Poems by Kathleen S. Burgess

These poems come from the book What Burdens Do Those Trains Bear Away: A Memoir in Poems published by Bottom Dog Press, Harmony Series, 2018. Used with grateful permission.

 “Cave of the Brujos”
            By Kathleen S. Burgess

As the hurricane shook and plucked the isthmus
like the neck of a chicken, hills bled mudslides,
a stew of floodwater, crops, trees, village huts,
indeterminate shapes. Instead of staying in, we

took a bus to Sololá for market day. Wool ponchos
lifted, flapped like heavy wings in the wind. Soaked,
we found most stalls unoccupied. The deluge beat
echoes from the tin roof. Feral winds hissed, yowled.

Over coffee and rolls, we gestured to be understood.
The return bus forded cascades, sudden rapids.
We backed a mile up a muddy mountain road when
the driver found the two-lane highway washed away.

On the long ride home, we planned a midnight hike
to a cave where the local brujos sacrificed chickens.
Sunday night the rains lessened to heavy mist that
slicked the muddy grass. Miguel whispered ahead.

Behind me…was anyone behind me? We walked
steadily from the valley, until my sandal tripped
on something. I slid, caught a tough weed to stop.
Miguel flicked and aimed a flashlight my way,

then at the valley floor. The beam didn't reach
that far. We began again. In clouds, we trembled
on a narrow ledge above the lake, and climbed
the final twenty feet or so up slippery boulders

to the cave. The brujos were gone. Jane pulled
matches from a vial. Lit candle stubs. We cupped
flames against winds that suckled at our shirts.
Inside, a waist-high stone seemed to be an altar,

with carvings indistinct and darkened by decades
of smoke. A hand-rolled cigarette lay on top.
None dared touch it or the small tokens arranged
in a circle. Reddened feathers littered the dirt floor.

We passed a joint where brujos might have sat.
Talked in whispers, watching silhouettes contort
across the walls. Animals, creatures of dreams,
agonized faces appeared to pass over the walls.

Erik said, You never know you’re on an adventure
until it’s over. To the girl from small-town Ohio,
all this was adventure. But Ted grew agitated,
anxious in the presence of a cave of idolatry,

so we left the recesses, their secrets unexplored.
Shadows, stars, our bodies consumed by night,
we started the long hike down to our pensión.
A world blighted, foreign, about to wake and rise.

            By Kathleen S. Burgess
There is no wing like meaning.
—Wallace Stevens

In the way of human architectures, I think of shaping
words and lines, as though fitting clothes to an April body.

Wanting something comfortable, yet new.
It’s spring. Greening. Moths about. Last night one flew in.

Large-bodied with black stripes, a three-inch wingspan,
its approach dizzy, deranged by porch lights, the startled

buzz propelled itself at cheek and mouth.
Astonished me to other wings, a span of decades.

It was on the River Misahualli—memories
as clearly drawn as antennae. Butterflies in a cluster

on a beach of gold, below the round hut on stilts, alit.
Clothed me in wings the colors of Ohio sunsets,

their edges with the ink of night and stars 
coming on. Unrolled proboscides to explore and sip

light as thought. When papery wings 
brushed hairs of arms and legs, messages lit my skin.

“Tourists at a Sunday Market”
            By Kathleen S. Burgess

She steps into the hollow mouth and legs.
Blue bodied, she button-closes its zipper chin.
This tourist strolls the market in worn denims—
the once-white cotton dyed, faded, stoned.

Threads chafe, stripe into her knees.
Collectors, jet-set women, wear pants skin-tight
as Xipe Totec in the flayed skin of an Aztec’s
sacrifice. They lose sensation and bloods fertility.

One hand in her pocket fingers
the green jade bracelet bargained, bought
so cheap a thumbnail chips it like a bar of soap.
Her fabric frays with indigo nerves.

She turns and finds the peddler woman gone,
slipped deep within the pocket of the throng.

“The Weaver from Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala”
            By Kathleen S. Burgess

Every Maya village has its patterns.
Every woman, a huipil, shirt of yarn

spun and woven in the necessary colors.
On one, brocaded flowers enclose a bird

with a silver eye; on others, six-pointed stars,
volcanoes, owls, scorpion tails to sting clouds.

The artist warps infinity from the ordinary.
A huipil costs her months on knees—backstrap

of the loom wrapped about hips; the farther
cord, umbilical, tied to a sacred ceiba tree.

Sheds open, close, the way heart valves create
a beat of blood. The weaver turns her loom

head down, shuttles weft thread side to side,
growing fabric, bringing the cloth to life. 

Wave on wave, she rocks with contractions
of the loom, maintains tension, and maintains.

Beneath the tree, the eldest daughter works
a smaller loom beside Mamá. She dreams 

of selling this belt for jelly-colored sandals.
Her brother toddles up and thrusts his head 

through Mama’s opened armhole for a breast.
Silver-eyed, the weaver sells her milky huipil.

“A Faithful Joy…A Joy That Is Lost”
            By Kathleen S. Burgess
from Riqueza or Richness
—Gabriela Mistral

Returned from the vast rainforest that canopies sloth,
giant otter, dolphin, piranha, bullet ant, and prehistoric
hoatzin, I found gaudy macaws in backyard cardinals.

Bird-of-paradise leaves in willows weeping. Heard
creek music rinsing dishes as Mirror Lake spattered.
I turned from the path to Neil north toward the library,

aching the loss of green air, tumbling water. Walked
whistling of the small stove, pot of oatmeal—a song
of wood that wouldn’t boil water after a rain. A song

for the Huaorani couple who offered a two-day hike
to their village, an offer from could-be cannibals.
From the university eddy and flow, a man stepped out—

on his neck, a wooden cross on a gold chain. He spat,
You must be happy to whistle like that. Yet I whistled
to happy myself. Yes, he promised Paradise. His eyes

scorned my clothes: Maya huipil, cloud weave I
sewed into a skirt, braided leather and tire tread sandals
on which I hurried to work typing textbooks and tests.

I imagined more of life. Now a teacher, wife, mother,
and a student once again, I walk south on Neil Avenue
from the refashioned library, a million culled voices,

the old path backward past Mirror Lake. A coed wilts
by a fountain I don’t recall. Water gushes, glitters, mists.
Sweat bees swarm arms summer-bare the way memories

hover and wound. Falling water rattles the surface.
An emerald tree boa vines up a limb. A breeze sprays us
with rainbows dispersing the heat, the sting of home. 

- Senior editor at Pudding Magazine: The Journal of Applied Poetry, Kathleen S. Burgess’s poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, as North American ReviewMain Street RagSou’westerThe Examined LifeCentral American Literary Review, others. Poetry collections include The Wonder Cupboard (NightBallet Press, 2019), What Burden Do Those Trains Bear Away (Bottom Dog Press, 2018), Gardening with Wallace Stevens (Locofo Chaps’ 100 Days/100 Chapbooks, 2016), Reeds and Rushes—Pitch, Buzz, and Hum (editor, 2010) and Shaping What Was Left (Pudding House Publications, 2006). Four-time Pushcart Prize nominee and two-time Best of the Net nominee, she won a 2018 Sheila-Na-Gig poetry contest, and has won or placed in other national and statewide contests.  

Copyright©2020 by Kathleen Burgess. All Rights Reserved.