logo About Ordering Books Events Home
Hummingbird Press
Poets of the Monterey Bay

Five Poems by Debra Spencer

Open Spaces

The tarred road turns to dirt, then disappears.  Lichen on granite.  Scorpions, lizards, snakes.  Tumbleweeds roll over bare fields to the low hills.  White oaks and sagebrush on stony mountains brush the sky.  No human thing, no green except what grows where sparse water goes.  The summer air full of crows and insects droning, oven-hot with a smell of dust and dry rock.  The winter air frosty, a sharp cold as clean as the future.  Nothing but earth and sky.

You could stand in a field then and see at your feet little fist-size clods with their own little shadows.  Young corn grew knee high all the way to the hills, then grew high above your head.  When you drove past cornfields with the car window down you could feel the change in the air, the moist leaves breathing.  When the cornstalks stiffened and grew brittle, rustling and knocking together like old bones, the air went dry again, then the razed fields brown and waiting, as flat as forever.

We were out beyond the cowboys and the gold mines, way out in a West full of orange trees, avocados, the cinema.  We were in the terrain of the alien planet, the hills of Galilee, the England of Robin Hood, the South Korea of Hawkeye Pierce.  Those rolling meadows you see, those barren mountains, that's where I lived, those open spaces.

I used to stand in a field of wild asparagus, my feet among their thick stems, their lacy ferns waving as far as I could see.  They're all gone now.  Fields of tumbleweeds, sagebrush, corn™torn up, all houses now, hotels, high-rises, malls, all vertical, even the horizon.  Sometimes in old films I see them again, those fields through the buildings at the edge of a city.  Sometimes I hear a rumor about a frontier, and I set my pen on an empty page like taking a step in the old valley, nothing but bare sweet ground stretching out until it meets the hills.  Just earth.  Sky.

A Waltz

Reluctantly the boys lugged the stereo
out onto the terrace where we could
smell the honeysuckle.  Do we have to
dress up? they asked.  Do we have to dance,
or can we just watch?  Where’s the food?
Some of us could dance.  Joan knew the grapevine,
Cindy could tango, Celeste did a snaky slink
like Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not.
The boys tried a few turns, stepped on everyone’s feet,
begged off.  They were small men, good-looking,
but they moved like large herbivorous dinosaurs
and preferred aiming the champagne corks
out over the stone wall.  Only Neil wanted to dance,
all three hundred pounds of him, dressed
in a faded tuxedo.  Red-faced, breathless,
he appraised us as we leaned in our long gowns
against the brick barbecue.  Joan put on a waltz,
grabbed Robby, twirled him onto the flagstones.
Neil offered me his hand.  He danced

the way Picasso might have sketched
a casual likeness on an envelope at the Lapin Agile,
or as Beethoven might have whistled to himself
as he walked through the woods. Our feet
stayed on the ground but our bodies
spun above the cracked flagstones with giddy speed.
Neil's face wore a sheen of sweat, his breath
came hard and fast, like any athlete’s.  I danced two dances
clinging to his soft bulk, my body doing exactly
what he wanted.  Then I leaned against the bricks
and watched him dance one by one with the others,
his white shirt gleaming, flashing as he turned, his feet
never faltering, always near his partner’s
but never touching, his face placid, confident.
I watched very carefully, trying to see
exactly how he did it, how mere art could make
a three-hundred-pound man as weightless
as the scent of honeysuckle on the warm night air.


When I knew him he was thirty, six foot six, dark as a Masai warrior.  As school custodian he made coffee, cleaned rooms, moved furniture, made sure AJ Rodriguez and Marcus Washington didn’t fight or leave school before three o’clock, shot hoops with the kids, even the girls.  He pruned roses, raked leaves, cut grass, made sets for the school play, gave speeches to the boys about bathroom accuracy.

Clarence drove a white Continental Mark IV, the biggest car in the parking lot.  He owned a tank of tropical fish.  One day he took his fish for a ride in his Continental.  Wanted to give ’em some fun, he said.  He drove them three times around the block.  Half of them died the next day, he said, but they died happy.

His favorite ride in the Continental had been with a friend after drinking a fifth of scotch.  They cruised along the canal road by the railroad tracks.  It was spring, the fragrance of new-mown hay in the air.  For no good reason Clarence made a sharp right turn and the car became airborne, sailing over the canal.  I imagine it jumping clear of its accustomed medium, like the shark at the end of Jaws.  When it came to rest, undamaged, Clarence and his friend sat still inside it for a moment, savoring the memory of their flight.  Then they got out and walked home.

Clarence believed the local Chinese restaurant served cats and dogs in their mu shu and stir fry.  People’s pets disappeared, he said.  Can’t keep no cats and dogs when you live near China Alley, he said.  I don’t eat nothin’ but vegetables there.  They prices so low, can’t be nothin’ but cats and dogs they servin'.  At the end of the school year we had a lunch at the China Cafe for our retiring principal, the whole staff at one long table in the seedy upstairs room, Clarence a little way down from where I sat.  When the food arrived, the principal made a speech and gave a toast.  As we reached for our glasses, Clarence caught my eye.  He pointed to my food, smiled gravely, put a finger beside his nose.  I raised my glass to him.  I raise it now.

Growing Old at the St. George Hotel
        for Gray Chang

In skin as heavy as silk I lie
(love long dead, this window my eye)
along the sill a story above the street.
A player carries his keyboard under one arm
in search of a band.  The bubble man
sets up tub, readies sticks with their loop of string.
A siren calls like a long-dead friend, a thief
sips his sweet take from a fragrant cup.
A magician brings a dead dove back to life
while the harper tunes beneath the hummed surprise.
A unicyclist sings the newest song, lamps come on,
lovers stroll whispering, skin against skin
through the spangled night.  Bubbles rise
and glow like paned spheres against the light.
The magician strokes the feathers of the dove,
love flies arrow-straight from the harper's strings.
My skin whispers into dust above.

Panties in the Street

Black lace rolled into a figure eight
at the edge of the sidewalk, lavender spandex
wadded tightly in the gutter, pink cotton
draped on a bus-stop bench along the boulevard.
On a wire fence down a back alley, on a quiet street
near the library, a single pair swept aside
by the wheels of a passing car, alone
or with a wrinkled condom nearby
like the shed skin of a snake, panties
delicate, abandoned, flaming red or cool blue
or ice white against the blacktop.  They fell
from the top of the laundry bag
while she struggled to hold the kids’ hands
crossing the street.  He threw them out
of the car after he dropped her off, not wanting
to leave them for his wife to find. His
blunt-fingered hands jerked them off
or her own small trembling hands
rolled them down her thighs, her eyes
on the gun or the knife.  They were both middle-aged,
so drunk such niceties as panties no longer mattered,
didn't even glance around for the cops
out here under what stars still shine
through a city night, out here among
the bourgeoisie and the Republicans.
They were in their late teens or early
twenties walking home toward parents
or roommates, prurience more urgent
with every step.  They were stoned or maybe
just sick of being good, the trap of school
or jobs looming ahead of them, they
shucked off prudence as quickly as the panties,
a hand up under her skirt, a furtive
glance up and down the dark deserted street,
hearts beating, the first of many heedless acts,
or the last daring thing they’ll ever do.

Copyright 2004