ISSUE FIVE
November 1998

Sharon Cumberland

Sharon Cumberland Pushcart Prize nominee Sharon Cumberland has appeared in Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Verse. She earned a Ph.D. in English from the City University of New York, and currently teaches American Literature and Poetry at Seattle University.  This is her first appearance in an Online Magazine
Accident    Read Along with the Author


1.  Because a man bought beer at 9 A.M.;
because he had a few on site—fifteen
flights of girders up—before his
morning coffee break  (his lips were numb,
his fingers buzzed);
    Because he felt entitled to his
morning brew, as much as to
his union contract; (only beer
could soothe the acid
in his stomach as he rode a rusty
lift each day to join the platform crew)...
     Because of that an accident—
a board, got loose,
got kicked, slipped off
twirled away like a paddle wheel
through a current, now toward
the park, now toward Fifty-eighth Street,
spinning on its axis
like a pinwheel on a breeze.
      The man watched it slowly,
watched it slowly fall,
because what falls
is fate
whether tool or fabric
in the building trade. The board
turned upright at the end, as if
a hunter had plunged a spear
into a pond of fish
      It hit somebody near a bank on Broadway.
Overhead, the man felt for his hardhat, then
his face as the fellow's head on the sidewalk
sheared away from it torso. He thought
the crowd that formed so fast
looked like minnows feeding,
as if he'd dropped a bit of bread
onto a pond below.
      The man was silent for a bit,
stunned of language,
but then said to himself
It wasn't me! and then
It was an accident!
He put his tingling fingers to his face
and felt his head again—down
to the neck—before he made
his sobering descent.

2.  It spun down
like a dragonfly
wing, pin-wheeling
in silence behind
its victim—he never
new what hit him.
He was young;
an actor.
He was going to his
bank machine first,
then rehearsal for a play
he'd finally made it into.
Should this man
have known the final
fact about himself?
His head was severed
by a two-by-four
that fell from a
construction site.
He had read in high school
about the guillotine—
the Queen of France
flung in a pit
with her head face up
between her knees.
What would this boy
have thought, sitting
in the back of class,
laughing, passing notes,
if the words had flashed
out of his textbook:
"This means you,"
or if the note he opened
had read: "It will sail
in from behind, like
a pin-wheel, or a dragonfly
wing.  Be comforted—
you won't feel a thing."

 

 

The Unchurching of Brooklyn    Read Along with the Author


Whose spires once stood like generals
among these ranks of houses:
row upon row in brownstone
uniforms (flowerboxes
like medals at the
window-breast);
the world one congregation:
the certain, the worshipping
"Borough of Churches;"

Whose newer congregation
inhabits these gothic artifacts:
arranges Haitian pillows
and coffee tables
beneath figures of martyrs
surviving in stained glass,
unaware of aboriginal names:
Saint Paul's; Saint James,
Norwegian Seaman's Church;
The Spanish Church of the Nazarene;
unknowingly suspended
in the corner of an apse, in sacristies,
in oratories, or bits of soaring naves;
unaware of who was
married, baptized, saved
or buried where they microwave
a Lean Cuisine or shave
their legs.

Does heaven have headquarters,
where each spent case of a church
is removed from a map of the field?
Do mighty trumpets sound retreat
defeated by the fifth column of real estate?
Or are the principalities
and powers still deployed
bright liv'ried angels
gazing in converted windows
watching the electric toothbrush whirr
as vigilant, as attentive as ever?

 

 

Visiting the Pyramids    Read Along with the Author


You need to be young
to make the coffin-crawl
through a tube of stone,
to inch on a black ladder
through millennial air
and believe, at the end,
there will be a room,
and a throne.
Young—to know,
staring into a black
more deep than earth,
or the cavity of your own body,
that the sun has not shut
her great eye behind you
eternally—
but only for a damp
moment, as befitting
the temporary visitor
to sarcophagi.

 

 

On Seeing Keats' Deathroom    Read Along with the Author


Mortality is gathering—
in my inability to sleep, the way a flight of stairs
looms up too steep for my knees.
I could almost be your mother
you were so young
when you came here to die.
When I was a girl,
a hundred and fifty years after you.
I stared at the Roman sky,
I sat on the Spanish Steps and gazed at your window
weeping, in the way of girls,
over death and poetry.
Why did I grow up to write a body of poems
that won't keep the lamps of Arcady alight?
When I think of your tuberculean eye,
glittering up at these painted rafters,
(how sick you must have been of those blue flowers!)
your teeming brain no refuge
from the feud between time and desire.
I know that the pain of modest talent
is rude compared to a great gift sinking
beneath the main of necessity:
your light, the consequences of love,
that magnitude of vision: gone, my refractor,
gone from this room where I sit, and from the world.
My feet hurt. I sit at your secretary shifting
through ephemera: letters, a deathbed sketch.
Soon I'll buy souvenirs,
return to the glare of sun and marble.

 

 

Sharon Cumberland: Poetry
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue FiveThe Cortland Review