Cul-de-sac by Risa Denenberg


The doe slept on my lawn again this morning,
having shooed her spotted twins to glean their own pastures.
I studied my unshorn yard, my habitat, the dewy grass—
having shooed my own featherless from the nest long ago.

Seemed a quiet morning. Fog rolling in across the bay.
Tomato plants showing off new yellow buds. There were eggs
for breakfast, the chickens rustling in their pen.
My toast dry, my coffee black. Someday
I will mow this rowdy yard, coax my neighbors to speak
to me again. I stopped by to check on him, my usual, bearing eggs.
The one I call uncle on this friendless cul-de-sac.

Change rustled the page for a moment, a blustery warning.
By the time they carried his body to the curb with flashing lights,
neighbors had rushed into the street: shoeless, tank tops, bathrobes.
A dog licked my shin. A girl I’d never seen before rambled on
about how he owed her something.

I gave my name to the cop.
I told the story start to finish:
I checked for pulse, for breaths. My lips on his.
I counted one, two, three, all the way to thirty.

They turned off the flashers, pulled the sheet.

by Risa Denenberg

Twitter: @risaden

Editor’s note: This poem lures the reader inside the narrative with calm imagery and the speaker’s quiet lawn rebellion until halfway through, when everything crystallizes into a sharp, piercing moment of clarity.

I Write in the House of Her Narrative by Risa Denenberg

I Write in the House of Her Narrative

Don’t ask me about my mother.
Don’t tell me to lean towards joy.

Would you tell a dog barking for bone,
a babe bawling for breast to be jubilant?

My mother was not. And so I am not.
She of the gilded mask and robe,

inscribed with molasses and tobacco. Here,
where sunlight is rationed, I’m the ugly ingrate.

When I pull on the pink slippers and shout:
Look, Ma. I can pirouette, she taps ash.

When I show her my first poem, she
upstages me with her own version.

Body from body. It’s just too fucking intimate.
My infant form faltered, crowned once,

drowned twice. Nearer now to my own line break,
I lean towards the volta. The mother still inserts herself

between couplets. A third foot.
We did our little dance.

I was not chosen. Such a blessing
the dead have no memories.

by Risa Denenberg

Editor’s note: This poem’s speaker recognizes how trauma can linger the way cigarette smoke stains everything around it, until the only freedom that seems possible is death.

You Are by Risa Denenberg

You Are
–after W.H. Auden

You are my kitchen.
I can’t make my eggplant dish without you.
You dice the onions so I won’t cry.
You strike the match to light the oven.
You are my salon. You serve rosé in cut-glass goblets.
I have no desire to sweep the floors without you here.
You are my critic, my lost amethyst ring, my favorite berry.
You are the knife that scrapes the pith of me, the toothy grin
of the missing boy on the milk carton, my root beer float.
My legs cannot wrap around this emptiness.
You are the postcard of Calliope you airmailed
from Mykonos, that other time you left, vowing
to never return. And then, the present of you.
Gifts of brisket, banter, sidesplitting quarrels.
I make rugelach every year on your birthday.
You are my morning shower, my evening biscuit.

by Risa Denenberg

Editor’s note: This ode’s first line offers a metaphor so unusual that the urge to read on is impossible to ignore. Happily, the rest of the poem lives up to this opening, proving that sentimental poetry is not dead, and never has been.

The Hours by Risa Denenberg

The Hours

I don’t sleep at night. I count the hours until morning.
I wait for my bride to carry me off into the sky.
The hours of night are as useless to me as the inside of a paper bag.
I count the minutes until sunrise. I doze a bit by early light.
I do nothing all morning. I need to wake. I need an alarm.
I am alarmed that I do nothing. Even a dead dog does something.
I want to do no harm. So I wait
For as long as I can hold a single breath.
I count my breaths. I run out of air. I am filled with shame.
Shame displaces the wind in my lungs. I wheeze and gasp
For breath. The ticking seconds rebuke me.
I am ashamed of things I should or should not have done.
I take blame for your mistakes.
Isn’t this the way it always is? Low hanging fruit?
I count seconds of daylight, by light of day.
All day, I cannot stop eating. I am never full.
At night, I don’t eat, I don’t sleep, I don’t dream.
At nightfall, I wash my face. I brush my teeth.
I brush my hair while counting one, two, three, four … 100.
I count the 18 stairs to my bedroom.
The bed upstairs is where I don’t sleep.
The bedroom door is warped and magnifies the light,
The windy nightfall, the hard-falling rain, the storms without thunder.
I count the dark hours, flooded with panic.
I am alone. I am almost old.
My books and my cat try to comfort me.
I lie awake, ready to greet the Sabbath queen,
her fragrant spices commanding me to rest.
I know death. She will come to me at night.

by Risa Denenberg

Editor’s note: This poem’s surreal and disjointed imagery is held together with repetition, giving the reader a glimpse into not just hours, but an entire life.

Best of the Net Nominations – 2017


I am happy to announce the following poems have been nominated for the Best of the Net 2017:

Abiding Winter by Risa Denenberg

Affidavit by Terri Muuss

The Balance Between Us by James Diaz

Bone-Chilled by Martin Willitts Jr.

Poem Only Half About Myself by J. Rod Pannek

Tuesday Morning by George Longenecker


Intuition by Risa Denenberg


As I entered my eighth month
of pregnancy, my grandmother, timeworn
and ripened, exited our line.

Far from home, I received the news
in a whoosh of air, as a warbler trilled
a melody I suddenly understood.

And though there was much to fear,
the awareness settled in me like a deep stream.
She companioned me for the lying-in.

A feral cat crept into the room and stayed
during the long hours of my labor. She
howled as my son crowned, cries louder

than my own, then disappeared. And, just
before he emerged, I reached inside and felt
black curls protecting his fragile skull.

At that moment, I received her blessing and saw
his face, still curled in his confinement, and knew,
as a mare knows, it was time to bear down.

by Risa Denenberg

Editor’s note: This poem doesn’t shy away from the grittiness of human life and death. The end of the poem reminds us how to be strong.

Abiding Winter by Risa Denenberg

Abiding Winter

How we made it through another winter
is not the question. It’s not even an answer
since one of us was left behind in winter.

In Spring, in buoyancy, you asked a question.
Cups stood their ground between us, tea and coffee.
You wished to be the answer to your question.

If winter comes again and yet another,
a darkling season full of melancholy. The yanking
of my soul back to its gutter, that other

place where questions have no answers,
and answers only placate. It takes rafters
of steadfast faith, or mettle, to seek answers.

Truth is brutal. So much we can’t recover,
years I’ve begged for you to wait for Spring to bloom,
living in despair beside each other, and another

stormy season while we tussle for an answer
that is a coda to the sum of all of life’s bother.
I’ve learned to hold my tongue, to question
nothing. Questions are another sort of winter.

by Risa Denenberg

Guest Editor’s Note: The sonics, especially the consonance, create a pleasing effect when we hear this one.  In no small part to the final line, this may be the best villanelle we’ll see this year.

Please welcome Guest Editor Earl Gray from March 20-March 24, 2017.

Whirlwind @ Lesbos by Risa Denenberg

Whirlwind @ Lesbos

We met in Istanbul
where your face was a veil
and you beckoned a reckless gesture.

Cover your eyes, you hissed
when I dared look through
your robe at your breast buds.

You were twelve when we first kissed
wadded your gum under the desk
whistled at me, spit into the wind
earnestly began chewing my hair.

We ran away to Naples
during the long war while flames
licked our feet and charred our skin.

Hurry, you barked over your shoulder
I was already losing sight.

I wailed all night in Jerusalem
when you turned me hard
against the stone wall
pressing against my back
as your reached up inside me
grabbed my womb with your fist.

In winter, we rented a small cottage
in Copenhagen where winds blew
snow over our bed
we embraced and couldn’t let go
you were cold and needed comfort.

We undressed each other
maidens in the fifth century
and were discovered naked
entwined asleep
your ringlets black and soft
on the silken pillow.

But then I missed the cab to the airport
slept right through the alarm
one morning in Cairo
and you were gone.

I was beheaded
with your name on my lips.

The baggage was clearly marked
but reached Paris by error.

I’m in New York
awaiting your email.

by Risa Denenberg, from “Whirlwind @ Lesbos” (Headmistress Press 2016)

Editor’s note: The uneasy narrative of this poem is emphasized by the lack of commas and thoughtful enjambment.

Rain by Risa Denenberg


Most days, I no longer long
for you. The rain has become
my welcome mat.

I soak clothes and skin in it,
bleach these personal stains,
staunch my body’s needs.

Nowhere is it fully documented
how terrifying it is to be me.

I dream in haiku
as it taps at my window
in tart syllables.

by Risa Denenberg, from blinded by clouds.

Editor’s note: This poem is not quite a haiku, but it holds the spare simplicity of the form. Emotional impact doesn’t always require a thousand lines.

Again, I climb by Risa Denenberg

Again, I climb

Again, I climb
the crest of the last rise
before the road twists its way
downhill to the bay.

She lifts into view, her frosted top floating,
as these Pacific Northwest peaks will do,
a mirage above a shimmering cake stand,
and without blush I confess to her—
my dear, dear Mount Baker.

As well I wave blessings to the moon
when it delights me, emerging full
from behind a cloud in leaden sky
to guide me home again.

The me that only sings or cries
alone in the car foresees the day I will not
round this curve again, not drive again,
not see mountaintops again, have to leave
my home for the sheltered hovels of the old,
fated to never see the moon rise again and again,
and then, to not see again.

by Risa Denenberg

Editor’s note: Personification is used to great effect in this poem. The landscape and moon are alive and well-loved, and even mourned as time passes and the narrator speculates on what will be.