Poems About Family

From Navigation (The Habit of Rainy Nights Press, 2012)


I have carried water
to bed with me every night
since I was able to tip a cup
to my lips with my own small hands,
adopted a cup as my own
for years at a time until
it was broken or lost —
though it was not the cup that mattered
so much as the holding of water,
the water keeping watch over the night.

Two centuries back, my grandmother’s ancestors
built the aqueducts in Turin, Italy.
My mother tells me this today,
and it is the only thing I know of them —
the family Audo — a line sunk
by the weight of my great grandfather
— a name as vast
and still as the bowl of a reservoir.
The names of my great grandparents —
Celestina, Anton
— are as far back
as I can name, as my mother can name.
The stories come to me slowly, as water
struggling to pass through a dam.

I know a few small things — like switchbacking
up a hill:  that Celestina came to America first,
her hands empty of pennies and English —
that my grandmother refuses to speak
her native tongue, does not speak at all
of her life before my grandfather, the war navigator,
the architect of her world, who washed over
her family name like a flood.

I imagine the aqueducts of Northern Italy —
pressed into the landscape by my family’s hands,
climbing into the city like children
into laps, reaching for my grandmother’s face
with small-boned hands:  the hands my mother
used to raise me above her head, the hands
in which I carry water — holding it to my lips
in the dark, night after night.


The Navigator’s Triangle

“The stars were so many there, they seemed to overlap.”
— Natalie Merchant

Our necks should be built for looking upwards,
so we could stand for many hours
next to each other, staring into the sky,
and the weight of our eyes would not tilt
onto our spines and remind us
to look ahead, or down at the bones of our feet.

Fifty years ago, my grandfather knew these stars
like the streetlights in his own hometown:
Ursa Major to Ursa Minor was like a walk
around the block, to the North Star — a drive
to my mother’s school.  He could take
my mother outside, tilt her head up, and say
this is the map of your world.

But he couldn’t say
I know this because of the War.

My mother has always said
your grandfather doesn’t talk about it.

Doesn’t talk about the years in planes
with compasses, maps, and soldiers —
how he guided them across the sky
from the Navigator’s Triangle outward —
from Vega to the Northern Cross to Cassiopeia

and told them just where to let it drop.

Last week I asked my grandfather if he knew
which planet hung in the sky across from us —
a lit face.  He couldn’t remember.  Didn’t know
that it was Jupiter, his moons circling
about him, all women:  Leda, Io, Europa.
I stood next to my grandfather, looking
upward, my mother watching us from inside,
standing still as a point of light.

My mother does not know her father, and I
do not know what my grandfather knows — if
there are stars behind his eyes that no longer mean
what they used to mean, mapping a way
to people.  Tonight the sky is dusted with stars
in patches dense as the track an eraser leaves
across a blackboard.  Scorpius curls its tail
around Jupiter, the sign of my birth.  And I imagine
my grandfather standing under this sky alone:
his head rocked back onto his spine like a fallen star,
his hands opening into emptiness, looking up.


Good Road Woman
for Estrella

Remember the sky you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
-Joy Harjo

My cousins are a journey of stars, taking my whole
lifetime to reach me.  You are the newest, the constellation
that has not yet risen over my patch of the earth.
I can only imagine your eyes, how they must be
like stepping stones, how they will take you
into this world.  I think of your two names — one given
at birth, the other a gift of native blood — and know
I will meet you sooner than I found all the others.

Your brothers are new to me as first snow, as present
as the blue light of winter when so many stars
are sleeping.  This past summer, in unusual rain, when
the days were just beginning to shut their doors
for an eager dusk, I met them.  I was carrying my sister’s
flowers, lace spread out behind her and a new ring
on her hand.  My hair was up.  At first, I did not recognize
your father, his beard gone, his smile the turning
of a new moon.  It had been ten years.  Your oldest brother
wore the cresting of his thirteenth year with a length
of quiet.  Your second brother learned to play spoons
that night in my home, the reunited family wandering
through my rooms with startled affection.

Your sister is the cousin I did not know I had
until she grew nearly as tall as me, though our footsteps
fell over and over in the same state.  Now, two months
after meeting her, I can see her face exactly:  twin suns
in her cheeks and something of kin in her eyes.  I glimpsed
a strength like water — constant and quick with change.

Cousin, I want to welcome you into this family
as you were welcomed into your name of stars and journeys.
May your hair grow long and dark, the way I remember
your mother’s, though she is distant to me as any planet
you can name.  May your eyes show you the gift
of your world.  May your blood recognize its many forms.
Good Road Woman, I am hoping you cannot help but rise
into this name.  May our paths cross soon, and often.
May you greet this family like a river, reminding us
of everything we’ve ever claimed as source.