you are in the diode archives winter 2010



Train Safety Assembly

Each spring, they made us watch
the movie: kids in their striped ’70s shirts,
foolish on the tracks, all gumption
and bravado, all we’ll-be-back-in-time-
for-dinner, then the laces wrapped
on a spike, a scream, a cut to white.
I carried the movie like a door
behind my ribs. Sometimes
it swung into a starless black.

Once, my cousin placed a penny
on the tracks behind her house as I
hissed and moaned from the back door.
The next day, she pressed the flat
President into my palm. The copper
burned with her narrow escape.
Keep it, she said. I’ll do it again.

A train is no mind, no give, just
roar and edge. What kept me up
was how it didn’t care for me.
How its churning covered no mercy.
How its bright, unlidded eye
cut right through fog.

I would like to end with an idea
of, say, travel: that fear of trains is fear
of leaving, or that the metal bellow
is the sound of swift distance. But
it would be a lie. The train is simply
the opposite of what I want my life to be.
On the other hand, it never flinches.


How it Ends: Three Cities

#1: Austin, Texas

This morning we woke to the grackles. Their mouths open, tails oil-black against the blacker pavement. Some had closed their eyes; others had died staring. Cars stopped on Congress and were left, hunched like boulders. The elms, always bright with cries, were still. We didn’t call work, just sleepwalked to the Red Pony Lounge and dropped into silence. Now someone puts Sam Cooke on the jukebox, “Cupid,” and I think of the girl with the gun. The man across from me reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a bird. Everyone shrieks, draws back, hisses about disease. I touch its small head. Its eyes are closed. I want it to wake up. To see what’s left, even if it’s only this bar, this green drink rimmed with glowing salt, this long-gone song caught up in smoke like light. 

#2: New York, New York

By lunchtime, the city is swathed in sweetness. A woman says Bit-O-Honey. Her son says roasted almonds. Old men find one another to talk of fifth grade snow days. In Queens, a young man veers from a funeral motorcade in search of lemon meringue. A paralytic woman rises, walks to the freezer, scoops mouthful after mouthful of Rocky Road. In Central Park, a man takes a bottle from his backpack. He builds a perfect snowman and bathes it tenderly in maple syrup. He leans in to kiss it. A feuding couple falls silent in front of a window display of petit fours, chocolate tortes, marzipan apricots. After eating, they brush sugar gently from one another’s mouths. A middle school teacher opens the window and students stream from it, called by the air, drifting skyward on the aroma of vanilla extract, as clear and sharp as winter. 

#3: Okemah, Oklahoma

At first the animals don’t seem strange. Most twilights the town is full of stray dogs, alley cats. But the hamster? The iguana? Only when she sees the guinea pig emerge from the garden soil, shake itself off, and trundle down the sidewalk, does she begin to understand. Across the way the one-eyed tabby bursts from beneath the oak. Goldfish leap down the street’s puddles. Hermit crabs scuttle over lawns, and cockatiels preen dirt from their wings. She hears a sound from the movies, and turns to see Major Luther’s old appaloosa gallop down Birch Street. It seems wrong, she thinks, for them to come back only to vanish again. But then Preacher Man, her golden retriever, dives into her lap, and as the stars go black she is laughing.  


Catherine Pierce is the author of Famous Last Words (Saturnalia, 2008) and a chapbook, Animals of Habit (Kent State, 2004). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Paris Review, Slate, Ploughshares, Blackbird, Indiana Review, the anthology Best New Poets 2007, and elsewhere. She co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.