Beautiful forest

Three Poems by Stacey Balkun

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Winner : Terrain.org 10th Annual Contest in Poetry

In the Forest

we were storied, we were mud, rooted
into branch, Adam-less, pond scum, we were
not abandoned, not boys hunt, girls sew but river
otters and acorns, we were boar hunters run wild
with electric charge, riding crop, we were
riot, rushing past the dropped fruit
we could sing poorly but loud, tangled hair
and chalked lungs, we were baptized
above radioactive dirt, we were bicycle chains,
daisy chains, grass stains, more than crumbs
left for birds: mammalian, marsupial, we could swing
from high on the highest branch to crack the surface of the creek
we did not dream of escape until we did, each tree a girl
who couldn’t scream, our bones ringing like bells

 

 

The Water, the Truth, the Water

I go only as far as I dare                                                                   a full-grown possum-girl
through the familiar neighborhood                                 past the NO TRESPASSING signs
behind the pool                                                                               a stream runs through and
collapsed razor wire squares the chemical pond       it’s 2018 and backhoes have torn at
my shiver    my urge to wade in                                 the earth   scraped   the residue stuck
to my insides     I can’t rely on                                                                                        memory
or ask my dead                                                                              the satellite maps       refresh
a thousand miles away                                                                       tomorrow I’ll zoom close
to see the diving board sticking out                                                         pale tongue lapping
the deep end         we count the steps                           from swimming pool to waste pond
100 muddy paces between chlorine and acetone as               children    swam in both and
the stream                                                                                my body plunging to the bottom
branches where I hang by the strength of                                                   my storyteller tail
my husband’s human face                                                     tells me there isn’t always truth
                                                  On the map
                                                                   it seemed farther                                                he says
I want to know why                                                                                              I keep scouring
why he didn’t believe me                                                              but the water never recedes

 

Used by Union Carbide during the active phase of plant operation,
the chemical pond situated in the woods of Piscataway, New Jersey
is located less than 500 feet from Wynnewood Swim Club.

 

 

Grounded

Palo Duro Canyon, Texas

 
First, there was absence.

~

Service lost, screen dark,
no charge. We chose this

~

campground, hungry
for a night sky, thinking

~

a night away from home
would what?

~

In a small tent, we’d have

~

to touch. We unfurled each sleeping bag
and cracked two beers. Nothing

~

to unfold in the empty space between

~

cedars. We forgot the hammock.
I got a splinter under the nail
of my ring finger and couldn’t even

~

feel it. Summer solstice, I thought the sun
would never set and the night
would never come and you’d never leave

~

your camp chair beside the empty fire pit
even though a drought meant

~

flame prohibited  

~

I could barely keep my eyes open, crusted
with the dry air. We tried to make out

~

the constellations in the still-waning light
but could only see a dipper slung above us.

~

Though I always find north
I’ve never been one

~

to identify plants or sort planets
from stars and that night only a satellite
caught my eye

~

but it only seemed to glow

~

a reflection of what near it glints,
leaving you as lonely as the zip

~

of a tent door, as lonely as before.
I could almost touch it

~

if I tried. It only looks like it shines,
passing the cold moon
clefted against the canyon wall.

~

It can’t even make its own light.

 

 

 

Poetry judge Camille T. Dungy says…

Haunted landscapes and harassed bodies run and climb and camp and swim and sing through these poems. What’s been done to this land has been done to those who live here. Secrets and lies, miscalculations and grief: such are the fruits left for the poet to reap. Two of these poems are set in Piscataway, New Jersey, where, according to the poems, the legacy of industrial pollution can be found in the groundwater and soil. In lines that are riddled with visual gaps, drastic line endings, and striking syntax, the poet tells the stories of what might become of a body born in such a place. I am as interested in the formal and linguistic playfulness of these poems as I am in the deadly seriousness of their content. To be human, after all, is to seek beauty and joy, to reach for love and connection, even here, on this polluted and imperiled planet. Especially here, these poems insist.

 

Stacey BalkunStacey Balkun is the author of three chapbooks and co-editor of Fiolet & Wing: An Anthology of Domestic Fabulist Poetry. Winner of the 2019 New South Writing Contest in Poetry, her work has appeared in Best New Poets 2018Crab Orchard Review, and The Rumpus, among other anthologies and journals.

Header photo by Quick Shot, courtesy Shutterstock.

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