Elegy Next to Cleanliness

This backyard has been a haven for vipers.
There is so much about snakes I did not
know. They, if permitted, are liable to dry-
bite rather than waste venom on a warm rat

staggering, already poisoned across rows
of chairs useless to it. The viperís hollow
fangs are what inspired the hypodermic needle.
Venom is pumped in, welcome it, this cocktail,

its dozens of ingredients convening to liquefy
your tissue and when silence comes, you
might remember it as what youíd asked for, to milk
these, your captive vipers, to be handled like

nothing less than pearl-handled toothbrushes.
One week after missing my grandmotherís
funeral, Iíll attend one for a girl I never met.
Iíll became one, viper of the pocketbook, two,

thieves of photos, three ruined families around
an oak table, all remembered as the last reckonings
of an unfairness gone beyond what is possible, what
is speakable, what means regret more than a father

who fucks then kills his daughter. It is wrong to have
wanted you then. There, your face as imagined clean
by my viper lips in its and their openings more naked than
in coming, more needful than the hard casket indoors.

The warmth Iíll feel will not be mentioned. Your suit
will smell correctly and vexingly of rot. You will cry
behind panoramic eyes. You will put your fingers
in my mouth to prove you were not afraid of loss.

The heroine in each childís story will be kissed
somewhere special: behind the ears, under
the tongue, across the scars left behind by
a vitriolic landscape. We will let ourselves see these

caresses, raise them, and believe ourselves normal.
We will later shroud ourselves within a sequence
of richnesses, of pallors so defining they explain
their own contributions to a funeral. I am trying

to protect you,
says the inscription on the ring.
I stole it from a dish in the bathroom and denied
it later, the grieving and forgetful aunt left
rubbing her empty finger with its ring divot

cutting first through her finger, then into the bone.

Erica Bernheim was born in New Jersey, and grew up in Ohio and Italy. Her work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Gulf Coast, and Boston Review, among others, and she is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Florida Southern College. She is the Poetry Editor for KeepGoing: Erica Bernheim's chapbook, Between the Room and the City, is available from H_NGM_N B__KS. (

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761