brain,
auditory fallout illumines stunned nerves.

She arcs her spine to the music.
Her face is a shape-changer
alchemized in the cauldron of rhythms.
Appreciative,
the boa glides along taut spotlit arms,
drops with a silken shush a cold-blooded
negligee easing past her waist.
The audience pays homage with wild cheers, they
throw sprigs of wilder blossoms onto the stage.
She bows low, her long neck exposed
at the back, her boa
protectively guarding her shoulderblades.
She will wait for the next gig,
the next tip,
then pay her way on a quiet flight
back to her ancient earthen roots;

will meditate on her long secret life
of working simpler miracles
by the shores of Crete.

© 1984, Elissa Malcohn. Published in The Round Table, 1(1), Spring 1984. Reprinted in We're Working On It!, New York, New York: Seven Poets Anthology Collective, 1984.


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The Temple of the Sun-Goddess, Mehezh
(Garni, Armenia, 1981)

This is a coarse marble
porous with years of prayer.
And in each pore: a tiny, furious sun.
And inside: dark.

The altar and I exchange shadows
and one,
the invisible idol of Mehezh
creases into Armenian
and Arabic inscriptions.
Mehezh -- She with the eyes that blind,
bathing in Her glance
ripening grapes, fat grapes
spawning stark purple on gravel.
Breath to warm the fluffy backs of sheep,
the red tufa*
her pieces of heart, aflame on hillsides.

These geometric coffers on the pediment:
the only bas relief mazes over our heads,
a network of grooves to trap light.
Between each block, a slab of lead
curls opaque fingers, gnarled and flat
and strong, to hold this place whole.

We circumnavigate the outer ruins,
stone appendices, planted
in haphazard rows. I search
for a face
growing out, a hoop of light
encircling the skull.
Off to the side between bushes
a man paints oblique portraits of stone,

and behind him, an old woman
sells cherries the weight
of the icon in her palm.

* a native stone of Armenia, once believed to have magical powers

© 1985, Elissa Malcohn. Published in Earth's Daughters, issue 25/26, 1985.


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A Question of Perspective
(after Perugino's "Pieta," c1523)

It is not enough
for Mary to cradle the dead Christ
centered at the head of four receding arches
-- countryside and blue skies dwindling
to vanishing point. Not enough
that others stand grieving
to the side.
I leave the center of sorrows...
Some cruel trick of perspective
sends pain twisting, and arches list
to the right.
Mary still with murdered son in the middle
of strained ellipses
bent as in a fun-house mirror.

I jog to the left. The arches roll
like waves; the eyes of Mary focused
down and Jesus still; but it's the stone
that moves. Columns turn like fingers
forward and back, the crook of the vault
like some obscene keyhole
making me an unwilling voyeur.
Perugino's perspective locks with mine,
enslaves my retina. Symmetry vanishes
as marble bends,
as flesh remains static. As if to say that
we don't move
but buildings do, animate and unforgiving
as we petrify within
safe havens. The Uffici, perhaps --
this Florentine gallery of works
by the dead who walked the streets
deep beneath the cobbled roads I've crossed.
I could swear
that bedrock moved instead of me.

And when it carries me back
I will sit, in stillness,
eyes cast down
as the walls turn.

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The View From Fort Belvedere
(Florence, Italy, February 1987)

This fort belongs to the children now --
and the young, hands around each other's waists,
denim jackets, legs dangling over the top railings
too high for official safety,
over row after row of round, red-tiled roofs.
Sunlight glistens on gleaming terra cotta pools,
the pastel sides of buildings
bearing bleached outlines of gods and goddesses,
heroes and myth
once sharply etched and painted -- now
fading behind the bars of streaked rain.

Here on Ft. Belvedere there is grass,
benches, ramps interrupted by transverse rises --
as though someone had taken flights of stairs
and shaken them out,
and let the steps fall angled, dominoes tipped.

Down below, Via Santa Lorenzo twists
like a serpent. Scooters race
between ten-foot-tall walls crumbling
into a countryside of cypresses and rolling hills
mounded, like Firenze roads, one
upon the other,
layered, all things possible,
past, present and future
simultaneous.

Even as Florence crumbles, it is gold,
gold leaf, gold dust, sacred swirls
raised by Dante Aligheri's feet, larger than life
by the Church of Santa Croce. Shaded mosaics
pieced together fine as tender brush strokes
meet with parallelograms of cobbled roads.
The Duomo rises like a sun off the horizon,
like a planet, a biosphere of Brunneleschi's labors
and inside -- angels...

The young, at the Fort
call to each other...
cluster on the sun-lit grass in a perpetual Spring.
Some will enter dark, plaster corners
to work with wood, with leather and swirled fumes
of varnish and preservative. Others
will step off the street and into sudden atria,
centered pools, birdsong lilted from the skies.
Will gather the sacred knowledge of restoration -- as
each Florentian generation learns
how to put the gold dust back.

Then, like ruby fish
hatched at the mouth of the Arno
each spirit, one by one will rise in blinding color
and form, texturing the city into new light and shadow.
Streaking the air, each incoming flight
traverses a mosaic of spirals, of Euclidean angles,
cypresses and cathedrals, the towers of palazzos.
Laughing in the sunlight, the children run
up and down the ramps of Ft. Belvedere,
the Arno a finger pointing beyond.
Sending them
to paint a new patina
of forever.
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Marketing Plan for the Alien Product Line

First you must institutionalize your novelty.
Fright creates aliens; processes unfamiliar
breed distrust until product need
is shown. That your planet fills a vacuum
is your selling point.
Tailor the bizarre to Earthly tastes. Court exposure
in every possible medium, but be
reserved; neither intruder
nor visitor, but a negotiating partner.
As for the human condition, to bear that
is to gain competitive edge, for such honesty endures
no matter what your shape,
no matter where you came from.
Then, you will know
when to land your first ships.
It is when you feel you are coming home,
and when we greet you with a warmth
that tells you
we never realized you'd been gone.

© 1988, Elissa Malcohn. Published in Amazing Stories, January 1988.



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Labor Intensive

That people love their work, who work a drill
Or run a lathe, sounds alien to some
Who see in them "the robots they've become":
Automatons bent to assembly's will.

And some are that, who welcome programmed steel,
Greet automation heralded as Change --
But others feel an intimate exchange,
The tiniest components but a field

As varied as a single breed of snail,
With textures, contours hidden from all eyes
Save those communing daily half their lives
With parts they know like totems. They have nailed

That one philosophy, have made the grade
Who see in work their lives, and love their trade.

© 1986, Elissa Malcohn. Published in Harvard Business Review, July-August 1986.



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All Creatures Great and Small

You have a little one at home -- I mean
a stag beetle, nothing compared to his Amazon
cousin, or you. No, he's a good five centimeters
long and lumbering, rocking like a semi in high winds
across pebbles and red brick buckled up
to the heat. He seemed to me ugly at first,
then beautiful, simply because he was large.
In a world of ants and flies
and gentrified delicacy, he was unique --
intimidating and yet, quite vulnerable.

Your shell could be my roof, a
blacktop highway. To you I am soft pulp,
gangly, with a head not worth severing
at first bite. My eyes are blind to all
but the simplest wavelengths; I can grasp
only what my hands can hold. And my hair
is limp as seaweed, without its saving
nutrient grace.

Your mandibles glint
with a patent leather sheen, over legs
thick and magnificent.
Your touch could crush me to a malformed ruin.
If I am not food I am useless to you.
If I am food, so be it; this is your planet.

But remember: I did not step
where I could have, when the tables were turned.
And your kind was beautiful to my sight
and I was not afraid. On the Late Late Show
the bugs died, by ray gun or, at station break,
insecticide -- as alien in my native soil
as I am here. Such things were not my doing.

And so I ask of you --
If you need to kill me, then kill me.
But do not make me crawl first.

© 1988, Elissa Malcohn. Published in Aboriginal Science Fiction, March-April 1988.


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Hardhat

Sometimes his legs jerk unexpectedly.
Sometimes, under his suit, between his thighs
he recalls the low growl of a jackhammer
and the soft underbelly of old asphalt.
Pain, reborn, glides down atrophied nerves,
webs his inner ear in a steady buzz
like the monotonous crackling of pulsars.
A familiar ache nestles between his shoulderblades
and, despite his perfected,
temperate spacesuit,
he sweats.

Deaf, he invents soft whispers
as thin rods of aluminum entwine,
and the backdrop of stars
becomes an artillery of pinpoints
in a gameboard of tectonic proportions.
Precision-trained,
he waldoes delicate girders
with the subtle twist of his thumb
and wrist, minuscule displacements
of the well-oiled socket in his elbow.

Sometimes he imagines
a roar, or the grind of alloyed teeth
and iron cogs. Sometimes,
as he hops between sites,
he shudders under his boosters,
their gentle nudge
transforming into seizures.

Weightlessness is still a stranger,
and the stark shock of white on black.
His eyes tire easily.
He looks down at his feet,
silver-booted, grazing the horizon.
He eclipses, perhaps,
a grain of sand in the Sahara.
He follows tricks of sunlight on the oceans,
discerns monster shapes from the shadows of clouds.

Once, he could have been dashed to the ground,
one slip, a kilometer above concrete, or flying,
sideswiped by a crane
collapsing under its own weight.
Risk tasted delicious as he balanced in the wind.
His muscles shake now,
at odd times, unexpectedly.
Here, floating in the silent dark,
building with fragile, sliding beams,
by the small calibrated swivels of his fingers,

he is so, so afraid to fall.

© 1985, Elissa Malcohn. Published in The Magazine of Speculative Poetry, Summer/Fall 1985.


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Running Moebius

As surely as rats run treadmills,
Held in stasis save for flying feet,
Now players strive for Sisyphean style,
Making their rounds by Running the Strip.

No great feat, this game
Of zero chance, predictable fate,
Athletes stripped of risk factors
As they end in the precise place

Where they began, ashes to ashes, dust
To dust, strong gripping hands steeped in chalk
For the good of the game, clutching the walls
That bring them back to one hard edge.

As for competitive edge, they do not speak
Of it, racing tread to tread
With track between, mirror-imaged,
All combatants running on the same side.

At the center twist, perspectives cross,
Four faces split from one: four tracks
To run or run from. Only in the distance
Do they meld to the elegant, infinite "8".

There is no final, fateful loop,
No cheering crowd, no sheared ribbons,
Only those players who trip their own reflections
Racing backward through space and time.

It is the style, the Sisyphean persistence
That holds them racing for the good
Of the race, as surely as rats run treadmills,
Gaining the momentum that will take them off the Edge.

© 1984, Elissa Malcohn. Published in Velocities, No. 4, Summer 1984.


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Escape Velocity

#####One small pull
#####
and another small pull
#####
and another small pull...

Small boosts, stability
to keep my belly from the heat.
My heart rockets with the drum beats
inside me. Do I dare apply full power?

And yet, this dragging down. This hand on my arm,
my risen veins, these legs on my legs.
I sink,
my weight multiplied, my legs crushed.
How fickle this gravity is,
this indifferent conquest.
How it compresses me, tears me.
How it forces me against my will.

And yet
this is Law.
By gravity I am bound.
By my orbit I am defined. My fuel
sticks maddeningly in my throat.

#####
...one small pull
#####
and another small pull...

small boost, distance-maker.

I hold back. I wobble
and stagger, imploding in the brain.
I shake with drum beats, drum beats.

Too tight an orbit and I crack.
Arms on my arms.
Legs on my legs
pushing. Do I split open,
suffocating, seeking air?
Have I agreed so completely to this Law?

Do I burst and become a thousand rings
of a thousand particles each,
small orbits all, melding into a mirrored plane,
belting the equator,
magic mirror, reflecting shattered light,
appearing deceptively whole?

#####
...one small pull
#####
and another small pull
#####
and another small pull...

I am negated
by tripled gees of thrust,
legs on my legs,
heavy legs on my legs, pushing.
How this gravity pins me.
How I am drawn down, how odd
the beats of this chest
pressing on my chest,
this indifferent weight, crushing me.
I can feel my fuel cells bursting,
the hydrogen-cool of my skin
aching to leap. In the thundering
death-throes of smothered embers
I am pushed to spark.

And it is I
who topple gantries now,
climbing the well, breaking the sky,
drum beats rocketing, rocking me.
I have reached my escape velocity
and the tonnage on my back
is light, light.
The weight I carry
nothing compared to the fuel in my heart.
Nothing compared to the fuel in my heart.
Escape velocity, almost weightless.
No legs on my legs.
No thrust at my core,
ripping.
No magic mirror of ringplanes,
no shattered ice.

This tonnage on my back
is lighter than a feather...

#####
The hot breath on my neck
#####
mere tendrils, distant.

My law, now.


Wreck Beach
(a nude beach by the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada)

Wreck Beach, B.C.
where I walk and breathe in foreign land,
over the border, the wind on my skin
in the folds of me that never breathed before.
Wreck Beach, nude beach,
I chat with a man about sharp rocks
under soft feet, the cushions of seaweed
and pockets of moss.
He is a pleasure, my eyes are delighted
with him, virile statue of warm livingness
content with simple talk about the rocks,
content to part by avenues of the sea.
My husband in the shadows
sees me turn, sees me wave, waves back,
refuses to remove his pants and briefs,
tries to talk me out of my nakedness
and back into my clothes.
I bend my spine and walk
arms akimbo, legs parted, to the water,
ocean friend, lover in blue,
seductively warm against snow-capped mountains.
Wreck Beach, why Wreck Beach,
why Wreck as in ruined as in torn asunder
when I elate, out of my husband's shadow,
out of my husband's home, out
in the wind, over the border in new psychic land?
Wreck Beach, harbor of nudity,
lapping thoughts like lapping waves,
yellow sun on bonecolor beach
and we are all exposed here.

© 1984, Elissa Malcohn. Published in Wainwright, Sonny, Stage V: A Journal Through Illness. Berkeley, California: Acacia Books, 1984.


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Menarche

In the children's room she sleeps; her body
shifts between seas, dreams in a milk froth.
She is dreaming about hands,
fingers dipped in sticky red,
Chinese fingernail nippings.
She is bottled in the refrigerator, she is
shaken into a saucepan like rain and
sweetened by the heat all around her, red heat.
White pain. She rolls onto her back as her breasts fill.

She is rooted to her sheets in the morning
her palm like leaves at her crotch
and wrapped and wrapped in rent cloth webs.
Her nightie clams against her like a spirit
as her hips flare; she bursts through the inscribed wood,
the girl's sarcophagus,
back to life.
She cries out as the glyphs reword her, this one
Woman, this one Moon, Waveform, Witch.
Like a scarab she pushes against the bright ball of fire.

The red pool reflects her: a single cell, two cells,
buds spreading like ivy in the womb.
She is an open mouth, her hair is wild, her legs buck.
She is the Earth split and re-formed, she is lava.
Her chromosomes dance in a circle and offer hot blood.

She is the red silk rose that never closes.

She sits and tastes, she
waits for fangs. She forges a sword for her birthday
with runes on the silver hilt.
She fingerpaints a crescent on her thigh and mumbles,
plucks at her hair like a dulcimer
and sings five notes over and over and over.

She is burning like incense
out the window, naked as a cloud, cool as a cloud,
puffed as smoke.
She waters the sidewalk with rubies.
And when she floats down to the breakfast table
she peels layers off her brothers with her eyes.
Grinning at her mother like a Goddess
she drinks, drinks, drinks the juice
that laps at the banks of her chaotic pulse.



Invoking the Ruby Serpent

To staunch what's called a curse's ills,
Unresponsive to physicians' potions,
To balms, confessions, poultices and lotions,
Acupuncture and a trail of pills,

She (who never raced in tandem
With the moon) sought spirits, her internal
Guides -- creatures priests and bishops called infernal,
Evil, Satan's powers launched at random

On unsuspecting maidens. Ignoring Revelations
And the like (for she had always been possessed,
Wracked by pain at bleeding time), she gazed, at rest
To healing beings of her own creation...

One, a tiny serpent, writhed, inhabiting
Her inner sight. With grace it moved, traversed her spine,
One chakra to the next and she, supine,
Followed its gentle spirit burrowing

Until it curled between her legs, and crept
Against her tide of blood: a snake of rubies,
Heated flames and scales of salamander hues. Knees
Up, breasts filled with monthly swelling as she slept

She dreamt herself as one who coiled through her canal.
Past rings of muscle, toward the womb, her cave
Of birth and pain, her tail at last gave
One last pull, and in her pear-shaped organ whole

She wore her cloak of blood, warm radiation.
Smiling deep samadhi calm, content
She lay (as woman now), and far from being spent
Could feel her serpent's soothing undulation...

And after fifteen agonizing years
Of pills and poultices, social expulsions
(Products of her writhing and convulsions),
The pain that had possessed her disappeared.

She told no one (particularly citizens
To whom red serpents spell a witch's power),
But kept her peace, and in the twilight hours
Beheld the stirrings of her inner denizen.

They'd hang her for her cure (and none too soon
They'd say), her wisdom greater medicine
Than preachers pounding pulpits or a scientist's prescription
Penned from gentlemen who claim they know the womb

As surely as their own biology.
As for her, she leads a life of so-called normal
(From appearances) existence, harboring the kernel
Of her quiet, painless mystery.


© 1987, Elissa Malcohn. Published in Sage Woman, 1(3), Spring 1987.


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