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Recorded for Poem-a-Day, December 19, 2016.
About this Poem 

“One morning, in a strange city for a conference, I went out for a walk to get coffee and a man followed me and threatened to kill me. Back at the hotel, shaken and trying to catch my breath, I saw a stranger who I had met the night before who had been very kind and I went to sit beside him, drawn to some kind of shelter. We developed a friendship and correspondence, which led to many of the poems in Thrust about how we encounter others authentically, how we long to know one another and be known, and how we find the courage to remain open in spite of the danger and risk.”
—Heather Derr-Smith

American Ready Cut System Houses

Your postcard said, Nothing like a little disaster to sort things out.

Blueprints, sketches, such perfect houses in the photograph on the front,
all the lines true and in harmony. I took it with me like a paper charm,

searching for home, hit the road, looking for the exact spot
of my birthright, down the rustling path of thistles and nettles,

under a leaden sky, in the place where God once lifted the home by its hair,
nothing left but the kitchen and the bathtub where we all hid. The supper table

picked up and carried to the county over and laid so gently down.

When I saw you last in the bar in Brooklyn, you told me to sing. But I couldn’t

even speak. I laid my head in your lap, drunk at two am and felt your hand
resting across my back, reluctant, unsure of what I wanted, but knowing

it was a want too much for anyone to give in to, a halter
broke, some rip.

The skeletons of the trees are coming back to life now, sap like stars
risen again. Most anything torn can be mended. No real permanent damage.

The land where the house was

goes back to the plum-colored dusk, hooks and hoods of the hawks
perching in the Hemlocks, clouds and mounds of nebulae in the sky in the pitch night.

Frank Lloyd Wright said, nature will never fail you, though, I suppose it depends
on what you mean by fail. It’ll kill you for sure, Great Revelator.

You can hear the wilderness ad-libbing its prayers in the whip-poor-will and the cypress,
in the percussion and boom of bittern in the bulrushes.

Dead is the mandible, alive the song, wrote Nabokov.

The bones of our houses, the house of our bones
dropped in a sudden blur of wind and wings,

but our voices still throb and palpitate somewhere, by some rapture,
in memory’s ear, in the fluttering pages, behind the stars.

I have a song now I want to sing to you, but you’re long gone.
When you said I’m here for you, was that a promise?


to bury or drown beneath a huge mass

Whelmen: to turn upside down

To turn over and over like a boat washed over and overset by a wave

To bring to ruin.

The end of one part of the world, a story that no longer has a witness.

But I’ll sing it to myself. I’ll sing it to the small moth,
the size of scarcely a word,

Ad libitum, according to my desire.

Copyright © 2016 by Heather Derr-Smith. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 19, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

Copyright © 2016 by Heather Derr-Smith. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 19, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

Heather Derr-Smith

Heather Derr-Smith

Heather Derr-Smith is the author of Thrust (Persea Books, 2017), winner of the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky Editor's Choice Award.


by this poet


Sometimes I return to my mother’s childhood home, believing
I can reclaim it.

Mists rise up off the frozen creek
and the red star of Betelgeuse blinks out.

Pools of snowmelt glitter
violet as the Wyoming iolite. This is her territory


Birds pulse above the blood-black line of horizon.
I walk out through the sliding glass door into the backyard,

hoarfrost on the fallen leaves like thrush on a baby’s tongue.

Over the chain-link fence, three bald eagles fight for their kill
on the train tracks. My brother writes a postcard


The hunters drove through town doing eighty,
the bodies of wolves tied in cruciform
to the hoods of their trucks.

The Pink Lady Slippers in the woods
hung like carcasses on hooks and the lights of ranches
twinkled in the valley below. We could hear,
with a kind of clairaudience, the