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January 11, 2017 Poetry

Three Poems

Shelley Whitaker

Three Poems photo

When I Dream of My Mother's Horses

There’s something about a horse that floats.
Watch her neck hover over the half-door
of a stall, or her sunlit backside rise

to ripple arcs through the grass—
as if her muscles were buoyed by her body’s
ocean, her bones nosing up for breath.

Hers was a grace my mother claimed
to worship— a wildness she broke
bones & skin in the name of before I was born.


Most twilights my father waded through our pasture
as if the barn were a ship he’d guide into dock,
oat buckets knocking at his knees like anchors.

Some nights he’d let me uncoil the water
hose between slats of fence. I liked to see a distance
bridged, to watch my mother’s horses drink

from a mirror filling with sky. How I couldn’t see
a bowl where I stood— only moon’s halved glint
as it rippled & shrunk from tongue’s reach.


We lived surrounded by sparse enough light
to tell stars apart from the blinking tails
of planes that swam between them, to point

towards & name a planet if it trembled hard
through the fathoms. Some nights my mother's lamp
cast a shadow from her window I could fit

my whole body inside. I'd stand so still moths
dappled the golden slab slapped around me,
scraping wing against the warmth of any mirage.


When she asked for more horses,
my father built a bigger barn. Some nights
I'm six years old & face down in its doorway

again— my mother's newest mare
having just bared her belly above me, immense
& dark before the impact of her hoof

against my skull. My father scoops me up
& strips me in the pasture’s dimming light, searches
my skin for broken bones & blood. He calls

my name into my ear while she careens
around the pen, but it’s always only my body
he’s holding. I’m no girl anymore.

Pruning the Garden with Joan Crawford

Being stirred from sleep to help hack up a rosebush
feels as mine as any other night my mother made me
help her ax through. She may as well have sequined
her shoulders & backlit our yard with a soap-opera
spotlight, given me the same dark demand to bring
her the ax
, then swung our oak tree down with Faye
Dunaway’s wrist. I could say the night she hooked
me in her elbow to wish me dead in her womb
, or show you
Christina’s hunched back scrubbing a bleached
bathroom floor & not even have to ratchet up the pitch
in my voice to tell the story. Most memories of hearing
my name hissed like a curse are dim as darkened bedrooms—
won’t flame up with detail unless Joan flips the switch.

—after Mommie Dearest, (1981)

The Mother of All Cannibal Movies Wants You to Know this First Segment Will Be Silent

Yes, her tongue clicks along each sprocket of the reel—
but such sounds stand in for silence when even silence
slips behind the palm fronds to watch the first skull
axed. To see the marmoset swiped off his branch
mid-lope & know he is doomed is to watch a mother’s
hand scoop beneath her baby’s neck & know to hush
even one’s most innocent steps past the bedroom.
When her lens zooms in on the monkey’s knifed-off
maw, his screech stretches through the footage
like spear through screen’s skin— a sound that stings
each ear tucked in darkness though still only her teeth
tick in the background. Before the first reel’s final flash,
she lets us glimpse the opening frame of the next kill—
pans to leaf-hidden men quivering in cradles of flesh.

—after Cannibal Holocaust, (1979)


image: Chelsea Martin