Barbara J. Orton

The Bad Sister


My thighs are chafed. I smell of blood and wool.

Bitter, clumsy, menstrual,

I welter in the confines of this hall.


My lover died and left me this:

a rack of pills, my mother’s hips,

the radiator’s intermittent hiss.


Now I am the bad sister, the one

reversing charges on the phone,


saying, “This will be your death,

too: this open wound, this mouth

unstitched for prophesy and stopped with earth.


“And ghosts will come to steal your love:

the dancing boy I never was,

the tall woman you despair of.”



No oranges will bloom     no rain

will wet the dust that spirals on these hills

No fruit will ripen     no peel

to split beneath men’s fingernails


No birds will cry     no olive trees will bear

their crown of bitter fruit

No black-haired girl will dip into the pail

to oil her cracked feet


No cows will bring their calves to term

in the dry field

Damp necks will shrivel there

and milky eyes be blind


Until my daughter comes to me

Until my daughter comes to me





Someday you’ll meet someone who treats you kindly.

In one graceless, necessary move,

you’ll shake me off like a heavy blanket

and walk into your life,

eyes open. You won’t pretend what you’re giving up

is happiness. I won’t pretend it’s free.


Even as I grow bitter and cold with wanting

what I never loved,

I’ll remember this with something like pleasure—

the lift of your heels, abrupt as sparrow-flight,

and how your back straightened as you walked away.


Someday you’ll forget everything you wanted,

forget your hunger and your dead brother’s voice.

Your little gods will tiptoe off and leave you.

I’ll be the last thing you remember when you close your eyes to sleep.

Barbara J. Orton’s poems appear in journals including The Yale Review, Ploughshares, Pleiades, and 32 Poems, and in anthologies including The New Young American Poets, Under the Rock Umbrella, Villanelles, and Obsession: Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century. She received her M.F.A.W. in creative writing (poetry) from Washington University in St. Louis and her M.A. in English literature from Tufts University, where she is pursuing a Ph.D.



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