Stephen Cramer


The knot of six or seven
boys dashed back & forth

against the strobe
of sun through pines, lipstick

slurred across their chins
& cheeks. I stumbled,

a few delirious streaks
crosshatching my brow,

across the stippled field
of corn plowed

under. We were far
past the ditch of poison

ivy & jewel weed, far
from the closest house

where, an hour before
we’d raided one of our mothers’

dresser tops for lipstick’s
barrage of colors—

Tropic Sunrise, Chili
Burn, Wine-Dark Plum,

their names as lavish
as their hues. Then we ran

off to the woods
where we could rub

those shades onto the ends of our
swords—sticks, really,

a slew of bent
branches that we’d ripped

from live trees so that rot
wouldn’t sneak up on us

mid-combat. Then
it was every shirtless boy

for himself, each waving his
sword, some with the precision

of a compass, others
as wild as a blind

dervish. As we lunged
toward each other, backed away,

lunged & retreated,
someone across the field

might have mistaken our moves
for an elaborate dance—glide

& stretch, turn & counterturn—
until finally, the sky dizzy

above us, we sprawled
on the matted gold

of grass, all of us slashed
& branded with sham

blood. After the heat
of battle, we’d check ourselves,

showing off with pride
a swath of unscathed flesh,

&: I got you there.
Yeah but I got you

there. Then we’d help
each other rub off

the scars, smearing the lipstick
into the various tones

of our skin. Not one of us
had yet received an errant

blur of lipstick
from another’s mouth.

Though we might have bragged
differently, it’d be years

until our first real
kisses, & a few weeks

after that before our first
breakups. But here we were practicing

for all the wounds
we’d earn in the coming

years, & here we were,
all of us so eager

to go out & receive them.
So I want to hold on

to those days just before
the onslaught of all those

more lasting scars,
when we lay spread-eagled

next to each other, sweaty
with our own hurt & healing,

when we still couldn’t tell
wounds from kisses.



Stephen Cramer’s first book of poems, Shiva’s Drum, was selected for the National Poetry Series and published by University of Illinois Press. His second, Tongue & Groove, was also published by University of Illinois. From the Hip, which follows the history of hip hop in a series of 56 sonnets, and A Little Thyme & A Pinch of Rhyme, a cookbook in haiku and sonnets, came out from Wind Ridge Press in 2014 and 2015. Bone Music, his most recent collection, was selected by Kimiko Hahn for the 2015 Louise Bogan Award and published in 2016 by Trio House Press. His work has appeared in journals such as The American Poetry Review, African American Review, The Yale Review, Harvard Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. An Assistant Poetry Editor at Green Mountains Review, he teaches writing and literature at the University of Vermont and lives with his wife and daughter in Burlington.