Ethan Stebbins


Sri Lanka


The best story turned on dumb luck
and accidental virtue. In one version
the hero drinks too much and wakes up
famous in someone else’s bed
and someone else’s clothes, humming
something incidental for solo cello,
the soundtrack to the dream he’d had
but happier and faster tempo.  
He wasn’t even the hero. Like
searching for a needle in the haystack
and finding the farmer’s daughter—

things progress and soon your babies
are people with kids with conflicted
self-perceptions. But what’s life

if you’ve never seen the Louvre
or the limestone spikes of London?  
You start on course but prevailing winds
beach your boat on a large island off Asia.  
Black-headed ibis dot the shore
and monsoons go by like clockwork.  
The red curry is out of this world.


Chinese Food


Pleased to meet you, it’s weird to be here.
Could I interest you in a golden dumpling?
I know, my busy life is boring too.  
Get undressed and I’ll teach you a prayer:
Dear Catcher of Ghosts, Dear Festival Cow,
Dear Days Auspicious and Inauspicious,
take these our assets and net long-term
capital losses and these our dividends
and remittances and make of them dust
and place it in a bag by the side of the road.  
May the bag go fuck itself. May it burn
in hell and these our bodies join the bank
of gassy clouds, may we get high
on all the pretty poison smoke. I know,
we don’t talk about this stuff much.
We need to be here to remind ourselves.

Even when the bottom really drops
you can still read Russian novels
or see the sea. You get to die in a world
where the spruces stay green all bitter
winter long. We each get a little skin ship
and even the microbes in the hold
enjoy a complex and beautiful routine.  
You get a fortune in your cookie. It says

Look around, happiness is trying to catch you.


The Interrogative Mood

        (Thanks Padgett Powell)

Do you ever feel crushed in the jaws
of a mouth you can’t quite define?  
Does maybe part of you condone the mouth?
What’s the landscape of your emotional train
when she and he suck face?  Is she a he?
Do you know the correct ratio of rice
to water? Do you have a favorite shrub?
Are your snaps functional or decorative?  
Is there such a thing as a definition
of torture, or is torture by definition

a kind of gag on the vocabulary?
Isn’t “such a thing” such a strange
construction? Is this thing perishable?  
Do questions evaporate like rain
and interrogate the air? How hard is it
sometimes to not just close the blinds
and kill the bottle? Am I wrong?  
Is enough enough or too much just right?  
Does all this silence make you squirm?  
How are we getting on? Is it crazy to suggest
you like the upper hand? If not everybody
that doesn’t think they’re crazy’s crazy,
but definitely everybody that’s crazy

doesn’t think they’re crazy, where does
that leave us? Is nudism the answer?
Where does shame fall on the color wheel?  
Would you prefer a muffin or a scone?  
A noose or the home? What’s a scream
even mean without you here to hear it?



For D.

If my heart is China you’re
Macau. Here on the mainland
we have a little saying:
the Confucius you know
is better than the Confucius
you don’t. The Confucius
you don’t is a bastard child
with a bulbous head and crooked nose
who gets cranky if the tea’s
too steeped. His big ambition
is to be a bureaucrat. Macau
has the second highest
life expectancy in the world
and these deliciously
soft-in-the-middle pork chop buns.
You can gamble in Macau!
Confucius once said, “avoid
women and small people.”
I do still love you. You’re just
a Special Administrative Region.
Now a pink seahorse
embedded in my brain oversees
and censors the official file
of everything we ever did
with a complex system
of snorts and whinnies.
Remember? It was around
the Feast of the Drunken Dragon
and we took our take-out
to a park above the harbor.
You tasted like General Tso
and cigarettes. There was
sun and boats and a thousand
painted lobster buoys.
Only by drying out the sea
could we see the thousand traps.


Saying Grace


For the fat rainbow trout  
I duped from Dam Creek
with a pheasant tail nymph
and pan fried on a pinewood fire.  
Its lidless eyes and cold
laminate skin. A life’s work
built on flies’ weight
I devoured down to the gills.  
Those red doors are shut forever.  
They suffer no mystery,
buried in the dark
with the stripped spine
and thoughtless head.

I mark these little debits
from the fund. Saying grace,
and grace again for the rain
that came in buckets,
slapping against the tent
like a thousand mouths
watering at once.


The Human Genome

Even as we speak
they are taking your body     
out into the sun
and laying it down
in a field of delphinium.  

They are taking
your heart and brain,
your good hips and liver
and sealing them up
in a store in the sky.

They are sequencing
the ribbons
of the embarrassment,
they are mixing  
your spit with the Pacific.

Even the thing
you didn’t mean
about your mom and dad.  
They are fixing
your mom and dad.


Ethan Stebbins is a poet and stonemason from Maine.
He received his M.A. in English and American Literature
from New York University, where he was awarded a
New York Times fellowship in poetry. His work has
appeared in Poetry, The Hudson Review, The Cafe
Review, Best New Poets, 
and others. 



Published November 2015.