Poetry Sunday: “Arthritis,” by Carol Moldaw

Arthritis “Save your hands,” my mother says, seeing me untwist a jar’s tight cap— just the way she used to tell me not to let boys fool around, or feel my breasts: “keep them fresh for marriage,” as if they were a pair of actual fruit. I scoffed to think they could bruise, scuff, soften, rot, wither. I look down now at my knuckly thumbs, my index finger permanently askew in the same classic crook as hers, called a swan’s neck, as if snapped, it’s that pronounced. Even as I type, wondering how long I’ll be able to—each joint in my left hand needing to be hoisted, prodded, into place, one knuckle like a clock’s dial clicking as it’s turned to open, bend or unbend. I balk at the idea that we can overuse ourselves, must parcel out and pace our energies so as not to run out of any necessary component while still alive— the definition of “necessary” necessarily suffering change over time. The only certainty is uncertainty, I thought I knew, so ignored whatever she said about boys and sex: her version of a story never mine. It made me laugh, the way she made up traditions, that we didn’t kiss boys until a certain age, we didn’t fool around. What we? What part of me was she? No part I could put my finger on. How odd, then, one day, to find her half-napping in her room, talking first to herself and then to me, about a boy she used to know, her friend’s brother, who she kissed, she said, just because he wanted her to. “Now why would I do that,” she mused, distraught anew and freshly stung by the self-betrayal. So much I still want to do with my hands— type, play, cook, caress, swipe, re-trace.   Copyright © 2018 by Carol Moldaw. Originally published on Poem-a-Day on March 14, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets. Listen to Moldaw reading her poem here, and read an essay about her work, “Then. And Since Then” by Jon Davis in The Santa Fe Reporter, here.   Carol Moldaw is the author of Beauty Refracted (Four Way Books 2018), available for purchase here, as well as five other books of poetry, including The Lightning Field, which won the FIELD Poetry Prize (Oberlin College Press 2002). She is also the author of the novel The Widening (Etruscan Press 2008). Her poems have been published widely, appearing in AGNI, Denver Quarterly, FIELD, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Threepenny Review, and elsewhere, and in anthologies including Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry and Under 35: A New Generation of American Poets. Her work has been translated into Chinese, Portuguese, and Turkish. Her essays and reviews have appeared in a number of journals, including Partisan Review and The Antioch Review. A teacher of creative writing, Moldaw has taught at Naropa University, the College of Santa Fe, and at Stonecoast, the University of Southern Maine’s low-residency MFA program. She is a recurrent Visiting Writer at the Vermont Studio Center and served as the Louis D. Rubin, Jr., Writer-in-Residence at Hollins University. She currently teaches privately and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Author photo credit: Gabriella Marks)  

Poet’s Note

The way a magnet attracts and holds disparate objects, a poem brings into its force field strands of thought and images that have been milling about. In thinking about the arthritis in my hands, I can’t help but think about my mother, who I inherited it from, as well as think about mortality. The connections that occur during writing are always unexpected and often revelatory. Here, I was surprised by the underlying intimacy between us that the poem uncovers.

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