Poem of the Week | September 13, 2021

This week’s Poem of the Week is “The Thing Worth Saving” by Katie Bickham!

Katie Bickham is the author of two books of poetry: The Belle Mar (Pleiades 2015) and Mouths Open to Name Her (LSU Press 2019). She is the winner of The Missouri Review Editor’s Prize, the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize, the Rattle Reader’s Choice Award, and the New Millennium Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in Rattle, Prairie Schooner, Frontier, The Missouri Review, Radar, The Southern Quarterly, and elsewhere. Katie received her MFA from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine and writes full-time from her home in Louisiana.


The Thing Worth Saving

When my brother asks one night, “Katie,
where do you come up with this shit?” I take
“this shit” to mean poems, and deciding
the question is fair enough, I tell him I like to read
the histories of things. “Like what?” he asks.

It’s the end of the hardest year
of our lives, so I don’t tell him how,
while studying the history of anorexia,
then forced starvation, I learned of Russian
botanists who, during the shelling
of Leningrad, braved the bloody fields
for every type of tuber, seed, or fruit and hid them
in a bunker meant to safeguard the earth’s
history of food. While all around them,
down to skeletons and skin, humans
choked down rats, dirt, each other,
to survive, the scientists all died inside,
armed and primed to shoot, slowly starving
in their vigil of some thousand fruits, of budding
roots, of multitudes of bellyfulls of rice, all untouched.

“Like what?” he asks again. “The history of what?”
Our father is dying – slow, not the way you’d want
to see your old man go. My brother is my elder,
his black beard gone gray, and though
all around us, the world suffers in its darkest year,
I think inside him there is still a boy
whose laughter, once begun, is like a boulder
rolling down a hill, gaining speed as it goes,
and I realize I’d like to hear it, that I’m hungry
for it in my ear. I clear my throat.

“Well,” I say at last, “like the history of orgasms.”
I’m trying to embarrass him now
for the “this shit” remark, but he’s too old
to be embarrassed and he says,
“Well what is the history of orgasms?”
All around us is hunger, is the labored breathing
of the dying, is our father forgetting, is the clock
ticking down the minutes of our lives, so instead
of telling him the truth
about the evolution of clitorises
in mammals or the notion that the female orgasm
was an accident or the bloody history
of what we’ve done to women who dared
enjoy their own anatomy, I tell him
the untrue story about Cleopatra I’ve always loved.

“Cleopatra,” I say, repeating
from some hundredth-hand account,
trying to sound important, “made the first vibrator
by ordering a sealed pot full of angry bees
and sitting on it.” A few seconds pass,
and then from the darkness of our little corner,
his laughter barks, roars into the world,
his hands around his middle with giddy shakes,
eyes gone wet, shoulders bouncing,
boulder gathering speed

and here is the thing worth saving,
whatever can outlive a war, be planted
on the other side in sun and grow and feed and multiply –
his gasps I would die guarding
in a world that is struggling to breathe.


Author’s Note

My practice generally involves making micro-notes in my phone – just a word or two sometimes – of ideas for poems. When I have a “writing day,” I read the list over and over until I see how any two of the items on the list might connect to one another. On a list of about fifty things, two of them happened to be “Vavilov’s Seeds” and “Telling Ben the Cleopatra story.” While these two ideas seem perhaps the least likely pairing I can imagine, when I put them on the page next to each other, they felt like just the thing I needed to take my first deep breath in a while.