by Lisa Rhoades


My nephew says seeing a cardinal means
there’s a soul nearby, so I wonder who’s flitting
from the red oak to the neighbor’s fence
to watch us at this vacation house.

I hope it doesn’t need to be
someone recently dead,
because my grandmother would love the view
of her greats—cavorting from lawn to dock,
diving and jumping into sun-warmed shallows,
shrieking as their toes sweep the silty bottom.

But it’s ok if it’s my friend
whose recent death has hinged
my middle age, the counting-ness
that entered with that grief—
zero, one, two, three—
the natural set of losses into which he fit,
and just like that. Cardo, Cardinis, Cardinal,
the heart pivots, the count goes on
though not every death or number
works that way.

We spend most of our week here
out on the boat, dragging the kids
on a giant inflatable raft
that skids back and forth across our wake.
No cardinal mark warns us from the channel’s
hidden sandbars so we find
safe waters on our own.

Our New World songbird got its name
from Old World scarlet robes, or so the internet says.
Also, “cardinals appear when angels are near”
can be engraved, embossed or stitched
onto the tchotcke of your choice,
which explains my nephew’s solemn assertion.
The red flash by the sliding glass doors
fights his reflection in defense
of a cup of twigs lined with soft grasses and hair.
Poor soul.

LISA RHOADES is the author of The Long Grass (Saint Julian Press, 2020) and Strange Gravity (Bright Hill Press, 2004). Individual poems have appeared at Barrow Street, Poetry East, Prime Number, Saranac Review, South Carolina Review, and SweetLit, among others. In addition to teaching poetry, she works as a pediatric nurse in Manhattan. She lives on Staten Island with her spouse and their two children. Find her online at: and

Photo: “Cardinal” by Imtiaz Ahmed