April 13, 2023

Michael Jon Khandelwal

HAY ELOTE

Hay elote, he shouts
outside my window; I have wondered for years
what message he was bringing. Today,
I learned: there is corn.
I remember growing
up, seeing rows of cornstalks,
sampling the first of the harvest,
smothered in butter and salt.
Hay elote, the man sings out;
corn, it seems, exists here, too. Perhaps
I am not far from the eastern sunrise,
not far from corn,
feeding us all, in the communion
of hunger for food. The sun is huge
over a field; stalks bristle
in the wind. This man knows,
brings corn to my house, offers
me my mother’s hands
in a crowded street.

from Rattle #29, Summer 2008

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Michael Jon Khandelwal: “When I lived in Los Angeles, every day, a man would walk by my house shouting—I investigated and found he was selling fresh corn. Something about that touched me, reminded me of my days living in Virginia, days when I would explore the cornfields. I was astonished by this man, and how his words—in a language I didn’t know—sparked my memory so vividly. Of course, I wrote a poem about this man and his corn, as poems, for me, come from the astonishing experience of living.”

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December 8, 2023

Brent Schaeffer

BARELY 40, YOUR BROTHER IS DYING OF A BRAIN TUMOR

So we make carnitas for the family. 
Ten pounds of pork shoulder carved into chunks
big as clenched fists split between two crock pots
set to slow cook for hours. You can see how big 
your brain is, teacher says, but I don’t know. 
Fore-knuckles together, I have small hands. 
 
Your hands mix the oregano, black pepper, cayenne, 
cumin, cinnamon, and salt. We’re expecting our first.  
Glioblastoma is your brother’s diagnosis. 
Remember visiting Bryan in Oahu? We got coffee: cold brew 
with a lotus flower tidy in the latte top. We ate musubi
then bought aloha shirts and denim at a thrift shop—
all left behind now in his apartment with the big straw hat
and ukulele, his Kazakhstani soccer jersey.  
 
Today your mother digests she’ll outlive her son, the pressure
building in his skull cavity. Now six centimeters, 
the tumor constricts his spine. It’s almost time.
The carnitas break down to meat juice, amino acids 
and salts. A week from now at the rec center,
like a proud wife tucking in a tail, straightening a tie, 
your mother will arrange the lei on his photo, 
her hands slow in the sun-heavy light.
 
Yesterday the midwives said the baby was fifty centimeters.
Even your maternity jeans don’t fit. We’re accidentally 
pregnant: living in a liminal breadth 
between experience and experiencing, life—
and all its unacknowledged risks. Shake the toy globe. 
The big picture is hidden in the flurry of this:
carnitas, cumin, fenugreek, and the ginger tea 
you drink every night to settle the baby.
 
At the memorial, you will wear green like the light
in the leaves. A fractal of pastel, 
almost paschal: the hunks of dead meat, 
the guitar, the light, the singing.
 

from Rattle #81, Fall 2023

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Brent Schaeffer: “Lying belly down on the grey rug after church one Sunday, I fell in love with the big words from comic books (uncanny, expatriate, macabre). On camping trips, I’d play with those words telling stories to thrill my friends. Autumn, decay, woodsmoke, hot cocoa: words are still my favorite toys and poetry the best game.”

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February 16, 2024

Isabella DeSendi

ELEGY FOR TÍO LAZARO

Because he was already dying, he figured
there was no harm in huffing through 2 or 3 cigarettes
 
in the early morning before my mother would wake—
the animal of his thin, brown body lassoed
 
to an oxygen tank. Because he didn’t have papers
we had to drive two hours to retrieve the tank
 
from a discount store in Ocala
where my mom had to pay
 
out of pocket for air that would be filtered
from a rocket-ship shaped canister
 
into a tiny tube three times the size of a vein
directly into the soggy, plastic bags of my tio’s
 
stalling lungs just so he could drink cafecitos
& play crossword puzzles or the lottery
 
while we sat around in the kitchen
wondering how long we could keep him alive.
 
My mom was elbow deep in dishwater
when the letter came
 
denying our appeal for his citizenship.
No, he could not get Medicare.
 
Yes, he would have to go back after living
50 years in this country. This country,
 
where, at 20, he learned to fix engines
in chop shops and likened himself
 
to a surgeon—saying any man with purpose could fix
any broken thing if he simply tried hard enough.
 
Entiendes sobrina? It’s why God gave us hands.
Sometimes, I like to imagine him in the garage
 
surrounded by brutal heat and moonlight,
the broken chair under him barely keeping
 
itself together while he held metal chunks
in his hands like a heart, wondering where
 
it all went wrong, believing enough screws
could put it all back. Of course, this was after he fell
 
in love with a woman in Kentucky,
dreamt of being a local politician
 
and with that same American sense of disillusion,
grandeur—discovered heroin: the god he’d worship
 
until he felt nothingness, & after nothingness
the dull edge of sobriety, the death of his American wife
 
which meant the death of food stamps, which meant the death
of a life that allowed him to lay on the roof of his car
 
while he smoked Marlboros and recited constellations:
Andromeda, Aquilus, Ursa major, Ursa minor
 
which made him feel just as smart as the white men
he swept for. Aren’t our lives just simple constellations
 
made up of many deaths? Yes, someone in an office
in a building in this country decided no, he could not
 
get medical care. No, he could not stay.
Two nights later, Lazaro woke from a dream
 
screaming aliens were coming to get him.
That their ship was hovering over the house.
 
The light so bright he couldn’t see my mom’s hands
as she helped him back to bed. The next night he died.
 
Milky Way: one answer on yesterday’s crossword puzzle.
You can’t tell me the dying don’t know
 
when their time is coming.
The tip of the letter, still sticking out
 
of my mom’s black purse like a cigarette
already flickering gone.
 

from Rattle #82, Winter 2023
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist

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Isabella DeSendi: “I wrote this poem after telling two of my poet friends the story of my tio’s death, including his vision of being abducted by aliens just days after we’d received the news about his deportation. My mom was still trying to figure out how to fight the government’s decision, how to break the news. My friends and I were huddled in a small circle during the intermission of a reading when I decided to share the story with them. One friend, Cat, turned to me and said, ‘Bella, this is a poem.’ She was right. This piece is an elegy for my tio, but it’s also a lamentation for immigrants in this country—and ultimately a song of praise for my mother, whose strength, generosity, and capacity for enduring I am constantly in awe of.” (web)

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April 14, 2023

Joanne McCarthy

TODAY MY FATHER SHOULD BE AT THE SCORE

marking out the route, 
pulling out road signs from the back of the car— 
road bowling in progress
a high viz jacket thrown about him 
to keep the Ból Chumann crowd quiet. 
He should be meeting the lads, his mates arriving 
over the brow after milking the cows, walking the dogs, 
doing a stint at the back wall of the church for Mass. 
He should be handing over cash, or totting the running tab, 
giving 20 to Tim, Joe, or Jimmy 
and placing their communal bet, backing their player. 
He should be tearing fresh grass from the ditch 
and shouting back at the crowd to stay in out of the way. 
He should be watching someone he’s known all his life 
take an exuberant run, 
a mighty lift into the air, 
arm rotating, 
swinging the solid iron ball in their fist, 
circulating this living heat. 
He should be watching this ball, this bowl 
bullet through the air. 
He should be eyeing the drop, 
the land on the tar road 
and be arriving at the drop spot to mark it 
with a fistful of freshly ripped grass 
and he should be calling, calling on 
for the next player to come up 
to the starting spot 
and not be holding the whole bloody show up. 
He should be watching the sparring pair 
throw their bowls in sequential turns 
eyeing their run, loft, flight of the ball 
and the land, 
the flint chink spark of metal on tar road. 
He should be critiquing throws 
with a gut full of intuition, 
decades of living the run, launch, fly, 
ball landing, 
the soft roll to the edge of the ditch 
or deep crash within the briars of the ditch. 
He should be at the finish line shouting for the winner. 
He should be shaking hands, 
banging backs, 
pocketing his share of the winnings. 
He should be on the high stool in Cookies, 
a creamy head settling on his pint of Guinness 
and the retelling of it all 
just beginning.
 

from Rattle #79, Spring 2023
Tribute to Irish Poets

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Joanne McCarthy: “I write bi-lingually, in Irish and English. My English is a Hiberno-English that I inherited from my family in West Cork. I came to poetry through the Irish language first and I continue to read and write in Irish. My engagement in Irish language poetry continues to echo through my work in English.” (web)

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November 18, 2023

Michael Meyerhofer

PASTEURIZATION

Poetry keeps wine and milk from spoiling
and has prevented countless deaths
since its invention in 1892. It works

by heating substances to just a bit
below the boiling point—not enough
to curdle but still hot enough to kill off

most of the bacteria that can hurt you.
Some health nuts blame poetry for disease,
saying a natural vocabulary is better,

though modern doctors disagree.
Other foods saved by poetry include juice,
syrup, vinegar, and canned foods.

Poetry was invented by Louis Pasteur
who lost three children to typhoid.
While working on a vaccine for rabies,

he once impressed onlookers
by extracting saliva from a crazed dog
without armoring his hands.

He also made a vaccine for anthrax
though some accuse him of plagiarism.
The poetry process involves lots

of pipes and vats and rapid cooling.
Poetry doesn’t seem all that complicated
to us, more like common sense,

but our ancestors didn’t have it
which is why so many of them died,
young and beautiful and always afraid.

from Rattle #38, Winter 2012

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Michael Meyerhofer: “The first time I read the poems in What the Living Do by Marie Howe, I was so blown away that I said something like ‘Holy shit…’ after pretty much every one. This was followed, naturally, by a desire to share those poems with everyone—and to try and pull off the same miracle, if humanly possible. There’s a lot to be said for making somebody so stunned (hopefully in a good way) by something as seemingly innocuous as writing that all they can do is raise their eyebrows and swear like a sailor.” (web)

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July 13, 2023

Brent Fisk

MAKING A LIVING

I’m dreaming of the place in the woods
where the deer sleeps, the hole in the grass where it hid.
Mother dreams of coffee cups rimmed with lipstick,
of white plates, knife-marked, stacked along a counter.
And father has gone to the factory,
leaves only a space in the snow where the car covered gravel,
leaked oil, a few paw prints where the cat kept warm.
My father banging on the beaten hood
scared the cat to safety and me from sleep.
I float at the fringe of dawn,
sense my mother’s still sleeping, my father not long gone.
Sleep has the warmth of blankets.
Years of scraped ice accumulate,
and decades of cars fighting movement like cold knuckles.
Even in his sleep my father works,
dreams of snipped wires, of clocking in,
of waiting for the whistled shift change,
that stream of pot-bellied men gray with wolfish beards,
their safety glasses and steel-toed boots,
their rough hands clutching time cards like lottery tickets.
More ice scraping, the mailbox stuffed with bills,
all the bad news at six o’clock, a tough pot roast, a ratty afghan.
The water heater ticks away like a clock.
Today pulls out, a punctual train,
and already tomorrow triggers the crossing gate.
Hours pass like cattle cars, and way at the end—
retirement’s sad caboose.
This train flattens men like worn pennies.
This train waits for the end of my father.
The hole of him sitting at the end of my bed,
waiting for me to wake and take his place.

from Rattle #24, Winter 2005

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Brent Fisk: “I try to nail down a time and place with words. I want an image to walk down a dark hall with just the tip of a cigarette to let you know it’s coming. I want the right words to rise like moths from the grass. Sometimes when you get close enough to accomplishing that readers tap into a poem. They hear the floorboards creak. They hear the window rattle. They see the moon exactly as I describe it. Getting that close is like finding a wad of money in an old shirt’s pocket.”

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November 23, 2023

Shadowland by Arthur Lawrence, painting of shadowy bird-like figures flying toward a mountain or volcano

Image: “Shadowland” by Arthur Lawrence. “The Addiction Bird” was written by Agnes Hanying Ong for Rattle’s Ekphrastic Challenge, October 2023, and selected as the Artist’s Choice. (PDF / JPG)

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Agnes Hanying Ong

THE ADDICTION BIRD

In a dream
someone calling your name
from a far sea. A sign
from Allah. Says the book
of which, oriole, people.
To Allah, I pray everyday
that you will find the way and live
a life without the drink. It is
the only speaker of an
anguish, anguish of
idyllic geese. How do birds say good
bye to their chicks? When
the black birds came, they wore
colors of a rainbow and
the colors fell off on
everything. Live like a bird I keep
having this dream of
school shooting, no, it takes
 
place in a drugstore, where
the usual girl, who is there, says
Look, look, that guy is
coming. Do you hear gunshots. What’s
that? Flickering in the distance?
Wait, that’s gunfire. Okay, so
what now? Are we supposed to
run out? He is outside. So
should we run in? In this literal
drugstore rimmed with aisles
of bottles to be
walking, where you
might think this is holy
temple of genies, we are
running past: genies or, jinn
or jaan, sentenced
to life as numerous
drinks in bottles all full, same
 
place where I once witnessed a
bird die, having flown
into glass, less than a minute
ago. Here, we arrive at: an empty
room, which has a lock, on the
metal door. So we ought to
be safe here. Just lock the door, lock
the door. I lock the door, realizing
there is another room inside this room
which has no windows. The room is
walled with just cold, concrete
surprising in this town, like it is a miniature
medieval castle. It is like, nightly, we can
warm our hands here, stay low and close
to the ground, while setting a pile of
silverfish on fire and say: This is living. This is
peace, this is close, as close as,
as close as to
Allah any
one can ever be. Bullets of stale
-hard bread thrown upon window—
windowless, this is bird
on sugar water, this is twilight
dimmed in a flapping of wings, this is
bird scrambling for life, this is
malnourished—
Across swifts in the sky,
what kind of bird do you take us
for?
 

from Ekphrastic Challenge
October 2023, Artist’s Choice

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Comment from the artist, Arthur Lawrence: “This poem is chock-full of poetic imagery and delightful word play like ‘the usual girl, genies or, jinn or jann.’ The line spacing is purposeful and not stressed. The painting that I provided is somewhat nightmarish and surrealistic, qualities this poem elicits. The poem begs the question, what are we addicted to … guns, war, drugs, mindless violence, mindless adherence to doctrine? From the war in Gaza to the war in our schools, and on our streets, this is the nightmare our children and grandchildren live with every day. Just ask the young and they will tell you that you are too old to understand.”

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