Ja'net Danielo was born and raised in New York. Her poems have
appeared in The Cortland Review, The Paumanok Review, Rainbow
Curve, and Red Rock Review, among others. Ja'net teaches college
composition and currently lives in Long Beach, California.
Born with a small white star on your forehead,
a coronet band on your right hind leg,
you weighed in at eleven hundred twenty-five
pounds - all woman. They called you
a heartbreaker. Wooing your opponents
to the finish line, you left them all
with dirt in their eyes - your valentine.
That was your way, and in July 1975,
you meant to prove it once again.
The Great Match Race. Belmont Park -
the Battle of the Sexes, you against
the undefeated Foolish Pleasure. At the start
of the race, you broke to the left, slammed
your shoulder against the gate, then chased
that colt until you led by a nose.
Your brown-black legs thundered
down the backstretch, and then,
in less than twenty-three seconds, with a mile
to go - a snap, a sound like
the breaking of a board. The jockey tried
to pull you up, but you kept running.
For nearly fifty yards, as you pounded
the dirt, your ankle spit bits of bone
into the wind, pink-red shreds
of torn ligaments slapped your leg.
When the jockey halted his mount,
your right hoof hung limp, dangled
from a flap of skin. And the crowd hushed
at the announcer's brassy bellow: Ruffian
has broken down. Ruffian has broken down.
For twelve hours, the surgeons worked their magic,
set your leg, and then, out of a sleep, you awoke
to the whir of the phantom crowd, the track's
blue - green blur - the place where sky meets earth.
Stable silks flapping against your sides,
you rounded the steel rail, caught the gleam
of the flagpole, and with the sun in your lungs,
launched toward it. You flung off your cast,
and, on the cold metal table,
shattered another leg.
That night, they buried you at the track,
past the finish line, beneath that flag
waving at half-mast,
the white star on your head poised
for whatever's next.
My Grandmother's House in Queens, the Day after My Grandfather Died
We sat in the dining room, where nothing matched. Lime flowered curtains, crocheted orange and white placemats. And the wallpaper - sun-washed to a faded gold, or mustard, and busy with spinning wheels from the nineteenth century. My grandmother served iced coffee in green glasses, set down blue plastic bowls brimming with saltless pretzels. Isn't that what happened? Nearly four, I kneeled on a chair, sat on my feet so that I could reach the table. And I ask myself, do you remember - the day before, tapping your dress shoes down the hospital's shiny grey hall? You rushed from pay phone to pay phone, pounded on buttons, ordered numbers into new combinations. You tried to call your grandfather, slammed down receivers when there wasn't any answer. Please. Does any of this sound familiar?
In the dining room, the window screen snapped as wasps weaved their way back to a lawn of bruised apples. The grown-ups talked. I listened. And wind chimes raked mint and basil from the driveway, where plants lined a black wired fence between my grandmother's house and Mrs. Mansey's. Didn't they? And didn't I dig my fingers into chips in the table's surface, wondering who did it? Wasn't it a typical New York May, anxious with buzzing? And when everyone fell quiet, didn't the phone ring? Who was it? If you remember nothing else, you must remember this. I have to know. I never could translate that language. For years, can you believe, I thought the dead spoke in rings?
I got my first fix when I was four,
on a summer morning, at the Five & Dime.
Hand tucked inside my great-grandmother's
moist palm, I combed fluorescent-lit aisles, in awe
of shelves packed with clean white bottles,
powder puffs, plastic jars of thick pink cream.
I watched my great-grandmother's technique
as she unscrewed caps and jar tops, dipped
her fingers in, and smoothed "miracles"
into her skin. Faithful apprentice, I held
the red basket, and followed her
to the soap aisle, where she inspected bars
wrapped in eggshell paper, with French names
scrawled across their labels. She lifted them
to her nose then mine to verify
the right combination of rosemary,
palm oil, and almond.
At the cashier's counter, I stared at her hands
as they rummaged through her purse
for exact change. They shook
as she counted out pennies. The scent of rose
lingered on the thin skin of her wrist.
I did not know then that I would forget
her voice as she said thank you to the girl
behind the counter, or that there would be
many summer mornings when I'd wander
into drugstores without her, smile at the comfort
of beige and brown-flecked linoleum, and scour
for that soap, for that rose-scented cream -
as much as my basket could hold.
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