Theresa Burns

To the Professor I Lived With, Whom My Mother Called Svengali


Because you introduced me to your friends
as a poet, I wanted to be a truck driver,
worm composter, game show host. Because you
encouraged me to work upstairs, lay bare the sins
of Reagan Doctrine, I longed to sleep late,
read your journal over lunch, make puns
bad enough to embarrass you at parties.
When you held forth in your sonorous professor
voice, invoking Derrida and Foucault among your
Filofaxing friends, I’d take out my scissor-
tongue and slice you into parallelograms,
half-truths that fought to become whole. Who’s
deconstructed now, I thought, happy
and alone. I carried around a book back then,
The Pill vs. the Springhill Mine Disaster, read it dozens
of times, trying to assume Brautigan’s casual
penetration of suffering and the smog
of love. Still, there was one poem about a woman
he thought could lose twenty pounds,
so even that house had to be burned down.
It was decades before I could call myself
without irony a poet, allow myself into that club
of steadfast bees, living flower to flower
for whatever sticks to us, or is carried by the wind
to seed the world.

Twenty-third Winter


Maybe it’s a form of cabin fever, my husband’s sudden
need to be so useful, so necessary,

my own usefulness feels used up, emptied with the cans
and bottles he never forgets

to drag to the curb on Tuesday nights. Always the one
to drive my daughter at dawn to the pool—

and lately bring her home as well. Thought you were still asleep
he’ll say, waving a sack of oniony bagels

or cider donuts cheerfully by the neck. There’s a well
opening in me that I can’t see the bottom of.

It’s like we’re in high school again, and he’s winning
Most Popular. And how can you complain

when a man makes dinner most nights and exhibits
a passion for laundry? When she got older, my mother began

to claim the things in our home—my refrigerator,
my couch—as if her dominion over them was the source

of her worth. Tonight, I am starting the soup early
so it fills the house, lasts for days. My pots, my bitter greens.

Theresa Burns’ poetry, reviews, and nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times, Prairie Schooner, New Ohio ReviewJAMA, America Magazine, The Cortland ReviewSWWIM, and elsewhere. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and author of the chapbook Two Train Town. In 2020, she was runner up in The Poets Prize from The Journal of New Jersey Poets, and won an honorable mention in the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize. The founder and curator of Watershed Literary Events, she teaches writing in and around New York.  

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Winter 2021