Phyllis Capello


In autumn’s dustless blue their orchard green;

green against Ohio’s red and yellow hills;

she watched as harvesters reached for fruit.  

Every day, in his room, smoothing down

his sheets, half-listening for the driveway toot;

the ding on her phone that would never come.

Twenty-five years ago she’d set the crib

near this window so he’d wake to leaves;

that was the spring morning life fluttered within

as if she’d swallowed a sip of wind.

He could have stayed!  Why guard a nameless base

on a useless acre of sand?  But boisterous boys,

groomed by action films and video games,

trade farm boy skills for tanks and guns.

Taught not to wonder why a desert crossroad matters,

or for whom, for honor, the love of friends,

they leave the prosperous fields.

He was a private, not a poet, her Pete, her only son.

Deadly combat described with acronyms serve

the profiteer’s tongue; a populace is groomed, too;

if we’re told to call dismemberment an IED,

who’s being fooled?  Speak plainly: a man,

in his own land, stepped out of a car in a vest:

seven humans cease to exist.

Whose fingers gather flesh from metal bits,  

lift a soldier’s head from one side of the road,

to place it, closer to his heart, on the other?

Should she dream his eyes open or closed?

Tally the profits! Pack the carcasses!  

To strife and war the merchants toast!

Their children are tucked in princely beds.

Do we ask: sir, why is your silk tie

steeped in blood?  Why is every day market day

for bombs, body bags and boots?

She’d seen ostrakaa once, in a museum case:

stones and pottery shards with words written

or inscribed; the smallest a child-sized sherd

shaped like a fist with a hint of thumb.

A frantic woman’s easy to cheat,

for her simple words, the smallest piece

and charge her twice as much.

Unlike all the others it was not a list of property

or taxes owed or paid, or slaves, or grain, or grapes:

“Be home for harvest, son,” it read,

“leave battlefield, father needs you.”

Undelivered, was her guess—but what if,

hand-to-hand her words were passed

and when they found him in that barren place,

he’d glanced at the infertility and left?

“The village children have such beautiful eyes, Mom

like jewels—every day begging for those sweets you send.”

He liked the cherries best, so she kept his pockets full.

Were they sown among the rest?

Mothers: name the ones who gain

from battlefields; choose a fragment flat enough;

match your words precisely to the shape.


*“Ostrakon” is based on Whitman’s Civil War poem, “Come Down From the Fields, Father,” in which a bereaved mother, upon news of her son’s death, wills herself into death, therefore silence.  My growth as a feminist was via books and experience; unlike the woman in Whitman’s poem I’ve learned to speak up against injustice. Louise De Salvo’s groundbreaking work has always added to my courage.  Observation, political and personal, matters; writing, even a woman’s few words etched onto a ceramic fragment thousands of years old show how choice can be registered. (Ostrakaa were used in the Forum as ballots.)


Phyllis Capello is a writer, musician and performer wholives in Brooklyn, NY. She is a New York Foundation for the Arts fellow in fiction and a prizewinner in the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Awards. Her work appears in many anthologies and literary magazines, including, most recently, the Italian feminist journal Legendaria, Families: A Journal of Representation, Kolkata, The Milk of Almonds, and Reading, Writing and Reacting, a college textbook. She teaches poetry and music and entertains hospitalized children in the Big Apple Circus’ Clown Care program. She has a grown daughter and son.