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The Word

September 25, 2009

by Susan Roney-O’Brien

He liked his girl
innocent, and when on her knees at twelve
she refused to pray, said
she was too tired, didn’t believe anyway,
then told him what the boy across the street had whispered,
that fuck that lit up his mouth
what his squat fingers had done
clamping the front of her shirt like a crab,
her father backed her into a closet,
unbuckled his belt and slammed it
hard across her bare ass
but it took so long for her to scream
that when she did that word escaped
fueled his arm, and her mother ran
upstairs to stop him but
stopped herself instead when she saw his face
and remembered the taste of his belt on her flesh,
watched the strap land again and again
until blood fell and he stepped back
turned from his wife in tears, the girl
gasping the same bad word until
cool cloths and dreams did their work.
Apologies became denials and
grew into a forest of thorns
nobody could see
and the girl didn’t know if
what she remembered was real
or a bad dream because she had swallowed
the thorns and they flowered
inside like a secret she never told
even when she married, and one night
when her husband, backing her down to
keep her in line with a few gut punches
where the bruises wouldn’t show
unclamped the brass buckle from his jeans
and jerked the leather belt from beneath his belly
to teach her to keep her goddamned mouth
shut, to get her to screw when he
wanted her to, that closet door
unhinged like a jaw and thorns made stone,
honed to diamond points, gleamed through,
and she ran to the kitchen, grabbed
the butcher knife from its slit in the block
and caught him, slashed the soft pink swell
of his gut, screaming
fuck fuck fuck in her head
but making no sound at all.

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Susan Roney-O’Brien teaches, reads for The Worcester Review, and writes. Her work has appeared in Calyx, Slipstream, Yankee, Prairie Schooner, Diner, Concrete Wolf, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, Margin, and other magazines. She has won the Worcester County Poetry Association Contest, the William and Kingman Page Poetry Book Award for her chapbook, Farmwife, and the New England Association of Teachers of English “Poet of the Year” award.

  1. karyn
    September 25, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    Such a powerful story. I returned to it today more than once …

  2. September 25, 2009 at 11:45 pm


  3. eve rifkah
    September 26, 2009 at 10:24 am

    Bravo Susan

  4. eve rifkah
    September 26, 2009 at 10:40 am

    Bravo Susan, Love hearing your voice –

    the power of the poem the knife
    slashing through time
    the dad the husband
    the pain

    a poem with strong bones

  5. September 27, 2009 at 6:57 am

    Tough but telling. Well told.

  6. October 7, 2009 at 8:21 pm

    jarring. and that means beautiful. thank you.

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