Michelle Y. Burke


In 1916 Helen Keller and Peter Fagan were briefly, and secretly, engaged.

Fear unfurls in her throat
like Mother's peonies—
how they open and open,
hands inside of hands.

And heat curls her hair
into angry bees, leaves welts
at her jawline. Her skirt,
layered like the peony,
complicates walking. Yet she loves
what is complicated:
dresses with masses of ribbon,
others' hands at her back,
the intricate wheels and rods
of a typewriter, keys
that fit her fingers like petals.

Mother hates the smell
of oil and ink. She told
Mother once that she loved
best the flowers
with velvet tongues,
how they leave sex
on her fingertips.
Pistil, pestle, piston.
She presses her open palm.

You've ripped your dress again,
Mother says, the words
on her lips like molting skin.
She takes each word in hand,
imagines crushing
pinecones, eggshells.

* * *


In 1909, doctors removed Helen Keller's eyes and replaced them with glass eyes tinted blue.

Convenient how the horse is born with a gap
in its mouth, a place for the bit, a back

suited for riding. Would you take it back now—
the bit about poverty, equality, socialism?

Did floorboards quake as you paced backstage?
With your new baby blues, they took your picture

head-on. More speaking engagements, fundraisers.
The daily stroke of kidskin gloves, fingers spread

over fleshy throats, the hot flash of the camera.
Before: profile shots. The war, you said,

is a capitalist ploy, and all the do-gooders applauded.
They dropped words in your palm. Weigh them all.

They still amount to nothing.

*Both poems originally appear in Something Close to Beautiful (Inglis House Poetry Workshop, 2005) and appear in Burke's chapbook Horse Loquela.


Michelle Y. Burke is the author of the poetry chapbook Horse Loquela. She completed her MFA at Ohio State University and is currently pursuing a PhD in English and Comparative Literature at the University of Cincinnati.