First grade and my father shows me I can whistle to the chickadees and they will answer. I learn at the bottom of our driveway waiting for the school bus.

Around the same time, I learn that the delicate parts of food, like broccoli florets, are digested by the body first. I start to think about dying for the first time. About which parts of my dinner might be left over.

I am fascinated by how our house has scissors we use for everything, including haircuts, thrown into a junk drawer that barely closes and my friend’s house has everything…

from the desert, once a week

I am woken around one in the morning to the sound of a bird in pain. I have never heard a bird in pain. Their voice—a quail’s, I think—is strangled. Their call is slowed down and dragged out. They sound, again and again, slower and slower, more and more in pain in a sound I can’t make, for reasons I don’t know.

Half awake, I wonder if they have been caught by a snake or if their family has been annihilated. These are the only two scenarios I can imagine.

I’m trying to remember…

from the desert, once a week.

Sometimes, when I whisper for my cat to join me, she does. Hops or crawls up, her thick pink belly swinging. She folds her paws under herself and stares at me, angles herself to be pet the way she likes.

Other times, she will not.

This is love. Coming and watching and sometimes saying no, with your body. Mostly, though, saying yes with everything.


Middle of the day, I am crying. My friend reaches for her coffee and I think she is going to hug me. I bark, “I don’t want a hug…

from the desert, once a week

A bird calls. I forget to listen to it. Someone else answers. More bird, better bird, good bird.

It hurts and I don’t say anything. Silent bird, quiet bird. I just don’t have it in me right now. Little bird.

I play records and the sky is on fire. I can crawl into the corner of my apartment and have a window and it is lovely in the way anything we never thought we would have is lovely.

I make decent coffee and swallow these pills and make eye contact with my cat and…

from the desert, once a week

I would like the ocean’s small mouth noises in a tub in my backyard. What does that say about me?

I am sad and the clock, which is fine, tells me it is 8:36am. I have made coffee, squinted at the sun, spilled water all over the counter, put on a bathrobe, written, read.

I have mostly lived where everything would not shutup — the car horns, the children, the ice cream truck, the mosquitos, the crickets, the television, the neighbors, the ambulances. Here it is quiet or quails or birds I don’t know…

from the desert, once a week

When God was still good, I was seven. I drew my name on the manila sides of my bible and thought about the boy I liked who sat a few rows behind me. Nothing ever sunk in—not the devil, not the disciples, not the crosses or the ways I was supposed to be a better child.

When God was still good, I was seven, and I still thought saying no was a sin.

When God was still good, I was seven and I thought he must live in the Bingo Hall basement of my…

little bits from the desert, once a week.

Last night I had a dream that you said, “Tell me everything” and I knew where to begin. I can’t remember where that was now.

Here, now, is the desert. Early morning where the windows can still be open and I watch which birds fly overhead to see if I know any of them by wing tips or calls, though I’ve given little energy to any research on birds of the desert. …

written after Mary Ruefle’s MONUMENT

A small world had ended. Like all worlds, it was made of time. The Canadian-American border stood between us would never vanish. I had moved to the island because you were there. I had flown back and forth, and you had been still. And now, I was sitting on a ferry, watching sky eat ocean. The water was the same, but now it was the one that washed me away from you. It was a rainy day on the island and people were wearing raincoats and scarves, dazed by the rain, which was not the…

To the people
who speak about American education
like they know
how it feels to ruffle the curls
of a boy who
was kept in an oven
before they sent his father to jail

Who ask me why I sit
on carpet, concrete, ground, floor
before standing above a child
Who think thrown money
is something a child would bother to catch
when they’ve just read their first book
I bought for a quarter
at a secondhand store

For my students
covered in grease burns
from working the night shift
at their family restaurants,
who keep half their lunch
smashed in their pocket
for supper,
who ask…

All the parts of me count for something, are useful for something

Photo courtesy of author

It found my mother’s face first, when my pointer finger was more hand than finger, more foreign connection than mine. It was probably the one on my right hand. I don’t know the first time I pointed it at anyone, but I know some things it used to trace. The satin around my blankets, the tip of my nose, our cats.

It knows many men’s jaw bones now. Has been the single remaining finger when I reach their chins, tuck it underneath their tongues, pull them closer to me by their gums.

My pointer finger has gone into my own…

Amanda Oliver

OVERDUE: Recknoning with the Public Library forthcoming from Chicago Review Press March 22, 2022 •

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