Five Poems by Jane McKinley

Small Talk

In 7th grade we learned the art
of talking small, avoiding
what loomed largest in our minds—
the river one girl’s older brother
walked into, tired of holding
everything together while their father
fell apart. Their mother had died
the year before. In 5th grade
we found out that one girl’s dad
had killed himself when she was two.
Rumors grew. A rope or a revolver?
The Clue game didn’t have a barn.
Our teacher wisely nipped us
in the bud. We never spoke of it again.
In 7th grade, the same girl’s older sister
was discovered—floating in a lake,
half-clothed, face down. A mystery.
That year my boyfriend’s mother died
of cancer. We laughed because his Jell-O
flopped. He hadn’t read directions, didn’t stir.
Our first-chair clarinetist lost her mother
late that spring. A diabetic, her sores
had turned to gangrene. Wasn’t that
what soldiers died from in the Civil War?
One evening that fall I overheard
two 8th-grade girls. I couldn’t help it.
I was curled up on our porch swing
with a book when they walked by.
One said my name. I raised my head
to peek through flames of burning bush,
saw her pointing toward our house,
heard the other answer,
But she wouldn’t have been chosen
if her sister hadn’t died.


Perfect Paul

My sister has signed on to
to find a companion for Saturday nights,
but what her profile fails to mention
is that she cannot see, that she has lost
her appetite for light and shadow, that,
in a word, she is completely blind.

She fires off e-mails to prospective dates,
the ones who’ve caught her knowing ear
as she listens to replies. Their letters, turned
to speech, sped up, sound all alike
in Perfect Paul, a voice on her computer,
the only choice that she can stand.

The beauty is that none of them
have guessed the truth—or even part of it.
(Her history alone could occupy
a dozen writers for a lifetime.) Somehow
they can’t imagine that a wit who’s so
articulate is typing by touch alone.

There’s no photo posted. She hasn’t
seen herself for over twenty years so why
should they be privy to a visual. Besides,
the playing field would be uneven then.
She keeps her lack of vision to herself
until she knows she’s piqued their interest.

Anyway, it’s not something you’d blurt out
in an e-mail. Timing is everything,
so she waits until she’s drawn them in,
seduced them with her voice, her laugh,
until she feels secure, their fingers wrapped
around their cells or cordless phones.

A writer of memoirs, she keeps a log
of their reactions, which range from silence
so awkward the conversation stops to You
must be joking! to a sort of itching curiosity,
but what is strange is that not one of them
has ever known a person who was blind.



I never knew there was a word for dead leaves,
for the way they hang on beeches and oaks
long after the raking is done, flying in the face
of deciduous—meaning falling down. Some trees
let go in a timely fashion, showing their true
colors once the chlorophyll’s gone, sealing off
the exit wounds before they drop their leaves.
Not this year. The maples kept their cool
green till the 10th of November when a cold snap
zapped them overnight, drying their leaves to a crisp
brown. As if that weren’t bad enough, these dead
leaves are stuck. The trees had no warning, no mild
early frost to trigger the process of letting go.
Sudden death is like that. No time to prepare
for the loss so the dead keep rattling on.



In what would become her final years,
she had a gig at the medical school,

discussing the complications of diabetes
with students in their 2nd year. She knew

her history inside out—oversized binders
filled two carts. She’d triumphed over

blindness, two kidney transplants,
three heart attacks, the loss of a foot.

Near the end of one class, an earnest,
twenty-something student asked,

“What are your fears for the future?”
“My date on Saturday night!”

After the students left, the professor said,
“You know, you really shouldn’t be here.”

“What? In this room? Or on this planet?”


Patient is Blind

My old flip phone
used to open to a photo
I took of my sister
on the eve of
her amputation.
It never failed
to make me smile.
She’d complained
that some nurses
and doctors would enter
her room without
announcing themselves
and begin to touch her—
checking on her already
filleted foot or taking
her vitals—without
telling her what
they were doing,
so someone posted
a laminated sign outside
her room that read:
Patient is Blind.
My sister, afraid
it might tip off
would-be thieves,
asked me to take it down
and hang it beside
the white board near her bed.
That way, it was visible
to those who needed
a reminder, but not to passersby.
She asked, Which nurse
is on the board for tonight?
When I told her the name,
she said, Quick! Tape that sign
to my forehead. Apparently,
this nurse was the worst
offender. Minutes later,
without saying a word
or cracking a smile,
in she walked to take
my sister’s blood pressure
and hand her some meds,
as if she were the one
who couldn’t see
the sign. It was all
we could do not to laugh.


Jane McKinley is a Baroque oboist and artistic director of the Dryden Ensemble, a professional chamber music group based in Princeton, New Jersey. Her poetry collection, Vanitas, won the 2011 Walt McDonald First-Book Prize and was published by Texas Tech University Press. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in The Georgia Review, Five Points, The Southern Review, Great River Review, Tar River Poetry, Valparaiso Poetry Review, On the Seawall, Poetry Daily, and elsewhere. In March she received a 2023 Poetry Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. She lives with her husband in Hopewell, New Jersey.

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