Kathleen Driskell

Young Angel of Darkness

My pet grandfather had not been told 
by doctors or nurses, nor my grandmother 

that what he had was lung cancer and that 
that cancer was quickly killing him. It was common then 

to keep this sort of secret from the dying, and at twelve,
I’d be dumb to it, too, but I’d heard them discussing 

an exception for me, not yet old enough to visit 
that sick ward. Riding up the elevator, I felt the burden 

bear down on me, my mother’s slim hand gently squeezed 
my shoulder: Remember now, let’s not talk about anything 

sad. Try to cheer him up, okay? Smile.
When the elevator doors 
opened, the buoyancy of the white humming lights lifted me 

like water. I floated down the hall and into his room as if 
I were a small boat drifting to beach. The air, gauzy 

and thick, contrasted with the starchy hospital sheets.
I glided over to my grandfather and for the first time

saw fear in his eyes; and then love, then again, 
fear. I knew I must not say the truth out loud, 

but just then I grew heady and arrogant 
with my grown-up secret.  I could not contain it. 

I extended my hand. Come with me, I beckoned 
wordlessly, seductively, and he took my hand.  

I squeezed hard. With my eyes, I said Don’t let go. 
And don’t tell. I won’t, he blinked. Then, hold on

I demanded with my narrowing eyes: I’m going 
to lead you down the dark tunnel of truth. 


At New Hope Facility

Each night I brushed 
their ragged teeth, delicate and
sharp as those 
in a baby’s mouth and I lifted 
them into bed, 
and tucked blankets up under them,
their curled runt hands 
set at their chests like the useless 
claws of dinosaurs. 
I walked and walked, back and forth,
the entire shift,
answering their soft bells, pretending 
I could take care of each of them, 
though truly I was in sore want 
of my own mother. I was 
out to prove I needed no one, 
nor any of their money if that meant 
bending even a tiny bit 
to their wills. I felt leashed to that 
place as if a beast, 
wretched and filled with abundant 
and fulsome, fulsome 
sorrow. Every night I walked down 
the long pod, I grimaced
at the noise my sneakers made, worried
that each loud squeak would wake 
all those I had just lashed to bed. 
I imagined my shoe-squeaks 
calling to them like the sweet sirens
of autonomy, 
which I knew I had, and knowing 
that, somehow, made 
me feel at least a little better. 


Water Baby

That year I was trying to escape it all 
in New Hope, a bleak place 
where I’d wheel the residents 
back and forth to their meals 

and therapy. I had convinced myself
I was doing good, but was so awkward 
and ill at ease among them.  
I was a young woman 

who could walk and talk and 
return to college any time 
she damn well got her act together 
and I knew it. And they knew it too—

all the teen-aged girls I lifted about  
like wet cardboard boxes. 
When the nurse’s aide first walked me
through the halls, and called them water babies 

I’d imagined something fluid 
and beautifully alien as a jellyfish, 
but Christine’s water baby head 
was so enormously heavy she listed perpetually 

to the left. She was a twisted burl 
of a girl. We took an instant dislike 
to each other.  She fought me 
all the way—cursing  

as I pushed her to the shower, 
undressed her, tried to soap her 
down, finding it nearly impossible 
to lift her frozen limbs 

out of their unreasonable creases. 
One evening, blood splattered beneath 
her chair, great red splotches of it 
against the white tile 

of the community shower.  
Near my shoe, a tight splat dropped 
and bloomed like a peony unfisting
in a field of snow. It gave me pause, but

then I hosed her blood down the drain 
while she slumped behind me
in her shower chair: her hair, 
thin, knotted, dripping, 

her feral anger rising 
with the steam. 
I knew I would always win
simply by punching out, 

walking free from the frozen fields 
surrounding that institutionalized place.  
At twenty, that’s what I knew 
of leaving, never once believing 

I’d ever think of her again, never 
bothering to look down to see 
the blood spattered across the toes of 
my white sneakers, little seeds taking root.


On Cleaving 

All summer I watched for him. I knew he was out there, 
inside the rimming of woods that ran all around. 

Wild boy, his feral curls stiff and ashy with dirt, 
he pedaled past at least once a day on his rickety rusting 

bicycle, grocery bags dangling from crooked handlebars, 
his filthy sleeping bag tied to the rear fender. One 

neighbor said she saw him washing dishes at the Waffle House, 
near the exit ramp. Another called the cops, but no one ever 

found out what he was hiding from or why. Though I tried 
to stay alert, he always approached quietly, giving me a start 

while out front pulling weeds near the picket gate.  Each time 
he appeared, my heart revved up in faster time, my eyes anxiously 

searching for my small children nearby, digging happily 
in the dirt with old spoons. All summer, he must have lain 

in the woods, awkwardly tending  his fugitive camp, trying 
to slow his own heart leaping up with each odd birdcall 

or snap. In the night, I’d wander from window 
to window, watching, making sure his flame 

had not caught hold of the horizon. I buttressed for 
danger, instead of worrying over him like a good mother, 

instead of extending him any kindness, if only 
in my mind. So many ways my children have cleaved 

my heart tenderly toward the world;  and so many ways 
they’ve turned my grizzly core against it.


Kathleen Driskell is an award-winning poet and teacher. Her newest poetry collection is Next Door to the Dead, a Kentucky Voices Selection, published by The University Press of Kentucky (June 2015). Her full-length poetry collection Seed Across Snow (Red Hen, 2009) was listed as a national bestseller by the Poetry Foundation; Red Hen Press will publish her fourth collection, Blue Etiquette, in fall 2016. Her poems have appeared in many literary journals including Southern Review, North American Review, Shenandoah, RiverStyx, and Rattle and are featured online on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and in American Life in Poetry. Her work has been anthologized in What Comes Down to Us: 20 Contemporary Kentucky Poets and The Kentucky Anthology. She is professor of Creative Writing at Spalding University, where she also helps to direct the low-residency MFA in Writing Program.


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