Marilyn McGrath

Marilyn’s Poetry

The author has included here some her favorite poems with a brief synopsis for your enjoyment.

The character of Mary Magdalene has always resonated with readers. Was she a prostitute or a well-respected business woman? Did she love him the way his disciples did, or was hers a woman’s passion? She is the stuff of myth and legend, and, judging from the success of The DaVinci Code, interest and controversy only seem to be growing. Personally, I prefer Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Mary, a woman who confronts, possibly for the first time, an attractive and charismatic man who turns her down. This rebuff confuses her because sex has always been her sole measurement of affection; now she must look within herself to locate a deeper source of love.

The Magdalene Revisited

She stands beside a wild rose
in seashell lights of dawn
dusty feet with silver rings, brightly
painted toes. Her rich, embroidered veil falls
into the bend of her arms, henna hair mussed, gypsy eyes
marbled red with grief. She wipes her tears with
hard closed fists
not the slow, shameless way she rubbed his feet
with scented oils
to kindle his desire.

-- Tell us again, who you saw.
-- Describe their dazzling robes.
-- What about the gardener?
-- Yes, that one. What makes you think it was him?

She stutters, not at her best today
she whose beauty and wit
are often celebrated
before business, over wine
with men of rank and consequence, not like these
his brutish friends.
-- Woman, if you are lying . . .

She shakes her head, there is nothing more to say.
If she ripped a branch from this rosebush, if she
dragged the thorns across her face, suffering deep red wounds
of her own, then would they believe her?
It is too much to ask.
She plucks
one white petal, holds it to her cheek
smooth and cool
like silken bed clothes
in the afterglow of love.
This poem, first published in Buffalo Bones, originated from an exercise I did in my writing workshop. Writers were asked to look through a dictionary until coming across a word that caught their fancy. They wrote down the definition and then lived with it awhile, pondering its possibilities. After a few days, they could start writing. The results ended up as poems, short stories, even political diatribes. But they were definitely meaningful to each writer.a


The art of carving or incising intricate designs on whalebone or whale ivory.

The art is too easy
for the pale, graying sailor
beard aglow in yellow homelight
blade carving into bone.
He creates what he remembers:
ship in right proportion
slender masts and canvas billows
upon a tranquil sea.

(Is the hunt a world apart for him? A dream too far removed?)
Every day seeking whale spume
in endless burnt horizons --
unaware of giants singing
shrill soundings from below –
until, at last, from crow’s nest perch
his own stirring cry
at the break of glassy calm,
at the sight of breaching bodies
and graceful monster dances.
A crew of ready seamen, uncoiling heavy rope
launch harpoons
like stones from David’s sling
into massive, shining flesh.

Ship leaves him
old by fireside
to carve his ivory wares
having learned no prayer of gratitude
for what an artist knows,
no aching love for the dance he saw
before that seafoam roil
before red blood and water
washed memory from the bone.
I was fortunate to be able to visit and experience these magnificent ruins of Palenque. I will never be finished writing about them. This poem has been published in Buffalo Bones and Cold Mountain Review.

From the Ruins of a Maya Ball Court

Chiapas, Mexico

Standing in the deepest grass she closed her eyes
thought of young men
sleek as jaguars in a race against the sun
     fierce with concentration
     as if their game were everything
     because for them it was.
She knew it was an honor
but for whom? Their king?
(She imagined him, that bloated one, carried on the backs of slaves,
dark baby eyes pillowed in flesh,
seated upon his human chair,
he drools.)
     Boys at their games
don’t see old women
gray like spiders
weaving slender lacework memories, carefully retrieving
gathering to their silky homes
victims from the ruins.

She listened for the echo
Of her own voice calling –
an empty ball court keeps more silence than a tomb.
     It was (as she remembers) a strange game
     with rules too hard
     to live with.
And no one called her name.
They called to others rushing, bare feet
pushing sodden mounds of morning grass
passing the ball
playing in their own moment
staying in the game
until the sun was gone.
     Boys at rest
can’t see old women
slow like spiders
creeping over silver threads, tapestries deepening
saving young men in their webs;
survivors of the game.
More from Chiapas, Mexico and the Maya ruins of Palenque

Ix Chel’s Mother Speaks

Imagine the temple virgin
deep within the forest
squatting over mossy tufts
bleeding for the first time
     (thinking of a boy, perhaps
     smooth jade around his neck, his
     hair like raven’s wings.)
She rubs her belly, softly moaning
breathing through her cramps
praying that her sacrifice is worthy.

Now, imagine the same girl
returning to the temple in
rosy morning light and
climbing sixty-seven steps
     (the same that every day
     she swept)
met by drums and feathered priests
fierce faces painted blue, knives
of sharp obsidian
glinting in the sun.

They never knew
she liked her back rubbed
when she was afraid, or that she
sang off-key sometimes, and chewed
her fingernails. If only
they had looked at her, and called her
her by her name, thanked her
at the very least
for giving them her heart.

I have no use for temples now
or priests or sacrifice; my prayers
arise from weaving cloth
and stirring soup, and
lullabies I sing.

Genus Magicicada

Consider the cicada: one can live for
seventeen years, another only a week.
In either case, the females are mute.
Listen to an old one chirp. Is that a dirge
for missing friends? Toothless blues
for wasted years beneath the ground? A celebration
for outlasting all the rest? Or just a simple hymn
of praise
for shiny leaves
and loamy places underneath. But now
hear the other one
the one whose time is brief.
Do you think he knows? Does anguish
write his aria – seven days
of hellish droning
about what is
and isn’t fair? Or, maybe unaware
of fate, he is only nature’s mimic
mocking his older cousins
who themselves are mindless echoes of
some Paleozoic choir. Observe
the female. See how
beneath her smaller thorax
freedom resonates; for
when offered
all the music
she chooses not to sing.


Like Rachel
she hides her private gods when she leaves home
that opal night
her showy caravan
with tin can streamers and a husband singing
love songs with all his might; buried
under clothes and wedding gifts, her idols go unnoticed
for all her joy.

Years pass: a hard good-bye, house
of memories sold, a lonely move to
desert, where winters are mild and
silence demands
more attention than children
on a snowy day. In wide-brimmed hat
and sturdy shoes she hikes the
craggy, thumb-like hills
in the company of lizards, hawks drifting
overhead. Finally, she sees it
when clouds disappear -- gold
breaking through the seamless, polished sky.
Familiar glint;
holy relics found.