February 2020 Poetry Feature: Victoria Kelly

Five New Poems by VICTORIA KELLY

Headshot of Victoria Kelly

Victoria Kelly graduated from Harvard University, Trinity College Dublin, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the author of the poetry collection When the Men Go Off to War (Naval Institute Press), about her experience as a military spouse. Her poetry has appeared in Best American Poetry and has been made into an animated short film by Motion Poems. She is the author of the novel Mrs. Houdini (Atria Books / Simon & Schuster). She lives in northern Virginia, where she works in public relations, writes and is raising her two young daughters. 

Table of Contents

  • After the War
  • In the Next World
  • Cathedral
  • Before My First Husband’s War
  • Conversation on My Boyfriend



Here we are again
In our clown faces, wearing our grotesque
smiles, lounging on bar stools
with a clique of pilots and their wives.
In the fifties men beat their wives and then took them
to church. Today, it is not like that: people shout at each other,
throw things, go out for drinks
with the glass still on the floor. Still, this
is the side of marriage no one told you about,
how heavy it is
to hold on to, how
when one war is over
there will just be another one waiting
to take its place.



someone will tell you whether you’re damned
for leaving—
but he came home changed; when he flew
over the beach it was never the same.

In the bright days we lived
next to a hotel where a man jumped from a window
while people danced in the ballroom. He was rich,
he had everything, they said how could he not have loved
it: the music, this life, the ocean breathing
at the bottom of the dunes.

Still, nothing is as heartbreaking as knowing
it all goes on without you. At night, strangers move through
the room where our daughters
once slept, their dolls in their arms, their eyelids smooth
as paper. You’re the stranger now, but the pilots
keep coming home
to a band and champagne in the hangar, their beautiful
wives smiling into the sunlight that seems
to go on forever,

and for many of them, I know,
it will be too much to bear. It will be
too much.



This is not a corsage or dinner party
kind of love; this is a hard love,
a mining rubies in Greenland kind
of love, out of rocks
uncovered by melting ice, the terrain sparse

and unexplored; there are no galas, no gazebos
here, no indolent lovers on sofas
toasting their soft, cakelike devotion, the kind
that started on porches by the bay. This, this

is alpine: the years laid out like fires
on the hills, and what gods may be somewhere
standing as builders over a cathedral, saying
It is good.



Long before there was his war,
there was yours.
That spring, when he and I were still just
kids, drinking in the bar above
the Chinese restaurant, when
I was just nineteen and reading poetry
under a statue of John Harvard was

You were already caught up in the fist of war, in
that battle no one
saw coming. Even now—though you’d never say it—
all those ghosts, those lives you knew
that went up like smoke from a rooftop in Ramadi,
the blood pooling around their ears like
candle wax, still come back to meet you
in a bar once in a while, at dinner or in our bed, their
blown-out faces turned to the wall.

The war would come to him and me too, but
we didn’t know it yet. Instead, we held up
our glasses; we had
our whole lives ahead of us,

while you:
you were already real somewhere else, somewhere else 
it was already so real for you—that feeling
like you might not come back, like
you might never get to marry that girl,
buy that Bronco, come home at night
to the baby sleeping
with his arm around the dog.

God, take me back to that place, to bear
it all with you,
the way I did for him.



Yesterday, my daughter looked up
from her troupe of animals and said,
I hope you marry him.
She’s sure I will. She knows
which dress she’ll wear, the color of the roses
she’ll cup in her hands. The morning
will be polished as a spoon.

How can I tell her
I don’t know how the story ends, how
can I explain that I love him the way someone
has to love a fish through water: One moment
it’s there, and the next it’s gone.

Listen, I should tell her. It’s you I’ll love
forever. It’s the only thing
I know for sure.
At night, when I’m in my bed and you’re
in yours, clutching your lion
against your chest, those great carnivals of dreams
moving behind your eyes—everyone else
is a stranger, nothing else is as real
as your breath in the room next to mine,
your cheek on the horse tucked inside the folds
of your bed, its stout white body
as small as your fist.

Don’t worry, you say, like a benediction,
like a secret you’ve been carrying
for years. He’ll marry you.
It may be true. But I once knew a priest
who told me, it’s easy to find idols
when we’re really just looking for God.


February 2020 Poetry Feature: Victoria Kelly

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