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I Used to Be Able to Listen to Sad Songs

but that was before they started strutting
around with billy clubs in their fists, started
kicking the backs of my knees so that I
crumpled right there on the asphalt,
their faces streaming tears all the while.
That was before they started showing me
the switchblades in their boots. Before
the twisted arms and sucker-punches.

Once, the songs slept soft beside me.
Their eyes were like the moon then
and they never closed them, so all night
I dreamed under lunar beams and woke
each morning glowing. But then I learned
that the earth is infinitesimally slowing
its spin. Then I learned that we’re born
with more bones than we die with. The songs
started growling sometimes when I wanted
to cuddle. The songs started cracking their knuckles.
One morning I caught one filing its teeth.
That was when the problems started.

Now I armor myself in hand-claps and tambourines.
I’ve honed a trigger-instinct with the radio.
But sometimes I’m walking down a boardwalk
in the safe, bright sun, seagulls dipping overhead,
cotton candy spilling from every hand,
and there they are, locking step beside me
past the ring toss, the arcade. It doesn’t matter
how fast I turn away. Hello again, they whisper.
You can’t run forever. And then I know the ocean
is there but damned if I can hear it anymore.


Horseshoe Crab

Dear ugly one, I remember you.
You, over and over, pocking the beach
like so many war helmets, the soldiers
long vanished. Your many legs
curled hard. Your spike tail that I
always imagined as a beak, as if
with it you might taste, might smell,
might speak. You had things to tell me.
You had seen the depths and the sun
and then you had died. You
were dignified even in ignominy
(your legs scooped by red-bellied
children, your tail popped out
for swordplay). I'd heard you called
a living fossil. I'd heard your blood
was iceberg blue. None of this
could be true, but it was.

I was a child already tired
of facts (cumulus, stratus, cirrus;
in 1492; Betsy Ross, always
Betsy Ross). I wanted a space flight
that didn't explode. I wanted
a clarinet that played colors.
I knew you were dead,
and even so, I picked you up
every time, your tail a long tooth
against my palm, and swung you
into the surf. And then
I imagined you restored.
Your crisped legs waving.
Your dull brown carapace
burnishing to burgundy gloss.
Your impossible blue blood sweeping
through your impossible appendages
like I had felt my own sweep
through mine. Your beak-tail swiveling
of its own accord, pointing back
into the deep, into the mystery-
country, where lived glowing squid
and fish with mouths larger
than my body. I willed you to swim
faster, to go go go, your beak-tail
pointing you away from all
the idiot children who knew nothing
of reverence, away from everything
in the world I knew to be true.


The Unabashed Tourist Meets a Man at a Bar Outside Reno

You like my boots, don’t you? I like yours.
I don’t have a dog yet, but his name is Horatio Alger.
I’m looking for a ghost town with swinging doors.
Whiskey, thank you. Whatever they’ve got.
Your sky is so blue it glares.
The dog I don’t have is missing one foot but scales Mount Rose like a goat.
That pine-and-sage smell makes me an entire inch taller.
I belong above the tree line. Like a pika. Oh, I’ve done research.
It feels like the sky is closing its jaws around me.
In a good way.
If the coyotes lure my dog away, I’ll hunt them down myself.
I’m practicing shooting at rusted cars.
I spent today hiking. Tomorrow, too.
Yes, I’ll have another.
Why would I slow down?


The Unabashed Tourist Chats With Diner Patrons in Missouri
                    While Waiting Out a Tornado Warning

It’s thrilling, isn’t it, the siren’s howl?
Nothing in my life has ever been urgent.
Sirens say the world needs you enough
to holler a caution. So why the grim eyes?
Why the coffee-mug-clutching, the parking-lot-
watching? I know I shouldn’t say it, but
I hope it comes close. I’ve never seen a tornado
and I want my own narrow escape.
This is outlaw country, you know.
The James brothers, Hoodoo Brown—
I’ve got the book in my car.
They wouldn’t watch from the windows.
They’d gallop at the horizon, hooting.
They’d tie the tornado down and make it beg.
In the movie I’m writing in my head,
I walk out into the rain and wait, and when
I spot the tornado churning across the fields,
I grin and spit and stay rooted.
That’s the whole movie. But if I know
one thing, it’s that the sky will stay empty.
Oh, why the moan, why the stink-eye?
I know I shouldn’t say it out loud, but
aren’t we all thinking it? We all know
nothing ever really comes close.  


Catherine Pierce is the author of The Girls of Peculiar (Saturnalia 2012) and Famous Last Words (Saturnalia 2008). Her poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry, Slate, Boston Review, Ploughshares, FIELD, Blackbird, and elsewhere. She lives in Starkville, Mississippi, where she co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.