Carolyn Raphael

Carolyn Raphael recently retired from Queensborough Community College, CUNY, but is still teaching fiction, drama, and poetry courses there. Her poems have appeared in The Lyric, Pivot, Edge City Review, Orbis, The Formalist, and Cumberland Poetry Review. Her chapbook, Diagrams of Bittersweet, was published by Somers Rocks Press in 1997.


I sang one song when I was young.
Yours were the words and melody;
mine, the acquiescent tongue.
I sang one song when I was young,
my treble notes discreetly hung
beyond the bass majority.
I sang one song when I was young;
yours were the words and melody.

Published in Edge City Review

In Praise of Rhyme

For Alfred Corn

I lead an ordered life, for safety's sake,
to keep at bay the chaos that I dread.
I trim back the forsythia, instead
of letting wayward branches trail or break.
Shunning alarm clocks, I will myself awake—
in spring, I set myself one hour ahead.
I need tight corners for a tidy bed,
and long lists as a hedge against mistake.

No wonder I love rhyme, that strait-laced god,
who calls for phonic echoes that are bound
by well-selected vowels and consonants
in normative or subtler variant mode.
My kind of god, who takes into account
the grand minutiae of sound and sense.

Published in Cumberland Poetry Review

Agrippina the Younger *

Rome, 54 A.D.

Look at him, drooling, as he eyes that mushroom—
as large as one of my brother's gaudy gems—
my drunken emperor, husband, Claudius.
His hand hovers above the golden bowl,
ready to seize his augured destiny.
Halotus, the imperial taster, chews
a smaller mushroom; then we watch and wait.
All smile, then Claudius lifts his poisoned prize.
I shall be called the emperor's final wife,
mother of the young new Emperor Nero.
My husband's legacy will serve him well:
the conquered province of Britannia,
his two new aqueducts, a harbor built
at Ostia, the learned histories
he scribbled nights when slumber would not come.
My memories are not of stone but flesh:
that crippled body, bent and staggering
beneath the purple robe.  And then the tic
and stammer, love's cruel enemies—why even
his mother called him a monster of a man. 
I shudder to remember how he swayed
the Senate to amend the rules, freeing us
to marry purified of incest's stain.
Last year he gave his daughter, Octavia,
in marriage to my Nero: the bonds draw tight.
Now the emperor swallows, then bites again—
the mortal juices dribble down his chin.
At Nero's birth the seer prophesied
that he would live to be Rome's emperor,
and he would kill his mother. To this I say,
then let him kill me; only let him rule.
But look, my husband, sated, falls asleep.
Guards! Bear your emperor gently to his bed.

Published in The Formalist                                                             

* Agrippina was Emperor Claudius's fourth wife and his niece, sister of the murdered Caligula. She convinced Claudius to adopt her son, Nero, and to name him successor over his own son, Britannicus.  Once Nero became emperor, at seventeen years of age, Agrippina tried to rule with him, but he had her killed in 59.

The Women’s Weight-Lifting Class

The shapely young wear tights and leotards,
their arms left bare to boast the muscle gain;
the rest of us wear sweatsuits. Elbows bend
and straighten, fists pull back two four-pound weights.
Soon, eyes glaze over as we keep the beat
like galley slaves who strain in unison.
Their pony tails swing gently with each set;
our lips compress as neck and shoulders tense.
A change to five-pound weights—the stakes increase.
They toss off sixty biceps curls; we sweat
to ward off weakness, flab, and porous bone.
At last, we face the twelve-pound body bar:
the doyennes of the Hercules brigade
begin to raise Antaeus in the air.

Published in Cumberland Poetry Review


Arachne's Loom

For Susan Davis, Weaver

You said the loom was old, perhaps antique,
found in a cobwebbed room by the old Greek
who owns the corner shop on Pallas Street.

Soon it stood on your basement studio floor,
silent, anachronous ambassador
from the vine-draped hills of Lydia's distant shore.

Unaware of the sordid pedigree—
a young girl's arrogance, a goddess's fury,
the sentence of this doomed Penelope—

your fingers stroked the wood, the shuttle's point, 
dusting the time away from every joint.
As in a dream you saw your hands anoint

the reed that parts the threads.  A modern loom
was banished to a corner of the room
while you set fine warp threads on the ancient beam.

The shuttle flew as if an unseen hand
propelled the arrow through the weft; a band
of olive trees emerged, a sacred stand

that was Athena's seal.  You watched, enthralled,
as your arms performed with unknown swiftness, called 
to the magic dance, then, just as quickly, quelled.

I shudder at your tale of inspiration
and plead, in friendship's name, that you obey one 
paramount rule that may mean your salvation.

In case a visitor appears some morning,
a white-haired crone who peers at you performing
your venerated rite, accept her warning:

"Let every finished cloth be interspersed
with tiny flaws (a knot or row reversed),
and when you win a prize, may it not be first."

Published in The Formalist