Half-Hazard: Poems

Half-Hazard: Poems

by Kristen Tracy


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555978228
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 11/06/2018
Pages: 72
Sales rank: 822,880
Product dimensions: 6.28(w) x 8.84(h) x 0.26(d)

About the Author

Kristen Tracy is a poet and the acclaimed author of more than a dozen novels for young readers. Her poems have been published in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, and The Threepenny Review, among other magazines. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son.

Read an Excerpt


Good-Bye, Trouble

I fell from a Bible. A half-blonde tease.
With a good good start, I struck out God-filled and thrilled to claim a spot.
Here? Where? There? I touched grease,
dough, steels. Raised my low country hem.
Up. Up. I met the butcher, the baker,
the transmission maker. What next? Girl-girl sin? Boy-girl err? No. No. Trouble came.
Pure purr. He led me off a hat-flat roof.
All swish. He spun me near a slippery crag.
And I let him, let him. It wasn't all bad.
Trouble makes trouble and soon Trouble went poof.
It's not sin or err I live down now. Wow. Wow.
But his act, so thoughtless, like a bull mounts the cow.


At the magic show I always wanted the tiger to reappear. Did I have a pea-sized brain?

The beast was in the box. And it was impossible to tell,
but I thought the tiger looked blue, as blue

as a little girl who has lost her purse with money inside for milk. I wanted someone to tell the tiger

it could lead a completely different life if it stopped being so good at performing the trick.

But who listens to me? The tiger was replaced by a lion with a caramel-brown face.

It had a new trick. It opened its mouth and received a man's head. He put it in sideways

and it came out wet, hair sometimes sticking to the cat's fat tongue. Bright bulbs

lit up the lion from behind. Its big fur held the light as it balanced

all four paws on a milking stool.
It stayed steady, mouth open,

so a man would not die,
not in front of us.

What Kind of Animal

Atop his mower my father chewed the yard while I hid with my trembling rabbit in the garage. I wasn't perfect,
    one day she got loose. Fox,

dog, tomcat, it wasn't clear what found her.
Behind the raspberry bushes, days away from having her first litter, my pet bled
    like a machine. Fully dismantled.

Prey versus predator. I couldn't stand the story.
What kind of animal has that kind of heart?
When our chickens finally lured a weasel,
    to keep them safe, for days I fed the beast

a small dish of food. Lunch meat. Cereal.
Popcorn. But it wasn't enough.
Not even close. Among the ravenous,
    I am a sock, a sneeze, a plastic spoon.

YMCA, 1971

It took a quarter to keep the lights on —
    that was all the machines knew. And so my mother emptied her purse for change

while my father tried to resuscitate a man
    on the tennis courts in the dark. But the man died.
The paramedics called the heart attack massive,

a widow-maker. My parents had just wed,
    neither one knew how to play tennis well,
it was something they would pick up together.

Years later, after their son died,
    after they divorced, this is the one story where their two sides continue to match.

They say it felt like it was another ordinary day.
    They fed the dog, then walked into the damp indoor air, onto the invisible stick of the courts.

My father was poised to receive my mother's serve,
    when a woman cried, my God, my God,
I don't know what to do
— the buzzer sounded that time

was up on the lights, everybody dropped their rackets,
    and began running in the dark toward the white glow of the fading man's clothes.

Cannibals and Carnivores

The power of a mouth lies in what it will not eat and people don't like piranhas — not because of their exaggerated teeth, but because we fear their determination to eat even themselves. Or so the animal expert believes, standing on a riverbank, his rubber boots pressing down the grass. And so, he says, the Indian tiger is revered by the natives, of course: her spirited stripes, padded feet. And the valley dwellers do not hunt her, because she will eat their flesh, but not her sister's or her own children's. She, like us, looks at the chain the universe has her by and nods.

To the Tender

Midsummer, and along came a hapless jay —
    blue and wobbling — flight feathers nothing more than pins of white. It arrived at the nest's edge
    unready, which was only half the problem.

Crows perched in the oak across the street, alert,
    aware of all the world's worst secrets. Naturally I rooted for the blue jay. Oh, but this was life.
    After the jay fell from the Scotch pine's terrible height,

it righted itself in the grass and, like a skin-kneed child
    after her first bad spill on a bike, cried out for help.
I set down my rake and shepherded the bird
    toward my spindle tree. Hopping from

low branches, it pressed toward the center, tucking itself
    into my tree's sturdy heart. For two days the parents swooped down to feed it.
    Thankfully, the crows never came, though

I kept my eye on them. I knew their game.
    Pirates. Gangsters. Extortionists. Thieves.
But even if the world is half bad, it remains
    half good. While some of us sleep, our hearts

lie open, turned to the tender, dreaming up ways
    to thwart the crows. Yes, a hapless jay stumbles into our lives believing it can fly, and we — knowing
    what we know — do what we can to make it so.

Local News: Woman Dies in Chimney

They broke up and she, either fed up or drunk or undone,
    ached to get back inside. Officials surmise

she climbed a ladder to his roof, removed
    the chimney cap and entered feet first. Long story short,

she died there. Stuck. Like a tragic Santa. Struggling
    for days, the news explains. It was the smell that led

to the discovery of her body. One neighbor
    speaks directly into the microphone, asks how a person

could disregard so much: the damper, the flue,
    the smoke shelf. He can't imagine what it was she faced.

The empty garage. The locked back door. And is that
    a light on in the den? They show us the grass

where they found her purse. And it's not impossible to picture
    her standing on the patio — abandoned — the mind

turning obscene, all hopes pinned on refastening the snap.
    Then spotting the bricks rising above the roof

and at first believing and then knowing, sun flashing its
    God-blinding light behind it, that the chimney was the way.


If a pig walks out on you —
a literal teat intact, pink-necked pig —

don't abuse yourself by asking,
What went wrong? You can't expect

a pig to care. What sparks that insistent desire to have

a one-to-one relationship —
be it bovine or ursine or swine?

I got too close. The rumor mill spread the story that I caught a pig

and did the unthinkable. Lesson learned.
In the twenty-first century, far away

from Broadway, people still clap for more. They want each

questionable curtain to be raised.
Demand. Demand. Demand. If it's

meant to happen, if love is your disease, go follow the hoof-pocked road.

Sometimes This Happens

A thin piece of ice covers the drinking trough
    and for reasons only a cow can know,

she refuses to push her tongue through and drink.
    And so my father breaks the ice with a shovel

and scoops off the slush, and the cow thankfully
    lowers her head to drink. Is she thankful?

Shit is caked to the back of her hind legs.
    A cough rolls from her throat, pushing

steam out of her mouth. Her pregnant belly
    hangs below her. A hundred other cows

stand in the trees with their brown faces
    turned away. This cow drinks alone

because something is wrong. My father caught her
    chewing on a piece of fence. He's worried

that she's swallowed a strand of wire.
    This is the third cow he's seen that will die this way.

The metal will worm its way through all four stomachs.
    He doesn't know why a cow would do this.

He pats her side, rubs his gloved hand across her
    frost-covered spine. Snow drops from the low clouds

and lands on our coats. A cow will never eat the snow.
    This one lifts her head from the drinker, tossing the hose

onto the ground, spraying an arc of water over
    our heads. A calf means money. We want her

to live long enough. She swings her unapologetic body
    away from the tub and walks toward the other cows.

Her hooves are dark and slick and as she moves she stumbles,
    the weight of her steps smearing the half-frozen ground.

Bountiful, Utah, 1972

Life began all wrapped up in the Lord.

Until I found the word sycamore
on the tip of my tongue.
        It was my own perfect alveolar ridge.
It was twenty-five years of ordinary discoveries —
hot pans, wet towels, the absolutely round eyeballs of the man next door. I took in odors
      and was disturbed. I cut my finger and let it drip. Just like that, I let go of the past and the past's people. They walked life's short plank and fell out of their clothes. I teetered
      on the lip of a moral cup.
I looked at the coffee bean and said,
you're not evil. Not believing in eternity should have broken me, but I understood the saw blade's job.
      I unsnapped God like a clip-on tie.
Satan never brought his fantastic army.
For twenty-five years I cried out of hot windows,
not sure if I knew what the shape of the world
      would be at my death. A simple ball?
I sat on a hill and knew the story had its start and end.
One day, I hated my own girl heart;
it was a stone inside of me. The next day,
      this was not so and never would be again.
I had no say. I began life,
heaven or not, ten steps away from a brick church as a half-blonde anyone.
      What I am, my soft shoreline, my need to unlock doors and move from one train seat to the next,
has saved me.

Vampires Today

Once, there was a year where every romance
    had fangs. It was hard to open up a novel without a vampire bearing down on a young, virgin neck.

Soon, they were on the television. Later, the sidewalks.
    Teenagers. They owned us with their hackneyed plots.
Platinum fleurs-de-lis emblazoned on their jeans.

How do they wash them? I asked. They don't,
    my friend said. It's part of what keeps them so dark and stiff.
An entire generation has arrived dark and stiff. Unlike

my pliable, light, pubescent years. I grew up reading
    Little House on the Prairie. Sweet, blind Mary stole my heart. Turn the page. Oklahoma. Wild mustangs.

Malaria. And Pa. Talk about a hero. Now they have boys
    so angry they transform into wild, shirtless dogs.
They are maniacs, these fans. They beg their mothers

to drive them to the theater where they burst
    into dollars and popcorn in their seats. They want the car tossed off their withering girl bodies. Lured off

their couches, they are eager to be taken from their lives
    and placed directly in the vampire's mouth. Younger and younger. Cha-ching. Is there nothing anyone can do?

Vermont Collision

If you want to see a boy lose his dream,
kill his mother with a train. It happened.

I was in Vermont serving a baked whitefish. Her son

was busing a table. She was on her way to buy an ice-cream cone. A whistle blew.

She got off of the tracks,
but the side of the train still clipped

her soft body, took it hundreds of feet until she fell into a meadow.

There were so many warnings.
That night he dropped half the things

I asked him to hold. There was no moon.
It was too dark. We were too happy.

We might have been laughing as she was being hit.

Urban Animals

I learned about Chara, an Asian elephant,
wandering the streets of Bangkok hungry for bananas, then about

Barbara, pulling the big tent up,
wearing a headdress with her name spelled in sequins, held in place by her big ears.

I learned this because PBS wanted me to know about misery and Shirley,
alone in Louisiana, tucked in a zoo.

Twenty-two years of foot chains and hose baths. Elephants need other elephants,
said the expert, her lab coat buttoned tight,

her purple collar crushed against her skin.
What was the point? my new love asked me as I recounted the documentary and cried.

He felt that TV ate my sensitive heart the way boric acid eats through the beetle's thorax.
This was an unexpected example because my love

knew nothing about bugs; rather, he loved Badiou.
Nights like this I sometimes wish I had an entomologist to curl up with, to ask about

the dangers I myself might pose to exoskeletons.
But tonight I just want to forget the urban elephants and arrive at something that makes me feel good.

I think I can take my conscience out for waffles and sit in a comfortable booth and not feel the universe pinch me

with its guilt. The women will bring them on brown trays and move perfectly through the air,
their hips, extraordinary, the kind that children

slide out of merrily and go to school. Full grown,
I go to school, stepping down stairs to open my classroom door and teach

from behind a plastic desk.
I talk about words and get away from every animal floundering. Where I walk

is not the henhouse floor, chicken wire holding me in my basket. How I travel is not through water, hook and net

sweeping the deep sea.
Where happiness arrives, the universe and I have a mutual understanding, I get to live

my life with this brain and thousands of one dollar bills, which I can use however —
I can toss peanuts to the elephants or just

get into my car, my long arms steering, and drive and, choice after choice, feel the skin wall of my body, or not.

Unofficial Lady Bible

So many minds dwell on
    what happens between the sheets.

I wish I'd been prepared.
    Dough rising in bread pans. The fry cook

busy in the walk-in, pants down,
    hips furiously pumping against

the pastry chef, pressed against
    a mayonnaise barrel. Didn't they have

spouses? Children? Shame? The real shock.
    It wasn't just them. They only began

the parade. Adulterers. Wrongdoers. Creeps.
    How long could a girl like me work

in a place like that and keep her eyes closed?
    My role models had been delivered

from the Bible. I was handed a child's oven.
    An apron. Lipstick. At seven, I could press

a perfect piecrust with my thumb. Ta da!
    Decades passed before I would open

the door to that walk-in and arrive
    as somebody other than myself. Yes.

My busy mind opened it all the time,
    adding variety. I mean, how could Tina

commit so much betrayal? Her body
    its own Bible. Tight-assed and aging. Beholden

only to her own climb and joy. It took me years
    to admire exactly what she'd done.


The woman in me pulls off a pink sweater and places it in a drawer, lights her candles, apricots spicing the air.

Part of me wants to throw this ring back,
but part of me is happy to have a diamond.
Is love sad? Part of me wants to chew the ring up

and die. Part of me always wants to die. I pick this piece of myself up all the time, mend its mittens and kiss it on the mouth. I love its mouth —

the little beast. A doctor on the radio said that a woman should never split herself into halves, division has consequences.

But I've quit believing the radio waves,
even though the little beast has failed to join me,
tuning in news stations for more details on every

kidnapped girl's life. Part of me is ready to stand at the altar. Part of me cannot imagine the closet always shared. One time

I thought I was pinned — in a car — metal snapped through metal to get me out. After I knew I was going to live, I dedicated my life to me.

Here come footsteps. The clamor of my lover's shoes travels across the floor. From the sidewalk,
through the front door, down the hallway to my study.

They vibrate in my ring. A physicist might claim this is impossible, unless my lover travels like King Kong, his energy swinging every object

in the house. I'm home, I'm home, I hear him call.
(I think I love this ring!) The little beast rolling in her new grave as he moves through rooms to find me.


Excerpted from "Half-Hazard"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Kristen Tracy.
Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Good-Bye, Trouble 5

Presto 6

What Kind of Animal 7

YMCA, 1971 8

Cannibals and Carnivores 9

To the Tender 10

Local News: Woman Dies in Chimney 11

Urge 12

Sometimes This Happens 13

Bountiful, Utah, 1972 15

Vampires Today 16

Vermont Collision 17

Urban Animals 18

Unofficial Lady Bible 20

Undressed 22

Circus Youth 24


Good-Bye, Idaho 29

Stamps 31

Half-Hatched 32

An Analogy 33

Local Hazards 34

Yesterday 35

When Fate Is Looking for You 36

Having It? 38

Contemplating Light 40

Breaking 41

About Myself 43

Assignment: Write a Poem about an Animal 44

Happy Endings 46

Teton Road 47


Half-Hazard 51

Gardening on Alcatraz in July 52

What We Did before Our Apocalypse 53

State Lines 54

Rain at the Zoo 55

Field Lesson 56

Fable Revisited 57

Taming the Dog 59

Tell 60

The Unavoidable Pigeon 61

Hanging Up 62

Hepatoscopy 63

Autobiography 65

Waiting for Crocuses 66

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