The Book of Hulga by Rita Mae Reese

Rita Mae Reese reads a crown of sonnets from her latest poetry collection, The Book of Hulga, published in March by the University of Wisconsin Press. Illustrations by Julie Franki.


is the nothingness from which she flees
& the nothingness toward which she goes.
Is the frozen world of Parmenides
where she was raised & where she was returned,

where existence is uniform & unchanging,
where just down the road is the state asylum
where bad children are sent, where she
could still be sent if she’s not careful,

where half of her was sent—her inner Hulga,
bloody fist knocking on sleeping doors.
To avoid the bloody fist she stays at her desk,
writing letters to friends who left home

& stayed gone, who thrive on the leash of exile
in the absence of any definite place.

Manley Pointer’s Sonnet

To be rooted in the absence of a definite place,
to be not from any place, just from near someplace,
is to carry always with you this portable altar
to the brokenness everyone tries to hide.

To know this world is held together only
with tape & glue & clumsy stitches,
is to be driven from door to door selling snake’s ink.
Is to be the loneliest boy in the lonely world,

the last emperor of clarity.
The altar grows heavier at each house—
all those glass eyes & wooden legs.
No one is ever glad to see you

so when you go you leave them knowing
everything Pavlov’s dogs & other martyrs know.

Manley Pointers Sonnet, illustration by Julie Franki


Learning to give in the spirit of one who begs
means first you have to learn how to beg.
I think of my drunk friend telling
a homeless guy in DC: get a J-O-B.
A few years later, drunk again, hits a tree.
He told me once that his father would
come home drunk, come into his room
with a gun, threaten to blow his brains out.

He never said if he’d pretend to be asleep, cry,
plead, pray or how he’d rise the next day,
go to school, return to that room, lie down & wait.
Never said if he knew why any man
would want to see his own son begging for his life.
The stories about miracles confuse everything.

The Reward

Pavlov’s dogs & other martyrs know
after great pain         a bell rings.
Their eyes strain to see the vial sutured
in the cheek below    catching

drool they know        is worthless,
or worse.        After being made fluent
in Russian pain they become his     & deathless,
or close.          A bell rings & the heart relents

until everything sounds like a bell.
The vials fill   with faith in master
& reward—                it is all
they can offer the reward that is their master,

but even this holds a drop of alchemy in its dregs—
a lesson in giving       in the spirit of one who begs.

There’s wood enough within

The stories about miracles confuse everything:
You awake to the wolf of Gubbio licking your hand,
St. Francis bringing you breakfast in bed.
Your room is the lion’s den & you are Daniel.
Your room is a whale & you are Jonah,
Pinnochio, Ahab. The windows disappear,
the walls lean in. The walls of Jericho may fall
but not these walls. These walls are trees
& you are where someone loves you best
of all, your room is the woods & you
are only a girl, but a whole girl, a girl
without pain, standing still at the edge.

Then comes a knock like a flame catching the trees, & you,
poor wooden girl caught, as pain opens the door.

The margin is for the Holy Ghost

The pain that opens the door    is not God
though you worship it           & fear it
      & pray to it with your loose, odd
devotion, your stuttering, cross-eyed faith. Were it

only a little taller      a little less full
in the hips      it wouldn’t stun the nuns
to silence     burn the priests to fulminate
on redness & virginity—the sun

you carry low, the woe you carry high.
You are 9/10ths the heresies you cherish
1/10th something saintly, beaten & sly.
On your face love lies garish.

You turn off the lights when you look in the mirror
& pray     there’s a usage for every kind of error.

Everything that Rises

There is a use for every kind of error
& you’re still asking what yours will be.
It is one of your weaknesses that you believe
someone or something can spin you into gold. 

The black dog at the foot of the bed stirs,
digs a hole to bury you. Nothing to do
but lie still, taste dirt.  Nothing will save you
from tragedy except comedy, which is worse.                                                  

Let the ground find a use for your body
which was my home, which was never my home.
Let your words sink beneath your tongue
which was my root.

Close your eyes now & let the nothingness
from which you flee be the nothingness

Everything that Rises, Illustration by Julie Franki

From The Book of Hulga by Rita Mae Reese. Used by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press, copyright © 2016 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.

Illustrations by Julie Franki. Used by permission of Julie Franki, copyright © 2016 by Julie Franki. All rights reserved.