Issue 28: Stephanie Burt


In the Holly Hobbie board game (Parker Brothers, 1976), you move your dime-shaped token over squares around a brick-walled wishing well and try to guess secret wishes.

Each secret wish has its own card.

The cards have rounded edges, like standard playing cards scaled down to fit young hands.

Their style is what you might call extreme Laura Ashley: gathered caps, phlox, ruffles, Queen Anne’s Lace, wicker and gingham, puppies with floppy oversize ears, pennyfarthing bicycles.

Each time a player guesses another player’s secret wish, the player who guessed correctly can take from the well, or rather from the stack at the square border of the well, one, two or three pennies.

The “pennies” are cardstock discs in lemon yellow, the size and shape of a real-life dime. Holly has worked hard to save them, but we know she does not need to earn a living. That’s what makes her Holly Hobbie.

You can use pennies to buy your own wish.

Some wishes are a Letter, a Swing, a Parade. Other wishes are a Birthday Party, a Beach Day, a Horse, and My Own Desk.

None of the wishes involve survival, or safety, or ambition, or competition.

You can also wish for a Best Friend.

Each player represents a different child: one has fine blond hair, another black curls in ribbons. One wears a romper, another a smock dress. Two wear overalls.

Not all the children are white, though the board is.

The adults are out of the picture, perhaps at work, or taking care of younger children.

The only disappointment comes on the face of the cat on the card whose wish is Lots of Kittens; she looks sad to see the eponymous basket of kittens (one black, two orange, the rest mottled or striped) taken from her by a girl (Holly Hobbie) who has trouble lifting them all.

Holly will feed them all milk, slowly, from her glass bottle.

You can pay with pennies for answers to any question, as long as the answer belongs in the game.

The back of each card shows a figure in pastels: a child in a mob cap, a plaid dress, and spring-weight boots, holding sprigs of mallows (the flower, not the dessert).

Each card repeats a slogan in Art Nouveau font:

           Red, Yellow, Green and Blue,

           May Your Wishes All Come True.

Thank you, co-creator or uncredited maker of work for hire. Yours too.

Hymn to Youth

                             after Jaime Gil de Biedma

Where did you go—no, where are you going,

where do you want to go, years

that made up my youth, however you count yourself now?

Who will take you back to the beach?

Remember how calm the grownups remained, palms

open, grasping their pencils and pens and their purses

lightly in their left hands, when they should have known

we would hurt ourselves. We hurt ourselves.

We rumbled through our own imaginations

as in the middens of clothes at Dollar-a-Pound,

trying on gowns, capes, suits that never fit.

You were the waves. We could live among the waves,

arising and lapping and falling back, salty and pure

like the salt inside us. Our little breasts,

our half-curves, our ambitious, ambiguous bodies.

You in particular were all insinuations,

muscular hints I was never meant to take.

Afternoon sun made a temporary

mirror out of the last, lenticular sand.

Our footprints left stiff slots for future tears,

the kind the sea brings everyone.

We were becoming. We brought you. You kept us there

in search of crests and troughs, anywhere we could leap

and dive and overwhelm our bodies,

looking for conch shells, clam shards, far fins, dolphins,

ways to call out to those other youth undersea,

who blew their triton-notes and called to us.

They were the capacious luxury

of this life, imagined as another life,

more intense, more free. (Look: I’ve changed my style

from a one-piece to a two-piece, with scalloped

briefs and fluffy ruffles. Want to see?)

You didn’t want us so much as we wanted

you, sophisticated starlet

with the manners of a yawning lanternfish

or the timidity of a just-crowned prince.

When we lost one friend we knew

we would never find another. We never did.

Salt hurt the bottoms of our feet.

They said we would be kings

if only we learned to hold hands…

You were never one thing, my youth.

You were a terror, a missed chance, a come-again,

a kind of eternal return. When you come to my door,

today, far from the sea, I let you in.

Sometimes you are Daphne, tormented

by that insistent, obtuse pursuer, the sun,

and sometimes you strike a pose,

indifferent, like Antinoüs,

to what I want, to what anyone wants,

content to be seen after hiding, among the men

and women, the training bras and the just-in-case shorts,

the outgrown rainslickers and broken in running shoes,

the closets full of night and nonbinary angels,

the selkies, the griffins, the Fair Folk who taught you to fly…

Come in. Sit down. I don’t have a crown or a throne.

I do have an armchair, a plush one I found on the street

in August when the students were moving out.

There are things I want you to see,

now that I’m beautiful,

as you wanted to be.

Poem of 5 AM

The fear that you woke up again in your childhood bedroom,

           that your whole adult life was a dream.

There is the plexiglass, or Perspex, case

           guarding the used paperbacks from volume one

to volume 19. Volume three was a library loan.

           They make a good team.

Outdoors the flowering plum flips twigs against new leaves

           like thin

collectible coins. One side is a leathery green,

           the other a lighter, more optimistic green.

You pull a bright childhood’s lilac-and-white duvet cover

           up to your chin. You are not afraid to be seen.

You’re afraid to be seen. The plum tree agrees with your phone:

           they want you to get out of bed. You can get out of bed,

but not yet. Last week or last decade you botched your last-ever

           piano recital by composing an original

fairy tale, silently, in your head,

           about people who lived in a ship in a bottle.

Where did they go? You have memorized every phase

           of cell division: prophase, metaphase, anaphase,

telophase, when new membranes form and part, clean

           as an incision. You turn over,

the beveled duvet-edge pressed to your silent

           lips. You hope nobody asks you

                      to make a decision.

Stephanie Burt is Professor of English at Harvard and a regular writer on poems, poetry, poetry, music, and superhero comic books for ComicsXF, the London Review of Books, the New Yorker, Rain Taxi and other journals in the US, UK and New Zealand. Her new book of poems, We Are Mermaids, will appear from Graywolf Press in October 2022.

Copyright © 2022 by Stephanie Burt, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.