Maryfrances Wagner Writer


In a Season of Absence

We plowed under the familiar

with the blackened basil leaves.

Now abandoned recipes wait

on the counter.  Here is the absence

of cinnamon and sage, biscotti

and wine.  Shadows settle

into empty chairs around this table

where no candlesticks soften

the room.  Plants sent to hold us up

crowd this space.  In the peace plant,

a cobra arches its hooded head.  

The single gardenia lifts its odor

to everything unanswered.  Night

is silent, except the echo of a seed

in its hollow pod.  We stare

through the window, trolling

an empty sky, black as the earth

our feet tamped back into place.  

Stars do not feed the masses.  

The wilderness has found us out.

Darkness widens our pupils.

     First published in New Letters  

Victims Lose Direction

In a blizzard, snow surrenders its direction,

unsure if it's snow or sleet, one with the wind.

A man once walked through a blizzard to bring me

a yellow rose and a package wrapped just like

a Bicycle deck queen of hearts.

He was unlike my father, except he knew

how to mend the broken, build what he needed.

Once he built a tetrahedron kite we flew

in an open field of wild flowers.  With him

I cracked my first lobster, unsure about forks.

He rescued me from the undertow of a barge

when our canoe tipped on the Missouri River.

He helped me raise six baby rabbits

he recovered from a deserted nest.

He sent dozens of yellow roses.

Through that blizzard, his eyelashes iced,

his jeans crusted, he never lost his way.

That took knee-deep rice paddy mud,

unspearing men from pungi pits,

stepping on a Claymore mine.

After months in Army hospitals,

he folded an origami diamond, identical

to the engagement ring inside.  But he couldn't

mend nerve damage, soften welds of scar tissue.

In a blizzard, victims lose direction, see

what isn't there, collide with what is,

become one with the sleet pocking away at them.

The bridesmaids wore daisies in their hair,

the groomsmen dress blues.  Guests threw

rose petals as we stepped through a saber arch

supported by wounded vets, our smiles

mirrored over and over on the sharp blades.

     First published in Birmingham Review

All the Time Running

Even when you see it coming,

leave tread prints behind,

you'll wonder about this moment,

this curve at dusk, the dog chasing

a coyote across a field, the coyote

losing ground each time he checks

his pursuer, all the time running

toward the road, toward the woods

on the other side, all of us thinking

we have enough time.  Then brakes

yield that rubbery smell of trying.

In that instant the coyote sees you,

his eyes hold all he knows.

When you stand on the shoulder,

you'll see the pool form, the eyes

glaze over, the body heat

shimmer into air; how fast

light subtracts itself.

     First published in MidAmerica Review

The Last Shot

Colt 45.  M-16.  Glock 13.

My brother and I watch The History of Guns.

Diagrams and battle scenes,

explain the ways of war.  I learn

the dominance of an Uzi, the clout of a Luger.

My brother points at guns he's owned,

before he oiled and wrapped each one

to send home with his sons, before

his doctors started another treatment.  

Last summer I lined up with his children

to shoot a Coke can with his AK-47.

He insisted on where we pointed our toes,

pulled back our shoulders, slumping

under the rifle's heft.  Whether we hit

dirt or can, we handed off the gun,

changed by the force of that bullet,

eager to see my brother shift and nod approval.

He wishes he'd taught me a better feel

for a trigger, the upper hand in the site.

He thinks I should own

at least one gun.  Snub nose.  P-32.

The borrowed BB gun doesn't count.

On that summer day, he stood so small,

his head hairless, the perfect marksman

now a shadow leaning.  With a patch

over one eye, he shot his last time,

the kick knocking him off his feet.

The war inside him using up his arsenal,

his t-shirt a white flag billowing,

he grabbed the side of the shed and hung on.

     First published in Birmingham Review


Red eye, red sky, red and grey mottled coy.

What if no more blood streamed around the clods?

We could all float out on the sea's shoulder like carp.  

The looper hurls himself into air.

Knows the grass will hammock him.

He can hear it sway and applaud the wind.

The sky pulls back its dark thoughts,

reddens the awning and hidden steps,

shakes out its black tarp over the tarn.

It arms the stars with needles,

waits for us to be the looper, the moth,

to ignore the silence of red glass.  

     First published in Chariton Review

When I Am In My Kitchen

Under my palms, dough rises on Nonna's breadboard.

Knives, dependable as good clocks, ease through

fish and avocado, chop onions or eggs into dice.

I mince and mash, sauté and stew,

sift and fold, wield spatulas and spoons.

With metal whips, I coax froth and foam.

I slip basil into marriages of garlic and olive oil,

know dash from smidgen or pinch.

I grate and grind, zing zest, and flip.

I'm not afraid of cardamom and coriander, fennel

and bay. I tuck dill into hummus, know the ménage

of rosemary, sage and savory; cinnamon, nutmeg and clove.

I remember mother's meringues, the melt

of her teacakes, the meld of her stews—

and Nonna and her pots heavy and true,

her palm measuring salt, its immutable truth,

its briny clip in the mouth, its promise to preserve.

     First Published in Poetry East

Aunt Mary Postulates One Sunday at the Nursing Home

You look like your mother today.  You cut your hair!

It's nice enough, but you need pouf on top.

We don't have faces for flat dos.  See how

Jimmy combed my hair.  I've got pouf.

He's such a good son.  And I'm wearing

Elizabeth Taylor's cocktail ring.

Jimmy bought it for me on late night TV.

Jewelry of the Stars.  I'm getting Ava Gabor's

brooch next.  Boy, she had a lot of affairs,

but she had great jewelry.  Speaking of affairs,

Marie Coleman was having one, three doors

down from us, and nobody knew.  I don't get it.

Chi lo sa?  People could have affairs in here at night.

No one ever comes around to check on us.  We could

stop breathing and no one would know.

Necrophiles could neck in here all night long.

Never saw any reason for affairs. The jewelry

they get would be nice, but boy, the sex:

just a bunch of fiddling around in the dark.

What's the big deal?  I'd rather go dancing, wear

a mink coat, yeah, white ermine, and diamonds.

     First published in Rusty Truck


A good Italian woman

will cover her dust-free house

with crocheted doilies,

bear dark-eyed sons,

know what to do

with artichokes and chickpeas.

Her floors will shine.

She will serve tender braciole

in her perfect sauce.,

make her own cannoli shells

bake biscotti for every wedding.

Supper will be hot at six o'clock.

She will always wear dresses.

She will not balance the checkbook.

He can doze behind the paper

when she washes dishes.

Because she will never leave him,

he will forgive her bulging thighs.

Because he will never leave her,

she won't notice unfamiliar stains.

Italian men always know ragazze

who work the fields in Bivona.

For airfare one will come.

In time she will learn English.

In time they may learn to love.  

     The Dream Book (Syracruse University Press)

     and Literature Across Cultures (Pearson)

My Father's Bedside Drawers

My task to empty the drawers and sort.

Chap stick, shoestring, book of stamps.

Six cloves in a baggie, two rolls of Lifesavers.

Twisty ties, Goodman tape, dental floss.

Four pencils sharpened with a pocket knife;

pocket knife, roadside rocks, cockle shells.

Six Commerce Bank click pens in blue and black.

Alcohol wipes, Mic o Say bag, six wrapped toothpicks.

Needle stuck in a spool of black thread.

Used candle, pocket flashlight, two bookmarks.

School reunion program tucked in a TV Guide;

six obits, news clipping, grocery list.

Eleven screws, three sizes, Allen wrench.

Two labels:  “From the wine cellar

of Sam Cusumano.  No Sugar Added.”

Broken ornament, curtain swag, pheasant feathers.

Recipe for making Anisette, another for tanning hides.

Thermometer, two keys, Union 124 patch.

Baggy of Q-Tips, one padlock with key.

Tube of Ben Gay, Hall's cough drops, laminated 4-leaf clover.

Small American flag, Colt 45, brown bottle of nitroglycerin.

     Thorny Locust  2013

Bromco Grater

       Each surface of this four-sided box is a             

       different grating area.  Hoosier Collectibles     

Little House of Teeth.

Oh how you break us down.

Wedge of Jack.  Hunk of loaf.

Torture tool.  Food on a rack.

All yield to you.

Inside your grated prison fence,

dots of stars poke through.

Curved holes ribbon carrots,

pierce and skin and juice.  Grid

of diamonds powder Romano.

Your sawing song reigns over

pungent Manchego, cracker

crackle, pebbled bread.  You render us

runny onion, apple pulp, squish of squash,

Gerber without a jar.

Your slanted knives·open us up.

Three sharp smiles slice us through.

     First published in Voices in Italian Americana

Kabul Zoo Lion

       Marjan [was] at the forefront of a brutal civil war and. . .

       became woven into . . .  Afghanistan's . . . bloody  history

       but became a talisman of hope and strength for its people.

                King's College London

The favorite exhibits

were always the cats—

the black face marking

of spotted cheetahs,

sleek panthers with glowing

eyes, leopards slouched

over branches, tigers and their

symmetry of stripes,

and the long-maned lions

swishing flies in the shade.

Now, it is possible to count

the felines of the world, see

their past on hunters' walls.  

In the Kabul Zoo, the lion Marjan

had been the favorite before

civil war, before someone

threw a hand grenade

and took out one eye and

most vision in the other.  

The visitors who came to see

the lion shake his mane,

yawn his full set of teeth,

stopped coming, and so did

the meat trucks.  The bear

and the monkeys were not

lucky.  The few visitors

threw stones at them. Marjan

looked sadly at bits of meat

and grain gruel.  He looked

at the zookeeper with his one

remaining eye.  He waited.

Grew thin.  Crossed

between the bars one day

and lay down beside his keeper.  

     First Published in Houseboat

Aunt Mary's Jewelry

See what Jimmy brought me?

He found this pink sequined

sweater I haven't worn for months.  

We might as well look nice

for dinner, even if everything

comes straight from cans.  

Waste of time to say anything.

Next Sunday I want Jim to bring

the diamond teardrop earrings.  

I can't wait to see them again.  

You remember when you were little

and we sifted through my costume jewelry?

My pink and yellow pearls,

that green rhinestone choker,

faceted crystals on gold chains.

I had a lot of jewelry.  I told you

to choose one thing to keep

from that box, and you picked

that jewel-toned brooch.  

I opened my best box and showed you

the emerald ring from Uncle Johnny,

rubies my father gave me,

and the diamond earrings

he designed himself.  Bella!

When sunlight hit those earrings,

colors spun around the room.  

Then we ate Club crackers

spread thick with country butter

till your lips gleamed.  Remember that?

     First Published in Patterson Literary Review