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Peonies by Jane Huffman

My mother took it all in: a junkie

with no front teeth who stole her

wedding ring; baby rabbits

from the garden my father rented

behind our neighbor’s house,

a small patch of Michigan

where the pumpkins grew unseasonably

large; balloon Jesus at the megachurch;

decaying watermelon rinds

at the Detroit Zen Center,

where she scrubbed the floors

in silence and ignored her stomach pains;

her appendix that burst on a school bus;

the mountain that ended her ballet career;

the snowsuit she was cut out of in the ambulance

and the man who left her for his wife;

the bronze deco elevator

at The Fisher where she asked patrons

if they were going up or down

and passed out orange lozenges

at intermission; the boa constrictor

that got loose in her duplex

when she was twenty-nine and the body

of the boa constrictor she found at thirty;

the chill that drove her under the awnings

of a Chinese restaurant where sheets

of meringue cooled, unlovingly, next to

the cash register—she bought them out;

my brother and her brother, the men

in my family who are always between

glass bottles and ass-less hospital gowns,

who have the same limp mouths

and puppy-dog eyes and come home

with bruises and wearing other people’s

clothing, who check themselves into motels

and sleep in Sunkist trucks;

who I have been mourning for years

already, but who continue to exist

among us like stone statues of martyrs

who were discredited centuries ago;

the secrets she taught me to have

as if passing on an heirloom;

her fur coat she never had the occasion

for; the peonies that blanketed Death Valley

the summer when she followed

my father to California

to bring him a pot of curry chicken

and ask if he would marry her

before her father passed.

He was spelunking out there—I mean it;

crawling into manhole-sized caves

and pushing his body to the point at which sun’s

neck could no longer find him. I don’t know

if she followed him into that darkness,

but I know the darkness that followed;

the trickle, the surge, and the howl

when the ceiling collapsed and I was lowered

into the shaft like a bucket in a well;

so trust me when I tell you that

there are peonies and then there are peonies.


Jane Huffman is an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she is a 2016-17 teaching-writing fellow. She has published poems in West Branch, Witness, The Adroit Journal, The Common, SOFTBLOW, Word Riot, and elsewhere in print and online. She is a staff editor for Sundress Publications and Best of the Net Anthology. She lives and teaches in Iowa City, IA.

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