Published on Academy of American Poets (

After the Disaster

A picnic in the sequoias, light
filtered into planes, and the canopy
cut through. Fire raged in that place
one month ago. Since I’d been there,
I’d have to see it burning.
Nature of events to brush
against us like the leaves
of aspens brush against each
other in a grove full of them
carved with the initials
of people from the small weird town
hikers only like for gas. Messages
get past borders—water
across the cut stem of the sent
sunflower alive with good
intentions. People who mistake
clarity for certainty haven’t learned
that listening isn’t taking
a transcript, it’s not speech
the voice longs for, it’s something
deeper inside the throat.
Now, from the beginning, recite
the alphabet of everything
you should have wanted, silverware,
a husband, a house to live in
like a castle, but I wanted
fame among the brave
A winter night in desert light:
trucks carving out air-corridors
of headlight on the interstate
at intervals only a vigil
could keep. Constellations
so clean you can see
the possibilities denied.
Talking about philosophy
might never be dinner
but can return
your body to a state
of wonder before sleep.
The night reduced us
to our elements.
I wanted water, and whatever
found itself unborn
in me to stay alive.


Copyright © 2015 by Katie Peterson. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 3, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“In English language poetry, we have a pretty name for a poem written on the occasion of a wedding—epithalamium. When I looked at this poem written in September 2013 almost exactly two years later, it was just a few days before my wedding. I realized the poem held within it, not even buried, some language about marriage, some talk about the conventional expectations (and fears) a wedding might generate. But I wrote the poem on the occasion of a personal tragedy of another order entirely, in the midst of drought-based fires that have now become yearly occurrences. On a road trip then, with my now-husband, who takes amazing pictures of wildfires, we stopped in Markleeville, California. Together we watched the fire crews gearing up to stop the blazes, and in a bar, a few of them did shots of bourbon. An epithalamium, by the way, has traditionally been written for the bride, getting ready, on the way to the nuptial chamber.”
Katie Peterson


Katie Peterson

Katie Peterson is the author of The Accounts (University of Chicago Press, 2013). She lives in Woodland, California.

Date Published: 2015-11-03

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