Gwynn O'Gara

dpress 2007 Sebastopol
24 pp hand sewn

Photography by Rob Catterton


Sedges and reeds are the fine hairs on her body.
Poppies and larkspur,
the buttons on her dress.
Her trees are red.
Ferns taller than men
thrive at their roots.
In her secret ravines are stove-in cars
rusted-out, the radios
playing love songs.


Up from the marshes and willowed banks they climbed.
Miners, coopers, men whose calloused hands
Heaped grapes high in the harvest bowl, who slit the white
Bellies of fish and tossed the guts back in the shallows
Where night herons fed on little moon clams.

Women without claims welcomed them to their ruffles and mirrors.
They ate figs and olives, lemons and chiles. At twilight
they opened each other. She tasted of the river and quicksilver.
He gave up his watch to slip between her lips. Floodtide
of flesh. Body opera. The mountain pulled them to its night.

On tracks laid by the ghosts of famine, oysters nestled
in Sierra ice joggled along the Napa. Pickaxes brought
the grizzly to her knees. Egrets were almost disappeared.
On the valley floor train cars waited, gathering sun.
Survivors knew there was no place left to leave, but packed anyway.


Across the high desert
        rabbitbrush stalks the sage
                with yellow flames.
                        On a dusty path
                                 up to the snow-patched granite
                        a meadow mouse froze in the night
                curling into herself
        when the storm blew through.
                Beside the road a dead coyote,
                        legs bent, head missing,
                                 spirit racing to ancestors' den,
                                          children left to fend for themselves.


He's moving in big here, spreading across Califia,
seeping into creeks and rivers. Califia is wide and
warm but knows how to be cold and put snow
on the mountains, her many-shaped breasts.

The frost on her flanks and belly is just enough
to shoot the sap to the roots. She knows
a little chill makes the wine sweeter and
excites Bacchus to greater passion.

He likes threat and danger,
trees uprooted, stones removed.

When Bacchus lies with Califia, the parasites
that survive on his body spread to hers.
A blotch of B&B's with antiques in every room
and a rash of thin-walled motels
with suites named Cabernet Sauvignon
redden her ankles, waist and collarbone.

Califia invites her guests to soak in her pools
where they sweat Bacchus out of their blood
but Bacchus is everywhere
with his ice-breakers and binges.

People forget Califia, her slopes of apples,
acorn eyes and redwood thighs.

Not Bacchus. He feeds.
Gold vines replace the nourishing trees.


Give me a pony
and those arrows
cut from rock.
I'll take the iron dagger, too.

Let me ride away
across the grasslands
to the hills.

I need to get out of here
before I spray arrows
like porcupine quills
or heave my blade into you.

I want to be gone
with my flock
of sorrows
racing across the sky
far away from kitchen and plot.


I never finished swinging
up to the huge old cypress
fog hurling in from the sea
sun gliding into the ground.

I could have swung for a long time
fingers gripping the cool long chain
legs pumping, gaining height
daring myself to kick a branch

But we moved away
to make a new family.
There weren't swings
not even a park.
I took up bike riding.
I fell off a lot.

But I never finished swinging.
Never grew tall enough in foggy town
to touch the cypress with my toes.

The low branch has been lopped
but still I swing
pumping higher
higher into the green.


On summer nights my mother weeded,
shucking dandelions from the ground.
She didn't glance at the stars, didn't
look past the brim of her straw hat,
the smoke of her ongoing cigarette.

She wielded a wooden stick
tipped with metal,
her only weapon,
forked like a snake's tongue.

She spoke two languages.
One the party line of do's and don'ts
lies of decorum and denial
the opaque patois of the way things appear.

Her other tongue was quiet, rare.
She offered love with it
and like a bird fed her young.

She prowled the field and I followed
never knowing which tongue she'd offer,
sensing she wanted to be as far away
as the stars but jabbed instead
the weeds overrunning the lawn.


When I was twelve,
my mother's chosen task
was the transformation of my room.

Gray and crimson swirls collided on the walls.
It looked like it belonged to a dead person.
My mother had a secret image in mind, a surprise.

Her new marriage strained,
step-children flipping, new house splayed
in a magnitude of pomp and housework.

Outside dandelions studded the lawn.
She shucked them with a metal prong.
Her hands were full.

Yet she scraped off every inch of that sad paper and
the stained layers underneath; sweating, cursing, smoking.
Her forearm ached from the steady up and down.

When I came back from a month riding horses and
eating out with Daddy I found a room with yellow walls
and butterflies on the curtains.

I danced in the new light, dreaming out the window
away from fighting voices, a step-sister with French antiques,
a step-brother with girlie mags and a nasty tongue.

I stretched with yellow butterflies
out of my warped cocoon
into the bright and welcoming sky.


Look again, past the problems.
I've got good bones,
a solid foundation, and a big lot
with healthy trees. Once I was new
and something like you.

Come close. Beneath broken limbs,
worn tires and a possum corpse
winds an overgrown path.
Brambles protect berries.
Bulbs dream in the ground.

Come in. Beyond the grime,
broken glass and torn linoleum
wait hand-carved virgin redwood,
dreamy blown-glass panes and
a view over the valley.

Think about it. It's not too late
to save me. Sweat, credit,
the right contractor and
lots of paint will restore
lost strength and beauty.

Stay. Eat and sleep inside my walls.
They're stuffed with newspapers
ghosts cling to. Time will decide
where your bookshelves go,
the table and chairs.

Tend the fire. Gather friends,
dream and heal. Smoke out
those tired ghosts too hurt and broke
to fix themselves or this place.
It's time they were freed.

Pour your savings into me.
Give me all you've got.
You could use a fresh start.
Renew, renew.
Not just me, but you.


Wake up
but don't get out of bed.
The first part of your life is changed.
There are pianos.
Someone put them there.
Could it be him
with his lingering music?

He's given you possibilities
that run backward
like hems of colored silk
or a happiness
that seeps into the rain
and lights each seed
left in the dry season.

He's yours.
You earned him
and he delivers you
A blind cow scratches
against a bush.
A robin finds worms
and troubadors.


Even a dying gladiola
looks beautiful as it stretches
into sunlight on the deck.

The rosemary bush needs pruning.
Those downward thrusts feel sad,
an old man's beard someone's neglected to trim.

Whitecaps all day on the bay.
In the clean air everything looks as if
it belongs right where it is.

Beyond our deck, beyond the office towers
and beyond the golden hill of Bernal
is the mountain where my mother lies buried.

Today, a sunny day enjoyed inside,
I see it for the first time.
The least of her is not far away at all.

And although she is not here, she is
everywhere: in my son's eyes,
my ears, our grateful pulse, the clouds.



The housewife remembers
the guinea pig must eat,
folds the towel after rubbing her arm
along its velvet crop.
She dispenses her son's medicine,
yet another antibiotic she's noticed
the need for, making sure there's a cup
of sweet juice to absolve the bitter.
She mends a rend at his knee
wondering how she'll touch him
when he's sixteen.

She's already being scolded for kisses.
Six, he wipes each smooch off his still soft skin.
He tells her when he's done something naughty,
he's that innocent. She can only give thanks
silently. He tells her when he's mad at her
and a shadow covers her like a bruise.
Fewer and fewer are the casual leanings,
the unannounced settlings into her lap.
He's leaving soon—kindergarten starts next week—
so she hugs harder, kissing him despite his protest.


The house overwhelms her some mornings
like her husband with his demanding appetites.
The sun reveals one too many flecks of missed food.
Her son urges ”Mom” one too many times.

She remembers the wash, the dishes, errands and
gardening she forgot long enough to dream
of solitude, Venice, work as compelling as her husband,
as demanding and satisfying as her child.

This isn't the little apartment that sang with the sea.
This is a house, rooted as the apple tree,
solid enough for vacuuming and spider webs,
a haven, digging in, a burden, an end.

Pressing a lavender spike between her fingers
and sniffing, she thinks back to the little place
they rented and left, its quick cleaning,
the impossibly long stairs up to the view
of boats and bay, the sense of traveling
to new worlds the outlook gave them.
Here she's under trees,
sequestered beyond hedges
not sailing on a breeze.
Animals come to her to be fed,
plants tended, thrive
attracting bees and butterflies.
She knows to water down low,
to leave her husband alone
when he's fuming,
to give her son warnings.


She watches the apple tree and chatters to the birds.
When she finds a jay's feather, she knows they're kin
circling the brave tree looking for food.
When the heat comes she watches for red stripes,
eager, yet loaded with foreboding for the endless
sauces and pies, cobblers and breads.
Only one tree but it fills her life.

The hammock under the redwoods calls her.
Too much to do though her life is not troubled
or flecked with health or money worries.
Too much to do in the kitchen, the house,
the yard, tending husband and son,
welcoming friends, arranging things.
But the rope couch of daydream
and doze calls her to look up
through branches to the vagabond sky.

She waits for the time she isn't the center
of need and desire, when she can tell her men
to feed themselves, and take long walks
without returning on a schedule other than her own.
When the stove gets lonely
and snails take over the garden
sprawling in lawn chairs
after sliming the deck
in a calligraphy of ownership.
And the house sits quiet
and weeds return the garden to meadow
and berry canes strangle the phone
and thistles imprison the mail
and the house is an empty nest
instead of a bear to be tricked.

6,000 + 37 MILES WEST

You'd like it here, Great-Grandmother.
Apples feed the town all year.
Wine grapes light up husbands' eyes.

You wouldn't worry about starving.
Berries and mushrooms dance over burrows and
salmon, despite the hard years, return to streams.

You could take pilates or yoga
and sweat off the overcoat you ate yourself into.
You'd samba down Main Street with little leaguers,
dachshunds and vege oil trucks.

We have enough, Great Grandmother!
Because of you, enough.


I think I'm gardening, bending over beds in morning sun,
pulling up the white legs of bindweed and laying down
lemon balm for green mulch around the tomatoes.
Scrub jay visits. Flies really close to the back of my head,
squawking, asking and telling in her urgent tense.
Zwreek! She questions my every task.
Zwreek! Coasting from lemon tree to fence,
she says the strawberries her beak has pocked are so-so.
That I should let the blackberry seeds she scatters grow.
Never mind the thorns, how they'll take over the beds.
Don't cut! she squawks. Let the canes flourish, and the oaks.
Don't pull my seedlings.
She needs acorn mast
and the tonic berry. Forget garlic and artichoke.
My visit. Her garden. Blackberries and oak.


In autumn harmless house spiders, striped
like tigers and hairy as tarantulas, fasten their webs
to our house and plants. From eave to stalk, redwood
branch to dahlia, pale sacs of eggs
dangle in fog and sun and shift with the wind.
At the center in mid-air each spider waits for prey.

Last October during a hot spell, the roofers arrived—
men unafraid of heights, hard work or heat.
The biggest, a white guy, with a shaved head,
bare chest and a web of tattoos,
boasted he'd work so hard he'd puke.

Before he climbed the ladder, he circled our house
and killed every spider he found.
The next day he was fired, for an unknown reason
although killing spiders is enough.

This autumn spiders again festoon the place.
Their fierce beauty intact, they take the afternoon light,
small suns about to hatch planets.
They are the delicate strong, good at surviving,
who under attack, come back with the next generation.


Curled under leaves we don't rake
or folded among chunks of pine and oak—
places we don't notice yet protect—
garter snakes sleep through cold and wet.

Until the morning they untwine themselves
and in their ancient way seek newborn sun.
Behind the spears of Nile lilies, the lace
of wild poppies, warming pebbled skins.

Private companions,
                                            if I come too close,
                                                                          you disappear
                       into shadow
                                                  into leaf
                                                                    before I even know
        you're there.
                                  When I stumble on three of you,
                                                            the ground undulates like water.

We honor you, loose
household gods
for sharing this place
with us and the ants
while letting bankers
think they own it.
We ease up on pruning and tidying,
and leave what we can