Selected Poems


Pearl Snap

Education is the answer 
to our social woes, and not 
the get-a-good-job-after-high-school, 
but the deep plodding kind, the making- 
of-many-books kind, get-everybody- 

kind. When I’m in Walmart 
and some kid dangling by the wrist 
is screaming, his mom in shorts that 
slice her thighs saying something 
deep to him through her teeth, 
her long hair smelling like she has

more than one job, I know it’s not her fault. 
She’s carrying a combination wallet/ 
cigarette case with a pocket for the lighter. 
Her husband—well, the father of her last two, 
her divorce isn’t final from her ex— 
is waiting in the truck, a Ford. Her dad

had a problem with that until they went 
duck hunting and worked it 
out. Her man didn’t graduate 
even though his junior high let 
the boys go when trawling season 
began, but each year going back got harder.

She took typing and bookkeeping 
and even AP math. She says she manages 
a convenience store, where you learn 
how to just take on the present.
Right now she just needs 
to find that pearl snap for her oldest

and why is it suddenly so dang hard 
to find a boy’s twelve pearl snap? 
There’re a few like her in every cow town. 
When the copter brings a woman’s 
child—a certain woman of that kind— 
from the parish or the county

to the city, and we all stand around 
the trauma bay watching environmental services 
sweep up the gauze wrap and cut clothes, 
and that woman from the boonies 
is still not here, driving her husband’s 
truck as hard and steady as she can,

I’ll meet her in family consult 
or stand her in the shiny hallway— 
she’ll go anywhere—and depending 
on what the test tube intern has to say, 
she’ll either squat, lay her forearm 
against her stomach, and loose

that first wail-groan that defies conceit, 
or she’ll tutor me in the language 
of living in good faith, of staring 
down what I have to say and 
opening her mind to it, taking 
it in like a nursling and knowing it

whole until the two can sleep side by side. 
We tell her, it’s gonna be a long road, and 
she says, as long as there’s a road, I’m on it.


The Diener

[For this poem, link to The New Yorker.]

[Below: the artist book by Michele Burgess 
inspired by "The Diener."]



Someone, you finally realize, has suffered
your exact misfortune before you.

This one the steady vanishing
of your birthplace before your eyes.

As common and disordered
as a parent burying a child.

You stare down the slate-dark hole again—
this time seeing the blue swirls of precursors

grieving at a murky bottom.
One shouldn’t outlive one’s birthright:

instead, after you, the feed store boarded,
shorn subdivisions advancing,

your grandchildren pulling their own
trailers to launch at sunrise. Here

Centralia’s colliery still smolders like
fields of burning cane. The trees

stand dead but don’t fall.
Veins in the Gulf will swell, too,

carrying grayed-out swirls—ghosts—
to greed’s unbroken refrain.


The Dirty Side of the Storm

Death just misses you, its well-defined
eye and taut rotation land on 
someone else. No need to study the sky

for signs or watch the cows—
not with satellite loops, infrared 
imagery, recognizance flights shrinking

the orange cones of uncertainty.
If it makes you feel better, go ahead 
and push pins through a brittle chart.

Your coordinates square neatly east
of the worst wind shear, lightning 
strikes, and bursts of air.

All convection steers clear
of your splattered doorframe.
The Red Cross mobilizes elsewhere.

Take a good look at those oak roots
from a calm doorstep and wait.
The sadness is a surge carrying

all its debris back to you, a flood
that shoves clods of ants and snakes
through your walls and then

sits in your house for days and days.
This is the dirty side of the storm.
Would Death had blown straight through you.


The Water

In the morning the water waits like a deckhand,
a persistent curl against the shore,

who won’t back down, take no, or be denied.
It is there under the wharf and soon under

the house, whoring with any swamp rat 
or snake. It rings cypress knees with pearls—

it dreams under the sun like cut cane,
throwing back the salt you wash away,

then wearing pilings down to air.
Your houses wade on stilts tall as pillars,

their sheet-metal skulls bared to a mildewed
sky. Against the fallen trees rain and lapping

tide meet, slapping of nets and fish and 
naked children pulling driftwood boats

in one joyful noise around your sleep.
In the afternoon the water is there, only more,

browner and grayer, no sweeping seaweed or foam, 
just its presence farther up your shore,

like a dull brother-in-law in front of TV.
He means something to somebody—

but not you, not just now. Its slow wake seems
harmless, the litany of waves before a storm

rolling benignly ashore. Intoxicating! 
And then it is there, all gray length of it,

rich sex of it, it wants you so badly, 
it pounds at the door, Let me take

your smallness, your jetties, your broad
coasts, your loam. It gathers

at night beyond the curtain of mosquitoes, 
darker than the shut-down sky,

the boarded-up clouds. Its desire
thrums like an idling outboard. Ignore

it, and it tows itself into your dreams. It’s
everywhere, every chance, all the time.

It is more certain than death or love.
It must have been conceived by death and love.

When the last silt sinks under your feet, 
you will have to walk out on this water.


Finishing Touch

Ever since the painter depicted 
Your finger extended to Your creature,

we have known we crave a surrogate touch. 
We press others’ palms to our faces,

as if we were still being molded,
polished by an apprenticed love revising

our rougher destinies: Each hand found
more skillful than the last, each imprint closer

to Your transforming seal. I know this, 
and still I have to ask for reprieve

in illusion, to linger in this present 
flesh, believe in her finishing touch.

I want this hand:  its knowing strokes 
inside my thighs where all portrayal begins.

Let this hand complete me for the stretch, 
the soft edges of these fingers be the last

of earth I feel, let it be her own 
hand—hers alone—that will close these eyes.


@2020 by Martha Serpas