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Sample Poems by Gayl Teller

Cleft Palate

The hole in the roof of my mouth
is haunted
by the ghost of my breath.
It resurrects a nasal wildness
through the soft fleshy home
where my words live.
It frightened my mother
when I was a child—it
made milk run through my nose,
sucked spaghetti like smoke up a flue
through my head, and made me sneeze.
She was ashamed
I spoke unlike other children
whose voices flowed as crisp spring air,
while mine nosed around,
drowning in air,
or nose-dived in the aping airs
of an insecure kid’s pinched nose mock.
She bought me M&M’s for sweetness,
her hand in mine, the best part,
and took me by subway to Mount Sinai
speech school, where elocutionists tried
to exorcise it by exercise,
my blowing at a ping-pong ball
across a white sheet of paper
as if I were executing my words.
And that, I suppose, is how initially
I felt my cleft palate as a spirit
haunting a collection
of calamities and pleasures.

Learning the Facts of Life

Sixth grade recess and Im running
from friend to friend, leaping with news
across the strewn bookbags, lunchboxes,
across the schoolyard jingly with keys, whistles,
my charm bracelet gifted with voice
in my triumph’s excitement—
Im a woman! Im a woman!
My red dawn on a tissue horizon
I unfold in evidence from my pocket—
I’m kissed, clapped for, congratulated!
But I must leave that secure place
of chain-linked fences and friends,
and enter that night my mother would tell me
now that I was a woman, how to hold on to a man—
Tell him you swallowed a peach pit!
Say that’s how you got the hole!
Never admit you were born with a cleft palate.”


It comes like a call from someone in the past,
some old friend we’d forgotten on a swing
in memory, sweeping us into those striations
of rose and gold, hints of purple pulling us
through some sorrowful vortex, as she pumps,
and we begin to stir up those subtler hues,
little vibrancies we’ve learned from her,
and from so many others we’ve met along the way,
as we are so much more than our given primaries,
as our people palette can save us our lives,
and just as our small eyes can contain
that vastness of sky, I tell you, it’s that beautiful,
this little shift in perspective, to forgive.