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Poetry by Emmanuelle Merle (tr. Peter Brown), Elizabeth Murphy, and Rodney Wittwer

Atomic City

A plain amid the Rockies, a valley so large
You might forget your name, that being born here
Gives you a secret identity you may only reveal
In Craters of the Moon, who remember in their blackened
Corridors that they are the pores of the volcano Earth.
When, fifty miles away, you hear the subterranean echo
Of the name binding you to the universe,
Other words are spoken, other forces assembled,
Black and agglutinous as well, like a melonoma
On Idaho’s back, like the call to suicide
From the Wordwide Sect. Meanwhile, on the surface,
Everything is calm, flat, the plain shadowless
Where life can hide itself as far as the eye can see
And the atoms in the air, the Earth, and the artemisia
Continue their microscopic sarabande.

Borah, Caleb, teeth of the Rockies
On the verge of the Snake’s palace,



There is a massacre on the wall
At the Trail Way Café. A grizzly, a buck,
Two buffalo with fixed gazes. A Cheyenne Indian
Detaches from them and goes out into the white sun.
He has a green pickup and a wooden trailer.
He is a stain on the yellow café
swaying amidst the gray artemesia.
Inside, the massacre remains
Black. The only shadow on the entire highway
Is found at the Trail Way Café, in Lame Deer, in the desert.
Dead animals are the customers,
Witnesses to absence. Their eyes
Shine in the fresh penumbra like the beer
That Cheyenne drank.
One night, when God stumbles onto the Trail Way,
One night, when a one-eyed semi crashes headlong into the café,
The Cheyenne will have gone, Lame Deer won’t exist by then
And each trophy, its cheek on the ground, pupils rekindled,
Will watch the swaying flames.

© Editions Gallimard, 2006

Little Prayers

Draft after draft of weather.
False clouds, low dissemblers,
white out or quiet correctors
of words misplaced or out of order:

sun shower; light and thunder;
birds on wing; a pile of feathers,
a bed to keep us undercover;
crossing hairs; another lover.


Mostly things don’t happen
as we plan.  Even
hopes shoot too long for our frames.
A small vessel streams

away, our fingers reaching
in prayer and hardly barely catching
on. Oh, these vertical
streams, these long horizontals.


The small, black bird descends
in a pattern, like apprehension.
What do I think of the tree?
Would the garden grasses better suit me?

With every dip and rise toward ground
it learns its isolation in these questions.
Not in the tree or grass or terrible sky,
but the Where am I, Where am I.


As the tide comes in, our
small rowboat floats
between two anchors.
One holds it in, and one out

to keep it from crowding
the dock. When I ask, you fetch
the far anchor and pull it in,
your pants knee-high and wet.


Last night I was convinced
I could love you as if
through vapor, or with
my senseless nails, hints

of our bodies, to touch
you through my glove, your sleeve,
and all the while to leave
you alone and untouched.


I don’t love the universe
like she did; or worse
I don’t see the beauty in it.
Of all the superstitious

gifts one can give, list
belief in love first.
And second, the beautiful


I wake, roll over,
new sleep and morning
take together
fresh dark with the sun.

Lord, prescribe me
settling and prayer,
fold yourself beside me
and hold me here.

My Father’s Hands Are Warm

You wear your father’s half-mooned shirt,
the faintly-scented remains of a man
who never worked a day in his life
that he didn’t somehow come to regret.

You have to remember the remembering
before it gives out.
It could be the last thing you do.

No luminosity like the present.

Your father held his head up until the very end,
then asked for water.
Didn’t finish.
You hold the glass up to his forehead,
force the remembering through:
It was cold.   It was snowing.   It was February.

Emmanuel Merle has published two books of poetry, Amère indienne and Un homme à la mer, as well as a collection of stories entitled Redwood. The translations above are from Amère indienne, which won the 2006 Kowalski Prize (France) and the 2007 Prix Théophile Gautier (Académie Française), and which was conceived during a 2004 trip to the American west.

Peter Brown is a fiction writer and translator whose work has appeared in many journals. He was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2003, and received a sponsorship from PEN America and the Villa Gillet Translation Center (Lyon) in 2007 to work on the poetry of Emmanuel Merle.

Rodney Wittwer lives in West Medford, MA. His first book, Gone & Gone, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press.

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