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Sheleen McElhinney

I Surrender

To the crusted pan, the burnt toast,

The chicken left out overnight. 

To the crack in the windshield, the flat 

tire on I-95. To the fevers, the vomit 

spewing from my children’s mouths.

To the black mold, the weeping faucet.

To the bill collectors, the splunk

of the phone in the toilet, the bird shit,

the antidepressants. To the gynecologist 

cranking me open, the dentist cranking me open, 

to my brain repeating a segment 

from Oprah’s super soul Sunday,

I am not a human being having a spiritual experience,

I am a spiritual being having a human experience.

To the stretch marks, the middle-aged pudge,

the new hairs glinting silver. 

To the 100 yellow carnations thrown 

onto my father’s grave, my high heels sinking

in mud. To the birthdays and anniversaries 

of all the dead people I loved falling so close

to celebratory barbecues, hot dogs and fireworks,

dance recitals and due dates and the birth of Jesus

Christ, I surrender. 


Maybe it’s this. 

       A new bird. Brilliant

               streak across the sky.

My three-year-old 

       on his harmonica.

               The good honey pooling 

slow on my spoon. 

       Those lilac blooms,

               that midnight oil iris. 

Clean sheets and smooth 

       legs, ice in my glass, peaches 

               bathed in a bowl of cream.

And did you hear 

       that new song? It doesn’t 

               remind me of anyone. 

I didn’t think 

        they wrote songs 

                like that anymore. 

The Photo

myself as a child, dogeared with a coffee ring around the corner, big green glass eyes and a smile that says someone told me to smile, and I am filled with a sadness that gnaws at my soul. I say my soul because I listened to a podcast about how to locate your soul. How to tell the difference between it and your brain. All you have to do is close your eyes and imagine that the person who was the cruelest to you is giving you a sincere apology and then you forgive them. You will cry and you will feel it somewhere in your belly, which is where your soul lives. Somewhere close to your spine but a long distance from your brain. And really, in that practice of imagination, no one ever needs to apologize to you because you can make them do it with your mind and you never have to say aloud, I forgive you because this is a meditation and meditation is very silent. And I say gnaws because I wish I could care for the child in the picture, who is me a long time ago, but I can’t because that is impossible. I close my eyes and imagine him turning off the shower, pulling the shirt back over my small head. My hands like the folded wings of a bird covering my nakedness. He says I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry. And I forgive, forgive, forgive.

Letter to a Dead Brother

Sure, you were messy. Drank from the measuring glass,

ate off the cutting board, hoarded all the spoons,

littered the bathroom floor with tools for the sick,

puked on the carpet, wept on the carpet, went on

and on about how you’d get better, never got better.

Sure, I lost sleep. All those nights you stayed out,

when I’d ask some strange god above

my bedroom ceiling to carry my sharp

whisper to your ear, wherever you were,

under a bridge, a bathroom stall, a sunken

soiled cushion, clouded utopia, to wake up,

remember me. Come home.

But grief was not the sibling

I asked for in place of you. It is a gnarly pit

in the center of a whole tender life, wasted.

It is the ghost of you, throwing stones at my bedroom

window to let you in after dark. Wants only to talk

about the good times, to remind me of us as children,

when once you were just my brother, painting the nails

on my right hand, the first boy to call me pretty.

It wants to play all your favorite songs on repeat

so I can watch you dance down the long hall

of my memory on loop. Watch you roller skate

backwards on the Palace rink.

Just when I think grief is gone, it shows up

in the features of the nephew you never met. Eyes

the same forget-me-not blue. Grief is a crack

in the foundation of this house. Gets wider,

opens like a chasm, calls to me

like a lonely echo, where

all the things I’ve lost

have gone.


O, the full bloom of petals 

I’d tear from the stem to devour.

O, the small birds from my window 

with their soft plumes. I would pop 

them whole onto my tongue, gulp 

the silk of their feathers into my belly

where I grieve, fill myself up 

with whatever the sun makes gleam 

to shed a light in the dark well 

of my sorrow. O, my mother’s garnet, 

O, my father’s gold band. I’d slip

the rosary beads buried with my brother 

down the coffin of my throat, 

if it could give me a new name

for hunger.  

Sheleen McElhinney is a poet, baker, and robot maker based in Bucks County, Pa. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Dogzplot, Poetry Is Currency, Sledgehammer Lit, and others. Her debut book, Every Little Vanishing, was the winner of the Write Bloody Publishing Book Award and will be released this October.

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