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Kathleen O'Toole


skip from Billy's accordion
skim the polished floorboards 'til
they land up under your heels

then swell into a pulse
that tips the scales of reticence
holding you fast.

Into a circle of arms
now twining, now reaching by,
the notes come skittering

alive in the glistening of flushed
faces, arched along flexed
calf muscles, legs

that spring against the gravity
of measured days. So out of place
in the city, these tunes

when they spill out
over the urgent bass
of sidewalk rap, above

the din of tin cans
and scrap in a pushcart, from the window
of a smokey bar – a stream

of flute, soft and absurd
as sheep would be, grazing in Bayview Park.
Yet there's more beneath

this breath. Under
the taut-stringed fiddle's a fire: grief
pressed to oil, to wine

to a dance
on the exile's grave.

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The brain’s hard-wired with the impulse to feed
when given the chance, and it’s why I always double
the garlic in any recipe. The kitchen behind Nana’s
store always smelled of garlic and aged provolone,
but Sundays were drenched with it, especially
right after church. She cooked early and I’d find
any excuse to dig the tin trowel into the sacks
of dried lentils and fagiole beans, thrilled to feel
them clattering -- the clinking of a cartoon king’s
gold. Years later I found my way back to the empty
row house, hoping to recover that storefront’s hold:
salami-scented floorboards, shelves stocked with tins
of olive oil and anchovies. I only managed to pry
the numbers 4 – 1 – 9 from the cracked door frame,
to wrap them in burlap inside her old trunk. Now
nothing renders the essence of Domenica’s place
like crushing home-grown basil for pesto Genovese,
pressing garlic into a bowl of extra virgin oil, twice
the measure, plus one clove just for the pleasure.

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The gray catbird on my deck may be
in transit, my Maryland home a rest stop
on its way from some Caribbean islet
north. Yet this one seems to be working
on mimicking our house cats for pretzel
crumbs that my nephew puts out. That bird’s
claiming the same corner each day, hungry
and expectant. These transients are lovely, but
notice their conduct: common grackles arrive
first of the summer migrants, masquerading
as European starlings but with a longer tail
and no papers, in case you’re birding and
on your toes. I’ve heard that black crowned
night herons steal food from the birdhouse
at the National Zoo, and I’ve spotted a few
of them reveling in Georgetown after hours.

About the Poet
Kathleen O'Toole is the author of Practice (Finishing Line Press).  She was born in Delaware, and began writing poetry while growing up in a theatrical family in Wilmington, and has taught writing at Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Institute College of Art.  She has worked for nearly 30 years as a professional community organizer, currently with Bread for the World.  She lives in Takoma Park, Md.