No Books Would Tell Us Our Stories

No Books Would Tell Us Our Stories | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

The Poet’s Garden, oil painting by Vincent van Gogh, 1888. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Possumtown Neighborhood, Piscataway, NJ, one mile
from the Middlesex Sampling Plant site, where radiation
cleanup from ore sampling in the 1940’s was projected to be completed in 2000

My best friend and I hover in my driveway,
hopscotching between maple seeds
helicoptered to the asphalt that shines

near-molten in the August sun.
In this moment we want
this leap to never land, levitating

above the flat front yard, grass seeded
green each spring, my dad pushing
the Miracle Grow sprayer up

and down up and down the lawn
so the clover would yellow and fall.
Never a skinned knee or burning

elbow to kiss. Never lips to press
together. No grandmother’s or neighbors’
or father’s funerals to attend. No.

In the hot air in which we float,
there is no future, no high school,
no tumor lodged like an acorn

in my father’s neck, obstructing his nerves
like the piles of twigs we dam
in the creek to block the cold rush

and no EPA or Army Corps of Engineers
to study the contamination levels
in our water. No, the television

unplugged, sun lifting the humid curtain
between excitement and pain, tale and hard
truth—it will be years

before we understand
what occasional exposure can do
to a lung or spinal cord,

taut in this space before we hit
the pavement, bare feet unburned
from years of hard callous.

We toss a peach pit across chalk lines,
committed only to each other, to the bare bones
of summer chirping by as slow as our limbs

lengthening, not yet feeling trapped
in a before or after, the air stilled and time
just a ladybug crawling across my wrist.

Stacey Balkun is the author of three poetry chapbooks and editor of Fiolet & Wing: An Anthology of Domestic Fabulism. She teaches creative writing online at The Poetry Barn and The Loft.
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