Five poems from ‘First Father’ by Melissa Joplin Higley

Five poems from First Father
(a thematic chapbook manuscript)


Did they tell you your birth story:

abandoned, adopted to fill the space
of one born still? Could you

discern the mother who wouldn’t
from the one who would? When

she held you, did her grief become
yours, or did your fledgling body

only crave warm milk,
a steady heart?


Couldn’t you tell she was rattle-boned
when she carried your first-born, who took
for himself the calcium from her teeth

while she starved? What did you do
with the money she hid in the flour tin?
What happened to her winter coat?

I didn’t cry when Mom told me you died.
I was 7 years old. I asked her, Is it okay
to not be sad?


This week, I read the letters you wrote
in prison, the ones to your sister,
that drifted through 45 years of hands

before reaching mine—these letters,
one of only four things in this world
both our hands have held. I searched

your looped, back-tilting script for a sign
you thought of us, your first family—not a word.
Even on my second birthday, nothing.


You missed my birth, my baptism,
my first smile, step, word.
You missed my graduations,
my wedding, my son’s birth. Yes,
you were long dead by then.

I know how you surrendered me
as an infant, resigned yourself
to collecting my childhood: preserved
in Kodachrome, stored in darkness.


I dreamt I held your stocking hat.
I wanted to try it on, to see if it would fit me, too.

When I was an infant, my head was so large
the doctors thought I had “water on the brain.”

I didn’t cry until I was one. When I found
my voice, they called it a “miracle.”

Did you know?

I dreamt I opened that dark wool,
wondered if I could fill your vacancy.


Melissa Joplin Higley’s poems appear, or are forthcoming, in Anti-Heroin Chic, Feral, MER, Sleet Magazine, Right Hand Pointing, The Night Heron Barks, Writer’s Digest, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and co-facilitates the Poetry Craft Collective. She lives in Mamaroneck, NY with her husband and son. Visit her at:

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