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five poems

by Brenda Cárdenas






Lord, sanctify the bee in my sister’s shoe

‘cause she can re-skin after the sting,

but we can’t pollinate the blueberries

and broccoli without that hive, Lord.


Yahweh, bless the indigo bunting

for its borderland of wisdom, for its song

that peels away the gray layer of smog.

Without, how will we face the doleful day?


Allah, ennoble the twister’s arc away

from land, its volta into the great blue

that chews on our storms, gulps them

down like lemonade on a summer day.


Vishnu, we need no syrupy snow

cones, shaved ice melting in our mouths,

but flash-freeze the glaciers, please,

until their bones crack and groan.


Green Tara, self-minted, send

fire from the forests to our bellies

where it burns clean our filth,

re-births us seed, stalk, forsythia.









Even corn has an ancestor, teosinte.

Tall, naked stalk of grass hiding its grain

took 9000 years to grow

ears that listened only to the prairie

wind’s advice on how to sow.

Heard only the prairie pleading           

            for palliative care after settlers

had plowed too much acreage, stuffing

it over and over with their sour seed.


When these squatters began to cramp

and lose each harvest to malnourished soil,

when their milk spilled black and all

they had to eat was the last fatty sow

and a wilted cabbage or two,

the witchiest women buried

their placenta in a whorl of hair,

belly button dust, salt, and spit,

            spine of a crow’s feather, grief.


The earth sizzled, then undulated

like a great lake. Storms flooded

the fallow furrows who took their own

            soggy time to mate with the wind,

its whirl unfurling native seeds,

and the prairie birthed bluestem, aster

beebalm, blazing star, teosinte

almost as tall as the empty silos.

It had listened so long to promises 

that it once again grew ears.






Duende Poems: Coal Mining Women, Rounder Records, 1997



The Coal Mining Women’s twang croons

raspy and hard lived as coffin wood, pings

off the tin Budweiser sign, row of Kentucky

Bourbon bottles lined up like dusty targets

behind the bar, cigarette stink and piss smelting

in the corners. Jack Kerouac has nothing

on these paisley-scarfed nomads stoking

the hot coals of cave-ins and coal tattoos,

of fingernails that never come clean,

of night skies everywhere their load is lit,

black lung coughing up pyres. Their strained

harmonies, each note shoveled up from the gut

and wedged in the throat like a pick-axe

hanging on a ledge by its claw, ask us

which side we are on as they conjure draglines

and wedges in the Earth—depressions

only they with their duende can name.









When gold leaves parachute from a pucker

of elms, fill footprints, drench the mossy

clearing where deer bed down for the night,

they light the way to stepmother’s

bungalow, swoosh and land in her lightning riot

of hair. Bread pretzeled like crossbones

in the oven coaxes tears from spiderwebs

of frost tucked in window corners.

Something here simmers. Something slithers

            while the twins fatten, licking sugar

from their lips, plump fists full of candy corn.

Ding dong, the witch is dead, or is she

waiting in the closet for communion.

Eat of this body. Eat of this bread.






In Fire, In Ice  


Snowshoeing across blue ice        in 20-mile-per-hour gales

            we witness the not future         of our broken oath                                         

A blizzard erases          moose tracks               genius beast

            at the rim of a world      that sheds us       like a slough

No rack            no crown        to be found                             

striated and swollen         ice burned    into antimatter            


A fist reaches    through fog      extremities frozen luminescent     

Can      we        still       smell    pine pitch    Arctic sage     bear-

berry        taste purple saxifrage          on this       not planet

or is it/are we        the last epistle       written in the journal

of one who left            wool socks and blanket           near the remnants

of a fire scar       faith deleted      will shelved      surrender

consumed        in mice sized bites           of not now           not ever       



Brenda Cárdenas has authored Trace (Red Hen Press), a finalist for Foreword Review’s Indie Poetry Prize; Boomerang (Bilingual Press); and three chapbooks. She also co-edited Resist Much/Obey Little: Inaugural Poems to the Resistance and Between the Heart and the Land: Latina Poets in the Midwest. Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in many literary journals and anthologies, including Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Braving the Body, Latinx Poetics: The Art of Poetry, TAB: Journal of Poetry and Poetics, Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations, and Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Anthology, among others. Cárdenas has also enjoyed collaborating with musicians, composers, visual artists, and choreographers. In 2023, her poem “Para los Tin-Tun-Teros,” set to choral music by Daniel Afonso, was published by Hal Leonard Music and in 2024, performed by the National Concert Chorus at Carnegie Hall. Cárdenas has served as Milwaukee’s Poet Laureate and currently teaches at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.



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