Sara McAulay

Like Janis

Girl, why don’t we ever talk? 

Why can’t we get beyond the likes 

and tweets; digit-devil stickers, gifs 

of grumpy pixel kitties, outraged 

penguin memes and smiling 

piles of poop. Girlfriend, choose

your own emoticon. Facebook 

wants to know your mood. Cursor 

hovers  over link and click!—up pops 

a cartoon. Your inner life.


Why don’t we talk 

the way we did when phones

were only phones? When we would lie 

in analog embrace at night, whispering 

into each other’s hair: I saw twin 

terriers today, strutting in red sweaters 

in the park. Kids wobbling on new bikes 

with training wheels. 

A  skinny woman by the lake banged 

trash can lids and rasped out 

“Onward, Christian Soldiers” 

in Janis Joplin’s voice.


Why can’t we sing like Janis? 

Let’s roar and wail 

let’s shout—no texting from

the living room. I need to hear

my name in words, sibilant against 

your teeth. I’ll say yours back, 

round and delicious in my mouth. 

Tell me something I don’t know 

then something that I do. Sing a story, 

cry a poem, whisper your secrets

into my deepest sleep.

And let me count the ways 

I love you, old-school, 

on my fingers, one by one. 



The camera’s eye captures

           talking back to a NextDoor thread on security cameras


front porch, sunny steps, walkway 

to sidewalk in late afternoon, 

shows gumdrop-shaped bushes, a tree 

with its feeder overrun 

by jays and mockingbirds, ransacked by squirrels, 

surveilled by cats, filled daily 

by the young girl who steals sunflower seeds and eats them, 

humming quietly to herself as she wanders back inside.


9 pm)

… old man walking his old dog 

emerging from darkness into 

the streetlight’s muzzy yellow pool 

and back into darkness again. The dog, unleashed, 

sniffs and pees, pees and sniffs, no bush left 

unexamined or unmarked.


… old beater car cruising the block,

man walking slowly, talking into the air. 

He could be crazy. 

He could be on his phone.


10:30 pm)

 … two boys on skateboards carving 

wide esses down the steep street, light 

to darkness, out of sight.

Two other boys in hoodies, fat joint glowing

hand to hand between them.


11 pm)

 ... no sign of trouble, no reason 

for its own existence this quiet summer night. 

Not the face behind a curtain 

at a nearby window, the face of someone 

wondering if they should have bought 

a gun. Behind this face a house, just asking

to be ransacked. Huge TV. Tiny clever phones. 

Shelves stacked with souvenirs, closets crammed 

with suits, pockets packed with crumpled twenties.


Midnight up and down the block— 

other cameras, 

curtains,

wary faces, 

some neighbors glad they’re not 

unarmed, their houses safe tonight

from whatever tomorrow’s replay

will reveal: dark shapes quick 

as bats, 

fleeting, nearly shapeless 

in the dark before dawn.


Some basic math and its aftermath:

2 boys plus 2 boys, teenagers: a gang

overrunning the night street

I saw it in the paper

so close to your walkway 

did you hear what happened 

on 10th?

so close 

to your steps, to your dead-

bolted camera-watched front door 

those kids that hang around

Is the back door locked?

just asking for trouble

What about the windows?

be careful what you ask for.


Open Carry

Four syllables 

that sound like safety—  

sound as if 

armed and dangerous 

you just might could go home 

again.


Never mind the slingshot 

in your closet, your son’s old 

BB pistol still on some shelf

somewhere—maybe. 

Toys can’t save you.


Lately you’ve been feeling naked

out here on the righteous Left Coast 

out of touch with Cousin Billy, 

Uncle Gordon, hounds and whiskey

and the rest.


Baby, you can take your kumbaya

and grease it good. 

Shove it 

where the sun don’t shine


You thought you’d long since 

sliced that wet red cord— 

But voices have begun to call


O, Death

Rank Stranger


Banjo, fiddle, dobro 

moonlight tipping liquid 

into Clifton Gulch through restless 

curls of fog. 


Once your uncle, reeling drunk, 

killed a man because 

he could. Punched Aunt Bess 

and broke her jaw. Stood then,

stands now for all you thought


you’d left behind. And yet 

his wild high tenor wail put you 


on your face in the dirt 

every time. Every damn time. 


His boot on your neck 

could keep it there. 


If we could take the music, 

walk away from the rest—


Now you understand the words:

fully 

armed

(heavily, to the teeth), 

and dangerous.


Dream of safety, know 

it's a dream.  


Dead birds drop like rocks. 


GUN   HOP says the sign. 

You’re two freeway hours from home,

out in the vast valley where 

you know no one.  Gravel crunches

beneath your shoes. 


Bonfire of skulls

Bonfire of hoods and crosses


Loose feathers balance on the wind. 

They take their time but they fall also, 

in the end.


Dusk in Winter

In the warm barn, three horses,

two chestnuts and a bay, turn 

to regard you as you enter 

on a gust of wind, shaking snow 

from your shoulders, slapping

gloved, unfeeling hands

against your thighs.


You break bales open, fill three

nets with hay, three pails of water. 

From the feed room you hear 

the horses snort and stamp. Grain 

rattles into buckets. The eager bay 

bangs his door with steel-edged hooves: 

Hurry! And you do.


Bad news, distrust and anger 

ride the rising wind outside. Market’s 

down, your truck needs tires, Bill Blake, 

old friend, dear friend, has died 

all but alone, tube in his throat, 

as people do this year. 

His kids will sell the ranch. 


Bare branches crack and rattle. 

More snow on the way, or sleet. 

Black ice by morning, peril hidden

in plain sight. Inside, though—

warm smells of hay and horse, 

dust and mouse and leather.

Nothing looms that cannot be explained. 

You’d sit here in this beat-up 

canvas chair forever if you could.


Sara McAulay is the author of two novels (Knopf), a novel for young readers, and numerous works of short fiction (Black Warrior Review, California Quarterly, New American Review, Third Coast, ZYZZYVA, among others). She received an NEA Fellowship and a New Jersey Council on the Arts Fellowship in prose. After many years away from writing, she has turned to poetry while completing another novel.