The Poetry of Rita Mae Reese

Distinguished Entry 2008

“A History of Glass” originally appeared in The Nation, May 30, 2005. 

“Bondmaid” originally appeared in The Southern Review, Volume 41, Number 4.


    A History of Glass 

    When God closes a door, we break a window.

    Sorry I say to the landlord who replaces it. Sorry

    I say the next morning to the neighbor who  

    complains about the noise. An accident. She

    waits for more of an explanation. So I

    start at the beginning. The history of glass is a history  

    of accidents. Long ago and far away:  a woman, a pot, a fire.

    Her lover surprises her from behind, kisses her

    until the pot glows, smoke rising like a choir. 

    She snatches it from the hearth

    & drops it on the floor covered in sand

    & ash. (She is a good cook but not tidy.) Her lover  

    throws water on the whole mess:  the sand hisses, her hand

    burns. She can hardly see the hard new miracle

    forming for the tears in her eyes, at her feet a new obsidian 

    spreads, clear & eddied. It will be 2000 years until

    a tradesman molds by hand the small green & blue

    glass animals (housed today on the second floor of a local  

    museum), & nearly 4000 before sheet glass in 1902.

    (Many accidents happen during this period.) One hundred years

    later the glass animals in the museum are visited by two 

    women:  one marvels at their wholeness, except for an ear

    or a nose or a paw; one does not marvel. She says, “They

    survived because they're small.” They stop for dinner, 

    mostly wine. They stumble home. Were there

    eyewitnesses at that late hour when they embraced & fell?

    Once inside there is a window of sheet glass & a bare 

    bulb burning out. In the darkness of the stairwell

    they sink, dark coats spreading around them. The wind

    rushes in. Remember the glass animals? They tell  

    a history of accidents too--accidents waiting to happen. 



Of the 414,825 words defined in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, bondmaid was the only one lost. Found long after the fascicle Battentlie-Bozzom was published, it appeared in a supplement which came out in 1933.


Why do I picture you as blind?

      Like Nydia,

the blind flower girl of Pompeii,  

      who ran through the streets


her ear. Are you listening for some 

      sound from the scraps of paper,

            the other dark

cubbyholes? Surely there are others 

      like you, others who would flee.

      Illiterate lamb,

who defined you? How many times  

      and in how many ways have you

      been defined?

Here seven abridged quotations put a slave girl in context.  


      The ancient priests of the tribe of Levi say: 

      Yf thou wylt haue

bonde seruauntes and maydens 

      [thou shalt buy them of the heathen around you].

            In the King James

this is not conditional---you will buy them.  

      [And whosoever lieth carnally

      with a woman,

that is a bondmaid, betrothed to an husband,  

      and not at all redeemed, nor freedom given her; she shall

      be scourged;

they shall not be put to death, because she was not free].  


      The two Scots don't say much, silenced by Shakespeare

      and his large vocabulary.

Another man, Spenser (who refers to himself as a gnat) 

      recites a tale of two brothers, one who was rauisht of his owne bondmaide.

      The bondmaid's name,

you learn, is Ixione, and you want to learn more about a woman slave  

      who ravishes instead of being the feast. He says

      many words but doesn't

tell you much. The former prophets of the First Book of Kings  

      contribute four words to your delineation: 

      [Their children that were left

after them in the land, whom the children of Israel 

       also were not able utterly to destroy,upon those did Solomon levy]

      a tribute of bondservice

[unto this day.] And you think, this is the whole  

of the bondmaid's role in books of kings.

      You do not ask: 

but aren't kings mere actors in the great book of slaves?  


      And last, never sleeping, is Paul, sick and always writing letters, this one

      to the Galatians,

reminding them and you of the story of Hagar:  For it is written,  

      that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other

      by a freewoman.

He whispers the rest to you: 

      But he who was of the bondwoman was born

      after the flesh;

but he of the freewoman was by promise. With his hot breath 

      near, he lists for you the manifest works of the flesh:

      adultery, fornication,

uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance,  

      the words are piling up, wrapping around you like wet wool

      emulations, wrath, strife,

seditions, heresies, his breath catches, you can feel the spittle  

      as he draws nearer, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revelings,

      and there is silence.

Has the man run out of words? He draws back, 

      you can breathe for a moment; he turns his face

      to the wall,

still muttering. You would like to sleep. Is every escape temporary?  


      The apostle has said that in Christ there is neither male nor female,

      neither bond

nor free. Your whole identity erased--imagine!  

      How many of us would have to believe for it to be true?

      Is it faith

you listen for? Our marble legs (archaic, useless) 

      are running, but like

       at her master's gate

we wait for our next step--or yours. 


The Ossuary of James 

Sitting in the parking lot of the funeral home,

      I picture words of Christ

in red:  Let the dead  

bury the dead. That's easy for him to say,

      rising as he did

after just three days while the rest of us will have to wait 

for Judgment Day, wait for Kingdom Come, for him

      to return,

& this time with something more than parables  

& a fragile human body that brings out

      the worst in us.

Inside the funeral home, my half-brother James.  

The New Testament tells us that Jesus had a brother

      (or half-brother) named

James who wanted nothing to do with miracles.  

But after the crucifixion, James refused to eat until

      Jesus appeared & said, “My brother,

eat thy bread, for the son of Man is risen from the dead.”  

And then James followed faith to his death. Some say

      he was sentenced

by a wicked judge to be stoned, others say he was pushed  

from the pinnacle of the Second Temple & then beaten

      with a blacksmith's hammer.

What I know for certain about my own half-brother: 

we share the same father, he didn't know

      he had a sister,

he was acquitted in the beating death of an old man 

two days before he died alone,

      at the age of 19,

on a rooftop. His good deeds, whatever  

they might have been, have gone unrecorded.

      That night, trying

to break into a law office, he got tangled  

in his own ropes; with his arms snared above his head,

      the air stuck in his throat

like a bone until he choked to death  

on his own breath. Exhaustion asphyxia--

      the same cause of death

for criminals & enemies of the state, dying  

in agony four & five deep around the city walls.

      When the apostles told Jesus

his family waited outside the temple, he refused them,  

saying:  My mother and my brothers--they are those

      who hear the word of God

and act upon it. I won't go inside. I didn't come to pay  

my respects. I don't know why I'm here.

      Watching the mourners,

I test myself to see if I will recognize  

my father, our father, whom I've never seen.

      My mother says

I look like him--same eyes, same cheekbones. In  

Tel Aviv, a man has been forging biblical artifacts,

      like the Ossuary of James,

changing history, they say, in front of our eyes. 

This man had a number of these bone boxes, including

      one inscribed “James, son of Joseph”;

he simply added “brother of Jesus.” James preached:   

He who disparages a brother or passes judgment

      on his brother

disparages the law. I have spent my life loving the law  

& judging my father, my brother, myself.

      None of the faces

disappearing into the cars looks like mine. 

I won't follow the line of cars to the grave.

      I don't need

to know where his bones lie.