Rhode Island, 1892

For Mercy Lena Brown


After you die, Lena, you will freeze

until the neighbors unearth you

open your chest, your breasts


split to either side. In your heart:

blood–frozen. Your lungs, shaped like wings,

will yield once, collapse, and won’t rise.



Death is small seeds, tiny pits and nibbles,

flesh black, coal rough.  She rises

at night, stalking our house


and brother, dressed in your skin

and the clothes we buried you in.

Father and the doctor will swear


this wasn’t, isn’t so,

but the neighbors will carve and burn

your heart all the same.



But for now, Death still eats. She consumes

the best parts of you:

your laugh, your starling voice


replacing all with wheeze

and whistle. All night, I listen to you die.

In the worst moments, I wish you stronger.


In the worst moments, I wish you already dead.

You were beautiful once, before cough hollowed

the birding call of your ribs. Your cheeks blushed.


The neighbors talk in streams

of tobacco juice. Some days, we are cursed—

some we stand in judgment. Am I next?



What good are daughters, anyway?

Sister, I cut my fingers to inspect my inners.

Like the lace of a fine dress, my body opens


in skirts. I do not seem different

from any flayed pig. I am Martha,

as you step closer to the Body,


the Blood. Every breath moves you further

from me. You were always so good at snapping

chickens’ necks: quick, clean before


they knew it was death at the throat.

Sister, it’s not long. I laugh

when I mean to cry.



I’m a mad girl today— mad and lost

and barren.

Oh Lena.  We’ll never know

a man now, having felt at night


only each other’s winter feet pressed to our calves.

The world holds his breath for you.

The sheep don’t notice; they steam the fields, chewing.


The wheel of my palm

rubs my stomach, chest, looking for the ache.

At night I wake to hold my cheek to your mouth


checking, counting.

I search the windows we fogged

with breath & messages to carry us from one side


to the other.

What won’t you tell me?

What do you see waiting?



New Jersey, 2005

It’s nice at high tide; but when the tide is out it shoals away to nothing

Bram Stoker, Dracula 


Maybe you saw me, taking off my clothes

in cars, shadowed by seat belts

& the light of the Turnpike.


We knew this game quickly, easily

in our bones, woke with it bloomed on our thighs.

Do the rules need to be explained?


Broken headlight; you strip.

Broken tail light; I do.

Look bored: just body parts


you there and me, headlights illuminating anatomy

like a children’s book of skeletons.

We drove to burn gas, reforming highways


to circles, radio a loop of bought and paid for

—what else was there? We drove to the Shore,

screamed on the snowy beaches where I grew up.


I became the Benny I’d hated

when I was a child. I wasn’t born

to lavender, fields of waving wheat


but windows of cattails at Seacaucus Junction:

sun captive by pond scum

after we emerged from Penn Station.


In basement parties we watched Death play chess.

We read Kurosawa and Nosferatu. I learned madness

as a reveal, a frame away.


I waited for it to eat me, too.

I weighed myself on the couch

careful not to press onto you—


I was so sure of being heavy.

Shadows crept staircases.

What my body wanted before I knew I did–


Some nights I expected a male face to stare back

from the mirror. I hated mirrors.

I didn’t want to know I was right,


afraid it was worse. My shadow self fat.

No, my shadow self waif, and I unwilled

always hungry, examining the bounty of friends’ refrigerators.


There was nothing at home I wanted.

I wanted not to care what happened to me

to be reckless and thin. Fat girls are cautious,


don’t want anyone to look

terrified of being seen and remembered

as an object of disgust.


Sure, virgins live longest

but who wants that?

Adults loomed at corners:


other cars, floors above basement parties

voices from other rooms, bad dubs to what we mouthed.

It was easy then, the grand unspooling


towards our own adulthood:

we’d grow new faces

that revealed nothing of their births


like the accent I dropped without effort

when I left New Jersey.

Of course I waited to die. It seemed better, easier


than making a mistake, risking no one picking up my pieces.

Who do I remember? Who might remember

me, ghost I always wanted to become?


All those nights in cars I never thought of someone seeing.

Who would know to look?

Ours was a kaleidoscope world, the car


as shelter as any house I didn’t grow up in

but crept from like a hermit crab.

When I was a child still, I was half sure


the house where I slept would blow away

if I left and didn’t return.



Profile Pic

Brynn Downing served as the 34th Writer-in-Residence at St. Albans School for Boys in Washington, DC. She earned my MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and her BA in Global Studies, focusing on Masculinity and Nationalism in Former-Yugoslavia, from the College of William and Mary. In addition to teaching, she serves as the Interviews and Social Media Editor at Four Way Review. Her work has been published in Post Road, Glass: A Journal of Poetry and Prairie Schooner, among other places. You can find her online at:


photo credit: stephanie roberts   Twitter    Instagram   SoundCloud