Elizabeth Kerper

Photography by O. Winston Link

Memorial Day

The windows behind you face east and I can see the sky lighten
in the cut out spaces between buildings across the street–
can see it but am not watching so that each time I look away from you
I am startled by what has changed, the blue of it full-bodied now
and hazy. The sun is still level with garden apartments and car tires 
but I see its light scatter into color, like the tulips in the vase 
on the sill, white giving over to pink at the petal-tips. I have been watching
the tulips open wider and wider all night, stems swanning down, 
petals blown out and poised to drop. I have been watching stubble 
darken on your jaw and cheeks, watching your eyes grow tired,
telling you things and listening. Later I will sleep a few hours,
then go out, and when I return the tulips will be done, mobius petals
peeling, and I will replace them with peonies from the farmer’s market:
three buds heavy as cats-eye marbles, stems trimmed at angles 
to make them open. Later my neighbors will shoot off illegal
fireworks, first of the year, and I will cross barefoot to the window
to see if the peonies have bloomed–not yet, but soon.

Texas Eagle, Early April

The best part of science is dissection, says the girl
seated next to me as the southbound Amtrak train
lurches forward, then stops, jolts us back in our seats
for the third time in ten minutes. We are barely past
the city limits. Outside the window are mounds of rubble,
a wareyard stacked with rusting metal shipping containers,
the empty northbound tracks. The girl is in fourth grade.
She has straight brown hair, the same snub nose
as her brother, sitting across the aisle with her father,
separated from her by me. When the conductor walked
through the train to collect tickets he turned to me
for hers, linking us by logic or instinct, maybe the first time,
I realize, someone has looked at me and thought mother.

They dissected a sheep’s eye, the girl tells me now,
and a cow’s heart, and lungs, but she doesn’t remember
which kind. She wants to be a doctor when she grows up.
What do you want to be? she asks, and I say that I don’t know,
which is true. I tell her that my sister is going to be a doctor,
that at this exact minute she might also be dissecting an eyeball,
a heart, lungs, the human chassis that once carried them all,
but the girl has turned away from me toward the window,
bored with me and my sister and this train that isn’t moving.
She lays her cheek flat to the glass to look as far forward
as she can along the side of the train and I watch her watching
for one stock still moment until the northbound train barrels past
on the second track, full speed and less a foot from us
and she jerks away, her hair flying out as if the force and rush
of the train itself displaced it. She turns back to me.
Are we going to go that fast? she asks, and I say, Yes. Maybe faster.

Catalog of Museums I Have Visited Alone

At the Museum of Science and Industry
I spend more time at the miniature Fairy Castle
than any other exhibit, stopping to press an ear
to each of the chunky plastic telephones tethered
to the display case. I run my finger up and down the ridges
of the silver phone cords, listening to the lilt
of the narrator’s voice more than the explanations
of which fairytale influenced the chapel, the ballroom,
the kitchen. The books in the library are real.
The voice suggests I shrink myself down to five inches tall
and step through the filigree doors but when I open my eyes
I haven’t changed at all.
I go to the Field on a Monday off of work,
along with every elementary student in the city
of Chicago.  They swarm Sue, a squirming barrier
of parkas and backpacks, bobbled hats tilting back
as they gaze up and up.  I climb the sweeping staircase
at the far end of the hall and peer through a glass case at Sue’s
real head, too heavy to be supported by their fossilized bones
and vanished muscles.  I wonder what it is like to need protection
from your own body, to spend your days separate and above it,
watching down on yourself being watched.
In the basement of the Art Institute, twenty minutes
before closing, I stare at a placid Winslow Homer seascape
as if I am a lover or sister of the men in the boat,
as if maybe my gaze keeps them afloat, while I eavesdrop
on the only other people in the gallery.  A mother and daughter
sit on the wide wooden bench behind me, the little girl
tugging at a hole in her pink heart tights.  This is something people like to do,
her mother says, they like to sit and look at paintings for hours.
It’s something I used to do a lot when I was younger. The girl
kicks her legs out and in, rips the tear in her tights a little wider.


When I step out of work on the twenty-third day of spring 
to snow falling like blown dandelion seeds I think about last summer,
how they stopped mowing the empty lot between my office 
and the O’Hare Marriott, how the thistles grew to ankle-height
at first, then calf, then, overnight, sprung tall as sunflowers, twisted
woody stems and jagged leaves spiking over my head 
toward the seared sky every morning as I walked from the train.
And the dandelions, of course, their sunspot heads like a magic trick,
a palmful of gold fisted up and turned into dust, and how nearly
every day I thought about it, my own vanishing act, about leaving
my lunch bag and backpack on the curb and slipping in
between the stalks and branches, finding my way to the center

and sitting with all the other small creatures who had needed
a home–rats and voles and rabbits, butterflies looking for milkweed,
every species of drab city bird, and me sitting so still they’d carry on 
their lives around me, wasps landing on the flowers of my business casual 
blouse while the summer city heat grew and peaked and receded, the birds
giving up their daylight songs as night crept in.  And maybe
I would have been there the day they finally bulldozed it down
to a fine stubble, maybe I would have thrown up my hands
against the blade of the machine and staved off destruction, maybe,
though I know it is more likely that I would have run, fast, 
like every species without the benefit of roots or burrows or wings,
or just lain down and waited for the wreckage to come to me.

Elizabeth Kerper lives in Chicago. Her work has appeared in the Nancy Drew Anthology from Silver Birch Press, as well as in EclecticaNEATMidwestern GothicNo Assholes Literary Magazine, previously in Escape Into Life in a Collaboration feature and multi-poet features, and Mockingheart Review.

Elizabeth Kerper, Collaboration at EIL

“Old Yeller” by Elizabeth Kerper in Dog Days of Summer 2019

Elizabeth Kerper in The Truth About Poetry, 2021

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