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The Accounts

The Accounts

by Katie Peterson


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The death of a mother alters forever a family’s story of itself. Indeed, it taxes the ability of a family to tell that story at all. The Accounts narrates the struggle to speak with any clear understanding in the wake of that loss. The title poem attempts three explanations of the departure of a life from the earth—a physical account, a psychological account, and a spiritual account. It is embedded in a long narrative sequence that tries to state plainly the facts of the last days of the mother’s life, in a room that formerly housed a television, next to a California backyard. The visual focus of that sequence, a robin’s nest, poised above the family home, sings in a kind of lament, giving its own version of ways we can see the transformation of the dying into the dead. In other poems, called “Arguments,” two voices exchange uncertain truths about subjects as high as heaven and as low as crime. Grief is a problem that cannot be solved by thinking, but that doesn’t stop the mind, which relentlessly carries on, trying in vain to settle its accounts. The death of a well-loved person creates a debt that can never be repaid. It reminds the living of our own psychological debts to each other, and to the dead. In this sense, the death of this particular mother and the transformation of this particular family are evocative of a greater struggle against any changing reality, and the loss of all beautiful and passing forms of order.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226062662
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/24/2013
Series: Phoenix Poets Series
Pages: 104
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Katie Peterson is professor of the practice of poetry at Tufts University. She is the author of two other collections of poetry, This One Tree and Permission. She lives in Somerville, MA.

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The Accounts



Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-06266-2



    I have been trying to read King Lear. End up drinking
    red wine, and talking about the tropics.
    Thought there might be a poem in the play,
    maybe the way he talks about the button
    on his coat before he dies standing, carrying
    the body of the hanged. Maybe the part
    where she refuses to bargain and the maps
    on the table are redrawn.

    * * *

    I am sleeping. Elsewhere, you are finishing Tess
    of the d'Urbervilles
, those last chapters, before they end
    up at Stonehenge, and Angel says to Tess
    Sleepy my dear I think you are lying
    on the altar.
The part where the book lets them
    hold each other, without sleepwalking
    or lies. Angel has traded in his harp
    for a tin kettle and bread. They picnic in a damask-curtained bed,
    a fugitive and an accomplice. I may be turning
    toward the branch of apple blossom bearing its burden
    of the raindrops in an even more buoyant aspect
    than the night before. Now you are the caretaker,
    finding Tess's fine silk stockings draped
    on the damask coverlet in the house they squat in,
    giving both of them away.

    * * *

    The tree in the side yard not
    yet in the kind of flower to release it
    and uncover it again. Everything, everything, and before
    everything the possibility of something else,
    the moment when a moral gets minced by an account
    a body makes of any other body,
    and time takes place instead of taking time.
    Cordelia with the armies of her husband
    scouring the unharvested corn of her homeland
    for her naked, wandering, delusional father.
    Tess at the dairy, good at her job. Angel
    in the field, his fingers on the strings of his harp.
    You carrying me into a lake in August,
    the summer my mother left the earth.


    At the border between winter
    and spring, at the house I am living in,
    outside the window
    in the bedroom, closest to the bed,
    a branch I thought of as near dead
    comes into a cascade of flowers
    the color of champagne.

    For weeks, I couldn't think of the right
    figure from myth.
    I rejected the seeds of the pomegranate.
    I rejected the mirror, rejected
    going in drag toward the laurel
    and calling it mine.
    I wanted a woman who grabs.

    I bought a camera, and began to save
    the sound of the wind through fences,
    to layer it over water
    running the course of an icy creek
    in the desert, but I couldn't keep
    the scent of sage rising with the rain
    across a rock covered with lichen.

    All winter that dark arm
    scratched my window, paying no
    attention to my appetite for sleep.
    I could have ripped it right out.
    Something kept me from that.
    Judgment is preferable to faithfulness.
    A pair of handcuffs better than a ring.

    The mistake other people make,
    I won't: because the rules have changed,
    there is nothing beautiful to obey.
    For three hundred years an island lost
    the ability to make pottery on a wheel.
    They looted ruins that had been houses once.
    But they knew they had been houses.

    I refused the pomegranate, I took
    back the mirror, but I took from
    the pomegranate its difficulty, its bitter
    extraction. From the mirror, I took
    its appetite for change.
    The laurel had been my address.
    I changed it.

    I can't say that I'll stay up all night
    waiting for the ghost, but I will promise
    a thing more difficult:
    If she asks, I will do what she says.
    So when I fail her, you will know
    exactly how to punish me.

    As a child, I was taken
    to look at a mountain, every year,
    in the summer.

    I was only willing to say:
    nothing terrifying happens to the good

    The lookout road opened
    when the snowpack melted, late
    in the season

    Others have argued for green fields

    Every year my father pointed to the mountain.

    I couldn't see that far—meaning, I suppose,
    I didn't want to—

    His finger traced a rivulet toward a source
    high in a crease where two mountains met.
    His thumbprint on
    the site where he had camped.

    When others speak of green fields,
    I get sick.

    A map etched in metal with the names
    of all the mountains in the range
    and a line of ridge representing the crest—
    we leaned against that.

    Fantasies I've tried recently to kill: happy
    family, heaven

    I liked to trace that ridge with my ring
    finger, on my left hand, the one
    I wrote with, and then do the same
    in the air, across the original. Later, in the car,
    with my eyes shut, I tried again, on the window,
    as we drove across the bay.

    Shouldn't goodness be rewarded
    with the absence of terror?

    We went to fish, not to climb.
    At Deadman Creek, my father
    baited his hook while half a dozen
    sucked the blood from his hand.

    But I have seen the shape green fields
    make in the eye,
    like a casino in a small town.

    One year we didn't have time
    to go to the mountain.

    That morning, we had fished a lake for nothing.
    The night before, we played poker, but the children
    wanted to make everything wild.

    Too many wild cards kill the competition.

    The adults becoming frustrated
    with the children playing their games,
    though it would be wrong to say
    we had no regard for rules.

    I begged to see the mountain.

    But it is punishment that governs the field.

    That meant I asked once, on behalf of someone else,
    but experienced my own disappointment.

    You're not a farmer—the field
    doesn't pay for you. You pay for the field.

    The mountain isn't a bottomless well.
    You know you have to pay your tribute.

    The good breathe so deeply, it is like eating—

    your tribute is your presence, the coinage
    of your person—

    those from whom the burden has been lifted—

    though the country you drive through is beautiful
    with a range of blues the envy of the Netherlands—

    their hands rest at their sides—

    it is not the mountain—

    and you can live like that.


    Sick in bed with a sore throat,
    I can't get out of my mind
    the image of the cat
    harpsichord from the eighteenth century,
    soothing a prince with laughter.

    It worked like this: the tails of them attached
    to the strings of the instrument
    were pulled by different notes, and the difference
    between the way the cats
    cried was music.

    A shadow is only a shape.
    Which is why certain individuals
    can put their hands in light
    and make them birds, can say in shadow
    what they can't in light.

    The tiny branches of the hedge
    in the yard that separates
    my house from the next
    look like the rib bones of a bird
    when the sun hits lunch.

    The world, they say, is best for a nest
    but no good for a flying place.
    Come back, I say to my dead,
    and the branches don't even graze
    the window, when I eat it hurts.

    When you say, imagine yourself     in a safe green place, I lie
    on her grave, looking up
    at the inscription in the monument
    where my father's date will go.

    The question of alignment
    complicates the spiritual writings
    of the ancients.

    Fog drifts in. We are safer, I think,
    without sunlight, without

    St. John of the Cross
    keeping his head up straight,
    so his soul, which he calls
    the body of the bride
    would be looking up,
    not just the eyes.

    Eleven o'clock in the morning
    and the whole day ahead.

    Or that each pose in the series
    proceeds to headstand
    or standing. In the arm balance
    I am inside an anxious quiet

    called Crow, the knees nest
    in the upper arms, and the head
    stays low

    I think I have always been there.

    You should breathe into the hands.
    You should remove the bones
    of the hands and replace them
    with adamantine chains.

    Definition of picnic: excursion to the country
    taking food to be eaten outside

    The earth takes the soul out of alignment.
    The body takes the soul
    fishing for nothing in a shitty river

    Originally, a meal to which everyone
    brought their own share

    In one pose, the hands
    reach back to catch the toes.
    You have become a bow.

    Later, any assemblage, an anthology,
    in the nineteenth century, one guide
    to the wild flowers of a private park
    in England called Best Man's End
    was called End's Picnic. You should see
    There are many practices,

    the specimens, dried and pressed,
    identified not only by name
    but by the approximate
    time of their plucking.

    The trick is practicing every day
    what it is you practice,

    an assiduous acquisition, a rape

    to continue on the path.
    Often, in the imagination of these texts,

    determined by the perfection of the petals,
    a lack of tatter,
    and the sturdiness of the stem

    the spiritual workday is night

    To the picnic I bring my body,

    the eyes have a meaning past use,

    and little else, I am so thirsty,

    the question is are you saved

    I open my mouth to the fog

    because you pay attention?


    It is difficult to believe, but before
    the Japanese maple oriented
    the corner of the brick front
    porch, before the roots
    drank up the minerals
    of rich dirt, and the branches
    spread into hands and smaller
    hands, under the porchlight,
    which still drops
    a circle of its orange light
    evenly across uneven
    leaves, as the tree met the earth
    unwillingly, transplanted from a garden
    where all it had to do
    was be like anything near it that resembled it,
    since that is how so many lives
    begin, especially the decorative,
    which are not less because they are not deep,
    as, literally, these roots are not deep enough,
    my mother planted a rosebush
    which thrived so before it died
    we walked on petals three seasons of the year.
    And though this was California,
    such behavior of a plant could still
    be understood as the excess
    of what a person tending
    the garden should expect.
    To hold on to one thing to
    the excess of all else
    resembles being
    attached to nothing at all.
    The years passed;
    the replacement grew refulgent.


Excerpted from The Accounts by KATIE PETERSON. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents



Argument about Heaven
Sore Throat
Argument about Appetite
The Replacement
When Fruit and Flowers Hung Thick Falling
Allied Arts
Argument about the Beginning


The Garden
A Potter
From the Nest
The Accounts
The Body


I Am the Middle
From This House That House
Argument about Silence
Argument about Responsibility
Ars Poetica: Fuchsia

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