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Judith Skillman "Three Poems"

In a Syracuse Barracks

Linoleum peeled back to reveal 

plywood laid and fixed 

with big-headed nails.

Mid-fifties, twentieth century—

father studied the sun until it melted

each summer and we wandered uphill

to where the sweet grasses grew. 


There we dug our sticks 

into the dirt we knew 

in winter as a drift of snow

sifting into our dreams 

when we were sick.  

Two of us to a bed, and father in his study, 

growing smarter by the hour.


Sisters with no bedtime stories 

but the neighbors, we had

each of us the other for company.

Our first five summers grown up

like ragweed in the kitchen,

its counterfeit table 

laid for dinner with physics.


Paper everywhere intact 

but on the walls, 

where flowers peeled 

from corners. Our mother 

read pap smears in the lab.


We watched the black and white 

at the sitter’s, a childless woman 

who ached to vacuum 

the same square feet of rug 

again because carpet 

was the only thing that stayed put 

under the stain of a long afternoon, 

shades drawn against 

the violent, careless light.



I sit in the firelight of my nostalgia


I’ve given every present moment for the past,

every instant to the future, even the children

who traipse through this old living room

in the house on Somerset hill. I gave my ring

to a loan shark in order to buy you, and now

you need more kitsch. Can autumn just be

the theater of clouds, the sun burning out

because it beat down on a metal roof all summer?

Can the coming winter be only cold on cold,

not ice on snow on ice on snow on ice? How

much longer will you sink through my body

leaving me weaker than a grandmother,

stain me with rosy cheeks from crying

for what was lost? Is it always the child

of the child of the childhood stolen out from under,

and if so, can she repent, admit she grew up

despite the lack of mother and father?



A Laundry List


The old scar remembers its sear,

hot poker there inside prodding


an organ. The afflictions of the hip

lie stored away, a laundry list


so detailed all it takes is one

wrong move to have another flare.


She remembers being paralyzed,

feeling nothing from the waist


down. Recalls the siren’s wail

as they drove with the two-year old


sitting up—crying and alive.

And then the waiting.


An interminable number of years

since then, the word scoliosis


comes into her back, takes its place

alongside four bulging discs.




Judith Skillman is the recipient of awards from the Academy of American Poets and Artist Trust. Her recent collection is Came Home to Winter, Deerbrook Editions, 2019. Work has appeared in Poetry, The Midwest Quarterly, The Southern Review, Zyzzyva, and other journals. Skillman is a faculty member at the Hugo House in Seattle, Washington. Visit 

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