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In Oakland Cemetery

After Mary Szybist

You asked where to meet and I told you there

so we could be as alone as the dead are. I was sure

I saw two ghosts bounding first with a sound then

silence in the leaf litter and didn’t run then though

I should have. Turn right I said until I appeared and

didn’t I? All night we pinched black gnats

from our skin that glowed in the orange lamplight

as we sat at the black angel’s feet like cowards

with too much living to do. I got sick from looking

at you too long so didn’t and that night

we fucked ourselves numb. That year Mary

called in from the coast reading of so and so

descending from a bridge and her voice floated easy

on the dead like a damp breath, like the mother

who hovered above so and so with wings

in a different ending must have. I hung on

the draws of breath clung to each sound slipping

from her throat like the slow wind of a line reeling back

with a catch but couldn’t conjure the fall. A killdeer twirled

nearby in her broken-wing act though she had no so or so

to descend to. Maybe I’ve the story all wrong. Who knows

who’s mothered in another life. Mary knew

the angel intimately too, had seen her eyes

gone smooth from a hundred years of sun

and snow, touched where they must have once been,

saw her face sedate the way one who longs to escape

her body long enough becomes, her neck slant

and awful, the whole black-bronze mass of her scaled

like a dirty fish. Her thumbs were broken off

and what are we to glean from angels

without working hands? No one

paid mind to the grave of the mother

rocking her baby at the cemetery’s edge

we passed when we took the back way home.

The fact was there was a brink and

we crossed it. I knew a mother who watched

a man’s hands push her son’s body into a wall

like a drawer slid back where it belonged. How

can one have faith in anything after something

like that. I asked Mary if she believed

in ghosts and aren’t they the same as angels

she countered. I was sober years later when I learned

they were, of course, a pair of does, not ghosts,

their white tails glowing as they leapt over the graves.

I know because it was dusk when I saw them

again and everything proves does are more

social than we thought. Who knows

how long those two got on, if they were lucky

to make it through winter. It was breeding season,

wasn’t it, and they were running from something.


The Wedding

Scraps of the bright wet day

leaked through the barn door crack, baring

the long burnt slats years had loosed

into a thousand little backs bending away

from themselves, she noted down there

in the stables, and the lone slash of light

on the stone wall that warmed with its

flashing there, the milky bit she stood inside

paling indistinguishable from the lace

of her veil like the feathertail of the betta fish

flicks its thick graces through water,

waiting to be called. She tried to track

a pattern in the ribboning the way

she would the marbled swarms of light

darting inside the spiraled stairs

in the spire they’d climb soon after,

where down the hill Justice sat

in Fonte Gaia with her scales slung

across her lap, a sword held slack

from her wrist, her look soft and loose

and glum, where a pigeon’s feet gripped

chiseled ridges of her hair to balance

as it swelled, preening, filthy, its red eyes

flickering next to a marbled Mary

suckling indefinitely two infants she heard

called flanking angels (not the wolf

who suckled the twin boys, her eight

full teats dressing the wet slots at the ends

of squat necks) while God pulled Adam

to his feet in relief and Adam was

thusly created, marking the high point.

Outside grasses flapped.

From below she watched ankles shuffle up

the foyer’s wooden planks in herds,

imagined collars on the corn seedlings

circling the barn like a new rash, marking

the shoots’ proof of their faculty to do

what they’re meant to and which she photo-

graphed the day before as evidence

of something, she was sure, and among them

a blackbird inert on its post. In the anteroom

the dame’s rocket limped. The peony

splayed open, its yellow pit a target

toward which nothing lurched,

how could it in that heat. Lodged

in the wall between them a muddy cup

held four swallows squawking over

their sun-stiffened cliff as their mother

shot through the loft, twisting quick

in swirls like a hummingbird drunk

on a winter binge before dropping down

to silence their bleating for a few holy moments

before being swallowed back out by

the sunlit westward opening. The floors

muffled the harp’s clean plinks cueing

the beginning and her father reeled her

from where she sunk in the gray light,

her face already spent from the heat.

She couldn’t remember what he said

in the pause just before her head broke

the horizon where he waited opposite

the aisle they forged after the rains that day,

only a memory of feeling like it all went on

without her.

There was no fountain

the day they married. Only a light so warm

it hushed their wild mouths vowing

in the fog of it, and the young corn’s

measured bursts, and the fit of water beat out

from the sky, and the belts of wind

that slapped the bright heads in her hand

clean off their necks, and the blackbird, in-

different to it all on its post outside, a red blot

branded on its wet black wing.


CAITLIN ROACH is a queer poet from Southern California. A finalist for the 2022 and 2019 National Poetry Series, her poems have appeared in Narrative, jubilat, Tin House, Colorado Review, Best New Poets, The Iowa Review, Poetry Daily, and elsewhere. She earned an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, the essayist José Orduña, and their two sons.


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