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Sample Poems by Sheila Black

Playing Dead

Begin by imagining
a failure of will,
the boundaries of the body erased
like lines on a chalkboard.

You might picture the usual things:
night sky, waveless sea,
the greeny depths
which plummet to pure dark

or something as small
as a single square inch
of soil, packed with rotted
leaf, root scrap, cracked

shell, the molted wing
of a specked moth, a handful
of sand, a handful of dust;
it all comes to much the same.

It is the absence of conscious
motion that takes getting used to,
no sound but the slow
settling, the ripening of decay:

burst liquid, gelid light.
The old story of how stars
are born of frozen dust
and radiance

from this house of bone.


The house we bought clings to the edge
of the irrigation ditch,
and so the yard is moist and deep
with whispering grasses.
Pecans loom high over the chicken wire
fence, and there are crab apples and
figs, which remind us foolishly of paradise.
Blue mosquito cloud this morning
when I threw open the back door and
the water silvering at my feet,
illustrating that if you irrigate even the desert
will flower. Once I loved a man
who sought to devise ways of
building artificial oases. He claimed one could
seed a cloud, bring small rain, and
by patient repetition create a mini-climate where
palms would grow bearing sweet
brown dates and a water hole
where the desert creatures—fox, rat, camel—
could come and quench their thirst. Chill, he said.
The pure element. And he told me
how for the Tuareg to cup such water in the hand
and drink was the sum of paradise.
He mocked his calling often.
Nights I would wake and catch him at his desk,
numbers trailing from his fingers
in bursts. You cannot separate pain
from pleasure, he insisted, an exile.
His oasis then, truth or mirage, like this garden
where I sit with my children, recognizing him
gone to me forever? Where
did his busy fingers go, the elaborate equations
he traced in his wire-bound notebook or
his tenderness for me, hand reaching
up to coil my own blown hair around my ear
so that I might better hear him?
The flower must be rare or mean nothing,
I think, our lives empty trumpets like the morning glories
which curl around the damp fence,
the golden pollen inside breaking into the air,
the bright traces of them everywhere.

Adolescent Moon

I can’t remember a desire like that
except with words—
the fat sickly moon lighting up
the smog of the city,
orange and misty as the dry ice
in the zombies we drank,
and how that August
his upper lip was beaded with sweat
when he leaned across the table,
tracked my pulse between his two fingers
as if it were a blue snake
cracking open the sky.

I can speak the words but
deeper in the dark spaces of my body
I can no longer feel how it was,
the clicking of flames
across my skin, the way I caught
and flared like teeth in the night.
Not that what I feel now is less exactly,
more that it is different,
what is left when the pulse has
burned through the body,
the charred rib of a boat tossed
in the waves, the bones
that hold together the earth.


I was washing dishes yesterday
when I felt it for a moment,
standing there, wrist-deep in the tepid scummy
the window shining like falling water,
that old feeling like a taproot, half-melancholic
of something begging to be broken
or remade, the way all those mornings after
a night in the Dive Bar, I lay,
dog-sick limbs stretched between
the cool sheets, skull moaning as if pinched
the blades of a vise, the dry mouth,
and the tremble of the hands as the fingers
fumbled to strike the inevitable match—
that blue incandescence, birth of fire and glory.
I never minded it,
believing there was work being done,
in that cycle of shame
always a golden redemption,
a new angle from which I could pursue
the doctorate of myself,
convinced in the ruins I would uncover
like Lazarus raised from his tomb,
the new person
I could surely become. It was not like that
this morning when I took my hands out of the water.
I was only a forty-year-old woman,
pouring a cup of coffee,
unlatching the door to get the paper.