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Debra Nystrom

Debra Nystrom

Debra Nystrom has published three books of poems, Bad River Road (2009) and Torn Sky (2003), both from Sarabande Books, and A Quarter Turn (1991) from Sheep Meadow Press. Her work has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best American Poetry, and has received awards from Five Points, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, The Virginia Commission for the Arts, and The Library of Virginia. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Virginia.

Calm Story

DO YOU SPELL PUTTING P-U-T-T-I-N-G?  —her little
brother, squinting, feverish, comes sleep-stumbling along the hall

from his room, sweating, needing to know this thing
DO YOU SPELL PUTTING P-U-T-T-I-N-G?  —Putting

what? where? —weirdly precise, his sounding it out, but
panicky, as if his life depends on getting this question right—

putting up?  away?  down, in its place?—she's the only one there
to answer, thinking what is he asking—though it's perfectly clear.  

The house had been so still, unnaturally calm,
like "Silent Night," as if something might happen, the living room

lamp shining its halo around her wide chair,
and she, the bigger kid, in charge—but her brother

was just supposed to sleep, Mom said he'd taken
aspirin, all she needed to do was stay awake

—and he had slept, everything peaceful with their parents out
at a holiday party, no babysitter to be uneasy about,

just Disney with the sound off, so she can hear
everything outside, inside, down the basement, at the back, listen for

the phone but not answer, know when the car turns in.  
Now her brother's knocking along the hall, eyes closing,

out of his head, spitting this word that sounds like HITTING, his
sick body sensing too much quiet in the house,

the two of them left alone, a whole night nothing wrong,
no voice or hand raised, and he's coming to her—she's the only one

there to answer—does she say Yeah, P-U-T-T-I-N-G, not ask
what or whom, turning her brother back to his room, the question back

inside his head, as if the silence might go on, the door stay locked,
the key, in some adult distraction far away from them, forgotten?

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