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Poems from Not for Luck

Enjoy poetry by Derek Sheffield from his book Not for Luck.


The Wren and the Jet at a Research Forest near Fort Knox, Seventy-One Years since the Bombing of Hiroshima, Eight Months since the Photo of a Three-Year-Old Syrian Boy Facedown on a Turkish Beach, His Red Shirt, His Blue Shorts

A sound like a plucked banjo as a Carolina wren
lands on a window screen. A parent
and fledgling the last two mornings have made their rounds
of this Kentucky cabin. As the wren pecks
through a beetle pried from a sill, a jet
roars back to the fort. Sound drifts in waves
from the state highway and the beeping of a truck
backing up to the Jim Beam distillery, all that bourbon dribbling
into bottles locals stopped buying when a Japanese concern
bought the company. The scaly feet grip so close
the battering wings make little breaths against the back of my neck.
I’m here to finish the book I can’t seem to finish.
“Everybody dies. Get over it.” Eighteen years ago
that was Rick, who lives in language. But those waves
kept washing in all night, kept finding that boy
the way a parent returns to a fevered child.
The sand keeps spilling from his open mouth.




Fish Like These

People crowding the darkened room
use their air for words
like Look! as they press their hands
to a topaz light. Glass divides
the aquarium, but through
the perfectly flat chill—
Here!—they can almost feel
the gilled and tentacular, breathe
their symphony of blending rays
and bending weeds. More than meets the eye,
says a woman, smiling in her secret
and standing apart in a blue vest
to tell the half-truth before them.
See that rockfish with scarred sides
and a notched fin? Heads all turning

toward a spiny length of scales
moving in coppery swishes.
Disease took his eye, and the other fish
wouldn’t stop lunging for the empty socket.
At the tank’s end, he flutters into a turn.

Anymore, fish like these don’t grow on trees,
so we pulled him out, put him under,
and stitched a glass eye to his ocular bone.
With dull glimmers he approaches,

and they—I mean we—shuffle and squint,
snap our gum and purse our lips,
and cannot tell which eye
peers into its own blind skull
and which sees our outstretched hands.




The Science of Spirit Lake

It’s the water’s pulse through line
and rod that judders in his hands, in fish
after fish whip-thrashed into air, into arms
and body and day’s heat, all day, day
after day, all summer, and into the net

where she stands to her waist
in the lake’s cool sway, and the lake
in lit wrinklings letting go as she
wades their catch to shore and quickly
kneels and lays it flat to her measured board,

pinned beneath her sun-lined hands
as she bends to sex, clip, and scrape
while keeping it alive (gills fluttering
like the dream-caught eyes of children)
before she turns and splashes back.

And each, as she stops to let her arms
fall open, hangs there as if unable to let go
of her grasp or remember its own truth
of unnumbered shadows. When the life
(from who knows where) comes finally

shudderingly back and it shiver-flits away,
a few scales are left to slowly tumble
and flash and become, like the clear seconds
it takes to watch them, indistinguishable
from the restless body that holds them.




She Gathers Rocks

wherever she goes,
make that sticks—no,
leaves—which is to say

heads of flowers and hips.
More river than daughter,
her arms fill with treasures

of every trail. Hold this,
she says, to make us
her buckets, her pockets

already clack-and-bristle
full. It goes fast, they say,
and it was going as they

said it, for it’s gone
into us counting to five
five times a day, saying,

“Time for bed!” “Time
to wake!” “Time to leave!”
And it’s gone into her

quickening eyes and stride
that have left us
among all the things

she once believed
she couldn’t leave behind.