Since 1996 Volume XXIIV

                     Allison Joseph


Allison Joseph lives in Carbondale, Illinois, where she is part of the faculty at Southern Illinois University. She serves as editor and poetry editor of Crab Orchard Review, moderator of the Creative Writers Opportunities List, and director of Writers In Common, a summer writers’ conference. Her books and chapbooks include What Keeps Us Here (Ampersand Press), Soul Train (Carnegie Mellon University Press), In Every Seam (University of Pittsburgh), Worldly Pleasures (Word Tech), Imitation of Life (Carnegie Mellon), Voice: Poems (Mayapple Press), My Father's Kites (Steel Toe Books), Trace Particles (Backbone Press), Little Epiphanies (Night Ballet Press), Mercurial (Mayapple Press), Multitudes (Word Tech), The Purpose of Hands (Glass Lyre Press), Mortal Rewards (White Violet Press), Double Identity (Singing Bone Press), What Once You Loved (Barefoot Muse Press), Corporal Muse (Sibling Rivalry), and Confessions of a Barefaced Woman (Red Hen Press). She is the literary partner and wife of Jon Tribble.


In the Public Library


In silence, in shadow, this girl reads words–

sounds discrete as bricks, jagged as shards


of bottles smashed against the library’s

concrete steps, its entrance an alley


reeking of piss, booze, its pavement

giving way, cracked along city fault lines.


Inside, one room of warmth and dirt,

floor wax and gum wrappers, paperbacks


thumbed and stamped with inky due dates,

hardcovers wrapped in yellowed cellophane,


tables and chairs with initials carved

into them, damage sunk deep in wood.


Here I learn the potency of words,

their sounds resounding in my head,


ears, equilibrium shaken,

words destined for my preteen ribcage,


my body a bony geometry. Here,

the hours teem with voices, their rhythms;


coiled tense, I lean on words and love

all this–broken bindings, smudged print,


fondled pages, my library card,

warm slip frayed in my taut grip.





Reading Room


Back before we all became "multicultural,"

when blacks were beautiful in dashikis

and righteous rage, my father sold books

in Toronto, books of pride, sorrow, anger,


an inventory that ended up

in our living room in the Bronx,

a reading room I'd sneak into

when I wasn't supposed to,


my chore and duty there to dust

the coffee tables and knickknacks—

souvenir ashtrays from Caribbean isles,

ebony elephants and pelicans,


hand carved, foreign-wrought.

Mixed in among my mother's

nursing texts, her medical dictionary

and anatomical tomes, I found


Franz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks,

a book too severe for my pre-teen brain,

polysyllabic paragraphs sailing past

my short-sighted mind, Cleaver's


Soul On Ice, which I read fervently,

loving every curse, every mention of sex,

missing the revolution in his prose

in pursuit of dirty words, staring


at the cover, captivated by Eldridge's

prison-saddened face. Up From Slavery,

Manchild in the Promised Land,

The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual,


poems of Cesaire and Senghor--those books

filled me with legacy, history, located me

with Jesse Owens, blazing his body

past fascism as he triumphed


at Hitler's Olympics, with Jackie Robinson

through minor and major league hatreds,

with George Washington Carver as he

synthesized genius from peanuts.


Malcolm X spoke to me from the cover

of his autobiography, black and white

photo faded, but his face still sharply

turned upward, his finger up, out,


to signal the better world beyond us.

Could I join these men if I let words

dream in me, if I struggled, didn't

settle, my gaze as bold and forthright


as Frederick Douglass's, Booker T.'s ?

Wiping each book clean, I kept that room's

order, my torn rag mottled, spotted,

dark with that week's dust.





Nothing But Words


could comfort me, so I sat in the arm chair

silently, hoping somehow my presence

could make your bed rest easier,


your lungs no longer home to ache and cough.

You smiled to see your youngest, lanky at 15,

secretive, that girl, with her words and pages


--asked, what are you writing, what are you writing,

with breath that faltered from your failing lungs,

past your lips, lips too dry, cracked. Too weak


to lift your arms, you needed help to grasp

the plastic water tumbler always at bedside.

Ashamed, I knew my poems were too dainty


for that sickroom,  precious but hardly powerful

enough,  not nearly as stately as the daily prayers 

you craved, piped in on gospel radio.


I should have showed you what about words

engaged me so, should have read

my shaky scrawl aloud--nothing good


about my shyness, my silence,

nothing shared except your hushed query,






Daughter, Mother, Sister, Wife


When your daughter is a poet,

burn all your possessions before you die.

Or else she will rifle through them,

searching for that one bauble, that trinket,

that one letter or card or bus schedule

to explain why you were so cold, so reluctant

to pick her up  when she was nine,

when she was nineteen. Burn all

your correspondence; but be warned,

she’ll make something of the cinders.


When your mother is a poet,

your breakfast may be marmalade

and wine, wheat toast and dandelion

stems. She may slit a fish’s belly open

in a gesture so sudden and swift

that you can never eat fish again,

her eyes gleaming with conquest.

When your mother is a poet,

you may get crumpets, not pizza,

gravy but no potatoes.

You may not get fed at all.


When your sister is a poet,

she may steal your stories

for her own, her life’s humiliations

not nearly as intriguing as yours.                                                

She’ll become the one whose left breast

popped out of her prom gown;

she’ll be the one with the extra-smarmy

dentist, the one at your father’s

graveside, mother’s deathbed.

She will send these words off to strangers,

and not discuss one page of it with you.


When your wife is a poet,

watch your mouth. Anything you say

can and will be used, anything you do

preserved whether you think it should be

or not. She may quit being your wife,

but she will never quit searching her memory

for that awful thing you said

in the delivery room, the laundry room,

the bedroom, the kitchen.

And she will write it down

in that penmanship you always loved–

an ornate script that looked

like another era’s handiwork,

malice controlled by curves

and loops in ink, swelling on paper.







I should be watching my weight, counting calories,

            doing leg lifts and squat thrusts, but instead I’m under

            six layers of thermal blankets, watching

            Saturday morning cartoons featuring

            robots that look like animals

or animals that look like robots.

I should be writing letters on custom-made stationary,

            engaging notes to long-lost friends—

            high school buddies, college pals—

            instead of reading gossip on the Internet

            about celebrities I’ll never meet

            and don’t really like.

I should be doing something productive in life:

            writing better poems, cooking exotic cuisines—

            but instead I’m eating noodles from a styrofoam cup,

            doodling in the margins

            of blank notebooks, writing tablets.

I should be growing herbs in a lush garden

            overflowing with fragrant sprigs of basil and thyme—

            instead I’m at the grocery store

            buying pre-washed lettuce in plastic bags,

            wilted greens soggy under florescent lights.

I should be smaller, fingernails longer,

            scars cleared up, moles gone,

            fingers elegant enough to make

            spanakopita, dim sum, minced meat pies, samosas.

I should learn cake decorating--

            swirling frosting in elaborate creamy peaks

            on a cake so magnificent no one ever cuts it.

            Instead I’m scarfing down Little Debbie snack cakes

            behind a locked office door.

I should be a woman who doesn’t say

            I should be,

            no regrets about her growing waistline

            or shrinking life span,

            no regrets about choices made or unmade,

            no efforts at sophistication left.

I should be tired of everything

            unfaithful to everything

            unwilling, unready, unlovely.

I should be, but I’m too familiar

            with what I can’t be

            and I can’t stop thinking

            I should be that woman

            who can tell one plant from another,

            who saves the early shoots

            of tomatoes and carrots

            instead of mowing them down,

            mistaking them for weeds.



Permission granted from Red Hen Press for these poems that appear in the book by the author, Confessions of a Barefaced Woman: “In the Public Library,” “Reading Room,” “Nothing but Words, "Regrets."

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