With this selection of five poems by Maud Kelly we continue our series of original fiction or poetry by writers who either published their first book at 40 or after, or who have yet to publish a book. Writers interested in submitting work should see our guidelines.
Lives of the Saints
The baby holds her hands to her ears, and I worry she hears voices. It’s not okay to be crazy here. Saints don't sweep across these plains anymore, the nonbelievers left for dead, or—God save them—converted. Those visions were really migraines, anyway, turns out. The explosion of white, the pinpricks the same whether you’ve had a call from the lord or too much dancing. Still, what if she puts her hands on the sick and they get better? These things happen, but not to me as true for divine intoxication as for crashes. It doesn't matter that I don't want her to teeter on ledges, birds just out of her reach. The morning sun streamed in. I awoke to her hand on my cheek, meaty as a man's, and thought of love. Later, it was windy, cold for Easter. She said, Where is the comfortable sun? I fear it's gone. That I did this thing by bringing you here—it’s enough to bring on the calling. Still, let's stay the course, today, little one—it’s the radiator we hear, darling.
This Poem Is Not About Two Girls in Bikinis, Hula Hooping
But what it is about, I’m losing. Like everyone, I’ve lost a lot. I see the ball in the sky that supplies us with everything, but I don’t really see it. And the girls, I don’t see them, despite their floral bikinis, the striped hoops whirling. There once was a teenage daughter who on a family road trip was being terribly rude, until finally at a rest stop, in front of a Stop Child Abuse kiosk, with people handing out literature and coffee, the girl said some sort of last-straw thing and her exasperated father pushed her (not hard) on the shoulder. If this were a different poem, I would describe the styrofoam cup wobbling in his angry hand and the milky coffee slopping out to stain his shirt and maybe even say the sky was a purple bruise. But this is not that poem. In this poem a wife and her husband are driving around a new town looking for somewhere to live when they see two college girls in bikinis hula hooping so fast and languid that the dust kicking up kisses their arms like movie dust—like glitter—under a light that makes everything, especially the young, look golden. In the other poem the daughter has dropped to the ground and remains there, unforgiving. Here, in this poem, the wife is looking angrily past the two girls hula hooping, saying no, not this place, no, not that place. What she means is do you think the illness will come back. What she means is did I die already. What she means is if you knew when we met that this would happen would you still have kissed me? I feel a sense of relief to tell you that in this poem the wife, at the moment she decides her husband has looked at the girls too long, punches him hard on the shoulder, and pretends afterward she hasn’t, or that if she has she was only joking. This is the poem that doesn’t trust the stories we tell ourselves or one another. Later, in this poem, the couple goes to a Japanese garden, where the woman sees a carved statuette of a kimonoed woman whose head, swiveling under its kerchief, reveals both a damsel and a demon. This is the poem where the sun goes up and comes back down with little regard for us and we have to decide if we can live with that. In this poem the writer holds a pen like a needle and stitches this paper to that, threading a string through the daughter’s shirt that lifts her from the ground, swivels her so she goes back to the kiosk and gets her old Da a new cup of coffee. In this poem the hipbone of a young girl hula hooping is no more and no less than a cliff jutting out to meet a wave that flings itself again and again against the body.
More than One Way
You know that saying, someone asks—I can’t remember who— while we walk along the grated part of the Johnny Mercer Pier, looking down. Yeah? Well, it means catfish. Like more than one way to skin a catfish. Oh! we say, light rising out of our throats. My mind flips the page on the presentation board from black cat, half-skinned, to large fish, scraped scales aglint. Days after, I still hold them both—back and forth, flip flip—pointing at each with a flourish. See how I incorporate new ideas! But don’t try to make me let the first one go. It’s been with me too long. Like when I got sick I had to learn to hold I might die but I still could never let go of Nope. I won’t. You know those shows about Mediums? I’ll watch five in a row and then gorge on articles about how they’re fake. I like it all. It’s real and it’s unreal. I believe in both. Right? I mean, what a catastrophe, dogmatism. Dizzied looking down, I look out to where surfers bob along the wash. Try to see beneath them. Shark skin brushing your skin— there’s got to be more than one way to feel about that. There’s only one way to pull the legs off a caterpillar. Being stuck in an animal body loves us, it loves us not. This day is tremendous terrific, this day is terribly hot. Sometimes you’ll miss me a little, sometimes you’ll miss me a lot.
A Poem to Help You Remember
Remember your birth? One minute you were water, and God, and alone, and the next you were a fish, arcing and spinning away from yourself, from your mother, until finally, on rock, you landed. Remember your mother? How she would scoop you up and hurry you into the house, away from a stray dog, or a drunk who, from nowhere, rounded the corner. She knew how hungry the world was. Don't forget your first love, that first baby seal of a love. That skin of being for the first time wholly lost in love, that skin which stretches, which bears soft silky hairs, which can stand the chill of waters untreadable, which doesn't yet know the legs will tire, that the shore is too far to reach, that skin is here. You are lined with that skin. Leap into each day and praise the return of every blanketing night. Feel gratitude for every drink you ever sip, every bite you savor. Love every time you sit near someone so beautiful they couldn't possibly love you. Love even the times you’ve scorched your tongue, your heart, were left in every limb whimpering and vulnerable. Love the times you did your work, and felt well in what you’ve done, but love also the times you couldn't work because you had to lie in bed and dream, or learn love, or thrash in sickness, or watch, from your window, the day curl in on itself. Love your greed, your sooty lust. They arced into this world at the same moment you did. They will dance with you until you slacken and fall from these rocks back into water. Remember to help. Help others. Feed people and birds and trees and cows and flowers. Come up with new ideas and help us collectively remember some old ones. But know also that you are unhelpful, cruel, in fact— that is also in your nature. Love your cruelty. Try to understand it. It is part of being here in a body and over time if you seek wisdom and the company of calm kind laughers, singers, doers, thinkers, your cruelty too will soften. But most importantly, remember that you will be—that you are—okay, whatever happens. Truly—whatever happens. Sometimes you will run, of course, and rage, and fail, and falter, but since soon enough you will leave this rocky cliff and arc again toward everyone, and God, and water, you may as well rest here, in balance, in this body, and be happy.
Maud Kelly is the author of Descent: Your Guide to the Underworld, published in 2021 by Three Planes Publishing. Descent uses the language of myth to help people understand that going through terrible things is not only do-able but an unavoidable and necessary part of living. Find it and short meditations on same at threeplanespublishing.com. She also draws and writes the Instagram project @clotheslinetimeline, and has work published in Asheville Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Pleiades, and Best American Poetry, among others.