Elizabeth O’Brien: one poem

BUT TELL THE INCREDIBLE UNSTOPPABLE GIRL WONDER

She’ll never regret starting over.
Not how growing makes her arms and shoulders ache,
or the weight of the quarter-folded tent, which she wears
for a skirt, one corner dragging in the dirt where she goes.

If it needs patching, if spangles stray loose
from her pockets, if her one remaining horse
goes lame, it’s all just another way to start over.
There’s nothing better than pulling a stake

back up from the sod, or trusting the holes in a safety net
to hole you in one more time.
Even if she mortgaged her wind-up teeth
and part-timed her best monkeys out to a typing pool.

She sharked the jewels, loaned her shrunken heads
out over the years, one by one. Her magic spoons, flying lions,
her roaring beans, all gone. She knows she must try
to travel light. And if each fall is different, she will learn

everything about bouncing, and to keep her megaphone
in barking order. Tell her, her show will go on.
And still on and on, and each new act is revelatory
if the stands get lonely, and the gawkers

get smaller and smaller, all pinky-cheeked, always asking
if the bite of the whip is sharp as its arc—she already knows
the worst part is kissing goodbye
when another dancing girl unlaces her shoes.

When the fire-eater douses his throat at last. The trapeze
still swinging, the pasted bills peeling on the walls, flapping
as that little train pulls away. Leaving is the worst:
she would stay

Everywhere, if she could ever stay. To have to leave
is always the only regret. But then, each step off and out
is the speaks-for-itself couldn’t-stop-if-I-wanted-to
pleasure

that will call her out to the next big act
and every day she rallies the much she’s learned
to put it to use: she drops her skirt, pitches the tent
for the greatest show yet on earth, because the best part

is today’s show is always greater than the last. Incredible,
unstoppable! If you never stop working you get greater
and greater and the best part is every time
you’re stripped bare, about to step out again

in your pasties and stick-on heels,
and shaking. But you go,
out you go into the glorious new shock
of light.


Elizabeth O’Brien is the author of A Secret History of World Wide Outage (Diode Editions, 2018)She earned an MFA in Poetry from the University of Minnesota, and her work—poetry and prose—has appeared in WigleafNew England Review, The Rumpus, Diagram, Tin House, Ploughshares, Sixth Finch, Radar Poetry, Best New Poets 2016, and elsewhere.

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