Three Poems by Shelley Puhak


Stalin, alone

At the Tbilisi seminary, suspended
for reading Victor Hugo, he wrote
as all seventeen-year-olds do, of violets,
icy peaks and blue firmament, wrote
a poem to the moon:
          .With outstretched arms, I shall revere
          .The spreader of light upon the earth.
At Kuntsevo, in the conservatory, moonlit
geometries on cold tile are cut by the black
of his boots, as pipe smoke ribbons rise
past glossy green leaves, fruit gone silver—
Lemons. He loved them.
Grew them until the end.
Now moonlight trails him when he steps
from his bath, bare feet on marble.
The moon dissects him, his body the same
as anyone’s: silver white rind
of skin, dimpled, oily, thin
and the bitter fruit within.


Why Old Women Cry at Weddings

His hand, big and pink, crushes the satin
on the small of her back.
………………………………The old women
mist up, but they are not just nostalgic,
already tasting the mud in their mouths,
remembering themselves queasy with champagne,
hair lacquered stiff, itchy lace cuffs,
their groom in his dress blues, not shipping out
until next week. And it’s not
that they forget things.
……………………………We all do.
They cry because we want
them to, or because it’s a wedding,
because there will be so many others
we will attend, one after another,
until all faces smear into years
pressed against frosted glass,
a year unfolds in an hour
spent fumbling
with a linen napkin
shaped like a swan.


Lancelot, after Being Caught Downloading Porn

Look. When the arborist called—the old oak
in the yard was too far along—

I sobbed in the Target parking lot, recalling
the birch of your body and the oak

of my own desire, pyramidal in youth,
thinning in autumn. And the day after

the machinery came, the cat
had to be put down. O! the simplicity

of a needle after so many tools with teeth:
saws, chippers, grinders. I’d think the cat

imperative and the oak incidental
to our story, had the arborist not said

deciduous over and over, explaining how
this oak, startled as a sapling, had always

been hollow. And now even its stump
gone. Easy, too easy, to let the cat

crumple. Someone came with the needle, someone
hummed among the last fingers of leaf.

Look. A hollow tree stands only on the new
wood it urges up. I’m only hunting

for a bit of bark to peel back, the surprise
of the pale just beneath, the dappled

birch of any body. Put away your quivering lip,
my dear. We were always deciduous.


Shelley Puhak is the author of two poetry collections, the more recent of which, Guinevere in Baltimore (Waywiser 2013), was selected by Charles Simic for the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. Her first collection, Stalin in Aruba (Black Lawrence 2009) was awarded the Towson Prize for Literature. Puhak’s poems have appeared in Kenyon Review Online, North American Review, and Verse Daily, her essays have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Creative Nonfiction, and Columbia. Puhak teaches at Notre Dame of Maryland University, where she is the Eichner Professor of Creative Writing. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and son.

[The above poems are reprinted with permission of the author.]

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