To My Daughters, For Fred and Alaska

I should have known better
than to take the two of you
by the sketchy carnival booth
at the Crawdad Festival
with its bowls of muddy water

but I paid three dollars
for you to toss ping pong balls
and try for a prize, a stuffed lizard
or a tie-dyed bear, I thought.

If I’d known then that the prize
was a live goldfish,
I’d have hurried you past
to the lady painting faces
or to buy a funnel cake
or to ogle again at the table
full of gemstones and old fossils

but you plunked the ball
into the bowl on the very first try
and we came home
with two little fish in plastic bags.

We spend a hundred dollars
on a twenty gallon tank
and a bag of tiny black gravel
flecked with sparks of neon
and a fairytale aquarium castle
and pretty little plants

and twenty four hours later
Sir Fred and Alaska
were belly up in the water,

too much ammonia
or too much stress, maybe,
I tried to tell you
that it wasn’t your fault,
that we didn’t know
how long they’d swam in circles
in those ugly little bags.

You cried and cried
and I buried them
in the back corner of the yard
behind the rotting camper
that’d been there since I was kid

and then I stood beside you
for a little funeral for little fish
who never had a chance,
marveling how your little bodies
held hearts the size of whales.

— Adam Kamerer


Behind The Scenes

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-- Adam Kamerer

Butterfly House

Confused cloudywing, sleepy orange,
question mark and whirlabout,
dainty sulphur, cassius blue,
palamedes swallowtail.

One hundred and fifty species of butterfly
make their homes in Alabama
and I am trying to learn
the name of every single one
so that I know what to call

the things in my belly
that flutter their wings
every time you walk into the room.

-- Adam Kamerer

Gospels

I have never been able to pray
on my knees with my hands clasped,
never could make my spirit nod its head
when the preacher men roared
about gardens with their gates shut tight–
everywhere I looked
a rusty garden gate hung wide open:

I mean, sunrise crawls up over catbrier
deep behind my grandfather’s house,
out past the pile of moonshine bottles
and brown Clorox jugs asleep in the dirt,
a congregation of chipmunks
hold fellowship in the rusting belly
of a blue Ford older than Methuselah.

I learned all my church hymns
from the yellow-throated vireos
that warble in the high dark of Conecuh,
where fawn bones and old glass
gleam up out the pine needles,

once, I waded out where the lilies sway
in the slippery clear Cahaba,
tumbled under and gasped back up
washed cold to my bones,
the closest I ever came to baptism,

and the only perilous serpent
I ever came across on Oak Mountain
never said a thing about temptation
just warned me off with his rattle
and slithered down into the kudzu.

Anyway, I liked that story
about a man swallowed up
and spat back out in the end

so often I need to go down
the throat of an Alabama wild
stew awhile alone in its humid belly
and finally surface humbled
and a little more faithful.

— Adam Kamerer


Behind The Scenes

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-- Adam Kamerer

Rachel

You drove down to Brierfield for the weekend
and almost as soon as you made it into town,
I took your hand and we let the woods eat us up.

I wanted to show you the mossy chimney piles
that marked the graves of the old slave houses,
but the last orange light of the day guttered out

and I got caught up in a tangle of sharp little briers
before I ever got to show you any ruins.
Anyway, you would never have understood

the way clay bricks and involuntary servitude
ring like church bells deep in my chest,
the way rusty nails in the dirt hum hymnals to me,

the way broken pieces of painted porcelain
laid down under a century of poison ivy
remind me of the heart I wanted to give you.

The sun gave up on us before I unthorned myself.
I held your hand and you and I sweated together
into the hot blue swelter of August twilight

and instead of dusty bits of archaeology
I held your face and you pushed me against an oak
and kissed my mouth like it meant something.

In the dim dark heat you told me you hated
the weather down here in Alabama
and I knew even if I hated it too

you’d never stay here and I’d never leave.

— Adam Kamerer


Behind The Scenes

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-- Adam Kamerer

Rose

long after you are a breath of smoke
I remember snatches of you:

we sit at your kitchen table
you smooth your skirt across your thigh
and rain comes down outside the window
and you tell me you think
you will go back to your husband soon
because the separation is heavy
on your youngest daughter
but you reach out your fingertips
to rub them against my wrist
tell me today is not soon

but before that you sit in sunshine
beside the Tennessee river
as little boats glide the water
beneath the gray O’Neal Bridge
you hold yellow flowers
even though the morning is cold
and I hold your black braided hair
you tell me he never liked little boats
or cold river mornings
or yellow flowers or your hair
and you tell me you want me
for whatever kind of ever forever is

but before that you come
to my apartment at midnight
you sit at my feet and unclothe yourself
you teach me the names of your body
he told you was too dirty to love:
your soft pressures of your gentle fingertips
and your small sharpness of your fingernails
your teeth on my thumb in your mouth
you hold my wrist with both hands
you unheavy all your quaking reveries
and tell me with a sob in your throat
that you just needed my hands tonight
to touch you the way he won’t
you tell me you want to get him out of you
and you want to put me inside

long after you are a breath of smoke
I wake in the middle of the night
with your name a drum thump in my head
the bones in my wrist ache
if you came out of nowhere today
and told me to hold your breath
I think I would cup my hands and wait

— Adam Kamerer


Behind The Scenes

Want to know the story behind this poem? Patrons who pledge $5/month or more get access to behind-the-scenes notes on my poems.

-- Adam Kamerer