Jen Stein

I was thinking about trying to teach myself to play guitar in secret


What is kept for me alone?
My spine with its tender
earthquakes, the way my sit

bones hold between them
a robin’s nest, engorged with
autumn rain, silt and branches

swelling and pushing upward
on each of my organs?
The knots embedded beneath

the surface of my skin, the
bound nerves, wheat within
sheaths, tighter, then tighter.


What I am is exposed. I tell
you everything because
to keep silent is to acquiesce

dead birds inside my head
larvae in my mouth, a feeding
frenzy inside but I am stop

motion, I move when scripted.
I speak because an open mouth
does not nurture the dead.

I want to touch, to hold,
to be held, to see where
your nerves are raw scarabs,

to feel your quaking bones
and soothe them, to eat figs,
cheeses and honey in the sun.


For twenty-five years I kept
secrets. I wrote them on receipts
and gum wrappers, waited

to see if someone would find
the truth in a discarded purse,
an old pickle jar, beneath

scotch pines, raking in the fall.
If secret, I could believe
it was phantasmagoria only

the things I see behind my eyes
when I try to fall asleep.
I learned the trick of sleeping

instantaneously. I learned it
because I don’t want to see faces
in the darkness, I don’t want

to smell the sick rot of pine
and egg carton foam, molding
beneath my back, the fester

of his face above me. Every time
I closed my eyes I saw his face.
It melted away, sinew then bone.


Music in my head, music
in my eyes. When I am quiet
I can listen, the far-off sound

of guitar strings plucked
with tentative fingers, afraid
to hit a sour note, like one

wrong move would shatter
an entire tray of glasses.
When I rock back and forth

I sing a melody that has been
growing from my sternum
since I was a child, high and sweet,

I wish I could play it, that
my swollen knuckles wouldn’t
obstruct the nylon and steel strings,

I wish I could accompany myself
as I sing, a gift I could give
to my spine and to you.

I would learn to play secretly.
I would be perfect before
we would sit together, a picnic

and I would take out a guitar
let out the music inside me
my flesh would fall away to show

all along I’ve been birthed of light.
All this time, under my skin,
I have been a murmuration

of starlings, I have been flying
whorls, shying through my own
ache. We never suspected.


The moment I realize I have become Eleanor Rigby

            for the 16-year-old student assaulted by Officer Ben Fields
            & Julianna Snow, age five

Daily I compare        my minutiae                to stories I read.

At five, she      decided to die             rather than suffer, her

mother allows                 this choice. There        is no hope but dignity.

My spine        a cattail in water     swamp stuck mud thick

press chin to chest  supplicant, mendicant.    Absorption.

What then        my blood bloom lip            whistlestop spasm

at base of skull        a rent cup blister      what of that then?

A girl at her desk        a prop doll       a bola wrapped

from his neck      see how she smacks    against the wall

she is stopped          rice sack shucked      cornhusk, imploded.

Why do I curl             inward, blightful      mute petal, why

mask, why breath     where is my shawl       I did not make this. 


Pain becomes infinitely easier to handle
           when you know you will never be free of it.

You are a morning glory at dawn. Unwrap
yourself from blankets, but do not
yet lift your head. Take inventory.

Each muscle, each joint. Bead by bead
the abacus of pain gives you a reading.
Today it’s spread across your lower spine,

arcing up the delicate muscles connecting
shoulderblade to base of neck, the large
joints on your right hand, the small

strands of muscle behind your left ear.
Your abdomen has been spared. Inhale
deeply, feel gratitude push your diaphragm

downwards, causing a coughing fit. Inhale
again. Roll to your side and begin to stretch.
You will spend ten minutes unfurling,

opening your face to the inkygrey sky.
This is a blessing. Make it twenty minutes
if you can. Stretching is storm and bower,

mutiny and mantra. You are a self-contained
revolution. You dare to stand up. You dare
walking down the stairs. With every creak

of every bone, your body is singing an aria.
“I am here. I am here. I am here.”