Judith Skillman’s work has appeared in Shenandoah, Poetry, Zyzzyva, FIELD, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. Awards include an Eric Mathieu King Fund grant from the Academy of American Poets. Her collection of poems on Kafka’s life and work, Kafka’s Shadows, is forthcoming from Deerbrook Editions in February 2017.


     Proof of Pain

Judith Skillman


They asked for a passport, an ID to go

along with the slow change of my person.

They wondered why, and some proposed

in the fashion of thought how and where

the accident flowered in nerve and vein,

when it happened, how many teeth were lost

to the deep reaches of sleep. I procured

a memory, a medic, a house—anchors

rusted, coated with barnacles, isopods,

lichens and lice. My lips moved with words

as inside a shell, creature flesh gone. Was it

the train that leapt the tracks, the girl swept

under a truck at nine on her new pink Schwinn?

Was it the tetanus shot, given so many times?


Today As Always

Judith Skillman

The spider climbs its thread,

wind and sun come and go

in the plat named Garden

of Eden—an acre of clay,

dirt and stones. I take up

space in the same Russian

doll, her wooden shells ranging

from infant to grandmother,

wearing the flat lace apron.

The place between dream

and nightmare grinds as I try

to remember who I am

to many people—the daughter,

son, husband, and my own

mother who walks not with a cane

but by wobbling back and forth

between two peg legs.

Afternoon will come,

and with it tea and scones,

a reprieve from crowded

nerves. Perhaps my sacrum

will relax into an infinity sign.

Today as always I find my way

into the airlock between

these six figurines

that hold me to my age.

Perhaps surly resignation

will wax towards acceptance

beneath the red-lipped crone

who presents her squat icon,

who dotes and holds

all the night stars

blotted out by ultramarine sky.


Friday Mass

Judith Skillman


As after a celebration

            where a geriatric procession passes by

            the old taking on their tongues the unleavened

            wafer and believing as it melts

            crumb by crumb it is flesh


As after an anniversary

            when one stands in the sumptuous sun

            and blinks


As in a play

            where a small girl's forgotten her lines

            can't move her tongue

            or wag her hips


As in a laundry that won't come clean

            stains of blood and rust

            strands of fur caught in a lint filter

            a strain of music wobbling through one's head


As if the song that will save us

            was Mr. Sandman

            or Blue Moon


As another face goes by deeply lined

            the teeth gone

            the mouth working the wafer

            the gold cup waiting off to one side

            a woman wiping its lip with a towel


As she wipes she rotates the cup

            of blood shed for a diabetic man

            alone in a room full of needles

            blood beading on a teenager's hand

            and seeping from an abrasion into the rug


As if it were a patch of pink new skin

            ultraviolet light will find

            this morning at 8:30 am

            after the family has stumbled from their beds

            a bunch of ragamuffins

            and the oldest son has boycotted the celebration

            and the middle son has quit smoking

and the three grown daughters have gained weight and birthed nine children


As if they remembered nothing

            of the past except this man and woman

            standing at the altar a second time

            this married couple changed beyond recognition by the years


As it has been and will be forever amen


Mama Vallone's

Judith Skillman


The men will bet this evening

behind the coal miner’s restaurant

with their green dollars.


Two birds—one squat and lithe, the second large and square.

The manager of alley entertainments is dirty with sweat.

His men sway and swear.


Women on these farms rise before dawn.

Windows sparkle from inside with humidity, flesh,

lamps, and frying eggs. Bacon comes straight from heaven


to grease the talk of weather.

Another goat’s born in the barn—no need to rotate it

in the womb. The first one’s shoulder lodged,


leg stuck in a flamingo pose. Apart from the in-fighting

things turn out. Daughters never lecture their mothers,

and sons sweeten with age.


When they leave,

no other country adopts

the boy to kill him with its war.