In the Sadness Museum (Fomite Press, 2017)
"Thomas' 'Museum' is not a place where sadness can be safely contemplated from an aesthetic distance. Her museum's doors are wide open. In poem after risky poem, with humor, flare, and compassion, she pits the power of redemptive art against the ills and evils of the world."
-Phillip Fried, Editor of Manhattan Review
In the Sadness Museum
We found the Saltines laughable,
the broken car door handle merely
inconvenient, the single earring
nostalgic. The curators tell us boxes
are intrinsically sad, but I always
find them exciting, containing a whiff
of something you always wished for.
I promised to send some artifacts
of my own sadness—my grandmother's
teeth, a wedding ring from a failed
marriage, the farewell note of a runaway
child, but then I thought perhaps they'd
prefer something exotic, like maybe
my friend's prosthetic arm that sticks
to the steering wheel whenever the weather
turns cold. I thought maybe they'd like
the 1949 Fleck Broiler that shorted out
my aunt's pacemaker. I wish I could send
them the flower bed, full of condoms
and cigarette butts, planted twenty years
ago by the owner of a now-defunct café
on 71st Street, which still sends up crocus
and daffodils every spring, but maybe I
should save that for the Museum of Hope
or the Survival Museum. Should I send
my rejection slips or the baby teeth I
collected before my children found my
stash, losing faith in both the tooth fairy
and me at the very same moment? Maybe
I could send them my favorite doll, headless
now, but how could I throw her away? Do
they want my son's favorite stretchsuit,
striped terrycloth, the knees worn out,
a vestigial elephant appliquéd on one side?
He's grown now with a child of his own,
but still I pine for the baby that filled
the suit. And of course, at last, there's
the artifact, me, so differently put together
than the original, so sadly asthmatic, itchy,
gray and puffy-eyed, so lumpy, weak-kneed,
often exhausted. And yet, still trying so hard
to be something I once imagined, so not really
hitting the mark, an odd little bundle of nerves
and enthusiasm, still idiotically hopeful, never
sad, never sad, but sometimes on the brink.
Now and Then
A paper lamp shaped like the moon
swings in a draft from the ceiling
and throws shadows across
the living room wall. Once
a small piano played forgotten
jazz when my father came home
late at night. Stars fall from the sky,
their bodies on fire, their tails
forgetting who they belonged to.
I laughed today but forgot
what I laughed at, like a dark
star whose life has imploded,
like a ruined piano whose keys
still remember chords played by
a hand that is no longer heard,
or a shadow still dancing in
a house that has fallen, house
and shadow remember that dance.
End of Summer, 72nd Street
Sweat pours down the gutters,
the sidewalks spark and prickle --
on the corner
at a fruit stand,
plums burst from their skins,
and uptown, someone we
love is dying. The crosstown bus sobs
under our window, passengers
gasping in outside air, wringing
it out like a filthy handkerchief, cross
streets as though
they're wading in grief.
We cross the street too, skirting
shadows cast by tall buildings.
Inside the bank's dead air,
I hug your arm to keep warm. Outside,
melons are exploding at the corner
fruit stand. Grapes let go of stems,
drop at shoppers' feet, staring like eyeballs.
We buy rolls and fruit and pastry, stop
uptown at Barney Greengrass,
for smoked fish our friend would eat if he
weren't dying. At his bedside we ask
him a question. He tries to answer,
he says he knows the answer, he'd tell us
if he could, but he can't remember
Back downtown, we stop to get
some dinner—the neighborhood
is exhausted in the sinking sun.
Two guys with horns set up in front
of the deli and they're blowing
Harlem Nocturne all down the block.
Sweet jazz slides under the doorways like
a westbound breeze from the river, heaves under
the asphalt, wrenches joy from the sidewalk.
Passers-by throw coins in a hat, then dollars, then fivers.
Cement shudders with delight, with dancers,
with be-bop. The deli counterman comes out
with seltzers and knishes, throws a dollar in the hat,
goes back inside, whistling. We put down our packages,
grab each other, jitterbug, shake the pavement up,
streaming with laughter, trickling with sweat.