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J. Macbain-Stephens

J. MacBain-Stephens (she/her) went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in Iowa where she is landlocked. Her fifth, full length poetry collection, “Pool Parties” is forthcoming from Unsolicited Press in 2023. She is the author of fifteen chapbooks. Some of her work appears in The Pinch, South Broadway Ghost Society, Cleaver, Dream Pop, Slant, Yalobusha Review, and Grist. She is a member of the Iowa City Poetry Council and the director of the monthly reading series Today You are Perfect, sponsored by the non-profit Iowa City Poetry. Find her online at

King of Pentacles: the Builder, or Tree Trunk God
Inspired by cards from “Into the Dark Wood” Tarot deck by Sasha Graham and Abigail Larson.

He is a gift that came out of the earth, his feet tree trunks. He knew when to soft catch me / throw
me so I could fly, my arms reaching for sky fruit, thinking I needed new sweetness, not just the
blue gray stars pulled into my body, from his brain/ human salt tried on, stayed,/ sprung cicadas
in chorus / approving the intertwining / outside the back deck

A spell, you are hiding your face, your secret human wrist in front of your secret human chin, I
think about the movements of that wrist. I ground my fingers into them when I can, pushing the
tendons, the lines of sinews. I think of your wrist branches.

Blending with the earth the builder understands the manipulation of dirt, offers flowers and bees
for you trouble, the deer run, the animals arrogant at night, thinking they know you.
I'd listen for the sound of the heavy drag, the plodding over wood bridges and mud, pulling up
roots to reach me, smooth my hair, wouldn’t make plans / I’d be lost in a daydream of leaf
crowns and sap.

My legs don’t want to be fixed, and sometimes that comes up. though I love the trees. We crave
and carve out flow and dance, shielded from the insects, the hooded girl always in my pocket,
she knows what I am seeking

My body lays over your branches, at times it feels like ocean armor, never still, always clumsy,
noisy, treasures coming in with the tide over terrain, my body could be a veil, make it tighter, a
vice. Can’t happen. I can’t make it tight enough. Even for this rough pillar of energy that is
supposed to hold still but doesn’t.

Dream across the divide, I worry that because I thought it, danger will happen, sometimes over
tuned to my imagination and false prophecies.

If I still need a talisman, an altar, a protection spell, when I have this part centaur energy being,
the smooth stones too smooth now / the blue bat, tiny white fangs not getting blood / giving not
getting/ I absorb your image, how do I capture a physical photograph? Your leg over my
abdomen, the breeze blowing though the white curtain ghosts, to rest with me in the most perfect
display ever created and documented.

I write you into a poem to protect you, seal you in paper, your torso, fingertips in letters forever.
You stand on the page, grow upward, dive off the edge of a sentence, into the blue above, a kite
feeling, branches encircle my wrists, pull me up with you, call me a name that only we know.




Seven of Pentacles: Reversed, Slumber is Not Peaceful
Inspired by cards from “Into the Dark Wood” Tarot deck by Sasha Graham and Abigail Larson.

The woods demand sacrifice


        an altered state
                we kept checking on the bikes outside that cabin in

                                  we were under an enchantment
                                        haunted by a scarecrow with branches

                                         for arms and a death     hood
                                                 men shouting in the parking lot
                                                 the rolling mud, the stream
                                                 the bridge you straddled

                                         A mix of moss and wood / the

                                   crane balancing on one let by the lake

                                   where I thought of drowning /
                                           / that man smoking in the

                                   restaurant / us thinking we were dying

    at night / black smoke filling our bodies
  until we floated away into the night

    / toxic and flecked with poison / we

    looked for thieves and secret airports /

    the fake namaste of it all / no cooling

    oil to lubricate moaning doors / at

    midnight the charm wore off / you held

    me so tight / a python would’ve been

    jealous / our one body, under quilts /
  relieved we were finally clean

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