Offcourse Literary Journal

Three Poems, by Karen Mandell.

Compost Tea.

Your girl makes her morning tea,
pinching dry bits into a battered mesh ball.
Save me the dregs, you say, and she dumps
them in your teapot. "It's a compost heap
in there
," she says. Three days worth,
oolong and assam and china green,
leaves glistening like the forest floor
after rain. Unfurled, quite beautiful.
Once again, you pour hot water over
leaf bodies and they stretch, drifting
up to the surface like last night's dreams.
Tea's weak this time around,
pale brown like the maple shoots
out front. "You're like a sweatshop owner,"
your girl says, "dragging out their last bit
of strength.
" I thought it was thrift, you say,
connecting me to my past. "Your grandma
gave away anything anyone admired
she points out. "Including cups and cups
of strong tea. Clothes. Money, especially.
You told me
." Maybe you don't take after
her. Maybe you take after the stingy ones
who bought presents on Maxwell Street,
or, when the stalls closed down, chose
seconds, seams frayed, colors untrue.
Maybe — and here's your hope — you take
after the ones you never met, those
who didn't survive, the tenderness of one,
the quick smile of another, the thoughtful
glance of a third. If you're lucky,
if you're watchful you'll catch
these graces swirling up from the depths
unfurled quite beautiful.


Your last days

I bought a freezer, you tell your baby
girl, home from college for the weekend.
"Are you dying," she says, her words right
right behind mine, no breath between.
Not especially, you say, no more than usual.
What does dying have to do with it.
"You'd make meals to console us, to hold
us together when you're gone. One less
thing for us to think of.
" Like a jigsaw
puzzle missing a piece, the critical one
in the center, they'd have to crowd
together, cover up the hole. Imperfect
fit at best. And you, in those last days,
cracking eggs in a yellow ware bowl,
staining your apron with the blood of berries
tomatoes, beets, going down cellar,
the freezer taking your offerings, turning
them to stone. "Or maybe not," she says,
"that's not you." Why not, you say, already
labeling the casseroles, veal beef
tuna ratatouille. "You'd do things
for yourself, play guitar, read, nap
in the window seat
." The sun in the afternoon
angling from the west, touching eyes, base
of neck, wrist. Pulse points pressed
and healed. Until the end, always
that chance. Have to count on that.
You think I'm selfish, you say, not
doing for the family. "You'd do both,"
she says, bowing her head for a kiss
on the hair. How could you let go:
the bowl's glaze, smooth as bone,
the casserole's steam moistening your eyes,
her scalp beneath the pulled back hair.


Bracelet picked up at a yard sale

Besides my two sets of Buddhist prayer beads
I'm wearing a tortoise shell bracelet on my right wrist.
I think it's really tortoise. It's not like the shiny
mottled brown plastic I've worn as glasses, barrettes,
since school days. This is a band half an inch wide
with the composition of thick toenails. The colors segue
from cream to pale green to bruised brown. It's looking
very real. I picture my toenails, yellowish
now in the last days of winter, wrenched off to make
a brooch, overlapping petals bound by silver.
Doesn't mean I take the bracelet off.
It's big so I wear it on my rolled up shirtsleeve
instead of my skin. It doesn't touch the prayer beads
carved of sandalwood. Maybe they just cut off
a limb to make the beads. Let the tree get off
with a warning. Wonder what they did with the rest of the turtle,
soup perhaps, or tossed on the slag heap of small bodies,
bent spoons, charred breath, the mountain beneath the mountain.

Karen Mandell has been published in various journals, and her poems are forthcoming in Fulcrum Annual, Seldom Nocturne, Poetry Motel, Mellen Press Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, Lilith, Response. Her first chapbook has been released by White Heron Press: The Story We Think We're Telling. You can reach her at to order it.

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