Poem of the Week | May 23, 2022

This week’s Poem of the Week is “Things Exposed to the Air” by Claire Wahmanholm.

Claire Wahmanholm is the author of Night Vision (New Michigan Press 2017), Wilder (Milkweed Editions 2018), Redmouth (Tinderbox Editions 2019), and the forthcoming Meltwater (Milkweed Editions 2023). Her work has most recently appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Ninth Letter, Blackbird, Washington Square Review, Good River Review, Descant, Copper Nickel, and Beloit Poetry Journal. She lives in the Twin Cities. Find her online at clairewahmanholm.com.


Things Exposed to the Air

Say sugar has a mouth. How would I taste
in it? Like sweat, like lake water, like dust
from a ceiling fan, like the lowest leaves
of the squash plant, like how soft and yellow
they are, like oil, like badly sharpened knives,
like hail just after it pelts the yard, snow
just before it melts? Thank god it doesn’t.
Have a mouth, I mean. Though maybe my scent
still saturates it like a mood, covert
and everywhere. This is the mistake
of leaving things exposed to the air, I say
to my daughter. It’s not fair. And it’s why
I don’t need to read the climate change report.
When I brush her hair, the world smells like smoke.


Author’s Note

This poem is part of a longer sonnet sequence I started working on last July, which would turn out to be the hottest month ever recorded on Earth. More locally, Minnesota was experiencing its first drought in a decade. Our grass died, our lilac trees died, our blueberry bushes died. The drought fueled a rash of wildfires in Canada and the Boundary Waters, and throughout July and August we experienced days of orange, red, and even maroon level air. My mood was bad. I was bitter and full of panic. We didn’t let the kids play outside.

Since becoming a parent five years ago, it’s been hard not to think about the ways children are molded by the worlds they are born into. I worry my children will carry climate change with them wherever they go, but also that they will carry my cynicism, my helplessness, my anxiety. I worry that all this will be part of their blood, skin, hair. When the IPCC report came out in early August of last year, it indicated that if we reduce CO2 emissions now, global temperatures could stabilize in 20-30 years. On the scale of geologic time, that’s not long—only a single generation. But in 30 years, my oldest daughter will be my age. She may have a daughter of her own. How much smoke—how much panic, how much bitterness—will she carry on her skin, in her blood, her hair?