2 Poems by Shirley Stephenson
Updated: Nov 29, 2021
We should seek not so much to pray but to become prayer. - St. Francis of Assisi
The nest was a nuisance
in the courtyard, once immaculate,
then strewn with sticks,
the racket of bark-scrap
Eyes closed, she ruined
what belonged to sky.
The shell against brick
is a keystroke, a pinched
wick, the light
One leg raised as if
to arabesque, he stands
beside the Tyrhennian Sea.
On his raised palm, a dove
about to fly, or scarcely settled.
Wisteria hem the cloister.
He is lustrous from wind-salt,
the oil of palms pressed
to his robe, once burgundy,
now stripped to stone.
Before this pilgrimage
my mother said pray
to be changed in ways
you cannot imagine.
To do this, there is so much else
you cannot do.
They never told her a gender,
although at 28 weeks, they knew.
The year was colorless--
violet and kindness
parched to straw.
They said she shouldn’t
consider it. Insects
billowed like dust
from every blade. The door
to the smell of rain.
She named both my siblings
Francis, neither boy
When I breathed
she loved me
because I survived.
My parents also
visited, decades before.
a woman prostrate
at the gate, strewn coins
gleaming at her feet.
In her fist, a clutch
of feathers, a totem.
The steep coast
folded like a wrinkle
into the flickering
back-arc basin below.
An empty swing
faltered in the garden.
My mother imagined nuns
worthy of the sun.
Every spring the robin
returns to nest.
The shell against brick
is a ballpoint’s click,
snap of a lens,
a box latch, a clasp.
Head tilted, nodding
like a needle reading
she says, I no longer
hear the music,
and lifts the nest
in gloved hands.
I call petroleum the devil’s excrement …. We are drowning in [it].
Juan Pablo Perez Alfonso, Founder of OPEC, 1976
Asked what next, the nurse disguised
as blue sky says there are still things
worse than death. The sludge siphoned
through the tube in your throat
is as thick as the crude you extracted
from Lake Maracaibo. The night
my brother was born, black winds blew
across the petrol camp. Cleansed by rivers,
that body of water had endured
twenty million years and you chose
to trust its invincibility. Decades
later, you would teach us to read
the surface of other lakes, and how
to look clear through. From a hull
strewn with slugs and double-hooked
translucence, you steadied our arms
as we cast into currents and seams,
told us how you’d once stood
on the rig’s platform and watched
Catatumbo lightning ricochet
between mountains then strike
a drillship. Whether or not the job
was safe, you needed something
to live on. Each morning sun waded
into the brackish bay and seared herself
in oil. Volatilized, a halo of benzene rose
over all your harvests, then settled,
sluggish as regret, into the wells of scalp,
lung, and spleen. It was impossible
to imagine the fractured pipelines
and blasted marrow, the wings and fins
encased, sinking to the lakebed as asphalt.
Or me, here in this room where numbers
plunge, asking. There are still things.
But your skin, purpled as if draped
on barbs, will make it easier to see
your bones buried. To imagine what
was once water choked
and molten. To imagine waves on fire.
Shirley Stephenson is a poet and nurse practitioner. She has lived and worked in Latin America and the Caribbean, and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois Chicago Program for Writers. Her poems have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Southern Review, and other journals.