by John O’Connor 

My Gretel

My sister never called me Hansel
but she knew I would lead her to trouble.
The hollyhocks looked at us mischievously

from the frost wall garden and we stole out
in the twilight to escape a mother trying
to convince us she was ours,

with her rituals of blood and stale bread,
large bosomed matriarch standing
over us like a mysterious mountain range

you wouldn’t enter unless life
depended on it. We made our way down
the leafy paths trying to find a place

where we would not feel lost.
My sister looked up to me, always,
as if my hair were on fire and I would

try to put her at ease though I had no idea
where we were going. Here, eat this,
I would say to her and she would put

the brown morel in her mouth
and chew in slow motion. Along the stream
bank were little snake holes

where you could see tiny dots of light
that might have been eyes of some kind.
Don’t look. Keep going. Shoes and socks wet,

cupped hands around the candle flame.
Somewhere along the way I lost her.
I grew older alongside someone

who sang the wrong melody and couldn’t repeat
our secret phrase. I pretended to be fooled,
gave her room to breathe her aerosol of mold, 

allowing her walks alone, never again to hold
her hand. This world is a lonely garden
and no one can say the names of what

grows there. That’s why Latin died.
There are garlands along the path,
cottages built with what is left of our

memories. The strangers that pass us
on the road may be our cousins, our
siblings. We don’t know. The markers

are gone. We ate them long ago for breakfast,
their earthy taste still lingering, their musty
scent hanging in the air.


Every time I tune this thing I hear the A string
telling me there’s a long way to go, a line that repeats
and repeats, the way my mother’s fingers went up
and down the keyboard making the same mistakes
as if they were written on the staff. A cow stands
in the middle of a narrow winding road that makes
itself out of a long summer of unseen trampling beasts,
laying down the fall before the winter.
Everyone knows the snow is coming
and everyone wants to take that path up the hill
where the sky begins, where the muddy earth
starts over. It’s a monotonous and singular melody
until your realize it’s the timing that has control,
that the flute is sad and the clarinet wants her mother.


From our plane we can see what the storms
have done to the coastline, that the houses
will fall into the sea. What a brilliant day
now that the clouds are gone and you turn
your attention to me. You stayed inside
for days watching those boys in their tennis
whites, the volleys long, the wind still
in London, while up from the gulf
came gales and torrents and I sat
at my desk and wrote little bits of trash
the wind blew away. And all the while
our country grew smaller, withering
at its edges. I know how you love the sea,
especially in mist and a little fog.
And I love the mountains. No, we don’t
really own a plane, but I forget that
when I’m looking at aerial photos.
They say so much about a nation
and its people. You have to back up
for perspective as if you lived in the sky
or on the other side of the Milky Way.

How Light Is Made From Darkness

Do you recognize a gray day
when you are living a gray life
or even a gray year, the color
of which you worked so hard to mix?
A stomach can grow flabby

just as a mouth becomes less gabby
and you can retreat further
into your inner ear where the snare
and the whistle play the march
you have been trudging in order to avoid

any direct light, keeping the sun
away from your delicate new skin.
The summer drifts in with its heavy
cloud and rhythmic rains, its dark
green tangle, its out of control

uncertainty, its emerald froth,
its drenched touch, its encroaching
growth, its vines, its transcendental
moths, its repetitive hysteria,
its rising water, sinking heat,

its accusing path of ferns, its muffled
thunder and smeared lightning,
its botched patterns, its insane
language, its gross insubordination,
its sour mouth, its cheap delusions

and sunken mirages, its dry humor
that no one gets, not the echo
of the forest nor the dumb animals,
its rank composted air, its ludicrous
logic, and you, your gray turning blue,

painted over half your torso, while you catch
clouds in bottles and line your shelves
with jars of chalky earth. Do you recognize
these or have you forgotten like the rest
of us and wiped your memory clean?

In Your Garden

The air does not listen to the water even when the sky
writes down instructions on how to make syntax out of wind.
Are you following me? I think not, your body stooped over
your tiny box plants in your garden, the sun disappearing
behind the new condominium rising over your shoulder.
We thought this was our beginning, leaves flying upward
from hickory and birch that have lived so long without us.
Your mother died while you were on the other side
of the ocean. You had always felt that far away. Sometimes
our waters seem to widen between us. That’s why we have
our arms, so slender, so sore, so longing to hold something.

Stay with me one more day. Then tomorrow, do the same.

About the Author:

John O'Connor

John Paul O’Connor‘s poems have appeared in numerous literary journals, including St Ann’s Review, Hanging Loose, Sycamore Review, Silk Road and Indiana Review. His work has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and he won the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry in 2015. His book of poems, Half the Truth, is available from Snake Nation Press.