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World Poetry Portfolio #65: Cathryn Hankla

hanklaWorld Poetry Portfolio, edited by Sudeep Sen in association with ATLAS Magazine

Cathryn Hankla is the author of eleven books of poetry and fiction including Last Exposures: a sequence of poemsTexas School Book Depository: prose poemsPoems for the Pardoned; and the story collection Fortune Teller Miracle Fish.  She edits poetry for The Hollins Critic and holds the Susan Gager Jackson professorship in creative writing at Hollins University.



Some Assembly Required Galaxy

It’s not what you imagined, these
late nights of glue and limitation,

hands salt-sticky from snacks,
directions in three dead tongues.

You begin a Braille translation,
parts spread over the shred of rug

not puppy soiled. Setting aside
singular shapes, stacking baggies

of bolts, you time your breaks
to shaggy dog’s piddles and poops,

convert to the church of the socket
wrench, metal screw, and wing nut.

Another month or year passes
while you buy the pictured tools,

matching a drill bit from aisle five,
bin three, to black lines sketched

in China.  Now the old dog creaks.
You learn to navigate the alp

of stacked parts half awake.
And in the minutes between

dreaming and sleep, you work,
you work until you get it right.


Tree of “rePent”

Painted letters drip red. “P” provides
an awkward sickle tacked to a stalk.
If we found canned peaches for sale

or fresh fuzz from Georgia, if this sign
meant produce or were simply a target
shot ragged, scarred bark shining through,

if fancy jars of quince sealed with wax
and mounds of beefsteak tomatoes awaited us,
if we were offered a modest map of salvation

in an unlikely spot, that would be welcome.
Way past midnight, it won’t help to slow down
or speed.  Our headlights find the sign

pitch-perfect.  The tree of “rePent”
suggests its own necessity as cars slink
home.  Tired drivers are not thinking

of or waiting for salvation. LO!—
this handmade inscription on a wooden slab,
admonition that balances a living tree.



Blinded by a chance at permanence,
via satellite I watch a sliver
of Alaskan sun,
wishing darkness could bloom.

To save your sight,
you follow the disarmed orb
focused through pinholes
or multiplied by leaves.

The lightshow dances
the grass, a primitive projection
so much like a marriage as it ends.
No one can gaze straight at the sun.

Cold echoes into spring
no matter where you are or who.
I drink from this glass alone,
blotted again by the moon.


Galaxy Without a Hammer   

00000Refining these impatient ores/ With hammer and with blaze,/
Until the designated light/ Repudiate the forge.
Emily Dickinson                                                             

A redheaded woodpecker
works a sycamore upside down,
quinto looking for a conga,
a confutation on a wet October day.

No trail maps…only footfalls
left behind.  No cigarette butts,
no windy conversation.
The grey fox went missing, tracks

dispersed.  The writer who can’t
tell maple from oak, knows audience
from witness.  The world is no place
to be alone with a dictionary or

a writer.  In the wetlands nature study
area:  black cherry, poplar, black willow,
tall alder bushes, turtlehead plants
bearing white enfolded heads—

all species tolerant of walnut, which
is dye and food and as toxic
as it tastes.  Cyanide
of the forest in green tough hides.

Don’t populate my brownies with
bitterness.  Iron nutcracker dog’s
wide grin crushes fibrous almond shells
with rhythmic tail wags.

In the west, a shelter of reclaimed lumber,
slatted, without a thatch, is numbered,
hand stacked. In the east, a bay sniffs
a star-headed filly. Hoofs beat on red clay.

Shoes shush over crushed stone paths. Apple
slices crunch between horse teeth.
Airplanes crosshatching sluices of exhaust
pass over poplar leaves shuttering in a surly breeze.

A red-skinned man pipes music to his ears.
A woman’s dark eye once caught, never unhooks
from his.  And nowhere a straight nail.
No one cares.  A flicker left early.


Backward Glance

Dragging the ghost of the trees in my tarp, I look to stripped limbs’
jagged outlines against a clouded atmosphere.

My heavy-lidded day smells of mold and leaves slick with rot.
I should leave rumination alone, but I remember

how the deer’s contortionist repose betrayed it.
Death first appeared at the edge of the bathroom mirror

while I brushed my teeth. A shift of focus from my own grin
to the torque of tawny neck over lean hock and foreleg

stretched my imagination and later my strength.
The deer’s position on a mossy bed, the cleanliness of a fresh smile,

every tooth in my head a glistening measure, a scraped
memento mori.  Like these leaves, the deer was pulled on a green

tarp, tipped onto eager earth away from the mirror’s distortion
and toward the turkey buzzards.


The Buffalo Return

Grandfather, the banker
gave bribes for scripted answers.

Buffalo nickels, two-dollar bills,
birthday silver dollars,
Kennedy fifty-cent pieces,
Mr. Hamilton’s crooked grin.

What will you do with all of your money?
“Put it in the bank,” I said my part.

All they did as a couple was yell.
Grandmother’s garden
grew in messy tiers
of velvet purple/yellow pansies.

I jimmied her miniature safe
stuffed with greenbacks.
Somewhere in compost
she misplaced the key.

“Don’t pay him any mind, she said,
ninety years, hands over her ears.


Galaxy of Virginia History

“The worst insult in my thirty years,”
the teacher said.  Arms flapping,
she turned from the board

to her brood.
Open on our desks, the Virginia History
fourth grade text.

Exhibit A. an ink drawing of a slave ship
approaching land,
brown arms and heads

poking from the hold toward air.
Exaggerations of smiling teeth
set for a birthday party.

The caption read
that arriving Africans “jumped for joy”
upon seeing

the Virginia shores…
In 1967, I raised my hand to ask
if those words were really true.



Green leaves, water starved, clatter to red clay;
churned by hiking tread and horseshoes,
luck turned in all directions
forms a subtext marked by rich dung.
A clutter of ocher and yellow
touches the zing of one little maple’s
red letters purpling in the fog, freckling with age.

This uncanny late afternoon singes
a deep cadmium hue
under gibbous shadow moon.  Sunset
strikes a row of unmatched trees:
green, magenta-brown, next
one tree burns from the tips of its leaves
against a smoke-blue mountain.

For every missing leaf, for every soul’s migration,
the wind returns a dark clattering
pair of wings. Eight years to the day,
my father’s dead again.

The plaintive sound of scouts cawing
ahead of the figuration, the calamity.
Not silently, the unbeloved murmuration
shifts, enfolding midair its own formation,
spiraling upward, sideways, re-leafing the highest limbs,
film spooling backward leaf into bud.
We cannot go back; these are but birds.

Shadow birds mutter, nudge,
not singing, but shoving, pulsing, with annoying
churs and Hitchcock flaps.
With wild demands for equal perches,
they do battle in the air like Kingdom come,
one nation under the eye of the pyramid
and white droppings beneath the tree.

In his Great Leap Forward Mao Zedong
decided to murder Four Pests:
sparrows, flies, mosquitoes, rats.
He set each citizen, youngest to eldest, to ring sparrows
from limbs, clanging pots and soupspoon cymbals.
Not allowed to rest, to pause, to sleep,
exhausted birds dropped, hearts burst.

And when the last sparrow fell,
God knew it.  Roll famine.

Beijing, August 2007:
after landslides, lightning, drought, citizens
must arm their nests, called to raise starling
“squadrons” to battle locust-terrorists.
A favorite pest turns hero.  In a paper sack,
even a swarm of death weighs nothing.
Still, there is a long ways I must carry it.


Not Einstein

The father and the mother were neither smiling nor alone.

And their children were not at home.  All five enjoyed pizza, not pasta or anti-pasta, neither steaming nor raw, and one of them not acknowledged, but nonetheless there: the only one not frowning.  You might say his mind waxed with imagination, replacing well-traveled synapses with crackling old radio storms.  It was clear: this one was not going to be a surgeon or an engineer or a famous author.

He was not headed for adventure, trawling or trading.  He was not going places.  Was he gliding like a flying fish? He was not.  I would say he was not quite right, and yet, as he ate, the only one not frowning, the only one not disconnected to the things in the air, and the drumming music around him, I thought it was the parents who were not quite right.

The mother crossed her arms, not smiling, smoking.  That was not her son.  The father had eyes only for his other two children, nothing wrong with either of them, not addled or ugly or backward, not smiling.  Their mouths did not hang open; they were not nearly full-grown as was the older one, or stuck at the table’s foot.  These parents were not loving all three, were loving only two, were most obviously not loving the one,

the only one not frowning.


Shakespeare Galaxy

000Every aspect of your personality and your conscious being is reducible to a

configuration of the atoms that make up your brain….If the universe is infinitely

000big, then the number of distinct configurations of particles will have to repeat.

 –Brian Greene


Exhumed from a dripping cave
still in formation,
sealed in clay jars,
carried by donkey down rocky paths
to a scientific hut draped with sun-blocking
parachute cloth—

The paleontologist
peers up from his bone cache
in diffuse light beneath his tent
to crack the jar with a chisel,
uncork with pliers—
00000000000000the last shard of text.

Etched on papyrus: tragedy, history,
each comedy with sides splitting
and curling, the complete works
of a Shakespeare, hitherto unknown.
Oh God I could be bounded
in a nutshell, and count myself…

The manuscripts appear to date
from a time prior to a time
out of joint, long before England,

Ben Johnson or Maxwell, back to a storied era
when dinosaurs were great thinkers
and infinite space itself king.

So, who has been this other Shakespeare,
this impostor, simulacrum, bad dream,
this prince of twisting syntax?
Whose stinging hackwork
have we sown through centuries,
what smiling villain have we not slain?

And after this seminal Shakespeare,
of course another Shakespeare
is waiting to emerge. Our legacy besmeared
and besmirched, nothing but endless
plagiarized chestnuts stuck in memory,
copies of copies, copies of copies.


One Girl’s Discoveries

A sky-gazing child, intrigued
by constellations and stormy weather,
tornadoes and ripe tomatoes,
Lisa announced over fruit loops
her aspiration to join NASA.

A. Mother said, “Stop, you’re a girl.”
B. Mother said, “But I never went to college.”
C. Mother said, “That’s crazy.”
D. Mother said, “Shoot for the stars.”

At nineteen, she discovered AGC#310842.
She said, “People expect me to be older.”
Lisa traveled to Arecibo, Puerto Rico,
to the world’s largest radio telescope.
Awaiting confirmation: five other galaxies.

Data the young woman ponders
are older than she will ever be.
Lisa maintains rapt fascination
for physics and meteorology.
(The answer above is D.)


May Meteors

If clouds clear before dawn, we’ll see remnants of Halley’s
dust ripping the sky.

If we wake in time, we’ll monitor the spectacle for the peak hour
during the dim new moon.

If all continues as planned, we can endure the crick in our necks,
the crisp air of spring.

The back door opens, we tiptoe outside, and there’s a warning growl.
The black bear tenders its ritual

down the muddy mountainside.  The train whistles and wheels,
rattling the whole valley below.

Cotton clouds scrim bright orbs, hide Aquarius high in the southeast.
If we are patient,

if we are good, if we are silent, if we are amenable, if we are waiting
we never arrive.


Glass Galaxy

The world: glass, swirls of color, irregular sine waves so distinctly interwoven that to wonder at the hard surface was to miss the liquid nature of the internal construction.  I hardly knew you, yet I gave you this world, a world your palm could cup.  I wanted to see if you could keep it from breaking.  I wanted to see you hold it to your eye, a scientist’s piercing eye of observation, measuring into the beaker.  Your blue shots of sight, your ice-infused acknowledgments could shatter.  Initially the object’s beauty captured you, or the thought of an elixir.  Unlikely for a season of cards and chocolate, an artist’s world of glass, a galaxy of temperaments’ collision, combustion of a brief and lasting nature.  A chemical compound fused on the day I saw you without knowing who you were:

My skin struck fire.

Not nostalgia now, not mistakenly undone, but more or less a harkening that never rang true, a course that never finished but left a rupture in a single knot.  Spring run aground, water halted, reins to a horse’s gallop. Full stop to the soft mouth, like a pause: a full rest extended and then some written into a score.  That can never be evened.  The glass world, a manufactured eye replacing flesh:  It was marvelous, yet the thing lost equaled so much more than its replacement.

The thing erased was living: that world we made was made to break and break.

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