Elizabeth Poliner



Outside Boston, leftovers
at cousin Halina's. Talking over coffee,
we drift into old territory as Halina
and Ella, grown children of survivors,
share sighs, share nods, share traces of Polish
on their tongues. They utter the same sole verb:
perish. The uncles and aunts perished.
The cousins perished, as did grandparents.
A family friend, Joel, is mentioned. "Remember?
My parents spoke of him. He helped
my father's father's business. He was kind,
see? And then he perished." To say died,
to say was killed, even to say murdered,
wouldn't be right. Perished, how the word lifts,
weightless at its close, like a star, eclipsed,
forever. At the table we bow our heads,
peer into our cups of deep, dark circles.
Silently, we drink to our relatives,
spiraling backwards, all of us, together--
caught like this, in a deep, dark circle,
the where? how? why? of a black, black hole.



The bells I didn't hear
were those of our own bell factories.

Downtown, the best business
no longer came to Clark's Gifts & Jewelry,

but to Cumberland Farms and the package store,
a decline as telling as the two brick warehouses,

windows smashed, proof of how we hadn't produced
even one bell in twenty years. Still,

We are the Bellringers, the mighty
mighty Bellringers!
we cried on Friday nights

at highschool basketball games, our chants rising
as if to put the spirits of the past

back to work, if only to change the score
underneath the word HOME. Though our namesake,

the region's sappiest, made us feel more or less
like dingalings, we Bellringers

didn't know how to reach for a better name.
After the game, angry boys, my classmates,

marked the ground Goon City.
Fucking Goon City.
Generally, East Hampton

was a quiet place. Except on Friday nights,
after lost games, when the hurt spirits

of the living Bellringers sounded.

Sheila Rotner
Around The Corner,
acrylic on aluminum, steel frame,
30 x 24 inches (1989).

see more of Sheila Rotner's work




1. Ladies by the Pool

As if miles divided our plastic
lounge chairs, we ladies by the pool
glimpse each other from afar.
The sun abounds, the water,
undisturbed, lies as still as we do,
its surface an intimidating perfection,
a mirror that if broken might mean
years of bad luck. Nearby
traffic dulls to a soothing hum.
No one talks. Solitude like this
used to be found in prayer.
Whether young or old, our skins
yield to the few present elements:
water, sun, heat, shade, the nourishing
fruit smells of our tanning lotions.
Soon, our lives, otherwise distinct,
melt into a simmering, collective wish:
We are not on Connecticut Avenue;
none of us has ever known Washington, D.C.
If you were to spot us here and wonder
why a pool club should be so solemn,
remember how a director might set a stage
to create one clear tone. Look, then,
more closely at our supine pose.
See how we parch ourselves, expose
ourselves, spread ourselves
like sticks--so thin--
readying ourselves to be made
into something as dry, as useful,
as fuel for fire, to be cast
into the lead of Sacrifice,
catalyst, we hope, of Healing.


2. Tips From the Lifeguard

Slow down! Before you dive
know the distance from the bottom up.
Drink plenty of liquid, now
and always. Don't wallow
beside the children. Don't answer
Polo to their Marco. Lie down
and listen for the whistle. It means
Get out! Now! Quick!
When in doubt flutter kick
to the surface. Remember:
Towels are free. Water
is free. Sunlight is free.
The only price you pay
is for your arrival.
Bring protective lotion.
Membership is worth the price.
Membership is worth the price.


3. Initiation of the New Member

I lie starched under the electric sun,
sweating a good sweat, day-dreaming
a good dream. I'm sipping cold water.
I'm leafing through People magazine.
I'm growing younger, I think,
and though I didn't know I needed it,
I know this process; it's called healing.
My tan line is improving.
The woman to my left nods politely, smiles,
then returns to her novel. She sweats
a good sweat too. How novel
is her novel! Here, what palpable
safety, solid as the bottom of the pool.

The only motion is of the occasional man,
the occasional child, who,
in time, dip themselves wet.
At last a woman stands. She lifts
her white, heat-reflecting hat
and her head appears--a shocking bald
balloon. When she pats the bandage
over her flat left breast
I see how that tawny tape has become
her heart's fragile roof. Slowly
she enters the water, a timid contortion
slipping under. I think: the safety here
is so ephemerally blue as to be cruel.


4. The New Member Then Observes, How the Very Tan Woman

is over sixty. Plus,
she smokes. Is this courage?
Or simple defiance?
Yesterday she wore a bikini.
It's hard to tell.

The lines on her old skin
are crossed wires
that signal inefficient
use of energy. Sunglasses
take her eyes like twin black holes.

Today she reads a book.
Her arm, a thin
brown snake, curls
as it carries to her lips
a cigarette: a small, contained fire.


5. Refrain

Listen! and we'll tell you a story
of a woman, her bathing suit blue,
her body coiled, fetus-like, on her chaise.
How happy she looked sleeping so.
At first, we didn't take much notice;
she was one of us then, drowsing often,
a quiet type who would arrive,
take two towels, then place herself
under the spotlight of the sun.
If she tended to choose an out-of-the-way chair,
well, as explained already, these visits
are never meant to be social.
......Oh, the day before she rose!
......Serene like the sound of budding flowers.
......Smells, clean as chlorine.
Okay, so it was a little overcast...
The next day, though, the sun,
pure as a church bell, hung suspended
in the air. That's when she uncoiled,
sat, stood, walked, lowered herself
into the water, blue as her suit,
cool as the shade she steadily refused.
The bandage shielding her cut breast
darkened to a tone beyond skin.
Who could help but stare? She glided,
a sidestroke, up then back. Her kick
split the water's loose fabric.
Was it only she, or did an unwieldly fragment
from the outside world also enter the folds
of this liquid sanctuary? Surely
we all sensed it. At least, no one spoke.
Silence like that is prayer. Dear God
--we may as well have asked--here,
amidst all this living and all this dying,
won't you spare us? And help this woman
who strokes for dear life in the middle lane.


Elizabeth Poliner's poems have appeared in Seneca Review, Tar River Poetry, Maryland Poetry Review, Puerto del Sol, Connecticut Poetry Review, Poem, and other journals. She has been awarded residency grants at Yaddo and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. This fall she received an artist's fellowship in poetry from the DC Commission on the Arts. At the Writers' Center in Bethesda, she edits Poet Lore and teaches creative writing workshops. She's also a part-time lawyer.

Published in Volume 1, Number 2, Spring 2000.


Read more of this author's work:
Elizabeth Poliner: The Whitman Issue