Understory

Understory

Understory

Within these riparian depths, you press
through the ditch weed & grasses that shadow
the river in greens, trying to listen
for rustles of life where dead branches lie
gathered in bands along the banks like smoke
from summer’s fire that stripped the hills to stone.

This windless spring day voices strange like stone
breathes; its bufflehead-queer, top-heavy press
across the stream’s glassy gape damps the smoke
trees’ plea for breezy reprieve in shadow—
red buds purpling with their own blooms’ weight lie
flattened to their boughs, assuaged to listen

for a far-off storm’s faint peals. You listen
for a reason to turn from your cold, stone
descent—do the unearthed cedar roots lie
about the travails of erosion? Press
them for answers, you’ll get back the shadow
of your own doubts cleaved in moss thick as smoke.

Is silence its own story, or a smoke
screen for more forbidding fables? Listen
to the garter snake slip into shadow—
when its shift through the weeds turns up a stone
that no one sees, does it make a sound? Press
your palm against a garbled trunk & lie

about the story your closed eyes see; lie
supine like tinder on a pyre until smoke
wafts from the ashes you become; or press
past the bank’s last thorny thicket & listen
for bitterns to make their water-gulped-stone
intentions known, as if your looming shadow

could spur their ardor. What is that shadow,
if not the sun’s scorn for your darkest lie?
No river embodies hope for the stone
waiting on Sisyphus to outrun smoke.
Hope is a myth the robins tell their hatchlings: Listen
at your own peril—for when the flames press

in, bearing tidings of shadow & smoke,
the first lie you listen to will make you
their stone shrine to the robins’ skyward press…

STEPHANIE L. HARPER

Robin's Nest

“Understory” was published in Issue 13 (Fall 2019) of Panoply. Thank you to editors Jeff Santosuosso, Ryn Holmes, and Andrea Walker for selecting this piece.

Instead

Stephanie L Harper 1
Instead

if i decided to stop being a poet
what would i do instead?     i asked
(my husband) the other night

the other night when it was late
it was too late to start cooking dinner
& the cattle dog     who lives for order

requires order      & feels its lack
like her hackles feel static    she was pacing
between us     resorting to vocal admonishments

to higher-than-usual-pitched chortling     cajoling
someone to get with the program     the other night
after gymnastics     & martial arts     & driving

driving in gridlock on multiple highways
after the shopping wasn’t done
after—& we were too hungry to cook dinner—

after hunger became the side dish of the night
after my husband had worked all day
& beer number three hadn’t staved off his hunger

& hunger was a side dish      the kids snacked
on chips     & played redundant games on their phones
& the floor was unswept     the dog was anxious

her nails clicked on the unkempt floor
the cat meowed to be fed     the shopping wasn’t done
& so a can of tuna was cracked

the cat’s bowl was filled     & we gave the dog the juice
the dog lapped     then she went back to clicking
& minutes ticked another hour

while my fingers ticking on the keyboard
whooped up a frenzy of words on the screen
with hurricane intensity they swirled

they dispelled into wisps against cold fronts
& re-galvanized in isolated updrafts     but rained nothing
because meaning always slips drily away from the words

& escapes like sly prey into the woods     because
the words bravely give chase     but they were never cut out for this hunt
& they get lost     & hungry

they go hungry like an injured wolf separated from its pack
like a cattle dog lacking order     & teenagers not-talking on phones
like groceries that can’t shop for themselves

like the cat settling for tuna
well     not like that
like clacking keyboards churning up dry storms

like computer screens adrift
at the mercy of tidal waves of hunters
& peckers     & especially delete-ers

_____like a poet who can’t do anything instead

like the shift key     & the alt key
like the fourth beer needs to be the ctrl + alt + delete keys
like delete is a kind of key

they go hungry

like a husband

STEPHANIE L. HARPER

“Instead” was first published by the brilliant editor and poet and fabulous human being d. ellis phelps in Formidable Woman, and appears in my debut chapbook, This Being Done.

On a more solemn note, my Cattle Dog, Sydney, crossed the rainbow bridge this week at the ripe old age of 15 years 1 month. Being a part of this loyal, quirky, intelligent, beautiful, fascinating canine’s chosen family has been the honor of a lifetime. I wouldn’t be the poet or person I am without her influence.

Sydney Beggar

 

Hypochondria Blues (with recording)

badger

Hypochondria Blues

What you’ve got is only a touch of neurosis,
so don’t get your knickers all bunched in a twist—
such worries will give you a deep vein thrombosis!

Do you think there’s a prize for a self-diagnosis?
Stop looking for lesions; don’t palpate that cyst!
What you’re dealing with here’s just a bit of neurosis…

That smart phone is gonna cause spinal stenosis!
The search engine’s warning that if you persist,
you’ll likely wind up with a deep vein thrombosis!

You’d have known it by now if you had halitosis—
like a boil, it’s something not easily missed.
Better face it, you’ve got a small case of neurosis…

Now, what would possess you to google psychosis?
Let me guess… The voices submitted a list?
Are they helping you summon a deep vein thrombosis?

It’s not a news flash you’ve got some type of -osis
but the poking of badgers is what gets them pissed…
So give it a rest! Embrace your neurosis!
Who needs all the fuss of a deep vein thrombosis?

(Just to be on the safe side, look up
pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis…)

STEPHANIE L. HARPER
Instrumental: Disquiet by Kevin MacLeod

 

“Hypochondria Blues” was published in peaceCENTERbooks’ 2018 anthology THE LARGER GEOMETRY. Thank you to editor d. ellis phelps for including this piece in such an inspiring collection!
Author note:
This is one of those rare poems that was in no way whatsoever informed by my real-life experience… 😉

Trace

Trace
For Bob

In your morning pouring of coffee,
eggs whisked, peppers diced,
& pancetta browning; in the unsolidified
splatters you cleanse from the countertop;

in Pandora’s box of Edgar Meyer phenotypes
unseating the disquietude of our former lives;
in afternoon cappuccinos you pronounce in Italian
& in your full belly’s tranquil cogitations;

in your evening removal of socks & your feet’s relief;
in your crescent smile’s light sheltering me,
& with my kisses pressing away the decades of iniquities

to trace their thoroughfare to my universe of courage
secured within the dimple of your left cheek—
is everywhere my home will be.

STEPHANIE L. HARPER

Poem up at Electica!

My poem “Turkey Vulture” is live in Eclectica Magazine’s January/February 2020 issue as part of the journal’s recurring Word Poem Challenge feature. I’d like to thank poetry editor Evan Martin Richards for selecting this piece, and express my appreciation for Eclectica Magazine, in general, for being one of the longest-running online journals out there, and doing such great work to promote literature and literary kind!

Poem up at Eclectica

Mt St Helena_Sleeping Elephant

My “sleeping elephant,” Mt. Saint Helena (Sonoma County, CA), in whose mesmerizing shadow I grew up…

My poem, “Elephantine,” has been included with a fine array of poems in Eclectica magazine’s October/November 2019 issue’s Word Poem Challenge feature. The task was to compose a poem containing the words paper, indigo, brew, and cruise. Thank you editor Evan Richards for selecting this piece.

Poem up at Panoply!

Understory

My poem, “Understory,” is now live in issue 13 of the fantabulous online journal, Panoply Literary Zine! Thank you to editors extraordinaire, Jeff, Ryn, and Andrea, for selecting this piece. I’ve begun the absolute pleasure of delving into the fresh and evocative writing contained in this issue, and I encourage everyone to do the same. I’m honored to have my work appear among such impressive ranks.

Dead Rose at 5 Points Local

I can’t begin to express how deeply soul-nurturing it is for me to collaborate with such an extraordinarily generous and brilliant man and poet as Robert Okaji!

O at the Edges

Dead Rose at 5 Points Local
(A collaborative poem written with Stephanie L. Harper)

Having plucked the disheveled
petals from the core,
she waits
for the dead to speak
of last week’s sweetness—

of damp upholstery
and worn-out shoes,
of locked chests
and the faint honey
of unrealized hope.

Magnetized,
I twist the stem;
I quarter the seeds and
blemish the plate.
Which north rings true?

Which faded-red
bridge reveals the lost
inner compass?
Our ice cubes clink
no answers, as the essences

of hibiscus, lavender,
and mint slip over my tongue,
concealing the cool
tang of her demurring
ghosts…

But when she says whisper,
touching her lips
with an index finger,
I hear distant trains
baying like wolves,

and smell the char of nights
trailing the undiminished
river, its waters flowing
in every possible
direction, away.

* * *

“Dead Rose at 5 Points Local” first appeared in

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