Letter to America by Rose McLarney

Three Poems

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Writing on a Scrap of Paper in Reach

Slipping over museum marble floors, it was so easy—
movement between places and people. In this room,

modern American painters, step to the next,
to traditional African pots. Not so outside

the hush of those halls of protection,
navigating the living, struggling city. A street

I’m driving, paved and passable as any other,
stops suddenly at a chain-link fence

stretched across. The projects beyond. And people
I am not to reach, or rather, who are not to reach me.

The radio does, with its talk of how a wall could border
the whole country. Some among us truly wish this.

So I cannot see a saving metaphor in wire’s mesh,
how light, at least, passes through.

In the museum, there was a stencil, paper cut-outs
stitched on strands of silk. These were stretched across

fabric and that washed over with the juice of persimmons,
centuries ago. Surely, what the maker thought of most,

deciding on the delicate incisions we still admire,
was where dye would be allowed to go, the openness

in the design. Art is the good we do. Yet, it does not
quite support the belief better is ahead. It can only be said

that there are a few fine scraps that survive. I hope
someone who has made it farther along

this street than my idling car is putting paper to use
to cut a chain of dolls for a girl. And she will be let,

for some afternoon hours of her life, to unfold them.
To think of the hands as a link.



When to Wear a Strapless Dress, and Not Consider What is to Come

When I was measured for a wedding gown, my hips were found
to be exactly half the width of my shoulders. This form, and the fashion
among many women to hunger and hone away hips, could have been
a caution, about a future we should not bear children into, that would
bring to our shoulders great weight. The field where I was married
nearly burned before the year turned. Questions circled, smoldering.
Was the drought that dried it the first of the natural disasters, of thirsts
we’d feel for what had been our civility? What’s coming, or can be
hoped? I cannot foresee when flames, the sea, and bigotry will rise, or
borders, presses, and the blessed chapters of bookish lives be closed.
But I have studied European poets, and, before exile and execution, before
quieter oppressions that may not stay foreign, they felt the careful forms
of starched napkins, saw the architecture of spiral stairs and turrets’ upward
aims, and tasted citrus’s aesthetic of sugar and sharpness, which fed
their lines, so fine, and brief. My friends sat in folding chairs opened
for the evening’s occasion in the field, the green and growing
field lit by fireflies’ short blazes. The full river and my full skirt
as I passed over the grass to give a promise of all the years ahead
made like-minded sounds. I was told I was beautifully slim. Slimness
was a measure in which we were happy to consider beauty.



Wildfires, Election Week

“Beneath the surface,” I write.
“Crossing over,” I note,

selecting from the news,
for a poem, these few phrases

which sound saving.
But they are speaking of fire.

Fire and a tree, how deep into the bark
the burn to be deadly.

Fire and the river,
the barrier it may leap.


The sky is smoke-dark. These are days
of no dawns, do feel an end-time.

And we’re deserving of judgement,
given what we’ve elected.

Maybe it is time to think differently,
to stop the editing, the excepting. To say,

let the fire come. Let it burn all the fuel
and in that way finally be put out.

The fuel, which is what we have built,
leaving the earth bare to begin again.


Against such sweeping statements, a small
example again stands, redeeming excerpt

from the wreckage: A Cherokee council oak,
older than this country, under which the tribe

met to settle differences, deserves to survive
the blaze. And it may because people

have kept clear the ground around.
Flames don’t grow so high or hot

in maintained grass—care taken
come to some purpose.


Though the Cherokee were driven
from the land where hate stayed,

deportation is the talk today, and defeats
define the history of good.

Which keeps on going. Add to the losses
my little lines, refined until they fail

to represent the majority
of what I see. In the end, they do nothing

but turn thoughts to the grace of a tree.
So willfully.




Rose McLarneyRose McLarney’s collections of poems are Its Day Being Gone, winner of the 2013 National Poetry Series, published by Penguin Books, and The Always Broken Plates of Mountains, published by Four Way Books. Rose is Assistant Professor at Auburn University and Co-Editor-in-Chief of Southern Humanities Review.

Read poetry by Rose McLarney previously appearing in Terrain.org.

Header photo of wildfire by Anthony Heflin, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Rose McLarney by Nicole McConville Photography.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.