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The error is not to fall but to fall from no great height.

—Dean Young

Porcelained with grief, everything diminishes 

below her, her house with its one tree 

flung down in shadow. Ever smaller, 

the dog throws his head back to bark.


Subdivisions platted at the edge of town 

stitch across the landscape, cul de sacs 

arcing whimsically, then bright blue 

set clean against dense foothills.


A lone mountain road struggles 

through folds of copper green.

Soon, an earth that cannot be consoled

is gone—leaving the certainty of rivers 


meandering, of gyres and vortices, 

spiral eddies. No need reckoning 

horse latitudes or doldrums. Now 

every oval is a promise of return.


But because she could never name 

the sadness or stop the hollowing,

on the portal glass, round as a compass 

rose, she covers the earth with her hand,


as her delicate craft plumbs 

as deeply as a diving bell into a universe 

of elegant simplicity, one body giving 

light, another receiving it.


Yet, below her, a mistral sweetens 

the land over which it howls, balm

of lavender rising from the hillsides

afterward in the heat,


and in the city a museum guard 

yawns among the masterpieces.

There are two gates of sleep, Virgil says.

Choose the true one.

Published in Nimrod International Literary Journal,

Awards Edition


When you go away the wind clicks around to the north.

—W.S. Merwin

As if no other god could alter his decision

the neighbor’s cat loped across the darkening yard, 

a young female cardinal clamped tight 

in his jaws, and the argument that had 


begun to boil between us stopped.

You had been looking at the freshly mown field, 

your afternoon’s struggle, and I at you, trying 

to find a way to say what I’ve never been able to—


that our long marriage had come undone.

Backlit by the hemlock you were

taking in the day’s last saturated light, 

the kind that makes trees seem to glow 


from within, light I’d tried many times 

to paint, but always failed to in the end.

Soon the bats would be careening above us, 

fragile, endangered, their welcome presence 


the one thing we would agree upon.  

But when your face recorded what you saw—

before I turned to see—you took on the demeanor 

of  a small boy, hurt so deeply you were beyond 


child reason, whose mother left him for 

a vaudeville clown who knew how to please, 

a boy who loved to gather walnuts

from under the tree, fingers stained for days.


And though you caught the cat and didn’t 

wring its neck, and saved the bird, which 

showed up miraculously at the feeder 

the next day lopsided but otherwise unhurt—


before it was all put into motion so irrevocably, so 

without mercy, I was about to say I’d given up on us.

How circumstance can save us from catastrophe, 

loneliness seeping back to where it lives 


on a moor deep in the belly, while the walnuts 

come fresh, as if from the tree again, and a boy 

awakened from the honey of sleep

walks steadily toward us.


Published by Valparaiso


Something is always far away.

—Rebecca Solnit

Before the world was comprehendible, 

before order was established and we 

were saved from story and myth, the world 

was a disk supported by four elephants

standing on the back of a turtle. 

Giant turtles flew across the sky.


I had a turtle once, a tiny box turtle 

that fit in the palm of my four year old hand.

That was a time when I knew things 

close around me—our scrappy yard,

clothesline strung from the rickety porch,

burn pile at the far edge, and a meadow 

that flooded each spring and sang with peepers.  


                    And beyond the meadow, a stand 

of pines lined up like sentinels at the horizon. 

At dusk they would come alive and dance, 

and I worried they would dance right across 

that meadow, growing taller and taller 

as they approached, until, as big as the house, 

they’d have to bend to peer into my window

to find me, their eyes fiery and mean.


But I had a turtle once, with a single rose

painted on its back. I kept it in a tin box

from my mother’s kitchen. It sat in my palm 

all shell until it wasn’t scared anymore,

then peeked out its head and thumb feet,

worried forward along the underside of my wrist 

and forearm, its gentle weight reassuring, 

the whole house of itself arriving

like the beginning of the world.

Published in Nimrod International Literary Journal


The moment at evening when the pictures set sail from the walls

—W.S. Merwin

Knowing Mrs. Gildersleeve suffered in extreme heat, my mother had phoned, and when there was no answer, stopped by. I‘m here, Anna, Mother said softly, then pulled a chair close. Mrs. Gildersleeve lay on her flowered divan, the pink and yellow roses on her flowered dress wilting onto her generous body. Her startlingly pale face floated in a sea of leaves and trailing blossoms covering the wallpaper and carpet. Even the drapes were flowered. 

She had been an ambassador’s wife, and before that, an opera singer. On the mantle was a photograph of her standing next to Winston Churchill. She was taller than he, with broader shoulders and a confident smile. A large woman herself, Mother for once seemed oddly small, settled in beside her.


This was a time when experience and intuition accounted for something. One could be a practical nurse, with no formal education, and my mother’s reputation as a sensible and caring companion was well known, even among the wealthy tenants of the Griswold House, where Mrs. Gildersleeve lived. My father was caretaker of the once elegant estate. We lived next door in the caretaker’s cottage. 

People would call at all hours asking for Mother’s advice, and if they could not afford a doctor, for her to come right away. If she were cooking dinner, she’d call my sisters and me into the kitchen and quietly explain what to do to get the meal on the table. Then off she’d go. But that day she had tried everything to make our neighbor comfortable, removing her nylon hose and loosening her corset, bathing her forehead and inner wrists with cool water. Nothing had worked. 


Mother had lived through much, and her face held all that anguish and heartbreak, but a measure of joy, too, so that when a rare smile occasioned her lips, her eyes remained dark and sad. But she knew how to feed ten of us around the table by stretching the small portion of meat she could afford with potatoes, or by serving biscuits and gravy or chipped beef on toast. And she knew how to treat the sick. If you weren’t feeling well, you wanted Esther there, sitting by you, stroking your arm, or fixing milk toast if you needed nourishment.


Now Mrs. Gildersleeve lay prostrate in the stifling heat. Her breath had slowed to a fluttery gurgle, her lower jaw working with each inhale and exhale. Mother took a deep breath as if trying to help her, shifting slightly in the straight-backed chair. She turned then and gazed intently at me. I often accompanied her on these visits, cherishing our few times alone. I would be eleven on my next birthday, and because I was wandering in those middle years between being a child and no longer a child, when the world was full of mysterious signs with few words attached, I sensed something was terribly wrong.


Mother held forth then as if she had been given the gift of speech for the first time.


The spring was a wet one and that morning the draw was bank full, she said suddenly, her voice clear and bright. By afternoon the Pumpkin had flooded half way to the barn. 

Mrs. Gildersleeve’s hand moved imperceptibly. Mother took it in hers and closed her eyes. 


Sheep don’t like to get their feet wet, she went on, almost chanting now, so my brother William and I laid cornstalks in their stall in case the creek kept on coming. But we’d no sooner finished when the barn door flapped open and a tremendous rush of water tumbled in.


I sat dumbfounded. My mother had never once told me a story of any kind, never opened her childhood to me. When I’d asked what it was like when she was young, she’d say she lived it once, and didn’t ever want to return. But there I was with her, a girl my age, I imagined, water closing in on us, in a place more vivid than my own life—the acrid, almost pleasant smell of the barn, the sheep, bleating pitifully, heavy with wool. Shearing had been planned for that week and lambing would be soon. Taken by the water the sheep would surely drown.


And so it went that day attending Mrs. Gildersleeve, my mother pitched headlong into memory long buried, into a swelling stream gone mad, each of us on the fragile raft of her life—even sweet young Anna is there, fresh from her voice lesson. Somehow, we lift sheep and carry them to higher ground, where they bound away to safety. But the water keeps coming. When a pregnant ewe is stranded on a hillock no bigger than a tabletop, William fords the angry water to rescue her. I am bursting with happiness.


Then with a great heave Mrs. Gildersleeve let go a long rattling breath that seemed never to end. 


At once I was back in the desperate heat of August. Stillness settled over us, into every florid corner, quieting the delicate figurines lining the windowsills, the satiny tongues of exotic plants with impossibly long names, the small naked Buddha, which, Mrs. Gildersleeve had once told me solemnly, needed no clothes. I’d delivered the newspaper one morning and she’d invited me in. The room was heavy with a mysterious fragrance that kindled in me a hunger. It was not for food I yearned, as I think of it now, but for that which I did not know—for the source of my mother’s sadness, for the confidence in Mrs. Gildersleeve’s smile, for a story that offered a place for me beyond my own small life.


Published in Mom Egg Review


Family is destiny in Pam Bernard’s brilliantly accomplished verse novel. Westward settlement in the early years of the twentieth century, rendered in lush and startling detail, is yoked to the brokenness at the core of Esther’s family. In verse as finely attuned to the measure of the line as it is to layers of meaning, Bernard makes manifest a time, a place, and a woman, and sheds new light on the darkness that gets handed down from one generation to the next. Esther is a wrenching and exhilarating experience: no reader will remain unchanged.


—Jennifer Barber, author of The Sliding Boat Our Bodies Made, Word Works

In the early 1900’s, traveling from Kansas to California, across prairie and plains, desert and mountains, Esther’s journey is an odyssey of the spirit, a journey toward self-knowledge and survival. In this brilliant novel in verse, Pam Bernard perfectly blends poetic language, imagination, and research to create a work of stunning achievement, where each character is drawn spare and sharp, each event becomes metaphor. Yet the landscape is perhaps the strongest character of all—save, Esther herself, whose strength in the face of abuse, grief, and loneliness will leave an indelible mark on your own spirit.

—Patricia Fargnoli, former Poet Laureate of NH, author of Winter, Hobblebush Books

CavanKerry Press

Excerpts from Esther

But the first years revealed that Aaron had no 

knack for farming. It was not that he 

was lazy or weak or not smart enough. 

He was a man who guessed wrong—


when to plant, when to harvest.  

He let the wheat stand in shock until 

it rained hard the day he was to thresh.  


Nor was he good with the animals. Horses 

agitated when he came near and pawed the ground. 

Cattle scuttled, and the one bull 

looked for something to butt.


At first Bessie felt sorry for him.  

But he grew cruel and hard. Nothing and no one 

pleased him. Soon enough she understood 

that her husband was provoked not by some 

demon, but a brutish, covetous hunger,


an appetite so unforgiving no food or smoke 

or drink would satisfy. He ate only to quell his gut, 

but the emptiness never left him.


She had grasped early on the depth of Aaron’s 

misery. Once, before they were married, he 

kissed her so hard he drew blood on her lip, 

would not loosen himself though she yipped 

in pain. When finally she was able to break free—

his mouth smeared—he bristled like an animal 


challenged for its kill. She knew 

never to cross him again.

The land brooded with sad farms, barley 
just taking hold that would not survive
the drought or the merciless wind, 

and beyond the barley grew sorghum, 
as far as the eye could see, and what land 
did not support a crop suffered buffalo grass,

and prairie dogs the farmers called fury 
weeds, busy with their miserable lives.  

Esther could not have known while 
she dozed—just one of many on this train
traveling in regimental discomfort, folks 

who would die working the land 
and be buried there—that beneath them, 

the great continent of Pangaea was once 
split by a vast inland sea, where 
winged lizards and giant sharks 

and turtles twice the size of an ox 
held sway, and long-necked plesiosaurs 

with great oar-like paddles prowled 
alongside graceful, serpentine 
predators forty-five feet, twenty tons—

where she now stirred and nearly 
wakened from her dream of mountains, 

trillions of miniscule organisms sunk 
to sea bottom, their delicate carcasses 
forming the chalk hills and limestone 

quarries and shale beds that shaped
this prairie—what this girl understood 
as flat, unchanging, was in fact the slow 

rumination of what had always been, 
shifting without notice, the forcemeat 
of time on all things.


Aaron had unfolded the map 
and struggled to set it flat enough to read,
but the best he could do left two hills 
where his knees bent under it.

Esther sat very still as she always did 
if it fell to her to be nearest him 
when he was vexed.

Here! We must be here! Aaron blurted 
to no one in particular. Startled 
out of her stillness, Esther followed 


her father’s gaze to one of the hills 
where his finger jabbed at a black dot 
beside a thin blue line.

She had seen maps in the encyclopedia, 
maps of Africa, of mountains in South America,
the whole British Empire. Never 
had she seen a map of Kansas.

Where did we start, Father?  Esther asked.
But Aaron was at it again, trying 
to smooth the paper and paid no attention.

So she leaned in and saw that he had circled 
Montgomery County, where the farm sat 
heavy on the land, where Bessie’s brooding 

countenance brightened as she worked 
in the kitchen garden, its precise rows 
of potatoes, sugar beets to feed the hens.

Esther conjured the snap peas and kale
near the tidy bed of verbena, her mother 
bending to harvest thyme and marjoram, 

their lingering fragrance. 

Then the girl looked up toward her attic room 
and saw herself there at the window, 
gazing out beyond the barn.  

She was thinner than she’d imagined  
herself to be, in that life, just days ago, but 
she’d thought her mouth to be a grim slash 
across her face.  
                             And it was.
The smell of fried chicken brought her back 
to the train, to the family across the aisle 

noisily opening their box lunches,
and to Aaron, still fingering the map.

Disquiet settled in her stomach. 
Everywhere she had ever been in her life 
was within the distance of the width 
of her father’s hand.

Remarkably, in Blood Garden: an Elegy for Raymond, Pam Bernard is able to deliver us to the Western Front, and more specifically, to the horrors of trench warfare, and tell the story of a seventeen year old New England farm boy who fought there in the Great War. She accomplishes this by staying true to the reliable narrator’s steady voice and by building these lean poems around surprising and deeply human insights into the war that changed human consciousness.


   — Bruce Weigl, poet, memoirist, translator


Blood Garden: An Elegy for Raymond is a powerful and poignant prose poem.  Its vivid images—both verbal and visual—pay both homage to Pam Bernard’s father, “a soldier of the Great War,” while evoking an America at the outset of its journey from innocence to engagement in the violent world of the Twentieth Century.


   — Robert H. Zieger Author of America’s Great War: The American Experience

       in World War I


Breathtakingly honest, Blood Garden: An Elegy for Raymond allows readers a window into the Great War by plunging us into the lives of the real men who lived it.  Pam Bernard's poetry is both accessible and haunting, and her images will teach students as much about war as any historical account.


   —Jean Trounstine, activist, Professor Emerita, author of Boy With a Knife

WordTech Communications

Excerpts from Blood Garden

June 1918

Bois deBelleau, northwest of Château-Thierry


A gentleman’s war it was at first. 

The determination to accept casualties 

would bring victory. Bravery was all. 


In their bright uniforms, the Newfoundland 

Regiment’s 87th and 88th attacked with colors 

unfurled and proceeded in parade formation 

into machine gun fire, as the brass and drums 

of their bands played from the front trenches. 

Of the eight hundred one troops who marched, 

sixty-eight stood to answer roll call in the morning.



Division Headquarters are opened 

in a chateau at Boucq. Swans glide in the moat. 

The gardener hums as he prunes the wisteria. 

Creaking windmills still grind the peasants’ 

corn and church spires stand guard 

over the sleepy village. 


Not far away the village of Rambucourt 

is being ground to dust.



The ground is churned to porridge. 

The water cart half disappears; its horse

has gone off the brush work track

and bogged. Raymond does his best 

to put a sack under the animal’s hoof

to give it traction, while Cas strokes 

her long neck and withers, chanting softly 

There’s a clever girl, there’s a clever girl.

But the boney mare falls dead 

right where she stands, topples 

stiff as the miniature plaster horse 

the boys had tried to set onto Raymond’s 

windowsill just two springs past— 

all those million years ago.



Many horses arrive by ship. Slings 

around their bellies they are hoisted by crane 

from the deep, airless hold where, in terror, 

they have been stowed, then swung high 

above the deck to the cobbled quay below. 


Those that survive passage serve as 

mounts for cavalry divisions, draught animals 

for regimental and artillery transport. 

They pull limbers, caissons of explosives, 

lorries leaden with supplies. 


Unprotected targets, they are often 

the first to be hit. Their moaning 

is worse than a human’s to hear, bringing 

men to tears of rage and helplessness. 

Their bloated, rotting bodies clog 

roads and supply routes, sometimes 

with gas masks, fitted like absurd 

feed bags, still strapped on. 


Over three million horses were mobilized

in 1914. By war’s end 

eight million will have perished. 


Main Street Rag Press

Across the Dark draws the reader into a light that reflects family and the larger world. These imaginative poems resonate with experiment: a gutsy presence that illuminates the modern psyche: "...he paints The Last Supper/ on the shell of an almond--/ each disciple’s body a betrayal." The betrayals in this voice are believable and curative, and backlit with human warmth.

—Yusef Komunyakaa

Alternating between the lyric compression of a Louise Gluck (“making a likeness of particulars”), and the street-smart iambic narratives of a Philip Levine, with her senses open and her voice alternately open and defended, Pam Bernard's emotionally controlled yet open poems are edgy and authentic. In her quest for origins, she looks unflinchingly at absent mothering, immersing herself in memory with both compassion and a hunger to move beyond the past. This journey survives “the kingdom of ice,” moving through difficulty to a generous and tough-minded love of that sensuous sliver of the world she's been given and in turn gives us. I found Across the Dark a very moving book.

—Ira Sadoff

This collection is full of threat, calamity, and grace. These poems, short and clean, employ plain diction--no minced words, no inaccessible passages, no hiding behind the spectacular. No linguistic gymnastics here. These are quiet poems often about disastrous events — "No intervals no let-up—" — (note, not even a comma there to give us a second of reprieve at the end of “Silk”). They are poems where even hopelessness is rendered delicately —"Wake into your life, where you'll float/ on your ankle plumes, and dance/with the trickster king, where/you'll get to keep nothing--/not even the shoes on your feet." — About as dark as you can get, yes, but keep reading, read to the very last word of this book. But try, please, to read this book as it is presented to you, in order, let the poems accumulate one after the other as the poet intended. Give, please, this book that respect, and give yourself, reader, that kind of time with this remarkable collection.

—Martha Rhodes


for Phillippe Halsman


It’s true that Phillippe knew

something of families torn, so perhaps

he posed ours on this drab strip of beach

to convey a longing he could not speak:

how things might be held together

even against circumstance.

There’s Londsberry’s Store behind us,

and Sammy’s house, and the Pioneer—

where Dad grilled hot dogs, made change

for the jukebox, seven days, seven nights—

perched on its spindly pilings, verticals

sinking into black and whiteness

with pleasing regularity beneath

a stippled August sky. Look

how we seem to have gathered

comfortably, each of us revealed

before we veer into separate lives:

Pat half-hiding behind Mother,

who holds me on her lap, Sue and Joanne

grinning back at the camera, and Paula,

with her wide smile, arms flung

around the neck of our father, who

sits on the sand alongside Mother

but does not touch her—perhaps

Phillippe had gently urged us into this

classic pose believing in the power of its

structure, the curved parallels of our tanned,

young arms, channeling along silent

meridians circling the earth, like

hoops of a barrel molding the staves,

before the dark floor of family

opened and we began the long fall.

Across the Dark published by Main Street Rag Press


As a painter, Pam Bernard has an eye for the pathos of disproportion, asymmetry, and saturation of color. The same eye gives to her poetry a painterly fullness and a special emotional intensity…her exploration of her own formation as a woman, a painter, a thinking and feeling being, in the crucible of family, is the tale of the compellingly portrayed moments of her alert passage through the world.

— Reginald Gibbons

Pam Bernard writes lucid poems, which are compelling both for their art and their experience…She has found an easy balance between these two principles elements of poetry and has written poems that seen natural to the core. The poems are simultaneously passionate and coolly observed, as though she had just left the room where the event occurred, sat down, and—with the door still open—recorded all there was of importance to say.

— Carol Frost

Bright Hill Press


It was what he perceived as failure

my father most despised—so that 

no matter how hard my mother tried 

she got it wrong—applying the left side, 

he thought, too high.  


She'd lean in closer to the mirror and attempt 

two identical arches, pull back and lift 

her chin, turning her head slightly side to side, 

finish off the lower lip, blot, and let the tissue 

float down into the basket,


then reach for the Pond's 

to remove the lipstick and begin again

until the skin around her mouth was pink—

and again, until she rubbed it raw

trying to get the sides to match.


That he was powerless to stanch the wound

was what fueled my father's rage—seeing 
what he could not otherwise know:

the rough country within her—her hand

following whatever contour it took.

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