2 poems | Rachel Anna Neff

Atomic Forces


In my high school physics class,

I learned about quarks and tau leptons,

how nothing ever really touches –

the world is empty space filled with electric


fields and the electrons around my atoms

repel the electrons circling the atoms of the world.

I wonder if death is like a white spark of lightning,

if all the negative forces pushing me away


and pulling me down in a constant dance

with gravity will converge as a singularity, a black hole

where time passes faster as I reach the moment

when I am without covalent bonds. I am afraid


my life will be inert. I wonder how many oranges

I could slice open, how closely they would match.

Is the orange aware its rind has been split

and its bitter pith lies forgotten on my counter?


I don’t want to be made from rib,

let me be made from sun-kissed syrup

dripping down a broken orchard branch.

Let me be equal in the empty space


of oxygen and carbon and hydrogen.

I have forgotten the Spanish word

for tin and I search my memory

for the periodic table’s letters


and say Sn. Essay n-ay.

Like a snail’s shell or Nautilus,

first there was zero, then one,

then one, then two, then three.


As I think in a borrowed language,

I find another way of being.

How the vowels of dime shift

to become dime. How I am obsessed


with the roots of words like varicose veins

in my memory. How some words

are masculine and feminine. If I think

in French my fork is female


and in Spanish male, but I wrap

my tongue around both and taste

the tines in English. I see a fork. Metal.

The only German I know was passed down


like subatomic particles. I say Gesundheit

and my children repeat the elementary

parts of words without the components

or substructures of their father’s Portuguese.


Every night before bed, I say

“I don’t want to die,

I don’t want to have to die.”

If there is a God,


why doesn’t it look like me?

If there is only one true God,

does that mean others exist?

What does death feel like,


is it like when the lights go out

in a thunder storm, is it a moment

of darkness and not knowing

if there will be light again?


I cut a green apple in half, then in half again,

each division one step closer to atomos.

Dipping each section into sodium

and chloride and water, I sob and say


Why do I have to die?

Why do my parents have to die?

Why do I know I’m going to die?

Bones break like hearts.

Then there were five,

then eight, then thirteen.

I feel the ground,

but I am not touching it.




In a cloud of leaves; all that was Daphne bowed

In the stirring of the wind, the glittering green

Leaf twined within her hair and she was laurel.

“Apollo and Daphne” from Ovid’s Metamorphosis


Apollo stalked her. He followed her every which way – he swept through the tree line while she took her dog for a walk. The dog turned toward the brush, growled. (The dog didn’t make it to the myth because what kind of a hero threatens to kill a woman’s dog to get what he wants?) She gripped her keys tighter, wound the leash around her wrist as Apollo emerged. There wasn’t any river by where he kicked her dog away. There was a yelp. Did she drop the leash? It doesn’t matter, didn’t matter, what she did – if she dated him for two years, if she had one cup of coffee with him after work, or if the Apollo who smashed into her like a wave was a complete stranger, she would still hear If she hadn’t wanted this to happen, she shouldn’t have been alone. Hasn’t she heard of the buddy system? If she was so afraid, why didn’t she call the police right away? Did she even yell for help? I didn’t see any bruises. I bet she’s doing this, I bet she’s saying this, for the attention. Sometimes people scream and sometimes they don’t – some freeze like mice or rabbits or feel their breasts become bark, their ears drowning with tears. Maybe there was a whisper or plea of no or stop or please – she’ll think of which word she said over and over, she will wish to forget the sensation of the deluge of thrusts she remembers when her own hair brushes against her lips like leaves. Her body was his victory crown. She became rooted, stiff, unmoving – a story used to tell women to plead to be turned into laurels, to shred the intestines of those who swallowed them whole.


Rachel Anna Neff has written poetry since elementary school and has notebooks full of half-written novels. She earned her doctorate in Spanish literature and is currently working on her MFA thesis. Her work has been published in Dirty Chai magazine and is forthcoming in anthologies from Dos Gatos Press and Hyacinth Girl Press.

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