Poetry by Cleopatra Mathis – Michigan Quarterly Review

Poetry by Cleopatra Mathis



1.  Between Grief and Sorrow


Grief staggers around the house

some thief has emptied.

It wants to tell you everything

all over again; blame is the story

grief hammers, hammering until your leg shakes,

your right foot won’t stop tapping.

It’s a dance for the shaken,

strung out with waiting, and now look

who’s back to guard the door:

grief’s half-sister, dread.


2.  The Coldest Weather


Young trees bend, white trunks slender enough

to spring back, softening the woods however they stand.

But in the bigger ones, you can hear

ice exacting its pull in the pines and spruce.

A pause, a sharp crack

and they snap, the whole tree

breaking away from the heartwood,

long tears of sapwood

going to pieces as they fall. Violent and brutal,

that was our winter. The ground deepened with waste.


3.  In the Woods


Because there were no words he could hear,

I made myself mute, and because

the binding ice of another year


held the same branches down, they were dying,

and trying to free whatever green ones I could

was pointless.  Still, I choose this task


for what it says about hiding and watching:

pulling at a dead limb releases a clatter,

and as I stand there,


dark surrounding trunks come alive

and leap away. The deer

is designed to resemble a tree,


and I only need take one brittle stick

to brittle bark and bang it to see everything plain—

the deer tearing through woods,


believing he is running for his life.





Dead deer a week now by the snowy gate.

Do I have to watch it be eaten? Do I have to see

who comes first, who quarrels, who stays?


And there is the question of the night,

what flesh preferred by which creature—

what sinew and fat, the organs, the eyes.

These appetites: it’s enough

to know the swoop and cut of wings

over the snarl of something leaping away.


Do I have to see the icy figure fused to the ground,

scrabbled snow, not lovely or deep,

but the surface of something spoiled?

By now the rib bones arch above it all,

unbroken light shining between them,

above the black cavity.


And I hear the crows, complaint, complaint

splitting the morning, hunched over the skull.

They know their offices.




On the cape, in the changing season,

under that noise


of sloshing against pilings, the push-in-

push-away, close then farther out;


underneath the gulls’ bark, the desolate

ambient sound the dog understands—


the moving unstoppable current,

every complication reduced to repetition


as if to beat in some kind of lesson:

not urgency


in the water’s fist

clenching and releasing, but being


without need or purpose, and in my body all this time

the answering sweep of valves


opening and closing; just as the little

terrier, brimful of nerve and trembling,


alone, perched there, sentinel on the deck’s edge,

has been trying all along to teach.


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This essay is featured content from the Summer 2012 issue.

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