Two Poems

by Al Maginnes


Memory Has Depth But No Bottom




I am not speaking now of the girls I knew
     who babysat and worked at the theater
or drug store, but who in summer saw

     their local glory eclipsed by the girls
home from college and bored with everything,
     their thick paperbacks more weighty

for sitting unopened while they unfastened
     the tops of their bathing suits, to turn their backs
into planes of unbroken tan, and lit

     cigarettes beneath the disapproving stare
of mothers and friends of mothers. If their talk
     of football games and rum punch made them

the town’s fallen daughters, it was a fall
     with a soft landing. Already I knew
the world was cleaved and cleaved again

     by borders invisible and impossible to cross.
The depth and velocity of the scorn meant
     to drive away anyone not invited

into their coconut-scented kingdom of skin and smoke
     radiated even to the deep end of the pool
where we lined up for the diving board.

     Our game that summer was to toss pennies
into the deep end and dive after them, trying
     to retrieve all we had thrown

until we were tossing more than we could ever bring up.
     I waited in line to dive, learned to stay down
so long water’s silence was a keening, then a roar

     in my ears, until my lungs scorched for want
of air. Some days I would go to the shade and fall
     on the wide shore of a book and read until

my fingers unwrinkled. All summer, the daughters lay
     in the graceful repose of the fallen, motionless
as photographs of stillnesses like the Sphinx

     or the pyramids, but stillnesses of flesh,
and of flesh that would not molder as summer turned
     a corner and the reek of chlorinated water

took our skin. The bath-warm water itself became
     a sentence, no longer the enticement of early June,
and stuck in mid-corruption the daughters began

     to stretch and long for the airy cool of a classroom,
the damp closeness of a mixer, for movement
     that would divide them from these bodies

trapped in the town where they had been born,
     where their names still cast a shadow. In the stare
of one afternoon’s heat, the daughter of the undertaker,

     a bent man who played the piano for hours when he drank,
rose and took the narrow, quivering stage
     of the diving board. A short run, and she rose,

arms spread, as close to the shape of a cross
     as humans can come, no longer fallen but soaring
until she turned and entered the water

     straight as a plumb line, barely a splash
to mark her passage. She swam
     slow as royalty to the ladder, reclaimed

the spot she had left moment before. No pennies had been
     thrown for her to find, but she could have
claimed every one. She returned to college,

     then vanished, as some daughters did, in dark
pools of rumor, living in a teepee somewhere in Arizona
     or Canada. Ten years ago I heard she was selling

real estate in Atlanta. Whatever else we are,
     we are mostly unremembering water.
And the twenty percent of her that is

     not water does not remember
how she rose and turned, plunging into memory
     she has become, like those pennies,

more precious each time she surfaces.








From the Last Century




Now that we have come far enough
to know we will not perish
out here, we can look back
and see the place we started
the way sailors see coastlines
gain clarity in the distance
permitted by voyage. Soon it will
be impossible to fathom
we were born in that shroud-weave
of trees and fog, that we kissed
first loves there and left
the houses where we spent
childhoods sleeping through
the long dusks of summer,
always trusting the moment
we lived in to give shelter,
geographies of departure
postponed though they hovered
like the featureless widths
of ancient maps, continents blank,
marked only by warnings.
Now mythic beasts retreat
before our pragmatic advance,
and the past becomes territory
where fiction blossoms, the place
of my birth legendary
and nameless as chimney-smoke over
Dickens’ London, as ghost-shapes
of figures we twisted antennas
to clarify on tube-burning TVs
in the days when weather
and location, not cable
or satellite placement, commanded
reception, when any town
that was not the town where you lived
was foreign, each road a line
in the impossible cursive
of the world, script of a language
we spoke once but forgot
as we have forgotten
our first words and what they meant
to those left on that fading coastline.
Soon enough we will need
new words to tell the ones born
since we crossed that unfelt border,
That was our home. We lived there.