Centralia, PA

How does an inferno begin?


Let me guide your hands


on the wheel. Drive us toward the heart, the ruin.


Who can turn away from the spectacle of fire?


This town a funeral pyre. Only gods could be


so reckless. The birches’ new green


on the jet-black culm and Good Friday threatening


snow. An entire block of houses boarded,


save one.


They dug coal holes in the cellar,


called it robbing back. But didn’t a thousand men get left


with shovels in their hands?


This land’s a wreck.


I promise you, it was not ignorance, only love


and hunger. Maybe pride.


We’re only midway, the first stations of suffering.


We don’t have to kiss


the stigmata for another three hours.


We could drive to the place where everything started,


stand by and watch it all rage away.




X, 1926

His hand on her housedress

and men at the door.

What holds a place in history

for the illiterate? The muted immigrant?

The woman who just wanted

children and quiet? She’ll never

pass down this violence.

Better even to fudge the dates

on the graves. What flight

looks like when you have no fists

and only love: years on the phone

to get the black lung money. Crash

of the wrecking ball next door.

Whatever you do, don’t

say his name. Let him

die already. Good riddance.

Don’t stick around for the bulldozers

coming over the hill. I can hear them

already, but maybe you were just shaking

down the stove. I want to apologize—

I think I’ve remembered

all the wrong things.

On the census, her signature,

her hand writing the children’s names,

his. She hands over

the pen. He leaves an X.


Mary Kovaleski Byrnes’ work has appeared in Guernica, the Four Way Review, the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, the Boston Globe, Poet Lore, Cimmaron Review, the Best of Kore Press, PANK, and elsewhere. She teaches writing and literature at Emerson College, and is the co-founder of the emersonWRITES program, a free creative writing program for Boston Public School students. Originally from Pennsylvania, she now lives in Arlington, MA with her husband and two-year old son, Xavier.