Contender

by Traci Brimhall

It’s alright to overdress for the riot. Your rage is stunning.
It’s alright to pursue the wrong pleasures and the right suffering.
Here’s my permission. Take it. It’s alright to replace a siren

with a bell. Let the emergency make some music. It’s alright
that the meter reader broke your sunflower in half. You knew
better than to plant it where you did. Sometimes it’s alright

if you call your waiter honey when you order sweet tea. It’s alright
if you fall out of love with being alive, but try again tomorrow
with French pop songs and fresh croissants, wear all your gold

to church, and try—really try—to believe anything but a stethoscope
can hear your heart’s urgency. It’s alright that your mother died.
So will your father. And your son. But hopefully not before you.

It’s alright to lie naked in the rain and refuse to go inside even
when the moon tries to make your cold thighs shine. It’s okay
to lick the ice cream cake from your fingers. Do it. Now. In front

of everyone. And if what falls on the children lining up their cars
for the soapbox derby is not snow but ash, that’s alright. Celebrate
the mutable body. And if you write notes to friends and senators

in primary colors, that’s fine. It’s even okay to begrudge the stubborn
pears in the wooden bowl. You’re right, you know. They’re waiting
to yellow until you turn away. It’s alright that in the economy

of forgiveness you keep coming up one daffodil short. It’s alright
if you ask your heart to grow the size of Secretariat’s—not because
you want to outrun other horses or because your legs are classic,

but because you, too, want to be buried whole after someone
examines the insensible engine you left behind—iamb of the
beloved’s name no longer metronoming the valves—and places

that slick fist in a stainless tray for weighing and shouts Sweet
Jesus before describing its ungodly heft with superlatives, your
heart the most tireless, wildest, wiliest, thirstiest heat on record.

Previously published in Ploughshares (Vol. 45, No. 4).

* Poet’s Writing Prompt: Start a gratitude journal and write down 5 things you’re grateful for each day. Try and make them more specific! Instead of “birds outside my window” write “finches pilfering the coneflowers”. Instead of “my family” say “the nights my husband makes goulash and sings 80s rock into the wooden spoon”. Notice those details of what you’re grateful for! After a week, you’ll have more than enough great lines for a poem, but sit down and read Nazim Hikmet’s “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved” and use that to help inspire you.

Indirect Light

by Malachi Black

i.m. Kathleen Roche (1982-2018)

God of all comfort, close
your hand over the tract
houses of Livingston—
lay shadow on the subdivided
land of Christmas lights
and cul-de-sacs
and minivans—withdraw
the mortar from the bricks
that bind the staggered
townhomes and cracked
chimneys over white-trimmed
condominiums—
swallow the mailboxes
down into the loam beneath
each quarter-acre
lawn—pull back the plots
of mulch and patchwork
sod until they spill
like sewage through the streets
and brim the tunnels under
Morristown, South
Orange, and East Hanover—
strengthen the cold, crooked
bones that mold
the undertaker’s glove
as his fingers smooth the satin
lining of the pillows
in the caskets where the dead
lay faded as old rugs—soften
the rocks lodged
in the subsoil for the digger’s
dented spade—brighten
the headlights
on the hearses as they bend
down turnpike exits, leading
another mute
procession to the cemetery’s
rusted fleurs-de-lis—ice
the puckered
calla lily petals in green
sympathy bouquets, raised
so they glint
like winter trumpets
in the echo of no sound—
as freezing rain
rests on the headstones
and snow falls underground—

Previously published in Ploughshares (Vol. 45, No. 4).

* Poet’s Writing Prompt: Start a gratitude journal and write down 5 things you’re grateful for each day. Try and make them more specific! Instead of “birds outside my window” write “finches pilfering the coneflowers”. Instead of “my family” say “the nights my husband makes goulash and sings 80s rock into the wooden spoon”. Notice those details of what you’re grateful for! After a week, you’ll have more than enough great lines for a poem, but sit down and read Nazim Hikmet’s “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved” and use that to help inspire you.

This issue of The Hard Work of Hope is produced in partnership with Ploughshares.


Traci Brimhall

Traci Brimhall is the author of four collections of poetry: Come the Slumberless from the Land of Nod (Copper Canyon Press), Saudade (Copper Canyon Press), Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton), and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, Slate, The Believer, The New Republic, Orion, and Best American Poetry. She’s received a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship and is currently Director of Creative Writing at Kansas State University.


Malachi Black

Malachi Black is the author of Storm Toward Morning (Copper Canyon Press, 2014), a finalist for the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award and a selection for the PSA’s New American Poets Series (chosen by Ilya Kaminsky). A 2019 NEA Creative Writing Fellow, Black has also received fellowships and awards from the Amy Clampitt House, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the MacDowell Colony, the Poetry Foundation (a 2009 Ruth Lilly Fellowship), the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and Yaddo. Black’s poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Believer, Ploughshares, and The Paris Review, among other journals, along with a number of anthologies. His work has also been featured in exhibitions both in the U.S. and abroad, including several musical settings and translations into French, Dutch, Croatian, and Lithuanian. Black teaches at the University of San Diego and lives in California.