The Tower Journal

Celia Gilbert


At the corner of my street
a burnt-out house has left its portrait
on a surviving wall:
empty sockets where floor beams once ran,
plaster stained with shadow stairs
and chimney silhouette.
Inside the crumbling foundations,
a young tree studies rusted bed springs
and an old washtub
as inexplicable as fire
or sorrow.


She teaches me to knit.
Her large eyes have a stillness in them.
Full lips fashion a comfort,
absolution without reproach.

Needles, sharp, inflexible,
take up the wool, soft,
without shape a nothing, chaos,
but itself born of living hair,
the body’s grass.

She tells me there are no mistakes:
done can be undone,
no shame, only going forward.

The click of needles like the plying
of oars in and out of water;
repetition a soothing design.

The thread led out of the labyrinth
I called a maze.
I feared the knot, the tangle,
the snarl.

“Beginners,” she said, “yes, you try,
you fail. Now put the needle under,
slip the yarn over.”

I felt the release, a stitch
born of motion, then quiet.
“Beginners,” she tells me,
“you already know
what you seek to know.”


Twilight, she feels her way down the museum steps
still dazzled by his apple tree, white against a blue as vivid
as the veins rising in her wrist.
Farewell to wheat fields and orchards,
farewell, St Marie de la Mer.

A painter for whom the landscape breaks
in slashes of yellow, blue, and green.

He cut off his ear for a whore, heard cries of women—
like birds wheeling overhead.

Over and over the sower throws out his arm
spilling the seed, and the sun
explodes from the horizon.

Waiting for her bus, she shivers
when someone’s coat scrapes her cheek.
The weight of bodies is no anchor against loneliness.
The bus heaves off. She overhears a couple
grown to look alike. The woman says,
“If you wanted to ask, you could have asked.
How do you think I felt?”
The man turns away.

She hears other voices. Years ago,
a widowed friend, alone, poor,
painting in a rented room, said,
“Color is all I have.”

Under stars hoisting blue balloons into the night,
a cypress tree whirls in exaltation.

The sower must continue in the field.
A peasant’s shoes gape, open pits
that claimed a life.

Cadmium yellow of joy
and its violet companion, grief…


Wet dark stones,
roses whose petals fall
from a starred center.

Summer nights on the veranda
over the gravel, steps;
around the gin, my veined hand.

               Aldebaran you brightest
                      follower of the Pleiades.

I sit in white wicker,
fatigues and failures.

Day hoists the cupola, the widows walk…

Old lady,
I bend in the garden sheltered from the sea…
Priapean marrows, leeks,
puffed asters, furred moths.
How does my garden grow?
Does anyone know?

In the attic the broken crib
and the stately mannequin,
dust on the rolls of sailing charts...

          Remember father and mother all the days
              of your life...

Scup, scup, the foam
lathers the stones,
harvest of mussels sleek as crows.

Sister Mary's here from Paris.

Papers and string
on the dining room table.
The velvet couch, grandmother's
coffee cups crackled with use

                                      shh out to sea,
                                      Papa's cigar

        (Aldebaran's the brightest of...)

Behind the hedges, newly-weds,
who who who?

Cousin Anne has called to say
she's coming home. Sister,
let's make jelly
the way we used to do.

"Hunger candle in mouth..."*

Shrill/in night/
by day/
and I only an ear
to their "us,"
insistent chorus I, too, call out,
rush forward rounder-than-wheels
the chariots of
the riding/ruling ones.

How many bulls,
how many heifermaidens,
and the fallen-under ones
into the earth…

middens of woebegone
where pickaxe
lays its tooth.

*Paul Celan, Atemwede


O Janus make me not see
the sorrow of the past,
nor the dark days ahead.

Two-faced God why do you never
concern yourself with now?


Fog rises around the moon.
The church steeple staring upwards
draws our attention to bare branches
netting the sky.
Roof tops break into air uncoupled
from houses.

Embellishments of vapor:
the seed pearls in a bride's train,
the minute piecing stitch of a quilt,


January thaw, eating ice cream to cool off,
along the streets where people
swirl like leaves,
we're all crazy at this reprieve,
heat forcing memories of spring upwards,
our bones expanding, dreams knocking
to be let out.

At three in the morning I call you
far away. The thought comes closer;
one day you might not answer.

Practice with telescopes at the wrong end.
Isn't old age this receding
until we retreat into our shells and lie back
for what the quick call "eternity?"


My daughter is getting married;
she has forbidden me to mention it
unless she speaks first;
Already she has cut the long hair
that reached down her back
to the place where a lover's hand
spills warmth in all directions.


Lunch today in a restaurant
with a friend I see infrequently.
We toted up successes and failures;
I wore my turquoise to ward off regret.


At night the hibiscus leaves
cut out negative shapes.
One tightly furled blossom at a time
emerges, opens, tastes the air
with its bristling red tongue,
closes and falls.


An old house
being remodeled. It opens many windows
waiting to be lived in once more.

Moving to our new house,
I felt like a deserter. How dared I leave behind
the memories, flickering like
votive lights, abandoning them
to strangers?
And then in the new house we found
the owner's ghost. Would I see you
leave home one morning and never return?


A master draftsman limned
those charcoal branches, so like
my tree of life... It comforts to believe
everything is one thing, when all our lives
we struggle knowing
we have no root, no shell, no anchor.


She drives across the country,
no one to stop her,
man-freedom, snatched by a woman.
Truck stops, motels, putting on the brakes,
key in ignition makes her fire—
and utter sky more and more of it
patchwork clouds,
dark streaky ones.
Sings a bunch of good songs
about bad men and lowdown women.
Rolls down the window and leans
her arm and elbow out, just so. How they do it,
she does it too
and has dreams
dangerous as cumuli.

Then on to Reno,
(dare to gamble
dare to commit),
city legendary as Rome
unlike the abandoned mining towns she passes,
nothing and no one to dig anything.
Strange to feel so alive
and yet in her mind
a notion of NOT…

Foot to the pedal,
hand to stick shift,
firm like a man at his best,
but this stick won’t let her down—

Freedom a dish best served
three times a day,
even without salt it has a savor.
This is what she thinks alone,
alone, and no one to speak,
unless she speaks to what she wants.
And if this is a grade B movie
no one can gainsay she’s the star.

Copyright © 2014 Celia Gilbert

Celia Gilbert is the author of four books of poetry in English
Something to Exchange, Blaze VOX[Books]; An Ark of Sorts,
Alice James Books; Bonfire, Alice James Books; Queen of Darkness,
Viking, and a bi-lingual edition Polish/English,
Cos na wymiane,
Czuly Barbarzynca.

She has been published in The New Yorker, Southwest Review,

and Poetry. among other places.

The first Jane Kenyon Chapbook Award for An Ark of Sorts
Discovery Award 92nd St YM-YWHA; Consuelo Ford Award, Emily Dickinson Prize, from the Poetry Society of America; Pushcart Prize IX.

Gilbert is a printmaker and painter. She has lived abroad in England and France and now lives with her husband in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Tower Journal
Fall/Winter 2014