The Residue, 1947

by Lesley Wheeler

The bath-water, used three times, remembers
heat but does not feel it anymore. The tin tub
in the kitchen swallows the fourth child whole,
the little one who likes to watch the dirt float
from the grooves of his knees, the linty pockets
between his toes. Bubbles cluster in islands.

His mind is wordless but his stomach talks
to the apple-raisin pie cooling nearby. September,
you are a sad mood. The pie remembers summer,
warm and sweet, but does not feel it anymore.

His brother and his sisters are splendidly clean,
one head wetter than the next. Two play checkers
and one reads. Her pink legs are folded on the sofa
but they are also striding into a Concord Christmas,
strapped into ice skates or old-fashioned boots.

His mother says, sit forward now so I don’t burn
you, and pours the fizzing kettle water in.
It smells of iron. Love swarms around him
in clouds, the way the smallest child is always
loved for his red cheeks and his sweet filth. He stretches
his back in it, dunks his head down, and her fingers
briskly dislodge the week from the roots of his hair.

All right, she says, out you go, and does not look
at his shivering. The tub must be dragged
to the garden, a whole month speckling the suds,
time washed away as it ought to be,
off of their bodies, returned to the ground.


Lesley Wheeler’s forthcoming collection, Heterotopia, was selected for the Barrow Street Press Poetry Award. She is also the author ofHeathen (C&R, 2009), Voicing American Poetry (Cornell, 2008), and other books; her poems appear in Poetry, Slate, Prairie Schooner, and other venues. She teaches at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.