This week in the PEN Poetry Series, guest editor Dawn Lundy Martin features four poems by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. About Van Clief-Stefanon’s work, Martin writes: “Of course, despite arguments to the contrary the lyric is powerful. I like it best in the hands of poets like Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon when the song bristles up against a content unfit for song: the girl sinful in her mind after church, fantasizing about ‘a man’s imagined hand on [her],’ for example. Van Clief-Stefanon is a master poet who pays attention to craft in ways reminiscent of Rita Dove—one of the first poets to introduce me to that beautiful glimmering gap between the said and the unsaid, that space of intrigue. It is here when Van Clief-Stefanon beckons us into her poetics—softly southern, intellectually rigorous, a warm breeze that might or might not bring a ravaging storm. These new poems by Van Clief-Stefanon also articulate a formal range, like in ‘Election Cycle,’ where she stretches her long legs inside the infinitely possibility around utterance. 

I have known Lyrae a long time. We were at Cave Canem together in 1999 when the retreat was held in that beautiful monastery in upstate New York; we would light bonfires on the Hudson River and stay up all night talking poems, some of us smoking out by the smoking tree till the sun peeked up ushering us to bed. It. It has been over 15 years I’ve admired the precision and mystery of Lyrae’s work. Since it’s National Poetry Month I thought I’d present a master class, which these poems most certainly are.


when I was a girl the reason I feared I would not be 
snatched up at the rapture
was I daydreamed

a farm and a hand to tend

horses I mused 
for myself. the way I rode
in the backseat of my mother’s Cordoba and felt 
that man’s imagined hand on me 
made me love

the long ride home from church. 
more than heaven then. I wanted 
an animal 

and a servant. my flesh whispered.
a wild stream.



One campus bled into the next: 
The Generals’ colonnade into the Keydets’ parade grounds.
Dusk fading, blue blazered hellos from gentlemen on the Hill gave way
To “Good evening, ma’am,” on Post, a stern and formal 
Flirtation. In dress whites, they touched their hats as we strode past, 
Two black girls daring pass as evening approached 
Between barrierless worlds of red 
Brick, white stone

In 1989. We were the “Betties” of the joke. (“A W&L woman is like 
a potted plant: pretty to look at but what can you do with her?”) 

A two-day freshman,
I had not been to Goshen. 
I had not touched a flint-lock.
I had not sung a murder ballad 

yet. Oh, black Betty, bam-a-lam!


Another Truth

And I—who do not ride, and
do not swim

                    —Carl Phillips

The stable doors—wide open—
fill my closet with January’s
cold as though Virginia were
behind this door I close to sleep at night;

and the horse, dust 
in the corners, what the room makes of 
my skin, of night. If I 
brush nightmare from
memory, I am left with
something breathing, a gesture
of care, firm bristles.

The scent of hay and apples, of ice
sweetens my bedclothes. I am in a dream
of Traveller without

weaponry: no musket fire
spooks or spurs his steady pulling.
I have erased the general

in heather and purple. Spring
is in winter as I am in this dream
that is my life, where what I teach
myself— I give— I keep. The horse 

jigs past its own gravesite, heedless
of stars and bars staked
as though to hold it—: some mealy-mouthed old
half-magic. We do not rest there. 
But land where I learned,

and love, I have taught myself, 
to ride waking to my own 
gifts, the sun’s glint on 
green spice jars of statice— 

there remembrance—
on my NY morning windowsill.


Election Cycle

How can he not grow
bored with this one particular

Insert                                                   pleasure? He is machining,
                                                             a piston on tiptoes. When he says yes—
America                                              he puts a shh in front as if to keep some part
Ballot                                                   secret, to hush himself.
Debate                                                Because this is ]        [, the ] [ he ]       [ begins
Elect                                                    to disappear. He holds her by her ]         [.
Fundraiser                                           He presses
Homeland                                           his nose to her cheek—is this why he wins
Klan                                                     awards for performance? If she ]      [, he will ][ her,
Limits                                                  though punishment
News                                                   is one specialty, a slap or spit as likely.
Platform                                              More spit. Shh
Question                                             —yes. He spreads his fingers to inspect
Running                                              the white strands he’s shoved his hand into ][ for and
Terms                                                  accelerates. Is there
Update                                               anywhere
Vote                                                    to go but down
White House                                     into each minute he asks
                                                            she open

                                                           her eyes, tell him—(whether here is where the paper-white 
                                              crowded, stone set, wet
                                              up to their shoulders will thrive? (Is this not

a better question?)  An answer for winter?))
            He is still

                                     ]             [, asking
                                     as the seasons move
                                     backwards. Birds returning. Fall arrives,

                                     as ridiculously
                                     as love for any one

                                     thing, much less this effort

                                     on set
                                     to grow something living. 


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