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the forest fire of family trees

April is National Poetry Month, and Lifetime Learning is pleased to celebrate the talents of UVA faculty. Enjoy our April poetry series!

Dr. Irène P. Mathieu is an assistant professor of pediatrics in the School of Medicine at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Grand Marronage (Switchback Books, 2019), orogeny (Trembling Pillow Press, 2017), and the galaxy of origins (dancing girl press, 2014). Her poems have appeared in American Poetry ReviewNarrativeBoston ReviewVirginia Quarterly ReviewCallalooTriQuarterly, and elsewhere.


the forest fire of family trees

the problem is we don’t know
that many ways of doing things
for instance, neither of us can
fry an egg without public radio
chattering in our ears, & there
are worse blueprints for a home,
like what my grandfather taught
my uncle. we think we know
people until we see the way
they eat a banana, totally unlike
how we peel and devour the fruit,
only instead of eating a banana
it’s something way bigger,
like loving another person.
as the snowflakes get thicker
I hear myself say exactly
what my mother would say
when faced with this same
situation, and I say it
in her voice. it’s not that I’m
ashamed to share all my DNA
and most of my life with these
two people, it’s just that I worry.
it’s not easy to recognize
the odor of toxins you
release, day after day,
which, when rearranged,
spells door. you cross
the threshold & think it’s just
the cologne of the world,
not the smoke in your
blood, not grass burning
from the little fires ignited
by your feet.

………Irène Mathieu, published in The Boiler Journal, 2021.

Fear of Causing Pain

I am afraid of needles
………not of being pricked
I am afraid
of plunging the steel
………into a stranger
………into a stranger’s veins
………………into strange veins that will
wince and curl away.

I am afraid to harvest
………a person’s blood
to separate the chaff of pain
from the possible grain of
something strange growing
to transmute into a steel-wielder
………a needle plunger
………a stranger stirring blood
………with steel –
what transmutation would
let me do this with
a straight face?

at six years old
I told my mother
my tongue sometimes
turned blue.

she flickered
I froze.
my mother flickered
who smelled ferrous blood
pushing me out with no
steel in her spine to plunge
away pain, my mother who
went home the same morning
………who walks around with
a stone face, who grits like steel
hard and blue as midday

I wanted to see her surface buckle.
my mother

suspended in a firstborn’s
………steel-beckoning wound
unwelcome stranger
I was ashamed of the power
………to conjure pain,
quickly turned up my tongue
to show her blue veins
spanning its belly –
normal, I knew.

wielding a needle over someone’s
…………………………………..fluvial vessels
stirring blood in search of
strange fish
I freeze again
………each time the vein
rolls away to protect itself.

………Irène Matthieu, published in The Intima, 2015


Grand Marronage by Irène Mathieu

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