What Contains Us by Joanna Brown

Contemplations on life and loss, contained and unbounded.

What Contains Us

He can’t find his wallet so he makes a Lego box to house his allowance,
each week sliding a carefully furled bill into a square hole he snaps open in the top.
The floor is blue the walls are red and the top a primary color mix.
His older brother says, a robber will see that on your dresser right away, that’s not safe.
He fortifies the walls so dollars are no longer visible through the slats.
I find him an empty billfold on the floor under the hutch in the living room, black leather, selected with obsessive debate in a discount store checkout line for his brother who has moved on —
He hurls the box on the living room carpet, Legos scatter —
after the room just had a makeover, finally was looking grownup.
He and his brother fish out the scrolls.
Mommy, help me put the dollars in.
We slide the green bucks in the billfold one by one smoothing out the wrinkles.
I tell him to clean off the floor.
I scrub a pot, pasta barnacled to the sides,
bring smelly clothes to the basement, knees cracking,
find him building from the plastic remnants a tiny car, a spaceship on the carpet,
where a lion is talking to a ninja.

My Sister, Walking Down From the Bimah at Our Aunt’s Funeral

When my sister fans her face
A shadow of death passes through space
Her eulogy wafts a cool breeze
A speech delivered with radiant ease

New life, new life
At 38 weeks, she’s ripe
Subjected to the stress
Of speaking at this mess

Laughter, precious balm
Restoring a measure of calm
Relieving so much tension
But missing the added dimension

The fanning wasn’t funny
In fact it was stunning
The scary truth
What was happening to this granddaughter of Ruth


A pregnant woman is not allowed at the graveside
Where trowelfuls of dirt clunk down on a box of pine
And prayers to a merciful God are stolen by wind

A very pregnant woman should not deliver a eulogy
But who else could have brought out so much joy
In descriptions of my aunt’s flair for fashion
Her writing, fun and boxy, her political passion


These papers bear words
Hammered through the night molded tempered

Now they graze
A face swollen exhausted dazed


I sing El Maalei Rachamim
Our mother’s sister in song
Oh, how we will miss her
But we must move on
Shekhinah, magnanimous shade
Of cravings for shelter you’re made
Covered by dancing, white, glowing letters, you must lift Ellen away
Glossy wings, mother of pearl
Flying is fun, have a whirl
Here is my sister, getting slowly sicker, not wanting to give birth today
When some air’s displaced, other air rushes in
Does one soul’s absence make room for another?
After the funeral, I followed them to the hospital
We didn’t tell my mother or father


Who by fire and who by water
Who by sword and who by wild beast
Who by hunger and who by thirst
Who by blood cells raging and who by a placenta clenching
A new cry a new name
The baby out, my sister heals
Still I reach for my aunt’s presence, her tall form, her voice


Joanna Brown is a writer and physician living in Providence, R.I., with her partner and two sons. Her poetry has appeared in the chapbook 2 Horatio, Topography Magazine, Bird’s Thumb, Mosaic and Lighthouse. Her essays have been published by The Jewish Voice & Herald, She Shines and Rhode Island Public Radio.