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A Selection of Poems

Heading Out


I have returned

to the Atlantic at Wellfleet

and a burial in June

three years ago.

I'm riding the same boat out.


The sea flat gray then

now is splintered

with light.


I remember my father's ashes

                on the seat

in a brown paper bag

my mother's old hands

the veins distended

her shaking fingers

opening the bag

spilling the ashes over the side

some sticking to her

scrubbing him off

                to be rid of him

at the last.


Now, heading out

for mud flats offshore

clamming at low tide

the sea is stuck with sun.

Straight in from the Atlantic

outside the embrace of the land

the waves rise coldly.

The boat slaps down hard.

The water stings

my face and hands.

© 2019 by Molly McKaughan



If loosening

(I think of a nineteenth-century girdle)

were only so simple—

to dream and it would be true.

I have shed garment

after garment

and am still clothed.


When I am alone in the mirror

my nipples shine.

Nude before you

my heart is wound in string.

There seem to be cords

on my wrists and ankles

pulling them together.

Your hands must break

and smooth me down.


Please, oh please, peel me.

Take the petticoats I've kept

in my closet since dancing school

take the Girl Scout uniform

with merit badges for flowers and fires

take the boned bra and the see-through panties

take the bottle of gin on the window sill

take the front seat of a '62 Ford

take the pride and the bedlam

take my two front teeth.

I don't want a dollar.

I don't want anything.


Just undo me.

Use your teeth if necessary.

Every snap must go.

Fine buttons nestled in lace

intricate hooks and eyes.


I want you to see

my nipples shine.

© 2019 by Molly McKaughan

The Essential Condition

Loneliness camps out in my heart

and waits for that hue of light

at the dying of the day

where she can change whatever joy I’ve gathered

to dust in a twinkling.


Her twin sister, Longing, is a trunk packed with pain

I’ve lugged along everywhere.

Her magic mirrors show me

only what’s missing.


Before I knew a single word

I knew them both.

They were with me in my crib when I was hungry

they nestled me when no one came.


For a long time, I could send them packing

with a few glasses of wine

but they always returned

until a river of wine ran through my life.


Today is different:

I feel the sun warm on my skin

marvel at the rainbows in the drops of dew

captured by cobwebs.

I smile at my dog’s wet nose on my knee

And delight at scuffing through fall’s bounty of leaves.


Yes, the sisters still come for an occasional visit

but I recognize them for what they are:

the essential condition

called being human.

© 2019 by Molly McKaughan

The Day She First Didn’t Know Me

The rouge puddles on mother’s cheeks

and the wrinkles

carry it every which way.

She can't see so well

but keeps on applying

face paint and blouses with bows

decorated with food.


On the way to the dining room

she's led by the hand

a child once more

to the trough of pills

the nurse commands.


I follow muted in their footsteps

my daughter's hand in mine

between here and there

isn't far at all.


And suddenly

I want her back to the way she was

when I railed against her and hated her

every suggestion for my betterment.

I want her back to tell her

—my whole powerful mother—

how I love her.


I kiss the spot of rouge and hug

her bones barely covered now with skin

—muscles shed like winter clothes—

and do it a second time

because it's all I can do

on the day she first didn't know me.

© 2019 by Molly McKaughan

The Box


It is March 2001

I sit with the box in my hands.

It is maybe a foot square

brown paper wrapping

a simple label.


I sit on a wooden chair in a row of chairs.

I am alone in the row

in the room

except for the box in my hands.


Heavy, so heavy

I press it to me

curl my body around it.

Tears roll down the dry wash of my skin

I am swollen with tears.

I want to go back 22 years

I want the contents of the box inside of me

curled, kicking, almost ready.


When I find the strength to put on my coat

to stand with the box clutched to my breast


when I can shuffle past the empty rows

and walk down the stairs and out the door


when I can thumb the button to open my car

and sit behind the steering wheel


when I can place the box

on the passenger seat


I put the seat belt around

the remains of my son

and drive us home.

© 2019 by Molly McKaughan

Scarlet Hope


On the landing, now home to Nick’s ashes

and ashes of dogs

and photos of the lost and we who loved them

is one in particular—

published in a calendar for 2002

a photo of my son and a long quote

from his writing:

the tree of knowledge in your soul will grow

and the helping friendly book

will plant the seed.

But I warn you that all knowledge

seeming innocent and pure

becomes a deadly weapon

on the hands of avarice and greed… ohhhhh.


And running sideways it says


In Loving Memory


Freemont Plummer


And today I burst into tears

at my loving memory

missing him through to my toes

gasping air as I head downstairs

and pour my morning coffee

trying to right my fragile life once more.


And as I turn, cup in hand

there on the railing of the deck

is a bright male cardinal

head cocked at me.


We look at each other through the glass

and I want to believe

it’s Nick’s spirit

telling me he’s ok

and I should be too.

© 2019 by Molly McKaughan

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