Milburn Middle (and other poems)

Milburn Middle

Into the party favor of my face 
Jenny King kept on blowing 
hot air because she thought 
it was funny. It wasn’t—
and Ms. Power didn’t find it 
funny either. She thought we were kissing
and sent us to the principal.
Punishment was swift—
delivered via pink slip in the cubby hole 
above my name. 
We were separated—my detention served 
on Tuesdays with the gardening club.
I raked leaves into piles,
picked wrappers from the fog
ignored instructions about black-eyed susans, 
the spouts of the fountain, unruly 
and against me, making my pinafore 
stupid with rain. I left—
escaping to the churchyard across the way.
I befriended a father, his face 
stuffed with feathers, sitting on a park bench 
beside a sculpture of woven palm. 
He gave me a sacred robe to wrap 
around my waist. I was petulant
thinking a few hours would absolve me,
that the cloisters would hold in my mistake.
And the fuzz of the candles, with the red 
of the windows, made the day into a smoothie 
of light. When I left, my hair was still braided 
with ivy. My family, a picnic of girls.

Madonna With the Long Neck

after Parmigianino 
I, too, and grasping at my chest
as a holy baby levitates in my lap
and my foot levitates on a pile of pillows
which are satin and hand sewn by children.
I wear a crown of nonpareils
no, a string of sea pearls, which hang
like scars between my temples. 
I throw my cape to the parapet!
I throw my eyes to the dust! 
My earlobes, flapping 
my drapery, wet with milk.
O my neck is a PVC pipe, rejected from Lowes
and my neck has an announcement to make 
because my neck is also a radio. 
Now for the weather today in Parma:
we are expecting a puzzle piece of rain
and a matching puzzle piece of brown gelato.
And wait, dear ones that are gathered 
at my waist line, your nudity so precious 
it must wear a disguise: a silver vase
so perfectly held—is it a gift? O I accept!
Place it by my pillar, which is held by a man 
unspooling a riddle in the bottom right-hand corner.
The pillar is salt, or else it prefigures salt.
It represents eternity, or something else
I can’t name. It speaks to the neck that holds up my head
like a pair of scissors holds a butterfly before asking what next
O where are my manners, I have tucked them behind the curtain
and your faces, children, are like pieces of the cloud.

At The Fire Academy

You play a game called “stump,” because it sounds like fun—
you hammer nails into what was once living. It’s too dark 
to count the rings, so you go somewhere brighter.
The library, which is lit with snow. 
8 a.m. and you drag your tote bag up the hill to chant 
Te Deum with the others. You don’t know the translation—
the voices of your classmates, like ribbons in your ear. 
Everyone is wearing very stylish clogs. Everyone loves 
Meredith Monk. You go to class inside a barn. 
You live in a house with twelve other girls, who are always 
barefoot and wearing slip dresses. In class, you learn 
that language is a spell, so you try your best to fall under it. 
Instead, you mispronounce Foucault. You trip over the thorn bush 
and get sent to the infirmary. The nurses call you “Lucy.”
You wear a little white gown. Anemic, you talk 
into an ashtray. They feed you raisinets before bed. 
Your mentor calls your name. Every sound, like a cloud. 
He writes with pink chalk, one arm tied behind him. His office 
is a jacuzzi in which everything floats. His door is always open, 
his ear to the payphone, and he wants to know 
from where in your childhood your poems emerge. 
For homework, you listen to prepared piano. You write an essay 
about the Popemobile, a crown of sonnets from inside. 
You win a little prize, and wear the sash for the rest of your life. 
On weekends, you work in an empty gymnasium—
the floors gaudy with wax. You wipe down the treadmills,
and spin for hours in a brown leather chair. At the party, 
you hear the most specific compliment:
one girl tells another she has the mouth of Cape Cod. 
It’s a costume party, and you’re dressed like a Dalmatian.  
The smell of something burning makes you all turn your heads. 
Now your arms are like ivy, passing buckets of water down the line.

Second Grade, or A Small Area of Concern

I am sweating profusely.
I am talking through my nose, 
which is a tunnel of wind. 
I cry and I cry wolf.
I hide and no one looks for me. 
Mrs. Hall says, “draw your family tree.” 
Instead, I draw a pack of dogs, 
A family of long tailed lemurs.
Everyone thinks I’m making a joke.
One person, the teacher’s aide, looks out for me. 
She holds open the door,
lets me cut her in the lunch line. 
Nurse Kate, she hates me—
hands me bunches of tongue depressors,
won’t let me call home. 
Recess, I am rolling in the flowers.
Girls, all named Allie, hang on parallel bars.
I stuff a balloon under my t-shirt.
I say, “Look! A baby!”
Everyone laughs,
asks me how I was made.


  • Luciana Arbus-Scandiffio is a poet at UT Austin’s Michener Center for Writers. In 2018, she received an Academy of American Poets prize (selected by Dorothea Lasky). Luci has two lesbian moms, and is originally from New Jersey.

  • Still photos captured from “How The Eye Functions” (1941), an educational film by K.K. Bosse released as part of the Knowledge Builders Film Series, with the supervision of McCrory Studios and narration by Douglas Harlton. From the Prelinger Archives at