Poetry Sunday: “Self-Portrait with Prodigal Father,” by Elizabeth Majerus

Self-Portrait with Prodigal Father

When you held your tongue
in the guise of a wise monk,
I was a chattering child.

Laughter gathered to me
like steel shavings to a magnet.
You were rarely amused.

Amid the twisting green scent
of willow, on the thick liquid
muscle of the river, our rare
moment of mutual serenity.

Then you were lifted up and split
apart by the awful beauty
of a mislaid love, salvaged only
by a brother’s meaty hand clapping
you on the back, many helpings
of your sisters’ pinebark stew.

Fast by my mother’s side,
I stood amazed at your errancy.

I don’t know how we survived
that time. But when you returned
to us, your heart had split.
It spilt forth unimagined treasure:
rose quartz, orange blossom
honey, a hundred and fifty
mother-of-pearl buttons,
peals of frank laughter.
You uttered endearments
I didn’t know existed.

Now I eye every slate grey rock,
wonder what color might come
from a well-aimed blow.


“Self-Portrait with Prodigal Father” first appeared in The Emily Dickinson Award Anthology (University West Press 2003). Listen to it here.


Elizabeth Majerus is a poet, musician, and English teacher who lives in Urbana, Illinois, with her family. She is the coeditor with Suzanne Linder of the pedagogical anthology Can I Teach That? Negotiating Taboo Language and Controversial Topics in the Language Arts Classroom(Rowman & Littlefield 2016). Her poems have been published most recently in Arsenic Lobster, The 2River View, and Another Chicago Magazine; she also has a poem forthcoming in the fall 2019 issue of The Madison Review. She is a member of the Glass Room Poets and one-third of the band Motes (Keep it in the Dark [Heirship Records 2015] and Crash the Day [Heirship Records 2018]). Check out the Motes bandcamp page here.


Poet’s Note

I vividly recall writing this poem while studying with Lucie Brock-Broido at the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College. I was tucked into a window seat in one of the large and beautiful bow windows at the Scribner library, working on the simple assignment that Lucie had given us that morning: Write a poem that begins “when…,” has a “then…” section in the middle, and ends with a “now…” section. The poem came forth more or less in one big rush, the crystallization of a long, messy family story and its unexpectedly beautiful aftermath. Writing it felt like the culmination of something important, and when I finished, I felt very little impulse to make any significant changes to it. I think I took out one word. This sort of all-at-once-and-done poem writing is unusual for me, and it felt like a gift. Partly it came from this complicated story with a clear ending having simmered within me for years and partly from the sheer electricity of studying with a poet-teacher as captivating and generous as Lucie.

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