by Lynda Hull

Image: St. Lucy's Church
Image: St. Lucy’s Church

Frayed cables bear perilously the antiquated lift,
all glass and wrought iron past each apartment floor
like those devices for raising and lowering
angels of rescue in Medieval plays. Last night
the stairwell lamps flickered off and I was borne up
the seven floors in darkness, the lift a small lit

cage where I thought of you, of the Catholic souls
we envisioned once, catechism class, the saint
in her moment of grace transfigured as she’s engulfed
in flames. The lift shivered to a halt above the shaft
and I was afraid for a moment to open the grille,
wanting that suspension again, the requiemed hum

of one more city going on without me—Cockney girls
with violet hair swirling among the businessmen
and movie ushers of Soho, sullen in their jackets.
All of them staving off as long as they can
the inevitable passing away, that bland euphemism
for death. But I can’t shake this from my mind:

your face with its hollows against hospital linen.
Newark’s empty asylum wings opened again this year
for the terminal cases. Each day another
strung-out welfare mother, the streetcorner romeos
we used to think so glamorous, all jacked-up
on two-buck shots. It was winter when I last was home

and my mother found you on her endless dietician’s
rounds, her heavy ring of keys. It was winter
when I saw you, Loretta, who taught me to curse
in Italian, who taught me to find the good vein
in the blue and yellow hours of our sixteenth year
among deep nets of shadows dragged through evening, a surf

of trees by the railway’s sharp cinders. Glittering
like teen dream angels in some corny A.M. song,
buoyed by whatever would lift us above the smouldering
asphalt, the shingled narrow houses, we must
have felt beyond all damage. Still what damage carried you
all these years beyond the fast season of loveliness

you knew before the sirens started telling your story
all over town, before the habit stole
the luster from your movie starlet hair.
Little sister, the orderlies were afraid to
touch you. Tonight, the current kicks the lights
back on and there’s the steady moan of the lift’s

descent, the portion of what’s left of this day
spread before me—stockings drying on the sill, the cool
shoulders of milk bottles—such small domestic salvations.
There was no deus ex machina for you, gone now
this half year, no blazing seraphim, finally
no miraculous escape, though how many times

I watched you rise again and again from the dead:
that night at the dealers’ on Orange Street, stripping
you down, overdosed and blanched against the green linoleum,
ice and saline. I slapped you and slapped you until
the faint flower of your breath clouded the mirror.
In those years I thought death was a long blue hallway

you carried inside, a curtain lifting at the end
in the single window’s terrible soft breeze where
there was always a cashier ready to take your
last silver into her gloved hands, some dicey, edgy game.
Beneath the ward clock’s round dispassionate face
there was nothing so barren in the sift from minute

to absolute minute, a slow-motion atmosphere dense
as the air of Medieval illuminations with demons
and diaphanous beings. I only wished then
the cancellation of that hungering that turns us
towards the mortal arms of lovers or highways
or whatever form of forgetfulness we choose.

Your breath barely troubled the sheets, eyes closed,
perhaps already adrift beyond the body, twisting
in a tissue of smoke and dust over Jersey’s
infernal glory of cocktail lounges and chemical plants,
the lonely islands of gas stations lining the turnpike
we used to hitch towards the shore, a moment

I want back tonight—you and me on the boardwalk,
the casino arcade closed around its pinball machines
and distorting mirrors. Just us among sea serpents,
those copper horses with mermaid’s tails, porpoise fins,
and the reckless murmur of the sea. Watching stars
you said you could almost believe the world arranged

by a design that made a kind of sense. That night
the constellations were so clear it was easy
to imagine some minor character borne up
beyond judgement into heaven, rendered purely
into light. Loretta, this evening washes
over my shoulders, this provisional reprieve.

I’ve been telling myself your story for months
and it spreads in the dusk, hushing the streets, and there
you are in the curve of a girl’s hand as she lights
her cigarette sheltered beneath the doorway’s plaster
cornucopia. Listen, how all along the avenues trees
are shaken with rumor of this strange good fortune.

This poem is reproduced as it was printed in the Spring 1989 issue of Ploughshares.


by Lynda Hull

Image: Donald Peterson via nj.com
Image: Donald Peterson via nj.com

Consider autumn,
        its violent candling
                of hours: birches

& beach plums flare harsh,
        chrome-yellow, orange,
                the dog zigzags the hillside

tangled with flaming vines
        to the pond below & barks
                at the crows’ reflected flight,

a reverse swimming
        among water lilies, that
                most ancient of flowers

anchored by muscular stems
        in the silt of cries
                & roots, tenacious as the mind’s

common bloom, remembered men
        I have touched at night
                in the room

below the African painter’s
        empty loft, his few abandoned
                canvases, narratives

of drought & famine, of how
        his people, hands linked
                entered the deepest cave,

the unbearable heart
        of belief where each gesture
                encloses the next–clouds

packed densely as ferns, becoming
        coal, the final diamond
                of light, the god’s return

as rain, its soft insistence
        loosening the yellowed hands
                of leaves that settle

at my feet. How expendable
        & necessary this mist
                in my hair, these jewels

beading the dog’s wet coat.
        How small I am
                beneath this vast sway.

“Accretion” appeared in the Fall 1986 issue of Crazyhorse and in Hull’s collection Ghost Money.

star ledger

by Lynda Hull

Image: Cinema Treasures
Image: Cinema Treasures

Almost time to dress for the sun’s total eclipse
        so the child pastes one last face
in her album of movie stars–Myrna Loy
        and Olivia de Havilland–names meant to conjure
sultry nights, voluptuous turns across
        some dance floor borne on clouds. Jean Harlow.

Clipped from the Newark evening paper, whole galaxies
        of splendid starlets gaze, fixed to violet pages
spread drying on the kitchen table. The child whispers
        their names when she tests “lorgnettes”
made that morning out of shirtboards, old film
        negatives gleaned from her grandmother’s hat box.

Through phony opera glasses, hall lights blur
        stained sepia above her, and her grandmother’s
room is stained by a tall oak’s crown, yellow
        in the window. Acorns crack against asphalt
three floors down. The paper promised
        “a rare conjunction of sun and moon and earth.”

Her grandmother brushed thick gray hair.
        Cut glass bottles and jewel cases.
Above the corset her back was soft, black moles
        she called her “melanomas” dusted across
powdery skin like a night sky, inside out.
        The Spanish fan dangles from her wrist

and when she stands she looks like an actress
        from the late-night movies. The child sifts
costume brooches, glass rubies and sapphires,
        to find the dark gold snake ring with emerald chips
for eyes. She carries the miniature hourglass
        to the sagging porch, then waiting turns it over

and over. Uncertain in high heels, she teeters
        and the shawl draped flamenco-style keeps sliding off
her shoulder, so she glances up the block to Girl Scouts
        reeling down the flag. The child hates their dull uniforms,
how they scatter shrieking through leafsmoke and the sheen
        of fallen chestnuts. She touches the ring, heavy

on a ribbon circling her neck, then thinks she’ll sew
        the album pages with green embroidery silk.
Her grandmother snaps the fan and they raise lorgnettes
        to the sun’s charcoaled face, its thin wreath
of fire. Quiet, the Girl Scouts bow their heads–sleek
        Italian ones and black girls with myriad tight braids.

Streetlights hum on, then the towers of Manhattan flare
        beyond the river. The earth must carve its grave ellipse
through desert space, through years and histories
        before it will cross with sun and moon this way again.
Minor starlets in the child’s album will fade and tatter,
        fleeting constellations with names flimsy as

the shawl that wraps her shoulders. She’ll remember this
        as foolish. The girls by the flag will mostly leave
for lives of poverty, crippled dreams, and Newark
        will collapse to burn like another dying star.
But none of this has happened. Afternoon has stilled
        with the eclipse that strips them of their shadows,

so each one stands within their own brief human orbit
        while the world reverses, then slowly, recovers.

Newark-born Lynda Hull’s “Star Ledger” is from her award-winning collection of the same name, published in 1991.

chinese new year

by Lynda Hull

The dragon is in the street dancing beneath windows
        pasted with colored squares, past the man
who leans into the phone booth’s red pagoda, past
        crates of doves and roosters veiled

until dawn. Fireworks complicate the streets
        with sulphur as people exchange gold
and silver foil, money to appease ghosts
        who linger, needy even in death. I am

almost invisible. Hands could pass through me
        effortlessly. This is how it is
to be so alien that my name falls from me, grows
        untranslatable as the shop signs,

the odors of ginseng and black fungus that idle
        in the stairwell, the corridor where
the doors are blue mouths ajar. Hands
        gesture in the smoke, the partial moon

of a face. For hours the soft numeric
        click of mah-jongg tiles drifts
down the hallway where languid Mai trails
        her musk of sex and narcotics.

There is no grief in this, only the old year
        consuming itself, the door knob blazing
in my hand beneath the lightbulb’s electric jewel.
        Between voices and fireworks

wind works the bricks to dust—hush, hush—
        no language I want to learn. I can touch
the sill worn by hands I’ll never know
        in this room with its low table

where I brew chrysanthemum tea. The sign
        for Jade Palace sheds green corollas
on the floor. It’s dangerous to stand here
        in the chastening glow, darkening

my eyes in the mirror with the gulf of the rest
        of my life widening away from me, waiting
for the man I married to pass beneath
        the sign of the building, to climb

the five flights and say his Chinese name for me.
        He’ll rise up out of the puzzling streets
where men pass bottles of rice liquor, where
        the new year is liquor, the black bottle

the whole district is waiting for, like
        some benevolent arrest—the moment
when men and women turn to each other and dissolve
        each bad bet, every sly mischance,

the dalliance of hands. They turn in lamplight
        the way I turn now. Wai Min is in the doorway.
He brings fish. He brings lotus root.
        He brings me ghost money.

A teenage runaway and high school dropout, Lynda Hull eventually became a college professor widely acclaimed for her poetry. Newark’s once bustling Chinatown off Mulberry Street was largely a memory by the time she wrote “Chinese New Year,” which appeared in her collection Ghost Money (1986).

Image: NYU Asian-Pacific-American Institute
Image: NYU Asian/Pacific/American Institute