Poetry Sunday: Margaret Stawowy

My Father-in-Law Returns from the Dead

He seemed so happy to see me.
Skin pallid, but eyes lively, and hair vigorous as crabgrass.
He sat contentedly among my family,
tucked between two aunts who ignored him.
It was at my Polish grandmother’s house,
a continent away from his Japanese grave.
Our Lady of Czestochowa, black faced and solemn,
sent blessings from her frame on the dining room wall.
I asked what it’s like on the other side. He said
it’s one side.
Then he turned himself into a lap dog
for the amusement of the children.
Later, he limped into the street, looking for a ride back to the city
of the dead. There were no taxis.
Still, he waited and waited.
I knew then how much I misunderstood him.


Poet’s Note

The older relatives in my family, as in many families, have always seemed unknowable and mysterious. Born in another era, they had seen a lot and probably had to make some very tough choices, possibly some of which were disturbing and, to their minds, best forgotten. I learned early on to expect evasive replies when asking specific and even not-so-specific questions concerning their pasts. Superficially, nobody could seem further apart than my Polish grandparents and Japanese in-laws. But perhaps they weren’t so different after all—both had to deal with extreme poverty and lack of self-determination. For example, my Japanese mother-in-law and father-in-law were both sold into servitude as children to pay off gambling debts. Then, they had to live through World War II and postwar times in a defeated country. My father-in-law was not an agreeable or easy-going man, and that’s putting it kindly. In this poem, I created an opportunity to understand him better, to heal some of the harm he inflicted, and to bring the various strands of my family together.



Villanelle for a Broken Washing Machine

The washer broke at the end of the year.
The kitchen knife chopped like a clucking tongue.
Nightfall set the atmosphere

for a house where disorder adhered
no matter how much cleaning or dusting done.
The washer broke at the end of the year, and

clothes piled high, shrines to failed engineers
set to the thwack of a knife on wood,
while darkness set the atmosphere

for a year sliced monthly, with weekly fears—
how to pay for what broke or would soon break.
The washer broke at the end of the year

and sparked and shorted; the squeak of gears
filled hallways where smug workmen had stood.
A raw night set the atmosphere

as minutes to morning slipped into sleep
while people snored between dingy sheets.
The washer broke at the end of the year.
Outside, darkness set the atmosphere.


Poet’s Note

It is amazing how stressful the mechanical failures of home appliances can be. It is particularly dismaying because new appliances, which are supposedly energy efficient, are designed and built to inferior levels when compared to the quality of older appliances. How ecologically sustainable is that? Additionally, when appliances such as washing machines are broken, there will be visits to the laundromat and interminable waits for repair technicians to show up. This particular washing machine, poorly designed, had been a problem almost from the start, and broke down between Christmas and New Year’s. I was not happy about that. Additionally, holiday times tend to dredge up latent disappointments and woes, real and imagined. I thought that a villanelle would be the perfect poetic form to capture both the particular and general qualities of my perceived dysfunction.



How to Die

Play is the work of childhood.  

—Jean Piaget


Expiring on grass is preferred.
One might be there a long time.
Though grass stains, the comfort
factor cannot be overstated.

Keep eyes closed to prevent
involuntary blinking. Full sun
is troublesome, so plan ahead.
Die in the shade.

When the medic arrives—Dr. Casey,
Dr. Kildare—be generous. Give him
a chance to revive you, but remember,
no one expects you to live.

Limbs should flop when shook.
You will still need sips of air in the afterlife.
Survivors will cut you some slack on this.
Just don’t be obvious.

In the end, dying means a funeral—
dandelions, clover, (pretend) tears.
Afterwards, Oreos, but only
for the living.



Poet’s Note

“How to Die” is based upon innocent childhood play in which my friends and I engaged when I was five or so. Children are hardwired to play. It’s how they learn and try to figure things out—like death. In the present, seeing my parents age and decline, I recollected this game and tried to capture our seriousness in the practice and preparation for this inevitable passage.

All three poems are from Keeper of the Pond (Conflux 2018) and reprinted here with permission of the author. “My Father-in Law Returns from the Dead” was first published in Up the Staircase Quarterly, Issue #28, 2015, and in The Scream Online.


Listen to the author reading her poems here:

My Father-in-Law Returns from the Dead

Villanelle for a Broken Washing Machine

How to Die


Margaret Stawowy grew up in Chicago and lived in Japan for eight years. An award-winning poet and Pushcart Prize nominee, she has volunteered for many years with the Marin Poetry Center, including two years as chair. She works as a librarian and lives among bay laurels and oak trees in a verdant woodland area of Northern California. Author photo credit: The Headshot Truck. Keeper of the Pond is available here.

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  • Kati Short May 27, 2018 at 4:39 pm

    Thank you again for a lovely group of poems. I missed Ms. Foust’s commentary, but the poet’s notes covered much of the same subjects as Ms. Foust. What a joy for a Sunday morning. I can’t believe I open this email and poem of the day before anything else. Thank you.