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“Stilled Life,” “Through a Window in Winter,” “Labyrinth,” “Columbarium”

Stilled Life


Dear Younger, you weren’t born yet when the four of us went camping, wetting our heads and horses beneath cragged cascading falls—the Green Mountains, Wyoming. I was eight, our elder eleven—a child on the brink—but no man yet by a long shot. It’s possible you were conceived in our parents’ tent under a canister of stars, a soft explosion while big bro and I slept. Let’s freeze this picture in time—pretty images of them fucking, the aspens sighing, a proffered candy like the torrid dime store comic books brother laid out on floral bedspreads to entice me, make me touch him in motel rooms while they drained glasses—Dad with his Jack Daniels holster, Mom preferring daintier fare: chardonnay or Russian vodka at highway taverns boasted on the map. Our long trek home. Does only half that news not surprise you, Little Brother? The drinking part, the run-of-the-mill abuses? The rest we’re trained to snooze through. Absence and excuse—there were many—and still not enough to fix love’s breakage, forge the bonds you craved and never got.  

You two were once sparks in Mom and Dad’s eyes, a milk spill between them. She lightened his load, whitened shadow, so gifted at wringing sweetness from her martyr udders, her farming muscles, her ancestral hands. You could drown in it, and we did, in the wine and whiskey torrents, the evening rants about his infidelities or money she’d spent on antiques dragged from small towns discovered on Didionesque drives around San Bernardino’s edge. At night we’d watch them grow kindling with gas: Jose Feliciano’s haunting Light My Fire! Light My Fire! cranked so high the neighbors complained. We watched them swoon and crash until glass shards got ground into every swelling surface of us—awed, we’d soon find, by our own skin’s absorbency. We’re a trio that way, my Brothers, my Dearly Departed. We learned to open wide and swallow it all—liquor, pills, the barrel of a gun, When it came to that.

I can’t not admit it. You know that it would be untrue. You know that I would be a liar. Will you speak now from the suicide sink hole that’s swallowed you both, from the shore of a sorry sibling history where I walk my lonely story, my smoking mind, another drag off this dwindling cigarette, night falling fast into the Los Angeles Pacific? See how the tide opens its ink-soaked hand, a sea of bobbing black dahlias I dive into with moonlight and my undertaker face. To surface. To love it all anyway. I kick off Mother’s shell, wash my feet of Father’s tar, his skull pit plank I’m sprung from. I labyrinth my days around memories of you two in my best funeral suit: dark armor of sequined water, each radiant point filed for my body’s shapely flame. This cloth of night and our love become a funeral pyre cut from a vast, unglamorous sky.


Through a Window in Winter

(for my son, post-top surgery)

…and so she comes to dream herself the tree ~Hart Crane 

The sycamore has shaken off its leaves—
         Sheered and smooth, the trunk festooned,
Stained a pale and subtle tea color—
         Shape of party balloons.

         What a pleasure, says our son—
To take in rain and light
         Unfettered. What joy!
To glide two palms down denuded planes.

         No slalom or mogul riot.
         No commotion of brown or verdant peaks.

An honest presence…
         Bathed and beamed in overflow
         Of moon.

A baby could drink and drink—
         Launched from its mother realm that way,
Shivering and perfect.

         Oh tree…
         Oh bare and startled beginning.



Here we are at the entrance again.
Depending on how much sleep I lost last
night, it will eventually act like an exit. All
the debacles—political, familial—are
health-related. In fact, this spiral is really
a stethoscope I press to my heart that’s
wrapped in tissue with half a Tiger’s Milk
bar and some thread. Also inside the
pocket, a severed red lipstick and a
minotaur I’d better feed soon. Between the
two of us, it’s hard to say who’s more
stumped and terrified by circles. Somehow
the walls manage to know when we’re
hungry and claustrophobic at the same
time. They shift back a little, like clouds.
And we eat them clean to the center.



I should visit my brother’s grave more often,
bring a simple sprig of daylilies, make
a tidy corsage of sweet peas and pin
it to the iron lapel of his name, prom date-
esque and formal. But the cross is so complex
and my innards ever-channeling, my blood
buckles under rein, little corpuscle asses
that kick and bray along their burdened route
inciting my veins’ better sense. Brother, when
they burned you, naked, in the oven, didn’t light
have the last word? Riled flames painting orange-red
heat over a canvas of skin, your bones’ bright fire,
the final womb? Once, you’d rush to catch sun sliding
late into the sea, for you, the only god worth worshipping.

Michelle Bitting is the author of five poetry collections, "Good Friday Kiss," winner of the inaugural De Novo First Book Award; "Notes to the Beloved," which won the Sacramento Poetry Center Book Award; "The Couple Who Fell to Earth"; "Broken Kingdom," winner of the 2018 Catamaran Poetry Prize and a recipient of a Starred Kirkus Review; and "Nightmares & Miracles" (Two Sylvias Press, 2022), winner of the Wilder Prize and recently named one of Kirkus Reviews 2022 Best of Indie. Her chapbook "Dummy Ventriloquist" is forthcoming in 2024.

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