Wrestling the Angel

by Melissa McKinstry

                              –for Ana Schwartz

Snow like tablecloths spread over trees,
tzit tzit and yellow wax, strands of Zeyde’s beard–
my 83-year-old friend translates all this
from Bialik’s Yiddish,
his poems about light and wounds.

Her left hand marks its own time on the table,     
so I feel the tremor in my hand
as I parse reversals into English. 

Sometimes I’m under and behind the melody,
pushing to keep up. Sometimes
I’m waiting for her to re-orient.
She turns like a compass in the hand,
like a lost traveler who seeks true north
or a familiar feature of the land:
Have I crossed this stream before?

Last spring she sent a photo of her hand, 
still for a moment, adorned with a blooming cicada,
shiny-green, like the enamel frog
she brought me from her home in Mexico City–
red jewel eyes, jaw hinged
to open a tiny golden vault of a mouth,
a secret where I keep a prayer,
Bless those in need of healing.

What I mean to say is, last week
I thought might be our last week,
and I didn’t want to pick up the phone
this week. What if she was so far away
I couldn’t find her anymore?

Parkinson’s has muddied her brilliance,
and she’s fighting to untangle
her limbs from milfoil, invasive canopy
in formerly clear lakes. I hold her
with my voice and swim her away–
back to the page, to the line,

Then she flashes again like iridescent wings,
and she is a lesson in the shape of chai,
a rung on a ladder. Holy beings ascend and descend
as she wrestles memory, clutches the angel.
And today she reads aloud from Yiddish:
More light, Bialik whispers, great god, more light.


Melissa McKinstry earned her MFA in poetry at Pacific University. Her work has appeared in Rattle, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rust & Moth, december, Tahoma Literary Review, SWWIM, earned honorable mention for the Steve Kowit Poetry Prize as well as contests at Crab Creek Review and The Comstock Review, has been nominated for Best of the Net and a Pushcart Prize, and is forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal.

Image: Ashlee Marie

Image description: a close-up photograph of a cicada perched on a green leaf.