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Batman next door

The old woman in her pink long johns
and red flannel nightshirt
put trembling hand on the bed,
pushed herself upright,
swung her pink-clad, stick-like
legs over the edge and looked
at Batman. The sturdy caped figure,
hair in damp spikes from his bath,
repeated his question.
Want your light off, Gram?
Fragile, barely there, she smiled
with a fully vigorous astonishment.
I knew then she would be safe
all through the night,
with Batman in the next room.

-- Marjorie Kowalski Cole
Ester, Alaska


Our house was not condemned.
But the one behind us where Betty Carlson lived
was, and not only she but Mary Ramsey,
Lanny Kinnear, Rita and Donnie Strom, their children
and Eunice as well lived there
                                            in six units three on a side
overflowing with children so much so that
Eddie Carlson fell out of a second-floor window.
One of a pair of red drapes hung over the sill
marking the fall, on the ground below
the blood redder than the faded drape above.

The yellow sign nailed to the wall of that house
read: This building CONDEMNED by the
Department of Public Health. I read early
and well, knew what those heavy black capitals
meant, the stigma attached to anyone living there.

Nobody moved. The city did not evict.
But living under that interdict was the shame
of Hester Prynne multiplied but mollified by being shared.
Shared yes, but nevertheless, unlike the oblivious Pearl,
the children involved knew they were powerless,

forced to breathe in classroom air, polluted with whispers
from recess: Betty Carlson’s house is condemned.
I knew. She was my neighbor. I kept my distance
from her contagion. Her leprosy,
her social AIDS, her stigmata could soon be mine.

We moved from that house when I was twelve
thereby escaping a visible wound of black
and yellow on the front door, reminiscent of the woven
Star of David worn by Jews
on their jackets in the Second World War.

On a recent visit to that neighborhood
I found buildings razed, gone -- trees
and broken cement foundations
all that was left
of a war zone lost in time.

Engaged now in another war --
waged by the wealthy on the urban poor,
a racist elitist war of deception --
the victims turn guns on each other and everyone dies.

-- Judith Robbins
Whitefield, Maine


I am a nonconforming Catholic,
A dogma free Christian,
A would-be Buddhist,
A latent Hindu,
An admirer of the Sufi,
A curious observer of the Shinto and Celtic,
A student of the Tao,
And a brother to all sorts of indigenous tribal religions.

I have kissed the God of many faces …
And, as for you, my friend,
If you have kissed one,
You have kissed them all.

-- Michael Reitz


I walk straight ahead, choose
not to see an old lady tied
to her wheelchair, crumpled
like empty clothes,
choose not to imagine pain
as an old man’s arm flails
the table before him,
choose not to hear others mutter

I go to my father’s room, past
remnants of people scattered
like empty shells, leaning on crab-
footed canes, using start-and-stop
walkers. They slide snail feet,
inching wheelchair houses
around the square, to nowhere.

My father sits, twice tied
at shoulders and hips, staring
at a blank screen.
I wheel him to the dining room
where smoking is allowed.

After two cigarettes
and three thin cigars are smoked
without pause, he signs himself
absently, but perfectly,
from forehead to chest,
left shoulder to right.

-- Mary Willette Hughes
Waite Park, Minn.

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1999 in POETRY

2000 in POETRY

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National Catholic Reporter, September 29, 2000