Nickole Brown: Mercy / audio

Photograph by Kristin Shelly /

NWCC is so happy to introduce Nickole Brown to our readers, also because she is a new member of our Editorial Board.

After studying literature at Oxford University Brown became the editorial assistant for the late Hunter S. Thompson. She worked at the independent literary press Sarabande Books for ten years. Her first collection, Sister, a novel-in-poems, was first published in 2007 by Red Hen Press and a new edition will be reissued by Sibling Rivalry Press in 2018. Her second book, a biography-in-poems called Fanny Says, came out from BOA Editions in 2015, and the audio book of that collection is now available. She was an Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for four years until she gave up her beloved time in the classroom in hope of writing full time. Currently, she is the Editor for the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and teaches periodically at a number of venues, including the Sewanee School of Letters MFA Program, the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNCA, and the Hindman Settlement School. She lives with her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs, in Asheville, NC, where she volunteers at a four different animal sanctuaries. Currently, she’s at work on a bestiary of sorts about these animals.

NWCC says thank you for the poem! /





Speak, beast.



            Curled suburban cuddle in front of the fireplace,

            possum-dreaming and paw-kicking, your fur

            a tumbleweed down the waxed hallway, your ears

            cropped and your tail docked,



            Or how about you? Yes, you: spotted neck stretched

            towards what’s left of your acacia trees, neck as long as

            a man’s grave is deep, I need you to fire that impossible

            distance between your heart and tongue and

                       speak. Speak,


            you barred owls with the pink tip of a poisoned

            mouse dangling from your beak, all your many neck bones

            hinged in one spot so you can pivot your blinking

            face to me. I am watching; I am waiting;

                       look at me and

                       speak. Speak,


            you black snake drowsing on the hot blacktop,

            your forked tongue remembering the long kiss

            of voles in tall grass, a memory gone when the woman

            runs over you—then twice again, just to be sure. I need you

                       to speak. Speak,


            you jittering squirrels, you murder of crows, you quarrel

            of sparrows, you pitying of turtledoves, you everyday

            outside flick of life at the mercy of these coming winds, these rising

            waters filthy and licking with flames,


                       speak, sing to me, caw and fuss

                       among what brittle branches

                       left, I have opened my windows;


                       I am listening.



            you hellbender—giant salamander you are—a rarity

            now put on educational display, you eel-looking

            haint once pulled up by fisherman in these mountains.                 

            No one knows who you are anymore;

            you must make us remember. Turn your

            slack maw to my tapping on the bent plexiglass

                       and speak.

                       Say what it is you need to say.


            Oh, and then you. You with your thick skull blown apart

            with a high-caliber swagger, your memory long

and your once trumpeting

           gone, speak to me

           from beyond.

                       Tell me

            what it was to have those ears of yours in fury,

            raised like giant gray flags, how hard you fought,

            and even once shot how you just stood there

            confused, already dead but refusing to fall

            until your knees buckled, the rest of you slumped,

            and the great pillars of your tusks were

            chain-sawed from your face. I need to hear especially

            from you: I have a photo here of a man

            grinning with your lopped-off tail in his fist.

            I need you

                       to speak, dammit,


                       Say what it is you need to say. Or how about

            you: kin to him but safe in a cage, I’ve heard your placid

            chewing at the zoo—you took a sweet potato

            from my hand with the wet, breathing end

            of your trunk, slid it into the deep

            socket of your mouth.

                       I know that sound—

            I smiled at your keeper, fed you another treat, but now,

                        now, I need to you to speak.

                       Try it—swallow down

                       that food and flex

                       your tongue, push out the

                       grassy air from those

                       miraculous lungs.

                       I am waiting;

                       we are all waiting.

                       I am begging. Please, beast.



                       We are running out of



We are skinning you and stretching you and stitching

your hides; we are rendering you down into cures

and balms and pills; we are hungry and growing

fat and going on diets and growing

hungrier still. There are so many of us, and what’s left of you

are swaying in pens, rocking from side to side, aching

and craving and thinking—I know you are thinking—

but not saying a damn word.


            No, not one, not one,

            which is all we need,

            I swear—all of you,


you birds and cicadas, all you flying, leaping, vine-grabbing

canopy beings, all you furred and quilled things too,

or you chittering in your burrows and hiding the dark—

step from the mouth of your dens and speak.


            Listen to me,

            you belong here,


you with a mouth full of milk, with dirt under your claws, all of you

rooting and panting and hibernating and ruminating and standing

by the fence, watching us speed past in our cars.


            Listen to me.

            I need you to wake up,

            wake up to say

            just one word.


We can start slow with the low pleasure

sound, the delicious mmmm that closes the door to home,


then growl out that middle vowel and what comes after,

let the back of your throat issue forth a warning

and mean it, get angry with me,

because you’ve had enough, because if you don’t find these sounds


there will be nothing left.


Now, you’re almost there—


pull back your lips if you have them, show your teeth

if you have them, hiss, let out all the air, whatever air is left

and in doing so take us back to all our beginnings

with the sound of waves, with that final syllable—sea.


            Now try again.

            Try again.

            Try, please try.


            All at once.

            It’s such a small

            word on which

            your lives depend.


            I’ll do anything.        

            Please, beast. Speak.

            Say it, with me now:

            Mmmm-Errr-Seee. MmmErrSee. Mmerrsee. Merr-cy. Mer-cy. Mercy. Mercy, mercy.

            Now, please. Try. Try again.


            Repeat after me





You can listen to Nickole Brown reading the poem here:



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