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Sample Poems by Julia Lisella


there is no mother, Only terrain… —Charlotte Mandel

No, no, I am
    not done with you yet,
you two who fled
    or were expelled. The universe
holds you without
    my permission. I don’t know
if you can walk yet. Or have
    words, or have seen earth’s diseases,
its ravage, its surly mountains,
    its iced caverns, its desert lengths
where children are less alive than you two,
    or if you’ve felt
more than your brother and sister
    living on this side,
mothered, fathered with exacting attention
    they can’t escape.
They don’t know you, and I,
    only the limits of your power surface.
I called out to hold on, stay put
    but to you such pleas mean nothing.
Oceans are your home
    fog and cloud your natural blankets,
stars, dead stones shining
    to light your crazy journey
along with the others, the peopled fields
    collapsing out of my comprehension.
Children die, every day. You must
    know them, too, now. How do they fare?
What is your death like? Why do you
    come to me, resting and working
your limbs into such deep ties?
    There is no mother here,
only the surface of your father’s skin
    on mine. Only desire
for this strange permission
    that comes from, what?
to husband the deep-seated eggs inside the flesh
    into a racing pool of live fish, sweet and delicious?
Did you take provisions when you left me? A sample
    of skin, a small tin of blood and milk?
Did you remember to forget the sloping brim
    of what held you, clasped you,
still young enough to swim freely
    but old enough to leave
your mark here? Did you
    leave anything behind,
a gift for your youngest brother?
    Is that why he emerged amazed and startled
and would not look at me, but at the light
    above my head? Did he mistake it
for the stories of the stars you left him?
    Is he glad he did not follow your fishy trail
to the middle ocean, clean, bright with the life
    of whale and shark?

Old Body

Sleeping Beauty’s kingdom slept for longer
than we’ve been crying.
And didn’t that story begin
with the pain of parents and an only child?
I am two dead babies so far. One more
and it will be almost my mother’s story, too,
the same dumb well
that can’t wail and carry on for its own sake.
Though in comparison, my life is charmed,
no 17-year-old American girl
translating bank warnings and eviction notices
into Italian for her parents.
Still, my babies follow me everywhere,
enter our dirty mixed up family with tender feet.

Joining so many other ghost babies at the table.
And we’ve set places for none of them.
I am sister, mother, daughter to them all.
Grief in the half shadows though I want to
get on with it.
No shelter.
The wild little unborns scoff.
Either way you’ll join us, they seem to say.

When I turn my head in the car
I see one child, one car seat. The child is
smiling, dreaming of her birthday.
Perhaps the baby ghosts have lifted
their heavy business for a moment?
But instead of lightness
I feel only its strange borders
and no ending that can arrange this thing
for the moment when we awake.



When I hear a voice connected
so completely to her infant
my knees shake. Strange to live
so close to another and so outside yourself.
But I’ve done it for a year now and think
how my mother did this four times over.
We compare notes this way: when was
the last time we washed our hair or
paid attention to the stained shirt we’re wearing?
A weird joy to be so mindless of ourselves.
Our babies.

When I was 17 my own words
were insult in my head. Smooth and stony
pills filled one palm, faucet water dashed
through the fingers of the other,
and trembling I dropped each pill
to the chrome cave
instead of into my waiting mouth.
Now some nights
cradling baby in the dark
I can feel that sweet fatigue.

When I stare into the mirror
I try to see the beauty there.
Instead I see just a face. I insist
tell me why you love me?
as though my husband could
return me to myself.
He can’t budge me from this cliff’s edge.
It’s so dreamy on the other side.

Each time bread fell to the floor
my mother used to pick it up,
brush it quickly and say
Kiss it up to God before she placed it
firmly to our lips. And so I do,
I kiss this up.

Sometimes the Grief is Real

Sometimes the grief is real
and we go like soldiers to the ordeal
of happiness.

Sometimes the grief remembers us first
and we sit stunned in the sun’s glare.

And sometimes grief gets abandoned,
and we are truly happy, we feel well fed

so that when it returns, raw and exhausting,
we don’t want to make its bed, we don’t want

to welcome it with new sheets or dinner. We want
to call for takeout. But it demands the full three-course
and dessert

and the attention accorded the dreadfully boring guest.


What if it had been you who said
once you’d thought of killing yourself,
that more than once you’d thought
you hated your life but every way to end it
seemed too horrible, for me? What if
it had been you who cried past midnight,
each night holding your belly or your chest
as if your insides would fall out?
And what if it had been you
who held on to the possibility of dying
like a person who holds on to the memory
of an unworthy ex-love?
What if it were me who suggested,
arm’s length away, that maybe a drug,
some small pill could keep you sane,
keep you near me, could make you love your life?
What if it were you who’d said
you’d find your own way back?
And once you had done it,
come back so whole, so entirely,
I could not recognize
ever having almost lost you?