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From the Archives: Four Poems, by Gillian Cummings

Happy birthday, Gillian Cummings! Celebrate by reading Cummings’s “Four Poems,” which we published in 2020!


The Faint Bells Calling My Name

Snow was falling. It filled the sky
through the long night with no moon to sing

its lullaby. The snow fell. It was lonely
without its cloud, without the togetherness

of water borne through sky.
It had floated above the barren plain

that lay, a symptom below,
of impatience and winter’s dread.

The snow lit the earth’s last candle,
and the candle was cold, flameless.

A glockenspiel of hidden ghosts,
an eerie music rising from the frozen ground.

The ground of lost mittens, of caskets and roots.
The snow itself a casket,

shutting the solitary houses in white cerements,
asking them to call its shroud home.

The phone had gone dead, no dial tone.
The oven would not fire. Heat

had gone, like reindeer over the tundra.
And I wondered, Is this the way?

Is this how a soul
is forced to go numb?



My obsession is a music box.
It, too, is dead.

A 1970s version of Noah’s Ark
with the blue body of a boat,

wooden slats on top carved into
elephant, giraffe, lion, zebra.

Noah peering out a window in the hull,
holding a striped umbrella,

while the dead boat, wound up,
rocks invisibly, animals swaying

to the chop of waves and the song
about raindrops, chiming.

But it doesn’t. Chime anymore.
The S.S. Noah’s Ark doesn’t work.

And I lied. I said the only thing
that still functions here is this laptop.

But the pills, five kinds a day? The pastel pills
in amber bottles? I take them to keep

from winding the crank, biding my time
with cartoon animals and silent music.


On Fire Street

The house is red with anger. Or love.
The lintels. The gutters. The red house

glows at the edges with what it can’t contain.
There are other houses in the neighborhood,

all hot with the heaviest emotions.
Do the houses hate one another? Or love?

If I scream in my red house, scream
because I can’t bear burning up inside, the ravages

of contagion, will my neighbor fall out
of her red bed and phone the fire department

to complain? The men in red? Everything
is red, every last thing, even my bird’s tail,

flicking up and down, as he, too, cries. And me?
Do I hate my neighbor? Or love? You see,

God has a hand in this. God says I am my neighbor,
the very same, very bones, the blood

with its A’s and O’s, red blood from blue veins.
God says if I hurt my neighbor, I wound myself

more, with only one word—one red word
will cause my shame and make me regret my very being.


The Dog House

In each blue house, someone is working.
Each person, in every blue house.

They stitch rabbits to skirt hems
on sewing machines, oil locks

into which no keys will fit,
they type memos on disaster

and feed them to the dog.
The dog who likes to lie still.

When she gnaws her rawhide bone, she tries
to get at the blood and marrow, but the bone

is barren as a long stretch of sand.
This is life inside the house.

I am like the dog. I gnaw on the insides
and try to stand up from my place on the rug,

but someone has cut off my hands.
I cannot touch my face. The reason

the others feed their memos to the dog
is because the dog is herself disaster.

The houses are cold as the idea of an end,
and everyone knows there is no way

to say what you mean unless
you give disaster back to itself.


  • Gillian Cummings is the author of The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter, winner of the 2018 Colorado Prize for Poetry; and My Dim Aviary, winner of the 2015 Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press. Her poems have appeared in Barrow Street, Boulevard, The Colorado Review, The Journal, The Massachusetts Review, and other journals.

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