Home > Poetry > The Rules of Joy
Published: Wed Apr 15 1992
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Convertiendse en Characoteles / Sorcerers Changing into Their Animal Forms (detail), 2013, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
The Rules of Joy

We must buy it like anything else,
she would tell me, though early on it’s given
us for free; a sample of goods in a store.
Then God’s not above exacting a penalty.
My grandmother’s rooms were full of God,
a nervous liaison, a bargain struck late
in life as a hedge against eternity. She wrote poems,
she rooted in her books, couldn’t trust
life that ran loose past the page.

Each Saturday she lit some votive lights,
three dimes for the small, fifty cents for the large, then knelt
in the glim and flicker of her prayer, remembering her Whitegate
home in Cork, its cobbled streets, early Mass on Sundays
and first Fridays, the wafer on her tongue dissolving
while she imagined more. And then departure,
the ship in early fog, wide ocean, the one true word.

In the new world she came to see
joy’s currency was guilt, or grief—she knew
it had to be: the Arizona gambler hovering
above her in what must be the love act,
wordless, laying seed on seed within
the new mouth of her skin
spread open there like faith, and then

The squirming life that screamed its way into
one dawn, assisted by the sweetbreathed slattern
down the hall—it died there
on the sheet the way belief dies
once you lose the tug of breath to keep it
there. And O she knew
right then the way to pain

Was joy, and ever after that the way to pay
for joy was pain. Life let loose may leave
so slowly you never see it go, or it can disappear
one morning in the gray light suddenly.
She rocked a small death into memory
while Sanctifying Grace stood by her bed,
hard hand out, stern countenance pronouncing Come
now, come—it’s too late—close your eyes,
still your tongue, and leave the rest to me.

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Patricia Traxler is the author of four poetry collections and a novel, Blood (St. Martin’s/Macmillan). She is completing work on a collection of essays, The Eternity Bird. Her poetry has appeared widely, including in The NationBoston ReviewKenyon ReviewMs.SlatePloughsharesThe LA Times Literary Supplement, and in many anthologies, including The Best American Poetry. She was twice named Bunting Poetry Fellow at Radcliffe and has also served as the University of Montana’s Hugo Poet and Ohio State University’s Thurber Poet. (updated 7/2018)

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