Because it is old, I said when I read about it.
Because it is religious, and because I, too,
am religious
. There it is, in the middle of town,
just one street over from the river we’d been
following. At the entrance, the docent

hands us a laminated document describing
what we suppose we are seeing–a dormitory
a story above, a kitchen, a refectory. These
all to be parsed from the rubble of a building,
of the body of the building, its remains.

The grace of what’s left is in the nave, a carved
stone high altar, part of a rood screen. The ceremony
of the place somehow still speaking. We climb
the next level up. This is where the friars ate.
They slept below. The laminate points to a small

balcony called a desk, whence one would have read
to the others from scripture as they readied for sleep.
Under an alcove–what it held once we can only guess
–stand headstones, tilted, sideways, the names
by now softened, effaced. In this north Atlantic town,

it’s a wonder any name, etched or carved,
survives, even in stone. Only the ambulatory
–three halls with pillars and arches on half walls,
looking out onto the current grass–seems whole.
I walk down each passage more than once, sheltered

from the soft rain, trying on the rhyme and echo
of the pillars arching away in procession, looking up
at grass or moss lining the stone laid in curves to form
the corners.Would the friars have felt this elegance,
the art of it? Little wildflowers thread the grass

and even the walls. The sky is low and gray.
The abbey is perhaps the reason there is a town
at all. It’s hard to suss the priority. For awhile it was even
the town’s cemetery, the apparent destiny of every churchyard.
The yard, even the church itself, is littered with graves.

requires, first, lessons in concentration. think of that cloud of dust
you only just now dislodged from under the bed when you were
looking for the other shoe. why was the second shoe under the bed?
this is an example of a distracting thought you must set aside.

pick up the cloud in your hands. how soft it is, how made of
what you dare not contemplate. this will be the stuff of trans-
formation: do not think of binning it, not yet: you still have not

discovered its nature: light, uncompacted, its tufts and feathers
(metaphor is allowed) still allowing a puff of breath to make

its way, to move the cloud from your hand to the air, from the air

to the floor. its nature is to gather, is to greaten, but in secret,
in quiet places where such magnitudes can work undisturbed

for weeks and months, especially under the bed of the likes
of you. there, there. housekeeping is not what we’re after:
we seek nothing less than magic, which is why the inadvertent

vowels of disgust you utter when you bring the dust nebula
forth with the all-but-forgotten shoe is precisely correct: turn
disgust into surprise, into interest, and you’re nearly there:
this constellation of the gods know what is your own material:

(‘conjuring for beginners’ was the name of an exhibit/installation, or series thereof, at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin, 2012.)

At 4:44 a.m. there is no sound from Lower
Gardiner Street, though the light from a lamp glows

somewhere out of the frame. I am recovering
the day I lost in the air. There is a kettle and tea

for the morning. The bed’s a white oblivion
into which we sank last night at nine as if from which

never to reemerge but now at 5:30 I am wake-dreaming,
a quarter hour at a time, our day and our breakfast.

My husband’s breathing is deep and even. The window
brightens by the minute. I make my tea, double strength,

while on the street below, a hundred tiny cars on their
many ways to or from elsewhere pulse forward.

The worst job I ever had, I agreed with my neighbor that I would be her child minder for the summer. I was reading Hopkins. I was trying to have a boyfriend my parents disapproved of. I was trying to see California for what it was, out of the shelter of our little house. I stayed up late. I hoped for clear nights, the lights spilling out to Long Beach and into the sea. I went to see The Passion of Anna with my friend in Westwood. She and I exchanged our journals. I wanted her life, its exoticism. She was from California, but we weren’t. It wasn’t natural to me, its customs, its biome, its hidden histories. In my family, I was the oldest. It was the summer of Cielo Drive, but my parents didn’t know that. They had been so careful. I was still whole. I chafed at it, their protection. My classmate was Sharon Tate’s sister. Another was Christopher Boyce’s sister. Soon, I would go back to Utah. In my neighbor’s home, I watched the youngest child and I was bored. There was a book for parents and children, a book with sex in it. The photos were black and white. It’s okay, you can show it to him, the mother said. She was working at her husband’s pharmacy. She was from Europe. They ate only healthy food. I found the book a scandal and was obsessed with it. I would not read it with the child, which seemed terrible to me. I rode my bike to the beach. I listened to singers and songwriters. I read the terrible sonnets and D.H. Lawrence. I thought of my school life in Utah, and longed for it, because I could be on my own. The crisis with my parents over the boyfriend had not yet ensued, but it was coming. I quit my job. The mother was upset. But you promised, she protested. It rang clearly, this thought, that I would not go back there. I didn’t care about her disappointment. Or I did, but not enough. I argued with myself. You can quit a job, I said. I don’t have to keep doing it. I woke up to sun and got strawberries for my cereal from the garden. I stayed up late. I stayed with still other people’s children while they went on expensive vacations. I lived in their houses and tried on their lives. I was not entirely responsible. I was not, in this sense, a go getter. I tried to think of a life where I would be free. I still thought such a life was possible for someone like me. I got up early to go to the pier. My brother and I ate soup for breakfast on the beach. A boy I loved from high school asked me to come out with him, although this never quite happened. This was before he found the Lord and could speak of nothing else. I looked at his words in my yearbook. Let us be like Raskolnikov and Sofya, he said, meaning, let us be truthful with one another, although I should have recognized that his reference was to a murderer and a whore, neither of which either one of us was, but this telling the truth would not, in the end, be our business, not with one another, nor ever, with anyone, unless we found ourselves in far different circumstances than these.

Driving Alone

Alone, driving, perhaps too fast, I

Belt it out, loudly,I’m changing all of the stations, stopping at

Coldplay, because I know the words. Swerving like a

Drunk to avoid a motorcycle

Every car locked in a rhythm, we sing the

Freeway. You didn’t have to cut me off, I scream with

Goyte, though I could be singing to the

Hummer, bright yellow, that darts like an elephant

In front of me. I

Just can’t get over you, I sing but which you do I mean?

Kelly Clarkson, whom I can’t seem to find on this radio?

Lady Gaga? Bon Jovi? Madonna? I’ll have to be content with

Maroon 5, who, honestly, makes me want to run. Ain’t

Nothing I can do…. Don’t I know it!

On my way,

Perilously over the speed limit.

Quiet! my over-caffeinated brain whispers.

Really, I shouldn’t sing, but how can I resist when

“Somebody that I Used to Know” comes on?

There’s no way I can’t sing,

Unless someone is in the car with me. When

“Viva la Vida” comes on, those first dulcet strains,

When I recognize the !-2-3 of

XTC’s “Senses Working Overtime,”

You know I am rocking, singing, dancing,

Zinging my way, all the way, home.


By the cover art that looks like a cosmos
I can tell what the books on the rack
are about: Where Does Life Begin?
I read on one of them, giving the book

a side-eye, noncommittal glance.
In no mood for a cosmology, not today
or really ever, I evade a solicitation
from the two believers (I surmise)

who chat with each other about who
knows what—their children’s soccer games
or the way science has become a new
religion, and isn’t it terrible and so forth:

I’m bored by the engagement already
and I’m not even a part of it except
for the way that the swirl of a nebula,
standing in for life and its beginnings,

has established itself in my thought
as I walk from one building to the next,
descend a flight of stairs to my hours
of appointments: there it is, a virus,

replicating, having leapt from the cover
of a cheap proselytizing book to infect
the whole of my brain, even to this poem.
It’s January. They’re unsheltered. The sky is clear

but for the defilement of ozone and soot.
What is this but a sign? I want to ask them,
since from childhood I’ve been an expert
among the sign-seekers. How has it come to this?

I might begin. Why are you here? And out of stars
and making, how are we now breathing ash,
particles and debris? They might reply that this
—gesturing at the air—is not of God

but of human making. But, I counter, why do you
wear that conservative suit? They gesture
in my direction with a smile, and step forward,
and I only want to shun them, to reject

and reject them, and still I want God’s love:
we want to share God’s plan with you, but I
am aswirl already in the plan, or anyway
in the tropes I have to work with: Missionaries,

I am on my own errand, to close a door
on this so easily ignited spiral fuse.
I need no more of what you offer. Or maybe
I do, but first I must, must escape this bad air.


Escape was always possible in the same way I thought life would go on forever, like the corn field I could never find the edge of. The sky which flew over the tops of trees and weighed day down. The sun which knifed our eyes. The tree house too tall which threatened to consume me. I ran all the way home. He was the little pig. When dark invisibled our skin we drank in the air. How the fireflies inhabited the night. The whir of the fan. The windows let in storm. I had a little lamp that I kept off. I hid it from myself. The words would not unknot themselves.

after “Beach Ball” by Karen Brennan


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