Kathleen O'Toole

Five Poems from Meanwhile

by Kathleen O’Toole

First Books II, Summer 2011


Suppose you had to supply the label
to summarize a life, choose the subtitle

to trail off with your name, an echo in printer’s ink,
that inevitable last flash before you sink

into nameless oblivion: governor’s secretary, loved pets
active in scouts. I’ve often wondered how apt the sobriquets

and who’s to slap this inglorious footnote
upon you—from some unknown scrivener the quote:

collected stamps, invented polyester, wrote obituaries.
These days, with epitaphs passé and cemeteries

crowding corpses into drawers and under standard granite
tabs, what’s to preserve you in words—a string of credit

reports, a toe tag at the morgue, and a column inch
or two, with picture if you’ve earned it, to cinch

your place. Like Jacob Besser, dead yesterday.
He alone flew on both the Enola Gay

and Bock’s Car, Hiroshima and Nagasaki bound
An engineer who—incidentally—found

and patented a pump to steady the heart in surgery,
exits dragging in pithy summary the legacy

he’d spent a half-life justifying. In these few words
his time-lapse afterimage: two mushroom clouds.




Two pounds approximately is what you’ll be reduced to
after seventeen hundred years, others’ atoms layered over
bones and bits of tooth, nail, and less and less you.
Two, four thousand years, twenty centuries of grief
have sanctified these grave stones. Land levels rise here,
as the sphagnum moss darkens, tightens, pressed to peat,
as tissue, tendons, heart meat blacken into a tangle
of root that will someday climb to cover sixteen feet
of round tower in its keep, claim the granite base
of a chapel, rosary beads, a bishop’s gold crosier,
the soldier’s gun, whatever weighs on this receptive
earth. Like a slow black hand, the centuries’ tidal wave
crests to clear the coast of all rival claims to sovereignty,
until your own molecular mark sinks with the rest,
a small moist stain on the lip of the whirling god.



The wash of water over marble—a balm, like sweet gum
leaves shivering in the country. A few scattered clumps of locals
picnic or play checkers—where once water cannons—

Bronze sculptures placed at intervals on Freedom Walk
lead visitors past a jail cell with children’s figures behind bars,
through Bull Connor’s dogs, fangs bared and leaping—

while an ice cream truck’s insistent calliope reprises
a Scott Joplin rag, and a Pepsi-logoed banner proclaims
the 132nd Anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

Against the familiar brick façade, same lead-paned windows
and neon sign as in the grainy newsreels. I agree to photograph
some girls on the stairs………..—where once the washroom—

I’m thinking how the un-oiled wheels of law just managed
to deliver a couple of 80-year-old preachers, former Klansmen
in wheelchairs for their life sentences, of the composure

in Goodman’s mother’s voice, and who or what impulse to grief
brings me—whose grandmother lit candles in the dark fearing
the riots would spill our way in April of ’68, whose parents

dressed her as Aunt Jemima for Halloween in ’59—what
utterance can I tuck into some crevice of atonement? Then
Vernon McCoy appears with a commentary in exchange

for bus fare, out, he says of Birmingham, where a Vietnam vet
can’t get decent benefits—imagine in wartime—and how
he stood here in ’63 at age fifteen (friend of the Collins sisters)

and that what you need to understand is this circle of black
marble, broken in four equal columns is for the murdered
girls and the water flowing from the broken place is tears.



June, and a silence embraces Fairlee Creek.
Silence woven of fish-splash and swallow chatter,
duck flight and the passive green of trees spilling
full syllables onto flat calm waters. Into this arena
rumbles the low-slung boat of a waterman,
thrusting its monotone grumble into surface ripples.
There’s no hint of greeting in his face, fixed
as it is on the motorized line trailing
behind, trawling for crabs. He examines
each returning chunk of bait, ready to lunge
net in hand at any hint of motion. Along
the length of this once bountiful inlet, he’ll pull
only a handful now in a morning haul.
………………………………………………..Across the bay
another work is underway, its target indecipherable,
no motion in it like the heft of the catch.
But the locals know, someone’s back at work
on another river, invisible behind the tree line,
behind the thundering of shells, which marks
the days here, regular as a great ship’s clock.
They’re testing the instruments of the next war,
carefully calibrating trajectory and firepower,
sampling ammunition and explosives. No way
to distinguish the face of those trawlers, or divine
the terminus of their work’s trailing line.

A photocopy of my mother’s heart,
neatly folded, falls from the leaf end
of Yeats’ Collected.

Her cardiologist has drawn squiggles
and blobs to mark the arteries
blocked: diffuse 80%, 70% plaque,

more squiggles for the bypasses
the heart has patiently grown
to feed its urgent muscle.

Eggshells. Nitroglycerine.
The muffled tick
of a ship’s clock on the mantle.

Each of us will have a turn
at this watch, with or without
warning. Meanwhile

I’m folding away neat piles:
the scolding that most stung,
butterscotch icing licked from the bowl,

a hairbrush (knick-knack, plate of pasta)
thrown in anger—the Silence after.
The truck will be scented: gardenia,

garlic, Chanel No. 5. Meanwhile,
I collect figs from the garden, whisper
a decade of the Rosary, a Psalm—

the lake at dawn
a red-winged blackbird
rustles the reeds.


David Robert Books publishes books of formal and musically-crafted free verse. Reprinted by permission.

Kathleen O'Toole is the author of Meanwhile (David Robert Books, 2011) and a chapbook Practice (Finishing Line, 2005). She has combined a professional life in community organizing with teaching at Johns Hopkins and the Maryland Institute College of Art. She currently works for VOICE, an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation in Northern Virginia, and lives in Takoma Park, MD. To read more by this author: Kathleen O'Toole: Whitman Issue Kathleen O'Toole: DC Places Issue Kathleen O'Toole: Evolving City Issue