Susan Jo Russell

Self-Portrait with Hands

When I grip the steering wheel
in traffic, or shut a window against
a cloudburst, my gaze rests
on the veined backs, fine-lined skin
loosening on the bones—

but to regard my palms requires
a turning, a deliberate act of seeing
the valleys and mounds
that flow down to the vulnerable wrist
where I have a small scar from a cat’s tooth—

how much younger they are, my palms,
how plump and tender, unblemished
as if they’ve hibernated through a tough winter
then emerged to gorge
on summer fruit—

sometimes, in bed, my palms take stock
of my body’s naked surfaces,
gliding over the long ones,
encasing soft roundness, seeking out
its crevices—

Who is to say that I’m old?
My palms are not prayerful
like Dürer’s, yet they are holy.
They have secrets. They are full
of sighs and mischief.

Remember How We Used to Hold Hands, Awkwardly, Across the Armrest in the Movies?

Listen: I was walking my usual route
distracted by the spring influx
of song sparrows.  Did you know
that each male builds his own repertoire—
first copied, then changed
over a lifetime—a structure with variation?

I was listening
to the small drab birds inventing their singular phrases
when I looked around and didn’t know
where I was—
the houses not right, the gardens
not the ones I knew,
the pitch of the street a little off.
A moment of panic
until I realized I’d only missed
my usual turning half a block before.

It’s all so late for expectations.
Where has love gotten to?

Kyle’s the only one, besides
you, who kisses me full on the mouth.
It’s a greeting, not
meant to be sexy. Still, I appreciate
the not holding back of a friend.
I don’t take it lightly.

When you and I say goodnight, you’re leaning
toward me, one hand on your walking stick,
and we make a joke of it, kissing one, two, three,
maybe four times, maybe even five or six
until one of us stops and then
the other puckers up again
and that’s a reason to laugh and have more—

that’s something, isn’t it?

After Going to Bed Mad

In the morning the dishes wait,
no dirtier than the night before.
As far as I can tell, they’re not
discontent, only a bit crustier,

piled in the sink helter-skelter
as I left them, leftovers floating
in the tepid grease-skimmed water.
In my hands they tolerate

the harsh scrubbing sponge. The water, hot
as I can stand, streams off
as I slide them into the drainer’s slots.
Chastened and gleaming,

they lean together
like the old companions that they are.


In the beginning there is only a milkweed plant
and wind

I used to believe in Heaven, or something like,
and I still love

the Sunday School girl who sits still
on a wooden chair

She wears a striped dress with a wide skirt
that just covers her knees,

white socks, patent leather shoes
that buckle

She believes she is watched

and that one day
she will know everything

In the beginning, they said, there was darkness
and light

What if there is no judgment, no reward, only
what I’ve done

what I’ve left

What if, at the end, there are only milkweed seeds
and wind—

tarmac, scorched earth, a few patches
of good dirt

Susan Jo Russell                            

Susan Jo Russell is a mathematics educator from Somerville, MA.  Her poems have appeared in Bellingham Review, Chautauqua, Passager, Slant, The Comstock Review, and elsewhere, and she has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  Her poem, “Tree,” won the 2018 Amy Lowell Prize from the New England Poetry Club. Her chapbook, We Are Not Entirely Abandoned, is published by Finishing Line Press. She co-directs the Brookline Poetry Series.