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Lori Rottenberg

Reception: 1965

Before the Divorce

My Scowling Picture




Reception: 1965

(for my grandmother)

A marriage rushed so
they forgot
about having the party
for weeks.

The unsteady fawn cries
her wedding dress
sent to the cleaners
has been ruined,

the bodice’s sparkling
hope fused
by incompetence.
What will she wear

to celebrate her life’s
accidental end
at 17? She is
a breathing stick,

like the models you sew
clothes on to make them
look like they fit all along.
She will never find another

in time, just six months
before she is to give
birth to the baby that joins you.
You have no choice

but to employ the only tools
you have received in this life—
the repairing needle,
the healing thread—

and you find facsimiles of the tiny
iridescent tubes, scrutinizing
cramped shop after specialty shop
to find the right match,

more thought maybe
than your baby son gave
to the fit of this girl
he just wed,

and you sew the hundreds
in their complex patterns
back on the bodice,
hours hunched

over this modern dress
inaccurately white, excessively
darted for such small breasts, confounding
layers that only just hid scandal.

You first join miniscule bunches,
then affix each dangle of light
to its rightful place, careful
not to mar the underlying silk.

If this ridiculous thing fails,
it will not be your fault.

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Before the Divorce

They gave up the trappings
of their Trojan-horse split level:
they stopped painting and planting,
let their suburban disguises
fall to reveal fighters beneath.

They allowed our half-acre to be
reconquered by Queen Anne’s lace, the wheat-tops
of grasses, sweet globes of purple clover,
tough-veined wild asters, volunteer daisies,
meadows of buttercups and dandelions.

They muzzled the growling mowers
while the grasses reached our heads, gave asylum
to neighborhood kids and exotic insects wanting to escape
the spherical shrubs and edged lawns that defended
neighbors against chaos like ours.

But there was no sanctuary within our walls:
my truck-driving father worked nights, slept
while the sun grew the weeds tall. We tiptoed
to avoid waking the slumbering grunt as he readied himself
to fight for a life he never imagined.

When my too-young mother arose
from her nightmares at noon and found herself again
transplanted to this exurban exile,
she completed the show
with the campaign’s most devastating weapon—

sunbathing in her macramé bikini,
legs slim and long as the grass was high,
she presided in her herculon-webbed throne, oblivious
to the disordered yard and her neighbors’ opinions:
Helen of Troy, just before her war.

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My Scowling Picture

I’m outfitted with 1973     
paisley: tube-top sundress—sunbursts
of saffron, emerald, scarlet—pigtails
uncharacteristically controlled for the big day.

I squint and grimace-grin, fighting
the sun yet still cooperating,
while my graduating mother smiles straight
into the same light, radiant

and Cher-like as her open robe exposes  
her flowered minidress, her sable crown
of wild curls unconstrained
by the cap she night-classed her way to earn. 

My father is off driving to unknown worlds,
so it’s up to me to cheer her                           
attainment of this next stage.
In the next shot, I’m caught

alone and half-lit, away
from the sun and the clapping crowds,
in a simian low-browed pout. 
The passing cloud of a sulking child 

or her too-clear vision
of a future she did not want:
more cheering, more night classes? 
The only clue remaining is this: a picture

of me clutching a metal fence
like a prisoner, in the shadows,
as the camera captured my unhappiness
at the day’s new direction.

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My mother tried at first to drape silks
on our adventures, sailed us to new harbors
as if we were sightseeing in exotic lands,
tried to make losing a house and a father not so bad.

She drew floorplans and graph-paper furniture, games
to see if we would fit into our new life. She wrote
checks to secure our passage to the new world,
piled the old one into her boat

of a car: children and cats and lamps and boxes
of awkward provisions for the voyage. But
the plans crashed on a rocky disagreement
with a landlord and forever changed our destination.

She consulted the starchart classifieds.
Finding nothing like her first itinerary, she circled
beacons from twenty miles and a world away,
a town of steerage rents and vacant berths.

She pronounced it temporary—her navigation
spectacularly incorrect—and declared her intentions
with flimsy black carpet tiles and paint
in funhouse colors. She waved the compass

of her imagination around the crumbling
walls, the aging plumbing, the two tiny bedrooms,
but her needle discerned only the remnants
of the house’s pre-divided grandeur:

the dumbwaiter, the carved cherry mantel,
the pocket doors, the bathroom’s squares of stained
glass, the servants’ quarters
in the plaster-dust covered attic.

With no way of escape, no sexton
to help her find her way, we crossed oceans
of years in this shabby galleon, tricked
into a journey we could not end,

her magic falling away
like scarves in the wind, her moods
home to ghosts and sirens who shared
our crowded rooms and our waiting.

We called it moving but it was clear I also stayed
behind. Like a stowaway, I stayed in the warmth
of my Indian Orange room in our lost home,
stored the precise arrangement of my dolls

and bed and dresser for my dreams.
I stayed in the long tropical weeds
of the old yard, hiding as I waited
for the Good Humor truck to rescue me

from the flaking layers of ancient wallpaper
in my new bedroom, to take me from the garish
pastels of our new Food Stamps, help me escape
from smoking toughs in heavy-metal tees

waiting on the menacing corners of this port,
give me passage from those who could not steer
us back on course. I waited for him to bring me back
home to my blue split-level on his next trip,

but there were no ice cream trucks in this new place,
no calm-watered cul-de-sacs to navigate,
only the cracked and tired sidewalks of a 19th-century grid
surrounded by seas

of failing dairy farms and haunted apple orchards.
I sent SOSs to my old friends in sticker-covered papers,
awash in shame at floating adrift, pleading
only for news from the shores I left behind.

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It was my first glimpse of her
insanity: I lost them and was exiled,
not because I couldn’t get in—

my mother was there to receive me,
an unexpected pope who I’d hoped
would issue comfort and absolution.

Yet her prayers were not for me
but the keys—that despite their anonymity,
they would lead malevolence to our doorstep.

She sent me to walk the decaying town alone
until sunset, crying and feeling with my hands and knees
like a penitent on the lawn of the elementary school

until I found their sharp, familiar
curves beneath my fingers. I plodded
back home in the dark, still alone,

happy to have found what I needed
but no longer sure the keys led
to where I was supposed to go.

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The lioness patrols the edge of her diminished world,
paces along foam boulders and concrete moat.

She stalks prey that never arrives, wonders when she can begin.
I had no electric fence to hold me; only country roads,

their auto body shops and skeletal orchards strong as barbed wire.
I walked the borders, alone, looking

for something that could not be
defined, following only an instinct to move

away from what was known and stretch
the lithe and feline body that was mine.

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Lori Rottenberg  is a poet who lives in Arlington, Virginia. She has published in such journals as Burningword Literary JournalThe Moving Force Journal, The Dewdrop, Artemis, Potomac Review,  and Poetica , and in anthologies by Paycock Press, Telling Our Stories Press, and Chuffed Buff Books. She has poems upcoming in Artemis and the Washington Writers' Publishing House WWPH Writes feature. One of her poems was picked for the 2021 Arlington Moving Words competition, and she has served as a visiting poet in the Arlington Public Schools Pick-a-Poet program since 2007. She is currently a writing instructor for international students at George Mason University. She received her BA in Creative Writing (Poetry) from Hamilton College, holds a Master's in Linguistics from George Mason University, and has also completed her second year of studies at the George Mason University MFA Poetry program.

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