Photo by Ed Hosselkus



Karen Whalley

Karen Whalley

A Path Around the Room

It was a beautiful day to be arrested,
And the man and the woman
In the back of the window-darkened patrol car
Stepped out onto the curb
Into the bright afternoon, like celebrities
Into a crowd of waiting fans.

And the emaciated woman
Wore the silver bracelets of the handcuffs
Almost, I want to say, daintily,
While the man beside her limped
On one crutch as the big cop
Herded them into the courthouse,
Having busted them for something
A healthy mind can only begin to imagine.

We all stood there watching,
Because in small towns it might be
Your neighbor, or a waitress
At the all-night diner
Whose life after-hours was something
We'd never considered before
On long walks after our own work was done.

I was thinking how life changes
In an ordinary day:
A man wakes up a free man
And goes to sleep on a small cot
Inside a cage, like an animal
At the zoo, wearing a path
Around the room, because the walking
Makes him think he is traveling
Toward a destination, some field inside his head.

Like us, is what I thought as the woman
Tried to act as if nothing important
Were taking place, there on the sidewalk
Beside her injured boyfriend and the broad-chested officer
In her fashionable pants, looking down
Because she could not bear to see the look
On the faces of the people looking at her that way.


Perhaps because my father loved
The delicate four-petaled flower
Of the dogwood, I planted one
Years ago to stake my claim
In the back yard of an old house

Among the trees and flowers
Of previous owners, dead now, stories ended,
But what they had planted spreading
Over the roof in a protective gesture,
Everything where they had left it,
Thick-trunked with the new tree
Among them, fragile and slender
With an umbrella of leaves at the top

And for years, nothing, except an inch
Or two of growth, until I stopped
Believing it would ever blossom,
Sterile, barren, as if no one
Had ever told it what it was
Or given it permission to be beautiful,
Pure animus is what I thought,

Until on Mother's Day something
Must have been decided that took that long
To work its way into the world
And pronounce itself in the dogwood flower
And I thought how long it takes
To become a self and put forth fruit
And when it seems we are doing nothing
Or standing still, all that time we're walking
Toward a future in which we may not recognize ourselves.


As if they were giving birth,
The clouds opened to let the waters out,
And though I know the theory
Of condensation and atmospheric pressure,
I can almost believe, for a moment,
A benevolent god is showing mercy
On the parched desert of the lawn.

Only because I am middle-aged,
Only because my life, so far,
Resembles a really bad movie
With a twisted plot of immoral characters
Who are neither interesting nor loyal,
Can something like rain
Relieve me of the burden of those memories.

Sometimes, in the morning,
Before the cars parade toward work,
I see an old woman, or an old man,
Walking a dog along the sidewalk.
And my heart breaks
Like a shattered dish,
Because I love them, the quiet people
Who no longer explain the life behind them:
Old man, old woman who didn't quit,

The corroded engines of their hearts
Chugging them past the docks
With the boats moored in consecutive order,
Like a sentence, rocking in those gentle waters.

Once, I prayed to die but didn't,
So I painted my bedroom a soft shade of green