Earth’s Weight

He knows we uproot burdock

and hack down the musky trees of heaven.

He knows we kill mosquitoes,

but spare the killer spiders. He knows

how cats and opossums look

when they get run over: slick loops

of veined intestines, bulged eyes

and choked-out tongues. He knows

the living die, but do not want to die:

worm tugged thin from dirt to bird;

hooked fish muscling for the water;

scared pig scuffing against the ramp.

He knows we humans die, and kill

our own. He knows what soldiers are,

what warplanes do. He is four

and he also knows numbers:

a hundred and twenty-five pounds,

his mother. Sixty minutes, one long hour.

Three million people, the city of Chicago.

He’s four, and lately wants to know wars:

“Tell me a war, Daddy.” I name one,

and he wants the number of people killed.

The Civil War: six hundred thousand.

“Is that more than a thousand?

Can you count that many? Tell me

another war.” And another. He pays

attention. Vietnam: more than two million.

World War Two: at least forty million.

“That’s a lot, isn’t it?” Later he’ll ask, “Why?”

and we’ll talk about money, land, hate,

and following orders, but right now

all he wants is the name of a war

and the numbers of the killed—numbers

so vast you couldn’t count them

in a single lifetime, like the number

to tally earth’s weight—a number he loves

to tell and tell: six point six sextillion tons.


This is what it looks like, son,

so stop stabbing the heron’s belly,
as if repeated stabs will wake it from the flies.


I mean what I say,
when I talk of permanence like permafrost


or ancient arteries of the earth’s underbelly,
spilling from volcanic pores. A woman, did you hear?


Crated homing pigeons
and biked them to a Tokyo market,


when her tire hit a rut in the road
and the cage fell loose. Nine birds died on impact,


while her most treasured, still alive
but blinded by headlights,


hit a fender and blew open—
feathers falling like snow. For months,


the poor woman wore grief like a wet wool coat
and wept through the deadwind of winter. She’d set the table
each evening for two. Wait for the backdoor to swing


and shut
and the sulfuric smell of sorrow to come in the kitchen to eat.


Tristessa, she’d whisper,
and the ghostly girl locked behind thick black bangs
would look to her left and say nothing.



When I was a boy
I had a habit of carelessly sloughing bark
from a Eucalyptus. I loved its salve and


layered it like glue
over every burn left by my father’s lighter.


And though that tree numbed each wound,
resulting in an able-bodied boy, one who’d go on
to live like most other boys,


I carried with me two things:
scars without witness and the tree’s sick tinder.


Many moons chafed into years of dissolution
and worms hollowed its core. Violent winds blew.
The old tree tilted, fell loose from soil, then split in half.


For months, it ghosted an aroma so thick
the fallow fields became places to pray, rub wounds
and feel cleansed. I felt cleansed. Opened my mouth


and ran nude in the rain. Its fading ointment
coating my throat and my tongue.



Which leads me here with you, son.


This heron, no different
than the three dozen floating out over the estuary,
was once a winged creature maneuvering winds


with precision. It was effortless. Swooping
soft beach for sand dabs then arrowing back toward light.


It’s sick, I know, how Man manipulates beauty.
But listen, son, listen: I’m asking you
to set the weapon down and look toward ocean.


That storm coming close
is big enough to rip this beach from coastline and swallow it.


High tide will swell and splash over the barriers
built to guard the street. Perch will fill medians like manna.


The poor will come collect their rations.

Wave hands toward thunder and praise it.


I’m asking whether you’d like to keep gazing at records of lost time,
or undress and wade these choppy waters,
our bodies weightless as breath.


Language as Remembrance, Witness, Companion

In June the Labyrinth, by Cynthia Hogue
Red Hen Press, 2017
76 pages, paper, $17.95



Cynthia Hogue’s latest collection from Red Hen Press unfolds around a journey to the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral undertaken as an elegiac pilgrimage. On this journey, Hogue maps a poetic space connecting grief and immortality, presence and immanence, love and loss. These connections demonstrate the power of language as remembrance, witness, and, ultimately, companion.


In June the Labyrinth begins following the death of Hogue’s mother and is dedicated to four of the poet’s friends who died in the subsequent two years of the book’s writing. As the poet begins the journey through the cathedral labyrinth, she transports the reader to an inner labyrinth of voices:


The difference between finding a way

and finding the way


is like that between not knowing

and having forgotten.


The spiraling movement of the labyrinth walk is layered with voices, primarily those of the I-speaker and the figure of the dying Elle, a strong female presence determinedly writing her “book of wisdom” until “she cannot hold her pen.” When Elle calls and a demon answers, Elle knows she is on her own:


This is the crux of her belief:

No one here to fall

back on but herself, she the wild,

and true blue, the only starry night.


Elle walks the labyrinth “meekly above ground / (there is a clearing in her heart).   A crunching sound / like wheels on gravel, a whirring / as of flight. A lifetime’s surrender.” The I-speaker, on the other hand, walks the labyrinth casting intuitive petals in the four cardinal directions as if to ward off the inevitability of Elle’s death. In the face of this loss, the speaker’s ritual creates poetically an opening of time into a space layered and timeless where self and other arrive as companions already loved, a place of healing.


With a generosity of spirit, an imaginative embodying of others within a self, and an inclusive carrying of lost beloveds within the human heart, Hogue’s poems demonstrate how language may transmute the experience of grief as habitation; they evidence the way a poem may become a form of visitation, embodiment, and possession which C. D. Wright called being “one with others.”


Hogue’s honed and spare language embraces innovative play with words misread, crossed out, called out, and sounded, giving the collection a vibrant texture. The poem “(“dehors et dedans”),” for example, begins with a fruitful misreading and then carves words out of themselves, a creative strategy that suggests, in this context, how “real” life remains “sliced from unreal” even as “life’s excluding” Elle and the speaker “cannot harbor / her.”


Outside is inside,

I misread Bachelard’s French

imagining Elle belonging when


life’s excluding her.

She will message me,

I think. But I cannot harbor


her. She is inside herself,

sliced from unreal, real,

as no from not.


A hope in the face of devastating loss is that Elle will “message me, I think.” The message is not a sure thing, yet if the speaker puts her mind to it, if she can imagine it, she may hear it. The power of memory and imagination connects the living and the dead. Embodied through Hogue’s language, it becomes a witness to the emotional and spiritual complexity of the grieving process:


being close enough to touch

differed from her distant love,

safely abstracted from presence.

Elle’s goodness found in her forgiveness.


Hogue achieves the flow and syncopation of the book’s startling music through her finesse with line, space, punctuation, and variations of form from tercets, quatrains, sestets and septets, to a hyphenated list, field composition, and prose. A subtle chiming rings through the book’s outer and inner worlds, which connect through sound and Hogue’s own aliveness as a poet.


One feels her urgency in seeking to understand and to reckon with the power of loss and death, particularly a daughter’s loss of her mother. Elle becomes the speaker’s familiar, an inner witness on the journey through a life learning to accept death through forgiveness:


Forgiveness is a labyrinth, a way,


going in this direction and not that,


the ethical route and heart’s root,


the core, of course, riddle of how


to cure the poison of the demon,


that bitterness which


bent her like a bell


until at last she sounded




Cynthia Hogue’s In June the Labyrinth is a stunning and unforgettable book. It is a letting in of grief rather than a letting go. Hogue’s poems demonstrate how one does not recover but rather uncovers and discovers truths about the other’s being in relation to oneself. Ultimately, these truths come to rest in language itself, in the poem embodied as a form of conscious companion.