Catharine Clark-Sayles



Sample Poetry

What We Carry

For Dr. Oskar
Your shoulders, lumpy and misshapen, are giving you pain.
I look at the X-ray on the wall, strange alignment, rotation–
and ask how this came to be. In a soft voice you recite
facts: sixteen, lines–you sent left, mothers, sisters sent right,
blue numbers inked on your arm, I have seen them and know–

in abstraction– the meaning, now you tell me about beatings,
of being hung by your wrists with hands tied behind your back,
then a march through snow, how the ones who fell were shot.
You tell me all this gently and I hear the end of the story—
American POWs dressed you in bits of their uniforms, insisted
you were one of them, how they helped you later to New York,
to a life of poet, doctor, and scholar. Last month—
a grandson’s bar mitzvah. You say you don’t really believe
in God, but your grandson does and you are proud of that.
I struggle for balance, my careful objective distance smashed
on the walls of your story, you apologize for tears
in my eyes. But if you can bear to love children, love a woman
for fifty-seven years, love gardens, pear trees
you grafted yourself, love the iambic beat of a poem;
if you can bear to live, how can I not bear to carry your story?

Reading for Rivertown Poets, June 6, 2024

Words Beyond Words

Words beyond words: your sudden wince of pain,
your indrawn breath, the tightening of your throat,
the way your shoulders rise, defensive with some strain.
You sit with tiny rockings of your body like a boat;

if you were I lion I would check your paw for a thorn.
If you were a horse I’d check your saddle for a burr.
You say nothing’s wrong, you are just a little worn
from not sleeping lately and isn’t there a pill to blur

the edges just a bit, something advertised on your TV?
An Rx jotted would be a quick fix: to sound out how deep
the unspoken river of your troubles might be
will make a slower passage as the minute hand creeps.

True healing comes from stories: the telling, the listen.
“Tell me.” I say and watch your tears begin to glisten.


Military Brats

In the logic of 1961, the girls are generals
who are also Army nurses and the boys
are soldiers: captain for the older ones,
little ones are corporals unless they die
exceptionally well and get promoted to sergeant.

They crouch by the mailbox, run zigzag
across the Daugherty’s lawn to cover
pressed flat to the cinder block garage,
sight down their broken branches yell
“Bang!” or a “Buh!Buh!Buh!” of machine gun fire.

Jody’s little brother Kirk pulls a grenade pin
with his teeth, lobs it high, screams “Boom!”
and they all start to argue over who is shot
and who has ducked until a Kent twin falls
writhing to the ground and there’s a call “Medic!”

Jody, Julie and I ride up in a sneakered Jeep,
salute, inspect our casualty clutching his belly in the dirt.
“Looks bad” we say then wiggle fingers over him,
chant “Fix! Fix! Fix!” and Captain Doug
jumps up, salutes, runs back to Iwo Jima

on the Anderson’s patio and we fight
across the McMillan’s yard to Tripoli
like good Marines until the call for supper
where we eat plates of spaghetti as the TV says
the new president is sending advisors to Vietnam.


“Let’s advance and change everything, but leave these little oases
in case the heart gets thirsty en route”
Frank O’Hara
Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s

Once there was we
and a long march of desert routes
to bright pavilions, oasis moons.
We made stone soup from hoarded scraps
shared one long spoon,
pronounced it all delicious.
One can live for years in drought
as green grows brown and never see
the longer walk each day to fill
the leather bag hung in the chest:
miles across a landscape crisped
to unfamiliar curves,
the painted friezes covered in shifting sand.
Until there is you and there is me
and a thirsty march on tender feet.

Reunion: West Virginia, 1989

I don’t need birds to read the wind,
the deluge gathered in the clotted sky ahead,
Daddy always knew storms were coming when the poplar
leaves showed silver green and the swallows
stopped their swoops, flying straight
into the wind to nests sheltered in the loft.

In a rented Ford I race the sunset and the storm,
arrive at Grandma’s with the first drops of rain,
folded in with aunts, uncles, kin: strangers
with faces like mine and I hear my Western vowels
begin to slide, slur into something smudged
with the hollers and creeks outside.
West Virginia hills leave a green imprint.

Grandma’s house becomes a hot soufflé
of sweat and ham and sweet mint tea
as the storm boils up and rain-fists beat the door;
lick of lightning, crash and sudden dark,
Grandma’s voice is clear Mike, you get away
from that phone. A man from Barboursville
was killed last week. That lightning, it can run
right down the wires; you wouldn’t even know.

Laughs and voices in the dark, voices
so nearly mine and the strobe of lightning
flashes faces around the room, people I almost know:
blurred reflections—square jaws, deep eyes —
(there is no stanza break here)
my face: past, present, future. I become
a strand in the thread that winds the room.

Huddled in darkness, my tribe
scratches its story on the walls of this night.
Uncle Niles bares his feet, middle toes fused;
Daddy has toes like his and I am partially webbed.
So, too, are Cousin Caroline and Uncle Mike.
Around the room our strange rite goes: unveiling
toes, we share laughter and lightning.


Puffing up the hill from Bronxville
through night jammed by cicadas
I see the first ember and start to jump,
ready to stamp out flames. In California
the hills burn with a glance and sparks bring panic
to dry grass but the air around me fills
with winking lights, an enchantment
of little lonely guys flashing for a dame.

I’m incapable of sparkle but glad
for the company, in my brain neurons
wink in sympathy; patterning a face,
the smell of summer rain and mason jar
lanterns on the bedside stand
that flickered until I slept
when Daddy released them back into the night.

Imagine —
some little brain cell waiting half a century
to flash, bring past to present so that I am
a child in darkness listening
to adult voices speak of things I will forever
be unable to understand. Now, with bigger words
like bioluminescence and luciferin I still can’t explain
these spangles of delight.

Dancing With Diva
For Barbara and Wendy

Under sail on The Diva, Angel Island ahead;
sky brushed with fire, blue and gold,
chrysanthemums of red and green
against the night – we are rocking
in the arms of Fred Astaire, a waltz
over waves, willing to loose all control
for one-two-three, one-two-three,
we glide suspended into a back dip
on these good waves trusting bouyancy
and the truth of fireworks: promised
nothing but light artfully placed.
It is how the world holds us –
with a startlement of photons exploding
in an unquenched urge to rise and we rise;
each breath a long note of wonder.

Naming: Gross Anatomy

As to naming, we were given no instruction;
one diener said Don’t, another Everyone does.
Professor Ernst went on explaining ligaments,
how they differ from tendons and must not be mixed.

In the gross-lab each body toe-tagged, numbered,
nameless and Paul, our most brilliant, best with a scalpel
insisted that names were sentiment, not science.
But within weeks he was calling his man TC –
The Cadaver for muscles on tests, pumped
into sculpture, knuckles tattooed LOVE and HATE.

Or the woman we named Bertha who taught
the greasy velvet of fat, how it clings and slicks.
Mary with her twisted, useless hands and pink-
polished nails lying next to Hollow Joe, unremarkable
outside his skin, but lungs like stretched-out balloons.
Love for cards and women in Jack’s multitude of tattoos.
Tiny Tina who, from the pale circles, must have loved rings.

In that room of anonymous flesh, we named
vessels like rivers and branching nets of nerves,
made them ours. We learned the heft of a heart,
how it fills a palm and left our names the way tourists
leave comments in guest books, surprised years later to find
the same words sketched in veins under our skins.


On the phone the coroner,
too cheerful for 5AM, still night
and cold, asks and I say Yes,
an expected death. Meaning
you expected abstraction –
someday, not soon – after
the new house lost its newness,
after your daughter’s daughter had arrived,

after wrinkles and dentures and silver hair.
Now you have no hair and your daughter
expecting errors from the doctors
wants to hand out blame. Already
she is expecting her own first lump.

John, beyond your expectation,
stayed. You thought he could not love you
as he distilled whatever he might feel
into careful drops of morphine
measured against the pulling of your breath.
I expected more control, but this call

expected since the gray smudges
appeared on your scan (and its always 5 AM,
always the hour when life expects the least).
The voice on the phone asks if I will sign,
as if any of this would be erased if I said No.


A long day of electronic subversion, seven
computer crashes in the last hour, the phone blinks
incessant missing messages which the repairman
can’t explain and tech support says “M’am your
new TV is haunted” as it clicks on unasked at 3 AM.

Boiling on the edge of rant, I walk through the ER
parking lot–one last call before home.
Summer night, cooling, as Scorpio wheels
across the southern sky the hill rings with metallic
clangs answered by bleats: Maaa!  Maaa!

We’ve got goats: billies, nannies, kids

hundreds moving over the near-vertical
slope, their munching the sound of a distant sea.
A gift of pure hunger simplifies this day,
shakes loose bubbles: something
like laughter, something like tears.

for Pat

I ask you is there anything you want
when you say I want to live I skip a breath
as if I’d fallen hard. You say I’m sorry,

I’m not good at this as if death is a skill anyone learns.
I want to say you should shout, rage, sow salt
across your pillow top but I take your hand

watch the slow meander of morphine-soaked
thought slip away from the one, enormous thing
to distraction: wills, insurance, who will take the cats.

Hiss of oxygen, click of IV, all the useless trappings
I’ve hung around your bed, being human and unable
yet to find acceptance in the sway of trees

outside the window and the patch of sun
that tracks the minutes across your floor.
For a fierce and timeless moment I pray:

for miracles, for gentleness, for folding in.
We sit in silence and when you shake with tears
there is nothing but to hold you until the end.