by Brenda Miller


We think of them as even—
furrowed ditches
that hold whatever’s planted

but look closely—every row
longs for release
from its determined line,

shifts with every fidget
of the earth. Watch—
the wheat, the corn,

the cribs in an orphanage:
there’s always one
that bumps the pattern

askew, always one that
stands out. See the border?
Row of land,

or jagged river
that curves, obfuscates
the futility

of division. Look at
the rows of children
instantly orphaned

crying Mami, Papi
those long vowels
of perennial mourning—

and the one girl
insistent who says
can I at least call

my aunt? she has
the number memorized,
a row of digits

that should lead her
out of here,
but doesn’t.

They’re not allowed
to hug, or be touched,
it’s for their own good,

so they finally—
they have to—
settle down, surrender.

Think of that one time
you got lost in a department store,
wandering among racks

that loomed larger, closer
together, your mother
suddenly absent. Remember

the way stale air brushed
your skin,
exposed your nerves

so raw? Do you feel it?
Try harder: that twist in the gut,
the wail in your throat

throbbing. Now listen
to those children:
their cries should not alarm

as much as silence,
the new order
ramming them

into straight rows, a place
where they never asked
to belong.

BRENDA MILLER is the author of An Earlier Life (Ovenbird Books, 2016),  Who You Will Become (Shebooks Press, 2015), Listening Against the Stone: Selected Essays (Skinner House Books 2011), Blessing of the Animals (Eastern Washington University Press 2009), and Season of the Body (Sarabande Books 2002). She co-authored, with poet Holly J. Hughes, The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World (Skinner House Books, 2012). She is also the co-author of Tell it Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, 2nd Edition (McGraw-Hill, 2012). Her work has received six Pushcart Prizes, and all six prize-winning essays are included in Listening Against the Stone. Her essays have been published in many journals, including Fourth GenreCreative NonfictionThe SunUtne ReaderThe Georgia Review, and The Missouri Review.

Photo: [Pediatric ward of the 10th General Hospital, Manila, P.I.]