Catherine Chandler, poet, translator, and editor, is the author of five poetry
collections, including Lines of Flight, shortlisted for the Poets’ Prize, and
The Frangible Hour, chosen by Dick Davis for the Richard Wilbur Award. Winner of
the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award, the Leslie Mellichamp Prize, and nine-time
nominee for the Pushcart Prize, Catherine is an unapologetic formalista whose
work has been widely published in journals and anthologies in North America,
Europe and Australia. Three of Chandler's poems were chosen by George Elliott
Clarke, Poet Laureate of Canada, for inclusion in the National Poetry Registry,
Library of Parliament. For more information, please visit her poetry blog, The
Wonderful Boat at
What made me buy the nested Russian doll
whose faded paint and fractured wooden frame
had doomed her to a yard sale? Had her fall
from grace inspired a longing to reclaim
for her, for fifty cents, some lost esteem?
Or would the curious plaything prove to be
my granddaughter’s new toy? No, it would seem
I brought the pregnant outcast home for me.
For women I had tried so long to trace,
Matryoshka held a tangible motif:
same yet separate, I knew the face,
gave up each grievance, sanctioned every grief.
Restored, they stand here, echoing one another—
mother, daughter, mother, daughter, mother.
First published in 14 by 14 as "Matryoshka", April 2008. "Salvage"
finished third in the 2020 Better Than Starbucks sonnet contest.
The Deep Season
Good-bye to lavish mercies. Green and lush,
the harmless scam
lies exposed by little deaths—a blush,
a ﬁssured dam,
some mild dismay. Diminishment. The hush
of who I am.
First snow has not yet fallen, and the sun
is stinging bright,
demanding discipline, as one by one,
my once airtight
beloved arguments have come undone,
I see the forest. I can see each tree,
the blackened ground,
the ﬁeld behind, the space inside of me
that makes no sound,
yet aches for what I’m not, but need to be—
lost. Then found.
In flower language, the cinquefoil is the symbol of the beloved daughter, as the leaves bend over to cover the flower
when it rains, as a mother would protect her daughter.– Cable Natural History Museum, Cable, Wisconsin
Each spring she’d pick an early pee-the-bed
for me and say,
This for you, for Mother’s Day.
I’d put it in a vase, though it was dead,
and praise its droopy yellow head.
Then later, it was Loves me, loves me not,
for daisies know
more than a sprig of mistletoe,
or mothers who, it seems, know diddly-squat.
At least that’s what I thought she thought.
And when her lilac love had passed away
of cancer, she
said it with roses, gracefully;
came home, crossed out her summer wedding day,
chopped off her hair. Faded to grey.
How can a mother’s store of moss and cress
soften the hell
of marigold and asphodel?
Can timid snowdrops make a loss hurt less?
Often no. Maybe. Yes.
It’s time and thyme we’ll need; the flowering reed;
black poplar, white.
Cactus. Yarrow. Love outright.
The weeping willow and the wishing weed—
those dandelions, gone to seed.
Originally published in Soundzine
How desolate, exposed, the living room
is now without our customary spruce.
How green of me to think, expect, presume
it would be better, ending in a truce
this time. No elders at the fireside,
I sigh, no kneeling oxen. It is clear
that I have failed again, although I tried
to trim my tree sufficiently this year.
In January’s pallid, lifeless light,
with April pending like a clockwork star,
the Magi gone, the family in flight,
I value sugar-plums for what they are.
Yet I shall pack each ornament with care,
and stock up on some half-priced angel hair.
Originally published in The Raintown Review
Wildflowers thrive and form, in mid-July,
a buoyant blue and gold receiving line
the length of Interstate Route 89,
as if to welcome friends and passers-by.
But high up in the hillside meadow teems
a purple floret whose divine perfume
makes one forget that roses are in bloom—
mellifluous, the stuff of summer dreams.
And when Vermont’s Green Mountains turn to white,
when northern folk see little of the sun,
before the sugar maple sap can run,
when better days attend each bitter night,
I breathe in honeyed memories of clover,
and winter, for a while at least, is over.
Originally published in Mezzo Cammin
The Susquehanna sweeps along its course
beyond this sleepy, sad, diminished town.
Being a river, it carries no remorse
for flood, for mud, or for the tumble-down.
Being a river, it has a total lack
of reverence for triangles of stars,
for all those aged breaker boys with black-
choked lungs drowning their pain in local bars.
It cannot wait to reach the Chesapeake,
and so it runs to Maryland; it swirls,
forgetting it was once an upstate creek.
The Susquehanna has no truck with girls
who years have been from home and since returned,
who love—forever—what the river’s spurned.
Originally published in Texas Poetry Journal
Along Route 66, connected by
a six-mile stretch of road, two towns align,
one bears his family name, the other mine.
A simple geographic fact. Yet I,
who’ve had enough of yellow woods, embrace
this synchronicity, this gracious scrap
of happenstance: two dots upon a map
inextricably linked in time and space.
A dog-eared yearbook and a villanelle
can only go so far beyond frontiers;
and so this U.S. atlas, opened to
the State of Oklahoma, helps me through
divergent latitudes and hemispheres,
and universes spinning parallel.
Originally published in The Barefoot Muse and nominated for the Pushcart Prize
On Sunday evening after the party ends
and family have gone, you ache to say
how you can’t bear this gathering each May.
Your thoughtful husband usually sends
a rose bouquet, but changed his mind this year:
a special gift, it makes your finger shine
with emerald and ruby. “Too much wine,”
he banters as he wipes away your tear.
But you and I know, Mother, what he can’t—
your April foolishness; how bit by bit
they snipped me out of you, “took care of it”;
how through the years I’ve been your confidante,
the reason for this night’s unraveling,
the garnet missing from the mother’s ring.
Originally published in First Things
My shrink said ‘lucid dreaming’ tames
recurring nightmares. What the bleep—
it’s worth a try, like counting sheep.
And as I gave my monsters names,
the unknown landscape backed off, blurred,
I soared across the Seven Seas,
the rising of the Pleiades,
pulled into port and slept.
however, of advice: beware.
Though humdrum dreams may come to lull
the simmering inside your skull,
it’s merely a device. The bear,
the bug, bamboozled, may revive,
sniff out the ruse. Eat you alive.
Originally published in 14 by 14 and Orbis
Where All the Ladders Start
I visited her shop this afternoon
to rummage through the clutter and the schlock.
As usual, old tins and jars were strewn
pell-mell across the floor. “I’m out of stock
in dancing bears,” she yammered, “but I’ve got
a thousand smithereens up on the shelf.
I’ll take a shiny penny for the lot.”
I knew I’d have to fetch them for myself;
and yet, the price was right. I filled my bags
with broken glass, with beads and brittle bones;
then for good measure, reams of tattered rags,
a rusty can, a box of sticks and stones:
the rudiments of memory and art;
the poems howling from my shopping cart.
Originally published in 14 by 14
I've come to Washington to look you up.
To make sure.
There it is. I've found your name in the directory
fifty-eight thousand names long.
It took some time.
There were fifteen Thomas Smiths.
I remember the summer of my crush on you,
and later, how long it took you to get back
to Wilkes-Barre from Gia Dinh;
how inane, insipid, inadequate words failed
to condone, to console, to concede.
I remember the green and white spring
shattering in twenty-one blasts of non-hostile fire,
the soothing notes of the lights-out dirge trying in vain to ease
our pain, as one who would soon follow you, gladly,
clutched to his heart a triangle of stars.
Tommy, I should be convinced, as I trace your wounds
on the dark, indubitable granite.
But no. It is August 1964 again.
The sun is shining. The birds are singing. The hydrangeas are in bloom.
We sit on the front porch swing and you chide me, laughing,
It's BE-A-TLES, silly!
I owe him everything, but I have spent
it like a prodigal. It's almost gone,
and I have not put by a single cent
for rainy days. Accounts are overdrawn.
No stock portfolio, no pension plan,
no nest-egg. I am always in the red.
A liability, an also-ran,
my only asset—I am worth more dead.
I might have been more careful, honored debts
of gratitude. Perhaps I should have built
a credit rating, written off regrets;
instead, my house is mortgaged to the hilt.
Not even moons can boast as great a pull
as he who stamped my statement, PAID IN FULL.
The moon is full again. A latticed frost
clings to my window, while the crystal crust
of Lac St-Louis glows as if embossed
with pearls this February night. It must
be twenty-five below. I search for words
of warmth the Guaraní alone must know
to trace their land of butterflies and birds
I made my own a mere four weeks ago.
Meanwhile, the customary moon goes on,
through human inconsistency and pride,
to reverence the rising sun each dawn
and keep her promise to the ocean tide.
My question, this indifferent night, is how
I'll muddle through to spring, one month from now.
New Hampshire Interval
Upon first visiting The Frost Place, Franconia, New Hampshire
He'd just returned from England, heartened, heady;
he thought he'd make a go of it—he'd farm
and write. This little house was full of charm:
his Morris Chair stood by the woodstove, ready.
But woods and mountains intervened; they pined
to cultivate the farmer's friendship, and
he asked them in. For, though he turned the land,
he turned to them when harrowed, undefined,
as often was the case. He did not stay
for very long—the winters were too rough,
and by the second year, he'd had enough:
a summer place it would remain. Today,
nine decades later, I can sense him still,
tapping the frosted trees near Sugar Hill.
Billy Wrote Gruff
Response to Billy Collins's "Sonnet"
No, Billy, you're mistaken. I don't need
to limit to fourteen my sonnet's girdle
(it isn't like a Laureate to mislead)—
I'm sure you've read a Hopkins curtailed curtal,
and heard of Milton's grand caudated form.
Another thing. Those bongo drums. You must
know even Shakespeare disobeyed the norm
from time to time (I bet you would you have cussed
him for a dactyl). With your launching you
would have us think a sonnet has to speak
of love (what hadst thou Donne?). And though it's true
the sonnet aims for clinchers, your critique
is ghastly. Lastly, Laura's horny plea—
why did you have to say such things and spoil it?
Had Petrarch written his great verses free,
she would have flushed them down her ersatz toilet.
And Spenser's had a horrible reaction—
he's turning in his grave. Write a retraction!
Oblivious, the holy man of God's
Voice unctuously tries to put at ease
Each desultory listener. He lauds
Redemption at my somber obsequies.
Mark how he speaks of hard-earned paradise,
Yammering in his sober self-restraint:
Deliverance from evil, sacrifice,
Effusions both of angel and of saint,
As if this Earth were not the world to me!
Despite it all, it's all I've ever known;
Be slow to throw away my ecstasy
Of fire, air and water, blood and bone.
Death may have come to hurl me heavenward,
Yet love shall live and lie unsepulchered.
I was a girl with thick, unruly hair,
and errant locks were banned by tidy nuns.
And so each morning, in my mother's care,
before her hectic workday had begun,
she'd tame my curls into compliance, tie
a fresh-pressed ribbon as a final touch,
and thus would do her best to beautify
a daughter plain and clumsy, overmuch.
Though I would fidget, kindly words would lift
the spirits of my small, uncertain heart.
I did not comprehend her tender gift —
that perfect bow. Now time and distance part
us, and I miss the precious one-on-one
when every day began so neat and tight;
before my blissful life became undone—
our brief alliance in the pantry's light.
"Foole," said my Muse to me, "Looke in thy heart and write."
—Sir Philip Sidney, Astrophel and Stella
And so I searched, but all that I could see
to write about was this: a vacant room
whose occupants once held a tenancy
of woodstream orchids, where an old perfume
clings in its quiet corners, knows my key
will turn, a frequent caller to a tomb
already ransacked, sifting through debris
only a fool like me would dare exhume.
I've served my warrant, Sir, and I am pleased
to tell you that, at last, I've found the clues,
the evidence you knew was there. I've seized
them, tagged and bagged them. Licensed by the Muse,
I have excised them from a body part—
iambics salvaged from a sundered heart.