Nicole Rollender: Four Poems

Nicole Rollender has published her work in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly ReviewBest New PoetsThe Journal, THRUSH Poetry JournalWest Branch, Word Riot and others. Her first full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, was published by ELJ Publications in 2015. She’s the author of the poetry chapbooks Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications, 2007), Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio, 2015), Bone of My Bone, a winner in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest, and Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press, 2016). She has received poetry prizes from CALYX JournalRuminate Magazine and Princemere Journal


The Return

for Florentine Bia

I’ve imagined my great-grandmother in love,
her hands deep in a pig’s meat she was rolling
into sausages. Blood’s aldehydic stench. Large clocks
laughing all over the house. Massive dark beds. Her long dress
licking the top of her foot. She remembered the geese
her mother strangled, the sound a whine just before
the final breath, the first time they made love. I didn’t exist.
I wonder if she felt her own death, her hands limp
on the bed after, the wind pulled out of her,
if when she finally spoke, look at the starlight,
look, her voice meeting that light would carry forward
to this day, when I say aloud, Florentine, Florentine,
we are both alive in this poem, my hands deep in tomato hearts,
the man I’ve chosen to love somewhere in the garden,
his words still vibrating: What you do is wake
the dead. You don’t let them sleep.



It was a laugh, unspooling from the last century.
It hung, shimmering curtains above my mind—
when I sit to write, the apparitions bow inside
the door smelling of the cold, the deep earth where
light freezes on eyelashes. They remember being lifted
from the wells of their mothers’ bodies—hair
slick with vernix. I ask, what exactly is it we
can sacrifice—this quiet room where I hold a pen,
my belly two children parted like a sea
and stepped out—if we could dissect our own bodies
with silver knives, untying the ligatures that bind
our bones to the lives we’ve led—if we eat a pear
starting to turn, its sweet rot a pain we can’t forsake,
a love that divides the spine—a love like cutting a white
onion, my eyes shining with tears I endure and write,
O, a forest is burning. My children run in the yard,
and I write again, how dark was it inside of me when you
were weightless? The dead voices tinkle, breaking
on the floor, a skip and repeat: hallow, hallow, hallow.
Sometimes I fill the sink with water, try to see
my face, wondering which of my lives is the real one.
Which life is the flawed glass I see a doe through?
Her patient eyes blur back as black water—her leg
is bitten and she will die here—as two holes through
which my hands could slip. One child will soon veer
back toward the house, sunlight in her hair—her laugh
caught by the next century—my stretched ligaments
creak, as an apparition climbs my interior stairs,
humming, as if to comfort me, as if to deepen my wounds,
—as if to be the mother who places her teeth on my wrist
and growls: Coyotes in these woods will chew you to the bone.



Who can tell the difference between the forest and a lantern—
the flame turning its red eye against the glass, caught.
Because I’ve carried a doll’s cracked head in my right pocket,
its open mouth boiling over with a calm light,
an unheralded light that traveled through an ice age to land
here, I say to you, I mourn no one. I can live cold. Holding
this head over and over to memorize wanting him, a wanting,
to remember touching bones, his black eyes doors
to a sea where I clutched the rails of a ship—
wanting this particular shadow, the outlines of the miraculum
that flowered out of his irises,
a path back to my body in damp grass,
this hammering of what it is to really be desperate,
to will a heart to speak, speak—
hold a light so briefly that was never meant to be mine.


Something Breaks When Your Body Fails Your Children

In the dark, small hands clapping. A broken-necked swan,
her neck folded in eternal origami. The truth, my dead grandmother told me, is our bodies are haunted, whether we invite it or not. By canaries who sing a last song to save the living—who sing—a spirit that can’t bear to live outside its skin, the way her body in its green dress won’t live outside the dirt it’s buried so tightly in. I imagine dying—a cocooning back into my own mother, dropped into the heart of her, a field where what’s plowed is unplowed overnight. I imagine my mind the color of what I hate most about myself, that I’m always fighting to climb out of this body—my daughter did, so why can’t I—my grandmother said the dead forget their names for a while. And I replay the story again, when I was a child watching spirits walk the walls, crying for blossoms made of water or light—because that’s how easy it was to cure sadness then—I know the doorway: that light opening to a field the size of the sea with the same movement where souls hang as fruit, where women rock bellies of jumbled limbs. The departed don’t ask to enter my body. They just slip in, to touch again: sand, moving water, persimmons, alfalfa. They string fireflies back through my skin, so they only leave a tiny sting. These babies who came early cusped on that doorway, blooming on a half-lit pond. I saw the faces
of those hungry, dead mothers who rocked them with webbed hands, a pale circling until they crossed over into my arms. The way a lover bent me under a willow, as if I might fall. The way these falterings flare and leave a gasp that scars, cleave me to this world. I just want to lay my head on something real grown out
of the earth I’ll return to, so I won’t feel so alone, when I cry for everyone I’ll outlive—headless, already squawking in my pelvis.

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