Poem of the Week | July 17, 2012

This week, we’re featuring a new poem by Shelley Puhak. Puhak is the author of Stalin in Aruba, winner of the 2010 Towson Prize for Literature, and the chapbook The Consolation of Fairy Tales, winner of the 2011 Stephen Dunn Prize in Poetry. Her poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Southeast Review, Yalobusha Review, and many other journals.

Author’s Note:

This past October, three astronomers won the Nobel Prize in Physics for showing that cosmic expansion, rather than slowing down post-Big Bang, is actually speeding up. The universe is straining its seams; mysterious dark energy is flinging everything apart. A few days later, a friend mentioned how October is always a season of dread and spoke of its chill and dank as something to ward off. I launched an impassioned defense of October, which has always been one of my favorite months.  October not only signals the end of summer mugginess (and what do I hate more than August in Baltimore?), it is the month I was married, the month my son was born. I began wondering: if spring is the season of heady infatuation and summer the season of feverish lust, where does autumn fall on that sexual continuum? This poem began as a list of ways in which we hunker down for the winter, literally and figuratively, and stalled. Once I experimented with apostrophe, it found its form.

Letter to an Old Flame


October, darling, you’re impossible:


How early you get dark. And who will
manage to measure the gap between
two animals, curled against your chill?


You wait for me in your woods at dusk.
Up your street, a girl is borrowing fire,
leaning into an idling, unmarked truck.


Got a light? I’ve asked too, for a flint
and firesteel to my fatwood, a cupped
hand so I might tend a spark in wind,


but you gave three men the Nobel Prize
for proof that each day we lose more light,
proof we’re to end not in flame, but ice.


The French still speak of the little death,
but what of your small kindnesses, smaller
deaths? that chipmunk, maimed, I finished


off with a steel shovel? my backyard pyre
of his old letters and your spent leaves?
What of that god who wants back his fire?


All I want: a warm brick for my bed,
to be rid of the gap, that matchstick-
width that separates desire and dread,


to draw hard enough to keep it all lit.
We always measure wrong. October,
what could you know of distance?


Your leaves, past flame, are carpeting
cobblestones’ muted blaze: scarlet, smoke,
and char.  Layers. Who I was at fifteen,


how you still smolder. And his sweater,
woolen, over button-down, starched, over
wisp of undershirt over—


What we might make of the embers.