November 8, 2020

Heather Altfeld


It’s strange, here, waiting for the last of them to be counted,
surreal to think of them shoveled into piles like old snow,
cast out into the world over land and sea to seek, as it were,
their fortunes. I imagine them in the late terrible light
of those rooms, lingering in the stink of yesterday’s lunch
and the air tepid with breath held back by masks,

talking amongst themselves about the ludicrous folly
of humans, who should be tallying the tadpoles
who grew into frogs this year and the number who died
of fungi blotched on the nose, how we ought to jam
the phone lines demanding a raise in the minimum age
for kindness, a cut in the statutory limitations on human cruelty,

a referendum to mortar our cities
from the endless migration of sadness and despair.
Where is the measure in favor of clouds
not yet dreamed or stolen by the sun?
Who will root for the tulips we’ve planted so dumbly
in the dry crud of the earth?
Call it now, for the rivers and the trees and the rocks,
call it now for the rain, who knows far better than we
how to become one fierce or gentle thing.

from Poets Respond
November 8, 2020


Heather Altfeld: “I think this poem is a collision of two kinds of waiting—both are temporally communal, which makes them particularly interesting to me–the counting of the vote, and here in California, the rain, which we are all desperate for. Both portend our immediate and distant future. And despite the critics of personification, there is something about the convergence of such energies that each ballot carries, beyond its bubbled-in dots—each arrives (hopefully) from the homes of smokers or drinkers, chewed by dogs or babies, spat on by rain or dissent, and in this way, they seem to harbor a strange sort of essence of their own.” (web)

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October 12, 2016

Heather Altfeld


Some reported products of women’s bodies
should be added to the class of marvels.
—Pliny, Natural History, Volume VIII

There is no limit to a woman’s power.
Her menstrual fluid exposed to lightning
keeps storms at bay, and the mysterious
and awful power of her blood can cause
irremediable harm. If while menstruating

she walks naked through a cornfield,
caterpillars, worms, beetles, and other vermin
will fall to the ground. Care must be taken
that she does not walk at sunrise
with her hair disheveled and her girdle loose,

for then the crop dries up
and the bees flee their hives with her touch.
She blunts the edges of razors,
blackens the linen, causes mares in foal
to miscarry if her wily hands pet them

in their sweat. Not even fire can overcome
the power of her blood. Beaver oil,
taken in honey wine, will nourish her menstruation,
but if a pregnant woman steps over some
that has spilled on the floor,

she will likely miscarry.
The avoidance of miscarriage,
Pliny tells us, is guaranteed if tied around a woman’s neck
is a pouch of gazelle leather, stuffed
with the white flesh from a hyena’s breast,

seven hyena hairs, and the genital organ
of a stag. If only the receptionist
behind the iron bars at Planned Parenthood
would pass these pouches out,
along with the MediCal forms
and the neon condoms in the little brown bag!

How reassuring in those long days
during the first trimester
when every cramp has you traipsing to the bathroom
in terror, if the gonads of a stag rang
round your neck! Such time one could devote

to making booties and onesies! And in the event
of the misfortune of miscarriage, or a failure
to conceive, or, if you were to give birth
and then become postpartumly hysterical,
then the first line of defense would be the fat of a seal,

melted in the fire and inserted into the nostrils.
Lacking such access to the fat of a seal,
lint smeared with dolphin’s fat
and set alight can also tame
your grim suffering. As a young mother

terrorized by her three little charges,
I ran some laundry on high and fired up a dolphin,
but the whole enterprise proved more exhausting
than a Xanax and a glass of port. Today,
I am watching a sixteen-year-old girl

wrestle her two-year-old son to the floor
as he tried to take his third Dixie cup
from the dispenser, her round belly
surely the form of sorcery Pliny mentions,
when he warns of the extraordinary power

of a pregnant woman who clasps her hands
around her knees. Does she not know that the little tent
she has made of her fingers while waiting
for her prenatal exam is a terrible obstacle
to councils of war and transactions of business?

I thought of telling her, but decided
she likely has other worries—
wishing that five months ago she had not
taken in food, the eye of a hyena
mixed with licorice and dill,

which guaranteed conception within six days,
a fate that left her weeping on the toilet
when the cheap dipstick turned pink.
I imagine her lying on her back as he entered her,
hiccupping from that terrific repast

that ensured her place in our society
as a sorceress. At least she might rest assured
thinking that months later, sitting in this office,
her knock-kneed knocked-up self
could be influencing the men in offices upstairs

who are trying to decide whether to invade Troy
or play another round of darts.
Surely she was more consumed
with the knowledge that sexual intercourse
cures pain in the loins, dullness of the vision,

unsoundness of mind, and melancholia
than she was with the concern
that her mere presence here in a chair
crossing and uncrossing her nervous knees
could stop Haliburton in his tracks. In four months,

she will prove what Pliny discloses
in the eighth volume dictated from the baths
to his royal chronicler, a woman’s milk is the sweetest
and most delicate of all. For if she gives birth
to a boy, mere drops of her product

will cure rheumatic fever,
gout, affections of the ears, the sting
of a toad’s juice squirted in the eye,
fluxes of the eyes, the uterus, and the bowels.
If she bears a girl, her milk stands a small chance

of curing spots on the face. No doubt then
she will be all the rage amongst her barren
and acned friends. She wobbles slightly
getting out of the orange plastic chair;
still a starling, fallen from one tufted nest

into the sly yarn of another, yolking her arms
to chicks who will cheep and drain and torment—
perhaps there is solace in the fact
that she will no doubt go on
to prove her extraordinary powers as a woman

when one apocryphal day she will awaken at sunrise
to walk through the cornfields, bare and bleeding,
impervious to the hail and the rain and the wind,
choking the mice and the crops behind her.

from Rattle #53, Fall 2016
Tribute to Adjuncts

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Heather Altfeld: “Because much of my life is lived on a very practical level required of someone who teaches six different courses a term, I also have a fanciful life in which I am a practicing physician in the Medieval era, doing research on the history of prior medicine. This poem reflects my deep interest in how the magic and lore of medicine changed over time, and the elements of possibility still lay ahead of us in the fog.” (website)

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September 1, 2014

Heather Altfeld


Dear Richard. How you wanted to be called dearest.
I couldn’t. There weren’t enough hours in the day then
to know the cathedral of your whimsy, nor the catacombs
of your desire. I will take you to the moors, you said
the first time, spooning against the small of my back, curving me
hard into your sadness. So many moors. Petrolia,
phone booth in the rain, car slipshod in the mud,
dialing the rotary for rescue. What you remembered
was hiking in the sand to the lighthouse, leaning me
against its old rail, speaking of Arabia, Lawrence
in the dunes. Everything I have done since
was in your image. The men I loved waver
beneath the shadows of you, seduced by Durrell,
the orange blossoms, white stone of Alexandria. The Arab motion
of spitting. Your lips, heart-shaped and full like a girl’s,
drawing out my breasts. How could you
do this to me? The phone crackles, gin in your fist, bitters
swung into the long planks of your porch. The butterflies
beat their wings in Japan and there are no surprises here. It’s all
chaos theory, darling, you slur into the cord, a hundred vocal
strums singing the Pleiades, my heart warming like pewter
to your words. I will drink to you drinking to me
tonight as the apple orchards glow pink
beneath the clouds and the wheat stalks bend
in our names. Oh, my love. I am just now approaching
who you wanted me to be then. You are right,
dear Dick, this is the worst time of day, when I pull the thread
of a match along the stove grate, bursting the small flicker of flame.
You’d slide past me then to reach the napkins, a dinner fork,
the memory of your hand on my hip as you moved alongside. Tonight I set
the table for you, the full moon of your dinner plate glowing empty
in the evening light. Call me, too, when the night tries to swallow you
past the lump in its throat. Ask me what matters, and I will tell you,
the phone trembling hard against the little knock of our hearts.

from Rattle #43, Spring 2014
Tribute to Love Poems

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Heather Altfeld: “This poem is one of my many homages to Richard Hugo, whose work I did not learn about until someone in my writer’s group brought ‘Letter to Kathy from Wisdom’ as a prompt. ‘Read it again, Bob,’ I said, and he did. It wasn’t enough. I’ve gnarled up two copies of 31 Letters and 13 Dreams in the last few years. I wrote this in a meek attempt to capture, as Hugo does, the kind of longing and sadness that time sets and screws into our bones.” (website)

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