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To My Reader

There’s a passage through the night
where someone awards me, hangs
the tassle of distress off to the side
and replaces it with a badge
indicating that I did one thing
right by continuing what
I’d started when I didn’t know
it had begun, and I was sure
of no reward. Blessings were not
forthcoming, daily distress.
The path is aerial seen from
above. I startle myself
and feel I have no choice but
to proceed by inches. I pull down
the magic curtain, uncurb the car,
get in and drive, coaxing
the pattern to relief.

And you have been with me
through the long and hateful night
although you are only a shadow.
You have stayed behind
my shoulder and I’ve sheltered
you there, made a place for
you in my mind. In loneliness,
in rain, in the loss of breath,
you have been with me
and I have not failed you
because I continued to speak
when you begged me not
to inquire further and I spoke
to your fears in a voice of grief,
saying, yes they are gone and
will not return, but you
are still breathing. And I sang
you a song that came through
a trail of nerves down the generations
through all we have read together
and all we have remembered.
Remember the words, and I’ll remember you.

Irene McKinney is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry and two West Virginia Commission on the Arts Fellowships in Poetry. She is the author of six books of poetry: The Girl with a Stone in Her Lap (North Atlantic, 1976); The Wasps at the Blue Hexagons (Chapbook, Small Plot Press, 1984); Quick Fire and Slow Fire (North Atlantic, 1988); Six O'Clock Mine Report (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989), Vivid Companion (West Virginia University Press Nandalia, 2005), and Unthinkable: Selected Poems (Red Hen, 2007). She is editor of Back Country: Contemporary Writing In West Virginia, and has held fellowships at McDowell Colony, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Blue Mountain Center. She was appointed Poet Laureate of West Virginia in 1994. Recent poems and forthcoming poems are in American Voice, Arts & Letters, Artful Dodge, The Kenyon Review, Confluence, South Dakota Review, Kestrel, Poetry Northwest, Clackamas Literary Review, Georgia Review, Washington Square, Blackbird, Poetry, and Court Green. She has been writer-in-residence at University of California at Santa Cruz, Western Washington University at Bellingham, the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, and Lynchburg College. Her work has been featured five times on Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac, and on Verse Daily. She is Director and founder of the Low Residency MFA, West Virginia Wesleyan.