M. Lee Alexander: Poems from “Observatory”

I’ve recently finished M. Lee Alexander’s poetry chapbook Observatory, published last year by Finishing Line Press, and found it to be an insightful and enjoyable book. Clear-sighted, modest and wise, the narrator of these poems takes us to London, China, Japan, and post-Katrina New Orleans, always with an eye for the moments of common humanity that open up intimacy between strangers. Below are two of my favorite poems from this collection, reprinted by permission.

Dress Rehearsal

Theatre in the Round

My father dyed
his hair red for the Claudius Play
(or so I called it, wanting him
to be the star–till mom told me
he was a bad guy–then I cried
and called it Hamlet). He would
come home from rehearsal

orange-headed, my father and yet not
my father, almost like a clown I watched
him practice falling. We went to see
the make-up place before the play where
mom said, It’s OK, the knives aren’t real,
but my father reaching for his rust-stained 
    comb
dropped the stageprop dagger, and 
    his toe bled.

I got to stay up late that night,
look down through shining dark
to watch Claudius rolling over,
my father and not my father
on the wooden O stage below.
His crown slipped down
and his head lay bare and still.

Now flying from Orly into O’Hare, where
the river’s dyed green for St. Patrick’s Day
and the stores are full of Shamrock hats,
I’ve been called home to the funeral 
    home
too late to watch Claudius rolling over,
my father and not my father,
his hair not even gray.

****

Thrift Store Elephants

Seeking a mystery for my journey
in the thrift store next to Union Station,
passing rows of bric-a-brac I saw scattered
an army of elephants, someone’s precious
collection, the alabaster white-jade figurine
the first to catch my eye, then the teakwood
one with broken tusk, and on another shelf
a plastic Dumbo, porcelain calf and mother
touching trunks, a Babar figurine, one cruelly
carved of ivory, all cast about the shelves
among the candles, mugs, and shards of 
    former lives.

Hard to think of a happy reason for their 
    presence,
unlike children’s clothes and toys outgrown–
someone labored years to assemble this herd
and would unlikely give it up without a fight.
I began examining each one in turn, wondering
    which
had been the first, the last, or the most beloved,
which the souvenir from the trip of a lifetime.
The clerk passed, saw me handling them, said
    Those came
from our Hospice box, we get some lovely things
    from there.

I longed to take them home to a place of honor,
somehow let their donor know they’d been
    admired,
but knew a dozen fragile ornaments to be 
    a foolish
addition to a traveler’s pack. Yet strewn across
    the aisles
hated to think of them going one by one to
    different homes,
maybe gathering dust for years, so I collected 
    them again,
cleared a broad space on a lower ledge and set
    them in
a festive circle tail to trunk, found nearby a carousel
    music
box and placed it in the middle, wound it up, in hopes
the circus animal parade might catch some younger eye,
a child might bring them home as newfound treasures,
maybe start a new collection round them, finding
    joy as
their first owner had by adding to their numbers by year.

Then forgot all about the elephants until I returned
from my trip a few weeks later, stopped in and saw
they’d gone, music box too. Hoped they went together
or at least in groups. On the way out saw the
    broken-tusk
bull tossed into a box of rags, took him home and named
him Hannibal, because he’d borne a war upon his back.

One comment on “M. Lee Alexander: Poems from “Observatory”

  1. Steve says:

    I have come back more than once to read Thrift Store Elephants. The story and some of the lines stick with me.

    And I’ve rescued my share of Hannibals over the years.

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