By Donna L. Emerson

How We Leave

Aunt Betty, my mother’s older sister,
of the flaming red hair, fancy makeup,
resembled a magazine model.

Her clothing dramatic, stylish,
often green or modern waves of pink
and orange. In my school, girls with red hair
never wore orange and said this was a rule
that lasts for life. Betty broke rules.

She cut her kids’ meat and only allowed
fillets of fish, so they would not have to manage
bones. While we gobbled down pan-fried bluegill 
we’d caught that day, my cousins, 
Nancy, Greg, Jo, ate hot dogs.

When her vacation with us was over,
Betty left in the middle of the night,
before we expected her to leave. 
As young children, we cried, later got mad at her
after she left like this, for taking the goodbyes
away from us.

Yesterday her oldest daughter Nancy died
of breast cancer. She had not stayed in touch
with me, so my farewell had to be read by her
daughter to her at Nancy’s bedside.
My emailed message of goodbye.

Nancy’s daughter asked me if I would send stories
of Nancy as a girl. She had never shared
those times with her children.

I used to imagine Aunt Betty driving in the dawn,
exhausted, miles from her home in Ohio.

Wallace Fulmer

He was always down the hill.
I saw him on his tractor many days,
a wave and off he roared, up beyond his barn.

After our farmhouse burned down,
I built a little cabin at the top of Emerson Road.
Wally drove up in his truck, or on foot, 
or a four-wheeler. For an hour or two.

We all gathered, sat together.
Maybe a glass of water or a cookie.
We told our kids this visiting 
is what we did all our childhoods.

Talk was about the hill since our last visit,
hunting season, snow levels last winter,
how Earl and Mabel were doing, news of Bath.

Talk always included how we were,
our children, our wildfires.

Gathering time ended with 
Now, stop by while you’re here,
or I’ll be up again before you leave.

This easy joining became part of our vacation. 
Wally called it being neighborly.

When he mowed our big field 
and refused to take money, 
when I called him late at night
after the alarm service called us in California,

when he walked by the cabin
to check the property while we were gone, 
Wally called it being a good neighbor.

Wally’s kind of neighborly doesn’t exist
most places. I used to think it was his generation,
a politeness we’ve lost. Now I think it was his alone,

this friendship, unwavering loyalty.
I framed a photograph I took of him, placed it 
with other family portraits last year.
His stands above them all.


Juliet plays Handel’s Bourree, portato,
lifts her wrists—I hear the Latin
portare—she wants the Baroque carrying sound, 
folds her notes to contain the action
of the harpsichord. Not jumpy like staccato, 
more pronounced lifting than legato.

She cares about each note
so much that she presses into it, 
the sound enters her mind to stay, 
before lightly landing on the next note. 

I never learned portato. Moving 
every two years, barely
able to master staccato and legato.

Never got to try the harp, 
the violin, the free instruments in Ohio 
for kids who passed the music test.
I passed three years in a row, readied myself
to play, not move across state, every few months

doing it all again. Worn down, still in book
three, yet moving, moving…

Moving her nimble fingers, she holds the whole note.

Some of Donna L. Emerson’s publications include Alembic, Avatar Review, CQ (California Quarterly), CALYX, The Chaffin, Chicago Quarterly Review, Courtship of Winds, Denver Quarterly, Dos Passos Review, Eclipse, Edison Literary Review, Evening Street Review, Existere – Journal of Arts and Literature, Fourth River, Fox Cry Review, Front Range Review, The Griffin, Grub Street, The Healing Muse, Lips, The London Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, Louisiana Literature, The MacGuffin, Magnolia Review, Marin Poetry Anthology, The Meadow, Naugatuck River Review, New Ohio Review, Nonconformist Magazine, Paterson Literary Review, The Paragon Journal, Passager, Persimmon Tree, Praxis: Gender & Cultural Critiques (formerly Phoebe), Pudding Magazine, Quiddity, Sanskrit, Slipstream, Soundings East, So To Speak, The South Carolina Review, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Spillway, Stone Canoe, Summerset Review, Verdad, Weber—The Contemporary West, and Westview.

Her work has received numerous prizes and awards including Editor’s Choice in the 2017 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award and honorable mention in the 2015 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, nominations for the Pushcart Prize (2013, 2019), and Best of the Net (2012). My second chapbook, Body Rhymes (2009), nominated for a California Book Award, and third and fourth chapbooks, Wild Mercy (2011) and Following Hay (2013), have been published by Finishing Line Press. Emerson’s work can also be seen in anthologies such as Echoes (2012), Keeping Time150 Years of Journal Writing (Passager Press), Chopin with Cherries, A Tribute in Verse (Moonrise Press), Music In The Air (Outrider Press), The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems of the San Francisco Bay Watershed (Sixteen Rivers), and Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California (Scarlet Tanager Press).

Her first full-length poetry collection, The Place of Our Meeting, was published by Finishing Line Press in January 2018 and nominated for the California Book Award. Her second full- length poetry collection, Beside the Well, was published by Cherry Grove Collections in December 2019.

One thought on “How We Leave and Other Poems

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s