Jessica Greenbaum

Three Poems
June 24, 2024 Greenbaum Jessica

After My Daughter Left


I sat in the late day sun
at the edge of the lake
where we had driven so she
could jump from the top
of the pump house—
a tall shack with a steep roof
which the kids climb
from inside through a hole—
and even after all these years
when I stepped inside
and not seeing any way to climb up
caught myself assuming
they could fly to the top
then looked at the wall
behind me with its ladder
of ledges, and you can’t blame
the truth when I tell you
she found two nests at the highest step
one with two eggs in it
and after she left
I just stayed for a few minutes
and ate my dinner
from the takeout place
where we also bought her
a sandwich for her long ride;
the goose families bobbed
at the edge of the lake
like boats brought in
for the night, and the mown
half of the meadow
showed off the curve
of the uncut, swaying
grasses outlining it



Towards the End of My Mother’s Life


which I pictured
as her nearing
the edge of a large
open plain
uncontained wind
spun at her hair
even as I brushed it;
speaking to her
was like calling
with a hand cupped
beside my mouth
because she was
slightly estranged
from language
and sat wild-eyed
in the swirl of
any conversation. I
understood this;
from where my
own daughters stood—
so buddy-buddy
with the current world—
much needed explaining
to the one who
used to explain.
Maybe aging
can be measured in
units of explanation—
how much you have
left—and I still had
small bills, you know
about tasks of
daily administration—
but no longer how
the hummingbird
tamps spider webs
to make a nest
or an octopus
turns any color
in the ocean.
I even remember
with joy
my youngest, home
with a fever—
how we read
a picture book
about The Endurance
to cool her off
and, as she recovered
how she found
to her delight
she could stack
one large number
on top of another
to add up perfectly
below a line she drew.
That was life
and as my mother
nears the rim of hers
and the wind
has stripped away
the thin sheaf of
her living anger—
her competition
with happiness itself—
now her bare
bowed shoulders
of kindness
frighten me, pain me
she who has loved
me so dearly
without my knowing.
And how to explain
what adds up
and endures
in this life?



First Rooms


Now I think it’s an important detail, that I had moved
away from everyone I knew for graduate school
and that even two years later my friends were few and
my experience bleak, really, without encouragement
or amity. I hung on, as so many have, by working in a
bookstore, and no one would have attended my graduation
so I didn’t bother going. But having found work as
a reporter, I stayed, moved out of a communal house
into my own furnished studio. Living small you pass your
photos and mini-shrines just walking from the living
area the few remaining feet to anywhere and I’m
inclined to tell you the place—though I was terribly lonely
and actually feared I might disappear up those steps—
was designed kindly, with glass panes in the kitchen cabinets
and everything three-quarter size—the fridge coming up
to my neck, etc. The sole air conditioner was a David
to the heat’s Goliath, so the landlord offered a six foot
fan, my biggest, I joked, and that helped. All this to say
that being so alone I was open to suggestions on how
to live, and even as I found peers to whom I clung—
the kindly disenfranchised dancing to Brave Combo or
hawking fair trade hats at flea markets—cutting and pasting
parts of stability—I felt apprenticed to the generation
older who took me in, and I feel sure I entered adulthood
through them. As classic as the first day in September when
you walk into your new school classroom and it looks
as it never will again, not even the second day—just so
the details and customs of those adults’ lives impressed
themselves on me. I noted their overlapping rugs, the
glinting samovar anchoring their kitchen table, and most
alluring, their studies—whole walls of books with rows
dedicated to their own publications—rooms like cities
I’d never reach from my rocky shore without a boat. First
I thought, Those were busy years for the identity business
but then—they all were—our timeline of first rooms like
an art retrospective with one gallery opening out onto
the next, each seeming definitive, then continuing, and
for me an important detail is how alone we feel stepping
foot in them, and how we can miss those spaces later.
When a friend, married with children, took one look
inside my studio apartment she said wistfully, You have no
idea how lucky you are, meaning how little I had. And
of course, now, I completely understand her. We practice
with shadows but barely get used to time. As teenagers
packing for camp, we would leave a letter to ourselves
for when we returned, knowing how strange our self-
decorated bedrooms would look and how suddenly and
utterly alone we would feel at our desks Dear Jess, mine
might read, how was camp did you climb the great
pine did you kiss anyone how do you think you have changed?

Jessica Greenbaum is the author of three volumes of poems, a co-editor of the first ever poetry Haggadah, and also of  Tree Lines, an anthology of 21st century American poems. A recipient of awards from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Poetry Society of America, she teaches inside and outside academia including for communities who may have experienced trauma, and in synagogues around the relationship of Jewish text to contemporary poems. Her most recent book, Spilled and Gone, was recognized by The Boston Globe as a best book of the year, 2021.