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Nicole Cooley




On the train to New Orleans my sister and I

light the Virgen de Guadalupe candles

and the line of unlucky women steps out from the flame.


They file past at the window where we sit,

where we have given up being safe from them,

our four aunts with their loose dresses for mourning,


their fasting, their silent refusals.  These women loved

their grief like the bread they would not let themselves eat,

like the children they would not allow into their bodies.


We know their unspoken lesson—take nothing

into the body.  We know they will wait for us,

a line of dolls cut from the same sheet of butcher paper,


the sister of this family linked by their hands and alone.

One mile into Mississippi, the train passes a statue

of blue-robed Mary in someone else’s yard, bathtubs leaning


against the wire fence.  I place us there.  With relief,

I lower each of us into the bath, into the crystal salts.

Oil pools on the surface of the water.  Sulfur is staining our skin.


The train drags on across the tracks, away from us,

leaving us in our own story.  My first aunt looks down

at the flat pan of her pelvis, strung tight between hipbones


she’ll never touch.  She likes her body empty and clean.

Coaxing her into the tub, we preach the virtues of this water,

its power to wash away sin.  The second one taps


her cigarette ash on the grass and blows smoke at the sky

while we plead with her about drowning,

tell her not to go all the way down.  Why should she listen?


We know how good the body can feel, unused, expecting

nothing.  But my sister and I are trying to prove them wrong.

When I kneel beside my family, I am desperate.


My sister drags the sign of the cross in the dirt

with a stick.  Why don’t we quit telling the story?

Once upon a time there were four princesses and a single


safe tower.  No prince.  In place of a man, a basket

of primroses they ripped into pieces, four finches

fighting it out for the kingdom.  In another story,


my sister and I take them all home to New Orleans.

I take them all into me, my secret collection.

I give up.  They live in my body.  Oh, we are beautiful.


In the real story, we are all starving together.  Sisters,

the wafer floats on my tongue like bad luck, like our name.




In the unnamed village the priest breaks the Body

of Christ above the child who will become my great-grandmother.

The baptism is complete with the Bread of Heaven, the bread

other women shape into loaves to bring luck, good fortune

to be passed through her body into the bloodline to her unborn

children like water leaking from the fields through

the dirt floor of the house.  By now, at the end of the century,

it’s clear you’re not coming back for us.  You’re not returning

to save us, and my inheritance is the wish for nothing

but emptiness.  I cast my lot with the women in my family.

I follow them.  I choose the rituals of grief.

Again and again the boat crosses the ocean from Europe

to America, then back, and I am running.  I circle

the block where you once lived, the house

I can’t enter, where my aunt and my mother lie

side by side in the dark in your bed.  I run until

my muscles burn.  Your granddaughters will sleep together

in this house for the rest of their lives.

The day you leave Budapest, meat hangs in the market,

a lamb skinned and strung up by its front legs, body

slit open.  Steam rises from its belly, from the space

between its back legs.  Is this the moment when it began?

When you vowed to fast, to turn your body pure, immaculate

like Mary, to prepare yourself for the kind of love

that accompanies refusal and holds sisters together?

I circle the block again and again till my breath catches

in my throat.  If you believe the dead send messages,

here is you punishment—all of us hoping to become

children, hoping for safety.  We will do anything

to prevent the panic that stutters in the chest,

anything to keep ourselves hollow and flat.

Inside your house my mother spoons milk

into her sister’s mouth.  They sit silently at your table.

I circle the block, holding my breath.   My mother drinks

glass after glass of vinegar on ice to fill her stomach

with the pain that’s familiar, the pain that we love.

When we finally find you in the afterlife, will we be pure

enough for you?  At night in my own house I lay

the table, crystal plates and saucers, three forks for each

guest, a spoon set above every place.  There is room for all

of the women at the table.  I serve the objects that promise luck:

pigeon feathers and coffee beans for love, ten-cent babies to signal

fertility.  I pile pennies on each plate for prosperity.

Here is a stone from the bottom of the sea you crossed.

Lay it flat on your tongue.  Pass it from one to the other

in your mouths.  At the end of the century I will step out

of my body like a dress, leave it on the floor.

Rose, I want to speak with your voice in the language

none of us understands.  I want your kiss, your tongue

in my mouth.  This is not love but how we inherit

each other.  I sit alone at the table, notebook open on my lap.

Listen.  I am the one who will tell about it.


                                            -from Resurrection


Marshy spillover is first to flood: where water
first met sand and pilings lost all anchor.

Where nothing rose above the surge, that wall
of black, black water. Where houses buckled, crumbled.

Where the storm’s uneven scrawl erased.
While miles away I watched a map of TV weather,

the eyewall spinning closer. A coil of white, an X-ray.
I imagined my parents’ house swept to its stone slab.

While I remembered sixth grade science, how we traced the city
like a body, arterials draining in the wrong direction.

We shaded blue the channel called MR GO that pours
from the River to the Gulf, trench the storm water swallowed.

The levees overfilled, broke open. And I came home to see
the city grieving. The city drained then hacked apart.


                                                     -from Breach