Judith Werner lives in the Bronx, New York, and has had poems published in many
literary magazines and several anthologies. She is the recipient of a 2015 grant
from the AEVentures Foundation and has won in the past the Lenore Marshall
Poetry Prize, The Academy of American Poets Prize, a Breadloaf Writer’s
Conference Fellowship, Third Prize in the Jesse Bryce Niles Chapbook contest
from Comstock Review and two nominations for the Pushcart prize. For The
Lyric, she has won Best of Issue Prize, Honorable Mentions, the Ronald J.
Kemski Prize, and served as judge in another issue. An on-line selection of her
work can be found at
www.thehypertexts.com. Her poems have been published recently or are
forthcoming in Blue Unicorn, Comstock Review, The Deronda Review, The Lyric,
The Midwest Quarterly, Plainsongs, Rattapallax, Slant and Tampa Review.
I have grown old at last.
Time’s philtre works its charm.
The fever in the blood has passed.
The bonds of love I feared would last
have loosed and caused no harm.
What healing age has wrought:
desire turned to stone,
all that philosophers have sought
paid for with youth, elixir bought
that lets one die alone.
Published in Blue Unicorn, Vol.
XXXIV, No 2, February 2001
Too many unicorns prance in the dark.
The starlight glistens on their dead-white coats
and flickers from the crystal of their horns.
When there are so many unicorns
the stable horses push away their oats.
Too many unicorns prance in the dark.
They nibble at the nectar of the deep
and rock the crescent moon upon their horns.
When there are so many unicorns
the stable horses tremble in their sleep.
Too many unicorns prance in the dark,
the stable horses waste away and die,
the dreaming stable dog wakes up and barks,
but only dancing hooves ring in reply.
Published in The Lyric, Summer 2002, Vol. 82, No. 3
Won the New England Prize, May 2003
Come, let us cut the good earth's growing hair
And grind its golden kernels with a stone.
The mortal body yearns for mortal fare
Though spirit cannot live by bread alone.
Come, pluck her body's fruit, great golden pears
And oranges like the immortal moon
Whose bud the branch of heaven ever bears
When ripe moons wane like those who die too soon.
And so the babe that died in me unborn
Remembers me to earth as earth's own food,
The bleeding body burst, the spirit torn
By bearing this bad seed and not the good.
And so I am a single stalk of wheat
Bound in a sheaf by harvest mystery
With all that lives, my body made complete
Only by the earth's fertility.
This alien flutter
Neither swam nor flew nor stood
On any legs, front or behind,
But rested the Matter,
Reposing in my flesh and blood,
As an idea comes to Mind.
Its sojourn was so brief,
Drawing a blank in one world breath,
That I, who had known only life,
Forgot I carried life and death.
Still born, some infant Adam knows
My body as the cosmos,
Darkly in dreams remembers me
Abandoned in nativity.
Originally Published in Christian Century
Through all abuse, through hurricanes, he walks
under his water of grief, my child, my snail
in his welk-won house, weathering the gale
as with elk-antlered eyes on velvet stalks.
How hard he is to harm; at his father's motion
he stills his breathing and telescopes into his shell—
head, claws, flagged pincer, tail—to let the swell
tumble his rigid body about the ocean.
He lies whorled round his belly on the floor
of unfathomed feeling, a stinging immense
handprint like a starfish welting his arm,
mind oblivious against inquisitor,
thumb deep in mouth to stifle self-defense,
hard as a hermit crab through his father’s storm.
Revised from version originally published in Slant, Volume XII, Summer 1998
Evening on the Elevated
Erupting out of the tunnel's rock and clack,
when night begins 5:30 in the afternoon,
one week only in the winter of the year,
I watch the scarlet sunset from the No.1,
amid the huddled masses of the poor,
on the glory of the elevated track.
Inheriting the jewelled G. W. Bridge
that kaleidoscopes above news readers' heads,
I am once, as the subway leaves Manhattan,
possessor of a painting: tugboats' reds
sparkling the sunset-watered Hudson
by the Palisades' already shadowed ridge.
My abundance spans the Spuyten Duyvil narrows;
sun-gilded, silhouetted tenements flash
stacked gold bars through soiled windows as we run
upper Broadway against evening's salmon wash,
under the roof tops' fish-bone skeleton
aerials all pointing home like arrows.
I am a rush-hour millionaire; my treasure
a royal purple sky between each station’s
squalor, until I spill out in the Bronx,
light show walled by metal corrugations,
and descend, day fading in glares and honks,
memory still rainbow-strobed in pleasure.
Published in The Lyric,
Vol. 76, No. 2, Spring 1996
Morning on the Elevated
All my life I have been
marking seasons by pinnate leaves,
or ice on bare branches
as starlings rise from ailanthus,
unraveling sleep’s skein.
Winter—you see, I’ve been
thinking of winter, having grown
older knowing solstice,
like love’s absence, is as cold as
living one’s life in vain.
Alone, riding between
nights, I have watched pigeons explode
from roosts, circling skyward,
no wind-snap of wings on high heard
over the clacking train.
Then, eastward, I have seen,
through grimy windows, the dawn break,
flowing like lava vents
down canyons of the tenements.
Every dark curtained pane
of sleepers who have been
blindly on journeys here to there
all their life bursts into
flame below each stony lintel
as day ascends, again.
Published in The Lyric, Vol. 92, No. 4, Fall 2012
Sorting the Dancers' Clothes
Grief is not so hard. Touching his vest
(memory tending to romantic visions),
I see polished studs on my dead uncle’s chest,
sixty years lost to my mind's elisions.
Sorting my aunt’s now frayed dirndl skirts,
I picture them bright, in a folk dancer's spin.
Packing her peasant blouse isn’t what hurts,
though the cotton, like her, is yellowed and thin.
Old clothes are fallen husks. What of my friends’
harvest–hued silks, imported gauzy wraps,
thrown on the floor as a ballroom dance ends
and the dance on the bed begins? Perhaps,
decades from now, at a closet like this
with a streaked looking–glass hung back of the door,
which shadows her face in a mirrored abyss,
some niece will box my glad rags for the poor.
Published in Rattapallax 1, 1999
Out of the depths, we cry to you, worn
down by death and silence in forgotten places,
like photos in a burned-out house, singed faces
staring at sky, not quite dead and not yet born.
Somewhere we hear the reveille of horns…
light, in its subterranean traces,
begins to jump from curve to curve and races
like a headlamp in a tunnel, adorning
the labyrinthine walls, leaping to find
daylight moving on surfaces of waters,
shining as shook foil, and new growth unfurled,
emerald in the wind. We, who were blind
to wings of dragonflies and the kingfisher’s
sheen, now see our middle, glittering world.
Published in Blue Unicorn, Volume XXX, Number 3, June 2007
To sail beyond the sunset and the baths
Of all the Western stars, until I die—Tennyson
Weeds of winter, weeds for mourning sun—
where all is snow and rock the weeds weave dun,
the weeds weave dun by day, undone each night,
for nothing spun by dark delights.
Penelope, your hair was thread sun-gold,
where now the grave unfolds its winter wheat,
and you are free to wait, and I to go.
And I have journeyed here, through snow, to leave.
Published in Blue Unicorn,
Vol. XXXV, No. 3, June 2012
Why I Do Not Write Sonnets
When to my meditations over art’s
place I summon up tsunamis from the news,
I sigh at nature’s—and the human heart’s—
evils that find no help and no excuse.
Then I despair of using brush or pen,
which just reflect cosmic chaos unfurled:
my inner ugliness mirrored again
in death and entropy, body and world.
Much easier to make ears deaf, eyes blind
with hate, love, sex, fame, wealth, pursuit of power
flickering on a screen than face the mind’s
need for order in grief’s helpless hour;
But when I see things formed and elegant,
I pick up my pen, I suffer, I relent.
The Last Old Woman
I am the last.
How does it feel? the young
one asks, to know that my people’s tongue
will lie with my bones.
Don’t we each, I say,
take all history with us to the grave?
We were never more than a few to watch
the sun arise and set over the waves.
I am like Raven, who once stole the sun
for a cycle, white feathers turning black.
Why should I grieve our name for polar bears
or caribou, the endless herds thundering
already to the west, no turning back?
I tell her machine, as each year wheels
around, our stand narrows on the gravel beach.
I do not leave you words, I say, but sounds—
a totem on the dusty shelves, my speech.
Under the ice floes, are we all not seals
barking love songs from the mouths of the drowned?
My dreams remember the ache of falling
in a headlong loose-limbed dive,
salty water breaking over me.
As once in my fetus-flailing,
I have become shoulderless again,
merely a wedge behind my head.
My dreams remember the spurt of swimming
towards light, legs almost useless,
a curled crustaceous tail.
As once, past my own placenta,
air and water spitting in my chest,
I have relived the loss of fins.
My dreams remember the grief of leaving
my other half behind, splashing past
shadow, out of my element,
lungs burning with the alien air.
As once, headfirst, winning the race,
I wake again, slapped into place.
What Moves the Sun
As a child in the lower forty-eight,
I caught fireflies in my hand. A jelly jar
winked beside my bed until I slept.
Mornings the bugs were dead, their fly weight
crumpled in the weedy mess in a glass
that darkly held nothing of what flew
on August evenings above the grass.
Under Juneau’s Douglas firs one August night,
when I was grown and camping with a man,
we watched in awe the mating fireflies
pulse green and off, in a unison of light
not spelled by pheromones, as if love’s arcs
were real, Dante’s force material: “love
is what moves the sun and the other stars.”
If I kill love in its lower states, disgrace
those warnings of the heart—where do they go?—
like that cold luminescence under wings
I once held, face to antennaed face,
I, too, shine briefly and as briefly pass,
though I quote from the tongues of angels
and my lost Alaska plays like sounding brass.
Time for Cutting Loose
The rug is woven now; the worsted weft
has run its raveled course within the scheme.
The figure in the ground, the pile, the heft
inked on the draft are bodied on the beam.
Now is the time for cutting loose the thread
that binds the carpet to the harnessed loom
and knotting back the fringe. New lease is spread
for dressing. Now is the time for making room.
And when the wool is shorn and lowered down,
a new-mown lamb lost in the naked flock,
what use to wish fate's shuttle could have flown
less fleet a pick within the pattern block?
What use to wish the weaver wove me slow?
Her knife is at the crossbeam. Let it go.
Originally published in The Lyric
In admiration of A. E. Houseman
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows
to the twenty-first century, I suppose,
still partly sunny on a one-horse lane,
despite a man’s fleece hat, heather or oatmeal,
extra large, and 60% chance of rain.
What are those blue remembered hills,
What farms, what spires are those?
All pasts run through Great Wars until
the site-map fails. Just follow car honks
from stone age victims’ sagas past the mill
to park at some childhood in the Bronx.
It is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
though access is denied at that domain.
Try www dot memory slash home,
map-quest “invasion” and “migration,” then
take U.S.1 over the bridge to Rome.
Those happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
Game over, unless the password’s “forgive”
or “fudge it.” Without a spin, there’s no road
back, uncertain as time is with relatives
of history in lines of quantum code.
When I Have Left You
When I have left you for another realm,
Do not imagine me reborn in gold,
Nor like the Hyksos' daughter at the helm
Where Horus hawks of death within the hold.
Make peace with me as dampened clay, new thrown
And stamped against old cylinders, dead words
Upon a still unearthed Rosetta Stone
To teach drowned men the language of the birds
And creeping things. When I have molted life,
Believe no tombed sun sails toward morning flame.
Make peace with me in dreams, for then each breath
That mingles quickened with your fleshly wife
Seals my whispered vow to call your name
From glyphs carved on the sunken doors of death.
Originally published in The Lyric
Questions for My Favorite Uncle
Dying? How? You once fed me Cheerios
with chocolate chips to make my mother grouch.
Failing? How? Plied me with vodka and juice
at twelve until I slept behind the couch.
Did handsprings on the beach to startle me,
caught peanuts in your mouth with savoir faire,
convinced your nieces, scientifically,
that chewed ice cooled like air-conditioned air.
Grown wise to you, I ponder years you clowned,
mouthed shaggy dog jokes even when your wife
followed your boy into the maw of ground,
devoured Shakespeare’s sonnets for dear life.
I laugh to hear your: “Nothing they can do,”
for how could Death swallow the likes of you?
Originally published in Mid-America Poetry Review
Celestial Navigation: The Chart-Maker's Tale
With mapped cowries overhead, we set to sail—
shells stitched to lattices in place of stars—
and I alone survived to tell the tale.
Our great outriggers cut the dark sea’s trail,
while rowers sang the palm-ribbed paths of Mars
from my cowry sky charts, as we set to sail.
The moonlight turned even our tattoos pale.
We left our nets and steered our way to wars,
which I alone survived to tell the tale.
I charted the stars, while others rowed and bailed,
limping toward morning through the mangrove bars
with burst cowries overhead, once set to sail,
and tsunamis behind like great green whales
that left dead bodies stacked in swept-clean yards.
Why I alone survive to tell the tale,
riding my coffin boat, wind reading braille
from constellations of my patterned scars
perhaps the cowries know. Still, sailors will sail
and makers survive the sea to tell the tale.