Poems by Marlo Starr

Exile

for Nadezhda Mandelstam

Faces flash
at the window,
tires hiss
on wet cobblestone.
Here, even the rain
is listening. The poet
with his pocket Inferno
keeps quiet
at the border,
awaiting arrest.

Behind his closed eyes,
cities constellate
in floating dark,
elephantine sculptures
slump over ruins.

In another version,
a knapsack is emptied
on cathedral steps:
a book’s broken spine
makes its soft declaration.

For a last meal, his widow
pawns his library,
her back sloped beyond
a future tense.

A boiled egg for supper.
In her most secret act,
she marvels at its opacity.
She frees the shell
in one crackled coil
and holds the wet globe
in her hand.

 

 

Landscape with Past and Future

 When my brother takes
the gun, he squares his body
to the horizon,

right eye bunched around
the viewfinder, squinting hard
into empty miles.

The sky is a wall.
We stuff our ears with paper.
A can bucks and leaps

as my brother stops
the recoil with his body.
A metal ping rings

in the wind. I taste
iron and clay, remember
the child’s game we played:

with coins in our mouths,
we’d travel safe across Styx.
Did we trust the myth?

Empty shells litter
the ground. The shots shrink the space
between here and there,

exceeding the speed
of sound. In sight but beyond
hearing range, semi

trucks barrel across
the plain. The future crouches
small in the distance.

 

 

 

birds aren’t real.

M, a whole flock is absolutely screaming from the bougainvillea. They are rustling feathers and petals to the ground. But when he—white letters on a black tee—comes trundling past, a hard-boiled font casts its own authority: birds aren’t real. I want to make a case for facts, but belief is one continuous fabric, wrinkling behind the world. On TV, a white-haired mop mixes creation myths, spinning a tale of bears and bulls before signing off, “In God We Trust.” Even the dead—I hear the stone-faced men lecturing from their graves: the next ice age will come soon enough. M, it’s almost spring. The shops are boarded, but the sun is shining. In the poem you recited, some bird loses its way, which starts the whole rumor of the blood-dimmed tide. A case for facts? Perhaps I’ve been rehearsing apocalypse too long. Last night, I dreamed again about the Dust Bowl. I hate to spoil it, but The Grapes of Wrath ends with a mother nursing a starving man, her baby washed down the river like a reverse Moses. Which is to say milk remains a stable commodity even in hard times. I can sense the flabby edges of our shared imagination. M, the birds won’t shut up, and whatever it means, the black tee with white letters makes the better poem, maybe the best I’ve seen.

 

 

Pastoral

 In the woods, we came across a rabbit
latched in a trap, shinbone mangled
between steel teeth. You saw me flinch
and look away before moving to help,
but the rabbit, embarrassed to be
an inconvenience, twitched its tail
and shrugged its fuzzy shoulders.
“Don’t mind me,” its red eyes glinted.
“C’est la vie!” which you took as a cue
to say soothing words in French, fluently
wedging your knife into the rusted spring.
When I offered to dial 9-1-1, our bunny
wriggled onto its free haunch to wink
and shoot me finger guns, while you sighed,
it’s no use. The jaws wouldn’t budge.
There was only one thing left to do.

 

Conversion Pantoum

Find me on foot along the highway
or with the horde of girls crowding the van.
Fluent in truck stops, we slept under streetlights,
dreaming in the maze of industrial parks.

Our horde of girls crowded the van,
selling door-to-door and crossing America.
We dreamt in the maze of industrial parks
and superimposed an assembly of spirits,

selling door-to-door and crossing America.
With work to be done, we hardly needed sleep.
We superimposed an assembly of spirits
to guard us from the world of men.

With work to be done, we hardly needed sleep.
How exuberantly we starved, an easy price
to guard us from the men stalking
the matrix of strip malls and box store lots.

How exuberantly I starved, an easy price:
I paid my debts in belt holes. I floated
through strip malls and box store lots.
Forty times a day, my forehead kissed the floor.

We paid our debts in belt holes. We floated.
My ear bent to the door; my ancient parts alert
even as my forehead kissed the floor.
Every place, I carried a piece of the palace.

We called ourselves protected but stayed alert,
knocking on car windows, seeking out strangers. 
I carried a piece of the palace in my product box
of costume jewelry, wind chimes on a wire rack.

We knocked on windows and sought out strangers,
our pockets wadded with sweat and cash,
costume jewelry, wind chimes clanging our backs.
I could rarely point out our place on a map.

Our pockets wadded with sweat and cash,
we were high on ending and counting last days.
We could rarely point out our place on a map;
every town, every city looked the same.

We were high on ending and counting last days:
the frontline, the precipice, the thrill of erasure.
Every place we trespassed the same.
We fought sleep each time the van swerved.

At the frontline, the precipice, the reward is erasure.
Selling trinkets, we paid for the walls of his palace.
We fought the undertow of sleep,
the parking lot filled with the sound of our feet.

Selling trinkets, we paid for the walls of his palace.
Fluent in truck stops, we slept under streetlights,
the parking lot loud with the sound of my feet.
Find me alone on the highway, fearless, running.

 

 

The Box

My problem is rarely
recklessness. Coiled between
syllables, I measure
the distance one might run
from pole to pole without
being seen. The only rule
one needn’t take to heart:
proximity to threat
is one sort of safety.
An arrow spins wildly
around its ordinals,
where the swelling silence
unbrackets memory.
Like the boy in the pit
who pried apart my lips,
his sandbox fingernail
raked hard across my gums,
I am trying to break
open. I told no one.
I am telling you now.

 

starr-2020-photoMarlo Starr writes and teaches in Baltimore. She holds an MFA from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins and a PhD in English from Emory University. Her poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in BOAAT, The Threepenny Review, Berfrois, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and elsewhere.