Poem of the Week | December 02, 2019

This week’s Poem of the Week is “Butterflies” by Steven Sanchez!

Steven Sanchez is the author of Phantom Tongue (Sundress Publications, 2018), selected by Mark Doty as the winner of the Rochelle Ratner Memorial Award. A CantoMundo Fellow and Lambda Literary Fellow, Steven is the winner of the inaugural Federico García Lorca Poetry Prize for an emerging Latinx poet. His poems have appeared in journals that include American Poetry Review, North American Review, Poet Lore, Winter Tangerine, and RHINO.




Abalone light lures me
into the snowmelt—a diamond,
maybe, gold, or a piece of rainbow
rubble—cupped in my hand,
though, it’s just a butterfly jig,
a fish hook
with a seashell
and a duet of brass
barbs curved like your alto
you held inside your mouth,
jowls puckered into perfect embouchure.
You taught me
how to play its music,
to purse my lips around its mouthpiece
in place of my teeth, to open
my throat
and expel air
through my diaphragm,
to curl
my tongue, match your fingering,
and breathe through the sting in my lips.

I’m no different than a damned fish,
didn’t see the hook, only felt it inside
my palm
when I picked it up,
still hoping
it was something else.

And maybe it really can be
two things at once,
like when you guided
my fingers along your sax
by the river
before you shoved me away later
that night when I tried to hold your hand at Home Depot,
like how I named adrenaline
butterflies when we kissed,
but didn’t know what to call
that swarm in my stomach
when I heard you laugh across the room
and knew that was the closest
I could get.

There must be
dozens of hooks thawing here, expelled by fish who escaped,
yet to be stepped on
by someone else’s bare foot.
I don’t want anyone else
to get hurt, so I’ll tuck the hook
away in my pocket and save it
in my drawer with two-dollar bills,
an old key, and your spare
mouthpiece with the reed still
intact—sometimes, I buzz
its slick cane wood in my mouth
until it hurts again, until I feel
my lips tighten and swell
around it, the sting
stretching beyond
my mouth like a fish
caught before release,
before its jaws are ripped apart.


Author’s Note

I live in Fresno, California and just outside the city, there’s a small lake (named Lost Lake of all names). This summer, my friend and I waded into Lost Lake and I saw something shiny, got excited, and picked it up. We laughed because it was just a fishhook—the lure literally tricked me. I wanted to write about that moment, and when I started, the poem felt strange to me—the fishhook and saxophone imagery read and felt like two very different poems. Somewhere in my gut, though, it felt like they belonged together. One of my mentors told me that when you write a poem, treat the image like a used car—you push it as far as it can go until it breaks down and will never run again, then you revise the image back to the moment just before collapse. While I don’t know if my revisions ever achieve that, I pushed these two images as far as I could to try to find where they might overlap more organically in hopes of getting closer to that breaking point