Mrs. Schmetterling

This collection is dedicated to the poets Ewa Lipska & Carolyn Forché,

and to my daughters, Chelsea Lindquist & Jamie Lynn Wise.

Mrs. Schmetterling Kneels in a Garden

 

Mrs. Schmetterling, let’s call her Judith, married.

She is neither great musician nor poet.

Not scientist nor historian. She is ordinary.

Any century’s woman. She cooks, reads, bathes children

and dogs. She takes out the garbage, listens to music.

Mrs. Schmetterling is tired. Her imagination is

pressed like a tiny chestnut blossom between the pages

of old letters and recipes, a book of days.

She would like to give herself advice, chide herself

not simply to feed on the erotic bread of great art,

remain invisible. But she doesn’t. She hesitates,

keeps herself at arm’s length. A practice

she’s learned from her mother. Instead,

she kneels in a garden, breaks open

each amaryllis pod in her palm, peels back

the green triangles of skin forming the bolus

left from the blossom and sprinkles

the black ash of seedlings onto the clay.

from Vox Populi, November 15, 2021

Blindness

The ancient prophets were often blind, and not particularly well received.

Consider Tiresias or Cassandra or Homer himself.

Or Eli or Ahijah the Shilonite, even Paul along the road to Damascus.

 

Musicians too have been known to be blind. Old bluesmen

like Blind Lemon Jefferson or the Blind Willies—Johnson and Mctell—

or Ray Charles on the keys. Though music may make truth

 

easier to accept. Mrs. Schmetterling too has begun to lose her sight,

though she hasn’t discovered any ancillary prophetic powers.

Mostly she sees the blurred words of can or bottle labels.

 

The hazy pages of newspapers or long beloved books. The faces

in family photographs too fuzzy to make out who’s who. She gathers

reading glasses of all kinds, scatters them like seeds

 

about the house, scorns the tiny jeweled chain that might keep

a single pair at the ready round her neck. Small rebellion

against encroaching dark. She hasn’t yet noticed some inward vision

 

replacing the disappearance of a world whose shapes, colors she’s

found riveting since childhood. She waits patiently for this revelation,

the way December forsythia waits for spring.

Blindness.jpg

"Blind (2020)" by Sarah Fisher, page 32

Stain

            After a mixed media work by Sara Fisher

 

Mrs. Schmetterling hears the Dean of Coventry Cathedral say,

We are all angels. We can all be ambassadors of forgiveness.

 

The figure on the canvas looks like an angel, or a nun,

until Mrs. Schmetterling sees she’s made of tiny, yellow rectangles.

 

Strips of tape that read, Stain.

The figure on the canvas is made of laundry stickers and failures,

 

one after another, an avalanche of human error.

The Dean says Coventry Cathedral rose from the ruins, rebuilt

 

with charred beams and marked with the Cross of Nails

to forgive the wounds of history, cleanse the traces.

 

The figure on the canvas has the face and hands of a woman.

Eve in a habit. Eve with yellow, laundry tape wings.

 

Mrs. Schmetterling too is an accumulation of stains.

She wonders how she, or anyone, removes the stains of history.

 

She studies the woman’s face, her open palms

for a salvation story, the human sacrifice required of her.

 

But what she sees is a labyrinthine body of sleeves and wings,

tunic and coif, a weave of wounds and stains

 

whose beauty shines like a mother-father-god.

Mrs. Schmetterling hears the rhyme of stain in angels.

 

She thinks of history as a planetary dry cleaners

where humankind’s soiled laundry is sorted and marked,

 

soaked with solvent or water, and waits for ablution

or ash.

Reviews

Robin Davidson’s Mrs. Schmetterling, a sequence of poems paired with and inspired by the stunning artwork of Sarah Fisher, brings us into the deeply personal yet universally relatable inner world of a woman questioning herself and her life with intelligence and fearlessness.

Mrs. Schmetterling is the continuation of a project Davidson began as a translator of the Polish poet Ewa Lipska, picking up the intimate conversations found in Lipska’s Dear Ms. Schubert, giving voice to a new protagonist. Mrs. Schmetterling joins the ranks of such classic literary figures as the talkative Mrs. Biswas of Reetika Vazirani’s White Elephants and Virginia Woolf’s forever anxious Mrs. Dalloway. She may well be a cousin to Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito. Mrs. Schmetterling captures the spirit of a unique female voice in lines chiseled and shimmering.

  —Askold Melnyczuk, Arrowsmith Press

December 5, 2021

If it took Lipska sixteen years to develop the character of Ms. Schubert, it took almost that long for Davidson to birth Mrs. Schmetterling. . .Most importantly, her “second generation” character developed a contemporary outlook about the commonality of women’s dilemmas between family and career, sacrifice and self-fulfillment across time and cultures. . .

 

Lipska’s Ms. Schubert was a maiden domestic character; she loved and cared for her devoted admirer, Mr. Schmetterling, whose infallible devotion educated her in the fine points of high European culture during an elusive romance steeped in Viennese cafés, lovers’ secret codes, Ferris wheel rides, promenades on riverbanks, erudite readings, handsewn coats, and tender meetings in hotel rooms somewhere in central Europe. Mrs. Schmetterling is assertive and exotic. She is a woman with multiple ethnic and national identities and cultural allegiances. Born in the Italian city of the “Duomo,” which could be any major Italian city with a large Roman Catholic church building, she lives in Kraków, a city foreign to her, takes daily walks in the parks that surround the old city, cooks and sews, and awaits the mail. She has lived in Ukraine, in Lviv, where over one hundred thousand Polish Jews took refuge in World War II, and the gardens where her children once played sound like American backyards. She cultivates a flower from the Southern seas, the amaryllis, and she revives amidst the local chestnut trees. She weaves nature within herself and always returns to it as her anchor, describing her heart as “a flight of cranes.”

from "Mrs. Schmetterling, Quiet Revolutionary"

—Alice-Catherine Carls, World Literature Today

February 22, 2022

In The Balance of Final Things

from Venezuelan poet Nidia Hernandez's poetry website 

Dear Ms. Schubert: Poems by Ewa Lipska. Trans. Robin Davidson & Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska. The Lockert Library of Poetry in Translation, Princeton UP, 2021

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