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Rita Mae Reese has received a “Discovery”/The Nation award and was a finalist for the Ruth Lilly Fellowship in Poetry. Her work has appeared in The Nation, The Southern Review, Bloom, Verse Daily, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, and elsewhere. She is currently a Wallace Stegner fellow in fiction.

Rita Mae's Poem at The Cortland Review
Verse Daily: Rita Mae Reese



Three Poems:



Rita Mae Reese
San Francisco, CA
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A History of Glass

When God closes a door, we break a window.
Sorry I say to the landlord who replaces it. Sorry
I say the next morning to the neighbor who

complains about the noise. An accident. She
waits for more of an explanation. So I
start at the beginning. The history of glass is a history

of accidents. Long ago and far away:  a woman, a pot, a fire.
Her lover surprises her from behind, kisses her
until the pot glows, smoke rising like a choir.

She snatches it from the hearth
& drops it on the floor covered in sand
& ash. (She is a good cook but not tidy.) Her lover

throws water on the whole mess:  the sand hisses, her hand
burns. She can hardly see the hard new miracle
forming for the tears in her eyes, at her feet a new obsidian

spreads, clear & eddied. It will be 2000 years until
a tradesman molds by hand the small green & blue
glass animals (housed today on the second floor of a local

museum), & nearly 4000 before sheet glass in 1902.
(Many accidents happen during this period.) One hundred years
later the glass animals in the museum are visited by two

women:  one marvels at their wholeness, except for an ear
or a nose or a paw; one does not marvel. She says, “They
survived because they’re small.” They stop for dinner,

mostly wine. They stumble home. Were there
eyewitnesses at that late hour when they embraced & fell?
Once inside there is a window of sheet glass & a bare

bulb burning out. In the darkness of the stairwell
they sink, dark coats spreading around them. The wind
rushes in. Remember the glass animals? They tell

a history of accidents too, accidents that have yet to happen.

(originally appeared inThe Nation)


a headword in Webster’s Tenth New Collegiate Dictionary for which there is no entry.

Like God, like Adam at first:
Dull, until they brought their looking-glass
Into the strange arena of the Garden
And took turns in front of her.
And then God could feel the fruit
Hitting the ground and rotting
Even as he felt it ripen. It was only

Her mouth, her teeth, that could sever
The awful link. What had He done?
And what about me? When I look in a mirror,
I see the parts of a woman; but if womanless
Can include me, then womanless like me too,
For a few months here—not in paradise of course,
But close enough—until her. Then nothing was close

Enough. With her I unearth myself and find
Not some wholesome first being latching names
Onto things nor even his supporting actress,
But a long smooth case for a reptilian heart
And an unapologetic forked tongue
Licking at the disappearing line between
What I won’t do and what I will.
(originally appeared in The Southern Review in a slightly altered version)


Of the 414,825 words defined in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, bondmaid was the only one lost. Found long after the fascicle Battentlie-Bozzom was published, it appeared in a supplement which came out in 1933.


            Why do I picture you as blind?
                        Like Nydia,
the blind flower girl of Pompeii,

            who ran through the streets
her ear. Are you listening for some

            sound from the scraps of paper,
                        the other dark
cubbyholes? Surely there are others

            like you, others who would flee.
                        Illiterate lamb,
who defined you? How many times

            and in how many ways have you
                        been defined?
Here seven abridged quotations put a slave girl in context.

            The ancient priests of the tribe of Levi say: 
                        Yf thou wylt haue
bonde seruauntes and maydens

            [thou shalt buy them of the heathen around you].
                        In the King James
this is not conditional--you will buy them.

            [And whosoever lieth carnally
                        with a woman,
that is a bondmaid, betrothed to an husband,

            and not at all redeemed, nor freedom given her; she shall
                        be scourged;
they shall not be put to death, because she was not free].


            The two Scots don’t say much, silenced by Shakespeare
                        and his large vocabulary.
Another man, Spenser (who refers to himself as a gnat)

            recites a tale of two brothers, one who was rauisht of his owne bondmaide.
                        The bondmaid’s name,
you learn, is Ixione, and you want to learn more about a woman slave

            who ravishes instead of being the feast. He says
                        many words but doesn’t
tell you much. The former prophets of the First Book of Kings

            contribute four words to your delineation: 
                        [Their children that were left
after them in the land, whom the children of Israel

            also were not able utterly to destroy, upon those did Solomon levy]
                        a tribute of bondservice
[unto this day.] And you think, this is the whole

            of the bondmaid’s role in books of kings.
                        You do not ask: 
but aren’t kings mere actors in the great book of slaves?


            And last, never sleeping, is Paul, sick and always writing letters, this one
                        to the Galatians,
reminding them and you of the story of Hagar:  For it is written,

            that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other
                        by a freewoman.
He whispers the rest to you:

            But he who was of the bondwoman was born
                        after the flesh;
but he of the freewoman was by promise. With his hot breath

            near, he lists for you the manifest works of the flesh:
                        adultery, fornication,
uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance,

            the words are piling up, wrapping around you like wet wool
                        emulations, wrath, strife,
seditions, heresies, his breath catches, you can feel the spittle

            as he draws nearer, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revelings,
                        and there is silence.
Has the man run out of words? He draws back,

            you can breathe for a moment; he turns his face
                        to the wall,
still muttering. You would like to sleep. Is every escape temporary?


            The apostle has said that in Christ there is neither male nor female,
                        neither bond
nor free. Your whole identity erased—imagine!

            How many of us would have to believe for it to be true?
                        Is it faith
you listen for? Our marble legs (archaic, useless)

            are running, but like a...bond-maid
                         at her master's gate
we wait for your next step--or ours.

(originally appeared in The Southern Review in a slightly altered version)



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Last Updated: Tue, June 27, 2006
©2006 John Struloeff -- All Rights Reserved.