Issue 9: Sheila Black

The Dance of Death in La Ferté Loupiere

There is what I love in this church – the

plainness of stone as if it had been scrubbed

and scoured, as if it were cleaner.

The floor like a floor of bone, washed by death.

I want this argument to be human;

I want to explain why each time

I feel as if I might stagger, even as I blame

God, for not existing, or for existing

in such forms. Against the mud wall, the

painting uncovered during the Great War.

The plaque dates it from the 11th

century, the figures pellucid, each outlined

in a wavering line of black, slightly flat, yet

dreadfully precise. A parade: fat woman with

a loaf of bread, fringed boy holding

his falcon. And the boy wants a kiss

on his cheek. The woman wants sugar.

And the exchequer in blue velvet wishes

to disarticulate his neighbor. And the painter,

brush held at his lips. There is a grief at

the heart of this – like the frozen song of the

mockingbird at 3:00 a.m. Death is the only

happy one, gliding past on tightly-shod feet,

his baize cloak. He can touch any one

of them right through, visions of what sweets

they might possess. And he is why each

time I step back out blinded into the square,

with its one pizza parlor, its promise of

ice cream, the world turns beneath me

and I sit down, holding myself as if by the hands.

Only this – sun on stone, musty smell of the

pines and the raspberries growing like secrets

on the high canes in the churchyard.

Poem for Thule

If I call you calamity I keep circling this

same field where you are not. And yet perhaps

that is where the damage opens, as the wound

opens to whatever is inside it. Pus and blood,

the leaking out, which could be in some world –

if not this one – a trope for belonging. You

will guess what I am trying to do: find a way to

rename you I can believe in, so I am not merely here,

scrabbling amid stones. This weekend, I planted

all for myself a garden, spread the manure on the

seedlings, that smell – rich and almost unpleasant

of used life. I thought every one would die, but

they did not, even though for a whole week I neglected

to water them. If I neglect you this way what does

it mean that you keep returning? I have given up the

notion of recompense – stranded in how to live

between. Yet like a vapor or mist I still rename

you for myself the beautiful thing, invent a

location where you hold me as a magnet

pins pure north – tundra where the icy forms

linger – pristine, unchanging, the remnants of

every explorer, their packaged meals and sextants,

scrawled journals of what they missed, even

the apple core, emerging from the ice as if new-

minted, smelling of orchards.


The game we played, moving from tenement to

drug deal. From the film by Goddard

where the dismal project buildings at the

edge of Paris are refigured as galaxies,

the rusty Saab a rocket ship. A character’s

breathless voice-over of traversing

supernovas, penetrating deep into the un-

charted regions, ringed planets, a sweep of

bald meteors, continents of galactic dust.

Purple twilight of November, the city

about to assume its diamond coldness –

halogen street lights and steam

from manholes. We never knew

what the men on the stoop were thinking.

The one from the building next door who

fiddled with his knife – spinning it

on its point, or using it to carve a mango

to fleshy ribbon. His buddies with their

earnest performance of “The Waterfall of Cards,”

games of dice and three card monte, the girls

who moved through as if underwater. Call

our lives a drowning – hands lifted as if

to pull in or ward off. We walked

Amsterdam to Columbus and back,

a chemical warmth, a sudden lapse into liquid

space. Who can say how far we were

going? Yards, light years, such a falling

and falling inside. Revelation – the grille

of the bagel bakery at 5:00 am, the women

with their white headscarves, loading

the heavy trays on the silver carts,

wheat smell and sesame seed between

our teeth. You never even wanted to eat,

but the bread in their hands, blooming from the

solar glare of ovens, coins passed through the

bullet-proof windows, and behind the street,

stirring like a river in snow-melt season – humped

shapes, roar of cars, men as seasons walking.

Our own tiny planet – rooms that smelled of

smoke or perfume, and the sheets

smoother than we could have pictured as

we let each day fade to oblivion.

How to be From Michigan

You never forget how to be from Michigan

with Minnesota next door mysterious as a blue

bench filled with acorn and birdseed. You

never forget how to drive a stickshift, the

mystery of muscle memory, or how to ache

at the sound of that one name, that one shape

in the air. You never forget the map in your

head – the one that leads you back to black-

oil lake, chicken-fenced warehouse, to the

taut lives you glimpsed riding the bus to work

that year of epic hope and black-oil despair.

You never forget how to bone a trout and

to fry it in the black iron skillet until it is crisp

on the outside, lake-tender within. Or the

word Michigan itself as it takes shape in

your mouth, the lake bone, the notched twig,

the rift you hold – that close-mouth secret.

Sheila Black is the author of two poetry collections, House of Bone and Love/Iraq, (both CW Press). She recently co-edited with poets Jennifer Bartlett and Mike Northen Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (Cinco Puntos Press), named a Notable Book for 2012 by the American Library Association (ALA). A third collection Wen Kroy is forthcoming from Dream Horse Press. She received a 2012 Witter Bynner Fellowship in Poetry from the Library of Congress, selected by recent US Poet Laureate Philip Levine.]