Three poems from “The Nomenclature of Small Things” by Lynn Pedersen

Sheila Margaret Motton Book Award, selected by Jennifer Militello
Honorable mention: Lynn Pedersen, The Nomenclature of Small Things


The Birth of Superstition

It’s not hard to imagine: my ancestor—a dry season,
                    dust like chalk on her tongue—mixes
                                        spit with clay,

traces a river on rock. Next day: rain.

                                                                                Why shouldn’t she believe
                    in the power of rock and her own hand?

I carry this need for pattern and rule, to see connections
                    where there aren’t necessarily any.

                                                                      After my first miscarriage,
I cut out soda, cold cuts.

                    After the second, vacuuming and air travel.

After the third—it’s chalk and spit again. I circle rocks,
                    swim the icy river.

                                                  And when my son is born, he balances
the chemical equation that is this world.

                                                                                                    And logic?

Logic is my son’s kite, good so long as you have
                    wind, string,
                                                            something heavier than hope

                                                                                                    to tether you.


How to Speak Nineteenth Century

Forget about the nomenclature
of the moon: lunar impact craters, rilles; your voice
translated into fiber optics or beamed pinpoint to pinpoint
on the planet. Here, all words are spoken to someone’s face.
Earth. Seeds. Thresher. Plow. Timber’d.

                                                                                So unnerving, you say,
having to look someone that long in the eye, just speaking
your mind. Or too involved, in the first place,
the five-mile walk to your friend’s house,
your skirt catching on the field grass.

You need to know not hydrogen, oxygen, H2O, but
water: where to find it, how to dig
for it, how to keep a well from running dry.

Not chlorophyll and photosynthesis,
the word is harvest—the hard “t”
uncompromising as hunger—

sunup and sundown, light.
Forget meteorology, you need to know
bird migration, insect hatches, animal hibernation—
what the falling leaves tell you.
When the blossoms of the apple tree fall, plant corn. In short,

the world is still whole to you.
                                        Each molecule. Each syllable. Each grain.


At Forty

Pattern or absence of pattern, the way a jet flies
into blankness
yet leaves a clear trail, I expect time
to reveal an underdrawing,
hatching of shadows, some rough plan
visible through another spectrum of light.

          Once, at an ophthalmologist’s office,
through an accident of mirrors, I saw the interior
of my own eye, the retina’s
veins like roots or a web, and then again

ten years later, this time in an astronomy
book—galaxies, clusters of galaxies, superclusters
of galaxies strung out
strands of a cosmic web, the redness
of that image, the light extending like roots
13 billion years in every direction.

          Michelangelo could see a figure
in a block of stone, waiting to be freed.
I want his vision when I look in a mirror,
his mathematical principles for depicting space,
his ability to translate three dimensions into stone.
First I’m in two dimensions, a photograph
glued to the glass; then three—I’m somewhere between
the glass and the background. All my houses, friends
come and gone. How would he sculpt me? How far out
of the stone have I come?


Lynn Pedersen
Lynn Pedersen is the author of The Nomenclature of Small Things (Carnegie Mellon) and the chapbooks Theories of Rain and Tiktaalik, Adieu. Her poems have appeared in New England Review, Ecotone, Southern Poetry Review, Slipstream and Nimrod. A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, she lives in Atlanta.