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Let’s go, gang. Another poem. Wildfire by Kate Levin was published by Chronogram, which isn’t strictly a literary journal! This is exciting because it indicates the recognized at-large value of poetry, or at least provides at-large exposure to poetry. In other words, readers outside of the poetry community might put eyeballs on a poem. For just a second! Maybe.

As per usual, of course, I’m going to take more than a second. Let’s looks at, essentially, the first half of the poem.

"These mornings I wake with an alarm bell

in my throat, wild

with dread. Two thousand miles

away, the sky turns orange

and then black with smoke.

When my mother calls to tell me

the ranchers set all their fifty horses free

along the highway, police cars

Something awesome happened while I was reading this poem, and while I’d like to take credit for it, I can’t. It’s all down to poetry. Poetry is awesome. Even when your brain fucks up.

If anything takes the pressure off of people who are new to reading poetry, or traumatized by stink-breath grade school English teachers, or otherwise hesitant, this post should be it. I’m going to tell you how my brain glitched while reading, causing me to hallucinate a whole other poem, and it was still okay.

Also, re-reading is important.

Everything went super fine with the first line…

“These mornings I wake with an alarm bell”

Okay, this is going to be normal. Easy reading. Nice and smooth. No tension, so far, which is really okay for the beginning of a poem. We need to dip our toe into the water. Everything is fine and normal.

Another rule: Poetry is never normal. Because poets.

Cue next line,

“in my throat, wild”

Ahem. I see your frog and raise you an alarm bell in your throat.

Cat got your tongue?

Well. Let’s see here. That’s some tension, isn’t it? We can think of tension as a moment of confusion or surprise. And what do we do when we experience tension while reading poetry? Become frustrated and stop reading? No. Absolutely not.

With this poem, we’ve encountered tension through a sort of surrealism, it seems, and the only thing to do, as always, is to roll with it. Loosey goosey.

Rolling on, I’ll take the next three lines in stride.

“with dread. Two thousand miles

away, the sky turns orange

and then black with smoke.”

Actually? Actually, let’s back up. I want to take the entire poem from the beginning up to the point we just arrived, and I want to highlight some choice words.

“These mornings I wake with an alarm bell

in my throat, wild

with dread. Two thousand miles

away, the sky turns orange

and then black with smoke.”

Now, notice that one word I didn’t include was the title. Ah, here we go again. Why do I do this? Blame it on my neurodiversity, but I really would like some scientist somewhere to point, on a chart, or an animating rendering, to the little bitty part of my brain that says “No, no - skip that part” when encountering what, presumably, is a fundamental piece of information at the top of a poem.

Because if I had read the title, Wildfire, then absorbed the words I highlighted above - alarm, wild, dread - I might have been very well set up for the few lines that followed, and might not’ve thought, “Oooooo, a sunset?” when reading “the sky turns orange.” Silly me. But by “and then black with smoke,” I got it. Sort of.

Let’s do some more highlighting. Notes this time. I love music in poetry.

“These mornings I wake with an alarm bell

in my throat, wild

with dread. Two thousand miles

away, the sky turns orange

and then black with smoke.”

What I’ve highlighted here are the following notes: m, w, k, l, t, s

Let’s look at the effects of these notes - their brilliant use to replicate, with sound, what is happening to the speaker in the poem, thus bringing the reader in directly, albeit perhaps subconsciously, to the speaker’s experience.

The sounds of m, w and l are muted, lulling. The poem starts with the speaker waking. How many of us awake totally alert? Especially if awoken by alarm? If so, you are of stronger stock than I, by far. Most of us, I’d wager, experience some degree of muted, lulled state, however long it lasts, while we try to gather our wits about us. The repeated m, w and l sounds here, focused mainly at the beginning of the poem then fading, mimic that stupor. These sounds, perhaps entering our brain stealthily, serve as an uncomfortable counterpoint - a tension - as we’re reading, and absorbing at a more conscious level, the words “alarm,” “wild,” and “dread.” You feel, you experience, at some level, with the poet, what it might be like to wake to an alarm, still sleepy, and yet aware of some dreadful, urgent matter.

As consciousness descends upon us - the speaker and the reader - the k, t, and s sounds increase. These are sounds of alarm - the k is a small choking sound made at the back of the throat, the t and s could be a rattlesnake’s shake and hiss, or a snare drum’s war march. Through the dissipation of the lulling sounds, and the increased repetition of these alarm sounds, the reader is ushered from sleep and into fear, just as the poem’s speaker experienced it.

Cool, huh? Now we'll move on to the last three lines that we’ll look at for this post, and I’ll introduce you to my incredible, dysfunctional, amazing brain.

When my mother calls to tell me

the ranchers set all their fifty horses free

along the highway, police cars

Taken as is, as it really is, these three lines make a horrifying statement. The dread we are made to feel in the opening lines comes to fruition.

I want to point out how deceptively straightforward and simple the language, the storytelling, is in this poem. Without taking a deeper look, you could almost think you were reading prose. Amongst editors, there is a bit of a lip curl when lamenting “prose with line breaks” submitted as poetry, as if division were the only element of crafting a poem.

In this poem though, breaking the line is indeed craft that elevates prose to poem. Consider the meaning created by “the ranchers set all their fifty horses free” - the choice of the line’s end word - free - and it’s exuberant connotations, as opposed to “loose” or “out,” before tumbling down to the next line to have our hearts trampled by “along the highway” and it’s inherent danger, even in attempting to escape danger.

What would have happened if the poet had ended the line on “horses,” moving “free” to the next line? Visually, it would have made the lines more even. But imagine the loss of not just meaning making, but meaning-shifting, of having a poem come up and push you down the stairs from behind. It’s a choice, an important choice, an effective choice, to have “horses free” jutting out from the ledge of the other two lines.

The choices here also allow us to enjoy a moment of rhyme - just a moment, which is more appreciated than being beat over the head by rhyme - with “me” and “free.”

(Please don't beat me over the head with rhyme.)

Okay, I promised you a look at my brain. Here it is:

When my mother calls me

the ranchers set all their fifty horses free

On my first read of this poem, my brain totally took out “to tell” and just read “When my mother calls me,” making “the ranchers set all their fifty horses free” not a piece of information communicated, but an action that is the direct result of the speaker being called by her mother.

In other words, the speaker of the poem, or else the mother in the poem, or perhaps both, is/are such a powerful/weird force, that communication between them causes random ranchers to just spontaneously and simultaneously let all their horses go free for no other reason.

Also, I did not interpret or imagine “calls” as a phone call, but “call” as in “yell” or “holler,” as in “Come in from the fields, it’s dinner time!”

With the surrealism of “alarm bell/ in my throat” before it, I was primed to believe that ranchers would/could do anything, and that those actions could be in response to this speaker, this mother - that the speaker, and/or the mother could be some kind of magic.

Having read the poem more than once now, and deeply, I can still say perhaps they are magic. There is definitely something mystical both at the surface and below the surface of the poem, even if it is magic hoped for, perhaps superstition, as simple and profound as our belief that the tiniest of our actions might matter.

Please go read and enjoy all the tiniest actions of craft in the full poem, explore further magic from the poet, and consider the other poems published over at Chronogram.

* If you are the poet, and anything I have put forth here is wrong or offensive, please do let me know.

  • Amber Shockley

It happens like this:

Having children doesn’t cross your mind

for years, and then

You’re sitting across

from someone who is drinking a glass of red wine.

A longing to hike the Appalachian Trail

follows you around like a lost child in a department store:

not yours, but you want to take care of it,

help it find home, follow it home,

build a campfire for supper.

I keep loading ideas into a van

and letting someone drive off with them.

I can’t describe the kidnapper well. The policeman

yawns. The sketch artist twists my words:

He was drinking mustache. He had a wine.

I keep leaving the station with pills in my hand:

Seroquel, Diazepam, Lorazepam.

Once, I refused to come down from a zipline

platform. I was 13. My best friend ate her braces.

I didn’t trust Jesus. Not immaculately.

They sent a man to rescue me:

They sent a man to rescue me.

I’ll read you a story I wrote while I was waiting

for my order at a fancy restaurant I couldn’t afford:

Once upon a time, there was

Mistakes I’ve made march into the room.

A basic theory of interior design:

use a mirror to make a space look bigger.

Think of the universe: each star, looking glass.

...multiplicity, distance.

Here we are again! This time, let's take a look at the first two stanzas of Sally Rosen Kindred's poem "Prayer with Oaks and Visual Snow Syndrome" published by Thrush Poetry Journal. And remember - we read poems like we cook barbecue. Low and slow.

“The snow in my head is touching

all the trees in the woods, touching the twilight bark

that falls like the braids

of women. The snow in my head rubs its faces

into my face, then turns and rubs its faces

on the gray cheeks of moss”

Aren’t lenses funny? We all look through lenses - of class, age, gender, culture, experience. Some are muddier than others. My lens has definitely been scratched by neurodivergence, trauma, poverty, as well as the resulting depression and anxiety. Believe me, it ain’t rose-colored glass, ya’ll.

So when I came to Sally Rosen Kindred’s poem and read the first phrase,

“The snow in my head”

I immediately connected to what I read, through my own lens, as a (delicate, delicious) metaphor for difficult, disabling mind chatter - rumination, distraction, indecision, answer-seeking.

In my last OPP, I confessed my penchant for skipping titles. Here, I skimmed the title, Prayer with Oaks and Visual Snow Syndrome, forming a notional expectation of an intimate, spiritual nature poem a la Mary Oliver. I also, however, picked up on an already present dichotomy provided by the colder medical parlance of Visual Snow Syndrome, promising that ever-important tension which every poem needs. It was indeed this dichotomy that drew me to read the poem.

Here, I must test your patience and deliver a small speech. It is my belief that, early on, poems must have what I call an Okay Moment. This is a holy moment between the poet and the reader when the reader says to themself, “Okay..” and agrees to read your poem. By agrees to, I don’t mean was assigned to by their college professor, or wants to look smart or has to find filler for his best man’s speech. The Okay Moment is a moment of submission, of Take me, I’m yours. It is a moment of curiosity and interest, and the poet must consciously provide this moment to the reader. Of utmost importance: The Okay Moment happens in myriad ways, including intriguing dichotomy, but it very rarely happens as the result of cryptic, archaic, melodramatic, or smugly clever writing. In my own attempts to be a better poet, I am still learning the differences between vulnerability and ribaldry, crafting and gilding the lily.

(Me, learning the differences.)

Okay, back to Kindred’s poem. We have the title, Prayer with Oaks and Visual Snow Syndrome, presenting this intriguing dichotomy of spiritual and medical. Then, the first phrase of the first line, which puts me in my head, thinking this is a mental illness poem. Highly relatable. Super excited.

But, then. Let’s move on…

“The snow in my head is touching”



I was rolling right along with the idea that “snow in my head” meant brain snow, meant anxiety - something abstract and intangible, like serotonin. Because of course it doesn’t really snow in one’s head, therefore the poet can’t be talking about actual, tangible snow with the ability to touch anything.

Remember the rules I mentioned last time for reading poetry?

1. Never trust poets.

2. Keep it loosey goosey.

By “never trust poets,” of course, I mean never trust yourself. Never fully and completely trust yourself to make out meaning upon initial encounter. This leads directly to the next rule, which essentially is an exhortation to stay curious while reading. Ask questions. If reading poetry were a yoga pose, it would be called, “Hmmmm-asana…”

Okay, “The snow in my head is touching”

Tension is created here by the excellent line break.

wHat iS tHe sNoW toUchiNg? I want to know. So I keep reading - quickly, with desire. With curiosity. Nice trick, that.

Not only does a line break like this bait my thirst for the next line, it also simultaneously seers into my mind the word “touching.” The poet is masterfully pushing me forward and holding me close.

So, we go on.

all the trees in the woods


All. trees. woods.

The insistence on naming multitude - not just “trees in the wood” but all trees in plural woods - is biblical in its iteration. I think of the lengthy “begat” list in Genesis, or Jesus’ gospel assertion that “not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.” Be careful not to think the poet verbose. Rather, she is succinctly gesturing toward an impossible enormity that is in line with the unfathomable workings of the universe. Six words, and all of all is implied.

Don’t leave this line just yet.

all the trees in the the object of the verb phrase “is touching,” referring us back to the subject: snow.

Multiplicity upon multiplicity...

We can think of snow as a singular entity - a “blanket of snow,” if you wish. Here though, by following snow with her choice to stress multiple in the way that she has, the poet takes an ice pick to the brain - shattering solid “snow” into its own very real yet unfathomable multiplicity - snowflakes. She leads us to imagine how many snowflakes it would take to touch - as personified, plural individuals, not cover, as in a singular blanket - all the trees in the woods.

Just as we are pushed forward in the poem at the same time that we are held close, we are now made to clutch both the universe and the single star. Dichotomy.

And this is all done implicitly, with excruciatingly careful word choice, all while coming across as casual, off the cuff.

Now, keep going.

“all the trees in the woods, touching the twilight bark”

Here, I’d actually like to zoom out, for once. Let’s take a look at the entire stanza and slurp up some music, shall we? I’ll highlight the notes for you.

“The snow in my head is touching

all the trees in the woods, touching the twilight bark

that falls like the braids”

Here again, the poet is not being verbose, or redundant. By repeating “touching,” she is creating music - not just rhythm, but also adding to the disparate rat-tat-tat or taps of the quick-repeated t sounds against the slower bass of the two b thumps.

Kindred ends the stanza by walking into a simile. If the cliff’s edge of her first line break is any indication, we are in for a doozy when she breaks a stanza. Let’s see.

“of women.


She could’ve picked “hair.” “Braids of hair” makes sense. She picked “women.” Why?

Well, we’ve got the last verb, “falls” stuck in our heads, don’t we? Sure, we read “like the braids,” but our brains recognize this as part of a comparison and we want to find the next part of the comparison. Falls like braids of what? Again, just as with her initial line break, here with her stanza break the poet creates tremendous thirst - desire, curiosity - for the next word.

With “falls” in our minds, she takes us to “of women.”

I think I’ve hinted at it, but I have to say outright that the subtlety at work in this poem is outstanding. Each word is doing so much heavy lifting, and the poem never breaks a sweat. The poet is etching a fable onto a grain of rice.

Snow falls. Twilight bark falls. Braids fall. Women fall.

You know what? Let’s take a break for a minute. I want to be sure to acknowledge what is explicitly stated in this poem, and what is my own inference.

With my tongue in my cheek, I’ve stated that we can’t trust poets. What I must now ask you to consider is the poet’s trust in us.

By publishing a poem, a poet is necessarily trusting a reader. I’ve had the experience of hearing stunningly unexpected interpretations of my poetry, and I can tell you that it has made me question not just my writing, but also my own sanity.

So, I want to say flat out that I am leaping and bounding here. In fact, having read the poem more than once now, and having done some research that corrected an erroneous assumption I made going into the poem, I know that my initial interpretation of “The snow in my head” was wrong.

I’m excited by the leaps, bounds and inferences I am making with this poem...

I think this poet - I think poetry in and of itself - is masterful. I love poetry. And loving poetry means reading a poem more than once, each time open to meaning - more meaning, new meaning, different, changing meaning. Only the poet can speak with absolute authority on the meaning of their poem.

Now, that said, the choice to break and start a new stanza with “of women.” is important, and demands our attention and curiosity. That much is definite, regardless of what meaning you assert to it. I think this choice also immediately demands a feminist lens. What I make of this choice is something dangerous, powerful and damning - the way educated women, resisting centuries of subjugation, are dangerous, powerful and damning. I want to also note the choice of multiplicity, of plural, once again - women, not a singular woman. Power in numbers. Power of one in evoking a multitude.

On we go.

of women. The snow in my head rubs its faces”

Ah! The multiplicity of snow that I ferreted out earlier seems to be confirmed here. Also, the personification, the individuality: faces. Let’s look at the verb here. rubs. Ever think of snow, even personified snow, as rubbing? Not “touch,” which might be expected. rubs is completely unexpected. That’s T-E-N-S-I-O-N. I’m starting to hear “tension” as “teeeeen-SION!” as in the military “ten-HUT!” as in when you experience tension in a poem, pay attention.

Also, rubs is a choice that repeats the b sound from the first stanza.

Music. Let’s zoom out again.

of women. The snow in my head rubs its faces

into my face, then turns and rubs its faces

on the gray cheeks of moss

Gone is the rat-tat-tat of t. Joining the slow b bassline now is the hiss of s. New stanza, starting with “of women.” New music. And, I’d argue, new mood.

What is that mood?

Well, let’s take a look. We’ve gone from touch, to rub. Rub isn’t bad per say, but it is certainly more aggressive than touch. This is perhaps confirmed by the use of into. Other choices, such as “on” or “against” might have implied something gentle, but into? Then, there’s the layered cognitive dissonance, the tension, happening here: that snow is multiple, that snow is personified, that snow rubs. Snow has become confrontational, intimate, like the homecoming queen alone in the band room with the wallflower.

Let’s quickly take a look at the snow’s last action here, then send you on your way to read the rest of this wonderful poem.

into my face, then turns and rubs its faces

on the gray cheeks of moss”

What do we make of this turning? Is another mood change in the next stanza foreshadowed? It’s nice to think of moss as having cheeks. That’s cozy, somehow. Cheeks is a nice word. The pronunciation of ee makes you smile, if you exaggerate it, as with “cheese.”

But, gray cheeks. Moss is green. Why is the personified moss gray?

Dichotomy. Mystery. Questions. Tension.

There is much to discover and digest in the rest of this poem, including a breathtaking grappling with the spiritual that concludes with an ending prayer that is amongst the most true, succinct and heartbreaking lines of poetry I have ever read.

Please do read this poem in its entirety, and if you haven’t already, discover the poet and the journal.

* The words "bitch" and "whore" appear in this post. I affirm that I reclaim both as honorifics.

** If you are the poet, and anything I have put forth here is wrong or offensive, please do let me know.

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