The Big Fish Story

Late fall and not a soul around for miles.

Just me and my man. And those scallopers

trolling a few hundred feet off shore I'm pointing to,

saying No, Non, Nein, Nyet, Nej,

in every language, including Body English,

in response to his idea that we take off

all our clothes smack in the middle of the lawn

in broad daylight and go swimming!

This is the line he throws me: "But, sweetheart,

the young have given up scalloping.

Those are all old men out there.

Their eyesight is terrible.” Which explains why

I'm naked in the water off the coast

of Massachusetts on the 14th of October

and loving it, the water still summer warm

feeling like silk, like the feel of his flesh

drawing over my skin when we're landed

on a bed, so I swim off out of his reach

lolling and rolling, diving and surfacing,

floating on my back for his still good eyes.

I know what he has in mind and what

I have in mind is to play him for awhile

for that line I swallowed, delay the moment

I'll do a slow crawl over to him,

wrap my legs around his waist, and

reel him in—just the fish he was after.

© Mary Stewart Hammond, originally published in The New Yorker, 2006.

All rights reserved.


Lest we think he's gone, our brother

hangs like Jesus from the dining room wall,

watching over the scrambled eggs and biscuits.

In our father's house it is not necessary

to set a place for him. We all

break bread together. Only the joining

of hands, one with the other, singing grace

around the table, breaks the circle.

Behold. My brother is with me always.

In wedding pictures he's taken for the groom.

We are the couple looking at each other

longer than marriage. We are the ones

holding hands. Look at us, here, starting

down the aisle in the amber light

of time exposures. He's going to give me

away. Rose petals mark the path.

In the gingerbread house clergy await us.

We advance, white-framed, through vaulted ribs

into the forest. Step, hesitate. Squeeze

each other's hand to death. He and I know,

the next time we're here, step, hesitate,

he will be rolled down the aisle.

Mother will want the congregation to sing

"Faith of Our Fathers! Living Still."

Our knuckles show white in every picture.

There are no chicken bones for witches.

So it is, in her nightgown, our mother

offers me a hymnal, her dream folded inside.

It's visited her a dozen times. Before dawn,

she captured it on airmail stationery, meaning

to lift her tidings into my heart, her vision

of a private entrance to a stairway

spiraling up from a dark, stone rotunda

into an airy upper room where everything is white

and very clean, where veils billow from long

windows and fluted pilasters soar into sunbeams.

That I may prepare myself, she wants me

to believe, tucked deep in the black notes

between "Holy Spirit, Truth divine" and "This is

my Father's world," there's an enchanted cottage

complete without a kitchen, no sofas, no chairs,

just two Christmas trees and a high bronze bed.

This is where my brother lives. Up there.

Ahead of us. Waiting. And he's so happy.

He holds out his arms and gathers her in.

Now, she's so happy, she's not afraid of dying.

I haven't the heart to tell her it's a dream,

that he's still in my bed, holding me, promising

me Sparkle Plenty dolls for Christmas,

a Bissell sweeper, a long white dress

with a fingertip veil of Illusion,

a toy groom, encompassed by rose petals, left

waiting on the wedding cake.

"Communion" from Out of Canaan by Mary Stewart Hammond. Copyright © 1991 by Mary Stewart Hammond. Originally appeared in The New Yorker. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Saving Memory

Summer nights we put pennies on the track.

Even the station was quiet enough for crickets.

Mountains surrounded us, middling high and purple.

No matter were we stood they protected us

with perspective. People call them gentle mountains

but you can die in there; they’re thick

with creeper and laurel. Like voodoo,

I drew pictures with a sparkler. A curved line

arced across the night. Rooted in its slope,

one laurel tree big as the mountain holding it.

You can hear the train in the rails.

They’re round, not flat, as you’d expect,

and slick. We’d walk the sound, one step, two, slip,

on purpose, in the ballast, hopscotch

and waltz on the ties, watching the big, round eye

enter the curve and grow like God out of the purple,

the tracks turning mean, molten silver blazing

dead at us. We’d hula. Tango. And the first

white plume would shoot up screaming long, lonely,

vain as Mamma shooing starlings from her latticed pies.

Sing Mickey Mouse, the second scream rising long, again,

up and up. Stick our right hip out, the third

wailing. Give it a hot-cha hot-cha wiggle, the fourth

surrounding us. Wrists to foreheads, bid each other fond

adieus, count three,turn our backs and flash it a moon,

materializing, fantastic, run over with light,

the train shrieking to pieces, scared, meaning it,

short, short, short, short, pushing a noise

bigger than the valley. It sent us flying,

flattened, light as ideas, back on the platform,

the Y6B Mallet compound rolling through

southbound, steamborne, out of Roanoke.

It wasn’t to make the train jump the track

but to hold the breath-edged piece of copper

grown hot with dying, thin with birth,

wiped smooth of origin and homilies.

To hold such power. As big as the eye

of the train, as big as the moon burning

like the sun. All the perspective curved,

curved and gone.

"Saving Memory", from Out of Canaan by Mary Stewart Hammond. Copyright © 1991 by Mary Stewart Hammond. Originally appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Portrait of My Husband Reading Henry James

Rather, it is in the shorter history of America,

not England, not Italy, that we find ourselves

in the perfect middle of a rainy summer afternoon

inside a 1930’s shingled boathouse long since

beached on a low hill out of water’s reach,

and plumbed and electrified for habitation.

No effort has been made to hide its origins.

Old masts and spars wait in the overhead rafters.

Blocks and tackle, coiled in figure eight knots,

loop from hooks on the wooden walls’ open studs.

The faded blue transom of Will o’ the Wisp,

my mother-in-law’s 1920’s childhood Sneakbox,

hangs on its traveler over the west window as if

the bow and midship had sailed into the dark wood.

The person concerned sprawls in a Bean shirt

and Top-Siders in an easy chair by a slow fire

crackling like balled up paper uncrumpling,

the length of him spilling on and on out over the ottoman.

He is meeting Isabel Archer, Madame Merle

and Gilbert Osmond while Duke Ellington’s smooth

rationalizations slide out of speakers in a tease

of intrigues and blue notes played behind the beat,

major chords changing to minor, piano and sax

entwining. The face of our reader, caught in the fiction,

softens. The corners of his mouth turn up

just so. His hand rests on the top of his head.

His hair is silver. Ellington segues to Scott Joplin

to Bernstein. Firelight collects on his glasses.

He is in the pleasure of fine distinctions and

complicating clauses that match his own parsing of matters.

I want to stroke his cheek, but hesitate to break the spell.

He is both far away, and close enough to heave to

with, “Listen to this!” and ”Ohhh. But this!”

and reads paragraphs, whole sections aloud

before he’s off again. Or, he fetches up somewhere

in the middle distance wondering at  “all these

oversexed characters!” (He reads little new fiction.)

As if in answer, “Rhapsody in Blue” rises up out of the clarinet

crying. But he’s back in Rome beside the crinkling fire,

jazz working the room, shingles muffling the rain,

the sounds of a summer afternoon composing themselves

like time and happenstance entering and rippling in a human.

© Mary Stewart Hammond, originally published in Ploughshares, 2009.

All rights reserved.


Tonight they were bringing my brother up from the deep,

nothing so grand as the sea, merely

a quarry in Georgia, barely

a mile or two wide and flooded

to a depth of 200 feet, no bigger

in the scheme of things

than a soup spoon’s bowl,

but it held him, it cradled him,

this place vast as death,

small as life. It reduced him

to a speck in the universe.

The size of him, after all,

was vast and small.

It filled the spoon; it disappeared.

© Mary Stewart Hammond, originally published in The New Yorker 2006.

All rights reserved.

Entering History

The door to the poem opens in, and a couple enter,

set down their luggage, and stand, backs to the door,

silhouetted against the light, taking in the room.


They step through French doors in the far wall

onto a balcony cantilevered over ramparts, and the vast

impastoed Umbrian kingdom swoops away


and down. They have climbed this world in first

and second gear, half the afternoon, past 12th century belfries

and 500-year-old cypresses, up the very blacktop


switchbacking through the view. Dirt roads lead off it,

wandering Etruscan boundaries to invisible purpose. 

An ancient farm truck, no bigger than a pencil eraser,


and the only sign of life and the 21st century,  crawls,

without a sound, along one of them. On distant hills,

the honey and terra cotta of Assisi, Spello, Spoleto,


hover in the haze like cities of God fallen to earth,

for the habitation of humans the size of seeds

on white-haired dandelions. She leans her head on his shoulder. 


He kisses her. They've already shrunk half an inch

since they began their lives together. They turn,

reenter the room, cross back and forth in profile, unpacking. 


He's acquired a stomach, and his hair has gone white.

She pulls off her clothes. There is a scar on her breast,

one in her armpit; three more run like roads


across and down her belly. A bloom of spider veins

tattoos her calf. They're getting old, but not so old

we shouldn't close the door on their nap.


Tonight they'll have dinner downstairs.

Tomorrow they'll drive off into the view. For now,

they'll awaken in this minor city of God


entwined in each other's arms. We'll hear them talking,

sotto voce on the other side of the poem,

dusk erasing their bodies.

© Mary Stewart Hammond, originally published in the Southern Review 2008.

Making Breakfast

There's this ritual, like a charm,

Southern women do after their men

make love to them in the morning.

We rush to the kitchen. As if possessed.

Make one of those big breakfasts

from the old days. To say thank you.

When we know we shouldn't. Understanding

the act smacks of Massah, looks shuffly as

all getout, adds to his belly, which is bad

for his back, and will probably give him

cancer, cardiac arrest, and a stroke. So,

you do have to wonder these days as you

get out the fat-back, knead the dough,

adjust the flame for a slow boil,

flick water on the cast-iron skillet

to check if it's ready and the kitchen

gets steamy and close and smelling

to high heaven, if this isn't an act

of aggressive hostility and/or a symptom

of regressed tractability. Although

on the days we don't I am careful

about broiling his meats instead of

deep-fat frying them for a couple of hours,

dipped in flour, serving them smothered

in cream gravy made from the drippings,

and, in fact, I won't even do

that anymore period, no matter what

he does to deserve it, and besides, we are

going on eighteen years so it's not as if we

eat breakfast as often as we used to,

and when we do I now should serve him--

forget the politics of who serves whom--

oatmeal after? But if this drive answers

to days when death, like woolly mammoths

and Visigoth hordes and rebellious kinsmen,

waited outside us, then it's healthy, if

primitive, to cook Southern. Consider it

an extra precaution. I look at his face,

that weak-kneed, that buffalo-eyed,

Samson-after-his-haircut face, all of him

burnished with grits and sausage

and fried apples and biscuits and my

power, and adrift outside himself,

and the sight makes me feel all over

again like what I thank him for

except bigger, slower, lasting, as if,

hog-tied, the hunk of him were risen

with the splotchy butterfly on my chest,

which, contrary to medical opinion, does not

fade but lifts off into the atmosphere,

coupling, going on ahead.

"Making Breakfast" from Out of Canaan by Mary Stewart Hammond.

Copyright © 1991 by Mary Stewart Hammond. Originally appeared in The New Yorker. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


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