by Joanne Fay Brown


Ode to American Communists

(published in Persimmon Tree,
winner of Western States Poetry Competition)

On the sidewalk soapbox in East Flatbush
my mother called out lines from leaflets
by the Young Communist League,
collar of her brown woolen coat
buttoned tight against the chill.
Some, hurrying home with herring,
sour pickles, sweet cream and strawberries,
stopped to listen as the sky grew dim
and haloed light from street lamps shone. 

Workers Unite! And they did for a while
like bright coins in a purse make a dollar.
It had some good in it – at the steel mills,
actors studios, government bureaus.
And there was a family feeling around
the table covered in red-checked
oil cloth, set with borscht, roast chicken,
cole slaw, and coffee cake.

They were smart, they’d read Marx’s
Manifesto. They tossed their hot-potato
opinions, each in their own eyes scathingly
correct, but not heard by any of the others
as their burning fists hit the table and my heart
leaped but could not find cover in its ribbed cage.   

They took the Fifth Amendment,
did not name names though their jobs 
were at stake and there were children 
to feed. Small ancillary soldiers, we sat 
at one end of the table, eating our kugel 
in silence. One of the hard-liners sat 
opposite me. I looked in the mirror behind him.
“Am I blocking your view?” he quipped.
Fifteen and not keen on dialectical materialism,
I’d been wondering if I was pretty.

When the sky grew dim, an army of fireflies 
came. The boys tore off their pale lime lights 
but I saved one in a jar. While the grownups 
expounded their righteousness, I watched it light up,
do what fireflies do –warn away a predator,
defend its territory, look for a mate.
But it was alone, apart from the others —
and the etching on the glass obscured its shining.

Expat — Oaxaca, 2012

(published in Evening Street Review)

On the bus that lurches up Calle Pino Suarez
to the pool where I swim and beyond
to the Soriana supermarket, their sidelong
glances tell me I’m not one of them.

Jesus hangs on a bloody cross above
the driver’s head, a transistor radio
blares Bésame Mucho as I sway,
holding tight to the handrails
in my Nordstrom pants, linen jacket,
gym bag slung across my medium
frame, toenails red-orange in gold
sandals, hair ashy-white and askew,
light skin tarnished by decades of sun.

The women sit upright, prim in petite
straight cotton skirts, button-down
print blouses, brown loafer shoes.
Their muscled arms carry market bags
in green, blue, red plastic, their jet
black hair is cinched by barrettes,
their skin flawless, copper brown. 

I long to know them. I want to chat 
with them – about our children, men,
and God, I ache to laugh, cry, dance
with them – I think we would be good friends. 

The bus pulls roughly to the curb. Me permite?
I murmur, making my way to the door.
I look back. They look forward.
I go on to my morning swim.