An Urn Among Music Boxes by Tom Hunley

An Urn Among Music Boxes


My dad is made of balsa wood.
He’s wider than he is tall,
taller than he is deep.

On his face, you can read
“Footprints,” the sentimental poem
that everyone’s mom sticks on the fridge.

My dad has Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Roundup® from the farm next door infected him.
First an allergic reaction to meds
made his tongue swell up, gave him a rash.
Then came tests. Then came the diagnosis.

In the hospital, he couldn’t talk
except by spelling on a board.
A machine breathed for him.
He ate through a tube in his nose.

If you open him up and turn the key
inoffensive music should come out.
It’s my task to open him up, turn the key,

and listen, knowing the music will wind down.


I guess I retire from Walmart
my dad wrote from his hospital bed,
but nothing could make him quit

flea markets, so here we are
my sisters and I, lifting boxes
arranging inventory on tables

like kids again doing whatever Dad says—
hard work but also a cakewalk
started and stopped by the rhythmic

orders coming from Dad’s still-damaged voice.


Last night, in the deep fog on 234E,
two deer galloped in front of my car
and I had to swerve to miss them

as Lou Reed music set my stereo reeling.


Test each music box, my dad says.
If there’s no music, don’t put it on the table.
If the glass is broken, don’t put it on the table.

Dad, this one’s not a music box.
It’s an urn. It has instructions
on the bottom for storing ashes

and no music comes out.
My dad says Morticians charge
bank for those. $5 per music box.

$10 for the urn. My dad’s a music box.
My sisters and I are music boxes, too.

When the music stops, someone will land in the urn.


At 8am, a vendor, crossing the street
to get something from her car
gets hit by a vehicle going 50mph.

I hear it and hope it isn’t my car
getting hit. Then I hear Ohmigod
and Get up, Mama, and minutes later

a lady holding a coffee maker
asks Will you take $3?
and my dad takes her money as

his friend Shawn directs traffic,
and an ambulance comes
as does a helicopter like the one

that airlifted my dad two months ago
and a teenage girl, trying to figure out
which music box to have her boyfriend

buy for her opens several boxes
at once and there’s this cacophony
of chimes and my dad says

Quit standing around, son. We’ve got work to do.


Tom Hunley’s latest books are Adjusting to the Lights (winner of the 2020 Rattle Chapbook Prize) and What Feels Like Love: New and Selected Poems (C&R Press 2021).

Four Poems by Sandra Kohler

Having lost it…

When I tell my therapist about having lost it completely three days ago
when my husband gets angry at me because I’ve left a cabinet door open
and he bangs his head on it, says it’s something I’ve done before, I
tell her I don’t understand what set me off so completely, so that
I scream I can’t stand it, threaten to leave, to kill myself, outrageous
unforgivable behavior, and why, all because of his understandable
irritation at the end of a long siege of frustrations, stress, anxiety
in these awful pandemic days.

What was this about, I ask, and she asks me. “My mother,” I say. That
answer that we all come up with in the end, unless it’s “my father.” But
for me, it was her, not him. And somehow, I don’t know how, I have
reached, in these days, a kind of grim unrecognized decision: I reject
her definition of me, my life. I don’t want ever again to feel guilty or
unworthy or incompetent, I am done, finally, with apologizing for my



I’m thinking this morning, as I often
do, of my wish that my husband and I
had known each other decades earlier,
ages before we met, middle-aged, with
years of living behind each of us. But
today for the first time I realize I’ve been
wrong, we do have that knowledge.

Each of us still carries the young self
we were inside, bringing a childhood,
a parentage, family, first marriage, years
of living adult lives. Here and now, in
the present, we see, hear, feel aspects of
that life, that person in the other. Here
and now, in this relationship, we are
each all the selves we’ve ever been.



Climbing a steep hill of iced-over
snow in front of a public building,
library of some kind, I know I have
to extract one book from the depths
of the mound, it’s what I’m here for.
The rest has vanished. We vanish
and don’t. We are alive in the dreams
of others, or dead, dreams which may
be closer to nightmare than dream,
or not. We are strange familiar ghosts
becoming apparitions, visitations.

I lose a hearing aid, the key to my
house, an hour, a morning, a slip of
paper with the name of the nostrum
that could save me, a child’s first all-
accepting love, a friendship that was
never whole but whose fractures still
beckoned. I lose my sense of humor,
my sense of proportion, my way,
my whereabouts, my why.

Do I have anything left to say? Of
course. Do I know how to say it? Of
course not. It’s the not which gives me
the knot to unpick, whose threads can
be woven into patches, forming a
patchwork which can be sewn into
a fabric which will be a statement
of something I don’t know I know.


What Follows

After ten years of living here, I still
don’t know the weather, its patterns,
where it comes from. Or the domestic
weather: my daughter-in-law’s moods.

Talking to her about the garden, I get
what I’ve asked for and then don’t know
what to do with it. I can accept or reject
it. Whatever. What would whatever be?

There are grave limits not on what I
can want but on how much I can have.
The sky says anything can come along
and will, but not what or where. Our

roses are blossoming today as if there
is no tomorrow. If they’re right I should
be attending not to weather but whether:
what can I create from today’s offerings?


Sandra Kohler’s third collection of poems, Improbable Music, (Word
Press) appeared in May, 2011. Earlier collections are The Country of
Women (Calyx, 1995) and The Ceremonies of Longing, (University of
Pittsburgh Press, 2003). Her poems have appeared in journals, including
The New Republic, The Beloit Poetry Journal, Prairie Schooner, and many
others over the past 45 years. In 2018, a poem of hers was chosen to be
part of Jenny Holzer’s permanent installation at the new Comcast
Technology Center in Philadelphia.