Poetry by DeAnna Stephens
The 2019 Tennessee Williams Festival Poetry Contest Winner.
Center Line Catechism
for Michelle J.
Past the season of rebirth, a midnight
pilot has slashed the moon
with a billowing contrail, as if to say, no,
forget. Half reminder, half portent,
the moon casts off this caveat as shadow to
mark my way along a wooded path,
newly christened in this place
of no ambient light,
unlike the streets we roamed and the
sidewalks that scarred our front yards
and paled beneath a phosphorus twilight that
whispered curfew in our mother’s voices.
Your magic that prolonged the dusk lingers
in that suburb,
down the street where you conjured
fathers out of birthday cakes
and became, at the eleventh candle,
Prince’s protégé, with berry-colored hat
that hid your eyes from me, led your gaze to the
buttercream ruffles and his rice paper face
as you exhaled. You lived on the street’s
only sky-blue house—two stories of azure
the neighbors deemed vulgar for vibrancy,
for whiffs of collie and kielbasa
through the gaping front door, and your mother’s
thin robe as she kissed her boyfriend
outside the house. “Like a zwykla szmata,”
you heard someone say.
Expert in puppies and older sisters, in
the resolve of heat waves and boys,
you mystified the lore I craved:
accidents on bicycles and damaged fruit,
what happened with Ronnie in the tool shed
when you left me standing just outside.
You envied my credulous certainty of second-
hand proof and told me you wanted
to dance, so I lent you a pair of tap shoes,
taught you to clog along hardwood floors,
while we watched for warnings in jet plumes and
in Chernenko’s televised face. We danced
louder to smudge the empty sigh of
missiles surely arcing over Lake St. Clair.
in its imminence and fullness as heavy as
a satisfied womb, had stranded us
there, inside my room, where our mothers
and sisters could never disclose to us
the answers from bottoms of lingerie drawers,
from the false linings of bras and purses
and our own bodies. Had you waited for dusk to
ask if your dog would enter Heaven,
I could have consulted an acumen beyond
the clamor in my chest,
and the fierce pillar of summer
spotlighting my feet, blinding me
to the undisturbed sky above. I could have said
something other than No, you’ve forgotten
how animals don’t have souls.
Inscription in a Dead Creek Bed
With pull tabs twisted from soda cans,
Someone scratched fervid verbs into sandstone;
They cracked sheep skull* into fragments
Left inside-up and glistering in August drought
That made the gorge serene
In lack of color—milk-dust powdering boulders,
Pallor of underbellies stalking lizard and leaf
As we trailed the creek and its motion,
Condensed now into risk.
We chased and fondled the notion
That the world could never out-thrive
Our pulses, that boys diving from bluffs
Would feign terror to amuse us, Would
resurface, resplendent and aloof.
*another name for a geode
Pastoral in Four Seasons
Summer opens as a girl
plucks her backyard
clean of frogs
and bright salamanders.
The mower’s blade thrills at
these flavors of green, the reach
of things that regrow. For
nothing, she mows her own,
unlike suburban boys in movies
earning thirty bucks per lawn
to buy what will take a whole
season to possess.
Unlike those boys who hate the
pet next door, she never taunts
the Rottweiler barking through his
fence of honeysuckle and rot.
Last March brought Dean and his
dog, but unlike the boys in movies, he
could not love the girl next door,
for her yard lacked symmetry,
and black pines mocked the view
between their bedroom windows.
And unlike the girlfriends
of those boys in movies,
Dean’s girl lost her thumb to his
backyard circular saw. Grass girl
hadn’t heard the screams,
never heard the sirens
while shut in her room. She
wished otherwise after seeing the
denouement of stitches,
how it all was growing back,
and beholding Dean’s apologies, relentless
that autumn. After the grass stopped
growing, both girls marveled
at the thumb’s pink hem, at the icy
cuticle of Calf Killer Creek
cleaved wider, and wider still to
raise Dean’s body into spring.
Nipples are zeroes, data
surging the ventricles of a
body, barely there below
snuffed flood lights.
The field goal is edgeless
but primed for tuning
darker frequencies. Fanged
electrodes laud the length
of my skirt in your fists
beyond the blush of
crackling street lamps.
Their attenuated haloes
imply a hand on a thigh, my
automaton kisses glazing
Eyelets of vertebrae open
toward earth; but you want me spilled star-ward
through a breach of
borrowed losses, want an
extract of revelation
like sap on your tongue.
Against my changeling body,
your stories are bone saws
posing as a key, as graceless
as the quilt’s batting that
prods my temple, the blades
of my back, for a latch to
spring angel’s wings.
Your kisses are failing
but still your fingers
seek the cipher to open
my empathy. You want
me to scorn the father
you hate, the one
I will never meet.
Already I forgive
your father’s hands for
circling the neck of a
woman whose blade
channeled sun in her
tasted his blood, lurid
like the grass stains on
this quilt your mother
will launder fervidly.
But on this field of games, I
want to imagine tasting a
man, learning the soundless
vernacular of nerve endings
lit by sighs
and transmuted to the body’s
entirety, so that the marrow my
old boyfriends wagered would
glitter like the toothed crystals of
rock candy would dissolve
beneath his kisses,
leave me without the longing
to bypass the lo—lo— lo—
the 1 and the 0 reckoning love.