Birds in the 21st Century
They were not necessary. We regarded them as we did sequins on a sweater or the movement of rickrack around a hem. Birds were doodles in the margins of our pages. They were not essential like air and water, but they filled the trees with music, added color to winter and amazed us with their tiny powers of flight. They were always busy pulling worms from the ground, sleeping with one eye open while balancing on a wire. You try it. Their motley nests in ivy, in corners, in trees, on the ground hid them from us and smaller predators. Their eggs wore the tartans of different country sides or opted for sky blue, but birds stopped being necessary when we moved inside. Once we read the weather in their migrations, but now there’s tv. Sometimes a warbler thumped into a window and dropped stunned or worse. Children buried them with beloved pets; some birds weighed less than a penny. The birds needed to hear each other sing so they stayed up later, rose earlier because of human din. Illumination everywhere all the time wore them out. No one found long jewels of blue jay feathers in the grass. Bird baths grew moss. Bugs thrived, even less reason to go outside. People who remembered birds were asked again and again to describe how ducks landed feet first on a pond, how hawks snatched sparrows from the air, how, with a great deal of fluttering, the cardinal mates landed on the windowsill to feed each other seeds, and about the wren who lined her nest with rabbit fur. Unbelievable that such small, inventive creatures so unlike us lived in our lifetime, magicians of the air, sign of spring, what I hang around my neck in shame.
by Elizabeth Kerlikowske
Editor’s note: The heartbreaking message of this prose poem is delivered through the repetition of denial—adding more and more impact to a difficult theme.
Woman, you who never wore a bra, you who never guzzled wine, now have dark birds and their shrouded nest in your tit, swollen stone eggs you thought were nothing until they were something. We were at the brink of gravity when we met, our blooms long spent. Still, we were radiant with that independence of women “coming into their own.” Hell’s din and swell had dimmed down to a dull roar. The struggle had found formidable and seasoned foe. Well, I watched you carry the skinny drunk chick upstairs from the building backyard, holding your favourite shawl over her wet jeans on behalf of her dignity. I watched you fight like a lion for me when I made a wrong turn, and gave all my love to the wrong man. I took up your flag when a mutual friend you thought could love you, could not love you, after all. It cut us both to pieces. You boiled water until it was hissing spit, tossed tea into the cauldron, mothered my wounds with theophylline and honey. I sheltered you when her door was locked, when things turned mean. We would stake out the city from one end to the other in the caustic cold of February, or hike to Spadina to slurp spicy pork bone soup like starved and frozen explorers. And here we are, now, face to face, after everything, taking on the inevitable. It is now, or it is later, but it is what is. This wild unwinding, this unknown known. Now we await the results of scans, configure charts, see signs in winter flight, in the shrill shudder of fate and her unmoored mutterings. I can’t imagine you sick or not there, beg you to stay. You tip your feathers to the wind, say what will be, will be.
by Lorette C. Luzajic, first appeared in Pretty Time Machine (Mixed Up Media, 2020).
Editor’s Note: This prose poem uses startling imagery to press the gravity of a desperate medical diagnosis into the reader’s mind. Like life, the end of the narrative is not quite grief nor certainty, but rather the ongoing struggle put in words.
River of Dreams
I favored the mirror, a river of dreams. I wanted to wade in it, to close my eyes and open them someplace else. Salt water cradles; it won’t let you drown. I believed in the other side of the mirror. I was the sleepwalker. You stayed awake, kept watch. Still I remember everything. Every room of our house, every hiding place: the shaded triangle behind the neighbor’s bulkhead in summer, the patch behind the raspberry bushes we called “the haystack” in winter, when we’d bury ourselves in dried grass to stay warm. The TV room in the basement, speckled shag carpet that never showed stains. You’d get me out of bed early on Saturday mornings and we’d sneak down to watch cartoons. Shoes we didn’t know outside our mother’s room meant cereal for breakfast, and if there were no bowls we’d use coffee cups, and if there was no milk we’d pour it into a popcorn bowl and eat it dry. You’d complain about how useless Aqua-Man was and how much better Batman would be without Robin and I’d fall asleep again, listening to the dog snore, using up all my goings-away in dreams, never dreaming you were saving all of yours for the real world. You never understood why my bookshelves bulged, why I read the same books over and over. Why read a book again when you know how the story ends? Wendy grows up and forgets the way. Dorothy chants: There’s no place like home. The dreaming ends when Alice wakes up. Who’d choose the man-village over the jungle? Who’d give up being kings and queens in Narnia to be solicitors and vicar’s wives in Wolverhampton? Who’d choose Kansas over Oz? But Alice looks out of the mirror. Alice wakes up. Alice always wakes up.
by Kathryn Kulpa
Editor’s Note: Prose poems give up line breaks, and must carry the reader with mere words. This prose poem’s narrative descends into surreality, in keeping with the fictional nods, and emphasis on emotional imagery. Very few poems give me chills these days, but the end of this one did.
Notes on a Ruled Surface
A few lines flung about the paper land in a cone shape, which we imagine as a hat. The hat is then flung about the curved head of a woman standing in the margins of a French novel. No. That’s not quite right. It should be a conical hat, better suited to scrolling down a set of points swept by a moving straight line. Think: a river dotted with lanterns.
When you let your eye follow the hat, you see how softly it slips over the woman’s edifice of tightly latched birdcages, falls over the tight Achilles tendons that brought her to her knees. Her hips can no longer swing from the cages, she can no longer make out the points that were so easy to find before the dark descended. Now she is a figure leaning into herself, imagining the river.
Behind her sprawls the diagrammed idea of an exit, a staircase spiraling to the ceiling, as in the Louvre. No. Let’s try that again…spiraling up to a sky full of clouds— which, by the way, are just now assembling themselves into triangles, wedges, pyramids—competitive shapes that can be flung at the hat until there is a confusion of three-cornered objects blanketing the sky.
No one knows how such transformations happen. It’s a mysterious process, narcissistic to the core. And with so much flinging back and forth, none of the shapes notices that the woman is trapped inside her only means of escape, crouched low inside a birdcage twisted open. The day spoils in the sun. The figures are just geometry and cannot hear the woman cry.
by Cheryl Snell
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Editor’s Note: Prose poems are deceptively simple, until you try writing one and realize the lack of line breaks means you must figure out another way to emphasize imagery. This poem’s surreal narrative moves from a sketch to dreams and back again.
Before Love Story: A Brief Catalogue of Jennifers
“What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?”—Erich Segal
I was already over a year old when Love Story by Erich Segal was published on Valentine’s Day, 1970, sending my name soaring in popularity, filling my grade school with Jennifers. I’ve read the book and seen the movie, but still, something is missing. I look for a Jennifer from history or literature to connect with, but it isn’t that easy. I find Jennie Churchill, rumored to have created the Manhattan, but she is actually a Jeanette. I find Jenny Lind, and though we share Swedish blood and she has a memorial in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, she was a Johanna.
I find Jenny Cavilleri in Love Story. This update of Verdi’s La traviata, itself a retelling of The Lady of the Camellias by the younger Dumas, features a girl named Jenny who dies of leukemia—though of course, it is tuberculosis in the opera and most of the nineteenth century. In all versions of this story, there is wealth and family misunderstanding. In La traviata, Violetta Valéry is a courtesan redeemed by the purity of love. The resolution and return of the beloved always happen too late, but I, at least, was born before love meant never having to say you’re sorry.
by Jennifer Finstrom
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Editor’s Note: A prose poem surrenders enjambment; therefore, the narrative flow must instead provide ample space for the reader to digest the imagery. This poem combines creative memoir with allegory: what is love’s purpose?
A Light in the Moon
A light in the moon the only light is on Sunday. What was the sensible decision. The sensible decision was that notwithstanding many declarations and more music, not even notwithstanding the choice and a torch and a collection, notwithstanding the celebrating hat and a vacation and even more noise than cutting, notwithstanding Europe and Asia and being overbearing, not even notwithstanding an elephant and a strict occasion, not even withstanding more cultivation and some seasoning, not even with drowning and with the ocean being encircling, not even with more likeness and any cloud, not even with terrific sacrifice of pedestrianism and a special resolution, not even more likely to be pleasing. The care with which the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is wrong, the care with which there is a chair and plenty of breathing. The care with which there is incredible justice and likeness, all this makes a magnificent asparagus, and also a fountain.
by Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)
Photo by Christine Klocek-Lim
This Is One Story I Thought I’d Never Tell
I didn’t think I’d get so attached, but years later here we are, teenaged hearts in adult bodies. Kisses snuck in high school stairwells became kisses given with morning breath and sleepy lips. Wondering if we’d make it over the summer turned into wondering if we’d make it after college. Your eyes live in the face of my unborn daughter and your arms wrap around me like my future sons. I read somewhere once that “whatever we are made of, he and I are the same” and I don’t know when it happened, but somewhere out there, in all of time and space and distance and physicality, we were born from the same hands. I was never one who dreamed of marriage, but I’m beginning to understand, because I would put on that white dress if it meant I got to keep you.
by Abigail Parlier
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Editor’s Note: Prose poems are delicate creatures—too much and it’s exhausting to slog through all the words. Too little can be frustrating—where’s the rest of the story? But sometimes they’re just right. In this poem, the form is perfectly suited to the content.
The Ugly Woman
My camera is out and I ask if I can take her picture, the old woman in an orange dress carrying a large metal can of cooking oil on her head. “Soy fea” she says, I am ugly. But the can is heavy and because like all women she is not ugly at all but beautiful, two angels who are walking along the beach stroll up to her and take the can from her head. The angels ask the woman where she is going, and between them they carry the can, following her. No one is astonished, really, to see angels at the beach. They like to watch the waves as much as anyone. In a culture of incense and conjuring, angels are quite commonplace. Some are summoned by flutes played in villages, others arrive to bring luck in the middle of dice games. Robe colors are varied and fashionable. But the majority of angels hover around women, whose needs are great. Children, goats, buckets of water and vegetable gardens, early in the morning and all day long women require the angels’ help. Angels do what they can. Sometimes, you won’t know when an angel is around. A child holding a rag doll. A man pulling a hoe through potato mounds. That woman, kneeling in the mud, looking for a curved, lost bone.
by Marci Ameluxen
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Editor’s Note: Prose poems can be very tricky because they’ve lost one of the things that help make a poem work properly—line breaks. Within that constraint, this poem beautifully combines allegory and narrative with first person point of view. By the end of the poem, the reader is invested in the story.