My Mother, the Milkmaid, and Myself
My mother, though no connoisseur of art,
adored “The Milkmaid” by Vermeer.
An immigrant with little learning
“by the book” who’d lived in Lemberg
and Vienna (whether decently or poorly
now I’ll never know), she might have loved
the crusty pieces of stale bread—so real
she’d want to grab a hunk—about to be
a meal with milk. She often ate the parts
of food we’d never touch, like chicken feet,
so they’d not go to waste. She came to understand
true quality, but always hated ostentation.
Having waited ages to “fix up”
the Bronx apartment I was raised in—
for the brocade sofa and the silky coverlet—
she might have fondly noticed the kitchen wall,
that humble nail anticipating something
to hang on it, the maze of cracks.
She must have seen the broken pane—
sweet as the once familiar and one’s own—
in the glowing window. I wonder
if her eyes were pleased by Vermeer’s mastery
of the light that streams from it,
illuminating half the sturdy milkmaid’s face,
most of her starched white cap,
and the richest color in the room,
the royal blue—made from lapis lazuli
exactingly refined—of her radiant apron.
But mainly, I hope she saw what I now see:
the artist’s reverence—for the maid of all work’s
focused countenance, for her hands’ embrace
of the unglazed jug and the simple act
of pouring, for how she watches the flow
of milk into the bowl with such majestic
calm. When my mother moved from preparing
wholesome soup to polishing my shoes
for school, or scrubbing the kitchen floor,
and glanced up at her reproduction
of the painting hanging over the credenza
in our foyer, I hope what she caught there
was the dignity of her own labor.
Because she soon would come to fear
that the daughter in whom she’d
fiercely inculcated the value
of education, had had too much
to value such devotions, and only
spoke with her on sufferance.
Pandemic Banana Bread
Best to use up those blackened
bananas on the edge of corruption,
the skin peeling off slimy mush
no-one will touch. And so from hour
to hour we ripe and ripe. And then…
I think of my Renaissance Lit
professor at Smith, quoting As You Like It
in our class of ripening girls, 1962.
Handsome, war-wounded (some said his leg
was wood), he stomped in theatrically
with his cane, then leaned down, slowly,
and stubbed out his cigarette
on the leg of his desk. Then he chalked
on the board the schema
that would help us pass all his tests:
a simple circle with generatio
and corruptio chasing each other
around the perimeter, and immortal ars—
worshipped by the New Criticism
all my English professors espoused—
slicing through on a vertical diameter,
escaping the fated cycle.
Oh modest ars of this moment, through which
I escape! I melt the butter in the microwave,
blend its unctuous gloss with the bright silk
of the beaten egg, diffuse the sugar within,
add and mash the nearly rotten fruit
that thickens the velvety texture.
Then I drop in drifts of flour—
combined with the baking soda
that will quicken the mixture, and the pinch of salt
that will pique flavor—and stir. A mere
hour later, the tender, common loaf
is born, its sweetness suffusing my kitchen.
I plate a slice for my sole lockdown partner;
he looks at me with ripening,
undying eyes—Orlando, for this instant,
to my Rosalind.
Comic Relief for English Teachers
In a brick of a textbook, for students processing
the history of modern poetry at a clip—
on one of almost 2000 pages thin
as puff pastry layers—eight lines
of gorgeous, stately iambics into
Stevens’ “Sunday Morning,” “a clam
darkens among water-lights,” instead of
“a calm.” The teacher guffawed
when she saw it, preparing her lecture notes,
yet there was no eruption
of student giggling, even when
their books lay open on their desks.
Was it wrong not to note
that miniscule typo in her syllabus,
rather than wait for class
to clue the students in—
for entertainment’s sake? (Sparsely,
they chuckled.) Should she have sympathized
with those oblivious as clams,
buried deep in the decorum of the moment?
Was she wrong to hope some few
would be released by irreverent comic
relief—and start to read
as if they could get the news
When she learned she’d teach
that course again, just thinking
of that little bivalve, and imagining
the new class would find it, brought on a rising chortle
of pleasure she could barely contain.
And when that clam darkened among water-lights
on that still glaring page,
she whooped out loud and breathed
a cleansing breath, before opening her heart
and almost drowning, once more,
in the loveliness of poems she wanted so much to
(but feared she could not) share.
© Judy Kronenfeld
Judy Kronenfeld’s recent books of poetry include Bird Flying through the Banquet (FutureCycle, 2017), and Shimmer (WordTech, 2012). Groaning and Singing, her fifth collection, will be published by FutureCycle in early 2022. Her poems have appeared in Cimarron Review, New Ohio Review, One (Jacar Press), Rattle, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and other journals, and in over two dozen anthologies. She is Lecturer Emerita, Department of Creative Writing, UC Riverside, and an Associate Editor of Poemeleon.