Beautiful Ashes: Shelley Puhak


Presented by Jen Michalski, for PANK. For a description of this guest series, click here



Arthur, on the History of Anxiety

which starts with the river and you who were lured
and we who languished, who took no
chances, said I’m not going to try

to float across on that and so survived.
Where the Patapsco is bridged with steel,
you launch that raft and someone else

paddles back through storm’s
pooled light. One who wades
through daylight, reciting:

Hard rock of the piedmont begat tidewater
plains, widgeon grass and wild rice. Begat
mill and merchant prince, sailing vessel and

steamer, begat things like sock garters and
high silk hats. Begat what runs alongside:

the snort of the steel horse and the huff
of the mother, ever-steeled, who begat
galloping heart and EKG machine.


O, the authority of rivers and
the awful wall of us—mast and sail,

mortar and rust—pushing back.
And who is left to clean it all up? we

who took no chances, and so survived
to pick through your slough —cast-iron

skillet, rocking horse head, ’67 Thunderbird
manifold, blue-glass chaff, electric typewriter

keys, garnet rosary beads, and the mill
workers’ stone homes, brick by tumbled brick.



Guinevere, to All of Her Unborns



The river’s tent is not broken, but bent

enough to leave you exposed,

my sweets, clustered on the shore of my pulse,

the wet clutch of my muscle.


Why I can’t bring you indoors:

I carry the gene that makes

one susceptible to rain. There isn’t enough

oxytocin to go round.


The dolorous stroke is wrenching out

a rib to make another.

And the wound that won’t heal: women.

The story they keep telling:


that I am waiting to be sought.

That my men wander

but I am lost in the cemetery where I went

one violet hour to sneak a cigarette


and startled a deer. A doe who darted

into traffic. Her fawn

followed suit.  River and current: one drags

the other along.  Just as this land was never


my land: not my dust clouds rolling.

I hardly know my own mother

tongue. They say the moon borrows its brilliance,

offers no light of its own. They say my river


runs soft, runs softly. Keep clinging to its bank,

my sweets. When I make my own map

of the world, I’ll sketch this shore, your pebbled

forms, in ochre and animal blood.




The Last Meeting, along the Path to Arthur’s Grave



Here— grass matted means

a deer path, white tufts in underbrush

mean a doe dozed last night, her ears like satellites,

swiveling. Like any prey. Like us,

soon off to a hermitage, a convent.


Cowardly or clear-sighted, we’ll hedge our bets

in hairshirts, woolen robes, woolen

underpants. We’ll sail silent corridors, praying

for early November snow—

remnants of stars wrung soft,


dawn’s white lint. A prioress

will show us how God lives in

the lens:  a neuron is webbed same as a nebula,

same as a snowflake. How the cuckold

forgets the same as the cunt.


How we are never more alone

than in love. We’ll illuminate manuscripts

with sketches of spiral galaxies—discs

of light, bulging, luminescent breasts.

Darling, darling, who will forgive


that once we expected to suckle?

Here—his headstone. Under stars beating

dawn back. Among these vegetative beds, no,

beds of vegetation. Next to a doe’s skull,

her eye socket cracked.



SHELLEY PUHAK is the author of Guinevere in Baltimore, selected by Charles Simic for the 2012 Anthony Hecht Prize. Her first collection, Stalin in Aruba, was awarded the Towson Prize for Literature. She is also the author of the chapbook The Consolation of Fairy Tales, winner of Split Oak Press’s Stephen Dunn Prize. Her poems have appeared in many journals, including Alaska Quarterly Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Carolina Quarterly, Kenyon Review Online, Missouri Review, and Ninth Letter; and in anthologies such as A Face to Meet the Faces: Contemporary Persona Poetry. Her essays have appeared in Fourth Genre and The Baltimore Sun. Shelley teaches at Notre Dame of Maryland University, where she is the Eichner Professor of Creative Writing. She lives on the outskirts of Baltimore with her husband and son.