Nicole Cooley (M.F.A., Iowa Writer's Workshop; Ph.D., Emory U) is currently the recipient of an NEA Fellowship in fiction. Her book of poetry Resurrection (LSU P, 1996) won the 1995 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Poetry, Indiana Review, and others.
New Orleans, 1995
From her window—men in moon suits
lighting on the grass like clumsy animals.
The last helicopter touches down to darkness.
Piece by piece, the houses are dismantled
while she waits inside.
The roof lifts up to meet the sky.
Chairs and tables burn in the school yard
and the dead relatives sit silently in silver frames.
A boy in a gas mask soaks the images in kerosene.
Her clothes rest on hangars in the center of the town.
Someone shines a flashlight on a baby carriage
left on the sidewalk, on a pile of women's shoes.
They tell her even the trees are poison.
Each trunk must be razed to the ground.
To start over, remove every branch, each leaf.
In a line the cars follow the scar
of the old road to another city.
She read the letter: It is important to move far away.
Once this river ran black with dye
from the factories. She saw children
paddling a bathtub across the water near the bank.
Alone she carries a suitcase to the empty river
where the grass burned short and dry.
She will not leave her life behind.
Once, in one of those houses, a man slept
with his back to her, their bodies close,
not touching. She was talking quietly.
There will be no evidence I ever knew you.
Who was listening?
Her voice would stop, a match struck
in the dark, blown out. Now silence.
Over and over again each night, she saves herself.
She climbs an invisible rope to the sky.
A Woman Dreams in Cincinnati
She is reading the dictionary of angels
and sitting on the roof
of her broken light blue Chevrolet.
She wants a new name: Veronica,
Teresa or Celeste, a word with a sad
sound to repeat to herself over
the dull murmur of traffic, as cabs
and double-decker buses stumble
along the street.
In a factory bar, she dances
with a man she doesn't know, a man
with a grease patch on the pocket
of his shirt in the shape of a dark flower.
The music promises more. Does she want
to be alone? he asks, and she isn't sure
and presses her lips to the back
of her own hand. Though she never learns
his name, she will remember Billie Holiday
on the car radio, the heater's low
blue buzz, and not his voice.
She tells herself she wants a way
out of this world, a vision only visible
in a dream or through a secret latticed door.
On the street she studies the bricked-
up windows of each house, like faces
with no features, bored and mute. She sorts
through a newsstand jumbled with foreign
magazines, sits in the all-night cafeteria downtown.
She knows that no one wants her dreams,
her grief or more—her moon charts,
made-up alphabet, the secrets she could gather
from the stars. Or the books on magic.
She'll keep reading, looking for a name, some
single word, enough to call her back
like an ancient charm in the dark.
In a long white dress, she sits on the false beach.
The photographer has arranged her body
in the sand, propped her legs below the plane
dipping in the cardboard sky. Outside the Sunshine
Studio, Detroit is all winter and the horses stumble
in the street, eyes frozen. In this photograph, you can see
that Esther has no desire to die. She chose her own
landscape: scrub bushes, waves, palm trees painted
and flat. She chose to wear the wedding dress.
Eyes cast to the plaster ceiling, she presses her hand
against her breast, the rosettes and cloth tassels
of the toga. You are a heroine, the man whispers.
Helen of Troy. You are not one of the sisters:
your arms swell from your dress, you don't give
your body up. The Parthenon is posterboard
but each Doric column is proof that you have
a different life. You whisper back to the man. A drink?
A carriage ride? A kiss? You can imagine happiness.
Posed with The Aged Christian's Reward, you shudder
in your high necked gown. The brocade pillows itch
your hands, the hair yanked back from your face.
You are pale and I want to believe that in this photograph
you belong to us. I want to claim the black dress,
the expression of grief, the book in your hands
with no pages that opens on a secret hinge.
The book is a box that contains the future and the past:
the sadness, the sickness, the sisters alone.
Hold the false book to your chest like a lover.