Since 1996 Volume XXI

                                       Jacqueline Berger

Jacqueline Berger is the author of three previous books: The Mythologies of Danger, winner of the Bluestem Poetry Prize, Things That Burn, winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize, and The Gift That Arrives Broken, which won the Autumn House Poetry Prize. Her poetry has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writers Almanac. Her latest book, The Day You Miss Your Exit, is from Broadstone Books. She is a professor of English and directs the graduate program at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, CA. A native of Los Angeles, Jacqueline lives in San Francisco with her husband.

Did My Father Work on Bombs?

We cheered, he told me, 
when they were dropped
because it meant the war was over.
Home on a G.I. Bill, a Jewish boy 
with a brain for math, 
the field offered stable, secure,
professional employment.
Every year, an Einstein wall calendar, 
physicist on a bicycle,
World War IV will be fought 
with sticks and stones,
the torment of genius 
my father understood.

If he were still alive, 
would I ask again? 
He already told us he would never.
Where he drew the line,
the century buckling around him.

Business trips to Oak Ridge, 
Hanford. Plutonium 
could not be smelled or tasted,
seen or heard or felt,
back when we still believed
its clean science
would keep us safe. 

Concrete lined in steel, 
fully contained casks
to withstand—but the century
is over, and Eisenhower’s
Atoms for Peace long gone.
My father wanted
his body turned to ash.
Briefly I held the sealed
box in my hands
before we buried it in earth.

The Day You Miss Your Exit

Keep driving until the highway 
dissolves into the hills. 
Stop in a small town for lunch 
or the rest of your life, 
who would you be here? 
Someone not afraid to close down
the bar, tossing back shots 
with a cowboy, your tee shirt 
knotted under your breasts,
the plane of your stomach exposed, 
so what if everyone knows what you came for.
When he leads you to the dance floor,
follow, then face him, one hand
loose on his shoulder, the other
keeping its options open. 
Your body isn’t the glass bauble
in a velvet box you’ve always thought
it was your job to protect.
Without a friend to drive her home,
a woman drinking gets into a truck.
Drop the bad and it’s just things happen.
There’s a house for rent on the edge of town.
From the window, distance 
and sky without end.
But the body is tethered to its shadow,
black dog that leads or follows,
there’s no slipping the knot of ourselves.
Lunch over, you leave
enough on the table for a tip,
look back though you’re already walking
in the direction of your car 
then steering it onto the road,
the dog riding shotgun, a snoutful
of evening air up his nose 
from the open window 
and the closer you get to home—
he smells it from miles away—
the happier he gets. 


Could you do without your title,
your office, its little window; 
could you do without paper clips, the parking permit?
Could you do without eco mode, 
the spin cycle? Without cast iron,
the dutch oven, without olive oil, 
green garlic? Could you do without
apples, the blender, the toaster, do without the timer
on the microwave you use for so many purposes;
could you do without time 
broken into fifteen minutes, into eight, 
do without the clock, the calendar—
ten years ago or twenty?
Could you do without your dead,
do without dragging them back
from wherever it is they’ve gone? 
Do without the nightgown, the robe, the pillow? 
Without the medicine cabinet, the vials and tablets?
Could you forgo the glass of water on the night table?
Could you go without night, without its minutes
in the dark before sleep, without the one
who lies next to you, without whom 
you would wander the seas,
lost vessel looking for home? Could you 
do without home, its pitched roof, 
its hill, its sign that says Hill; do without the dog
in the window, without his barking
when a stranger approaches? 
Could you do without the stranger 
bearing witness or asking for money?
Could you do without money, the twenties
folded into your wallet, the money in the bank
you never see, the system of money, the spinning 
of its wheels, its engines like air?
Could you do without engines, 
without clockworks, combustion,
without the revving to start,
the humming inside as they run?

A Deficit Life

For years you never had enough, 
that’s how it felt, then later did 
but worried how much 
to spend on the pleasures 
and comforts of the surface. 

Lament at the end 
that you were never really stylish,
that your timing was off, your entrance askew.
How close or far you were
from who you thought you should have been
is almost over. 
At what point does the failing heart 
start a countdown of its dwindling beats?

The gathered scatter your powder of stars
and say their goodbyes. 
That’s you in next year’s peaches and tomatoes.
You in the wind that carries voices
and you in the smell of the wine-soaked barrels,
in the rind of cheese, the dry leaves that exhale
a mustardy air into the stillness 
of the garden at dusk
when the heat is a loose dress
and the wicker table is set,
the glasses are filled, and twilight
presses its ear to listen.

From the Middle

More a sense than a feeling,
or even a scent, unidentified 
weed that smells like curry and grows 
on the mountain where we take the dog, 
and grew in the Hollywood Hills
where I went to camp. Nostalgia’s 
a bad shorthand but it’s something.
Or maybe it’s like lowering into a hot bath, 
the almost sorrow that rises with the steam,
though tenderness is even worse than nostalgia.
I’m off to a bad start, but let’s go with curry
in dry September. What I’m getting at
is how these days and for some time
I feel a pulling away even in the midst.
Driving to work, I’m already done 
with the calendar of busyness. 
Even as I’m pulling into the parking lot, 
finding a spot, hanging my employee placard 
from the rearview, I’m long into 
the drifting of its after,
wet sand of soft mornings,
luxury and loneliness of Monday
and nowhere to be.

Early evening walks up the mountain,
past the shellmound, past Owl Canyon,
on to Acres before looping back to the car, 
the dog is gone and I miss him
who at this moment is only 
blocked from view, burrowing in brush, 
scratching against its rough.
In the distance, death’s 
fluorescent hum in place of the low chant
all life if you listen carefully emits.
Will we get another dog, weighing
our modes of escape against the pinning down
of daily walks, burrs pulled from the tail?
And you too are gone, even in the middle 
of our lives, even as you drive us home,
the dog in the back seat sleeping like the child
we never had. Why do you die first?
How else to keep telling the story?
I’m alone and not young, then old,
the scent of burning leaves or rubbish,
acrid and sweet, spit thickening
in the corners of my mouth.
I won’t call this state anxiety, depression,
will call it the open window,
the train’s thin whistle bending into the curve.
Lament or the physics of sound?
Will call it here and also gone,
it will answer to both
like a dog with a previous owner
who learned himself by one name and then another.
Will call and call but there is no answer,
and that will be the answer, 
the doesn’t matter of its either way.

From The Day You Miss Your Exit © Copyright Jacqueline Berger. 
All Rights Reserved.


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