The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®


Judith Skillman

My Grandmother's Waltz


One breast gone, soft arms doughy, arms extended,
no longer a woman, rather a specter,
she danced in torn slippers, her hair short-cropped.

One two three, one two three. And we, die kinder,
were of one mind in our jury as children:
we had, in our infinite power

made her into a kind of a contraption—
a Babushka spinning in its own squat body.
Always the counting beneath whistles of trains

running westward from the town of no money.
Always the wheeze of a breathy laughter
following its own spittle around the rheumy

house, which was half of a house. In the foyer
she blessed us with three quick spits on our heads.
Large flowers splattered a shift held together

with safety pins. Wooden floors she twirled
were scarred with nails. How could she be happy?
We made her smile, late afternoons, doilies seeded,

yellowed with age. The sun crept away,
the last train left as Bartok began again,
piano baring monstrous teeth.
One two three,

one two three, one arm wound around my brother,
the other held out to me, she danced
to her own songs—accompanied gutturals.

So what if Poland wept for her blued
eyes, the cataract of mountains rearranging
what was once home before the flatlands.

Had we concocted this underling?
What could we do to send her back upstairs

to the room of garments, mothballed, hanging.

There, a hundred netted hats waited for her.
Like persons with no faces their tongues swished

five languages inside-out together

as she read Agatha Christies in Polish,
pausing only to extract a piece of green

from the thin mouth unlipsticked, sheepish

almost in its shy smile as another roast burned
in the oven, and we went free to giggle

and climb in her orchard. There, apples, stunted

by fear of heights, would give a little
sour from their crabs, thrill the sky with danger,

make unleavened earth eat its own gristle.



Judith Skillman

Garden of Fingers


The pinky protrudes from snow,
little nail raised like a question mark.
The first—index of music,
keeper of the mouse hole—
slips from dirt.
Triple-jointed, clean-clipped,
ready to anchor that crab
sidling up to the fingerboard.
How renounce the middle one?
Symbol for f, f’ing, m’f, f’er,
an etcetera of notes gone flat
or sharp from lack of practice.

The fourth could still make a d, or g
if only there were frets.
I kneel before the thumb
buried in its keel of land.
This one holds
the urge to encircle and kill.




JUDITH SKILLMAN's most recent book is Kafka’s Shadow, Deerbrook Editions. Her poems have appeared in FIELD, Cimarron Review, Shenandoah, Tar River Poetry, and in anthologies, including Nasty Women Poets, Lost Horse Press. She has been a writer in residence at the Centrum Foundation and The Hedgebrook Foundation.  Her collaborative translations of Macedonian poet Jovica Eternijan appear in Ezra and Hawai’i Review. She is the recipient of a 2017 Washington Trust GAP grant. Visit


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