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Sample Poems by Carolyn Raphael
The Faculty of Canon Law
University of Bologna,
12 December, 1330
Dear Pietro, fellow student of the law,
Three wintry weeks have passed since last I wrote,
And I, as you, am weighted like a mule
With precious cargo for our sacred task.
(I pray each morning for enlightenment.)
Shivering in this damp and drafty classroom,
I blow warmth onto fingers stiff with cold
And listen to the lawyer’s quiet voice.
I strain to hear her words (yes, she’s a she),
Muted by the drape she sits behind
As if in the confessional. But wait—
This is the brilliant, scholarly Novella,
the daughter of the much-esteemed Professor
Andrea of Canon Law, who trained his sprout
To occupy his place (so learnèd was she)
When he was called away to teach in Modena.
But why the curtain? It is said her face,
That outshines Helen’s fatal loveliness,
Could agitate the blood, inflaming even
The somber-souled archdeacons taking notes.
There is a second daughter named Bettina
Who also teaches law (at Padua)
But needs no veil. (Do you agree these women
Have overstepped their charted bounds?) I find
It difficult to transcribe text and gloss—
So sweet her voice, so bright those hidden eyes.
I have a plan, harmless, you understand,
A form of scientific inquiry.
I thought I might delay a little while
When she is done, lingering in the cloakroom
(Unseen behind a pillar) till everyone
Has left, then steal a blameless look to test
The verity of her reputed charm.
The holy book warns us that flesh is weak,
But I cannot be tempted by a glance.
Yours in fraternity and faith,
The Faculty of Canon Law
University of Bologna
14 December, 1330
My most beloved father,
Days are long
Without you here, and, as you asked, once more
I teach your classes (never take your place).
You trained me as a lawyer, yet I hide
My face before my students, who are clergy
And, therefore, chaste. These men, father, these men.
Not you, of course. What made you so enlightened?
Consulting often with our learnèd mother,
Then educating both your sons and daughters.
And yet, you never wavered in your faith.
You slept, how long—for twenty years on the floor?
Even the pope confirmed your holiness.
Two other women lecture here, I know:
The first in Latin, Betta Sangiorgi, Greek.
But there are always glances, furtive smiles,
The disapproving scowls of elder canons.
Still, I am proud to teach where Petrarch and Dante
Left silver echoes ringing in the halls.
Return home soon and safely, honored father,
Your humble, most devoted daughter,
Baby in the Hand of God
Why does this photo bring me such delight,
the naked baby in the dancer’s hand,
her face revealing not a hint of fright
but joy that she can levitate from land?
His body forms an arabesque, and hers
repeats the graceful pattern in mid-air,
as if she’d tried the earth and now prefers
to be one half of a celestial pair.
His darkness highlights her small, golden head,
his muscled flesh her softly-rounded line;
his face is profiled, hers full-front instead,
a counterpoint of worldly and divine.
She rests secure on his supporting arm,
exempt from gravity, immune to harm.
A Father’s Reply to His Daughter
Now that I’m dead, the words come fast and free,
the words you waited for but never heard.
You cite my father, kicked out of my life
when I was just sixteen, not quite a man—
but man I had to be, head of the house
and sole support of disappointed women.
Salesman at work, at home I was the boss,
the sun in our lackluster firmament;
I learned that bosses clench to hold their tears,
commanding till the belly holes appear.
When I was twenty-eight your mother danced
into my view, a scintillating blonde
who’d laughed her twenty summers unaware.
No storm clouds in her giddy, blue-eyed sky.
I charmed her with my stance and worldly walk,
my silken tether to her airborne feet.
Of course I gave her diamonds when I could—
she gave me technicolor joy, and you,
and then your sister, my perfect family.
But still I played the part of sovereign lord,
decreeing from a throne in every room,
a monarch who would never abdicate
his seat of strength, or jeopardize his wards.
Yet I would ring the doorbell every night,
and never use my key, so that my wife
would always greet me with her welcome smile
to prove that she had stayed another day.
Though all was peaceful in my little realm,
you balked and bristled at my just demands
and wouldn’t bow your head or dip your knee.
Instead of basking in the royal glow,
you craved paternal pats and words of praise;
but I had fortified my spine with steel,
so I could give support but never bend.
All’s done. You’ve heard the words I couldn’t say.
Perhaps you’ll drop the anger from your love
and take the scepter as my rightful heir.
Then, if you want to please your absent sire,
give one small curtsy when you think of me.
The expert contemplates my father’s hand.
She reads, in the design of slant and stroke,
the secret message of a character.
His silent sorrow and unselfish pledge,
his iron discipline and ramrod rules
are here dissected, labeled, and exposed.
She says a lode of logic is exposed,
a vein of common sense that he would hand
down to his children, a shiny ore of rules
to govern work or love: in every stroke
a lesson, in every dot and loop a pledge
of will to build and strengthen character.
How can this woman read his character
when I could not? Although I was exposed
to him for years, I never knew the pledge
he made to drown his dreams and take in hand
his widowed mother’s woes, deflect the stroke
of evil fortune with his shielding rules.
My father must have prized the Palmer rules
that set the shape of every character
so each aligned, though freely-flowing stroke
(executed with speed and ease) exposed
a uniformly well-proportioned hand.
This was the Palmer teacher’s solemn pledge.
How complementary was the Palmer pledge
to my father’s dedicated love of rules.
He practiced airy ovals with his hand
to loosen fingers for the character
ballet, a rhythmic movement that exposed
the writer’s training in a single stroke.
My mother championed a different stroke—
no pressing her to take the Palmer pledge.
Her curves too round, her wayward slant exposed
an unrepentant scoffing at the rules.
Her writing showed so free a character,
my father knew he’d have to have her hand.
The last stroke is past, and no one knows the rules;
the pledge is to a printed character.
Now sameness is exposed and out of hand.
I sang one song when I was young.
Yours were the words and melody,
mine, the acquiescent tongue.
I sang one song when I was young,
my treble notes discreetly hung
beyond the bass majority.
I sang one song when I was young;
yours were the words and melody.