on the hills of the antelope valley poppy reserve in california,
the blooms of the state flower billow like small red dresses.
like orange streaks of citrus. the poppies are thin-hipped, silky
and hammered with fire. my sister tears them from the ground
like weeds. she hides her heroin in the car we share.
like some kind of milky and boiled down
monster. it’s not the same. i know. but the opium poppy looks
just as much like blood. when the poppies die in california, the valley
looks like a great, wide grave. like the same slash and burn a world away.
when the opium poppies’ petals fall apart like lanterns of flame, the bulb
is cut with a knife. pressed into a brick. strained through burlap and the dead
stems of a flower that once was decoration. that once knew nothing
but to bloom.
my father peels blistered skin off a young girl
who dropped the tea kettle; he reveals the new,
tender pink underneath.
I burn my hand on a curling iron and
he says bite your lip. father: boy-nurse
learning the pattern of burn.
elevator shaft brother, lightning guard,
latex glove titan, head stripped bald,
winter jacket of gauze. he rips my teeth
from my mouth when I leave them swinging.
a teenager wears a black robe soaked
in gasoline. a walking bonfire.
father takes skin from his thighs,
the backs of his knees, and repaints his face.
this is not truth, but survival.
artist of ash. he washes
my burnt hand, a lit tulip, under cool water—
his hands, broad, but soft, remember the heat.
Sara Ryan received her MFA at Northern Michigan University, where she was an associate poetry editor for Passages North. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Rumpus, Booth, Sonora Review, Yemassee, Prairie Schooner, ]and others. Her chapbook, Never Leave the Foot of an Animal Unskinned, is forthcoming from Porkbelly Press. Next fall, she will be attending Texas Tech University to pursue her PhD.