Two poems by Caitlin Dwyer

Freshwater Mussels

Pondhorn, Pistol Grip, Pimpleback:
Pearly-skinned and primed for plucking,
mussels suck the silt from passing ships,
fisherman and barge, nostalgic steamships chugging

down the Mississippi blasting jazz. Beneath
the churn, a thousand bivalves gasp
for breath, their lustrous armor cased
in silt: the Higgin’s Eye looks smeared in ash,

variegated as old heart-wood; Scaleshell
delicate, like a scab of flaked skin. Their bodies
once crusted the mouth of the Ohio,
little sores latched to the gums of the Illinois;

then picked, sucked, dredged, and treasured
to clasp our clothes close, the tiny buttons
on men’s shirts and ladies’ corsets, pearl
and perfect: the fasteners for winter mittens.

By World War One, Iowa’s export
was the shaped remains of Sheepnose
and Spike. One man cut the shell, the next
ground it smooth. A battery of pumice grooved

the hard edge into silk, and men got rich
on the plump, satin sheen of Fat Pocketbooks,
their wallets full of holes. Then plastics came,
and the wars. The rivers shook their fastened

creatures free, let them float. The ridged,
cranial carapace of a Winged Mapleleaf spins
in the current, sinks; no leaf-fall makes
lumpy fists along the banks, skims the skin

of pollution off the current, culls it clean.
But now a striped invader, some new beast, is seen.



The Frogs: A Chorus

Panamanian Golden Frog:
When we die, the legends say,
our bodies turn to gold—smooth
yellow skin under wet soil
in caches, the drip of melted cloud
our funeral march. And die we do,
constantly. Our bony, slender
bodies (locals call us good-luck charms)
surrender, one by one, to fungal blight.
Like Pikachus with plague, our black-
splotched skin a fitting shroud,
we harden into stone, sickening
the fairy tale. From the thorns
you plucked us, fed us
caged gnats and sought to curb
our Midas Touch. It’s worth your while.
One in a zoo in San Diego
lifts his finger, waves, his signal
for a mate—but his semaphore goes
unseen, like a man dining alone
in a fancy restaurant, ignored as waiters
sweep the scene for bigger tips.

Kihansi Spray Toad:
In Tanzania, we were condemned
by one dammed waterfall, its delicate spray
no longer lifting over the savannah.
We had no backup, no immunity,
no chance. Without the soothe
of a spray bottle, we keeled.
Why cry? You cannot save us all.
Interference is a busybody’s game, and
the rules are too complex to follow
precisely. Merely, Nature did not
deem us fittest. We thumbnail frogs,
like glass-blown figurines, break easily.
Tend the hardier hearts, those
not too fragile to keep fighting.

Puerto Rican Crested Toad:
Big-eyed thugs, warty ugly
witches brew: We deserve it.
We’re no one’s cute pet,
no one’s favorite. Alert in a lek,
stagnant and soupy, we pause, ponder
the lack of ladies. It’s been a while
since any croaked our way,
batted a filmy bug-eye, lifted
ski-jump noses (our best feature,
you might say) to lick the scent
from the air. We’re no pandas,
no cuddly monkeys, no predators
you fear to lose; just some enduring blotch
on the shore of an island, huddled
against steaming karst. Call us
rare, and hardy. Just call us.




Caitlin Dwyer is a writer from Portland, Oregon. Her poetry has appeared in Barely South, Cider Press Review, Quiddity, Thrush, the Notre Dame Review, and Beetroot, among others. Her nonfiction, which often focuses on issues of education, identity, and distance, has been published recently in Narratively, The Big Roundtable, Oregon Humanities, and The Seventh Wave. She’s studied writing in Los Angeles and Hong Kong. You can learn more at or followed her at @dwyercait. 




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