Four Poems by Stephanie Cawley


My mother stuffed me in a starched dress
and dragged me to church once,
when I was six. I traced faces in the wood grain
of the pews and fell asleep to old women
clicking rosaries above my head.
I dreamed a heaven made of buttons
and string. Now I shut my eyes to imagine
the space of heaven, what it smells like.
Women rinsing coffee cups in the sink
interrupt with a musical clinking, smell
of soapy skin. Sunlight pinks my eyelids.
I cannot imagine floating in this life’s wake
while my heart swims like a fish
in my ribs. Even rustling grains of sand
slip in and blow around, windy in my chest.
Heaven must be an emptiness
the color of new fog. Thinking about it
is like having a long conversation
with an empty chair. It could not smell
like orange peels, or pine needles there—
someone might not like them.
But if I go, I will fill it with furniture
from my grandmother’s house, and sprawl
on the sleigh bed. I will sleep in heaven.
I will keep dreaming there. It will rain
in heaven. I will get to bring
my suitcase full of trees.



Overhead, the sky stretches like the gray film of an oyster’s skin.
I am nervous at the wheel, skirting a frayed
edge where cold collects and settles. Old houses sink

into the cracked curb beside the road. It’s mid-day,
but already the light sags, milky. I always want to leave.
I try to breathe deep, stop pulling my sleeve’s frayed

hem into a pile of black wool, but instead I grieve
a little for the first-graders linked hand-in-hand at a red light.
Their pale skin and puffy coats. I want to stuff leaves

and pine needles into a suitcase, stitch myself to a kite
and lift off into the sky. But I am tethered street-level.
I’m a garland of cut-paper people, hands joined. The light

turns green and we all lurch ahead. I had wanted to greet
an old friend on the sidewalk, but instead found a rearview
image of what I left behind. I am stitched to the street,

to small versions of me that smell of paper and cheap glue,
me before the sky turned gray, flimsy as old skin.
The children on the sidewalk shrink in the rearview
as cold collects and settles. The old houses sink.


Mile 362 Driving Home Alone

Let’s say I am a cartoon elephant
and the expected answer is a mouse.
I teeter on a too-small chair
when I should just crush the damn thing.
It is so small. I have huge feet.

On the interstate, you are wind—
invisible and everywhere. You know
I have a new habit of saying yes.
To the question of dandelions, I blow
their heads off. To the question
of winter, I drive to another state
where strangers’ couches are questions,
sleeping on them the answer.

To answer the drag of loneliness,
I stop claiming it as my natural habitat,
and climb inside a terrarium
with you. We bask, two iguanas
under love’s heat lamp. We laugh
when we should be asleep.

I think of the white dress
in the vintage shop—the question
of its lace collar, your hands
on silk, clink of silver. To tradition,
the question I feel unprepared
to answer, I say we link
trunks and trumpet.


Staying with Strangers

Covered with Mardi Gras beads and crocheted potholders,
a Wurlitzer slumps against the dining room wall,
and stacks of green foam vegetable trays spill off the top
of the fridge. I don’t like to throw anything out,
Lori Beth says, as she hands me bags of quinoa
and dried black beans—she’s not eating grains. A greasy
brass candleholder, whose sisters I have seen
at yard sales and thrift shops, sits on the guest bedroom
dresser. Lori Beth says she’s really into the whole
do-it-yourself thing: the upstairs bathroom
is painted turquoise. A clawfoot bathtub stands slanted
against the wall and piles of cat litter swirl
around the hole in the floor where there should be a sink.

That night, under a comforter printed with six-inch He-mans
flexing their hundreds of orange biceps, I can’t fall asleep.
I hear a squeaky bed scratching the wall—Lori Beth
and her new boyfriend having sex or laughing.
She said Neal, her ex, bought the Wurlitzer on Craigslist
then moved to France last year. On her Facebook page,
she said she used to be a housewife, so I had pictured her
aproned, cooking casseroles, and ironing a tablecloth.
In the morning, I pretend to be asleep and listen
to Lori Beth get ready for work, tooth-brushing
and singing to the cat, even though I really have to pee.

When she leaves, I tiptoe over the blankets and dresses
strewn on the landing. In the shower, I trace the ribs
of yellowed grout where tiles have been pried off,
and wait to be replaced. Crusty tubes of half-used
sample-sized shampoos are arranged by height
on the window ledge. I can picture no one
owning them on purpose. But they are almost
beautiful, full of sunlight, and mildew.

More poetry at Used Furniture.

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