Deborah Pope

Editor's note: I'm pleased to present a brief anthology of Deborah Pope's poetry, including three poems from her debut volume Fanatic HeartPassage; Two A.M.; Hard Climb Road — five poems from Mortal WorldLeaving; Radiant Season; Les Voyeurs; Resolution; and Boy Blowing Bubbles — and five poems from Falling Out of the SkyLines from the Book of Days; Cura Animarum Outside Canaan, West Virginia; Pavane For Sleeping Children; The Third Lesson: Betrayal; and The Angel Yet to Come.

I hope you'll enjoy this cross-section of her distinguished career. I hope, too, you'll turn to Louise Taylor's essay "Exiting Circles of Safety in the Poetry of Deborah Pope," which we present by way of commentary, or to a Poetic Voices interview with Pope from 1999.

Three poems from Fanatic Heart (Louisiana State University Press, 1992).


The emptying moon tips
just above the treeline.
We are the only car on the road.
So dark the night, so close
the line of trees,
it is as if we had gone

under the earth, or the ill-
colored wick of moon was
the lantern astern on a ship
that had cut us adrift.
We move in another dimension.
Moths swim up in our headlights

like ghost fish darting
in black water. The silence
of acceptance of calamity
seeps through the glass.
Already your knuckles
look like coral on the wheel.

The children sleep in shapes
they will settle to in time
on the ocean floor, their bones
uncollected, like a necklace
broken in the sand.
What did any of it come to?

The only light is what
we carry with us.
There is salt in my kiss.


I lie folded as if for burial,
your sleeping, stuttering gutturals
wheezing like an engine
that won’t turn over.
Some large nocturnal animal
is chuck-chucking on the porch,
and a skitter sloops the roof
like squirrels or first rain.
I listen to the tinker of dark,
the creak I hear as wind
and not wind, think of women
bloodied in their beds,
nipples sliced, the head
on a shelf, there may be tapes,
the authorities won’t say,
they say this beats all.
Whenever I dream this, this is
true, whenever I think this,
this is happening.
To hear the lock life would
be what I always expected.
I long for rain,
I long for my child to cry out,
but he goes on as only
he can with the steady
small bellows of his belly,
his sleep soured head
in the crook of his arm.

for my grandmother


Driving home to her funeral in September,
we head down the Piedmont,
taking the freeways that run by fields
and outlet malls, morning stretching away
under the benign and vacant blue skies
Carolina is known for.
A Greensboro station plays oldies in the car,
and loss only lasts till the last dance.
Outside Mt. Airy, we pick up two lanes
through Cana, Galax, and Fancy Gap,
past the hillbilly markets and stands,
molasses, apples, and Dixie kitsch,
trailing pony-tailed girls in pickups.
The day is cool and clear, a weekend
to dream, or retrieve, of family rides
in fall, a peaceful film unfolding
of southeastern hills and farms,
silos and satellite dishes,
sheep still as stones in the fields.
In Virginia, the new road’s half done,
shale shingling up where the cut is rawest.
My sons sing out at every crane,
thrill through blasting zones.
We fly down the far side of vistas
that make majesty almost tangible,
forests like a murky pool we sink in,
greening as we surface.


We enter the earth at Big Walker Tunnel,
come out to the random Calvary crosses
driven in by guerrilla believers
on the steep slopes of West Virginia.
Near Bluefield, the “Gospel Light Trio”
goes by in a bus. Now the pines rise
straight from the interstate,
the turnpike traversing rock risers
high over towns named Paint Creek,
Cabin Creek, Skitter, and Laurel.
Hollow into hollow, valleys interlock
their fingers, our road winding
like a rosary between them.
By late afternoon, we are skirting Charleston.
The children pester and fight,
sleep and stare, their hours dragging.
They know nothing of the passage
that has called us back.
So young, they forget even this
as it happens, will hardly remember
a figure so spectral and frail.
I remember holding old prints of her
in furs and leghorn hat, laughter
rare for photographs of those days,
the backdrops a lawn lunch
or running board, beaux with bears
and pocket swags. She said to me once,
I do not feel old, it is only
something about my face.
In the dusk beyond the window,
I imagine her last meal of chocolate
and broth spooned in by my father,
her head like a boiled egg under his hand.


Outside St. Albans, we take 35 North.
The crossroads of Winfield,
Fenton, Frazier’s Bottom,
drowse on the Ohio floodplain.
This is a sky that knows limits,
even the animals are few enough to point at,
Angus like burned stumps in the fields.
Voting signs fly by, lifted in the wind
that stirs the weeds in unhitched harrows,
petunias in painted tires.
At Morgan’s Landing, in their giant alembics,
the nukes bubble and brew.
There is an air as if the people had gone,
left work waiting in the yard,
the tobacco half-strung, gone in
from the baskets and clotheslines,
where shirts flap brainlessly,
like hands endlessly waving goodbye.


When we come to the river at Gallipolis,
we are on the last leg home.
We have crossed four states
to reach the dark, the sky
like an afterglow of great conflagration.
Clouds move in a long, slow barge.
In the quiet universe of the car
the children sleep.
Lights of the cars ahead burn like coals.
All seems suspended in time.
The names of country roads fall away
in our headlights — Grace’s Run,
Tranquility Pike, Hard Climb Road —
they toll the stations as we pass.
We are almost home.
Along the ridge the twilight trees
move like a procession
of women in black mantillas
bearing the moon aloft,
the delicate tracery of
their silhouettes vanishing.
At last, it rises free,
a piece of ivory,
a bright bone,
a slip of a thing,
washed smooth and clean
in the long pull of the dark.

Five poems from Mortal World (LSU Press, 1995).


I was waiting for you
at the end of the long
gravel road that wound
through the woods,
the house barely visible
back in the trees,
two windows lit
and balancing
November’s early dark.
Walking out, I had watched
a sky turning from bone
to ash to black.
I had money and night
things stuffed in my bag,
I hoped you would see me
in the headlights.
A soft rain began.
It fell on the shoulders
of my upturned coat,
wet my face, my hair,
I could hear it falling
through the tough, hard
oaks and beeches,
the late autumn leaves
still stubborn on the trees,
sounding like birdshot,
or grains of sand
steadily, finely pouring.
And I thought suddenly
how I wanted to forget you,
forget everything,
that moment
go utterly blank,
so that I could
come back
and remember it
all from the start
to that waiting,
alone in the fresh,
cold night
and the rain
ticking, ticking.


If you come soon,
the budded tips of campion
will be split, the deep cerise
of coronaria, such delicate velvet
on the study, silver-green stems,
you cannot help but feel them,
and if it is morning,
the wild carrot rimmed with dew
along its fronded leaves,
its thick, hairy stalks,
I will spill in your palm
the brimming wet petals
of milky froth,
and touch your fingers
to the tight, indigo buttons
of bush pea, and the cupped
yellow silk of sundrops.
When you come,
flanged with light, separation
slipping from us
like sleep, like garments,
I will stand with my hands open,
I will take your hands
and hold them out
to all that is supple,
flowering, and wild.


Only now do I see
in Monet’s painting of women
on the beach in Trouville,
the print we bought in Paris
just come from Trouville
where we walked past
the seafront pavilions
and I’d read you to sleep
in our room on the Rue Carnot,
the print I mailed home
in a tube I was given
by the close-cropped clerk
who brushed my hand,
called it un cadeau,
and you said I liked it,
said it again,
over morning rolls and Orangina,
and I teased you after
as we paced the museums,
closed the cafés, chafed
in the air of cheap rooms,

only now do I see
how the women look away,
bodies opposed,
how we mistook their angle
for languor, their silence
for ease, how only one
faces the sea,
but her gaze is bent
to a book or her lap,
it is hard to tell
that pillow of voile
from the wings of pages,
while the other turns
stiffly away from the sea
as if willing desire to rise
no higher than the laddered
chair she leans her long arm along,
girls in the clothes of women,
women in the clothes of girls,
their blue stripes and sashes,
identical saucers of flowers
atop black braids, their faces
going blank as I stare,

and I begin to think
it is not summer at all,
but winter, and black bobs
in the vanishing point
not bathers but boats turning back,
I begin to think
the one with the book is reading
aloud, steadily, intently,
over the din of surf
and low weather, the wind-wrapped
chatter and commonplaces
carried past them down the strand—
how they draw apart
from all that, one urging
the words they have smuggled away,
the other in the hold
of that voice,
looking fixedly at nothing
that is inside their frame,
where the full skirts swirl,
lift, converge.


And so,
we finally fell asleep like that,
loose in each other’s arms,
exhaustion itself a ravishment,
emptied of arguing, scavenging
old ground of our history,
the long record of loving,
and loving badly.
At first light,
I woke for good,
each time I shifted,
breathing our smell
in the sheets. And I
thought back to the last
tired words you had spoken,
of that late winter midnight
you sat with the knife,
thinking only how
and where you would do it.
You did not even think
I would care.
It was your own white arms
that stopped you, the thin
curtain of skin, the pale,
raised ribbons of veins.
Innocent arms, you thought,
how can I hurt them,
the quiet in your voice
as you told me, its own
separate finality.
Now, one arm lay absent by my chest,
your face had turned away,
and there was nothing
I could do but listen
to your breath,
its soft suck, and release,
and lean into the pulse
in your throat,
like a steady step
on the solitary journey
of grieving.


They erupt
with the suddenness
and ease of his laughter,
rising like the high,
wobbly syllables
of his singing.
Shimmering, drifting,
perfect in their roundness
as planets in a book,
they issue forth
from his lips
where he breathes
through the wand
like a birthday candle
he is wishing on.
they ride away
in the curve of leaves,
scoop of sky,
rolling without wind
through midsummer,
his gaze steady and lifted
as any creator
to the beautiful,
mortal world
he can still take
into his heart
without misgiving.

Five poems from Falling Out of the Sky (LSU Press, 1999).


Age. How to think of it.
Time between not yet
and never again,
between the mezzo piano
and the mezzo forte.

Thinking ahead    what haven’t I done
to the next     what haven’t I done
through the decades and the door
that opens suddenly on space,
time like a mechanical stair
unstoppably moving,
its metal mouth biting
the treads off, shutting
the lights off
closer and closer.

I had expected more perspective,
I had expected more calm,
more of the dusk-lit fermata
of reflection, I suppose.
To know whom and what I loved
seemed little enough to ask.
I looked for more permanence
in these matters.
I am surprised, looking back,
how easily some things fell away.
I am surprised, looking back,
how much the doing of one thing
was the not-doing of another.

I had thought my desires,
like clever children’s toys,
would be self-correcting
and age-appropriate.
I had thought the choices
would be clearer,
that there would be more of them,
that when I came to those
forecast utensils in the road,
the trails would be cut,
signposts appear,
and the implements would be as predicted,
not the rusted cleaver I found.
I thought I would have some answers,
and I do, but for nothing
I am ever asked.

Where is the pattern
time promised to disclose,
the tapestry, mural,
the steady accretion of design?
It is all so partial,
so improvised,
only pieces of things, scraps
awaiting their shape and dreaming
their fate, like an old country doctor,
is somewhere still lugging his remedies
and tincture-pouch of possibles.

An angel has begun to speak with me,
a fact it is wise to avoid mentioning
in therapeutic situations.
She is kind but direct with me,
now hectoring, now forgiving,
delivering her lessons of mercy and voice.
I am grateful when she comes,
a long-distance caller, my foreign correspondent,
startling me in my head
like a roadwork sign
scrolling and alerting
bridge out     lanes narrow
signalman ahead.

Sometimes I think I am growing invisible,
becoming the color of air.
People, seasons, ownings
more and more pass through me.
I am lighter than I have ever been,
more foolish, more longing,
wrong about so much.
I did not know I could possibly feel
as if nothing had happened yet,
as if it were only now beginning,
breath rising, eyes lifting,
fingers opening for their first
wondering touch of the world.


A thin pelt of winter trees
bristles the rim of hills,
encircles the front-crimped fields,
crosscut by creeks
in their slow, black honey
and the echoing cord of road.
In the distance, a solitary combine
churns its givens of earth,
the skeletal wheel clutching
late corn in under the sky’s milky lid.
Husks of teasel and rusted candles
of sumac choke the deep washes
where scrub pines jut like mealy drumsticks.
In a clearing, beside a residue
of sheds, whitewashed stones
spell carefully out     Repent.
Beyond, a low dwindle of stones
descends a family slope
before they fall from sight
in the next turn, and the next,
the hollows closing,
disclosing, in a flung rag
of birds, the untracked veer
of our way.


The children are dreaming away.
They crouch in the next room,
the night is sorrow and wind.
I left their father years ago.

They crouch in the next room,
they take all I have.
I left their father years ago.
Silence is an old address.

They take all I have,
closed eyes and a heavy tongue.
Silence is an old address,
I keep secrets from everyone I love,

closed eyes and a heavy tongue,
so they will not leave me.
I keep secrets from everyone I love,
they give me gifts I do not deserve.

So they will not leave me
I make a trail. Only I know the way.
They give me gifts I do not deserve,
what am I to do with them all?

I make a trail, only I know the way.
I feed them with words, stitch them in tears,
what am I to do with them all?
I hoard what I can.

I feed them with words, stitch them in tears.
The night is sorrow and wind.
I hoard what I can.
The children are dreaming away.


Let the wells
          of our love

the forest
         of our refuge

let the fruit
         of our desire
                     be as dust and barren

let there be
                    anew with every sun

                     as rain

may the cradle
         of our walls falter
                    and the seas writhe

may the moon
         be riven
                    and the stars blister

and whatever sang
         our joy
                    bite its tongue in two

and wail.


What it must be like
to be without
the shawl of illusion,
to be past
all past consolations,
the difficult arts
of belief and blame,
to climb
by a means of falling,
a hauling up
of hands and voices,
unwinding the lifeline
that is scar and seam,
through years like rooms,
where to be motherless
is not to be unmothered,
and to be loved is not saved,
nor saved, spared
either burning bed or holy fire,
where truth is older, harder,
with no power to undo
and even bread is easier to share —
what must it be
ever to choose
without promise,
solace, or cease,
the stubborn stone
of the human.

All poems copyrighted by Deborah Pope and reprinted with the permission of the author.

Deborah Pope has published three books of poems, Fanatic Heart, Mortal World, and Falling Out of the Sky, all from LSU Press, as well as one volume of criticism, A Separate Vision: Isolation in Contemporary Women's Poetry (LSU, 1984). She edited the collection Ties That Bind: Essays on Mothering and Patriarchy (University of Chicago Press, 1990). Currently, she teaches at Duke University.