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About this Poem 

“‘Prayer for a Birthday’ is part of a larger project I undertook in which I freely adapted prayers from a German-American prayer book published in 1873. I wanted to make a poem that moved forward and backward through time, that rendered and refracted contemporary experience by placing it in a rhetorical structure from the past. I needed to turn back to another century to grant myself permission to write poems to a God I don't believe exists.”
—Mark Wunderlich

Prayer for a Birthday

My privilege and my proof, pressing your eternal skin to mine—
I feel your fingers touching down on the crown of my head 

where I pray they remain during this life and in the next.  
The intricacies of your world astound me.

You flickered through the rooms where my mother dwelt,
when I was naked and formless as a seal, sensitive 

to the tides of her body.  I did not come too early onto land, 
did not emerge until my days were written

on the translucent pages of your enormous book.
The great lid of your eye peeled back to see I was not yet whole.

I remember today the day of my birth.
Your words washed that which clung to me from the other side, 

bound to me the promised ghost.  
I was dipped and sponged, cut free, 

delivered as I was like a lamb lodged in his dam.  Tears and pain
were her price, and I was handed over to be wiped with straw.  

You built me, bone by bone, counting
the hairs that would one day thatch my crown,

building cleverness in my hands, weakness in my knees, 
a squint and a taste for cake.  You showed me 

the dip of a man’s clavicle, arrow of ankle and calf, 
weaving in me a love of those bodies like my own, 

yet not mine.  When you turned to your next task
a shadow crossed the room stirred from the muddy banks 

rimed with ice.  In the spot where my skull was soft
it set down its stylus and inked a bruise—

a scrap used to blot a leaking pen.  Since then
my mind has raced toward the brink, spun

and knit and torn out the same silvery threads
only to wind them up again.  Still, the bargain

you made without my consent has left me 
here to ponder your airy limbs striding through the sky,

the red rustle of your gown.  A season ago, I looked out upon the verdure
of the small meadow below the house—boggy in parts—

the pollard willows gnarling and sipping from gnat-speckled pools,
the turkeys scratching under the sweep of green

as it prepared to die back for another year, littered with mute papery tongues.
You are easier to see when you denude your world with decay.  

And so I saw you there, flashed in the shallow water,
parting the curtain of the willow fronds and warming my face with light.

My mother and father call me and sing,
sweet and tuneless, their voices worn down by your turning wheel.

You have kept us together for half a man’s natural years,
these last the tenderest as their bodies 

break and their minds dip deeper into dust
to bring forth the features of distance.

My day will be spent here, in the middle of things, 
feeding split logs into the stove, cats coiling through rooms

as the snow ticks at the windows’ double panes.
I will read a book with snow at its center,

in a forest lost inside a forest in the north, the sun
an afterthought in the darkest days of the year.

I am thankful for all that buffers me from the cold,
all that binds me to my clan, 

though I see a future strange and tuneless
as I push forward into the mind’s blinding field of white.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Wunderlich. Used with permission of the author. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on December 9, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Wunderlich. Used with permission of the author. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on December 9, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

Mark Wunderlich

Mark Wunderlich

Born in 1968, Mark Wunderlich won the Lambda Literary Award for his debut collection, The Anchorage.

by this poet



Click the icon above to listen to this audio poem.

Two days of snow, then ice
and the deer peer from the ragged curtain of trees.

Hunger wills them, hunger
pulls them to the compass of light

spilling from the farmyard pole.
They dip their heads, hold

forked hooves
above snow, turn furred ears

to scoop from the wind
the sounds of hounds, or men.

They lap at
A story: There was a cow in the road, struck by a semi--
half-moon of carcass and jutting legs, eyes
already milky with dust and snow, rolled upward

as if tired of this world tilted on its side.
We drove through the pink light of the police cruiser,
her broken flank blowing steam in the air. 

Minutes later, a