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Sample Poems by Angela O'Donnell


Lies

Our favorite set, the operating room.
Our favorite plot, death by folly.

Poisoning by restaurant garnish.
Livers brined in bourbon and burst.

The killing argument.
The suicidal drive.

And Junior, the arsonist
who set him self on fire.

As if we defy natural causes,
predictable as gravity and night.

Claiming, instead, the flaming corpse,
the surgeon with his impotent scalpel.

The Atreus and Usher of Coal Town,
we lived and died by stories in that house.


Breaker

At home among the slag heaps
where culm dumps rise camel-backed
against an ashen sky,
fathers did not embrace their daughters.

The breaker on the back road
stalked us in our dreams.
Blind and bent with age,
its black apertures menaced us,

relic of a dead life
in a slowly-dying place,
a town of heaving men
who slept upright in their darkened parlors.

Fire never visible for all the damp.
It smoldered low in stoves and furnaces,
burned quiet in our breasts,
smoke and soot the only signs of heat.


Northern Nights

“What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
Robert Hayden

None of us could sleep those coal-black nights.
The furnace coughed deep in the cellar
until our father rose in the iron cold
his footsteps sounding loud through the quiet
house, five of us huddled tight in two beds.

We’d hear the turn of the handle, the chunk
and swing of the metal door unhinged,
the steady thrust of the rusty shovel
graveling against the binful of coal.
We’d hear him hoping in the dark for fire.

Then the sluff of slippers across the kitchen,
the oven door opening and the match,
and soon my mother’s voice echoing
up the steep stairs to our attic room
calling us to hot milk at midnight,

to slip on coats and scarves and hats and gloves,
to sit in the circle around the stove
bound together in blankets, two by three,
to watch each other’s heavy heads drowse
in the orange glow of that blue flame.

While our father cursed the furnace man below,
the smell of sulfur rising through the house,
as our mother worried wordless on the stairs,
we moved closer, wove our circle tight
against the cold that claimed them in the dark.


Other Mothers

Other girls’ mothers
sold Avon, Bee-line, Tupperware.

My mother took lovers.
Young ones. Dark ones. True ones.

The kind that came back,
parked their cars in the drive,

and slept in our house
night after night after night.

Other girls’ mothers
wore aprons, baked bread.

My mother slipped on stockings,
stepped into heels, and went to work

late evenings while we’d lie
half-awake in our beds.

We’d hope for peanuts, chips, mints,
small signs she’d remembered us.

Other girls’ mothers
didn’t like my mother,

grew green-eyed in the grocery,
cold-shouldered us at Mass

where she’d stay in the pew,
marooned, at Communion,

her black mantilla
shadowing her black eyes.

Other girls’ mothers
liked their daughters,

asked them questions,
listened for replies.

My mother would have thought
them amusing

had she thought
of other mothers at all.



Late Elegy
for Charles Alaimo

April is the kindest month.
Pale star and lilac fire.
Month of my coming.
Death always walking beside me.
Month of your going
into the soft soaked ground.

No poems for you, my father.
I was always too afraid.
Your quick anger, your dark days,
wild writhing on the bare floor
seized by the hectic in your brain.
It gripped me, too, held me fast and long.

Now I am no longer afraid.
In Lenten love I fast and long
for your forgotten face, those lost days,
search my heart and sift my brain,
old photos piled along the bare floor,
hoping to find you quick again, my father.

Beyond the glass the birds pair, becoming
one, each clutch of eggs fresh fire.
April comes, first birth month.
Life always walking beside me,
gripping my arm in my steady going
while I tread again this kind returning ground.