Today's poetry for today's world

Alice Derry


Alice Derry's newest collection of poems, Tremelo is forthcoming from Red Hen Press in 2011.  Strangers to Their Courage, from Louisiana State University Press, 2001, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award.  She has two previous full collections, Stages of Twilight (chosen by Raymond Carver) and Clearwater (Blue Begonia Press).  A chapbook of translations from Rainer Rilke appeared in 2002 from Pleasure Boat Studio, New York City.  Derry taught English and German at Peninsula College in Port Angeles, Washington, for twenty-nine years, where she co-directed the Foothills Writers' Series.




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           --Peninsula wild rose


I'm learning to balance here

on the roadside bank,

teetering at the edge

where the brambles sprawls,


and the full force

of the roses' scent

can reach me.


After I'm quiet enough


the swallows--gray, blue, gold--

resume their swoop and dive

for insects.


One petal near me loosens

to fall; in the thick of bloom,

one bud unfolds.


I am suspended

as neither bird nor

flower seem to be.




"Nootka" appeared in Poetry East.









                        when Billy Collins said, you can't really

                        write about the Holocaust


In the nights of insomnia I read

Anne Frank's new biography.

Wading through this crush

of authenticated facts, her portrait

since birth, nothing changes

from the diary itself.  A bright,

talkative, hard-to-handle, audacious,

obnoxious teenager, bordering on genius,

is going to die--faceless--at the end.


Her father--because he couldn't bear to part

with her--didn't send her to England

when he had the chance.  Three weeks later,

the Nazi trap was sprung in Holland.

He sees her the last time in a selection line.


She has her clothes then.  Later, head shaved,

pubic hair shaved, her beautiful innocence revealed--

which wanted all in good time, a bed

lit with afternoon sun, one sweet

article of clothing after the next,

a boy just that naive

and head over heels in love.





My sleepless brain refuses the lists

of details--where Anne's mother's brothers are in the U.S.,

that second cousin in Switzerland,

the year the Nazis made the Jews stay home after 8 p.m.,

they year they weren't allowed into movie theaters,

they year they couldn't ride bikes, couldn't own bikes,

the year 569,355 yellow stars were stitched, issued and worn--

a small galaxy--

the step-by-step squeeze

which wasn't, no, still wasn't death.


Smart and aware, Otto chose the wrong country.

That's all, something he couldn't have known--

but had to grieve.


For me, sleep, so long evasive,

suddenly appears: take me now or forget it,

and I switch out the light--


prized, courted sleep,

the sleep I slept at Anne's age--

the way my daughter sleeps now--

heavy, unshakeable,

mornings forever.





Daylight, I wake in a sweat;

each noise brings a new wave

of hot and cold.

Get up.  Get up.

But the heavy limbs won't go into my clothes,

I can't get breakfast, everything's burning,


and my daughter,

my entering-teenage-daughter--

I don't put my arms around her

but gaze at her from the line

I'm forbidden to cross--to that place


I can't save her from,

even if I rush the line, and bullet

doesn't take me from behind.




"Anne" appeared in Calyx and then was chosen for the anniversary edition

titled A Fierce Brightness: Twenty-Five Years of Women's Poetry.












I wasn't there

to wash my mother's body.


The day before,



When the home nurse came,

we cleaned her together, rolling her gently

on her side so we could wipe away the feces,

rolling her back to lift the too-heavy breasts,

dry the gathered sweat.


And each time we touched, each time

we moved her, she cried,

No. No. No.  Although she could hardly speak.

Had said her goodbyes two days before,

making me listen.


After his call, by the time I could get to her

--three hours away--my brother had already

washed her and dressed her again

in the flimsy hospital gown.


But nothing in it of ceremony,

although I laid carnations

to frame her face and cover her crossed hands,

thinking of Hamlet's mother and Ophelia,

sweets to the sweet, thinking not even

of the real but of some other sore heart's imaginings

to help me.


Because in half a day

she was swept to clean ash in the licensed crematorium.





Walking into work

in the early quiet where a few minutes alone

is all I'll get today.


I can try to imagine

the Iraqi Shiite woman

the radio has brought me.

She is the one who keeps the dark stone house

for the ceremonial washing

of the Shiite dead.


She didn't elect this work.


Twenty-two when I saw the first body.

I said to myself, your four children

will starve if you don't do this.


The reporter describes how she

begins by covering the genitals

with a small square of white cloth.

Onto the scalp, she touches a circle of soap,

which widens to foam.  The rinsed hair

returns to ringlets.  With the loofah sponge

she scrubs the body until it emerges burnished,

ready to be wrapped in white linen for burial.


If pressed, she will tell you

she has never gotten used to it:

what was hardest, the woman they brought

to her, burned all over--

clutching her baby so tightly,

they had to be washed together.






When friends ask, this first year

my daughter's gone from home--

Don't you wish she was always

a child, holding to you?


No, I say.  No.

No.  I want us

to be able to let go,


one body then two.

Then from the tight embrace of the first years,

a child gathers herself

to walk away.


The air remains.


This Shiite woman has given me

a part of herself, her gift,

as I stumble out of my car

in the half light of first spring,

all the birds back

to help us hear air.



One thing becomes another.

Mere thought leads to the touchable child.


As she feeds her children the evening meal,

the woman who ashes bodies knows well

what flesh is made of

how necessary the solid body is,

which becomes earth, its sure path.


When her children crawl into her lap at bedtime,

that's a different matter.




Writer's Comment: Tremelo can be contained in the line from Theodore Roethke's villanelle, "The Waking": "This shaking keeps me steady.  I should know."  In music, tremelo describes notes which are repeated in time, as opposed to trill, notes which stand outside the composition's basic beat.  In the same way, our lives often cannot "claim their own space," but are forced to fit circumstance.  The effect is tremulous: we are full of trembling, easily shaken.  The book journeys through terrain where the speaker must accept what she's given: a mother's death, a daughter's leaving home, a father's dementia, a life compromised by war, prejudice and violence, the myriad fearful situations of each day.  The poems search for safety, ultimately understanding that the steadiness the speaker knows comes from taking the path in front of her, fully embracing her trembling.  The wisdom of these poems is garnered from journeys the speaker fears but must undertake.  As Roethke writes, "I learn by going where I have to go."  




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