Desert at night, lightning, car taillights

Five Poems by Stacey Forbes 13th Annual Contest in Poetry Finalist

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Call and response

I called to say I saw lightning. I wanted to know if you needed cream to cloud your coffee in the morning. It’s too early for summer storms, but the desert is ready to whet the whistle of the fledgling hawk, fallen from its nest. Did you remember to bring in the cat? The coyote’s song always ends on the same note. I left a note on the freezer for you. Open the door, cool your face for a moment. Count the fins on the steelhead trout. Do we ever have enough? Remember when we got our fish from the Shoshone-Bannock dragging coolers like rafts down the west bank of the river? Did you hear the lake is so low now you can hit rock bottom without even trying? I saw the news in the checkout line. No one counted on so many bones, murdered bodies among the tadpoles small enough to live in such shallows. The half-tame javelina in our backyard ate our last three peaches and left their hard hearts on our porch. Do you believe in omens? I called to warn you about the speed trap between the two saguaros on the road home. I called to ask what I could bring that would make any difference. I called to ask how hungry you are. To see if you needed my hands to brush your hair back from your eyes. If you recognize my number, even in this heat. I wanted to say that I have always thought of you as cool. That I’m lost. That all I can do is drive. That I love you. That I already know you won’t answer.




for Gabriel, age nine

The angel Gabriel wanted to pee in the stream. He asked his mother, reverent up to her shins in minnows. Her pink bikini was sweet as salvation. The only thing sweeter was Gabriel’s face, father-forsaken and beautiful under his crooked cap. Hopping on slippery rocks, he did the only dance the call of nature knows. His mother’s eyes were mangers, soft and dark. Please, she said. Just pee downstream. We bob in the water, wondering how the canyon was carved. How many tadpoles wish for our long legs, kicking in clear water. If turtles will snap at our strawberry toes. We know the rattlesnakes are mating, that leopard frogs are spilling eggs like stars into the milky way of animal attraction, that cicadas wait seventeen years underground to crawl into the light and sing for their mates only once. That there will be no buzz like love. That we are capable of killing or curing each other. That long ago a glacier pierced this place and water gushed from its side. That another storm is coming. That children, still native to joy in spite of us, believe they are pure enough to pee in streams. For once in our lives, we won’t run away. We are ready to rise with the flood.




Do you believe in signs? I do. But Sometimes I get it all wrong. Like tonight. My husband played bass on a stage at a Baja bar in Arizona, nowhere near the ocean. A sign scribbled on a surfboard and hung on the wall behind him said: Bummer of the week. Sweet Jesus, where to begin? The dress that was too tight. The lips that were too loose. The promise I forgot. The slap I remembered. Three flat tires—all my fault—and a breakdown. A baby rabbit rescued from brushfire only to shudder once, then die in my mother’s small hand. The pain and puzzle of identifying as human. The sign said burger, of course. We give the cow with full moon eyes a round of antibiotics. She sighs, and another moment in the ozone expires. Now, another sign lights: last call for wonder crushed in half-drunk glasses of red or white. For whiskey sours and love, sweet love. For whole forests of kisses planted on faces. For the striped cat and the spotted owl. For standing ovation. For stars. For song. For bad dancing, good Lord, and goodbye. If you can still lift your arms in this gravity, flag your waitress. Hurry now. We haven’t got all night.



Flight song

UK travel chaos as runways melt and roadsides burn in southern England
   – NZ Herald, 19 July, 2022

A song thrush
falters in mid-air:
the single engine
in her belly
has no twin.
She flies with
no compass, no radio—
still, she is certain
the earth is burning.
Built of bone and feather,
her only passengers
are four blue eggs.
No one calls out
from the ground,
You can land now
in the wild ivy, make
your small cup of mud
and fill it with miracles.
Not yet.
Her music is her fuel.
She knows more
than a hundred notes
by heart—and she
will need them all.
She circles over
melting roads and farms
and fields of bluebells,



No greater love

Thank you fire, for not taking Frankie.
For spitting him out, shiny and whole
as a watermelon seed in his family’s hands.
Thank you hands that hitchhike deserts to dig
in the dirt, pick pecans, and plant olive trees.
Thank you sycamore for feeling like my father’s
skin. Thank you aspen for mimicking the magic
of Mamaw’s white hair. Thank you prickly
pear for feeding the mule deer and piercing
my heart. Thank you javelina lying in the middle
of the road that summer night, thank you swerving
car, thank you husband who feared you dead but
returned to find you were nursing two sucklings
on the yellow lines—thank you for knowing
the meaning of love but not of danger. Thank you
dangerous sting of the bark scorpion in my house
for pulling me out of the dark evening news.
Thank you Ukraine for refusing to yield—and for
the 20 million metric tons of potatoes you gave us.
Thank you corn for growing taller and stronger
than me. Thank you sugar beet, milk cow, and egg.
Thank you clean cotton sheets. Thank you lover
your mess and your mop of dark hair. Thank you
tomcat for living beyond your nine lives to fill our
one with wildness. Thank you bare feet in the stream.
Thank you minnow and moss. Thank you friend
who went too soon for leaving your laugh like
a photograph we can go back to. Thank you
one hundred and seven degrees for bleaching
the cholla’s bones so we can touch them.
Thank you mostly cloudy day and monsoon June
instead of July. Thank you jalapeno jam with blackberries
hailing us from some hole-in-the-wall at Rock Springs.
Thank you Flagstaff for your scent of pine, soft
thunder of your running deer. Thank you Eddie’s
electric guitar. Thank you Sara for swinging low
with the holy gospel of bluegrass, and thank
you Johnny Cash. Thank you ring of fire
for circling all the way back to the beginning,
when gratitude was the only music we knew.




Stacey ForbesStacey Forbes’s poem “Speaking of trees” won first place in the 2021 Plough Poetry Prize. Her poems are published or forthcoming in New Ohio Review, The American Journal of Poetry, Blue Mountain Review, and Split Rock Review. Born in the Pennsylvania countryside, Stacey now lives in Tucson, Arizona.

Header photo by Ross Ellet, courtesy Shutterstock.

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