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By Claudia Marseille

” I am working on a series of vignettes, a combination of poems and short prose pieces set in the 50’s-60’s about growing up in Berkeley, severely hard-of-hearing from birth, and living with a very eccentric, German, mildly bipolar psychoanalyst father.   Here are seven poems from the collection.”

Claudia M's painting

In the Garden

She perched in a squat in the stillness
of a late afternoon in summer,
light sparking through undulating leaves––
nearby her grandmother, sweat-stained kerchief
tying back her hair,
spraying a cooling mist, shattered prisms shimmering,
onto thirsty young plants.

The garden was silent, she had never heard
the warbles of the birds, the rippling wind,
or her grandmother’s calling.

Braiding her fingers through the damp,
she stared with astonished attention
at a tiny worm,

and in one instant’s flicker she gazed
upon a glittering world before words––

and she knew she had been here forever.

First Hearing-Aid

Proudly stepping down the cul de sac
one hand reaching up into my father’s,
the other clutching my brown
paper bag of magic.

Soon—the crack
of steel against steel
from the kitchen sink.

In the garden a jolting
noise from nearby bushes.
I follow my father’s stubby finger
pointing at the sky, a splash of silver
rumbling and vibrating with a ferocious whine.

Soon the painful percussive pow
of my brother’s cap gun
as he thuds down the hallway
chasing Indians.

Tinkling tones of the piano,
drifting afternoons with my ear
against the phonograph player–
Oh my darling, Clementine.

Then one evening from their bedroom,
I hear doors slamming and my father
shouting in German.
My mother, tears on her cheeks,
hustles me away.

I turn my hearing-aid off.

The Walk Home from School

We kids hurried by the sunless house
where mean Tommy, whose face I never saw,
lived alone with his uncle.
Past the German shepherd behind the barbed enclosure.

As we approached our house
I slowed.
You, my father,
old enough to be my grandfather,
in your white tennis shorts,
sweat beads on your face,
aiming an arrow
carefully from across the street
at a hard stuffed target on our lawn.  Thwack.

The arrows, I knew, were metal-tipped,
made to penetrate flesh not straw.
The children slowly, mutely
filed behind you,
a channel edging past a boulder.

You took out another arrow,
positioned it against the string,
pulled back your arm, poised
motionless and ready
between clusters of children.  Thwack.

Neighbors’ faces peered down.
Soon, police sirens blaring.
My face hot, my head dipped down.

I hurried by, pretending
not to see you.  I will never know
if you pretended not to see me.


The Fall

When other fathers are at work,
I peek into the study where he
hunches over a coffee table, a white Go
tile inserted between his second and third
fingers, a Japanese Go magazine in his left hand.
His look of concentration means I have to wait
out in the hallway by the reproduction of Bruegel’s
Fall of Icarus.  I never grow tired of searching
for Icarus’ legs, the boy who splashes headlong into the sea
after ignoring his father’s warnings not to fly
too close to the sun.  The farmer in his bright
red jacket plowing the field with his ox
is oblivious, but the shepherd watches and imagines
he just saw some kind of god.

My father places his tile with a decisive click
onto an intersection on the board.  As he
stretches his arms out to me I dive
into his lap, and rub my cheek
against his woolen jacket.

Friday Night–1960

Have you rascals ever seen a thousand dollar bill? 

Glancing around the restaurant, then,
with a flourish, our father pulled
a bill from his wallet slapping
it down on the table in front of us.
We were eating spaghetti
at our regular plush booth at La Val’s
where he was allowed to take us on Friday nights.

Take a close look at this; you may never see this again. 
Dusk, a hot summer evening,
my thighs sticking
onto the protective plastic
covering the leather seats.
One day when you are older, I will tell you how
I got this.  It’s top secret – Project X.

The light dimmed in the red room.
I studied the bill in my hands.
Hadn’t our mother told us he was not paying child support?

Then, as usual, he drove us downtown
to Edy’s, the old fashioned ice-cream parlor.
We were allowed to pick whatever we wanted
and waitresses in short frilly aprons and pointed
white caps took our order.  I always chose
the banana split.  Our father insisted,
for me, a double helping of hot fudge.

Years later we heard from a family friend
they saw him in Las Vegas gambling.
He made a million dollars counting cards.

Berkeley, 1961

How would you two rascals like to take some LSD?
our father asked us one afternoon.
I was 10, my brother 8,
we were visiting his rental house above the campus.
His Go game arranged on the coffee table
scattered with Japanese magazines
illustrating games played by the masters,
nearby his book on Van Gogh
bound in gray linen open to the Starry Night.

With LSD you can experience your birth again,
like my patients, he told us once.
Why would anyone want to experience their birth?
Coming out naked and slimy
from between my mother’s legs¬–I squirmed.

Will we see wavy curtains,
rainbow lights and shooting stars?
my brother squealed, spinning wildly
in my father’s office chair.

I, too, wanted to see the walls move,
multi-colored auras, and the world in a raindrop,
but I sat quietly.
What would our mother think?

Can we do it right now? my brother,
legs kicking, spinning the other direction.
No, our father said, exasperated.  First,
you have to ask your mother.

What if I remembered my birth but forgot
who I am now?  I might get stuck,
unable to find my way back.
With a mixture of excitement and anxiety
I couldn’t speak.   But I hoped she would say No.

The Wrong One

Sixth grade.  Science class.  I chose
to do my oral report on the ‘ear’
and was prepared with elaborate illustrations
of the outer, middle and inner ear.  I took special
care to draw the three tiniest bones of the human
body; the anvil, hammer and stirrup in the middle ear.

It is a miracle to have sound, any sound at all,
I think.  How these almost transparent bones
can transmit vibrations from the eardrum
to the nerve fibers nested in the inner ear.
How is it that the brain can process these signals
to distinguish between music, speech, and noise?
And what is silence but the absence of vibrations
in the ear?  I strain into the stillness hoping
to hear what I cannot, but these
are things I can’t talk about in my report.

A doctor friend of my mother loaned
me a plastic model for my presentation.
When my mother brought it home, I said:
this is definitely not an ear.  She insisted it was
and pointed out the ear canal
and how it flowed gracefully around
into the coiled cochlea of the inner ear.
But to her annoyance, I refused to bring it.

As she returned the model after my report
the doctor said: Oh my God, that is the wrong one!
This is the female reproductive system!

Claudia as kid

Claudia Marseille is an artist and photographer (and archaeology enthusiast) whose work has been widely collected in the Bay Area. She is represented by the Seager Gray Gallery in Mill Valley, This year, the gallery featured her solo exhibition: Urban Marks.   Earlier solo exhibitions at the Seager Gray included series titled:  Engrams, Journeys, Unearthing Color, and Archaeology of Color.  For further information on Claudia’s work contact www.seagergray.com or www.claudiamarseille.com