Veronica Patterson’s most recent full-length poetry collection is Sudden White Fan (Cherry Grove Collections, 2018). Others include How to Make a Terrarium (Cleveland State University, 1987), Swan, What Shores? (NYU Press Poetry Prize, 2000), Thresh & Hold (Gell Poetry Prize, 2009), & it had rained (CW Books, 2013), and two chapbooks—This Is the Strange Part (Pudding House, 2002) and Maneuvers: Battle of the Little Bighorn Poems (Finishing Line, 2013). She lives in Loveland, Colorado, where she writes, edits, and teaches creative writing for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
—for my mother
Margaret is a field.
In the field goldenrod thickens. Weeds grow so tall
that by August you can’t see.
Margaret is a path through the field and she is where
the path disappears.
Margaret is the house with the red door and the room
with the maroon floor, where four children sleep a troubled sleep.
When they wake she sends them outside and they raise a calf,
a collie, each other.
Margaret smokes so she can see each sigh. She smokes constantly.
The ashtrays overflow. Later, as therapy, she will make ashtrays.
Margaret is a dream Margaret once had. Margaret drinks toward the dream
she can’t quite forget and doesn’t dare remember. She wakes
to choose sleep.
She is a wrong turn Margaret took or several turns. She is bad about
Margaret is not a door that opens nor cruelty nor a bed nor forgiveness.
But she can be forgiven.
I repeat, Margaret is a field and a path through the field and the point
where the path disappears. She will not come to find you.
Because she will not come to find you, you start out deep
in this gold and weedy field.
First published in Colorado North Review. Also appears in Swan, What Shores?
Three Photographs Not of My Father
I am writing about this photograph of a rock
because I am not writing about my father.
The rock is not here. Neither is my father.
The rock is alone. And my father?
The photographer found the rock absorbing. It has
no petroglyphs. What do I know of my father’s life?
The sky is pure blue. My father was a chemist
who distilled liquid to vapor then liquid again,
the way dreams precipitate into worlds.
The rock lies in a desert. What was his dream?
I am writing about a photograph of a girl on a motorcycle
because I am still not writing about my father.
She is grinning. In all the photographs, my father is grinning.
She holds a cigarette. My father held a cigarette. Though my mother
held a cigarette, she was far too beautiful for their fortune
to be told.
The girl straddles the motorcycle. My father raced cars.
Around and around he orbited the waiting
family and never left, and left.
I am writing about a photograph of a Buddhist man walking
away because I am writing about my father.
His face is turned away. My father’s face has turned away.
The folds of his saffron robe surround him. My father wore a
white lab coat.
The monk crosses a wooden bridge, walks to a house roofed in
My father told stories that grew longer in the middle. He died
mid-sentence. Was he surprised to be so soon
like the boy in the story he recited who stood on the burning deck?
O captain, my captain, who will recite you? I, who was distilled
in my father’s house, I?
First published in Salt Hill Journal. Also appears in Swan, What Shores?
The night you lay dying,
there was a space around the house
into which nothing untoward could come,
in which nothing but your dying could take place.
It was a hole in the field,
like the hush into which a child is born. As if
at all times, or whenever necessary,
shafts of quiet pierce the world – we don’t know
the ways of the soul.
But we know how artists make a map
of somewhere foreign, then telescope one spot forward,
to show details. You lay on the bed,
breathing hard. A lens of lamplight. Your husband
on one side of you, I on the other. We told small, round stories,
beads on a string we passed over you. As if
that were our job, while yours was counting
out your breaths to the last.
When I left, I took the waiting
with me. But it wasn’t waiting; there was no time in it.
I woke before dawn, with these words,
“Why do you seek the dead among the living?” The call came,
like news of someone arrived safely in another country.
I am always surprised that the word threshold
hinges on just one h. Each time, I write one for thresh
and one for hold.
First published in New Letters. Also appears in Thresh & Hold (Big Pencil Press, 2009).
How I Created the Universe
First, I said, let there be light. I considered other things
but light seemed a place to start. I could see where I was,
where to go. I like to watch light on snow,
so I made snow. Good light. Good snow.
On the second day, I created your arms to divide me
from chaos, which I also need.
On the third day, I formed your body to fit mine; we spun
like an axis, so I thought of and made the earth.
On the fourth day, I created the children at their present ages,
our house, the twelve pine trees in the yard, our street,
our jobs, garbage, and a truck to collect it Thursdays.
On the fifth day, I made history, so we would know
what we'd done, and women's rights, so we wouldn't do it again.
I made countries and people and newspapers to report them.
I said, let there be Stephen Hawking, physicist in a wheelchair,
to tie it all together and figure out how it might have happened
if I hadn't made it myself.
The sixth day dawned: I invented God to answer questions
of suffering, which I did not invent, but which is,
and love (which I made space for on day two), then
restlessness and a true teacher.
On the seventh day, I chanted more of the list: horizons,
libraries, elephants, the Art Institute of Chicago, the
French horn. I left some items to others. Last, poetry—
the Williams, Shakespeare and Blake, and Emily Dickinson—
and the second law of thermodynamics, all to strip disguises
from order and chaos, and from then on there was no time,
no place to rest until
I remembered your arms the second day.
First published in Mid-American Review. Also appears in Swan, What Shores? (New York: New York University Press, 2000).
A Short History of Arithmetic and Science
In first grade, we were the base, and a simple match of fingers and oranges led to the right answers. Or we added a picture of an orange to a picture of an orange, and then went on to lunch, storytime, a nap.
When we got older, we had to leave our hands to consider weight, other fruits, prices: six oranges at twenty-five cents each or apples at so much a pound¾McIntosh, which were delicious and Delicious, which were not.
Then life picked up speed and suddenly the train was leaving at 5:00 p.m. from a station 100 miles away and we had to get there in a car traveling 55 miles per hour or miss the one who was coming, first, by canoe (4 miles per hour) and bus (whose speed was unpredictable, which we would later call the uncertainty principle) to meet us in a city we had never been to.
And if we got the answer right and rode the train all night and met the bus, would we pass, or be loved forever, though we couldn’t define love, for this was not English or philosophy or psychology, but math. What if we were off by a nanosecond, a billionth of a second, a near miss we could say but never think of?
Meanwhile, someone had slipped in infinity, that figure skater’s requirement, and donuts with surfaces that never ended. We had to deal with powers, those smug little numbers above the others. And the stars, as it turned out, were light years away. And because light traveled at 186,300 miles per second, we loved beneath old, old light but felt new. And began to fear subtraction.
Then it was calculus, and Einstein with his big E, and time started bending and space became a continuum we weren’t sure we were on. Quarks were the only Truth and black holes sucked in anyone who went too close and many followed like Jews to the station. The tinkertoy atom exploded and we, who once thought civilization was all geometric progression, stood with our mouths open zeros.
Chaos kept turning into order, though it looked like chaos from here. We could not find randomness when we were looking for it. But we discovered that our cells replaced themselves at astonishing rates; we were new over and over but felt old.
I have no answers¾differential, integral, or infinitesimal¾but this page is still my worksheet, and I fill in the blank that once I filled with long, long division with this equation: stay with me beneath the stars. I’m good at remainders.
We’ll go out and recline like Cassiopeia and pretend that the dipper¾that looks tonight like it could scoop up the house¾is what will dip us up at last and pour us into another place with a different mathematics. We’ll peel and eat two oranges—one for me, one for you—lick our fingers and opposing thumbs before we walk together out onto the grass, among the 10,000 green blades.
First published in Swan, What Shores? (New York: New York University Press, 2000).
A tease of clouds intermits
the searing blueblack. Cicadas
drone in a 3 a.m. silence
and I fall back
onto an Army blanket, 1956,
a meadow outside Ithaca, lying with sister
and brother, in the grip of fierce
dreams and longings, my skin
alive with up,
drawn to the studded dark, whose
tiny burns might be those of a sparkler
twirled too fast.
This night, as you sleep inside,
I lift binoculars to contain
these pricking lights, which
yet still pull me
to them. Your dream wafts from the house,
a stay. In waning heat, in my thin
nightshirt, I feel
the years accordion,
and I shiver. Each of us
gets to be vast sometime. Three
of a star-glazed strand
of my hair. How can the birds sleep
in this confetti of light?
First published in Driftwood Review. Also appears in Sudden White Fan.
News of the World, 1887
—after Vincent Van Gogh’s Grapes, Lemons, Pears, and Apples
Nothing holds still. Lemons import a sharp light. The purple grapes have left behind
the vineyards of history, which makes them luminous and sweet. The green grapes are
like painters; even their jealousies have a certain flair. Yellow leaves gesture to autumn. Someone brought them in—rather than sorrow or ashes—from a walk. Here, they itch for wind and field again. One of five apples hurries off the canvas. Such leaving. But then, just for a moment, each fruit ponders its personal how-I-came-to-be-in-the-studio-this-morning. Hosting paint. None can imagine its long role as the past. Or see stems as wicks. The cosmos swirls here as a tablecloth, serving up everything. Note the rare pigment burnt joy.
In 1914, miners and their families were shot and killed
by armed guards called in to break up the miners' camp.
The incident came to be known as the Ludlow Massacre.
There is hardly a sign of it now
in the meadow that moves into two valleys
just off the highway in southern Colorado.
The grass sways in the breeze. It is
a beautiful erasure.
Down a road in a small fenced yard a monument lifts
like a hand. There is a covered pit where striking miners,
their wives and children died, pits like graves,
then graves. It was 1914, early spring.
Outside the fence is a box
with a visitor’s notebook: “My father
mined coal for thirty years. He died last fall
of lung disease . . .” “This was a terrible time.
It isn’t over . . .” The breeze
riffles the pages.
So this is history, I think: a father’s darkening lung,
this meadow grown sweet and blank.
Then the tenses stun me: this happened,
this is happening, this will happen.
I look again at the universe of grass and forgetting.
I sign the book.
Published in Thresh & Hold (Big Pencil Press, 2009).
“Artifacts are signatures of particular kinds of behavior.”
—Richard A. Gould, in Archeological Perspectives on the
Battle of the Little Bighorn
cartridge case arrowhead rib bullet obliquely severed cervical vertebra Spencer case evidence of extraction failure articulated arm bones of a young soldier eight trouser buttons four river cobbles fingerbone (encircled with a ring) Dimmick case right foot lower arm leg and foot (still encased in a cavalry boot) facial bones of a male (pipe smoker) butt-plate screw fob ring carbine swing swivel snap backstrap ejector rod button from an 1873 Colt revolver two cartridges struck by bullets distal ulna lead fragments Barlow-style pocket knife fire-steel loading lever forage-cap chin-strap tin cup canteen stopper-ring saddle guard plate trouser-buckle telescope eyepiece Remington bullet white porcelain shirt button harness rivet girth D-ring tip of gold-painted butcher knife flatnosed bullet with single crimping groove (bone embedded) Indian ornament made from cartridge cases suspender-grip tobacco-tag hook-and-eye watch movement regulator hand 1872 cavalry boot (upper cut away) general-service button (blue wool attached) femur mess-fork hoof pick cranial vault fragment (sky showing through)
First published in Coal City Review. Also appears in Maneuvers: Poems of the Battle of the Little Bighorn (Georgetown, KY: Finishing Line Press, 2013).
My Edward Hopper Eye, My Claude Monet
I walk the streets at night
shutting first one eye, then the other.
The left eye is Hopper, its lens
too clear for comfort, the hard lines
of a town you're stuck in, always
August, noon or midnight.
The right eye haloes each street lamp.
Threads of light dissolve each tree into
the next in Paris, spring,
Who could live in that Hopper city?
Once I married there and became
that beautician with hennaed hair
and too many secrets, none her own.
In Monet's garden of well-tended horizons
I sleep three nights, then someone delivers
a newspaper. In the damp green air
events rub off on my hands.
In every storm
one eye watches bare light
shock the land, split a tree;
the other sees each gutter
alive with wings and the rain rinsing.
And so the eyes argue:
one strips, one clothes. One cauterizes,
one salves. And I
First published in Louisville Review. Also appears in Swan, What Shores? (New York: New York University Press, 2000). The poem was also read by Garrison Keillor on his radio program, “Writer’s Almanac.”