Marsha de la O’s book of poetry, Black Hope, won the New Issues Press Poetry Prize and a Small Press Editor’s Choice Award. She is the winner of the dA Poetry Award and the Ventura Poetry Festival Contest. She has published in journals such as Barrow Street, Passages North, Solo, and Third Coast. She was raised in the Los Angeles area and now lives in Ventura, California where she is co-editor for the literary journal, Askew. She is currently working on a novel.
What artist inspires you?
Once when I was a very young woman working at the Huntington Library, a Virginia Woolf scholar I admired very much told me in some desperation that her cousin from Tennessee was on his way out to California for a reading at the library. She was afraid only a few people would attend. Would I come? Yes, absolutely, for her. The truth was I had never been to a poetry reading, but her plea galvanized me, filled me with an impulse to protect her cousin, especially from the local doyennes in the Junior League, who, I already knew, didn’t attend very deeply to anything. I found a seat up front, and listened with an intensity that bordered on sexual tenderness. A transport that plunged me into the dream excavation beneath the house where his father died, the poet working that ground under the floorboards, insinuation of root and must. And yet, a primary element of what I heard was light—his father staggering in, confused, the way the dead often are, one hand shielding his eyes. Grief, light, intimacy, death. The business of our hearts. His name was Charles Wright.
His Burning Cloud
The year my father stops talking
the cold shrinks and learns
to glide through the grid
of fabric against my skin.
A bee drills its zero
into wood and oleanders
smack the wind with red
bomber lips. Mother’s
flying small flags of laundry
out back while Father haunts
the garage. Silence is his burning
cloud. The air is fat with poison
kisses. Pray she says in a ropy
voice to a full quiver of kids
perched on her bedspread. And
we do. We call on god who
holds invisible wires to
return words to his mouth.
I Have Not Said If I Believe
She sprang out of the pine plank table
at Nana’s house, a witch with a rope
around her neck and all the havoc spilling
out encoded in our DNA. I studied
a dipping barometer and felt dirty beneath
my clothes, a bone fingered and sucked.
Mother favored gray for me, not that
it mattered a flip. Elder brother carried
our witch sewn in a vein in his thigh.
I did not think she hammered there.
They set a match to sixteen candles.
She was hung not burnt, he announced,
pressure falling, needle notching
toward dimensions where a witch
is hanging still, her ankles stretched
longer than human, she had six
children, her name was Lydia. He started
the song for ha-ha. Never been kissed,
crooned first brother, lost count, cracked
the other, sally, sally, I muttered while
mother’s mouth goes darker and
tighter. Hurry up and blow. Everyone
laughed when the flames died out.
Under the Lemon Tree
Not rain, but fine mist
falls from my lemon tree,
a balm of droplets in green shadow.
Six years now my mother gone to earth.
This dew, light as footsteps of the dead.
She often walked out here, craned her neck,
considered the fruit, hundreds of globes
in their leathery hides, figuring on
custard and pudding, meringue and
But her plans didn’t work out.
The tree goes on unceasingly—lemons fall
and fold into earth and begin again—
me, I come here as a salve against heat,
come to languish, to let the soft bursts—
essence of citrus, summer’s distillate—
drift into my face and settle.
Water and gold brew in the quiet deeps
at the far end of the season. Leaves swallow
the body of light and the breath of water brims over.
My hands cup each other the way hers did.
The palo verde by my sister’s door grew from stones
and did not pass away. The door vanished.
Ruin is not a wall, more like a hand with
many fingers reaching through the pines
to grasp the house. Most of the trees survived
though some had their hearts burnt out
and didn’t know they died in that storm made
of heat and wind and revisioning rain—
droplets of ash and chalk and fine-grain
drifting sand filling arroyos, smoothing
out the land as gently as she did, smearing the salve
in her horses’ blasted eyes. The wreckage
shamed her. The roof floated away, beams
disappeared and thousands of ten-penny
nails dropped plumb into black and when
she went back to the rubble, sifting
in screens for her mother’s wedding ring, she already
knew its small run of brilliance had done.