Campbell Corner Poetry Prize

The Poetry of V. Penelope Pelizzon: Winner, 2003

The Monongahela Book of Hours


The Monongahela Book of Hours


Ahead, the path grown over and lightly breezeblown
like an illuminated Psalter embellished by the trembling
hand of a novice monk. Horror vacui drives nature

still, as it drove rows of cowled shoulders
bent in the scriptorium to fill the vellum's flank
with hatchings of azur d'outreme and orpiment.

On this day's page under matins, cite the redwinged
blackbirds' epaulets ablaze in preened display,
the sapling crowns a loggia from which the nesting

aristocracy dropped alms of song onto your path.


Penitent, what purpose to your wandering?
Recall the lowered afternoon along an interstate
neither here nor there, a convoy of trucks ahead
so it was not until you almost were upon them
that you hit your brakes and, swerving,

missed a mother goose leading her unfledged flock
across the median and straight into your lane.
You missed, but in the mirror watched the rigs behind
bear down and scatter them easily as leaves,
as feathers, into the oncoming lights.


They say the mother's death is hardest. Since her body
brought yours into being, burying or burning it
repeats the fleshy severance you can't remember,

though your limbic system bears like an ultraviolet tattoo
birth's chemical shock, when adrenaline rushed through
your infant blood at rates beyond what any afterstress

could raise. In death's black light, those ink pricks glare.
Is your loss the long-suspended echo of her emptiness
when her labor ended and you lay there, the anchoring

cord was cut, and you breathed the air?


This is the hour of the rainbow trout, netted
from the market's tank and flayed alive before us

at the customer's request. The fish, two livid wrists,
stiffen then beat in the plastic bag passed across the counter.

None of us seems bothered: the butcher starts
boning another order, the woman whose basket

carries the trout to checkout argues with her kids.
They want to watch the butcher longer.

Behind them, I catch myself wondering what she'll make
with the fish still mechanically pumping their gills.


Small towns in the old mill country, everyone seems
wrong somehow. The damage often clear but relatively slight:
missing fingers, a limp. In others, deeper harm emerges

through a slack mouth or gaze trained on sights beyond.
Christian fellowship is advertised, though churches
outnumber visible occupants. If you park and walk through,

the few stare like you came from the moon or some other
untouchable satellite, and all your own oddness
quivers up coldly magnetized, the way iron oxide

threaded through a rock will make a compass needle shake.


Above my bed, my father hung a mobile he'd made:
a dozen mobius loops suspended on sewing thread,
colors painted on each paper face, but graduated
toward the ends so I couldn't see where a strip's measure
stopped before he'd twisted it into the shape he said
fell on its side to mean infinity.
                                                                      At night they slowly
turned, and I imagined their spirals winding back
before my body, its germ, before the first proteins
unclasping from their helix to divide, to the spark
struck in a single cell before its replication starts.


Under glass, my cancer's cells are beautiful:

stained with isotopes, magnified until they blossom in the eyepiece
like a field of dark pupiled anemones, gazing back
in flushed, expansive love at me, who made them.

How petals translucent as these lasered tissues
flattened on the slide can seed themselves and turn the drying
inside of a womb shock red with immortality!

I called longing for eternal life the ego's vanity,
never realized how the urge roots in our pulp, willing
to trade a whole body's promise for one rogue cell's bid to last.


The professor began his lecture with the "fantasy cycle."
Fantasy cycle artists drew on apocalyptic themes,
he said, and the fantasy cycle mind was oppressed

by uncertainty. "Cycle" made sense to me, as though
history were a mobius loop on which the past,
if traced by a finger, turned out to occupy the same plane

as the present. Then he scrawled it on the board:
fin de siecle. Calling it the age's "end" seemed wrong, as if
the spirit of a century were just a passing force
that died, and not the ever-present ghost of time.


Impluvia set in the courtyards of the mansions
built for Romans at Herculaneum and Pompeii
caught rain-flow rushing through the open roofs

and stored it for the family's use. Each household
worshipped its ancestral gods, who craved
fresh water in a bowl and newpicked fruit

laid out across their altars. Where did the Lar go, then,
when Vesuvius silted each dwelling in ash?
What lives inside me, nosing with my cells' inherited

intelligence the smell of damp asphalt through a dusty screen?


                                                                                                         (after a fresco from Stabiae, near Pompeii, now in the Museo Nazionale, Naples)

Flora turns from human hours to green eternity
without a glance to see who follows. I follow.

Her painted hand curves to pluck the blossom from an herb.
Flora, how did you survive the lava's kiss

before it clenched to eighteen centuries' embrace by rock?
Look at you, unmussed, cool as a museum-going girl in a gauzy dress.

Turn and let me praise the flowers you've carried all this while.
Or at least let me walk behind you to find

if the rosemary you've crushed beneath your heel
clarifies the air beyond time with its astringent tang.


As if we needed more reminders that life plunges its arrow
straight through us, the infant girl, a few days old and still
charged with her mother's hormones, begins to bleed,
a diminutive period as her snail-sized uterus sheds
before falling dormant for a decade. All the eggs
she will ever have are already double-clutched within her.

An industry of pastel babywear tries to camouflage
our beginning like this, implicated, sticky and sexual. We want
to sweeten it, and sweet it is, though not buttercup sweet, not
sky-blue sweet, but sweet as a dark river's cantillation.



Hiroshige, a minor bureaucrat in the shogun's retinue
charged with delivering a gift horse to the emperor,
traveled the Tokaido road in 1832, sketching views

he later printed from woodblocks-simple images
of lumbermen guiding their logs along the river
or of a tax collector, stopped at the Futagawa teahouse,

entertained by geishas. His prints translate the world
to floating dream with little fuss. Pilgrims ford streams
with the aid of loinclothed bearers, and women hold parasols

half-shut to shelter their horsehair wigs from snow.


In early snow, a hunter stood by the carcass
of a whitetail buck and looked again into its barely
clouded eye. What he watched receding in the pupil

that had locked on his and held him still a full
five beats before he pulled the trigger, he would not tell.
Now the deer was a winter's meat.

When he came from cleaning it to warm his hands
and kissed me, I couldn't recognize his smell.
Like the bride in a folk tale, I woke to find

I had married the forest, married the deer.


And if there were a Hiroshige of the mill towns?
The visions closest to his clarity are postcards

printed when tourists came frequently enough
to warrant souvenirs of local sights. So we have

snapshots of "Monessen Bridge" and "Belle Vernon Glass"
tinted in aqueous pastel. The blockprints are timeless;

even if the artist never saw such people, his images
conjure up a floating world. But photographs are full of time.

Merciless smiling shadows of the lost, the last "Mill Ball Team"
before Pittsburgh fell to subsidized Japanese steel.


Today's news covers a woman blankly confessing
she drowned her five children one after another
because she was a bad mother and had ruined them.

A reporter narrates infanticide: common in ancient Rome,
and in some places even now girls are routinely left to starve.
The oldest son, seven, surprised her holding the infant under

and tried to save his sister. What was this mother's act
but a kind of suicide, epic in proportion, that missed
its mark? She couldn't simply fall upon a sword,

for if she vanished who would look after the children?


Studying the capsuled whorls his microscope revealed
inside a slice of cork, an early scientist recalled those chambers
where each monk retires in solitude, and called the wood's

internal architecture cells. So the virgin worker bee
who strokes ten thousand flowers in her six-week life
transmutes their dust to honey in a hexagonal cell.

Honey will preserve a corpse but can't immortalize
as cancer does, turning some cells deathless at the body's cost.
Terrorist cells, churning out daughter cells.

Say that slowly and you hear                      daughter sails


All day you've belonged to others, others worn so by their own work
they could not, if they wanted,
see how they wasted you. Let them go.

Tonight, the air drapes the year's first bloodwarm mantle
across your shoulders. Beside you, the dogwood
balances each cup of its porcelain service.

To live, you must follow Flora as the Roman painter saw her,
turning her face from time to green
eternity. Near Vesuvius she nurses the waxing

petals, and keeps the six secrets of the honeybee.


Spring evening, seven o'clock.

Goldfinch tweezing thistle from the neighbors' feeder.
From next door, the clatter of dishes and an argument
trailing off as their children set the table for supper.

A coal train going through, slow by its sound, not stopping.

Later, a walk with the dog.

The yards on either side of the alley sparked by fireflies.
Washing his car, the man on the corner has left us a gully of suds.
Muted television murmur. Honeysuckle.

Porch gardens where tomato seedlings spring from tomato cans.


Spark struck in a single cell…and in that suspended reverie
while, without our knowing it, the haploid nuclei engaged,
it seemed I saw the earth's face from a long way off,
its zona pellucida a nimbus sheltering the fusing life.

Whose beginning had I half-dreamt, nights below the draft-stirred mobius?

I thought it only mine, until the hour when I strained
my ears to the colloquy of voices cloistered in my cells,
a trace I knew to follow not backwards any longer but
forward through my daughter's first breaths as she slid

embodied from our very flesh, and began to cry.


(Monongahela Nocturne)              

Flora summons the storm: Come tree bender, blustering
flattener of wild grasses, cloudracer, you who make
the ivy rattle its dusted leaves in thirst. Bring water's

course to the schoolyard and the narrow glen
bedded with whitetails, to the road, the track, the shotgun
shacks, to the pool of tailings dabbled by ducks,

and when you leave us at midnight, leave stars overhead
trembling as notes in the lullaby: diamond above me,
diamond below, diamonds at all four corners,

anthracite night, and carbon the body of miners.