Oct. 20, 2005

Old Roses

by Kate Barnes

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Poem: "Old Roses" by Kate Barnes from Kneeling Orion. © David R. Godine. Reprinted with permission.

Old Roses

When my father met my mother
at a dinner party in a garden of very old roses
on Beacon Hill one hot evening
in early June, he said to his friend, F. Morton
Smith, that night, "Morton, I have met
the girl I'm going to marry!"
                                           (We have Uncle Morton's
testimony for that, the certified word
of a Boston lawyer.)
                                  My mother
said my father had looked handsome, yes,
and talked delightfully, but what she remembered
were the mosquitoes. "If you stopped slapping at them,
even for a second, you were eaten up
            My father courted her
for the next ten years, whenever they found themselves
in the same place. It was the twenties then,
heyday of ocean liners, and she might be
in Paris, or maybe off getting
run away with by a hairy, two-humped camel
in the Gobi Desert, while he was crossing
the Pyrenees on foot; but, at last, on another
steamy hot day in Massachusetts, as she,
still wet from the bath, lay naked upstairs
on her sister's bed, she heard the wedding march
start up on the grand piano
directly below her. She sprang to her feet,
threw on her cream-colored dress with a dipping hemline,
and flung herself down the narrow old staircase
straight into the arms of matrimony – which were wearing
an English jacket of dark blue wool for the occasion,
splendid, but unendurable.
                                             Would anyone say
the marriage was a happy one? I don't think
I know. Sometimes. Perhaps. I can't imagine
either of them with anyone else. Years later, I,
a greedy child, crouched in the dark cabinet
under the attic stairs, and wolfed down
the last slice of their wedding cake, dried out fruitcake
in a little box covered with silver paper
and lined with paper lace, a keepsake
for wedding guests to slip under their pillows
that night so that they, too, would dream the bright moon
rolling her way through silver light, singing stars
clustering under the clouds.
                                              Those crumbs
became the bones in my seven-year-old body –
and they're in there yet – while the dreams
sing on in my head forever, like mosquitoes
whining among the leaves of thorny old roses.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the architect Sir Christopher Wren, born at East Knoyle, Wiltshire, England (1632). He designed many buildings, including the Windsor Town Hall which building inspectors said was supported by an inadequate number of pillars, and so Wren added four more pillars, none of which touched the ceiling.

He's best known for his 35-year restoration of St. Paul's Cathedral after the Great Fire of London (1666). He's buried in St. Paul's under the epitaph "Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice—Reader, if you seek his monument, look around."

It's the birthday of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, born in Charleville, France (1854).

In 1892, the city of Chicago dedicated the World's Columbian Exposition on this day.

It's the birthday of the poet Robert Pinsky, born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1940). He's famous for his own poems and also for his translation of Dante's Inferno.

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