Alumnae Poets

Gail Mazur '59

Gail Mazur

In her landmark collection Land’s End: New and Selected Poems (The University of Chicago Press, 2020), activist, poet, and Smith College alum Gail Mazur uses descriptive-meditative narratives to weave the past and present together and interrogate loss and art. The National Book Award Citation for Mazur’s 2001 collection They Can’t Take That Away from Me praised her work as “Colloquial as well as eloquent, pitch-perfect no matter how delicate her material... She gives us the exact ‘feel’ of contemporary life in our disquieting republic, the uncanny way in which love, hope, and endurance are shot through by contingency, dread, and estrangement.” Mazur has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College, and Radcliffe Institute. She currently teaches at Boston University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing and at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown where she has served for many years on the Writing Committee.

Gail Mazur's reading will be livestreamed on Facebook and YouTube on December 7, 2021 at 7 p.m.

Select Poems

As if I had no language
and would begin again
in the linguistics
of infancy,
but amnesiac
therefore with nothing
to say –

(unlike the woman in rehab
who could walk
and walked in the linoleum
at all hours, shouting
to no one, I KNOW

-all the words
she knew)

I walked,
past a yard
overgrown, scraggly
after the first frost,
a rose-the bitterest orange-
still blooming, piercing
the morning

(My work had stopped,
I thought

or imperfection

utterly itself,
pale petals tinged
fiery (provident neighbor,
astute to nurture
that gift)

(I didn’t take it)

Not to be thinking
Is this enough, this
moment, the chilled
unpromising air,
not to be wanting more
than I’d been given,
but remembering

last October when
I carried a glass vase,
its rose
lush, creamy
across my living room
for your appreciations,

how you rose from
the rush-seated chair
to meet it saying,

“Oh no, Gail,
the rose doesn’t come
to you-
you go
to the rose.”

From ZEPPO’S FIRST WIFE (University of Chicago Press, 2005)

What would be strange
in someone else’s bed, familiar
here as the body’s jolt
at the edge of sleep-body
persistent, solitary, precarious.

I watch his right hand float
in our bedroom’s midnight,
inscribe forms by instinct on the air,
arterial, calligraphic
figures I’m too literal to follow

I close my book quietly,
leave a woman detective to tough
her own way out of trouble-
local color of Chicago, Sears Tower,
bloodied knuckles, corpses.

I turn to him-
who else would I turn to?-
but I can only watch
for a few minutes at a time
the mysterious art of his sleep.

If I touch his hand, he won’t know it,
and it’s always comforted me

to feel the vibration
the singular humming in him,
nocturnal humming…

My mystery falls to the floor,
nothing I’ll think about tomorrow –
I’m listening for the breath
after this breath,
for each small exhalation

Is this the way it has to be-
one of us always vigilant,
watching over the unconscious
other, the quick elusory
tracings on the night’s space?

That night two years ago
in the hospital, tubes
in his pale right hand,
in his thigh, I asked myself,
does he love me?

and if he does,
how could he let that steely man
in green scrubs snake his way
nearer to his heart
Than I’ve ever gone?

From ZEPPO’S FIRST WIFE (University of Chicago Press, 2005)

Sometimes I have delusions
of total recall, tyrannical, crazy.

Crazy is what I thought years ago,
“You’re crazy!”
when I built a home
over my father’s bulldozed house.

Nothing’s ever lost to me,
certainly not the arsonned pieces of that place
that erupt like clocks
in the rockiness of my yard.

Yesterday, yellowed linoleum
bloomed in the herb garden –
his much-scrubbed kitchen tile;

and this morning, by the door,
I found a porcelain shard,
part of the upstairs bath.

Commonplace relics,
they hide themselves in a common grave,
then, break out on my path;

they bide their time, they just won’t quit,
not while I live –
burnt scraps, artifacts, detritus-
they’re memory’s arsenal
stockpiled under sumac and ferns…

A bit of blue China to make me shiver,

its graceful willow
drooping over two fishermen
pacing a broken blue bridge,

once the perfect world
I pushed and poked mashed turnips around-

Oh, unfathomable figures
so displaced below me,
so fixed in their pitless purposes!

From ZEPPO’S FIRST WIFE (University of Chicago Press, 2005)

August afternoon.


Rag paper, Winsor Newton charcoal,

blackened kneaded eraser beside you in the grass.


Three bare oak trees. You loved what you called

the spikiness of forms, agreed with Rodin


that nothing in nature is ugly.


Monumental, burnt, those trees expressive for you,

as close as if your charcoal had been made of them.


You loved the susurrus of brush on canvas,

the sh shh that charcoal made on paper,


you even liked ekphrastic poems (I hated them).

You’d love me writing this.


That day I asked − was it the only time I asked? −

what you’d been thinking while you drew,


and you looked at me blankly

(you’d already explained so much to me,


that day I wanted to know more,

to be inside you, inside your working mind);


What? what?


How you answered,

tree tree tree

(from The Map of Every Lilac Leaf: Poets Respond to the Smith College Museum of Art, 2020) 

Poetry Center Reading

Winter 2021