Catherine MacDonald


Poetry is powerful—and can make us uncomfortable—because it is intimate, and I believe that the persona poem is perhaps the most intimate of poetic speech. This may seem contradictory; after all, in the persona poem the poet and the speaker are clearly not one and the same. But the persona poem permits us as much liberty as we are willing to take in order to explore another person’s experiences through language. Ai, a poet whose work I love, writes astonishing persona poems in which lyric language, tight narrative structures, and deep compassion produce extraordinary portraits. Ai sets a high bar for anyone interested in writing a persona poem.

My poem, “Pleasant Prairie,” was written after I saw an account of two boys who died alongside their father in a murder-suicide. Several elements of that tragedy were resonant: the boys’ unusual, lovely names; the nature of their deaths; and the place where their bodies were finally recovered. The speaker is the boys’ mother.




Pleasant Prairie


… there was
a splash quite unnoticed.

—William Carlos Williams


Bodies on the beach are lost boys and father,

the television says. Lake bodies. Tesla and DaVinci,
my sons, named for innovators, for intellectuals, these names
their father’s brainstorm. Children, he told me, are nothing
but promise. Homework, bag lunches, bright folders,
a Matchbox car in a hip pocket. I sent them off to school
that morning and from my window knew them
by the shapes of their skulls under soft, tight
curls, by shoulders’ slope—like their father’s, you know.

From every indication we've got, he was a very loving father. He had no enemies.

I’ll tell you two stories, both sad.
Here’s one: money-trouble and the streets,
rent overdue, the job gone.

The father and younger son picked up the older
boy from his Chicago school.

But no one came home. Weeks passed. This is the second
story. It’s no fancy fable of a father’s invention—
wax wings, the plunge, feathers dimpling a glassy
ocean. Picture, instead, Lake Michigan and an umbilicus
braided from rope, like sailors knot in heavy seas. Laced
through belt loops, it binds the three. It’s book bags
and sealed pockets, heavy with wet sand. Sand in bags—
no bulwark against flood in this stormy spring weather.

It is unclear how all three
entered the water.

Waded in? Went numb from cold? Then dropped under?
Breathless, shrunken, delivered by their father,
with their father, from still-cold water and lake-winds
in late spring to the beach at Pleasant Prairie.

M. Antonik traveled from her home in Illinois, arriving at the beach just after the three bodies were found. Will she swim here again?

Helicopters hover and waves slap the sand.
“Oh, yes. It’s nice weather,”
she nods, smiling for the camera,
“and we like this area.”



435569-1587985-thumbnail.jpgCatherine MacDonald lives in Richmond, Virginia, and teaches writing at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Washington Square, The Cortland Review, storySouth, Babel Fruit, Crab Orchard Review, and Southern Indiana Review. Her book reviews have been published in Blackbird: An On-line Journal of the Arts and Literature.