Three Prose Poems

Judith Skillman



By cruel cantors who sang in Hebrew, and forced their sons to do the same. By
Ukrainian gymnasts, short, curt, and smiling. If he goes bald, a man finds his way
toward the embittered forests where old growth holds sway. Suppose a man journeys
through marshland, pant-legs tickled with blueberries. The world once was green and
orderly, arranged in rows and columns. The wind then knew enough to comb white
birches. Who were the grandfathers: clocks, pendulums, indigenous mushrooms? Who
played chess by mail? Who lost all his teeth, boarded a train across the flatlands crusted
in frostwork, carried diamonds in greasy handkerchiefs? If a man comes to hate his
father, still the grandfather says Never mind. Sand moves in scrawling lines through
generations, carrying thirst, molars, psychosis. Do these statues watch from afar?
Sleeping giants pinned to the ground by Lilliputians, engineers sitting on pool tables, their
haloes tied to a tunnel that swallows light from signs that litter the green.


Yet the inner harbor will not overflow its culverts. Shells dropped by birds of prey
remain where they fell. The octopus no longer orange, mother of pearl crabs walking
strictly. How to remember—when will the pool of amnesia release its incident? The
question floats, unanswered. Rape exists only as a word, nothing comes before or after.
Marshland without moon or sun, sand fleas jumping up pants legs, a single bee alone in
its pursuit of one flower. A place to walk in circles, to starve, to stave off seasons
that must die of their own accord. The word ugly—a summons for jury duty—sentencing
the face, which was only a cracked plate after it had been taken off the body, caressed,
held, broken, and replaced as if nothing happened to disturb the weather, the girl, the
woman she became, or the children she would have later, in her dreamy waking.

A Ceiling of Crows

Raven-black, they flow steadily as a train in setting sun, and we witness their migration.
Nothing is char if we see it together, not even these tattered feathers streaming toward a
place of rest. Our dark bird of symbolism, our caw caw. Where do they go? In what
order, and is the river of Lethe still below this crusted earth?  What about heaven—
does it lie in the upper region, above cirrus banded, dried, pinked?  If they flew beneath
the ground, in hell, we’d see what they’d done to deserve their reputation, about which
little can be done except to observe how they dog the cat, drive the songbirds from
thicket to holly to hunger.  On the shortest day of this long, hard year, they’ll still come in
droves. You and I—gloved, hooded—beneath a catechism of crosses pouring through a
hole in the sky to peck at the blind sun, the halved moon.


Judith Skillman’s most recent book is Kafka’s Shadow, Deerbrook Editions. Her poems have appeared in FIELD, Cimarron Review, Shenandoah, The Iowa Review, and in anthologies including Nasty Women Poets, Lost Horse Press. She has been a writer in residence at the Centrum Foundation and The Hedgebrook Foundation.  Her collaborative translations of Macedonian poet Jovica Eternijan are forthcoming in Hawai’i Review. She is the recipient of a 2017 Washington Trust GAP grant. Visit

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