Poem of the Week | January 05, 2010

We are happy to present as this week’s poem Traci Brimhall’s “Noli Me Tangere,” from our issue Demons (32.3). Traci Brimhall has received the Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellowship from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Tennessee Williams Scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her work has appeared in New England Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, FIELD, Southern Review and Indiana Review. A poem from this same issue of The Missouri Review has also appeared on Poetry Daily, and her poetry manuscript, Rookery, won the Crab Orchard Review Series in Poetry First Book Award. The book will be out from Southern Illinois University in late 2010.

Of “Noli Me Tangere” she writes that it is a “poem that comes from a desire for absolution. Although the fact that I was helping to catch endangered frogs for future study meant that there would be hope for the species, there was also a large measure of guilt for using animals’ instincts to expose them. The ends may indeed justify the means, but it felt unfair to use desire as a weapon.”

Noli Me Tangere

We do not understand why they are dying,
but we know the disease spreads when they touch

so we let the tree frogs sing to us. We answer,
beckoning, faking mating calls to lure them

to our wet hands. We take note of their length
and weight and wounds, and put them in plastic bags.

Separated, their confused fingers press the surface.
This is not the body they longed for, no broad back

and speckled knees, no eggs waiting to release
and swell. But still, they sing like prisoners

with hands full of moonlight, and I want to quiet them,
the way, as a child, I broke a shell to keep it

from crying out for the sea. It is so loud here,
this country where a flower dreams of its color

before it opens, where we coax the sick from the trees.
Each morning I wake to kookaburras and a man stroking

a guitar, singing a song another man wrote about love.
At night, we transect creeks, eels skating our shins,

swollen leeches hooked to our calves as we shine
our flashlights on the banks. Everywhere we look

vines are choking the trees. They cling until they suffocate
the trunk beneath them, the strangler taking the shape

of what it has killed. Maybe some animals want to die
this way, to hold fast and feel something weakening

underneath them. Sometimes we interrupt the small male
in amplexus, gripping his lover’s generous back,

limbs freckled by sores, their pile of eggs, round
and imperfect. When we return to our tent, we take off

our clothes. This is not what we expected. We believed
in gristle, tendon and bone. Pathogen and host.

But we are minor kingdoms of salt and heat.
We trace each other’s scars-proof of our small

green hearts and violent beginnings, engines of cell
and nerve, yielding to this silent, lonely union.