Two Poems by Karen Paul Holmes


He has no heart now and won’t
for the next hour. It’s in surgeon hands
while the heart-lung machine breathes/beats
for the body cooled to hypothermia.
Doctors graft a vein—like a branch of peace—
from his leg, building new paths:
bypassing the impassable.

How can a good man have a bad heart?
Scalpeled open twice in one life.
This go-round, it’s me in the waiting room,
the loneliest eight hours I’ve ever felt.
Nurses call me Mrs.,
though I’m not, nor could I be Widow.
Just Domestic Partner, Significant Other.
Now Caregiver. Living Will Agent.

My head jerks from my novel whenever
a name is called. I remember to pray
with each Code Blue: All personnel to 3-R!
At 9 pm, a friend brings me golden phở,
we slurp noodles and laugh, drugging my worry.

ICU: The screen’s red and green jags,
like a colored Etch A Sketch, spellbind me,
on guard for the flatline I’ve seen in movies.
I-Vs tick steady, until their warning beeps startle.

Chris wakes up, joyful. Breathing
tube out, he sings a few notes for the nurses.
They move him to a regular room, less vigilant.
I can’t not watch the bellows of his chest.
as he sleeps. Water gurgles, wets the oxygen tube.
For five days, lines and drains come out
until his body works on its own.
He walks the hall, stance almost his ballroom form.

He has come home on a day like this before,
sky a clean slate of blue.
I hover. He showers, turning his stitched chest
away from the water’s hard beat.
He’s singing Pink Floyd’s Learning to Fly.


He Only Liked Onions in Small Amounts

         for Chris, 1956-2017

Just a bit for flavor, he’d say, chopping
the white flesh as if it were precious, mindful
of the balance in stews, tacos or Low Country boils,
proud when I would ooh and aah.

Once he ordered a large Mega-Supreme pizza,
which was really mostly mega-onion.
Later, when we’d pass the place—Big Al’s—
he’d make a face and say let’s get an onion pizza
or I’d say how about some pizza with your onions?

Now I’m eating a Thai salad, picking out too-many
red ones, yet glad for the Chris-memory
flooding my taste buds.
It’s like he’s here as I try to right myself
on this seesaw-for-one, balancing between
the pungent grief of death and the sweetness of us.
The heavy thud. The weightlessness.


Karen Paul Holmes has two poetry books, No Such Thing as Distance (Terrapin) and Untying the Knot (Aldrich). Her poems have appeared on The Writer’s Almanac, The Slowdown, and Verse Daily. Publications include Diode, Plume, and Valparaiso Review. She has twice been a finalist for the Lascaux Review’s Poetry Prize.

Two Poems by Karen Paul Holmes

At Least Two People I know Take Photos of Hearts in Nature

Morning glory leaves, rocks, clouds,
a horse’s fur, an upturned pear
that grew oddly so.
Or manmade by chance—
oil swirls on pavement,
an accidental heart in marbled rye.
These shapes—symbols
for the human heart,
its beats and chambers linked
with love since Sappho’s mad heart
quaked with it, and Venus
gave Cupid his bow.

The seekers aren’t looking for
a weeping Mary or Jesus
for thousands to bow down before,
just reminders to be mindful,
like when my Buddhist chime
sprinkles the quiet with silver.
Once I look, I begin to see.
Valentines in the unexpected universe,
small doses of hope.
A broken cockle shell tangled in kelp,
the grain of a cedar bench,
pollen on a still pond.


Adult Daughters

A friend tells me about her flight last week:
She watched a grown daughter fall asleep—
head on her mother’s shoulder,
mother’s cheek on her head—like puzzle pieces.

As if grabbing my lapel, she implores,
How does this closeness happen?
My daughter and I have PhDs, but we don’t have this,
nor did my mother and I.

I want to mark a route and hand her the map.
But it’s a map—instinct I can’t explain—
mothers pass on to daughters. Blue lines, sinew, heart.
I begin to write. Stories I can’t share with my friend.

My 75-year-old mother and I carry armloads
into the Macy’s dressing room.
She wears new black pants—lint-covered hem to knee.
Eyeing the mirror, says
Gee, I thought I bought pants not a vacuum cleaner.
We laugh and can’t stop, tears dripping.
We retell the story often among sisters and daughters.

Singapore: My daughter and I lie on her bed.
I arrived last night, a 33-hour flight. Eyes barely open,
we enjoy the myna bird’s many songs before city noise thrums.
Something reminds us of the vacuum cleaner pants,
and we laugh. She rolls over, hugs me
I’m glad you’re here, Momma.
Let’s have tea. I bought you gluten-free muffins
and a mango that just now gives to the touch.


Karen Paul Holmes has two poetry books, No Such Thing as Distance (Terrapin, 2018) and Untying the Knot (Aldrich, 2014). Her poems have been featured on The Writer’s Almanac, The Slowdown, and Verse Daily. Journal publications include Plume (forthcoming), Diode, Glass, and Prairie Schooner. She founded the Side Door Poets in Atlanta and a monthly open mic in the North Georgia mountains.

Transpiration by Karen Paul Holmes


There is nothing wrong with a slow heartbeat
in trees. A pulse once every two hours pumps
water—like our blood—from roots to crown.
Botanists know this now, have measured it:
I don’t need to put my ear to trunk, like I laid
my head on your scarred chest, listening for its
rhythm, trying not to fret over stalled thumps,
not wanting to tell you, trusting the docs who
cut you and kept your meter adagio with meds,
your blood thin, its tension down. Trees throb
to keep water pressure in their xylem, and I’d
like to believe you surge there too, drawn up
from clay to sweetgums thriving in my yard,
their leaves opening and opening into stars.


Karen Paul Holmes has two poetry collections, No Such Thing as Distance (Terrapin, 2018) and Untying the Knot (Aldrich, 2014). Her poems have been featured on The Writer’s Almanac and The Slowdown. Publications include Diode, Valparaiso Review, Verse Daily, and Prairie Schooner. She’s the current “Poet Laura” for Tweetspeak Poetry.