Donna O’Shaughnessy, Handiwork


I am the one driving across the Rust
Belt but it is my mother’s hands attached
To my wrists, planted at 10 & 2
Liver spots skim across the crepe
Paper skin while gnarly knuckles prop
Up the dorsal flesh like Boy Scout Pup
Tents across Nebraska

The narrow gold band spins loose
It might still be mine
But the wearing thin is all her
Just a matter of time before it breaks away

I catch my reflection in the Rear View
Mirror, my head shimmers, a mess of crucified
Bobby pins. A triangular piece of chiffon
To knot under my chin cannot be far off

Only my fingernails are unchanged.
The emphysemic clubbing is AWOL
My own short flat nails remain. I never loved
The fags like my WAC of a mother

My Brother Slings Steel Not Spaghetti

He often calls me on his noon break
Goes outside to his ‘99 Chevy Silverado to escape the inferno
of the factory. It’s not that bad sis, my machine
is by the door and besides I needed a little wacky tobacky
He called it that at sixteen, he calls it that at fifty
He calls me even though I forget to call him
He calls to explain he won’t be coming to Easter or Christmas
Because he slings steel not spaghetti
He’s tired man, tired, works with his hands, man,
not like
The engineer or the teacher or the accountant or the secretary
In our family four out of five rich enough he says to take college
My brother the middle one born among a gaggle of girls
He who barely made it through high school
Who thought he’d make it big instead in his heavy
metal scream all the words band but barely makes his mortgage
Every month claims he has no gas money or his truck’s
brakes are bad, or he needs a new roof explaining to me
that roofs cost money and he’s not made of money
What he’s made of is fear and longing, an ache so deep
It makes him uncomfortable in our homes
One sister with remodeled kitchen costing twice as much
as his crumbling bungalow with sloping porch
Another with the professional landscaping no weeds in sight
The one who spends more on therapy (she needs to be validated)
than my brother spends on food in a year
Gotta go he says, that steel doesn’t sling itself.

San Francisco, 1988

Perched in the reclining chair its impermeable upholstery a boon for patients who wet themselves I lodge my feet against the bottom of your bed railing rocking it back and forth as you rock back and forth on your hands and lean knees your cracked lips and face your contorted face silently howling like a fox caught in a steel jawed trap meningitis shredding your spine clouding your mind your mother and I agreed nothing could be achieved with tubes or vents took turns staying near until it was more than we could bare relieving each other of the guilt that there was no relief for you when eventually finally the morphine crashed through the gates collapsing that face into your favorite feathered pillow elevating your bum high in the sterile air of isolation like a toddler overdue for a nap and those moments of peace relaxed my shoulders unhinged my jaw then you open your eyes asked my name all giggly and silly all happy and funny because you remembered you had a friend with the very same name and then right then you died. I kissed your clammy cheek and one of your curly blonde hairs caught in my teeth and I covered up the end of you still high in the air walked into the hall told your mother you were no longer there.

While the Coroner Waits

I thread my fingers through your thick hair
still jealous that it never thinned, I settle my
index finger within the soft indentation behind
your too small, too low, ear.

Regretfully, I move vertically along your flat
silent jugular until my finger catches on your
clavicle, once broken when you fell off the hay
wagon onto February’s resistant surface.

Pulling my hand up and over your shoulder
sharp as a metal plane jutting into the sky,
I recall the arm that held off an erect bull
gunning for our youngest son.

Where was I?

Yes, your shoulder, just above a rib cage often
held against me, frame against the thunders
that besieged us, my digits wave in and out,
and in and out, of those flat bones

I spread my hand wide, snaking it downwards,
my lifelines crisscross as I nestle my palm in
that concave hollow sheltered between your
belly and the top of your thigh.

I’m back to your hip and over its crest to
find the leg and the knee and the ankle
which together carried weak calves out of
flooded fields and into shelter.

The same limbs which transported boxy bee
hives with supers, smokers, and new frames
to buckwheat pastures, a trail of disgruntled
workers humming at your heels.

Our oldest child pokes her intrusive head
into our room. Mother? Are you ready?
No, not yet,
I begin again, in the soft indentation
behind your too small, too low, ear.

Donna O’Shaughnessy is a retired hospice nurse, who started writing after returning to college at age fifty-five. Winner of The Dermot Healy International Poetry Award in 2016 (with While the Coroner Waits) and highly commended in the IYeats Poetry Competition 2015, her work has also appeared in The Galway Review, Ropes, and After Hours. She resides on a small sustainable homestead in Central Illinois.

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