NEA Literature Fellowships

Traci Brimhall

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(2013 - Poetry)

What They Found in the Diving Bell

The first time I saw my mother, she'd been dead
fourteen years and came as a ghost in the mirror,

plucking the hair beneath her arms, and humming
a bossa nova. She lotioned her chapped heels

and padded her bra as if she were alive in the old way.
She said I was born with my cord wrapped

around my neck like a rosary, and she knew God,
the doomed father of her days, wanted us both.

Before midnight she plaited my hair, hemmed my skirt,
sang lullabies she'd learned on the other side of the flood.

She lifted her dress to show her bones shedding light
on a stillborn fetus accidentally raptured into her ribs.

She said she'd choose her death again, obey any pain
heaven gave her. Years ago she watched a man ride

a diving bell to the bottom of the Amazon to face
the mysteries God had placed there. The chain broke,

and they pulled him to the surface smiling, stiff, refusing
to open his fists. They broke and unpeeled his fingers.

No one wept or fought to hold it. She covered her eyes
so she wouldn't see what God, in his innocence, had done.

(first appeared at The Academy of American Poets/

Traci Brimhall is the author of Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton), selected by Carolyn Forché for the 2011 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press), selected by Michelle Boisseau for the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, Slate, Ploughshares, New England Review, The Missouri Review, and Best American Poetry 2013.  She was the 2008-2009 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the 2012 Summer Poet-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi, and a current fellow of the King/Chávez/Parks Foundation.

Photo by Julie Beers

Author's Statement

The NEA will help provide the time and resources I need to continue working on my new manuscript, which is a verse novel that explores a series of mysterious occurrences in an Amazon river town. The project combines local folklore, history, and ecology, and follows a community of people working on rubber plantations, confined to a leprosarium, and waiting for a spiritual leader's resurrection in a religious compound. This polyvocal narrative gives voices to the members of these communities as they struggle with a coup d'etat, environmental disasters, and issues of race and class in the wake of mysterious and cruel miracles.

I'm profoundly grateful to be among this year's grant recipients. I appreciate the encouragement from the judges who selected my work, and I'm thankful the grant affords me a range of opportunities, from a visit to the optometrist to the luxury of time to write.