When It Happens


When it happens, nobody seems to notice.
Someone coughs and hammers a nail through drywall.
Boys fling sticks at birds while the church bells tattle.
Nightfall approaches.

When it happens, dog walkers trail their shadows,
swing their sacks of waste through the tattered sunset.
Whitened breaths come loose into singed October,
heady as incense.

Someone falters, pushing a drowsy infant
up the sidewalk, touched by a breeze from childhood
hot against the cheek as a shower in springtime,
full of misgiving . . .

Just perfumed exhaust from a neighbor’s laundry,
nothing precious, nothing to tell the other
babysitters after the playground stumbles
into the darkness.

When it happens, all of the words are taken.
Those you might have called on, that might have helped you,
stir along the gutter in flyers and leaflets
asking for something.

Lamps supply each row house’s upper windows
warmth enough and light to pretend it’s morning.
Stillness claims the city — a glass the moment
no one is looking.


Matthew Smith was born in Atlanta, Georgia. He earned his MFA in poetry at Johns Hopkins University. His poems have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Commonweal, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Alabama Literary Review, and Best American Poetry 2011.

First published in Measure, Volume 5, Issues 1 & 2 (2010)