On Thin Ice

Breathe in experience, breathe out poetry. ~ Rukeyser



It was only a few inches of frozen water covering what was once a city garden, us

like blue-green parakeets, keeling, confined,

flew round and round

a mass of squawking


After a thirty-three-year lapse

I am on ice. Like some twisted mistake

this passage of years and

for the first time ever

on a lake, not Larz Anderson

carved out of the city like a chicken wing

from its carcass.

Sitting on a crowded bench,

one of the last times

stranger’s thighs pressing against mine

heading for the big-kid rink

lacing my white girlie skates,

when that cigarette red tip pierced into my flesh.

It hurt like hell and I pretending

nothing happened.

Now, trying to save my wrists

to scrap the tip of the skate and twirl

I have fallen.

For a moment I imagine myself

an owl in the night, Persephone gliding down

into the Underworld, compliant.

Then flinging myself

Anne Sexton style

giving myself over to ten inches of cracks, jiffies, fissures like rifts

continental plates, dinosaur ribs snaking down ice into water.

The whiteness stretches into the horizon and

if I blur my eyes

I cannot distinguish water from land from skies.

It’s all white. It’s all the same.

Lake skiers look like herons diving

in the distance, a person walking an apparition,

God on the edge.

I don’t want him to come.

Back then, I am dressed as only a child can be

swaddled, like an Indian baby on my mother’s back

her speaking Algonquian

living in a Hogan

Iroquois incarnated in a Jewish family.

They told me they found me in a dye vat

in Haverhill. Pulled me out and brought me home.

They told me I was really Indian.

Abandoned but rescued.

I swear I cried until my soul leaked out and another’s in

in that tiny kitchen

my brother sitting across the table


In the home movies

my mother stands

1950s knee-length tweed coat,

shoes on ice, smiling at my father holding

the camera.

Beauty that she was, happy and

so in love.

Maybe the only woman in Boston

not crazed with motherhood,

and I a waddling baby duck hold her hand

dreaming of mountains

running away on the backs of horses

the wind flying

my hair, a long black mane.

I was so afraid to let go

don’t remember the moment

and maybe I just never have.

Why bother when we all end up

together in the same earth anyway?

Anne Sexton living just on the other side of the dike,

writing poetry for her mother writing poetry

while she rubbed against her daughter in the morning

gave men blow jobs in the parking lot of the Newton Wellesley Hospital at night.

Plucking away a possessed woman

pulling words like feathers from a living bird or

worms from the stomach of a robin

maybe a red robin

O red red robin,

chain smoking,

the children-mothering mother

no sewing lessons in Newton Lower Falls in 1962.

Before Anne Sexton began to write

before her psychiatrist proposed she write

he inquired if there was anything she thought

she might have talent for, do well at in her own Anne way.

Her response, back in that Leave It To Beaver world,

the only thing she could think of

her only talent —

to help men feel sexually powerful, to

please men

please please men.

Soon I will be an old woman

but there is time to pretend a lake the sea and

flinging my brittle bones against the hard water

won’t kill me. So I take baby steps and

eventually I am gliding,

an awkward swan never turned white, mesmerized by the awareness

this is the first flight with steel-tipped plates I have ever skated on a lake.

I stare down through the ice into deep dark blue water

layered with thousands of tiny air bubbles

the same water we kayaked on in the wake of November,

into which my cousin disrobed and dove

a swimmer from the desert saying,

as she toed into the water ever deeper,

“I have never swum in a lake before”

At my joking admonition to watch for snapping turtles, her

barefoot, naked as a jay-bird, lovely,

with that childlike sly Niditch smile

Stuart frequently makes.

I wonder where the river otters go

who live in this lake in winter

the fish they take

all beneath me


When we get in bed that night

I can hardly move,

my rib my shoulder my elbow

my entire body so sore. Feeling as purple

as the purple finch I watched today

slam into the glass door and

hover there before my stay.

Seeing only herself in the reflection, the forest behind

wings beating steadily in her own steadfast way,

erstwhile I panicked and ran,

cut and hanged

a long strip of brightly colored paper, a streak in the sand.



We are drifting off to sleep, in those soft celadon sheets,

snow-covered fir trees swaying in the wind,

the lake we left behind

where my black cat is buried

across Sears Marsh, a mile as Hawk flies. Out here

we mark distance by hawks, owls, running coyotes

snorting deer and burrowing fishers.

And just down the road

means ten miles to go.

The white dog we left behind is snoring on the floor

and suddenly I am drowning.

I have fallen through a hole in the ice and water curls around me

everything is cold and wet and dark and heavy and the hole is gone

the daylight muted,

the hole into the world of the living is nowhere I can find. I am dying, finally,

thinking as I float under the ice looking up

in those few seconds, before a crushing weight begins to fill my lungs,

how funny it is that I have never been afraid of drowning.

It has been fire

at least

since I stood there in the darkness

on Amherst Road, watching

flames rise up into the night sky

and the bodies carried out

one by one

on stretchers.

Vinny, that squirrel-murdering bastard,

Peggy screaming for Maria.


 ©  Susan Gesmer

On Thin Ice, 2012

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