Three poems by Heather Derr-Smith

Walls of Byzantium

I go under the magenta blossoms of Judas Trees.
I still remember you. I’m no longer a pacifist.

There are red and white cylinders of Chestnuts,
Hanging like lit candles. They say it is painfully

Beautiful in April and May.
This is true all over the world.
God made spring for us as a test.

I barely got through customs. But I did.
I saw shoals of Tunny in the waters.
I went fishing from a boat.

One time the people made ships
From the wood of demolished houses
And the braided ropes of women’s hair.

I could step out on the back of the sea
And it would carry me.

It’s true. This city has been rebuilt for centuries. The walls keep going up.
I’m not afraid of war anymore.

The End of a Storm

The eels’ black whips flicker,

Long black lashes
Swaying in the ocean current.

In my bay window is a passionflower vine, clinging
To its profusions, but withering anyhow.

I never gave much thought to beginnings or endings.

The sky is spotted with birds in a black pox.
Clouds of eider and down,

The birds in their cloud costumes,
Their pageant of sky parts:
In come the flapping storms;
Out slinks the spreading fog.

The fish dart in their glass slipper-shapes.

A man’s waiting outside my window
With the face of a white shell,
Curved inward with hundreds of tight teeth.
He was someone to me.

Twigs clatter together,
Encased in transparent bones of ice.
The ice lusts everything, consuming.

The sea disorients with its soft darkness overlapping.
We’ve just come to understand that in winter,
Light comes from the ground.


I stand with my daughter at Lake Avernus,
An old entrance to Hell near Naples.
I want her to see it.

When she was seven,
She complained about food and I showed her
A photograph of a famine victim in Sudan, crawling.
It was a bad thing to do.
But I remember she wanted to look.
The sun is hot and makes us sweat. She smells
Like an adult, the effect of puberty.
The dust agitates our toes;
we’ve both hated dust on our feet since childhood, hers and mine.

She’s hesitant to talk about it,
Keeps all her language tidy in her mouth, unspoken,
Afraid of those childish trips, misunderstandings,

If I could look into a prospective glass
Would I be able
To ward off all the accidents, immunize her,
I wonder,
Tie a knot as protection in her hair.
Here it comes, on the horizon, every afternoon:
The uproar of a storm with its gems of after-light.

We don’t believe in Hell, she learned long ago.
But we do know so much about curse and rebirthing:
The wheel spinning in her opening womb.

About the author

A visiting writer at Iowa State University, Heather Derr-Smith has published two books of poetry, Each End of the World (Main Street Rag Press,…

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