Nicole Greaves

Variations on a Theme

In the perches like the balconies in Verona

one student says I am now a shifting painting

and names me daily: Woman Drinking Coffee,

Woman in a Red Sweater, Woman Teaching in Her Dreams,

Woman Losing Things (she’s already thinking this way 

before having read much, and she notices every detail

in my canvas, how the candle burning on the shelf

has a fake wick so I won’t accidentally burn the house down

as I’m more and more prone to forgetting and lost

in the flicker that is like the swimming of the sea monkey

I longed for as a child, suggesting it is the smallest particle 

that survives). She asks me where I’ve been.

What can I remember? What were my favorite records? 

She sometimes plays old standards as we blink in

or out, like B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone,”

which she says is her parents’ break-up song. We just listen

for a moment, like to a jukebox after finding a dull quarter 

in walks in the factory parking lots, meant for someone’s coffee, 

a phone call home. She becomes the Girl Born Too Late 

and as her hair lights up, Girl in the Lamplight Mistaken 

for the Sun. She begins to read today’s prompt: “Is it Good 

or Bad to Be a Rebel?” She answers, “It depends 

on whom it will hurt.” The others raise their hands 

and begin to wave like polishing glass, drifting off to sea.


They confuse you with Lucy:

one lost body part for another, but yours 

were breasts, not eyes. Your story outlined

in red pen in the Little Pictorial Book of the Saints 

by a Cecilia, in 1914. This book the center

of a young life. The image of Sicily,

a raft in water, a grandfather’s voyage,

words underlined:  chaste, promise,

preservation. We find ourselves in what is 

missing. In the early whispers, the hair 

on our body rises like grass in the wind. 

The reward, what we believe. 

A volcano hushed above your youth. 

You look noble on the medallions

that swing in the souvenir shops 

where the young girls run their hands

across them like across an iron grate.

The Crying Never Stops at the Academy

Appositives, dangling participles, preposition,

so many agreements.

She has been studying for hours now.

This is what Sister has been teaching for 50 years,

for three generations

and two in her own family.

Now she is pouring over Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.

Sister reiterates,

Only so much you have for the keeping.

This will be on the test.

At home more

books pressed open like birds in flight

conjure up the sudden onset of ravens

flying into the windows.

Her mother makes cutout silhouettes

like paper dolls to adhere to the glass

to keep the birds from hitting the windows,

but they only make the blue house more tragic.

It is better to just drown them all out?

She is thinking.

We gotta get out of here. Always here.

Who will tell her, this is the escape?

Thankfully, you can stream the world

in your ears, let it pass like blood

in a donation, the red flush

like the hibiscus tea her mother

settles her with, pours in the bath,

carries around for emergencies.


 –for Virginia

Heaven has found itself.  An older woman

has given birth to a younger one. A younger

woman, to an older one. A star

is dying:  I am not. The seal harbors 

an avalanche. Everything in quotes.

It’s “New Year’s.” Time for the “faux fur”

and “ablation.” No one can rescue us,

but the psyche. Someone always lurking,

like a distant train. The children delight

in onomatopoeia. A favorite caesura 

in the metonymy. My mother said I must

continue to look for her in others. You must

leave a country to find it. Once you

return, you will inhabit it like a tourist.


Follow your North Star,

holding a leaf cut from a child’s drawing

and the strawberry jelly beans until they melt 

into your white gloves in the shape of their intention,

forgiving yourself when your mother can’t:

her grudge, your freedom 

in the summer of long goodbyes

where your hair grows as long as a veil 

over a grandmother’s countenance

as you learn to gut a river fish,

tearing at it like into an envelope 

housing a love letter to yourself. 


Nicole Greaves teaches English in Philadelphia. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. Her poetry has appeared in numerous literary reviews and been acknowledged by several prizes. In 2003, she was the poet laureate of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania and was nominated for Best on the Net by Radar Magazine in 2015. Nicole is partly of Panamanian and Sicilian descent and much of her work explores themes around acculturation, gender roles, and class.