Some nights, the forest surrounds at an ink-pitched
distance, rings depthless as a mural. Not a bullfrog churns.
All my mother’s horses have lain down forever—
I know by their barn-sized silence. Seems our neighbor
tightens chains on some other dream’s dog, paces
a parallel acre of dust with his radio blaring. Somewhere,
a fossil stiffens of my rattlesnake rival—a muted
hiss of a memory. But even for echo’s sake I can’t conjure
the sounds of dead dangers, knock on the maw
my treehouse has unhinged in the branches. I wander
up and down our driveway like an ant along a bone.
Not a single stain of old blood or sugar to drink.
after Sparrows (1926), in which ten orphans are enslaved and kept on a “baby farm”
If it’s the sparrows God watches then give us wings or fuck
the sparrows. God let a tree punch its claw through our last
kite. God rings a bell when someone looking like an angel
wanders up to the gate, but God’s locked the gate every time.
Our master limps but it never matters when a villain’s only
got one good leg. Figure-eight around his ankles all you want;
he’s always on the trunk’s other side, crook in hand to yank
you back. Then he chains the latch of that shed he keeps
you in & makes Christ a fever dream. All the blinding light
& grazing sheep only mean the meekest one’s kicked it.
We write a prayer for headlights & utter it at night in case
the last bird’s fallen. ‘Til then the two skinniest girls
on the farm stick their hands down their throats & belch
to hear who’s emptier. It’s the least sparrow-like song there is.
Frieda Considers Her Former Lover’s Wedding Feast
after Freaks (1932)
Once the circus draws its curtains & the elephants
lean into sleep, the tallest shadows sway
over my mind again like windblown tent stakes.
To switch on love’s spotlight makes three rings
of the heart, & every evening I ride side-saddle
into its center with a man I thought content
to have me mirror his smallness, to dwell
with me in the dollhouse of our lives. But again,
this body darkens beneath the silhouette of another—
some long-legged acrobat swings her limbs
across the moonlight while I sleep, arcs her mile-
wide fingers over my lover’s bed & clutches
him away like a mouse into the sky. I could kneel
again at the altar of her knees, shrink myself at her door
& beg, but to hear my own voice becomes
a study in bird sounds—its thimble-sized warble
when I say his name, my please ribboning
my throat like the tongue of a hungry chick.
So if I lift from tomorrow’s table to weep, let me
at least disappear as myself. My sequins as skin instead
of feathers as I slip into shadow. This evening, my tutus
billow like flags in pre-rain wind. I unhook each skirt & tuck it
away before the storm. I care for what of me still hangs on the line.
Next dusk, I dress myself by what little light is left in my sky.
Shelley Whitaker is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and the 2013 Adroit Prize for Poetry. Her poems have appeared at Verse Daily, Ninth Letter Online, Hobart, and elsewhere. She serves on the poetry staff for The Adroit Journal.