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These poems by Anna Wilson are selections from Sleeper Awake, an unpublished manuscript. Wilson, at different periods in her life, served as a soup kitchen worker, an accountant at John Leary House, a Catholic worker community in Boston, and was a wife, the mother of two, and a student in Purdue University’s writing program. She died in 1995 after an acute asthma attack at age 36. Her husband, John Wilson of Battleground, Ind., who submitted her work, writes: Anna “infused me with inspiration through her spirit, and faithfulness, bringing a healing grace to our lives, marriage and children. I miss her very much, but feel that I can share the beauty of her voice with others. It helps with the grief, sorrow and anger I sometimes feel toward God. If I feel far away from God, I simply need only read from Anna’s poetry, and I know that He holds me in the palm of his hand.”

Ash Wednesday

Today is the end of ordinary time;
within the cavern of the church,
the vault fills like a pool,
our small sounds --
the scuff of feet, a sigh,
a stifled cough.
As I look across the dark water,
your faces rise to me
like water lilies,
long stems tangling
into a shifting column,
dwindling into the cold black depth.

For the dim expanse of an hour,
I sign you each into death,
bruising your creamy petals
gray, smearing the grainy ash
in two quick strokes.
Fifty times my hand is blow,

Each time my fingers drop from your heads,
my mouth burns with the words
of the prophet; they light
my tongue and set me to flame
here in this bank of fire and light
surrounding the Word, the table
at the lip of darkness,
while still your faces, lilies,
bob before me and rise from the moving water.
I feel I must stand here forever
weeping with power
fingers blackening with palm’s ash
probing the stony pit of resurrection
until the black water is still

As For You

Inspired by Ariel Dorfman’s, The Last Song of Manuel Sendero

As for you,
Mr. Dorfman,
isn’t it enough
I carry a Salvadoran cross
between my breasts
as if to keep one pair of hands
one heart
I read your book
on the train to work
the sour knot of tears in my throat,
the corners of my mouth
ashamed of my shame
to weep.
making the beds,
through the children’s squabbling
and laughter,
seasoning the soup,
I hear their voices

the father taken after the Sunday picnic

the mother in her apron, the kettle left boiling

the children playing Mummy & Daddy

What do you say when they take me away?
What do you do when they take you too?
And if they come for the children?

Who are your people, Mr. Dorfman,
that they can forget
their own mothers
sweet baby flesh

and as for mine
another military aide package
U.S. interests abroad
in the interest of national security
the fight against communism
my husband on the phone
to an aide in an office
in Washington
The bill is approved.

Mr. Dorfman,
who is listening?


Hands wrinkled from dishwater
clutch the list -- W.I.C.,
Stamps, bank,
Children’s Hospital,
training pants,
groceries. Shoulders shrug
with impatience over a stride
that won’t lengthen, shrug
against a gray cold.
The park is empty
and the beginning rain
drives her under the trees.

Here in this place
the leaves close about her,
locking her within
their impossible green.
Leaves press on her eyelids,
cool green coins, cling
to her skin, a sodden shroud.
Mist drifts off the pool,
coils about dank trunks,
sucks at her breath.
Her feet move across the brick
and yet there is no drawing
to an end of this green,
this gray, this black.
There is water at her feet
and so she moves between
branch and trunk, trunk and branch.
There is little enough reflection
of her body. There is little enough
of time and place.
Too little of the list is accomplished
but the laundry smells sweet,
and dinner bakes solidly
in the oven’s womb,
the child runs in with leaf green
at the back of his eyes; his kiss
tastes of mist. There is a moment,
then, folding the clothes, when the man
comes to her with the rain
wet on the hairs of his hands,
encircles her from behind,
and there is something of black bark
and branch in his touch.

Big Wheels

We’ve been sleeping,
the kids and I
together in the big bed
as if our sprawl
could fill your absence,
Later, driving,
I search out each orange semi,
checking the left forearm
cocked on the windowframe
for the silver glint
of your wedding band,
the familiar plane
of your watch (Navy PX),
each configuration
of dark hair and moles,
twisted rope of tendon, tissue.
I am jealous
of the early morning roil
of fog heavy across breathless fields,
each sip of coffee
and bite of boysenberry pie,
the tight curl of sleep
inside your bunk.
I am caustic
with love.

Egg Dyeing

The vinegar stung where I’d bitten
my nails close to the quick
and I cradled the egg softly
in a clean paper towel
to dry its shell and my pain.
Beeswax and paraffin smokes
over the candle stub -- votive
from Safeway -- and wrinkles
my nose with its goodness.
The wax goes on easily;
sometimes I singe my fingertips
flicking my hand over the flame.
White on white drowns in green
and I walk away to wash dishes
and play two Chopin nocturnes.
In an hour the egg and the evening
are dark and I light the candle again.
The color is uneven, changing greens
to blues, but I don’t care,
touching its darkness and depth
with the light of the candle
caged in the curve of my palm.
The wax runs easily,
dims the edge of my finger
again to the gray of a dead bird’s wingtip.
I wish I could hold out this egg,
mine now become yours,
in the hollow of my hand
so you could take it
and see beyond its color
the afterglow of my palm.

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1999 in POETRY

Poems should be limited to about 50 lines and preferably typed. Please send poems to NCR POETRY, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City MO 64111-1203. Or via e-mail to poetry@natcath.org or fax (816) 968-2280. Please include your street address, city, state, zip and daytime telephone number. NCR offers a small payment for poems we publish, so please include your Social Security number.

National Catholic Reporter, April 21, 2000