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Two Self-Portrait Poems || Caleb Curtiss

Self-Portrait as a Photograph of my Father


Today, the seedpods on the Milkweed

growing along the road between the airport

and the place my grandparents will die

began to open themselves, imperceptibly,

as if each were the beak of a baby

crane at the first change in pressure that comes

with their mother’s circling descent. I saw them like this

from the window of my father’s Buick, saw each

one of them pass us by, their cracked

mouths and eyeless heads, and said

nothing. Soon, after watching my father stand

in unsteady synchrony with his father,

I will lift myself from the davenport in the lobby,

and head for the patio where I will stand at my father’s

left hand, his father’s right, and I will smile

for the camera, not noticing how the seeds on the silver

maple behind us have nearly matured. How some

have already detached themselves from its branches,

have begun their slow, spinning fall.

We smile these facsimile smiles, lips taut

over straight, white teeth, because we feel

a sort of pressure in the air: something that tells us

that we are mortal, that we will be here






Self-Portrait With My Dead Sister



There is a girl and a boy sitting on a curb

next to the ocean somewhere in Oregon

where the rain, which has just stopped, has caused

a mud puddle to form in the foreground, just in front

of the boy’s white shoe: his pants

are blue, his jacket is red, and he is not

smiling at all, which I think

is what makes her faintly upturned lip

look so much like a smile.

Never mind that these people were real,

that one will grow up and keep on being real,

while the other will grow up and be dead.

Never mind the brusk presentation or presumptuous

implications the speaker in my poem employs:

he should be excused on account of his grief,

and frankly, it’s probably for the best

that we ignore him and just stick to the facts. For example,

the boy is nearly five years old, which makes the girl

nearly seven years old, which makes it nearly 15 years

before she drove past a stop sign and then,

didn’t do anything ever again.

Despite the fact that here, she has just

pulled her legs into her chest, has just set her chin

on her knees, turned up the corner

of her lip, and here it seems as if she could,

for a moment, break through the artifice of time,

the static nature of her disposition, and say something

utterly irrelevant, something

I won’t pretend

to understand.


Caleb Curtiss is the author of A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us (Black Lawrence Press, 2015). His writing has been published in, or is forthcoming from, New England Review, The Literary Review, DIAGRAM, Green Mountains Review, TriQuarterly, Passages North, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere.