Julie Sheehan
Malted Barley

You often confuse Ceres, the goddess of grain,
with that ardent seeker, Demeter. My bed may be cold, but my cradle
is full, my breakfast already eaten from a porcelain bowl white
as a cranium, clean as a break or a vow at the top stair cracked
before your shoes can sound their steel-tipped descent from flights
where you now nightly sleep.

How do you sleep? I wonder how you sleep.
Each morning our evening's rage engrains
itself in my telling of it to myself: the pearl a crusty oyster shell cradles
so defensively, the shallow grave of white
lies I give my estranged and crack-
pot heart, a breakfast ceremony as boring as an osprey's circular flight

when there's nothing to eat. You reheat leftovers too, of fight-or-flight
instinct, and this, our entrapment, the child-proof bars on the cradle
upstairs belied by the child inside who only seems to sleep
through our boiling spats. At two, she's cracked
the code of discord. You don't believe me, but she's tasted of Hades a grain
or two, she has. I've seen her bite, just like I've seen your white

knuckles go against the grain
of that calm you claim won't crack
but always does. Our child, Persephone of sleep,
abstains from waking. I take that time to read, a book cradled
in my arms and heavier than her heavy head, with its off-white
hair so feather fine, so prone like mine to flight.

Ceres never had Demeter's devotion. I cradle
my empty bowl in my treacherous palms, some whole-wheat grain
still stuck to its white
lip where a chip is the delta to a hairline crack
too thin for tributaries. To take flight
upriver, to rid by bleaching, to sleep, to sleep.

But I will fill the bowl again, and bring forth grain
the way a goddess will, and leave the harvest to sleep
late, cradle
to outgrow itself. I'm fixed in flight
from all but conception, cerebral words like seeds in a white
envelope. How maternal, this spoon, its practical click clink crack

and the clean white milk that sleeps
in it. How cracked, the jettison, the grain
scooped up in slow flight from a porcelain-skulled cradle.*

*When Marguerite (Pearl! Crumb! Little Daisy! Oxeye!) was but hours old, I received instruction from a severe R.N. at the hospital to nurse her every three hours “lest ye die” and, along with that stricture, a few useless tips for waking up a baby who didn’t want to wake up: tickle her feet, chuck her under the chin, blow on her face, taking care to support her head. Most new moms pray for respite; for the next two weeks I was doing the opposite, setting my alarm for midnight, then three a.m., then six, lurching out of bed like a crazed prophet, rousting my infant with textbook tickles, chucks and puffs to coax her into latching on. These devotions went on with almost no nursing on her part – she stayed serenely insensible – but with plenty of weeping and gnashing of teeth on mine, amplified through sleep deprivation, until an astonished pediatrician (“You’re doing what? Waking her up?”) mercifully said, “My God, let her sleep!”