December 18, 2020

Valentina Gnup


You know the one where the couple lives together 
for twenty years until he leaves her 
for his dead brother’s widow— 
they divorce, he marries the widow, 
then nine months later, he dies too.
Like Hamlet, minus the poison in anyone’s ear. 

It’s hard to talk about without sounding bitter— 
even our daughters joke,
That’s when my father married my aunt,
and I became my own cousin.
It’s the story I take out on the third date 
if a man asks to know more. 
I can’t just say my husband died
or forever after I’d be lying. 

The beginning was sweet, 
the way beginnings can be—
we got together right after I finished high school. 
All summer I listened to him sing and play guitar 
at this Mexican restaurant where the waitress was blind
or just kind enough to serve me Kahlúa and creams, 
I’d sip like a hummingbird—barely 
eighteen years old, drunk on infatuation, 
Simon and Garfunkel covers, and coffee liqueur.

When I moved away to college, 
he sent me letters on thin blue stationery—
he pasted one-cent stamps all over the envelopes, 
drew pictures, and quoted from poems.
I’ve carried that box of letters with me 
every place I’ve ever lived.

And our marriage, like any other—
groceries and children, spaghetti and laundry, 
except we had music, 
he’d play piano, and we’d sing,
I am an old woman named after my mother, 
my old man is another child that’s grown old.

Now I’m the old woman in the song
writing this letter to you—
studying my life like I’m at a market choosing plums, 
weighing my ripeness against my bruises,
offering whatever sugar might be left.

from Rattle #69, Fall 2020


Valentina Gnup: “It’s a true story—the changes I made are minor, and I still have that box of letters. I sometimes feel sad that my high school students will probably never experience the pure joy of seeing a love letter in their college dorm mailbox.” (web)

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July 27, 2017

Ekphrastic Challenge, June 2017: Editor’s Choice


No Name #2 by Ryan Schaufler

Image: “No Name #2” by Ryan Schaufler. “A Thousand Possible Clouds” was written by Valentina Gnup for Rattle’s Ekphrastic Challenge, June 2017, and selected as the Editor’s Choice.

[download: PDF / JPG]


Valentina Gnup


Go find a pencil
the world is a terrible first draft.

When you write a story, you have choices—
horizon, chickweed, loneliness,

a copse of trees harbors soldiers
stealthily as a virus invades a body

or holds redwoods, gentle as grandparents,
collecting their centuries in a map of pale rings.

Listen, a foghorn beyond the fields
moans like an animal suffering

the sky has surrendered its hours
or exploded into a thousand possible clouds.

The children on the road far behind you
have lost their parents, their country—

someone got too greedy
someone believed he knew what was right.

Or they’re your children on that road
carrying home blackberries to make cobbler—

cut the butter into the flour, stop to kiss
the swirled crowns of their heads.

Ekphrastic Challenge, June 2017
Editor’s Choice

[download audio]


Comment from the editor, Timothy Green, on this selection: “This amazing poem by Valentina Gnup seems to describe the mood of the painting by naming only what isn’t contained within it—all the things off-frame that we aren’t able to see. The best ekphrastic poems often operate tangentially, after a leap of separation from the visual content that creates the same effect as the cut that bridges disparate parts of a haiku: the poem is both completely a part of the painting and completely not. Gnup crafts this special kind of schism perfectly. I’m sure the children are there on the road, just off-frame, right next to the cow that sounds like a foghorn. What’s more, I read this on the 4th of July, and somehow, almost magically, all of Summer 2017 America is contained in the painting, too.” (website)

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March 11, 2016

Valentina Gnup



Today the lobby feels like a cocktail party.

Clients rarely bring books to the welfare office.

Aladdin is playing on the TV,
strains of “A Whole New World” fill the room.

I’m at the reception desk by eight,
people already lined up between the ropes
like they’re waiting for a Ferris wheel.

My first client is an exotic dancer,
in the shortest shorts possible,
bleeding from her neck.

Her legal name is Baby.
She is a mother of three children
with three absent fathers.

My next client, a young woman in sunglasses and a wig,
using an alias,
hiding from a man who beat and raped her
in front of their four-year-old son.

* * *

I can hear two strangers commiserate over the waiting list
for Section 8 housing;

two more argue which homeless shelter
serves the best food;

and it seems someone is always mentioning
a person they know who cheats the system.

But every single hour

while the rest of the city
sip chai lattes at coffee houses
or eat over-priced panini
at trendy cafes,

someone sits across from me
who is hungry.

The newspaper calls it food insecurity

it looks like terror.

* * *

Between clients
I sneak jelly beans into my mouth
to reassure myself
I have enough;
there will be enough.



A woman in a black burqa,
only her eyes visible
behind their narrow window,

leans across my desk
and asks

Where can I get free birth control?

I can see on her case,
she has six children under ten.

I slip her Planned Parenthood’s number.

Her husband is ten feet away.
She glances in his direction,
and whispers

If he hears us, he will beat me.

Contraception is frowned upon;

wife abuse, it seems, is not.

She’s thirty-two years old
and moves like a grandmother.



A girl, my daughter’s age,
comes to the desk.

She twists her long, dark hair,
and stares at me.

She tells me her friend filled out her paperwork
for her.

The application asks:

Last grade completed?
The friend has written a null sign.

When I inquire, she admits

I didn’t get to go.

She tells me she is from a family of gypsies,
who do not believe in educating their girls.

In this country, in this century,
she never attended school.

* * *

I ask for her signature.
She clutches her social security card
and carefully copies

each letter of her name.



The State closes people’s food stamp cases
when they are incarcerated—

clients are forced to return to this office
and confess
they’ve been locked up.

The woman at my desk seems friendly,
a stubbed out cigarette
tucked behind her ear,

rhinestones glued to her acrylic fingernails.

I break the unspoken rule
and ask why she went to jail.

She answers, Oh, just a PV—

as if people in the regular world
should know a Probation Violation
when they hear one.

She shrugs and says,
Once they got ya, they got ya.

* * *

I want to press harder,
ask what put her in jail the first time,

but there are questions
you never ask:

Why do you stay with him,
when he throws you
down stairs?

Do you need another baby,
when you can’t support
the five (or seven or ten)
you already have?

And why all those tattoos
on your face?

* * *

I won’t talk about
the acrid smell
of body odor,
urine and mildew
that lingers in the lobby,
clinging to the homeless
and their sad bags
of everything.

I won’t admit
some days I’m toxic with judgment,
calling clients
nut jobs and rodeo clowns
behind their backs.

I check my personal email
and count the minutes till lunch.



On my lunch break I take a walk.

Across the street
a Somali woman leaves Safeway
with two bags full of groceries
balanced on top of her head.

Graceful as an egret,
she crosses
the highland plateau in her memory,

she speaks into a phone
tucked between her hijab and cheek.

At noon on the corner of Pepe’s Sandwiches
and Quick Cash Checks,
the world is full of every poverty
and every wealth.

I wait for the light.

from Rattle #50, Winter 2015
Readers’ Choice Award Winner


Valentina Gnup: “When I worked at the Department of Human Services last year, I hid a notebook in a drawer at my desk and secretly kept notes about the clients. I probably would have been fired if my manager caught me. The state offered rather ineffective workshops on how to handle ‘secondary trauma.’ I survived by working on the poems. I wish ‘Morning at the Welfare Office’ was a product of my imagination, but every character in it came through that door.” (website)

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July 14, 2011

Valentina Gnup


Alone in my kitchen, I copy
a chicken salad recipe from a Woman’s Day magazine
and plan tomorrow night’s dinner.

We don’t know what will happen
between one raindrop and the next,
yet we speak of August as if it were a contract,
a promise the sky made.

When I was twenty-five I married a drummer
and silenced him with disapproval.

Now I’m married to a poet—
he reads poems on the porch
and pets my head like a puppy.

My daughters grew tall as honeysuckle and left—
they took their soft skin, their buttermilk biscuit smell,
the endless hungers that organized my days.

My domain has shrunk to the narrow bone of my ankle.

I did what was asked.
I did what I feared.
Like every woman I have ever known,
I became my mother.

I stroll through the rows of houses and yards;
above me a skein of geese break in and out of formation—
fluid as laundry on a line.

Other women are out walking their dogs,
murmuring to the mothers inside their heads.

In the eastern sky the first star is out,
preparing for the long night of wishes.

At dusk every flower looks blue.

from Rattle #34, Winter 2010
Rattle Poetry Prize Honorable Mention


Valentina Gnup: “I recently moved back to the West Coast, after living in North Carolina for six years. Something about being in a new place again had me assessing my position in life—and that is where ‘We Speak of August’ came from. I showed it to my mother, and she had a few problems with it—typically when she disapproves of one of my poems, I know I’ve done something right.” (website)

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