Michael Cadnum · The Woman Who Discovered Math

Hearing the Shot

Wasp on the spoon at your
elbow, great yellow lemons in the tree.
It was hot all day in those months,
mountain black with brush fires.
Whole towns would come, but we

drank iced coffee in aluminum glasses,
wondering what it was,
that pin-prick in the empty
swath of the dry river.
I smoked then, Luckies, and you

chugged whiskey sours.
You still had faith, too,
the fourteen-karat cross
in the hollow of your neck.
Three months before hikers
found her, and then we watched

the coroner's crew collect the spindles
and birds' nests, what was left.
We wanted to stand in the margin of the tale,
road cut strata shelving
up from the soil, even in the dark,

years later, even when I wake hard,
the mirage scumming stars,
the harvest what I remember, the long
twilight as they found more and more
coyote-worried chalk and we
were in the midst, in the open, scattered
body of the waitress from the Alamo Bar.

The Woman Who Discovered Math

The zero, metastasis, She cooked it up.
We woke up dawns, and if the corn
was clean-stripped and fog blown dry
you could see her farm,
her tall pole-lights, her
silhouette up already,
stirring decimals into fodder.

One moon, one sky.
How many was never asked.
The low black straight-line on the prairie,
the live, kicking herd of them, sum-sows,
three months three weeks and
the integers hit the ground.
When she drove into town
we met her eyes sideways,

her herd's piss-by-the-ton
in the ground water,
the mega-swine breaking out of her pens,
rooting hounds to pulp, tearing turnip
patches, all of us secretly thinking of ways

to tongue her. She was
silken, pearls and black gloves,
stepping around the fragments
of sidewalk.

Mothers kept a picture of her
folded hard across her face.
The night she burned alive,
the farm flowed scarlet,
field to the middle of the sky,

fathers swatting kids half-heartedly,
swearing it was a shame,
such a pretty, taking deep breaths,
letting them out, cities in our lungs.

Rain’s End

Now it's happened, sun and
the beginning of the long, rainless
months. Whatever surprise
will descend from the sky
come and gone.
The goslings are furred with new

yellow, and the eucalyptus
drape shade over the bicyclist
resting on the gray roots
of a lawn dark with the first
sprinkler spray of the year.

And I on my way over to
you, twilight, the sky-cracks
in the adobe-gray vacant lot spilling
tumble weed, morning glory,
sidewalks slumping, earth shrugging,

the town more what it is,
salt fluff on the driveway,
hare pelt in the wide
parking lot. Everything is
too late, the beach

sifting up from below
the bluff, sand in the gutter,
whatever is possible
over with, sun-dried and
harrowed, the hush-
hush of the stiff field clods
underfoot, the list of all
the things anyone has ever said
or done a spool of white
chalk, hollow where life
was secret. Stillness.
Mummified snow-cone

papers and .22-spiked
beer cans so quiet this far.
The search over. No more
survivors. Touching your door,
so the children won't wake.
Patting it, like a living thing
soothed. Living, soothed.


We argued so hard that night we had
the walls and little else, the tile
loose underfoot, the table with
its cheese rind, the broken bones of a meal.
The farmhouse trapped the heat,

stopping everything,
the rest of our lives
only the table, the chair, the lamp
sizzling as one of the moths
won. In the screenplay
I write about this, there will be
a man startled out of his chair,
empty glass of wine in his hand.
It lasted only a heartbeat,
the sudden double-back

a glove tossed clean and out
the door into the hall.
And it escaped, the night
black but for the pricks
of light in the villa down-
valley, and the stars.
They say they hear

their own speech,
a world within the world.
I never mentioned it
to you, and I wonder if I had to.
In your biography
you will stretch your hand
upward to touch it. The actress who
plays you will turn and the
wings will pass in the radiance
of her gaze. In the tapestry
of your life it shows the bat
pausing over you,
claimed by you, and even
when you see nothing it folds your
body around its tongue.

The Strongman Eats a Car

All that matters
is the mouth, the taste
of noon, each day
a fragment of the city that moves.
The trees, the dogs
drowsing in the shade:
he feels it, a stone
he has to carry.
What is heat compared
with this, what is autumn,
the new chill in the early dusk?

Slowly the work is done.
He wakes at dawn, but stays
beside her, loving the calm,
cadence of her heart.
They say the cold
is worse with age,
but to him it is
only a new, invisible weight.
He drinks a glass of water.
And then puts another
knot of iron on his tongue.

A year done, a year to go,
each day another twist
of steel, each night a slow
turning as a question travels
the road. Already
the birds have vanished,
the clay eyelids of nests
under the eaves. Strength
is simplicity. Already
frost glues the pine needles
to the stepping stones.
Here is the Fiat,

a volume torn in half.
And here are the tailings
from the mine of blood,
what he had known without
understanding, hours
he escaped without
leaving, iron worn
silver by the human night.

Fridge Death

It was the year
we first knew it really happened.
Before then, the red silence
was a tale, something that almost
never took place.
The big
blue trucks poured the foundation slabs,
construction crews shivering
in the first cold. Worms dried to string

on the sidewalks, milkweed in the cracks,
the whole place on the way somewhere,
a river that was wide and filled with tumbleweeds,
torn-down cars, and fridges,
abandoned appliances,
duct tape weathered to silver scabs.

It never rained, and smog
was a hook in each lung, breath by breath.
The quarry was gravel,
hiding places. Every door in town
was a number we could
just barely figure, multiplication tables,

warnings, like what strangers did
while the candy sucked.
Carl with the skateboard scabs
on his elbows, the last one
ever done with the spelling tests.
They found him in

one of the lost Amanas,
and his legend went through us:
how they had to scrape
to get him out,
how in the end they said a prayer
and buried the white box.


Bat, Nightsun
Hearing the Shot, The Licking River Review
Rain's End, Midwest Quarterly
The Woman Who Discovered Math, Poem
The Strongman Eats a Car, Slant

This collection is © Michael Cadnum 2001.
All rights reserved.