Letter to a Poppy

Little ars poetica, little obvious symbol, stupidly
and just yesterday I took your blooming as a promise
that for weeks I could walk by and be happy
at the sight of you, tiny flag blazing among the green
and brown of mulch and weed, the color of fire,
alive. But the May thunderstorm surprised us with
its doggedness and fury, its two-inch-thick blanket
of hail the size of eyeballs. There’s nothing new
about the message your death transmits. You’re
a scatter of silk in the grass and I can’t take the I out.
What can I imagine that you haven’t already showed me?
I say your name aloud, a crow lands where you lie.

Long Black Veil

Ten years ago, on a cold dark night
Someone was killed, ‘neath the town hall light
There were few at the scene, but they all agreed
That the slayer who ran, looked a lot like me

 The judge said son, what is your alibi
If you were somewhere else, then you won’t have to die
I spoke not a word, thou it meant my life
For I’d been in the arms of my best friend’s wife

 Oh, the scaffold is high and eternity’s near
She stood in the crowd and shed not a tear
But late at night, when the north wind blows
In a long black veil, she cries ov’re my bones

She walks these hills in a long black veil
She visits my grave when the night winds wail
Nobody knows, nobody sees
Nobody knows but me


 Handmade lace, dotted with pearls,
embroidered with vines and flowers,
maybe with fawns peeking
from a curtain of willows,
noses lifted, ears cocked.
Or something older,
passed down from a mother
or grandmother. Or something
cheaper—perhaps they were poor.
It doesn’t matter—she found the veil,
and she made it black—

the girl from the song, I mean. Ashes,
dry, breathable, firescraps
pressing the soft places below
her kneecaps. Ink from an inkwell,
ebony, consistency of milk or blood,
vinegar-scented. A bowl
of blackberries, holding them
one at a time between her thumb
and forefinger, pressing, juice
staining the veil, also her fingers,
her wrist.


I imagine she lived in the woods,
the mountains. Although I want
the mountains, they’re not mine.
I didn’t grow up in them, just
under. My great-grandmother
tried to teach me to crochet, but
I wouldn’t learn. She knew a storm
before its thunder by the way
leaves turned in the wind.
I remember that. Once I asked her
about my great-grandfather,
who died before I was born.
Whatever she was doing, she stopped —
she was rarely still—I didn’t mean
to marry him
, she said. I laughed.
An accident, like missing
a step on the stairs. A bet
with her sister to see who could get a ring first.
Thinking she could break it later,
she accepted a proposal. But her beau arrived
in a borrowed car. She got in.
He didn’t tell her
where they were going.


I didn’t wear a veil, having read
that the lifting of one by the groom
signified the bride (as body)
passing from father to husband.
For others, veil as (mere) accessory,
something pretty to complement
the ballerina skirt and beaded bodice.
Or veil as modesty, preserving the bride’s
beauty for the groom alone. Norse brides
were kidnapped: a blanket thrown
over the head of a captured woman
secured and subdued her. Or veil as privacy.
A (welcome) place to watch.


Pearls, pearls,
in a haul
of three tons,
only three

or four pearls.
From the James
River, mussels?
Or the ocean,

oysters? Shapes:

round, button,
pear, circle,




My mother’s first marriage
was much like her grandmother’s.
Seventeen, a high school senior,
her boyfriend dropped to one knee.
She laughed and said her father
wouldn’t let her. For the honeymoon,
they drove to Disney World.
She called collect to tell her parents
they were safe, but her father
wouldn’t accept the charges.
He didn’t need to speak to her
to know that she was there.


Did she run to him? See him there
where he stood on the scaffold?

Maybe her husband
found her, took her hand,

maybe her eyes met his.
Maybe she cried out

as the rope pulled tight. Maybe
she looked back at his body

swinging, ripe peach
on a summer branch.

And after, did she live in the forest?
How then to keep the veil black?
Mud wouldn’t be enough. The charcoal gills
of mushrooms, pulped roots of irises,
crushed hickory nut hulls.
Feathers the crows lost, tucked in
by their shafts to the lace.
Did she sleep on the ground?
Under elms? And once did
a shadowy moth land beside her
in the dusk? Its wings, if plucked
and smeared, a fine dark dust.


Note: Click here to hear the song Long Black Veil. This poem first appeared in Tar River Poetry.



Having Lunch With the First Grade

I daydream while they play I Spy:
purple grapes, orange orange, pink
strawberry milk. My habit
of attachment persists: I want this
to last and last. What was it Whitman said?
Full of life now, compact, visible.
The teacher claps twice to make
the children listen, the children
clap three times in response.
A silence arrives–a bird stands
still for a second–and I think,
perhaps incongruently, perhaps not,
the only thing we have to do is love.

The Famous Athlete Says

                for L

to become a winner
you must lose so
many times you forget
that winning is possible

and win so much
you see that winning
means nothing. The famous
artist says I kept

going. That was all.
We don’t know what
the artist or athlete
who was not famous

said but we see
evidence of their bliss
in the number of
notebooks and racquets used

each year. The artist
said when I saw
the world did not
care what I did,

that was when the
story came together. The
athlete says the pleasure
of the game must

be enough, it must
be everything. So writing
a novel, playing tennis,

these are the same:
you stand in a
square of your own
creation. You become yourself.

Mayday Sonnet as Distorted Mirror

The melting snow proves everything
that unfolds in time comes to an end.
Suppose a certain number of years
ago your grandmother was born.
The sky swirled with pink seeds
she’d grow up to call helicopters.
It’s too windy: the souls of the dead
must be unsettled. The souls of those of us
walking around in the wind are unsure
whether we’re dreaming past wars
or making new ones. Mayday as a call of distress
comes from the French: m’aidez.
Help me
. The weeping cherry is either dead
from the cold snap or hasn’t bloomed yet.


The cold snap killed the weeping cherry
or it hasn’t bloomed yet. Help me in
French is m’aidez, Mayday,
a call of distress. This new month makes
weather for dreaming past wars in,
walking around in the wind in, unsure,
unsettled. The souls of those of us living
think it’s too windy; the souls of the dead
grow visible, hover like helicopters.
The sky swirls with pink seeds.
Long ago your grandmother was born.
Suppose a certain number of years
unfolds in time and comes to an end
The melting snow proves everything.



My Grandmother Speaks of Beauty

I could eat them with a spoon Herman would say
every time he drove the tractor over and saw
them playing on the red dirt bank: they’d climb up
and up and slide down so fast they wore their palms
raw stopping. Suppose there was a pageant among them,
he said, which one would win. I snatched the corn

he’d brought to give and sent him on. That afternoon
I found two of them stripped to their panties, kneeling
over their toys, a naked Barbie on her back pressed
underneath a bear. What are you doing, I said, keep
this door open
. My daughters’ daughters. They blinked
and didn’t say a word. Suppose there was a pageant—

dark-haired girls, all apple-cheeked, eyes green
as the lake. We put them in the fire truck
for the Apple Festival Parade: look at them wave
and toss down their candy. We should have found
a spoon while we could have done it. Now can’t a single
one of them walk past a mirror without looking in it.


Note: This poem, which first appeared on storySouth, is written from the imagined perspective of my grandmother Betty. May 1 was her birthday.

Kali Kali Kali

for Clayton Lockett, died April 29, 2014
for J.V. Brown, died March 7, 2014
for Iris, who was never born


Kali descended and asked me
to describe her in three words.
I said goddess of destruction.

She said goddess of time and
change. I said that’s five words.
She said I can’t be contained.

In a circle, there is no end and
no beginning. If we assume now
we are in a circle, there is nowhere

to begin. Let’s begin with it is morning
and I am standing on the sidewalk
at the center of a thousand colors,

a thousand textures: silk and brittle,
petal and spike, wrapping paper,
burst balloons blown over from a party

the wind ended, the tree’s shed leaves,
dog shit, flowers, a spectrum
of greens. Or, three things happened:

My grandfather died. My best friend
had an abortion. The state of Oklahoma
executed Clayton Lockett.

Or, at the coffee shop the silverware
clatters to the floor, and the toddler
who has climbed back into

the chair she just fell out of
falls out again. Or rather, the chair
topples over, not once but twice,

then a third time, and the girl cries
all three times, and her nanny puts her
in her stroller and they leave.

The manager asks me if I saw
what happened. That chair is slippery,
I say, or maybe it’s the floor.

Some things seem bound to
keep happening over and over
as the rest of us watch, astonished.

Or we can begin with before
the abortion, when they made my friend
google seven weeks pregnant

 and look at the photos,
the hands and feet paddles,
the heart a center darkness.


Or, let’s make a list. Wars, of course.
Count the wars: one, two, three,
four. And disease: Ebola. Enterovirus D68.

Whooping cough. What else. Airstrikes,
or not. Peace protests, or not. Coal ash.
Radiation in the drinking water. The woman

in Liberia whose whole family died,
and now her village shuns her because—
but I already said Ebola. The woman

who was held hostage for 11 years,
kept in a cage, who bore and cradled
the child of her captor. The woman

who, the woman who. Wars. The daughter
of the woman whose boyfriend beat her
to death signs up for a writing class

about grief. My daughter gets a cough
and a bee sting. I call the 24-hour Walgreen’s.
The wars are far away. The man with the sign

that says Vietnam Vet, Anything Helps
is always on the corner of 6th and Colorado.
I turn down the music when I pass

and hand him packs of trail mix, or
I’m out so I wave and don’t turn down
the music, or I don’t wave and try not to look.

I have said all this before. The pharmacist
says five-year-olds can take Benadryl.
What a miracle the 24-hour Walgreens is.

I would lie down on the floor
in thanks but I have to make breakfast.


Or we can begin in a dream in which
I am explaining to an audience
the concept of the karmic circle:

my actions affect your actions. It’s a snake
swallowing its tail. It’s a ring of flame,
that old symbol. Or I am saying

in a voicemail to my friend the way
the sun is filling the trees this morning
is a trick. We have to steel ourselves

against it. Dead bee in a zinnia,
the zinnia browning but still pink,
the bee a frozen model of itself.


But I am not talking about
any of that. I am talking about
myself and my own little griefs.
I am talking about griefs
I witnessed or witnessed someone
else witness. I’m not talking
about innocence. I am talking about
the moment my friend swallowed
the pill against the sound of
her own voice saying no.
I am talking about the times
I saw her name on my phone’s
screen and didn’t pick up because
I couldn’t take anymore pain.
I am talking about the death
of my grandfather which was
the death of a family. I am not
talking about that at all.
I am talking about a specific
murder that happened years ago
and the final, violent closing
of that circle. I am talking about
a handmade noose of sheets.
No, I am talking about my own
death and my dread of it. No,
I am talking about standing
at the abyss of it, witnessing.


The prisoner was led from
his cell to his death
in the name of all of us.

After the execution,
I stopped listening to
the news. It was a great excuse

since I don’t like the news.
The audience is raising its
collective hand and saying but:

he was a murderer. But I’m
not talking about innocence.
There are a thousand ways

to talk about what happened.
Let’s talk about rattling
the bars. When an inmate is led

from the cell block to the execution chamber,
the other inmates might rattle the bars.
Rattle the bars with what?

I don’t know.
Hard back books? Spoons?
Their bare hands?

Whatever will make noise.


On the sidewalk I talk
to Kali: Kali when she
swallowed the pill that
would end the baby’s
life, Kali when he steeled
his face against death
Kali when I bought
the flight to the funeral
Kali when they pulled
the curtains closed
Kali when she couldn’t
bury the body Kali when
we stood at the grave
and couldn’t cry: really?
All this will happen again?


After my grandfather died his mouth
hung open as if he was astonished
at his own absence. After the execution,

I stopped listening to the news.
Instead now, in the mornings, I walk
around the block and talk to Kali:

Kali, because of you
the sidewalk is scattered
with ribbon and petals and glass.


Note: Thanks to B O D Y, where this poem first appeared.

Earth Day Poem for Amelia

I was going to tell the story of how you drew a sign

that read globl warming is hapning please help

with two circular, frowning polar bears

and speech bubbles: Help!

and how I made twelve copies of the sign

and spent an evening helping

you post them around the neighborhood.

As the sun set, this won’t help

you said, tired and hungry.

These signs won’t make anyone help.

But on Facebook someone posted Child global warming sign—Thanks!

and said she’d walk to work more, find ways to help.

I was going to make the observation

that many poems about climate change happen

as apology letters to children.

We’re sorry, we write, for what is happening:

the live feed video we see at the airport shows

icecaps melting, we watch it happening.

I was going to list facts like solar power was showcased

at the 1878 World Fair but coal had happened

already, so to speak, taken hold. I was going to write that

to be female, like the earth, is to sometimes be told what is happening

to you is not happening. I was going to say speak,

daughter, keep speaking.



The mind wants
everything that isn’t.

Its running list
of alternatives is

constant and vivid:
I would have been

a choreographer in
a bigger city if

I’d had more talent
as a dancer

or a farmer
if I’d loved

the land better.
If I hadn’t watched

the video of
polar icecaps melting

I’d be happier
about the pink

blossoms swelling daily
so early in the

season, fleshy teacups
on bare branches

I glimpse from
the car window.

My choosing of
the classic rock

satellite radio station
is a gesture

of escapism and my
braking to a stop

beside the tree
is a gesture of

reverence. It won’t
last, it won’t last

is a chant like
the Hare Krishnas’ chants

in the mall that
my grandmother warned me

not to listen to.
If we had done

this or that
we might say

in a hundred years
we could have

stopped this. What
that this will

turn out to be
we don’t know

yet. If and
yet are pixels

my mind zooms
in on or

shapes like snowflakes
that land on

my mind. My mind
wants so much:

to rest, to chant,
transcend, blossom, to

binge watch Netflix.
It wants to

say the words
that will save

the world and
knows it can’t.

It watches the
bees, mad and

hungry, nestle in
new blossoms. It wants

to not know
that seven types

of bees are
now endangered species.

It doesn’t mean
to but it feels

the wish appear:
if I never had

a daughter I
wouldn’t have to wonder

what kind of oceans
she will drown in.