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  • Writer's pictureLover's Eye Press

2 Poems by Shirley Stephenson

Updated: Nov 30, 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

and soil.

Eyes closed, she ruined

what belonged to sky.

The shell against brick

is a keystroke, a pinched

wick, the light

leaving something



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

never opened

to the smell of rain.

She named both my siblings

Francis, neither boy

nor girl.

When I breathed

she loved me

because I survived.


My parents also

visited, decades before.

They recall

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

soaring silent

but jubilant,

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

its record,

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.

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