Poems by Joan Colby


All day, the moonscape of North Dakota
Slides past our small compartment.
This is the early 90's, Amtrak still
Serves dinner on tablecloths. Our seats fold into
Bunkbeds. You take the top, I squeeze into the
Lower claustrophobic. I wake with an earache,
We're at 11,000 feet entering a Glacier avalanche
Shed. The sun has risen and it's beautiful, the snow
Sparkling as if all the stars fell and splintered.
In the dining car, breakfast is served. Eggs Benedict,
Coffee, juice. The scenery so stunning we tire of
Viewing it. I open a book of poetry. The words more
Specific than the peaks and valleys quilted
White on white. Then, we're rattling
Along the storied Columbia River. I imagine salmon
Leaping in my dream. We go to the observation car
Where beyond the hood of glass, the world is endless.
In Portland, peonies bloom, flushed pink and luxurious
To scent the city. We're warned to beware of
Street people which makes me laugh: we look so
Conventional now, so middle-aged and settled.
How did that happen? In a café we drink espresso.
A sudden shower flings its needles on the plush
Faces of the peonies. Li Po wrote of a festival
Where a woman and her lover lingered by the river
While the city blossomed. Like this. 


Her dream of a baby she'd forgotten to feed,
A baby made of rags like a primitive doll.
The sort of baby a child cuddles.

She has no baby, never will,
Only stepchildren who hated her
When their mother overdosed.

She thought they might be grateful,
But they grew up and away.
She went to Galway

To find lost relatives
In seaside pubs.
Applied for dual citizenship.

Her husband says
"I can't emigrate. I'm
Not Irish." She smiles, says

"Slainte" which sounds like the
Rain in Ireland that pelted the boat
To the Aran Isles.

At Random

Robins prefer the bluest egg.
A lonely woman rejects her child.
The man with the axe waits
Beneath the via duct.
The zeitgeist of a train evokes
A journey never taken. A dining car
With Lennox china and Grand Baroque silver
Parakeets inhabit the neighborhood
Of the faithful. A defrocked priest
Swallows the unconsecrated host.
A parade of the well-meaning
Displays a banner of stars.
Scientism contends we cannot think.
That godlessness explains the universe.
A nun counts her beads and blinks.
This is the shortest day of the year.
To celebrate coldness, we can shake
The ordinary rugs or drink black coffee
In the sad café where a painter wields
The brush that smears our lives.

The Jaguar

A woman holds a jaguar, its golden eyes impassive.
What else is endangered. Blood ivory smuggled
Into Beijing with powdered rhinocerous horn.
The beautiful die to liberate prosperity.
A man drives a truck into the river
In flood stage. Who does such things?
Ah, not everyone wants to cope
With the struggles of living.A woman
Walks an armadillo on a silver leash.
I made this up. It may not be possible.
Every story starts with something
Imagined. A wolf speaking Esperanto.
A woman walks on the railroad tracks.
She sees a round moon coming like a prophecy.
Or she stabs her children to save their souls
From demons. A thousand miles away, a man
Who was her husband, weeps
In the arms of his new woman. There is no comfort.
The jaguar wears a diamond collar. It is one of the fastest
Animals. This fact no longer matters.
In Egypt, the fortunate cruise the Nile to see
The Valley of the Kings. An anthropologist
Lectures. They drink expensive wines
Watching crocodiles sunning on the banks
Where Moses floated in a reed basket.
All such stories hardened into creed
To invoke the hymns that people love.
They stand in graveyards in the rain singing
Until the earth darkens with melancholy.
Every day, they come for you
The torturers. The worst is the waiting,
Listening for the footfalls.
You can't imagine getting used to that
But it is what happens. Time
Turns your heart to tin and you learn
All that the rain reports. Life is hard.
The Wobblies were lynched
For wanting an 8-hour day. Food
For their children. The victims of the
Hurricane surrounded by the sea, lack water.
The docks lined with supplies that will not
Be delivered. A parrot clings to the fronds
Of a palm. You forecast the future
In the shapes of clouds. It rains forever
On the banyan trees that were imported
Ages ago. The jaguar on the golden chain
Stares at the man in the raging river
Who wants to drown, but his body
Insists on swimming. His arms beat
Against the current, all this, all this

A Wilderness of Monkeys

The one you longed for as a child
Wore a red suit with brass buttons.
The organ grinder played while it cavorted.

The woman who loved an infant chimpanzee
Found her soul invaded. She, who allowed everything,
At last called on her friend who lost her face and eyes.

We are blinded by desire offering a tamed heritage
For a wilderness that roots in the simian brain.
How it would be to frolic

Throwing feces at sightseeers,
Picking lice from lovers,
Abandoned to pure want.

The screams of monkeys in a limbic eden
Assigns a furious passion
For anything that is unexpected.

Joan Colby has been published widely in journals such as Poetry, Atlanta Review, South Dakota Review, Gargoyle, Pinyon, Little Patuxent Review, Spillway, and Midwestern Gothic. Awards include two Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Literature. She has published twenty-one books including Selected Poems from FutureCycle Press which received the 2013 FutureCycle Prize and Ribcage from Glass Lyre Press which has been awarded the 2015 Kithara Book Prize. Three of her poems have been featured on Verse Daily and another is among the winners of the 2016 Atlanta Review International Poetry Contest. Her newest books are Carnival from FutureCycle Press, The Seven Heavenly Virtues from Kelsay Books, and Her Heartsongs, from Presa Press. Colby is a senior editor of FutureCycle Press and an associate editor of Good Works Review. Website: www.joancolby.com. Facebook: Joan Colby. Twitter: poetjm.

Read our interview with Joan here.