Emily Banks



There’s nothing left to breathe

in New Jersey today. Air quality alert

has lost its power to alarm; fear

erodes to agitation as another report

recommends we stay inside, and anyway

there isn’t much outside to see

but old lechers sucking their last

good teeth. The cat’s eyes are half-closed

and half covered by her inner eyelid,

white membrane that makes her seem

a trickster, playing between wake and sleep.

I’m wasting youth; soon it will be okay

for relatives to show pictures of me today

and remark she was so beautiful

with unrepressed surprise. Often,

as with my grandmother, not so much

at the beauty but the smile free of bitterness,

how her eyes glowed in a high-waisted

bathing suit, or in her wedding dress

before lines of resentment had set in.




The woman I danced with in my underwear

after swimming in the Sea of Galilee at midnight

left her lover’s car to share with me

a sweet green drink and kept repeating a word

in Arabic I only later learned was for “sorrow.”

I’ve carried nothing of her but her voice,

the clear and mournful song of a desert lark,

high-pitched, pleading. All I could do was move

my bare feet and my hips to a faint rhythm

from the car’s radio, throwing up my hands to mimic her.

Not a sea, technically, but a lake enclosed by land.

I swam slow breaststroke towards the swelling moon,

towards something that I’d heard

might clean my body pure. Full trust of lowering

the self—half exposed skin—into a pit of shadow,

foreign water. Like the woman at the bottom of the cliff

I watched in Manarola, years later, staring into the Mediterranean—

was I wrong to assume you were thinking

about death? Those incomprehensible depths

in sunlight, bright as a glass of ripe white wine

but nights it breaks so hard against the stone,

huge and alone, bellowing with terrors

like a child grown too big for comforting,

like staring into a mirror in a pitch black room, your face

without the artificial veil of light

a dark blank space.




I wouldn’t elect him for dogcatcher.

Surreal – grown men with giant nets

chasing a rabbit through a parking lot.

I’m half asleep. A van’s parked on the street,

back door hanging open. The rabbit escaped

from a neighbor’s yard, the one with chickens,

geese. With city views. I’ve never seen a dogcatcher,

but know, from my father’s old joke

it must not be the most sought-after job.

Where was the rabbit going, anyway?

It must know it’s much too soft

and round to live like the stray cat

who haunts our door, crying like he wants to be let in,

then running off. How many uniforms

does it take to catch one runaway rabbit?

That trickster archetype, you never know

which way his hop might land. I saw a box of rabbit, dead,

in the freezer section of the Great American

in Prattsville as a child, thought I smelled it though

I couldn’t have—like cedar wood-shavings

and blood—and the old farmer told us that the howls

we heard at night were coydogs,

offspring of family pets who’d slunk away

like teenagers in the night to meet the wild ones

with straight-up pointed ears and sleeker snouts,

tan fur that hides them in the summer grass

as they pounce and feast on fresh-caught rabbit meat.

A myth, some say, but what is in the face

of my sweet shepherd dog, her floppy ears

twitching in her sleep, one lip curling back to reveal

black gums, white teeth? A low deep growl.

Through her dreams she hears their howls,

higher pitched than that of a brave wolf,

more childlike—yelping, insistent barks

breaking through moans.

Her leg bones move to chase

or run to them—uncanny other, other,

ancestor, bred by nothing but their own

fierce lust. They say you can make a wild animal

your pet, but you will never know

when they’ll revert to instinct. Devour you.

When I touch her with my foot, she snaps

her teeth at air, startled back out of it.

Then her whole body sighs

like a lone woman on a fire escape

watching a rabbit press against a fence

and reaching to the bottom of her purse

for what isn’t there, a cigarette.



For Hannah, on the Dock


Your knees bent bony, asymmetrical

like a filly born wet, balancing,

long stretching feet feeling the water

for its temperature,

sand-colored hair chopped off, tied up

in a top-knot, sunglasses perched

above eyeglasses while you thumb

a thrift store Bishop, only half reading,

pausing to eat a sun-fermented slice

of watermelon, rub a spot

of hot, fast-melting sunscreen over skin

already shedding off.

I want to write the words that girls like you

will read on docks like this

before they know they’re girls.

Those careless summers gathering dry wood

to start fires, crashing through scratchy brush

to find a broad flat rock, poking crayfish

with sticks to see if they would pinch.

Their ghost-white backs and claws

like a creature unfinished waiting

for its details to be colored in.

We were so brave back then,

holding them by their tails while they twisted

their fetal, translucent legs up to hurt us.

Grown nervous now we cringe

from water spiders casting out wide webs

off of the dock, the female Argiope aurantia,

black body painted like a totem pole

with a chiseled yellow skull and narrowed eyes.

She eats the male, they say, when she is through,

then spins three sheets of silk to hold her eggs.

Stretching on your stomach, chin to wood,

you call them writing spiders, show me how

they draw thick zigzag lines across their webs

like zippers pulled to hold the center in,

ribbons crisscrossed to showcase long sharp legs

and piercing mandibles.

Nobody knows for sure

why when she comes of age

the female of the species starts to write.

Maybe it’s a shield to hide behind, or a trick to appear

larger to enemies, a quick way to dispose

of excess web—or else to attract a mate with lines of silk,

pieces of egg sacs and debris from half-devoured prey

signaling readiness. Announcing change.


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Emily Banks is a Ph.D. student at Emory University. A Brooklyn native, she holds an MFA from the University of Maryland and a BA from UNC-Chapel Hill. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Cimarron Review, Yemassee, Pembroke Magazine, Breakwater Review, Devilfish Review, Mikrokosmos, and the anthology “What Matters” (Jacar Press, 2013). She was named a finalist in the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival’s 2015 Poetry Contest as well as for the 2015 Peseroff Prize, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.