Selected early poems of Phyllis Sterling Smith*

*Phyllis Sterling Smith is the author of the novel AI is a Three Toed Sloth and translated the poems of Jorge de Sena (The Evidences, Poems, a bilingual edition.  1994.  Center for Portuguese Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara.)
These poems (excepting "The Price per Barrel", 1991) are a few of my favorites of her early works.  They are not representative of her later, award winning, work.

Crusader Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall
The Baby Dragon Survivor
In the Shadow of the Andes To Be Posted on Stanny's Door
To a Dandelion The Price per Barrel
Lightening the Housewife's Burden        (Posted as we roll over the Iraqi border)


The bold crusader marched for God.
“I would do battle for my Lord, the Christ!"
He lifted high his cross
the hilt of sword.

And late, a Christian nation said,
“The Godless must be shown no pity."
Great fleets of flying crosses soared
to burn a city.

Thus through the ages Man has joined
not Him who on the cross must die
but heathen hordes* who raise a cross
to crucify.

*"ruthless mobs" in later versions
The Baby Dragon
Last of an Endangered Species

The spring sun warmed his infant shell-like scales.
He flexed his downy wings, not yet quite dry.
He raked new grass with slim stilleto nails
and sniffed black earth and herb scents.
Cloudless sky,
swept indigo by winds, backed every bare
white tree. His breath steamed in the icy air.

The leathery shell, from which he’d clawed his way
at dawn, lay lost to dragon memory.
He switched his spiny tail in cautious play
to seek, by feel, his own identity.

Then clomping sounds disturbed the sough of wind.
With joy he knew his world contained another
who moved. His untried legs, well spurred and finned,
moved under him. He leapt to find his mother.
He saw bright silvery scales -  made in a forge.
Exuberantly he romped to meet St. George.


In the church of San Francisco
in the shadow of the Andes,
candles glimmer in the darkness,
bare feet pad upon the cobbles,
and the Indians come to worship
swathed in ancient handspun woolens.

Minor motifs, thin and reedy,
issue from the hidden organ.
Bells cascade a random pattern
from remoteness of the tower.
By the light of hard-bought candles
faces glow with silent reverence
for the high-cheeked Inca Jesus;
He is quieting the waters,
Jesus’ boat is bound with rushes;
Galilee is Titicaca.
Here, as ever, God’s salvation
comes in love’s familiar garments.


What a honey!
What a dilly!
If it were a rose or lily
o what prizes I would gather!
See how healthy!
See that vigor! When it grows a little bigger
I won’t saw it down. No, rather
I will smother it with culture,
cultivate, and spade, and mulch ‘er
until (experience is my guide )
eventually it will have died
like other products of such toil
nurtured in the self-same soil.

Distance/Rate = Time or

Designers ask about each task,
each step we take they measure.
From stove to sink dimensions shrink
to give us time for pleasure.

Yet in their supermarkets, new,
soft—colored not to fret us,
we walk a mile, aisle after aisle,
to buy a head of lettuce.


The woman at the glass, with tilted head,
lifted her eyebrows slightly, firmed her jaw,
tightened the corners of her mouth, and saw
not wrinkled age, but, smiling in its stead,
a younger face she thought to be her own.
She turned, held stomach flat, and slant-wise caught
the image of a girl, still slender, taut,
unlike the dumpy shape to which she’d grown.

So too my land, mottled with history’s marks,
myopic in her shabby smog-grey age,
humming star-spangled tunes, once proudly sung,
obliquely sees, past dark fear-mugger parks,
reflected by her monstrous video stage --
lawn social, elm-shade summers, centuries young.


Don’t ever try to tell me ghost’s don’t speak.
I heard a child of ninety years ago
speak plain as day. Dulled by Missouri heat,
we sipped iced tea, plied paper fans below
black walnut trees, now half a century old
and planted by my husband’s father. We,
the rootless ones, had brought our young to meet
their great grandmother. Such fragility
could not last through the year. In voice as weak
as old leaves rubbed together, every word
said, “Time has come full circle,” and she told
our children tales that we had never heard.
Forgotten, now, the long calm middle years,
preserved in leather album on the shelf
like Mason jars of fruit she used to can.
She came at last back to her earliest self.
The laden wagon swayed beneath her yet,
leaving plantation home for Kansas plain,
her treasures sold before the trek began.
Her father, pressed by fate, himself in pain,
bereft by war, ignored his daughter’s tears.

And now a little girl looks through old eyes
- a five-year-old. With anguish and regret
“He could have let me bring one doll!” she cries.


Whose child is this who lays to rest
socks and banana peels in a nest
on his Sunday suit in a crumpled heap?
From goatskin rug I sadly reap
pencil and broken ball-point pen,
a spit-ball arsenal ( at ‘em, men! ),
peanut shells and a graded test
( from the numerous checks a “C” at best ),
pajama tops and a pillow slip,
paint-flecked jeans, shirt with a rip,
a dessicated tangerine,
three checkers and a white chess queen;
and things proportionately more
are scattered on the hardwood floor;
- I shudder and reclose the door.


Hell is fueled with oil.
The greasy roiling clouds bring darkness at noon
and nights lit red with raging flames.
Into the primal waters the thick sludge oozes
to trap and overcome the cormorant
who struggles toward shore, toward life,
sinking ever lower in the tarry mess
that drags him down and down to death.

Hell is this desert road
with its litter of twisted metal
bodies strewn about the sand like dolls
their empty eyes turned skyward
nameless who once had names
some incinerated where they still sit
at the steering wheels of vehicles
that were to bring them home.

Hell is the anxious emptiness of those who wait.
Will he come today? Tomorrow?
They scan the straggles of ragged men returning
and think with a catch of hope that one
with his arm in the sling--see!--.he looks like--
husband father brother son.
The soldiers pass and waiting starts again.
And some will never come.

Hell is a victory celebration wrapped in stars and stripes,
red white and blue, flags flying
because we killed a hundred thousand men
in just one hundred hours
while those of another war--the one we didn’t win--
beg permission to sleep in parks, on sidewalks,
and people who won’t pay taxes for our schools
drive cars that spew out ozone-eating poisons.

Hell is this weight of sorrow and guilt.
Hell is fueled with oil.