Contemporary American Voices

November’s Featured Poet – Robert McDonald



Robert McDonald-

Grandmother’s House

I thought the noise
was a grandchild
slap against

my rough wooden
door; I should have
heard the scrabble
where his claws
crossed the grain.

When I opened the door
and saw the wolf,
I was not
quick, though I wanted

to be quick.
My husband
built this house
to stand up
to wind and hurled

stones, to withstand
the scrape of yellow
teeth. I only had
to slam the door
and turn

the latch. I never
grow accustomed to
the gait
of this body, the slow

of my angled
and bluing
feet. I fall
to the floor, the wolf
leans over me, his mouth

a raked tunnel
to a terrible
city. Once
I was the girl
who carried cake

to lonesome aunties,
all the way, once
I was the girl
with daisies

in her fists. It’s dark
in this chamber but
I know it must
be red. Death’s
wet, and red, and hot,

Death smells like
a sausage
In the closet
of the wolf,

his heart beats so loudly it
my own. I wait
here the way
a little girl might

wait, after another child
closed her eyes
and started counting.
Inside the wolf I doze
and dream

of my mother: her breath
at the end
was a bird’s
breath. Her fingers,
like my fingers, turn in

to frightened sparrows,
I’m a flock of frightened sparrows,
mottled and still on
a night
with no moon.


Sleeping Beauty’s Younger Brother

I used to think that cursed was another word
for blessed. Beauty was cursed, everyone
knew it, and servants

swept each step in front of her
with nubbed cotton brooms.
One maid’s only job

was to check Beauty’s bed for spiders. My mother
kissed her twelve times each time
she left the room.

A partial list of what I could not carry near her
or let her see: nothing silver, or sharp,
no edges or blades, no cats,

birds, or scissors. No stones or shards, teeth or spikes,
no guitars or wind-up toy dragons. My parents
always spoke to her

in voices designed to mimic water. Beauty begged me,
once, to show her my pocket knife,
and when I did

she told our Father. I was chained in the root cellar
for the next three days, and oh, how
the kitchen boys laughed.

Beauty drank mulled wine, she smoked Uncle’s pipe,
she grew her fingernails long, as if she hoped
to slice her own

butter-soft palms. And when the Peddler’s Wife
pulled the spindle from its bag, Beauty’s eyes
caught the torchlight

like a pickpocket grasping small green gems. I don’t think
she truly believed in the danger. I don’t think she
wished for us a century of sleep,

Mother splayed in the throne room, footmen slumped
in doorways and various corners, Cook snoring
in the larder still clutching a spoon,

Father dozing wherever it is fathers go.
I only remember scraps of dream,
a bell choir of mice holding silver chimes, a moon

that sang an aria, the dark footman who asked me
to kiss him on the mouth. We stretch, we stir,
we wake from long slumber,

we hail our bad fate, and just as before
do everything, every god-damned
thing, every task for Beauty—

Our friends are gone, even the children
of our friends, while the years
stumbled forward. Our sleep ended

with a kiss that was not my kiss. And now
a Prince rules the country, my sister
is his bride. Just chopping apart

the thorny vines will be the job
of at least a fortnight.
Her Prince calls

for a squire at once to fetch a sword. Beauty
rings for Champagne, cheeses,
a late-season apple,

she licks her lips and whispers to me, “Now
bring me what I really want, a sharp
and pretty knife.”


Little Red (A poem in Seven Parts)

1. Begin
with an ax, once
part of a tree, a log
once part of a forest.
A house made of logs a man
with an ax a blanket
on the bed. That bed
made of sorrow, goose down,
and time.

2. Begin again. A man
made of wood in a house
cut from axes while the girl
on the bed pretends
she’s made of moonlight.
She’s cold and she’s lonely
but she’s not
made of moonlight.

3. In one version of the story,
the girl with the ax ties
the man to
the bed.

4. A quilt made of beards
is one
for the bed. Silver

patches because I worry.

5. The wolf was lying in
the grandmother’s eyes the wolf
was lying in the grandmother’s ears that
wolf recumbent in the grandmother’s
bed that wolf liked
to chew on
her cold

6. Bring your sharp eyes and bring
your sharp ears and see
these small teeth and love
this soft bed, be knife
to my apple and butter
to my bread, knife
to red apple splash
of honey for
my bread.

7. When she gained
the asylum she
called it her
house. She said
to the nurse, “you

look like my mother.” She
said to
the bed sheets,
“I remember
snow and you
smell just like

They told her each day
that the wolf was not
her brother. They told
her each day that she
would not need
her ax, nor
the pressed roses nor
the dry scraps
of fish that she kept
in a basket.

They told her that her grandmother
was long since

“Let me wear
my red dress”

is all she ever said.


Robert McDonald‘s poetry and prose have appeared in Sentence, Court Green, and Escape Into Life, among many other journals and zines. He lives in Chicago, works in an independent bookstore, and blogs at