Anatomy of a Woman’s Spine

Four poems by Leslie Harrison

I applied to the sky for asylum applied for space for air
I sought a way out of all the rectangles sought through
forests then meadows with their secret dyes their busy
insects the sky always there the sky never even close



Anatomy of a Woman’s Spine

From a painting by Jacques Fabien Gautier d’Agoty


I applied to the sky for asylum applied for space for air

I sought a way out of all the rectangles sought through

forests then meadows with their secret dyes their busy

insects the sky always there the sky never even close

to full of birds those brief wavering seeds I was tired

tired of streets of insomnia of the unbearable center

of the bones soft and tender I was tired of waiting

of waiting for someone anyone tired of waiting also

for snow another thing we’ve made extinct I was tired

of dusk dark dawn all those nights alone in the mullioned

prison of a room a room so very close to empty I applied

to the sky for permission to enter and thought of the anatomist

painting the curved back flecked white spine neck turned

looking back this wanting to catch sight of herself skin

immodest unzipped back bloody but with the start of wings



[At the circus]


The clown twists elephants into the shape of small

sorrows stains them yellow with breath the clown

is himself a sorrow face like rain like rain on a window

into which birds sometimes crash and so his goofy

huge shoes are nests for bewildered sometimes

broken birds they squeak when he walks stare up

at the big top where before all they knew was sky

the clown is an aviary a bus stop after a bomb went off

ragged and sad his hair and waistcoat blood-red

the clown’s own heart lacks chambers lacks pockets

into which he might tuck his loves his hands shape his

breath into another sorrow sometimes a bird with its wings

glued shut sometimes a silly hat that welcomes in the snow

he takes his breaks in the funhouse where everyone

screams to see themselves and no way out



Another letter


I wanted a garden a hand to hold while there a hand

joined by a voice saying look at these bluets look at

these hydrangeas their shock of spark on longlit

fuses I wanted a space made of order made of reckless

disregard made entirely of force faith and taming

let us imagine the garden and what it says it says that

order exists and is available to us that things hold still

that there is an us at all that the walls made ornamental

with brick and black iron fixtures will hold look I say

to this empty this teeming garden busy resisting its cages

look at the birds their chains made of seasons made of

twig and egg look at the mute sky look then at the ivy

that wants that works daily minute by minute to tear

the walls to dust decades of break and breach look at it

again in winter the way it holds on to the cold stone as if

it were necessary as if it were beloved



[Scientists grow new hearts in the shells of old hearts]*

 —for F. M.


When I’m not there all the time I’m thinking of you of

not you of the blade in your hands singing as it severs

air from air the cut the hum and fuss of it tachikaze we call it

swordwind the air alight the whitebright speed its lethal shine

that shine trapped here between the traffic and the train

here in this room in this stumbling this gut-shot city faltering

to its knees the body already unrecoverable the sun’s bleached

heat the acrid green of lawn rectitude of waste and rowhouse

when we sleep we sleep inside weathered escutcheons inside

nests of cylinder feather and wire our skin ruddy in the spark

of our alarms when we bleed out in the street when disease

kudzus our bones when the poisoned air thickens and sparrows

fall it begins to seem as if life as if life itself is just a ghost dream

is a synapse in the dying brain of god the gaps too large for

lilacs any more too large for touch for snow rising in the pines

the chaos of what was held so dear falling into stutter into

fragments I age we age the place our place disintegrates

people always say beauty and terror as if they were not the same

as if they were not conjoined at every point all the time the way

the blade there in your hands became somehow the most whole

the most perfect thing left of all that remains


(*The title is adapted from the title of an Atlas Obscura article)


Leslie Harrison is the author of The Book of Endings (University of Akron Press, 2017), and Displacement (Mariner Books, 2009), chosen by Eavan Boland as the winner of The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize. She holds graduate degrees from The Johns Hopkins University and The University of California, Irvine. She currently lives and teaches in Baltimore.