Three Poems by Karen Carissimo

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Quarantine

Kahului, Maui, 1900

At the edge of an island, shore
shave to bedrock, bulwarked

by tide, sweat clouded our eyes,
our bodies disguised in the markings

of plague. Gauze of darkened fog
uncurled a taste of sweet rot

from burning cane. We heard wind
splitting stalks across fields,

heard hard-breathing horses dragging
wooden wheels over sand and gravel

as we lay in sheds like spent animals.
Inside this other island, one voice

among us spoke of God and the devil
as one faultless being, spoke of dawn

gathering light from great distances,
from each border we crossed,

the single body of us yet to rise
past these walls into a lowering sky.

 

***

Serenade

If I could invent anything with words,
with music, I would be with you.
It’s Christmas, and the rains are chilled
by gusts from icy shores. I think
of places where war has taken our world

into fire. God turns from such agonies,
human, desperate. I ask only you, will you
take my hand, leave your home? I don’t have
much time. Soon I’ll be sent to another island,
or to a city in Europe where snow falls on starving

men. I offer very little. I’ve worn the same shoes
for seven years. Damp cold is always lifting
through the soles of my feet. I walk past
your window, shuttered. Your father refuses
the sight of me. If this war ends, wait for me

at the cove where we met, where waves
roar in with courage, recede in fear. Wait
on the hot sands during summer where you never
wear your white ruffled dresses. Kiss me
there, or glimpse my dark form passing you, gone.

 

***

Swipe Wine

Kahului Camp, Maui, 1924

Molasses, water, and yeast turned
clear as gin bottled and buried
in dirt floors of quonsets under cots.
In this wine, a numbed delay
of pain to the backs of field hands
from black snake whips of lunas.
Songs of blood thirst rang, drunken
rage in the camps rose as workers
circled in revenge, one blow given
for each bear mark on torso, on limb.
Weeks without rain, cane brittle
as kindling, they pulled the luna
off his horse as shade deepened
toward evening, beat him through
drifts of dust, ten pounds
of stalks dropped on the body,
flame lit in the coming night, winds
carrying thick smoke muffling the cry
of a man gone missing, the singing
drowning the sound of the sea:
Watch me flee, I am done,
I am done cutting cane.

***

Karen Carissimo was born in Berkeley, California, and educated at Mills College and The University of Southern California. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including North American Review, Notre Dame Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Western Humanities Review, American Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Puerto del Sol. Her fiction has appeared in Green Mountains Review, and her nonfiction in The San Francisco Chronicle. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is currently at work on a novel and a second collection of poems. The above poems appear in her debut collection, Dream City.

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