Carolyn Gregory


BAD SEASON (after the Yellow Fever Epidemic in Philadelphia, 1793)

When the fever had taken many
and yellow rags marked the houses
where some had died,
we hid out, watching some board up
their windows and go to the country.

The death carts rolled by
every evening through thick air.
Children and old ones died in the heat
but we knew enough to say no
to a doctor's bleeding
and open our windows
when we could.

The Psalms promised pestilence
and its end
so we dug up beans for soup
and washed everything down
till frost came.

Surely, we lost soldiers and wives.
It was a hard time
calling for extra prayer
and faith that God would hold us
in His hands.


They could not stop
once they were lifted to Elysium
by pipes and goblets
and they believed
they saw the hereafter.

Winning prizes for their talents
decked out in black or champagne,
they were caught in the stage lights,
doe-eyed and driven by moguls.

They peaked with platinum,
raised voices high all night
after burying news
about lovers with pipelines
to blow and crack.

Their voices soared with spirit
till they broke with rust
like fake jewelry,
comforted by Xanax,
alone at last.


Once time caught up with me
as I tumbled near the cliffs
of the Hudson River,
crazy on a trampoline
in my aunt's backyard.

Growing like a sunflower
in August, my legs had a life
of their own, jumping higher and higher
till my body crashed.

X-rays showed a broken right shoulder
so I wore over-sized smocks for two months,
skipping gym class.
My left arm got stronger quickly,

learning to take notes,
play one-handed piano with my teacher
and improve the strokes of my Palmer method

so that Miss Brown could read my handwriting
for the first time, earning me an A
when I won the essay contest,

my right arm taped in place
as books and learning took over my life
and I grew left-handed.


When he rows through my river at night
on teak oars through green cattails,
I look out from my tree perch
and throw fireflies at his prow,
climb down the rows of branches
to better see the muscles shimmy
in his back as he moves
through water snakes and frogs.

My song moves from my belly upward
into the breasts’ starry flowers,
rising higher into a guttural serenade.

Listening, he understands my music
and rows faster to the water’s edge
where turtles pull crusted shells forward.

I throw off my long shirt of leaves
to wade toward him.
He casts his anchor down in a steady rope.
In that hour, the stars illuminate everything.



Sweet trophy, the huge fish hung from a rope
filling the photo with sleek, gray flesh.
The hunter was proud, standing beside the mayor.
He won a contest and would go down
as the boldest fisherman
after landing a ton of shark.
The battle was easy with mechanical help.


Heavier than water,
she would sink to the bottom
if she did not keep moving.
Made of scaleless cartilage,
she learned early to prowl the dark,
mouth open to water stirring her gills.

Loner in the murk, her cousins were rays and skates
though she was queen of the Silurian,
older than dinosaurs.
No swim bladder or lungs,
she compensated with teeth,
paired fins and grace.

She was a good mother with slow growing pups
who had escaped the nets more than once,
her ears intent on the motor’s low hum
skimming through brine.


Where Hermit crabs scuttle and Moon snails loom,
Manifest destiny strikes again,
sending out trawlers and boats
with pikes to scour the floor.
Mobile phones help the crew,
intent on their score.
They drop a chum slick of ground herring and squid,
blood flowing out as a lure.

The shark is hungry, an easy target,
when wire hits her
and two fisherman in a harness
haul her in.

It’s over too fast – the end of swimming
and a family of ancient predators –
all for a couple of Vineyard photos,
a model made by a taxidermist hanging
above a tourist bistro.

Copyright  ©  2014 Carolyn Gregory


Carolyn Gregory’s poems and music essays have been published in American Poetry Review, Main Street Rag, Off the Coast, Bellowing Ark, Seattle Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Stylus. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and is a past recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Award. Her first book, OPEN LETTERS, was published in 2009 and a second book, FACING THE MUSIC, will appear in 2014.