Per Fumum

My mother became an ornithologist

when the grackle tumbled through barbecue smoke

and fell at her feet. Soon she learned

why singers cage birds; it can take weeks

to memorize a melody

the first days lost as they mope

and warble a friendless note,

the same tone every animal memorizes

hours into breathing. It’s a note

a cologne would emit if the bottle was struck

while something mystical was aligned

with something even more mystical

but farther away. My father was an astronomer

for forty minutes in a row

the first time a bus took us so far

from streetlights he could point out constellations

that may or may not have been Draco,

Orion, Aquila, or Crux.

When they faded I resented the sun’s excess,

a combination of fires I couldn’t smell.

The first chemist was a perfumer

whose combinations, brushed

against pulse points, were unlocked

by quickening blood. From stolen perfumes

I concocted my personal toxin.

It was no more deadly than as much water

to any creature the size of a roach. I grew suspicious

of my plate and lighter Bunsen burner,

the tiny vials accumulating in my closet.

I was a chemist for months

before I learned the difference

between poisoned and drowned.

When my bed caught fire

it smelled like a garden.


–by Jamaal May

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