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Sample Poems by Kelli Russell Agodon

The History of _________

There is not enough history in the past—
my great-great grandmother traded England

for a new coast, birthed seven children, then
became a side note, a misspelling on an ancestry chart.

Let’s talk about her son the physician, her other son,
a captain under Andrew Jackson. The daughters

are named, but no one kept records of their birthdays.
Random notes fill the margins: died young, married a farmer.

I search through files of nothing—
Maiden name:  missing. Place of birth:  not found.

Do not write “breast” in the Bible, Gail. And when I explain
it was the type of cancer Aunt Mattie died from: No.

There are certain facts we don’t need to document.
Women ailed of stomach cancer, not ovarian.

Each mother existed without her body. The page of deaths
is full of question marks and when we know

what really happened, we leave that out too.
Anna Eliza, Sara Beth, Cora Lee, what are your stories?

Aunt Mattie’s name is dishonestly quiet.
She didn’t talk about it, and the book was shut.

Somewhere in these papers kept within the family
Bible, you can see the word slaves

crossed out and the word workers penciled in.
The family says it was the way of the times,

the South did things like that. I listen to crickets
sing and wonder aloud if it’s the same song

our “workers” heard in the field at dusk. Don’t focus
on the negative, dear. The sun turns the sky pale,

back to the years we don’t remember, the blank wall, white
stairs leading up to, then falling off the edge of this home.

Fifty-Six Knots

I can count the women in my family
between the wooden beads of my rosary.
They are the small knots, the tightness,
    the holding—
the ones embracing the fragility of sons
and fathers between their soft bodies,
and the lives they watch leave them.

I can count the number of prayers
spoken by men at the dinner table,
disguised as promises
they slip out the backdoor
even before the apple cobbler
has been removed from the oven,
the smell still hot in the hands of the burned.

I can count the number of nights I have
listened to Hail Marys bleeding
from the walls, and how many times I have
    wanted to break the chain
sending the fifty-five beads scattering
like the families who prayed to them;
I imagine collection plates around the world

filling with broken rosaries, imperfect
virgins escaping beneath stained-glass skies.
In the whispering corner of the church
    a suffered woman unties
each knot, the sound of beads baptizing
the marble floors, the sound of women
leaving the church hand in hand in hand.

Sailing Lepidoptera

All morning we’d been discussing death.

I checked the field guide to know
it was the Spicebush Swallowtail that landed
in my hair and not the Mourning Cloak.
Maybe I'm superstitious,

but it was the same day I learned about families
in Ireland, their sweaters patterned to identify
sons and husbands—each unique stitch—in case
they drowned, a map of where to send the body.

We passed a garden of calla lilies.

The Mourning Cloak rested, wings
the color of storms, yellow lining the edges
of waves, blue crescent moons
sailing to the rim.

And I wondered if this is what the fishermen saw,

the ones who were pulled under—ocean
moving forward, slice of moon to the East,
bubbles of breath pulling upward
where sun should have been.


settles like sheets of insulation slipping
    from between wooden boards.
The sky, tired of living above us
    drifts down, puts its fingers in the ocean,
        lingers with waves and tugboats.

An entire island has been covered,
    we have thrown a sheet over the sofa
        to keep dust from settling
in homes of the dead.

Each morning, the ferry sounds
    searching haze for small boats,
        for fisherman dreaming of mermaids
they left back on shore.