Kathleen Hellen

Five Poems from Umberto’s Night

From the Metro

We are skimming landscapes, a lap of magazines. The city quitting
under hunched shoulders, its streets implied by signs, the grid.
Bare trees hide nothing. Detritus of foam and fuel and wrappers.
Shrouds of plastic in the cables. Carcasses of steel.
We are going nowhere. Traffic fences flight. The right of exit
lost to left of reason. We tour the last occasion of the rain.
A forest dreaming winter. I press my hand to where a
sparrow might have crashed into what had seemed transparence.
Doors are suddenly flung open — a rush.
I do not recognize my own reflection.

How Light Bends at the Exxon

Behind the bullet glass, he waves, as I wave back.
“Nice day,” he says, as if he means the weather.
As if sympathies of heat could teach us better.
Gallons/dollars/cents. Numbers in their lotteries of
cause/effect. $3.99 — no more or less deterrent than
a nuclear solution. The sun is shifting closer.
Pansies in the pot light up like flares. I lift the lever.
Nozzle fitted, air expands. The light reflected
bends. A hundred thousand casualties of
Earth and men. The means like ends. Like shifting
sands under the traffic’s caravan. I start the engine.


He’s here in the bones of her throat,

in the pews of a hearing room,
even if she doesn’t turn around to look.
Her plea is a piercing

in district court — what he might do,
when he’ll do it. The judge who hears
the case has heard it all.
A roll call of injunctions —
Johnson. Abdulilla. Jenerette —

before the evidence presents
a bludgeoning as murder.
duly noted.

He’s here in a green polo shirt,
even if his lawyer wears a suit.

One by one the summoned
stand in their exclusions.
“Is anyone in your family a member of the police?”
“Is anyone in your family a victim?”
Johnson. Abdulilla. Jenerette.

A Pillar of Fire by Night

There’s a deck where the wind plays cards.
A row house for sale next to four more for sale
on the same street, in the same city,

absent people. The mattresses in exodus stack up.
A bike with pink handles. A few solid chairs.
Street signs lead to banishment in skyline.
Default’s stiff arms, like armed guards like
whitewashed seraphim brandishing swords.

Only the memory
of purposes concealed. Of offices
tight lipped in their failures, dark.
A world was there, then it wasn’t.

Used to be a mower knew the edges of the season.
The street was swept, the snow in catacombs dug out
for access in the rare evacuation. Used to be
the summer strung its lanterns in the backyard
of a birth. A graduation. Charcoal and the joss
of rib sauce rising: Offerings to gods.

If the lawn chairs part, if we make it,
surely there are summers of our innocence at hand.
Surely there are funnel cakes and sugar spun into
Come back, Moses.
Bring the Ring of Tongues. The tattooed girl in braids
resembles Mary. The kid who flips a skateboard, water walks.

Bring the drunks in hi tops dancing. Bring the cops.
The thugs. The vets in powered wheelchairs.

Bring the Sacred Heart, all judgment cordoned off.
We are lost in wilderness, in wandering.

Belly Song

I sit in the front row of
bleachers — cheap seats for greater grief.
My son,

the tribe in his ribs,
the strength in him keen, huddled,
runs through the hits, breathes
through the pale ghost of stitches
these games that go long into hard victories.

Who knows how long we have them?
When sirens call to streets,
when one sends back his fatigue,

another’s enlisted.

The bones of an open Humvee. The bones
at a roadside checkpoint.

It might be that we swallow them:
A belly song. A flag sent home.
A rosary like dog tags.

A triage of crows flies over.
My son

packs up his cleats.
The fog of his breathing surrenders.
He limps to the car where I tender
his wounds. The bones
of a cradle breaking.

Washington Writers’ Publishing House is a non-profit publisher of poetry and fiction, founded in 1975. Reprinted by permission.

Kathleen Hellen is the author of Umberto's Night (Washington Writers' Publishing House, 2012), winner of the Jean Feldman Poetry Prize; and a chapbook, The Girl Who Loved Mothra (Finishing Line Press, 2010), published under the pseudonym Shiori (translated as "poem, weave"). Her poems have been published in American Letters & Commentary, Barrow Street, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, and Witness. Awards include poetry prizes from H.O.W. Journal and Washington Square Review, as well as The James Still Award and two Pushcart nominations in 2013. Her chapbook Pentimento is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Born in Tokyo, Japan, Hellen lives in Baltimore and teaches at Coppin State University. To read more by this author: Kathleen Hellen: Langston Hughes Tribute Issue