James Henry Knippen

Rhymes for the Cat’s Ashes


A wren as if a cup of blood.
Its song as if the ghost of prayer.
Its flight as if to herald floods.
Its soul as if to nest in hair.
When moonlight like a boat appears
in a fraction of sky far less than half
its whole and fogs the bay
window where you curled and slept
I think, if you had been the moon
the moon’s fur would have shuddered
a deep and quiet ease at the touch
of my hand. But I have never touched
the moon death proves is a cliché,
apt and indispensable. “I can’t
believe the snow is gone like nothing
happened,” she said the day
when everything became a never-again.
Tiny breaking moon.
Hand mirror swoon.
Thought she saw
the dead cat paw
the curtain in the room
behind the room.
Bird bones in a cricket cage—
you’ve returned from the sky!
We know because the spoon’s
misplaced, the crumb’s erased,
all time is due, the crickets
are preaching to the moon
that cannot be saved or sung
anew, its sorrow settling
in the room, where murmurs
turned about your face.
Night sounds like crickets.
Tiny breaking windows.
The wolf threads her hunger
through deep dewy thickets
as a bittern finds a minnow
under the moon.
Cue the lullaby, you moon
askew, you pocketed tuffet
of rye the sky coveted,
silver as toebells or feathers
to fiddle, night-gathered
wool, you soul made of rags,
your haystacks all riddles,
your cockleshell gaze, lip
of infinity, candlesticks
dwindle, the kettle-flue’s
muted, treetops forsaken
by cradles gnaw hushes,
ashes are ashes, our teeth
window sashes, grinding
the rye of you, trivial bread
blistered in looking-glass
castles as vast as our dark
gullet corridors, lullaby dead.
An egg as if a tear escaped.
A nest as if to cradle hope.
A branch as if to balance fate.
A gust as if to bare the yolk.
If a tempestuous wolf gallops over
the moonlit clover
If she slavers at trees beyond
the forest of clover
And the only snow
is the canopy’s
If a moonlit moth
is the tempest’s lung
If she drops her snow over
dust beneath the canopy
And the only wind
is a dying lung’s
If I had not run from the forest’s rim
into deeper trees
If the wolf’s appetite is not for trees
but for my song
And the only lyrics
are my last
That the rose in the mirror
is no less real than the rose
says of sight …
That an echo is more
beautiful than its source
says of sound …
That tingling in the wake of a hand’s
graze is never less beautiful than
the hand says of touch …
That I find myself at the window caressing
and warbling to a little wooden box says
of soul …
A wing as if to cup the moon.
A boat as if to rereturn.
A roost of light the night cocoons.
A chirp as if to spill the urn.
But each night, distance comes
like a wolf upon a warren,
quiet as a closing eye, hinging
dark to darkness. Humming
porch lights paint screen doors
with blurry moths. Warm
screams pursued by darknesses
that through snow rummage
for the glow of those doomed
kingdoms are born in a room
of soil and root, faraway bells,
skies elided. My cold hands swell
like the distance and stroke
the fur of a deeper shadow:
night—wolf dusted with snow,
the blacks of her eyes growing
as she bites into the hereafter.


James Henry Knippen‘s poems have appeared in 32 PoemsAGNIThe Cincinnati ReviewColorado ReviewCrazyhorseGulf CoastKenyon Review Online, and The Missouri Review Online, among other journals. He is the poetry editor of Newfound and the winner of a Discovery Poetry Prize.