Two Poems by Rachel Custer

In Kozy Valley Estates

a trailer capsizes. Two women almost die. Somebody’s mother is convinced a derecho is a conspiracy: I never heard o’ that before. It was a tornado or it wasn’t. The difference between one kind of wind and another kind of wind: belief. Between an almost-dead poor woman and a silence: one can be easily borne. After the wind, you’re alone. Staring for five minutes at a tree. Call a thing an estate and you can pretend it’s livable, can charge an extra hundred bucks for rent. A Bible hangs over a pine tree’s stripped branch. It was a tornado or it wasn’t. They were lovers or they weren’t. Is or isn’t: that’s how the truth goes. Death makes some people care about the truth. Those women were good people, good friends, good workers, they would have given you the shirts off their backs if you asked. Death makes other people lie. Call a real thing love and a lie can’t touch it. Call it love and make of truth an estate.


Deanna Reads The Velveteen Rabbit

and cries. Big, gulping cries until she can hardly speak. She’s not a woman to cry at just anything. Deanna wants a love to make her real. On her lap, her children giggle at her tears. They haven’t grown old enough to be made afraid. Once, after love, she found herself threadbare, pretending again to be new. She sees now it wasn’t fair. Her children paw at her like little cats. It’s like the book was put there just for her. Once, when she was small enough to hold, she felt that way about her mother’s lap. She hadn’t grown old enough to be unmade. A soft little rabbit whispering in the night. A wise old rocking horse. Seven children slept in the same bed with her (this was when they still had a bed). Deanna finds herself unstitched by time. Here is what a book can do: untether you. Tether you again to what is real. Her in the doorway, small enough to carry on a hip. Her tattered mother, thumbing a ride away.


Rachel Custer the author of Flatback Sally Country (Terrapin Books) and The Temple She Became (Five Oaks Press, 2017). She was a 2019 NEA fellow. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals, including Rattle, Valparaiso Poetry Review, OSU: The Journal, B O D Y, One Art, and The American Journal of Poetry, among others. She currently resides online at

Four Poems by Rachel Custer



The women huddled outside One Eyed Jacks, taking nips
of cheap whiskey secreted inside their trunks, a savings
when it takes a pint to get you there, though at five or six
I wasn’t sure where they were trying to go, but leaving
that, I knew I wanted to go with them. I cherried my lips
red with Lifesavers and smoked crayons, watched them giving
themselves to ugly men against the alleyway wall, the bricks
I ran my hands over the next day, listening, even believing
they might tell me how to hold a woman, how to kiss
her like an ugly man, but better, so she felt I was saving
her from a lifetime of ugly men with their spitting dip
and rotting teeth, their hands filthy with a kind of living
I didn’t want to understand, but wanted to imitate well
enough to touch a woman in a way that might send me to Hell.


The first time I touch a woman (in a way that might send me to Hell
the way some see) I wash her feet. A ceremony at church, it’s
reminiscent of Christ at the Last Supper. Desire swells
like fear inside my chest. While I kneel before her, she sits,
looking down at me from perfect righteousness. I know how Adam fell
from Grace: he tasted what a woman gave him. Her foot fits
perfectly inside my teenage hand. I vibrate for her like a rung bell.
A song fills the space between us: Just As I Am. The candles, lit
beside Communion bread. Just As I Am, dear God, I want to tell
You how I feel for You is how I feel for her, love or snake-bit
or something else terrifying. I repent. Her soft skin smells
like cherry blossoms. What if? dear God, what if I don’t repent?
More than anything, I long to feel safe. To know You. To understand.
Want, more than anything, peace. But her skin. My trembling hand.


I want, more than anything, peace. Her skin beneath my trembling hand
is rougher than my skin. I first saw her chain smoking outside work.
All day I watched her run from station to station. Watched and planned,
along with half the men. She wasn’t beautiful, but she had a look.
Something shone from within her like a light. She swept the sand
from the factory floor like a woman waiting for deliverance. Perks
of physical labor, I guess. Sometimes she would tuck a wild strand
of hair behind her ear, and I’d know: I wanted her, whatever it took,
whatever I had to be, or give, or do. If I had to pretend
to admire the well-muscled men. If I had to drink, or sing, or fuck
like I never worried a day. I forgot to worry if I sinned.
She’d chain smoke in bed. I’d read aloud from a good book.
We made love the way she worked: frenzied and alone inside
ourselves. When she left in the morning, I bowed my head and cried.



There is another town beneath this town,
where secret drinkers sneak to buy their pints
and secret lovers sneak to make their love
while sleepers sleep. I wake again to you.
There is another want beneath this want,

that doesn’t fear to touch, or to lie down
beside you, skin to skin. Oh, town that haunts
the town you see, like fog hanging above
a quiet street. (A lie cannot be true.)
The truth I know: your body is a taunt

I struggle to ignore. Your silk nightgown
wants my hands (the truth wants what it wants).
The hands beneath my hands are shadowed gloves.
The town beneath the town is moonlit blue.
The lie we speak covers the truth we can’t.


Lines Written Between Shifts

Smoke hangs like questions in the break shack’s air:
Do you want to die early? Don’t you feel that fear
pressing you like a machine? Aren’t you wasting
your life with work? The skinny girl says I’m fasting
again. What did you bring for lunch today?
You wish you could tell her the secret to joy.
(Is loving what you are more than what you do?)
(Is knowing when you leave here, you’re still you?)
In the parked cars, line workers hit their pipes.
One will die from the pills he takes to sleep.
Nobody will remember his given name.
The line will keep running. The press will slam
over and over all day. You’ll breathe the dirt.
Break is for questions that can’t be asked at work.


Sinners Anonymous

A woman kneels in the dark barn.

In the ditch before the church, hard rain washes
dye from a handful of hair.

In the basement of the church, eyes
require a girl’s surrender.

What are you sorry for? asks the preacher
of the silence, and from the silence

her silence returns.
My name is Rachel, and I’m

addicted to mercy (hi, Rachel)
looking for a deal worth kneeling for.

A woman kneels before
what makes her sorry: silence

where a girl wants sobs. Hard rain
washes the bullshit from her boots.

The preacher polishes empty pews.
Eyes polish a woman’s shame:

twenty bucks will get you
all the heat you can handle.

Tell us, girl: what are you sorry for?


Rachel Custer is an NEA Fellow (2019) and the author of The Temple She Became (Five Oaks Press, 2017). Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals, including Rattle, OSU: The Journal, B O D Y, The American Journal of Poetry, The Antigonish Review, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters (OJAL), among others.

Two Poems by Rachel Custer


Fear will make a man
lie about how he loves you
and Sally knows just how to scare a man. (Beneath her summer clothes,
her belly swells. A song,
sudden as dark, overtakes the day.)
Mercy wells up inside her
like the flood a girl becomes
in the basement of a cruel man’s need. Fear will make a woman
dream of another country,
the motherland a woman can become.
Sally dreams vast fields of desperate eyes. Hope: a mother will never be left
alone with a dangerous dream.
Mercy: a daughter
born to cut glances from men.


Seeing Too Much is Seeing Nothing

Sally stands at the sink, training
her eyes on the following day
and missing
the girl following her around.
Sally’s saving all her faith for silences, these days. Summer
mornings in Indiana
are a lie that’ll catch you out later.
An unanswered question,
a shame that’ll soak your clothes.
What happened to Mercy? a truth
you don’t know how to say
is the same as a truth you don’t know. One more little girl
who couldn’t be saved. Mercy
split the county-line crick
and walked through on dry ground.
Sally swore she never saw the day.


Rachel Custer is an NEA Fellow (2019) and the author of The Temple She Became (Five Oaks Press, 2017). Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals, including Rattle, OSU: The Journal, B O D Y, The American Journal of Poetry, The Antigonish Review, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters (OJAL), among others.

Three Poems by Rachel Custer

House Soon to Catch Fire

Upstairs, a man
with swarming wasps for eyes

paces the carpet bare.
Bent birdcage of a woman downstairs.

Falling matchstick of a man
who only wants to rise

like song, like the blush of pride in
his children’s cheeks.

Brief fever dream of a man
whose senses whisper lies.

What gift can he offer
his children? His name,

that prison cell inside his neighbors’ glares?
The desperate shame

of broken teeth, of ugliness
that can’t afford disguise? That man

looks at his wife, sees only bars.
Listens for birdsong, hears broken cars.

Such a man would maybe
trade a match for unheard blame,

would settle for ash lifted skyward on a flame.



Whatever you think you know of me is wrong.
I came up in church. I remember all the songs –
Amazing Grace. Just As I Am. For All the Saints.
I spent a lifetime being what I ain’t.
I spent my childhood on a desperate man.
He spent himself against me. Now, I can
touch a man without him touching back.
I’m real good, too. I got the knack
for making an invisible man feel seen.
That’s why they come, you know? They clean
their dirty fingernails and shave up neat,
and sit there still as Sunday under me.
Just as they are, so wonderfully unmade.
I’m the patron saint of getting paid
for less than what a man will sometimes steal.
Sundays, I repent. It’s a good deal.



South from courthouse square, the church bells ring
time to clock in. A call to partake in the sacrament
of making. Here’s a factory, placed in the crease
of a hand. A factory, the promise of daily labor;
here’s peace in the land. A factory is a lung,
breathing a people, exhaling a town. In, deeply,
with sweat and life-time and dreams; out, with
force behind it, order. A factory is the land resting
behind a border, and the border itself. A factory
is a pantry full of stocked shelves. A town is a place
where a person can go to a store and pay a bit
of her life to buy a thing that she made with a
bit of her life, and she can walk away feeling
proud of her life. A town is what happens between
work and church. A life is what happens around
a town. There are men whose hands get lost
on the way to work, end up wandering the paths
of the forest called woman, the desert of a constant
thirst for wine, the grasping vine of a hot pipe.
A factory requires no leap of faith. Repetitive
work is a kind of balm for the open wound
of doubt. The church bells ring the workday out.


Rachel Custer is an NEA Fellow (2019) and the author of The Temple She Became (Five Oaks Press, 2017). Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals, including Rattle, OSU: The Journal, B O D Y, The American Journal of Poetry, The Antigonish Review, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters (OJAL), among others.

Three Poems by Rachel Custer


Save your sorry. Your sorry won’t get me
my crops in before the frost. Your sorry
won’t fill the propane tank. Confess me up
a big old sack of free feed, while you’re at it.
What I don’t need? A man who can’t outpace
his sorries, who leads ‘em around like a pack
of fair-weather friends. Another man hog-tied
by shoulda done. I knew a man once, he plowed
through each day like sorries leaded his boots,
each foot dragging the bodies of his regrets.
His whole life was an apology. God, what
did he think? It would stop him dying? He died,
like we all do: with dry lips and not enough
to drink. Sorry is death for no reason. Sorry
is men dying everywhere except the spot
where you stand, and you laying yourself
down in the sand. Each death deserves a life.
It’s like, I don’t know. Here! It’s like a field.
The most fertile field needs a fallow year.
The man who never rests his field grows
nothing but the knowledge of should
have done. What should I have done?
My son was just learning how to run the big
plow, and if he was too young, if another year
would have kept him from its blades – what
should I have done? What will it help
to plant, again and again, that field where
my boy died, and to harvest regret from
the black soil of the past? Don’t tell me
you’re sorry, I used to tell him when he
messed up, it doesn’t fix it. Don’t tell me
you’re sorry. Just stop doing the wrong thing.



Halfway down a country road a house leans
as if asking for forgiveness. As if asking
to be remembered well. Remembers the time
the roof caved in after a wet snow and how
the candles made stories of the walls. Nobody
knows hunger like a cold child. Hunger eats
anything it can get, and if hunger gets nothing,
it will eat the house that holds it and make
a dessert of itself. Hunger would rather reign
than serve. I would rather ask forgiveness
than permission says a woman, and this woman
knows the truth: how once invited inside,
hunger never leaves. Hunkers in the corner
and glares. How it feeds and feeds. A house
leans like a fire waiting to happen. Says a child:
I would rather steal than ask for anything
just before asking a neighbor to borrow
an egg. A man walks to work as if asking
forgiveness, leaning like a house against
the wind. A house could be forgiven for taking
hunger’s side, for demanding so much,
for its quiet and constant need. A man
could be forgiven for striking a match.



Lucky from the start, I was. Came home
lips to nipple and swaddled in a good name.
Nothing softer in this world than a good name,
nothing warmer. Like the best cologne dabbed
behind each ear. Like the deep weave of plush
rugs, the feet of soft women dancing. Before
I was poor I was rich. Before I was rich I was
nothing. I was maybe the extra finger of Scotch
in my father’s night, was maybe the crystal
just-so of my mother’s glass. I was low light.
Before I was drunk I was a child, tucked inside
others’ drunkenness and waltzed around airy rooms.
The whitewashed tombs of my mother’s breasts.
Her Home & Garden womb. Her best-dressed,
drunk at the Christmas party smile. Her royal
flush spread of hair, brushed and gleaming. I
was the kind of lush that blooms in scant light.
She was the kind of hush that looms. I can’t fight
the sure dread that my mother will look down
on me someday, that she will bend over me
like reed grass. The light behind her. Someday
you’ll thank us, I imagine her saying, everything
we gave you. The kind of name that could never
belong to the kind of man I am. The cold comfort
of no blame. A world willing to shift to fit my name.


Rachel Custer is an NEA Fellow (2019) and the author of The Temple She Became (Five Oaks Press, 2017). Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals, including Rattle, OSU: The Journal, B O D Y, The American Journal of Poetry, The Antigonish Review, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters (OJAL), among others.