Our experiences, the ones we hide from or behind, the hurts and fears, the joys, griefs and disappointments can strengthen us and our writing, can allow us to challenge our beliefs and self-doubts and get to work. We don’t need anyone’s permission to write. We write to find out. We write to mine what is buried and examine it in daylight. We write to sing.



Mother’s Child

They come at first light, the women,
all speaking at once,
some wrapped in fine wool,
others bearing loomed cloth, gifts—
pots of white beans, olives.
The midwife ties a sloughed snakeskin
just below my knee—to honor
Ilithyia, to remind
that life is change, a tide. She says
I am serpent waking from cold;
new life grows from within split skin.

She mixes dittany in wine. I take
the mixture into my mouth.
It will ease the pain, she says,
then another rolls my gown
above my hips. The midwife
bends into my body, fingertips
dripping oil between spread legs,
and kneads the opening,
now the size of an egg, she tells me.

The child within is dolphin, whale.
No matter. The moon pulls all
and I am sea and sand, rush and drag.
Someone takes my hand, breathes slow,
tells me to follow her breath
so I will be carried, so my child
will emerge whole and strong—
all flesh and cry into this life—

and when I feel the body
solid and slick find the passage,
I cry out and my sisters brace
my back against their own. I push
and press my body down while
the midwife holds palms hard against
my belly, massages life toward air.
One woman begins to sing.
Another, laughing, says the head
crowns, oh—dark curls, shoulders,
arms, legs, toes.

The midwife lifts my son so I may see.
He shivers in the air, wails.
and one wraps him in linen,
brings him to my breast. I cradle
his small body upon my own—his
homeland, and I am floating
into the Mother’s sleep,
the country he comes from,
the place he knows
and can return to now
only in dream.

(from Thira)


From the hall I watched him shatter the orange dishes
my mother thought unbreakable—
slamming them against gray tile
as she crouched, denying milkman, mailman,
all who came to the house while he was at work,
who heard quick breaths between her words,
appraised her body.

Each night
I set the table and when it was time
we all sat for him to lead us in grace,
careful to keep our elbows off the cloth,
careful to eat everything so he wouldn’t say
how ungrateful we were for the food on our plates
and then, with his leather belt, teach us manners.
But when he smashed those dishes I ran.

It was still light so it must have been spring,
yes, May, because I crawled through wands
supple as whips but studded with blossoms
to get inside the forsythia cave.
I looked as hard as I could:
each stem was a tight green throat,

each mouth tongueless gold entered by bees
whose furry bodies spun back out
dusted with pollen,
                              and watching them
I almost forgot the sounds inside the house
until my mother slammed the windows down
and my ears filled with buzzing.

Huddled in the damp earth beneath forsythia,
straining for silence, I watched night
billow up from the dirt, sapping the flowers.
When the crashes stopped,
she called for me: Come in      Come in.

(First published in The Worcester Review, included in Bone Circle)

Dressing Down

My mother’s round-toed, black suede, fat-heeled pumps,
her double-breasted suit, shoulder pads, gridiron-thick,
jacket nipped at the waist, straight skirt—
she was a flirt in the forties, worked retail
then took up nursing, all those boys come home from war.
She stored old clothes in cardboard boxes in the big closet,
key squirreled behind her wedding photo on the mantel,
and when the clothes fit, I wore them to school until
I discovered Auschwitz, Treblinka, their raw-boned survivors,
saw films of gaunt bodies, striped rags flapping.
My mother, low-voiced, said she didn’t know
about the camps, nobody would have believed it anyway,
but I put back her clothing, read everything I could find,
decided everyone must have known—the smoke rising,
ghosts of six million dead on its breath. I wouldn’t buy
striped outfits, wore clothes that reminded me
of nothing, clothes without a past.
I wish I could say I rose up in anger. Instead, silent, I
wrote nightmares into notebooks, rode my bike
no hands, read fantasies, fairytales,
and when America moved on to my war, I wore
jeans and flannel, black work boots,
but didn’t understand why my brother was arguing
with his friends about napalm, draft cards, Canada
until I saw a photograph of a girl younger than me,
naked, running, her scream in my throat.

(from Bone Circle)

Finding my Mother

Female head, Greece: Demeter or Persephone broken from a complete figure
Worcester Art Museum

Of course you were beautiful
but what makes you mine
is the separation, how
it leaves both of us cold.

Looking at your stone profile
I think of how the sun
leaves the world each day
and how Persephone

rests against Hades’ side
below her dark winter.
My mother, your lost body
must be honored somewhere;

but I’ll take this and chalk up
the loss to family, the cost
of a stopped heart, and whether
yours is the face

of Demeter or Persephone
really doesn’t make a difference.
Many seasons ago your children
broke from you and each other.

I take what I can get, find
in your aquiline contours
affirmation that once
we were here together

and our bond mattered.

(from Bone Circle)


In Eden bats sang to me. Their song—
waves of the sea or the cadence of thermals—
pulsebeats of air, and oh, the deep hearing
wove sound itself into tapestry: birdcalls,
whalecries, and when moths emerged
from their cocoons, I heard their shells
crash onto the sounding board of soil.
Such cacophony. I twined my hair
into ropes over my ears.

And then there were the visions—colors
blistering as lightning splitting a tree.
Festering in air, tiny creatures
lived out their lives on Adam’s eyebrows
and tunneled through the down
that forests his chest. At night
the luminescence seared my eyelids
and I lay dazzled by the intensity of sky
viscous with stars, a vast thick liquid
in which Eden was suspended.

The path of Adam’s touch on the skin of a pear
left a trail of scent so rich I could taste
the salt on his hands
when placing the fruit in my mouth.
When I ate a raspberry lobe by lobe,
the earth grew damp; paths of worms
twisted over my tongue, and the paws
of small animals and beaks of birds all lived
in the taste, so taste was never singular, but
prismatic—all fruit was one
in the history of fruit.

My body lay so open to the air
that the whir of a hummingbird
beside a nipple would cause it to harden,
and at night I had to sleep high in a woven nest
piled with flower petals and lost feathers
or wake bruised. Stepping
between God’s trees, I could know
all the stories of all the creatures
who had walked there before. And when Adam
brushed by me or touched my shoulder,
it was as though great flares of stars
had entered my body while bees
swirled around the place of touch.

Sometimes the earth smell, brown and full
of rotting leaves, roiled up from the soil
or the scent of lilacs overwhelmed me so
that plunging my head beneath the surface
of a pond was the only way to stop
the pungency. Sometimes on warm nights
when the moon hung in the sky and I lay
restless in my arbor bed, the animals
would infuse the air with mating, the musk
tawny gold, cloying.

There was no solitude,
no quiet, little peace
in the garden I remember
and everywhere the fruit had hung
heavy overhead.

(from Legacy of the Last World)

At Noon Hill

Nursing my child
I watch two streams flow into each other,
pool where beavers piled gnawed sticks.
A blue flame of water has broken through
and water striders skate the surface
above the pickerel spawning—male and female
swimming side-by-side to fertilize the eggs
without touching.

When my lover and I slid into black water
beneath the reservoir gates, he swam beneath me,
a fish large enough to ride—
our passion would carry us safely
downstream where rocks smooth as thighs
lined the streambed, and the shore itself
lay wide and white—

I remember we tried to get there
untouched by snaking currents and vines,
but where water lilies reached to the bottom
we caught on their stems and emerged
crowned with roots, trailing rich decay
onto the bank where we lay together.

I pick my way down to the water.
I am singing a lullaby my mother sang—
the sound of trees rubbing leaves together
trying to hold the wind. Now my mother
is a wind that ripples the pond
and blows my hair into my daughter’s eyes:
the child cries, reaches upward
to begin again. Bred to it, her hands
curl into my breast.
                                Little fish,
flesh of the hot springs, flesh of my flesh,
this is how earth feels
letting down rivers.

(first published in Prairie Schooner, included in Legacy of the Last World)


…the ability to identify common objects placed
in the hands of a person with closed eyes.

In the parking lot where I return the empties
for a nickel apiece, I stretch out my arms
in the declining light and let the wind seep
through my spread fingers
then close my eyes and feel something,
its tendril feet tracing my lifeline,
walk across my open palm.
The question is not
whether the delicate footsteps are those
of butterfly or moth, but
more simply said, why such a creature
would choose to walk
and in its choosing
bless me to walk upon.

(first published in Prairie Schooner, included in Legacy of the Last World)

The Lost Children

for Ali Pierce

I am walking the neighborhood of my past
and find them everywhere, the dead that are not.
I know them all—the children undone, unfinished—
our neighbor’s child whose hydrocephalus finally
let him go, my sister’s stillborn, lost to an umbilical knot,
a cousin’s baby, the crib death—a moment asleep, then gone.
Sometimes they scrabble through the doorway
wind-blown—some with sleep-crusted eyes, others
with words blooming like callas from their lips.
Sometimes they push through the soil of my garden,
blossom red and full, their petals fist-tight first, then
falling open to let bees in. I weed between, careful
not to tear the roots.

Each year a lost student, a girl with night-sky eyes—
who could not help but love this life—returns,
stretches purslane blossoms, ground-hugging vines
among herbs and sings, in fact, as light goes.

(from Legacy of the Last World)


for Juli

You have not yet
become a tree
or a smudge of moon
but you give this
and that away,
giving the wind
in dark rooms
your music,
and now
in deep stillness—
there is a voice.

(from Legacy of the Last World)


off the margins contributors are asked to respond to three questions that will be asked of all featured writers to further articulate a collective response to the question: How do we step off the margins of convention and enter the wild terrain of our writing?

In what way(s) do you identify yourself as a woman writer?

I write from the inside out, from bone and blood and marrow, listen deep and respond first to emotion then, as words come, shape their song using all the craft I can muster. As a woman writer, I reach for births, beginnings and growth. The natural world provides images I employ to contemplate the life I live.

Sometimes memory swamps me and I can’t help but write what needs to be written, even though the result exposes me and my vulnerability. Truth telling, though “slant” is mandatory.
I write to frame anger, grief and joy, to pull emotions and experiences out and represent them through art. The process is a combination of crisis management and weeding out. A kind of transformation occurs if I do it right: the experience leaves my body, is whittled true and becomes other. As a woman, I am used to discovery as a way to understand myself and the life around me. Discovery, if I’m lucky, opens to revelation, a kind of unmasking, and allows poems to shape themselves.

Whose voices have you carried with you for creative strength in order to arrive at this point in your writing career?

So many mentors have opened me: my children and their children who don’t know they speak in poetry, my middle school students who will write poems I could never dream, my husband who supports and informs my writing with humor and joy, the professor who challenged me to speak, Juli, my mother of choice, who guided me, accepted me and got me to finally admit I was a poet. The book poets led me: Levertov, Mueller, Bishop, Oliver, Sexton, Kenyon, Dickinson, Kunitz, Stafford, Frost, Thomas, Yeats and Joyce. There are those I met and loved and learned from: Eleanor Wilner, Robert Wrigley, Edward Hirsch, Ellen Bryant Voigt. I am also rich in contemporaries that sustain me, keep me honest, strengthen my work. In short, the voices I carry are ours and yours and theirs; touchstones every one; they nurture me.

What do you want our readers to know about your process of becoming a writer that might be helpful in further articulating their own individual process and growth?

I was a stutterer. Conversation and reading circles were anathema. By the time I could say what I had to say, it was always too late, but I watched and listened. I began writing poetry so I could finally speak.

I write first thing every day. I walk the dog in the back field. Sometimes I return to my desk full of words and images. Sometimes I sit and wait, start and stop, but stay, draw out a line, a phrase. Sometimes I try to reenter a past experience, to step in with open eyes, face it, cut into its truth and recast it, owning it again as a piece of art, a poem exquisite in its honest portrayal of pain or sorrow or joy.

Our experiences, the ones we hide from or behind, the hurts and fears, the joys, griefs and disappointments can strengthen us and our writing, can allow us to challenge our beliefs and self-doubts and get to work. We don’t need anyone’s permission to write. We write to find out. We write to mine what is buried and examine it in daylight. We write to sing.

Artist Statement

My work links natural landscapes and personal experiences. Music and cadence, sound echoes, simple language and understandability are some elements. If poetry is a language, it must communicate to the reader, no games. I hope my work gives voice to those who have been silenced, reveals a path for those who struggle, honors beauty, truth, survival, and selfhood.

Biography Statement

Susan Roney-O’Brien grew up in a small town, wrote, attended school, worked many jobs (factory assembly, nurse’s aide, genetics technician, researcher) before settling into teaching middle school English. She married, gave birth, lived longer than either parent, now grows gardens, keeps bees, raises chickens and walks. She is still writing.

Book publications include: Farmwife, winner of the 1999 William and Kingman Page Poetry Book Award, Nightshade Press, 2000; Earth: Cat Rock Publishing, 2011; Legacy of the Last World: Word Poetry, 2016; Bone Circle: Kelsay Books, Aldrich Press, 2018, and Thira: Kelsay Books, 2020