The Joker

Alice Friman Click to


Alice Friman has new poetry forthcoming in Ploughshares, Georgia Review, and Negative Capability. Her sixth collection is The View from Saturn, LSU. A new collection, Blood Weather, is due from LSU in 2019. She’s the winner of many awards, the latest, the 2016 Paumanok Poetry Award. She lives in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she was poet-in-residence at Georgia College.

A house of cards has
no window. No kitchen,
no tarts. The queen, with all
her hearts, holds no more sway
than a four. The king, equal
to a deuce or that knave,
the town crier with a bell,
announcing a royal beheading.
This is the house of the joker,
trickster of the dark carnival,
scepter of misrule, dedicated
to the chop. This is the house
of whimsy—a balancing act—
built to fall.
I shuffle the cards.
Time for my nightly game
of solitaire, that pasteboard
horse I’ve ridden for fifty years,
the deck sticky with constancy.
A dog barks, a clock ticks.
Black five on a red six, red
seven on the black eight.
Wait. The aces are loading
but the one-eyed jack who
waxes his golden hair will
not turn up. The queen of clubs
drops a flower on my grave.
She is my mother. The king
holds a sword to his side,
threatens to use it. Relegated
to the box, the joker, reader
of fortunes, smirks.
Aunt Sadie too told fortunes,
visited once a year at night
to hawk her policies. Peed
with the bathroom door open,
bloomers hanging a bunting
between her knees. Grandpa’s
sister, Grandpa’s shame—
bucktoothed Sadie, old
as the old country, skin like
boiled chicken, gray hair
wild around her head as if
she stuck her toe in an electric
socket. Mama rolls her eyes—
bedtime. Oh, the danger. Not
to be there when Aunt Sadie
reaches into her black purse,
that mystery squatting at her feet
like a patient filing cabinet,
big and bottomless as the trap-
door to forever. See how
she hauls it into her lap, un-
zips, rummages, then
pulls out that little red box,
slips off its rubber band to
snap around her wrist, winks,
and shakes out the cards.
at any deck of cards. See
how the joker prances about
masquerading as a jester
to jolly the royals—silver
bells on his cap, pointy shoes.
The joker’s grandfather, no un-
forgiving Puritan like mine,
but Tarot’s Fool, so busy
poetizing flowers he’d follow
his own babble off a cliff.
Measure the fall: Fool
to faker to jester, jester to
joker—free to say anything
and excused in advance. Lord
of anarchy, writer-in-residence,
boss of all fall down.
engraves in spirals, the needle
buzzing like a doorbell—
a summons one needn’t answer.
The joker will take care of it
from the peephole of his privacy.
Here’s a story:
On the Pyrenean
marble top of the pedestal table,
Madame Irène lines up the cards.
It is Paris before the war,
Madame’s grand salon—
the white hexagonal room
where six Aubusson tapestries
illustrating La Fontaine’s fables
fill the six panels of the walls.
Ladies put down their cups,
press to her side, or kneel
on the water-silk voyeuses
to watch. Navigating the room,
the light from thirty scented
candles settles on our heroine,
and all chat stops. What can
the cards tell of the future
of this house and the Madame
whose worth will founder
in scandal? The Master
has retired to his collection
of porcelains, the only love
he has left to love. The joker
will not show his face tonight.
He doesn’t have to. His best work
is done in the dark.
Aunt Sadie
lays out the cards on Mama’s
kitchen table—the usual ten-
card spread. Her six-dollar
watch flashes in the light
of the overhead bulb. Her eyes
flick over the cards. She is
reading her fortune. Aunt Sadie
doesn’t know from marble tops
and gilt-legged chairs, nor has
she ever heard of La Fontaine,
but she knows fable. She knows
slow and steady wins the race
and when to gather up the cards,
shuffle, and lay them out again,
for like the princess and the pea,
she’s made uncomfortable
by tests of purity. The queen
of spades—even at six I know
the old-maid card when I see it—
she tucks back into the deck.
She is looking for someone else.
And when he shows up as he
inevitably does, she kisses the air,
gathers up the cards, buttons
her make-do sweater, clicks shut
her purse and is gone.
The joker
appreciates odd visitations:
the race-car driver invited
to dinner, the one Madame
will run off with—the children
abandoned or taken from her,
grandchildren she’ll never see
who’ll die in the camps. The joker
is intrigued with consequences—
what happens when someone
just drops in. Lately he has taken
to drop in on me. Could be
I remind him of someone—
skin loosening on the bone,
hair gone wild. He’s begun
whispering to me at night:
past accomplishments, his best
of the best. I tell him he’s just
gathering material for a sort of
New & Selected and I want
no part of it.
After Sadie died,
a cedar chest was discovered
in her rented room. A hope chest
filled with hand-embroidered
pillow slips, sachets, nightgowns,
lacy lady things still waiting
as they had for seventy years,
ever since she’d been sent out—
too ugly for marriage even to
the Sauerkraut & Pickles man
on the corner of Orchard
and Delancey. Yes, sent out
to scrounge up a living selling
insurance, climbing tenement
stairs, knocking on doors for
her fifty cents. But always
she believed he would come,
dazzling in his full regalia—
the Jack of all hearts, the Jack
who would turn around at last
to take her as she was, holding
out the leaf he held in his hand
as if he had just picked it up
that day in Central Park, the first
leaf of autumn when the world
pours down, sad and most beautiful.


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