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All poems are original, copyrighted material of Dora E. McQuaid.

CONTACT DORA DIRECTLY if you would like to discuss with her the use of any of her
poemsor any of her original materials included anywhere on this website.
Thank you for respecting her work by obtaining her permission
BEFORE recreating or reprinting her work in ANY way.

Dora in Retreat Studios, Red River, NM, recording the Expanded, Second Edition of the scorched earth: spoken compact disc, with K. Bolan. September 2012. Photo credit: Becky Tidwell.


POEMS: the scorched earth

the scorched earth is Dora E. McQuaid’s collection of poems about her journey from victimization to survivorship, through healing from a history of both sexual and domestic violence into empowerment and advocacy as an award-winning poet, activist, speaker and teacher. The audio disc companion, the scorched earth: spoken is a studio recording of Dora performing all 35 poems of the Expanded, Second Edition of this hard cover collection. Foreword by Eve Ensler.


It is of utmost importance to clarify that the ‘father’ that I have written of in an unflattering light in the scorched earth is NOT the father I recognize, meaning I am NOT writing of James C. McQuaid. The details are of lesser importance than the understanding that these poems are NOT about or of my experience with my father, Jim McQuaid, whose love of his three children is well known.

POEMS FROM the scorched earth and the scorched earth: spoken


This is how I let go.
This is how I let myself live free.
This is how I put the burden of generations down,
outside of me,
literally lay it down prone in the dust,
from which is gathered, beside me.
The dust is all the grief that came before me,
that fed this line of girl children until
our heads hung with the weight of a shame
that had nested in the multitude of us, growing.
This is how I raise myself up beyond the history
(it was her story, he forced his on her)
with my voice,
with my voice upraised.
With my voice upraised and my head upraised
and my fist and my spirit that rattles on about
hope and about hope and about hope
My fist is adamance,
uncurled it is compassion, waving.
This is my girl child strong.
This is my boy child tender.
These are my children.
They are part of the song.
This is how I let go,
with that song that is not words but is
the sound of emotion, like the violin,
like the one egret, like the coyote at dusk:
a song without words but an upraising
all the same.
It is a glorious noise, this letting go,
the grief unfurled, the shame exposed.
there are no words for these emotions
and yet they live until we sound them go
with whatever tools our trades offer.
A voice in the song, the funnel rush
like fire when hope whirls in and expands,
when you believe yourself
to love,
to be loved,
to be forgiven.
This is how I move on.
This is how I let myself live free.
This glorious noise,
stating and naming and claiming
and then, letting go.
This voice.
It is love that saves us,
makes us new again
and again.
Hope is power. Love is hope.
The joy in the song is the gratitude
to know hope (again),
once and for all.
I raise my head.
I raise my voice.
I survived
(Yes, you did, too.
I know).
And now, we thrive.

© 1999, 2014 Dora E. McQuaid.From the Second, Expanded edition of the scorched earth and its compact disc companion the scorched earth: spoken © 1999, 2002, 2014 Dora E. McQuaid.
To hear Dora reading this poem, click here (coming soon). 


In Tesuque, I found the medal,
oval, silver Saint Christopher,
the child in his hands.
De-sainted, he was, and yet,
it was fitting; me wanting protection
from the one who’d been banished.

Right there in the market,
I put that medal on,
praying in front of the delve-eyed Indian
who’d sold it to me.
I’d had enough shame by then
to not fear her judge arm.
I wanted release more than her acceptance.

I wore Chris in Santa Fe, in Trinidad.
I wore Chris in Taos, beneath the
black T-shirts that kept growing bigger on me.
When I returned to the house of vodka
and bourbon and goat sweat,
I walked back down a hallway
I could not walk down in darkness,
for the fear, only months before.
The same hallway down which I
had been pursued by the quickest
drunk I’d ever known.  Vodka
was oil to him, made him slick and nimble,
even the cigarette smoke couldn’t burn
the stench or speed of it out of him.

One night, one other hepped-up night,
he paraded down that hallway after me
in his flannels
as I tried to find my way to bed,
saying under my breath
Jesus, not tonight
and he towered up on that one,
got me in the corner of yet another
bedroom wall and bed,
spittle lip slicking
You’re so full of shit.
No.  No;  you are a piece of shit.

Those flannels were maroon and teal,
and later he cried.
He came to me for comfort, saying
I don’t know.
I love you so much,
but I just don’t know.

I don’t have to tell anyone he never got it.
Kept right on towering ever-after
until I learned the release of the rage
that comes with habitual betrayal.
The taste of betrayal, the pin prick
under the shelf of skin
when the heated blood roils out
like some brittleness undenied.
I learned the rage; it kept me on this side
of being almost safe.
He was so wounded
it took a screamer to get his attention.
It took me being wounded again
and again to get mine,
until I realized he got off on that rage
of his.
He fed on it, as surely as it fed on him;
it was the only thing that worked after the
vodka and the bourbon and the speed and the porn
topped off.
By July, he was a done deal
every day.

And I fingered Christopher
on a box-chain of silver around my neck.
I walked down the hallway of pursuit
I called my spirit back,
burning candles and sage,
soaking my self in lavender and hyssop.
Where my own strength fails me,
I’d say.  I’m weak.
I’d say it out loud:
Protect me where my own strength fails me.
I’d wake some mornings with that oval
imbedded in the skin of my neck
like a new brand.

It took five weeks alone.
It took learning courage alone
in the darkness.
It took page after page.
It took taking the gun he’d used like a gauntlet
off of its shelf of hiding under the jeans
that no longer fit him,
feeling its weight,
playing fingers where his had been that night
on a shotgun made with a pistol-grip for ease.
I learned then that fear is part of the make-up
of the blood.
On the coverlet, on the wall, or
even under my own skin.
Fear is part of the body’s plan:
It always tells you,
and it, like the blood,
tastes like aluminum,
like salt,
or betrayal.
Like the roil,
that last boat in.

I stopped wearing the medal
when I finally had the sense
to fall in love with myself.
I still take it out of its box
by my bed,
and I remember Tesuque,
the Indian woman with the whippet eyes,
and him.

I remember peacock feathers,
in all of their glory,
all a-shine next to pots that some
generous hand had coaxed clay
into form.
He stood five feet away from me,
me changed with the medal
hanging beneath one of the hollows
of my body.  I’d had bruises just
a month before.  He was
right there,
but I was looking past him,
at the peacock feathers,


© 1999, 2014 Dora E. McQuaid. From the Second, Expanded edition of the scorched earth and its compact disc companion the scorched earth: spoken © 1999, 2002, 2014 Dora E. McQuaid.


The angel Sandalphon is one of the Seraphim, the order of angels usually associated with power. Over time, many of the Seraphim became afraid of their own powers and in their fear, lost those powers. Sandalphon reminds the fallen seraphim of their birthright.

Sandalphon, where are you now?
What dream to come?
What stretch of movement,
one hand upraised on that cliff-side,
feet like sculpture,
all those faces rapt and faithful?

Where are you now?
What power to come?

A white page gone blue in the spotlight.
I felt you hum inside of me,
wing of a black pen,
my hair whipping about me, wild
as Medusa with those snakes just
above her breasts.
See, she was a woman of power.

Nothing forsaken.  Not even
the hammered silver wrapping her wrists,
the cuffs ending in the curve of yet
another snake’s head.

Sandalphon, see,
she was a woman of power.
And where are you now?

Right here,
beside me,
calling my name.

© 1999, 2014 Dora E. McQuaid. From the Second, Expanded edition of the scorched earth and its compact disc companion the scorched earth: spoken © 1999, 2002, 2014 Dora E. McQuaid.


I still dream about you.
At night, my body remembers.
In my sleep, I cannot control
what it knows
of this house, this specific room,
the bed under the double windows,
the long hallway lit with night-lights.

At night, my body speaks
about what is still unresolved,
what my mind keeps seeing,
what brought on this shock.

My body remembers
trying quickly smoothly
oh my God how close is he
to be two steps ahead
of you, down the hall,
as it felt your anger start to crest.

My body remembers
being stuck in the corner
of the bathroom, on the other side
of the locked door from you.
It remembers your screaming,
your voice raising, and
raising, with intensified threat.

My body remembers
the closet door that,
in trying to get away from you
it went through.
It split the wood of the bi-fold
and felt the runner peg snap.
It remembers the sound of the peg
hitting the floor, right beside me,
as you said,
“That’s YOUR fault.”

My body remembers
getting up from the closet floor,
watching your feet Oh, sweet
Jesus don’t let him move too fast,
my back already going numb where the pain set in.
It remembers trying slowly calmly
to get past you please God please God please.
It remembers how you shook,
the spit on your chin,
the unfocused eye,
how fiercely fast you grabbed me then.
It remembers your fingers between
tricep and bicep, the way my neck went wrong
when my body hit the bed.
It remembers the weight of you in the
struggle, how I went briefly beyond the realm
of prayer, entranced in your bourbon breath,
your cigarette stench, your soured skin,
your long low laugh.

My body remembers
hearing its own voice pleading
out loud, my left wrist feeling the start of
the cave in, the burn of broken skin, your
fingernails literally against the bone.
It remembers going slack then, the shut
down, some part of me going
away, the other part watching
my blood circle on the white
feeling your body relax into its victory,
then get up, leave the room, breathing hard.

My body remembers
you going down that hall, walking
through the path of night-lights.
It remembers first hearing the
shotgun, police issue, riot,
being cocked in the silence.
It remembers floating
off the bed then, somehow standing
in the middle of the room when you
came back in, gun leveled and gaping.
It remembers your stocking feet, the sound
of the ice hitting the roof, your voice
telling me, “Get the fuck out now, bitch.
I just wanted to hold you,”
the gun waving tighter and tighter circles
around us both.
It remembers how slow the world got,
how small,
how I stared at you then
and prayed, voiceless,
to be protected,
for mercy.

My body remembers
you leaving the room then, walking
back down the hall. Later, you
followed me into the kitchen, found my
wrist under running water until the water ran
clear of my blood.
It remembers how you watched me,
watched the water, and
when I stopped to look at where
your fingernails took out the flesh, you
said, “What’s wrong with you?”
When I said, “You hurt me,”
your response was, “Yeah?
Go write a fucking poem about it.”

You slept that night.
I didn’t sleep at night for months.

Now, when I sleep, I
still dream about you.
At night, my body remembers what it knows.
And the dreams of you all end the same,
with the image I remember the most from
the next day:

Walking stiffly slowly
oh, sweet Jesus
down the long hallway,
into that room again,
only to find your dog, positioned
between closet and bed,
licking the splatter of my blood
off of the bedroom wall.

© 1999, 2014 Dora E. McQuaid, From the Second, Expanded edition of the scorched earth and its compact disc companion the scorched earth: spoken © 1999, 2002, 2014
To hear Dora reading this poem, click here (coming soon). 


For Kate Bogle

From my journal on the morning of my 30th birthday.

If I had my life to live over I would be less afraid:

To speak up. To speak out.
To speak the hard stuff.
To break silences, everywhere.

To be myself, truly.

Of the consequences of being myself.
Of speaking out. Of telling my story.
Of asking for what I wanted,
instead of just settling for what was offered,
believing that was all I was worth or deserved.

To be alone.

Of the outcome.
Of my writing hurting my family.
Of how people would respond to my history.
Of asking for help.
Of taking help that is offered.
Of standing up for myself.
Of walking away.
Of never making it.
Of being a failure.
Of making a fool of myself.

Of believing in myself.

Of saying No.
Of saying Yes.

Of following my own path.
Of believing that I am led.
Of believing that life is that magical.

Of the grief that lives inside of me like an ache
and calls itself hope.

© 1998, 2014 Dora E. McQuaid. From the Second, Expanded edition of the scorched earth and its compact disc companion the scorched earth: spoken © 1999, 2002, 2014


For the participants of the Impact of Violence Program at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution for Men at Houtzdale, and for Dawn McKee.

They write me letters.
Their 4th grade handwriting,
the paper scored by pen and pencil indent
from the force and focus of their intention.
Often on blue-lined, loose-leaf paper;
occasionally on colored construction paper;
sometimes on coloring-book pages mounted
to the colored-paper, and then folded,
like the greeting cards I made at the age of 8,
with the Crayola 24-pack and its back-box sharpener.

When I unfold the pages, their breath reaches up
to me as though captured while they held it,
through the crafting and the writing.
I think always of their hands,
the length of fingers,
the scoring of lines and scars on palm and finger face,
the thickness of their wrists,
the hollowness in the cups of them when they are at rest.
And then of the capacity of these same hands,
these hands that write me letters,
that craft cards for me,
for rage, for violence, for annihilation.

One reading I did, I was edgy and scared before them.
I felt on the wrong side of the door again.
There was no screaming this time,
no blood temple hovering,
no chest beating menace in the vicinity of my heart.
But I was behind the barbs again,
3 layers of it rolled above the chain-link and the trips
and the vastness of the open fields beyond the barriers.

My eyes kept returning to the crows in those fields,
above the eyes and heads of those men,
above their hands,
which I could barely stop watching,
barely escape vigilance of their positioning,
of their foretelling.
I was watching breathing patterns, too, and
muscle twitches, waiting for the spring
toward me as I read poems of my blood father’s wrath
and my lover’s rage
and my spirit caving like an animal gone to ground,
curling around the wounding
before learning to rise again,
enough to do all of this telling.

The crows gave me comfort,
their wheel and loft.
Their raucousness reminded me:
I leave here soon.
I needed reminder that escape, again,
was a possibility.
I told myself the crows will carry me
until I can cross the barbs again
and let sleep find me,
while Dawn drives us away,
outside, safely, together.

When I did look up from the poem into the hour,
afraid of the hands of the man in front of me,
at the end of his 6-foot, 5-inch frame,
that had wrung out the life of a woman,
those hands were steepled before him.
He was hiding the crying,
but I could see it.
I met his eyes, finally.
He lowered his hands.
We cried together, while the room of men,
dressed in Department of Corrections mauve issue
hung on, around us.

Silent then, I left.
I dreamt of him behind the barriers.
He wrote to me, shared a poem
and his own dark history behind its making.
He ended the letter with:
God bless you.
The indentation in the paper on those words was a ripple.
And on the words:
You saved me.  I am grateful.
I rubbed my finger over the ridge he’d made with the giving.

His hands made this bridge from there to me,
as my voice made the bridge from here to him.
And this is how we save each other:
With our hands and the breath between us.

© 2004 Dora E. McQuaid. From the Second, Expanded edition of the scorched earth and its compact disc companion the scorched earth: spoken © 1999, 2002, 2014

Previously published in the anthology, Come Together:  Imagine Peace Anthology, Bottom Dog Press, Huron, Ohio, United States (2008).


For Susan Kelly-Dreiss, to honor her and the founding members of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, whose pioneering spirits and work over the last 25 years has led to the first statewide coalition against domestic violence in the United States, which has impacted

  • the initiation and development of state and federal laws in respect to domestic violence,
  • the development of special projects and resources attending to a wide variety of federal, state, and local needs in respect to domestic violence,
  • and the establishment of outreach services designed to assist and empower victims and survivors of domestic violence in reclaiming their lives.

Around this table, I learned that hope is communal.
Hands joined to sisters’ hands,
hope became the light that lit this long way
after one woman, one witness-survivor,
raised her own hand, fingering possibility in the air
above us, that became the call.
We came from every corner and county,
every age, color and creed
to this table, to join hands and histories,
to join our own good fights for the basics long denied,
against the despair that rocked us,
as we rocked another woman near to broken,
as we got on our knees to hold her as she cried,
her head bent to that hand of forgiveness not one of us
can offer but only to ourselves.

Around this table, we told the stories we took home with us,
or the ones our own homes, sometimes, offered.
We told the stories when the burden needed voices
and open hands, until the voices raised together.
We learned from the soul out
how to gather the feet of those women
beneath their bodies near to broken again,
to help them lift themselves up gracefully
when grace was the last thing any one of us felt
in this taking of sides.
We learned how to teach each woman how to stand again
and in the teaching, we learned how to stand
for them, with them, across from them,
each woman a mirror image,
with the voices of our mothers or fathers, children
or lovers, sisters or brothers whispering or clanging in our heads
Mercy,     or
There but for the grace go I,     or
Went I,
before learning this standing;
across from this woman or the one who will follow,
or her daughter, bearing mirror image, that says
when nearly nothing else has the power or defiance
to say, Yes, you can do this.  We can do this.
We can do this reckoning together, and we can face
the freedom together, until you can face it alone.
Or choose to join the rest of us, here,
around this table, learning and aching,
forging the way so that others may find it,
joining this voice that became the confrontation of an epidemic,
wedded to the demand to be heard, to be counted, to be considered…
because these were lives we were fighting for,
are still fighting for,
putting hand to work with whatever tools we could claim or unearth,
making the tools we needed as we went along to confront
a society breeding the eye veiled to brutality,
based on public inaction in the homes of “private” terror.

Join us here, after you have learned, as we have learned,
to trust your feet to hold you, and know
that you can bend yourself, gently, to sit with us,
in this circle, link a hand with one of us, or maybe two

because we have learned along this way,
this endless path of twenty-five years,
advocating compassion and adamance,
outrage and action, that the linked hand
is the one that will not be broken:

One hand joining another is the beginning of a chain.
Two women feed strength together where one has crouched alone.
Three women raise a voice communal, political, graceful
that can be heard above the din of silence.
Four women, linking around a table like this one,
choose to change the world, one woman at a time.
Five women cast a spell of strength over their formation
stronger than any one of them alone.
Six women are a circle, backs to each other, hands
barring entrance from without and bearing protection within
of whomever has need for their circle’s sheltered center.

Join us here, at this table.
Rest your arms, loosely, over coffee mugs and legal pads.
We’ve all got an eye to the children and the future.
Settle yourself into this sisterhood as we discover that seven women,
and growing, reaching across one woman’s kitchen,
across a county, a state, a country, are a force, undeniable.
We have lit the way with our spirits
stretching out.
We have bent ourselves into these chairs
to learn how to stand and how to shine, for each other,
radiating light
from open hands, empowered and clasping,
and voices raising together,
claiming community,
claiming revolution.

© 2001, 2014 Dora E. McQuaid. From the Second, Expanded edition of the scorched earth and its compact disc companion the scorched earth: spoken © 1999, 2002, 2014
To hear Dora reading this poem, click here (coming soon).

Poster for Around This Table poem by Dora McQuaid

This poem is available in poster form through the website by clicking here
All sales are donated to the Memorial Fund to honor women lost in domestic-violence related homicides.


Her bones barely buried beneath the dust of that desert
is how they found her.
Late afternoon they came to me, to tell me:
Your daughter. We think.
She’d been missing for weeks by then.
I’d been praying for her, for all the other young girls
who rode the buses to work the factories,
the $5.00 a day a wager on their lives.
At dusk, I begged
Return her to me, please.
Let her walk now out of that darkness toward me.
My daughter.

It was the We think we have found your daughter
that told me it was time now to pray
that she has not suffered long,
that her faith had held her,
that some god, or his mother, had redeemed
her spirit in the face of that desperate undoing.

At first, all I have is my prayers,
the Hail Mary’s whispered or ranted
over this body that was my daughter,
brutalized beyond recognition,
even the scent of her skin has soured
beneath this desert sun.
Mingled with her terror is the dark bile of the hatred
that held the hands and hearts of the men who did this
to my child, to all of our children.

Her spirit is restless above us.
At night I hear her, or perhaps hear the others,
the daughters of others, in their unending horror,
or perhaps after, in this wind above the desert
that distorts even the voices of the living.
Daily, I pray her up, ask you to release her,
let her spirit rise from the dirt in which she died.
Hail Mary, full of grace. The lord is with thee.

I join now the country of women wreathed in mourning black,
in an outrage grown equal to the grief that first held us.
My prayers for comfort have turned
to appeals for strength, for courage,
to demand justice with the others whose hearts have been broken.
Into the streets that ring this desert
we leave our churches, our homes,hands holding rosaries,
faces flush beneath funeral veils.
Less and less we ask: Who did this?
Bus drivers, gang members, serial killers.
And demand more and more answer to why it continues.
Police, Special Prosecutor, El Presidente.
Our daughters are dying.

We will not abide the blind eye turned toward us.
We will not be broken by our grief
to join the silence that holds out children.
For them we will stand before you.
For as long as we are standing,
as long as I am standing,
breathing this breath
that birthed my daughter into being,
her memory is still with us.
We carry our daughters each within us.
It is with their voices that we call you out.
Do you hear them?
Do you hear me?
All of us?

After we sing the souls of our daughters up,
we will come to you.
We will come to call you out.
Justice is a prayer song all of its own.
Please. Everyone. Won’t you join me?

© 2010, 2014 Dora E. McQuaid. From the Second, Expanded edition of the scorched earth and its compact disc companion the scorched earth: spoken © 1999, 2002, 2014

Written specifically for The For The Daughters of Juarez event, hosted by The Society of The Muse of The Southwest (SOMOS), which had invited Dora t o join the international
effort to address the ongoing feminicide in the borderlands between Mexico and the United States. The Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico. March 28, 2010.
To view video of Dora reading this poem, please see the Taos News Video created by Rick Romancito at (at 4:30 into video)


I collect leaves,
walking alone
at dusk
in Kentucky autumn,
for you,
3000 miles away in Northern California
where climate
and the wheel of the earth do not
afford this turning blaze.
Colors like pumpkin,
like russet and
corn yellow.
Like deep scarlet,
pressed together with an iron
between sheets of waxed paper
to look like stained glass, held
to light of the sun.
To remind you of home,
of the seasons,
of me.
I collect colored leaves for you
just like I did
at five
when a red, lit leaf
looked like God’s magic
in my little hands.

© 1997, 2014 Dora E. McQuaid. From the Second, Expanded edition of the scorched earth and its compact disc companion the scorched earth: spoken © 1999, 2002, 2014

Poems From  SEVEN: Poems of the Interim


For my father, James Christopher McQuaid
May 17, 1938 – January 1, 2007

Two days after I held my father as he died,
the priest comes to my parent’s house to
meet with my mother, my two older brothers, and me
to plan my father’s funeral mass.

In the living room, all of us perched in grief and tension,
my mother tells the priest she wants me to speak
in the church, during my father’s resurrection.
The priest denies her, turning to me to tell me:
You are not a practicing Catholic.
You may not speak in the house of God.
We move on to choose psalms and prayers,
photos for the program.

Two days later, in the rain,
at my father’s graveside, I speak then
for the first time. I do this one thing whose idea
has been the most horrifying thing my mind could imagine
for the entirety of my life.
Next to my father’s coffin, above a hole in the ground
into which they will lower him when we all turn away,
I clear my voice.
I read the poem I wrote years ago, for my father,
about what and how he taught me to be
this woman that I am.
I do this horror because it is the response I had,
but did not offer, to the priest in my parent’s living room,
that I have held within me to sustain me
through his viewing, his funeral mass, this moment.

You are not a practicing Catholic.
You may not speak in the house of God.

To this, I say:
I am the house of god.
We all are, each one of us.
And my speaking, using this voice
that God gave me, is memory of that.

I know this.

This is what my father taught me.

© 2007 Dora E. McQuaid. Published in the forthcoming anthology, The Poets Quest for God: 21st Century Poems of Spirituality, Eye Wear Publishing, London, England, United Kingdom (2014).


When there is nothing left to say,
who do you pray to?
To be delivered,
to be returned to your self?

Inanna on her hook?
Persephone folding winter back?
Demeter demanding her daughter’s return?

Or do you appeal to Mary,
bent at the feet of her suspended son,
or to Magdalene, with her red cloak?
Veronica, whose veil gave us the first image of comfort?

What of Jesus thundering through the market,
or taming devils in the desert?
Buddha, or Allah in kingdoms of other countries?

And what of the disciples?
John, who watched over the garden,
or Peter, who was the first?

Or do you petition the saints themselves?
Beloved Theresa who died young,
or Francis, hands full of animals,
heart full of peace.

Perhaps, you invoke the angels,
Arch and otherwise.
Would Uriel navigate a path for you?
Michael strike down the enemy?
Gabriel offer your resurrection,
and Raphael, the healing that surely must follow.

© 2009 Dora E. McQuaid. Published in the 2009 CHOKECHERRIES Anthology, The Society of The Muse of the Southwest, Taos, New Mexico, United States (2009).


For my mother, Dora A. McQuaid

My mother was most beautiful
after losing herself in her garden,
on her knees, hands in the dark earth,
tending gently to things growing
half an acre from our house.
Just beyond dusk, she’d walk the grass
toward us, a basket of harvest in her arms,
rinsed in the cool water from the back wall hose.

One evening she called me out to her,
bit into a tomato so red its
flesh held the undertone of purple,
and then offered it to me.
I was twelve, shy with the heated
pulp filling my mouth, still warm
from the day’s stretch of August sun.
Dark coming on, my mother gleaming,
fireflies in the air above our fields.

© 2010 Dora E. McQuaid

Excerpt from STORYTELLER

My father told stories of dark humor and grace:

The 4th of July I when I was 17, my father was drunk.
When the parade came down Rosemont Avenue,
we were all on the porch,
all in the patch of green we called a yard,
and my father was spinning on the sidewalk.

When the police came by on horseback,
when the horses came by,
one officer got out of his saddle,
black boot gleam in the Philly sun,
to check on my father, on all of us.
The officers knew us all,
back when a neighborhood was still a neighborhood.

No one but myself noticed, somehow,
when my father took the horse by the reins.
I followed them around the back of the house,
my father stumbling, and the horse,
like all the others, following him.
He was whispering to it. Drunk he could still whisper
to a horse, and she would follow.

I watched him lead the horse up the wooden stairs
of the back porch, through the doorway into the kitchen.
My father stoppered the sink, filled it with cool water.
That mare bent her neck, nosed the water
in my mother’s kitchen sink, and drank,
tail swishing slow the entire time.

I stood on the top stair, hearing the Garrett Hill parade
going by on the avenue, stunned.
Not by the horse in the kitchen,
not by my father whispering about how even
a mare needs a drink on a day made for independence,
but by my father’s hand on her neck,
in her mane, gentle.

© 2002 Dora E. McQuaid
Published in the 2007 CHOKECHERRIES Anthology, The Society of The Muse of the Southwest, Taos, New Mexico, United States (2007).


Last night the raven returned,
whip-stitching ribbons into my hair with her beak.
She labored from my left shoulder,
careful not to puncture my flesh with her claws,
ceaseless croon from that thinnest of throats.
I watched us in the mirror,
my eyes like green sanded glass,
the storm sky before the lightning strike,
my arms naked and empty as bared branches.
Hardwood held me, feet rooted a hip-width apart.
Her iron eyes fixed me in the glass, her own
feather crown rucked up around her head,
wing tucked into the hollow between
my jaw and shoulder bones.
One pony braid now hooks from my left temple,
tethered with a tail feather she plucked and
positioned into the paintbrush edge
of my gathered hair.

She is me.
when I am real.

© 2010 Dora E. McQuaid
Published in Gargoyle Magazine, Paycock Press, #59, Arlington, Virginia, United States (2013).


I have fallen in love with a man
who is Cherokee Indian.
His English name stands for Mars,
the original warrior.
His Indian name,
which we are still teaching my tongue to pronounce,
translates loosely to “Eagle Who Soars with Honor.”

He has the most enormous hands I have ever seen.
When he lays them on my flesh
so that I am held
by heel and palm and fingers,
I close my eyes instinctively.
My skin charges.

His breathing is conjecture.
His hair falls in blackest glaze, below his waist.
It grazes the hollow of his back,
where my fingers find a resting place of their own.
His eyes are obsidian, and
kissing his cheekbones is like climbing a mountain,
the breath between us full of element:
wind, heat, and thinning air.

I imagine that when he makes love to me,
I am the fire, and he the water.
And then, like twin stars,
like binaries,
we rotate
until he is the fire, and I the water,
and us the mist that rises
as one is scorched
and the other slaked.

© 2004 Dora E. McQuaid
Published in Gargoyle Magazine, Paycock Press, #59, Arlington, Virginia, United States (2013).


You want to ‘motherfuck’ everyone.
You want to punch the old lady in line in the grocery store,
in the throat, before she says another word.
You want to tell the male barista
“It’s a LARGE, not a damn Venti.”
You want to crush a finger of the young woman
with the blue eye shadow behind the counter at the DMV.
You want to ask the person at the party,
spouting bad fear-based news rhetoric,
“Are you freaking serious?”
You want to shriek in the library,
in the church,
in the departmental meeting at work,
in the 5:00 pm traffic with the windows rolled down,
into your own pillow on your own bed
with the door closed until the shriek
becomes the tears,
until the tears
become the song
that saves you.

© 2012 Dora E. McQuaid
2012 National Poetry Month Challenge, #8/30



Andiamo, Doretta, andiamo.
The lilies on the dining room table
stretched themselves
forgetting what they were supposed to be.
Their inner veins are the same shade of plum
as your lips. They are as selfless
in their opening as you are
in your reaching for me.

I told myself this.
The air crackled, then evaporated.
This was the sound of train whistles
coming closer. And this was the sound
of them, going away.
There were candlesticks on the sideboard,
the ceiling was beige,
lofted rafters full of light,
windows reinforced with chicken wire.
I closed my eyes,
imagined the fields I walked at midnight.
The river running clear is right before me.
Look at the stones beneath the marbled surface,
my hair reflected.


Andiamo, Dora.
Come on. Tell the truth.
She’s much smaller than she appears.
Until you hear her laugh –
all broken bells.
People think it was terror, but it wasn’t.
It was disbelief. Both times.
Only once, I threw an ashtray against a wall
in a hotel room to get his attention, and
perhaps, to get mine.
Three months later was meningitis hallucinations,
the people I tried to protect,
Michael in the air above me, arms flung out,
and Joan, unrelenting. They both carried swords.
Nine months later was the shotgun.
I went to the edge of the universe,
the place where angels go to rest.
Such stillness.
He made me wear my boots
and the one perfume whose name
I won’t tell anyone.


I thought I’d cross that bridge
but instead I became it.
I knew all along.
I’d be lying if I told you that I hadn’t.
It was the long breath, held,
until I burned everything –
the pillow cases, his cards with the one-syllable
words in blue scrawl, the wooden block
with his image etched into its grain.
Was it me? Or timing? Wrong place or inherent blame?
I never asked:  What was it? About me?


Andiamo, love, andiamo. Give me your hand.
We ran through the grasses
on the plain that was once an ocean.
The soldiers lit those fields on fire,
and my thighs were burning as we ran.
This is how I got my name.

© 2011 Dora E. McQuaid
In workshop with poet Blas Falconer,
10/8/2011, Memphis, TN


Light says I am your confessor.

I am the breathe on the slant of your cheekbones,
the refracted gold in your morning eyes,
the pale peach glint on your flesh in the settle down of dusk,
in the uprising of dawn.
I am the candle flame on the altar, on your bedside table,
the spark of pulse in the hollow of your throat
at your name on your lover’s voice.
Curve into me, and away, and back again.
Drink me. Let me fill you, your unfolding infused.

Water says I am your buttress.

I am the weightless lift beneath you when you relent,
the polish of the trappings that coat you,
the glint of ripple reflecting on the curve of your ribcage
when you allow yourself to be held in my current, silken and torrent.
I am the blessing bestowed at birth above the basin,
the slow sluice that slakes your burning,
the relentless leveler of the mountain within you.
Receive me so that I can restore you,
quench you in the glare and gleam.
Enter me. Let me carry you in the rip and flow
of tide strung to the throb of the moon.

Shadow says I am your respite.

I am the cool comfort in your briefest retreat,
the heat leaving your hair in the hands of your lover,
the scent of the sun lifting from your skin to feed me
in the zenith of late noon.
I am the gathering of your darkness,
the corners where your underside slumbers,
the hollowness you gather your twists within,
those sloughed-off parts of yourself you believe belie your beauty.
Turn toward me in wolf-hour hunger.
Fan me to free yourself.
Slip into me as you heal in the wholeness found here
when you welcome all of yourself back in.

Stone says I am your anchor.

I am what you skim in the meeting of water,
what you worry in your left hand in the season of doubt,
the walking path that carries you to your loves,
the walls of the home you would build for yourself.
I am the weight in your pockets at the river’s edge
when the wreckage of living whispers slow escape
in the current you ponder might carry you away.
I am the Grandfathers in the fire.
Place me in their flame, love,
until I fissure and split,
separate air as your wordless prayers
that I carry from the core of your being, up.
Above the mountain streaming water,
above your light and shadow,
all that you contain, all that holds you.

You choose, Stone says.
You choose.

© 2011 Dora E.McQuaid
Written for the group show, ELEMENTS: A Celebration of Art and Poetry, featuring national poets and artists, at the historic Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, United States, October 12, 2012.


For my father, James Christopher McQuaid

You were asking me questions,
asking me to come to you,
asking me to listen,
deeply, more so than usual and I was distracted.

I have been distracted.
Carnival barker in my head,
calling out skeet and duck pond,
the ever present ring toss,
mouth distorted by that bull horn and the
dust of the road he blew in on the night before
they raised the tents and cranked this music that drew me in,
lurid-lipped smiling at me
saying, at the shooting range,
Baby, I bet you’re a good shot.
I bet you’ve got a good eye.

There was a priest at my father’s funeral
who would not let me speak,
told me I was unholy, so much so
that I could not speak in the house of god
over the body of the man who fathered me
and when the casket rolled down the marble and
my uncles and cousins stood and bowed before the altar,
before they spoke to honor him,
every last one of them a man,
I felt the cat-creep of the sideshow,
the eerie feel of half-light belonging,
a spectacle unfolding that my father would have detested
for how it was not in his name but in the name of
a god he turned away from at 30 when
the seminary could not comfort the ache of him,
exiled Irish orisha that he was.

I’d give anything to have another smoke with him,
sit at the kitchen table,
a bottle of red or a cup of his coffee before us both,
him giving me hell for my American Spirits,
my Templar ring,
the prison reads I did in the name of forgiveness,
the black scuffs my boot heels left on my mother’s kitchen floor.
I’d listen to any one of his stories again, just to hear his voice,
his laugh spitting smoke and spinning the boxer’s ring,
the mare in the kitchen on the 4th of July,
the pool halls in Philly where he made his living
after praying that last long night
prone at the feet of the crucifix before he left that church forever.
We’d laugh. He’d ask about the poems.
He’d tell me:
I love you, kid. With all my heart, I love you.
I’d kiss the top of his head,
tell him Sleep tight, Dad
and he’d say, Yeah, If the river don’t rise, Dora.

With my father, I was never the barker’s call
of the freak show,
the side-line attraction,
the distraction of exhaust fans churning
hot grease of boardwalk fries or funnel cake,
the strung-out lights, and the shadows just beyond them,
the Wurlitzer pumping Calliope music through blown out speakers,
the air a little thick, as thick as my throat ever was
with the fear that nested in me before him.

I’m still trying to listen to him,
hear him at the top of the stairs,
or on the Atlantic City boardwalk,
or singing Daddy’s Little Girl at my cousin’s wedding,
my mother the most beautiful woman in the room looking on.
Sometimes I hear him telling me
Don’t you ever let another person in this world
make you doubt yourself.
He told me before he died that I was led by the hand of god,
more so than any person he had ever met.
Don’t trust the barkers, he said,
all that flash and glisten,
the distraction of things pretty or promising.
Shoot for the heart of it, Dora.
Listen, he said to me,
to the ones who speak softly,
who say your given name,
who hold you quiet when the world has offered nothing but ravage.

On the promenade, I am the daughter of gods.
Here, beneath the lights and the laughter
and the call of the carnies and the ache of alone
I know my place.
I can talk to spirits,
read your cards and the placement of your hands,
know the ache you carry in bone and heart.
I have no comfort to offer you,
beyond this knowing.
I can listen to you,
I can listen deeply, and tell you:
You are not distraction,
the child exiled by a love so twisted as to be nameless,
a face hidden in half-light.
Don’t you ever let anyone make you doubt yourself.
Remember: No matter who loves you,
or not,
this world is the sideshow,
and here, at the heart of it,
you are its star.

© 2009 Dora E. McQuaid
Published in the forthcoming Gargoyle Magazine, Paycock Press, #61, Arlington, VA, United States (2014).



What came first:
The suspension, trapeze snap and swing
from one realm to the other?
Or contemplate the drop, the net,
the ground that cannot be seen beneath
its spider and shadow as the body
learns the form of glide?


The tulips are up. Not blooming, but the lilacs opened
along the road and the pathway through the yard.
My mother cut morning lilac barefoot in her robe,
coffee cup placed on the top porch step next to her slippers,
hem trailing grass shavings glued on by dew,
her face as seamless and open as a ghost owl,
a dahlia, the bottom of a finished bowl.
She’d place vases of lilacs throughout the house,
in my room, on window ledges beneath lace curtains that
were her mother’s, humming to herself.


Run the fields by day that I walked alone by moonlight.
I was there. I waited for you.
Called your name in the darkness,
My love, come to me
this summons all I knew then of magic.
Sentinel corn in parallels, tassels whispering
to each other what my own heart could not speak,
the dirt below soft enough, like silt, to believe
even the falling might be muted, the collapse itself muffled.


My father sang Molly Malone to me when I could not sleep.
He’d hold me, walking the darkness of the house, singing,
Cockles and muscles, alive, alive-O until I rested.
He had enormous hands, the third finger
on the left side was bent broken in a boxing match,
like the arc of a bow, the curve of a sickle, a crescent moon curling.
People would ask about it.
He’d blow smoke away from them, saying, He won,
that finger sloped to the side, always pointing a little bit off.


Come to me.
Read me poems.
Hold me loosely.
Say my name.
Sing songs to me in Spanish.
Sleep beside me like a kindred.
When I close my eyes, tell me:
Don’t turn away, love.
Don’t turn away from me.
Keep your eyes open,
here in the falling.
You be the net,
I’ll be the shadow.
Curve of the moon,
the web that holds us.

Tell me. Tell me.

© 2011 Dora E. McQuaid


Instead of playing what’s there,
try playing what’s not there…
Like the space created between our two bodies
at dawn when, half-waking,
your foot, in bed, brushes against mine
and rests for the heartbeat
it takes for the physical and emotional
to connect
and then decide,
instinctively, to pull away.
Play the space there,
and then the one
where the tears do not come, in the waking,
followed by the one created between us when I get up
from bed and leave the room,
your arms too late outstretched
and empty,
our hearts like closed hands
full of love we can no longer give,
alchemizing to a dark ache.
Play the echoes of the spaces
in those cupped hands, I think,
finally in the other room
now, remembering
the one snowy egret and the one blue heron
on the beach on Wednesday morning;
the heron in the surf, standing more rooted and graceful
than I, whose gaze left the ocean once
to take in my presence,
and the egret behind her,
playing peek-a-boo with the waves.
Play the space between them
and then the spaces between them and me,
like this: The paths full of dawn and element,
sanded glass and a breaking sun.

© 2001 Dora E. McQuaid
From Dora’s forthcoming collection, SEVEN: Poems of the Interim


We turned, and leaned against the world.
I rested there, with my eyes closed,
even the eyes of my eyes closed,
while the fray of my nerves
lay fallow and healing.
The earth itself turned; the red dirt
leached and emptied,
long after the fertile fire had gone out
and my face was painted with its ash
and broken seeds.

My little love, it was such a long winter.
Even after the Equinox, the earth refused
to be dried out. The rains kept coming,
and that hanging chill, even in early June,
refused to leave the air or the fields,
still left dormant.

At market, the farmers say
no seed will take in the running rains,
the floodplains created by the thaw,
or within the chill itself.
When they say,
“the growing season will come in her own time,”
the tone is less of statement and
more of simple prayer.

Above their voices, I could hear the crows.
When I opened my eyes and left the leaning
against to stand along the axis of the earth,
I could see them in the trees.
Beneath their wings was the sky, a blue
too enormous to be owned by a name.
I could feel the sun, finally,
in my hair, unbound.
The wind was there in it, too…
talking to her,
almost whispering.

© 2003 Dora E. McQuaid
From Dora’s forthcoming collection, SEVEN: Poems of the Interim


psoas: one of the two muscles of the loins; flexes thigh; adducts and rotates it.
sacrum:  the triangular bone formed of 5 united vertebrae that form the base of the spinal column.

Both definitions are from Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, 1989, 16th edition, editor Clayton L. Thomas, Md., M.P.H., F.A., Davis Company, Philadelphia, PA

October chill has me clenching,
though I stand and stretch, trying to feel
hip bone release and ease
into tail bone and lumbar,
floating rib and psoas muscle
connecting all of me in footstep finding
my way across the face of my world,
this corner of my earth.

But I ache in the movement forward
and in the rest,
ache in the stretch and flex,
ache here in the center of me,
stilted in the radiating out.
Poet tells me lower back and hip bone cradle
is called sacrum,
its kundalini color is bright red.
She says this bough is home of all warrior energy,
fueling the way I fight with my voice
and open hands.

And I say yes:
This bow is the seat of all of my creations,
the birthplace of my fire making form.
This origin serves me well,
and yet, it is tired.
All this fighting I have done.
Even when I am loving, sometimes,
I am fighting to stay in love
in this center of it all,
rocking for balance
like a hinge;

somewhere between
the back and forth,
clench and release,
ache and thrum,

it is the loving itself,
the strive to stay there,
that is sacred

within me.

© 2003 Dora E. McQuaid
From Dora’s  forthcoming collection, SEVEN: Poems of the Interim


It is the second Sunday in May.
My grandfather has been gone one week and a day.
I’m drinking bourbon out of an old French water glass.
Where I tore at my lip with my teeth last night the alcohol
feels like a burn, like a memory.
The air is full of Sketches, sampiquita, and a balsamic moon.
My skin smells of almond oil.
My fingers are heavy with the silver,
and the lobes of my ears are bare,
as are my shoulders, my arms, my neck.

I walked outside in the darkness, briefly,
until I felt the hitch of the air.
It sounded like something breathing,
maybe the trees, or maybe only the feel of you,
coming closer.

I could tell you about the dreaming;
how each night now I dream myself West,
in some wide High Plains grassland,
mountains gone purple and the orange burn
in the distance, right behind them.
I am standing alone, in that wind’s endlessness.
My braid has come undone, and so my hat
holds much of my hair in place.
I stand on that spot that I have driven days to get to,
in someone else’s car,
with a brindle shade dog stretched on the back seat.
I know by the way she looks at me in the rearview,
how, for days, she watches me
sing and talk this folly out to myself and to her,
that she knows more than she is telling.
She knows far more than I do about what we are doing,
why we are headed West.
Within me, there is only a call of spirit, deep and dense, in my chest.

For days before leaving I imagine the people around me can feel it.
I imagine when my brother hugs me goodbye, yet again,
that he can feel its thud in my chest,
against my rib cage when the enormity of his arms holds me briefly,
only long enough to let me go again.
I imagine it is loud enough to be heard, like that wind,
like the coyote call on High Plains plateau,
and maybe just as haunting and just ever as strange.

I imagine other people in my vicinity can hear it, but I know:
I am the only one listening to it, the only one following its call.
Me and this kindred dog, chasing it, like the sun, West.

I wonder if you hear it, too.
I wonder if you wake at night, like I do,
at that darkest 4:00 a.m. hour and see my eyes,
as mutable as yours, as they were moments ago
in the dream in which we visited each other, again.
I wonder if you can feel me, moving toward you,
if my spirit is its own force that is
calling you out and conjuring you in.
Moments ago, outside in that breathing darkness,
I wanted to ask you how you feel.
Are you frightened?
Are you edged and awkward with the wanting?
Do you feel me?

I miss you.
I don’t even know your name, but I miss you.
You are as if a memory, yet unmet.
If I knew where you were, I would come to you.
I would stand before you, say to you:
Look. Look at the moon over the mountain.
I would take your hand.
At me.
Right here, in my eyes.

© 2004 Dora E. McQuaid
From Dora’s forthcoming collection, SEVEN: Poems of the Interim
To hear Dora reading this poem, click here


I miss my horse,
that blowing mane
in the wind beneath
the mountain
where thunderheads
and gently,
above us both,
moved on.

© 2002 Dora E. McQuaid
From Dora’s  forthcoming collection, SEVEN: Poems of the Interim


Here beneath this mountain, I rest.
I am alone in this field, her to the north of me,
searching scrub for anything that might sustain me
through the heat of this day,
day after day.
I feel myself alone, although there is the raven,
the crow, the red-tailed hawk who hunts mornings here
just beyond me, eyeing me in her arc.

At dawn, that mountain spears a sky of welted red.
By noon, she glimmers beneath the blue that holds me here.
In the heat, all that I carry within my bones and hair surfaces.
There is the dust, dried grasses, foxtail,
this thin memory of rain.
The heat and the blue hold me.
The mountain looks on.

In late afternoon,
when the clouds roll and build their staircases above me,
the pool of shadows at the mountain’s base whisper
across the crippling haze to me:

Until they are enough to move me,
until I stand among them,
until they are as gentled hands in my mane.
This day’s searching over,
my head, finally, just hanging.
I rest.

At dusk, the wind calls the clouds.
The sun loses her fierceness, and
then the light is silver,
sideways across the mountain to me,
thrumming sparks along my outline
as I leave the shadows for the open again.
You, in a car passing me on the road
alongside this field, stop and park.
I raise my head to face you.
You come to the fence line, struck and staring
and stand until this light from the mountain
reaches from me to you.

© 2007 Dora E. McQuaid
From Dora’s forthcoming collection, SEVEN: Poems of the Interim


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