At the columbarium dug
by hand, a man points to where rock
doves would be brought to nest, their eggs

tended by priests, and the cave locked
at sundown, guarded by hired
knives. The flock meant meat for the dry

times; saltpeter; yolks needed to bind
portraits to walls, to raise a sky
gilded with violets and myrrh.

Tonight, my mother paints her nails
black—a shade she names, “Dark Matter.”
She numbers what’s left of her cells,

tells us of this burning inside
her knees, laughs a promise to fight.

More by R. A. Villanueva

Archipelagic

Not vinegar. Not acid. Not
sugarcane pressed to mortar by
fist, but salt: salt, the home taste; salt,
the tide; salt, the blood. Not Holy

Ghost, but a saint of coral come
to life in the night crossing a
field of brambles and thorns, the camps
of pirates beat back to the bay

with hornets. Not Santo Niño.
And not a belt of storms, but this:
girls singing, an avocado
in each open palm, courting doves;

a moth drawn to the light of our
room you take to be your father.
 

Annus Mirabilis

           For X.


From the shallows our son watches me play 
dead. He sits on river rocks chucking sand, 
burying strawberries while I float down-
stream, breath wound bright in the gut, a body

both here and of other waters. The day
he was born, midwives touched your face, your hands, 
tested nerve and pulse, dripped saline along
your thigh, numbered blades—their ceremony

for the first cuts, before swaddling blankets,
fever syrups, bath time and mud. These are 
places the boy is ticklish: lunette

of the earlobe        kneecaps       madrigal fat 
of his belly       collarbone       toes. These words
he knows, but will not say: yes       horse       sleep       white.


* 

Again the boy cries himself hoarse
as we sing through these hours right 

before dawn. First the alphabet,
then “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” 

then “The Great Pretender.” Our words
like foxes, like milk teeth. We can’t

hold him quiet. His body must,
they say, learn now about hunger,

about being alone. So we
hum and shhh into the yellow

bruise of Sunday, melodies the 
shape of bluets and yearlings, blood 

pudding and this worry, this awe 
we have no name for— 

*

When he asks, make no mention of those names 
we saved for the children we lost—his ghost 
siblings, their phantom initials. Of tests 

and lemongrass, nettle leaf and sharps, forms 
in triplicate, clinics painted with lambs, 
comets, maps to nerve meridians, hearts: 

say nothing. Never speak of that quiet
after the kicking stopped. Believe in time
he’ll learn our cells betray each miracle
and wild conundrum they’re coded to bear.

           If he needs an answer, give him morning 
mass off  W. 16th: how aisle and chancel 
roared with lilies and cornets; how we dared 
a new unknown to find us, there, in song.

Related Poems

At Bay

Coral-bells purpled the fallen sycamore leaves, dead, the dead 
versus those who attempted death, versus those who effectively 
fashioned out of such attempts a style akin to electric guitar 
shimmer swelling and unswelling like starlings when they first 

lift off, or like stars when, from their fixed sway, they come 
suddenly loose, any man letting at last go of a career spent 
swallowing—trying to—catastrophe’s jewel-studded tail, un-
swallowable, because   

                                    holy, in the way of fanfare, its gift for 
persuasion, how it can make of what’s ordinary, and therefore 
flawed of course, a thing that’s holy, for a time it seemed so, 
didn’t restlessness seem to be, little god of making, no less 

impossible in the end than any of the gods, where’s the holiness, 
they sleep never, they tire infrequently, to be tired bores them, 
distraction refined by damage would be their drug of choice 
hands down, if they could choose, even they don’t get to.