ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


Poems by Sarah White

A Game With Grandmother                       

In her trunk I’ll place:
        the corset for her willow-waist;
        smelling salts to wake her when she faints;
        the tortoiseshell lorgnette without a lens;
        the pillow of sateen;
She smokes. She won’t bake cakes
“like grandma used to make.” 
Her name is Grace.

        The trunk is in the attic—
a genuine Louis Vuitton, its cover strewn
with his initials, fleurs de lys,  
her travel stickers—
        New York, Le Havre, Bordeaux.
Never did I meet her. But I came to know
her works, and want to fill the trunk
with stuff that might (a century too late)
make her a better mother.

        Leaving out the cards for bridge,
I’ll give her letter-paper
to be sure she writes her daughter
who, in another town, learns
to sing Le P’tit Navire,
or Das Pferdchen— different songs
from those a schoolgirl might have sung
at home, had any school or home
been known to her.

        Governesses? Travels?
Grace had money of her own?
Yes, though never quite enough. Hence,
games of chance at Monaco, Biarritz.
She often lost.
        She doesn’t need the egret-feather
fan or hat, but a checkers board,
and rather than Montaigne,
“On Leisure,” a true account of Halley’s Comet
to reassure her 10-year-old
that its tail will not cause poison gasses
to suffocate us as it passes—(Grace left
all that to Mademoiselle.)

        In later years, my older brother
met his grandmother in our home.
She’d had a stroke. He remembers
        her martinis,
        Lucky Strikes,
        and (as casino nights
        were over) poker games
        against the nurse. Grace usually won.

        She was gone by the time I was born.
“You would have loved her,” Mother said.
I doubt it,
        but I love the comet—distant body
        traveling away for years and years
        until, one day, it turns and reappears.





The Good, the Bad, the Buttons

        Were I a rabbi on the Sabbath,
visiting my mother in the Home, rising to her room on Level Four,
I’d take the elevator made to stop on every floor.
        Pushing a button, setting a machine in motion,
would profane the Day of Rest. The very act
could burn my hand to cinders. And

        were I Sarah Herr of Ephrata, PA,
buttons would be sinful every day
of my Amish life. I’d wear a muslin dress
fastened at the neck, the waist, the breast, with steely pins.
        My mind—sharp, straight, and stainless—
would be set against all ornaments I’ve seen
on fancy people’s clothes and in their magazines. Or

        imagine me as Mrs. Flora Borthwyck,
mistress of the largest collection in the smallest village
in Albany county. I’d show you drawers and drawers of buttons
        arranged by size and substance—brass, gold,
silver, pearl, or bone—and recite the story of each one.

        Is proud obsession pleasanter
than religious phobia? No?
        Then, come to Paris, Rue de Fleurus.
Listen to a song performed on tender, tuneful buttons
        of an old accordion.


Sarah White lives in New York City where she writes, and studies painting. Since retiring as a professor of French language and literature, she has published four poetry collections. The fifth, “to one who bends my time,” is forthcoming from Deerbrook Editions later this year.

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