Two Poems

by Lynne S. Viti

The Glamorganshire Bible

Someone whose name I never knew
carried the fat bible along the roads of South Wales.
In a ship’s hold, in a trunk it came to Pennsylvania.
The brown cover boards were scratched,
The spine was cracked, binding peeling off, threads fraying.
The foxed paper fell off in bits.
Three days after my grandma died in the V.A. hospital,
My mother and I stood in the mist at Rose Hill Cemetery
For the graveside service, the only family there.
We cleaned out my grandmother’s flat,
My mother took the Mexican folding table,
A porcelain figurine, a ring with an aquamarine stone.
That was all she wanted— that, and never
To come back to Cumberland.
I chose a set of small rose-patterned pitchers,
Things I‘d never been allowed to touch.
My mother offered me the Welsh bible—
Because I knew so little about her family,
Only fragments my grandmother apportioned out,
Parts of a broken kaleidoscope, images with no pattern.
You couldn’t trust her— the way she told it,
She was the victim who always triumphed.
I kept the bible on my brick-and-boards bookshelf,
Thought it showed I had gravitas.
When pages from Psalms or the Gospels fell out,
They went to the trash.
I saved three pages— Birth, Marriage, Deaths—
Entries in brown ink, small, slanted writing.
Children were born, each in a new place,
Marriages, deaths, names of Welsh towns.
They moved from Rhymney to Newport to Brynmawr.
A spidery hand recorded the names and years,
Children who died at age two, or three, or ten.
The old writing stops in ’91, year of my grandmother’s birth,
In Everson, PA, population 905, near the creek.
The Morrises moved south to Cumberland
Where the railroad thrummed night and day, the mills
Turned out silk and glass, tinplate, the mines
Were rich in coal and iron ore. My itinerant people
Followed the same paths they walked in Wales,
Trading their labor for pay in factories and mines.
The bible shows no clue of joy.
Now comes my grandmother’s hand, ornate,
Curlicues around the Capital C’s, E’s—
She lists no marriages—not her four, not her sisters’
Nor her brother’s—no deaths, there’s
No window into their lives,
Days spent walking to the job, making the rent,
Putting food on the scarred kitchen table.

The Kid: Cumberland, 1923

by Lynne S. Viti

She thought the judge at the divorce hearing
Asked did she want to live
With her mother or her father? She was three.
The court papers show it never happened that way,
Though all her life she believed she chose
Her father. The judge was the one whose order—
Succinct, with opaque phrases of the law,
Granted her father custody—
Obvious as it must have been
That the mother was irresponsible, an adventuress,
A polite way of saying an adulteress, unfit.
The truth is she was young, knocked up at twenty
By a man nearly twice her age. They married
In haste at City Hall on Thanksgiving Day.
The baby arrived six months later.
They shared a flat— all the modern conveniences,
Ads in the Cumberland Times boasted,
Indoor plumbing and sparse electric lights—
With his mother and two daughters from
His collapsed first marriage.

Marcella found her voice in school,
Wrote essays full of pretty lies about
Fine dresses, porcelain dollies, a kind mother, a pet dog—
The teachers must’ve known none of it was true
But they praised her, saw how the girl
Loved books, made school her world’s center,
A quiet, ordered space apart from the cramped flat,
The money woes, the no-count father
Drifting from job to job, his bum leg, drinking binges.
The grandmother was kind but slovenly,
Bedbugs, irregular meals, many a night
Supper was bread soaked in milk.
The girl’s aunt gave her sanctuary, a place
In the kitchen to do her lessons, a mug
Of half-coffee, half milk, two spoons of sugar,
A fried egg with toast. The coffeepot
always on the stove perking away,
Neighbors and friends dropped in.
It hurt to have to go home.

Her mother appeared without warning,
Up from Baltimore, always in a new dress,
Latest fashion, hair bobbed, cheeks
Dotted with circles of rouge. She looked
Like a duchess, the girl thought, or a film star—
Pola Negri or Clara Bow. Perfume wafted from her.
You couldn’t help being charmed by her stories,
Parties, the Baltimore theaters, amusement parks with
Lighted dance pavilions, summers at the shore—
After a day or two, Mother would pack,
Pat her face with DuBarry powder, disappear
In a taxi to the train station.
She never sent letters, only a postcard now and then.
At night, in her cot, in the room she shared
With her two half-sisters, the girl prayed
Her mother would come back for her.

One day, tired of waiting, she ran to Aunt Liza’s,
Insisted on making a trunk call to Baltimore.
Liza was her mouthpiece, she said the girl,
nearly ten, was desperate to leave the railroad town.
The girl sat at the kitchen table,
Her aunt replaced the black receiver into the black handset.
The train would leave the next day at eight. Uncle Guy
was the fireman on that haul. Go home, Aunt Liza said
pack everything you can’t live without,
Forget about everything else.
The girl kissed her grandmother goodbye.
Her father handed her a dollar and wished her well.
Uncle Guy waited at the curb in front of the tenement,
Took her case from her. They walked to the depot in silence.

My mother said she never saw her grandmother again.
Must have broken her heart when I left, she
Mused. But you saved yourself, I said.

Lynne Viti teaches in the Writing Program at Wellesley College. Her chapbook, Baltimore Girls, was published in 2017 by Finishing Line, and a second chapbook, The Glamorganshire Bible, is forthcoming in winter 2017. Her writing has appeared in more than sixty online and print venues, most recently, The Thing Itself, Stillwater Review, Bear Review, In-Flight Magazine, Tin Lunchbox, Lost Sparrow, South Florida Poetry Journal, Little Patuxent Review, Amuse-Bouche, Paterson Review, and The Baltimore Sun. She was awarded Honorable Mentions in the 2015 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Competition and in the 2017 Concrete Wolf Louis Chapbook competition, and was named a finalist in the 2016 Grey Borders Wanted Works competition. She blogs at stillinschool.wordpress.com.

Photo Credit: Richard Howard