Poetry for Strangers is about finding inspiration in community, in people, in the chance encounters of everyday life. PFS suggests that every person can be a “muse” of a poem. Every week of this year I will ask a stranger for a single word and then write a poem inspired by the word. I invite you to do the same.

Share your poem on this week’s word!


When I was in college my friends obtained a wine-tasting chart, and what amused me then was that one of the aromas was “cat wee-wee.” Last week at a wine bar with a group of my dearest friends in Austin, I learned that wine tasters have a special euphemism for the aroma of “cat wee-wee”: gooseberry. Monica let us into this secret and more, and the word she gave reflected her favorite thing about wine: the aroma.

Many of my stranger-poems have an invisible title that guides me as I write, and this poem’s invisible title is “Dunyazad.” In the Arabian Nights, the sick king Shahriyar is on a streak of marrying a new virgin each night and beheading her in the morning. This goes on for years until a clever young storyteller named Shahrazad marries the murderous king and stays alive by telling him stories for 1001 nights. Her younger sister, Dunyazad, has the job of waiting under the marital bed and, at the appropriate moment, popping up to ask her sister for a story.

The Stranger: Monica

The Word: Aroma

The poem I wrote:

The king was so old, and it would have been
easy to kill him that first night. There are
so many weapons in a bedroom: medicines
wrongly mixed, long sashes hanging
from the window, his razor laid to rest.
Hands, fingernails, teeth. No children
would avenge his death, as he
has let no woman live longer than a night.

I am the sister who waits under the bed.
My realm is the creak of the mattress, the bull-cry
of my sister’s new husband.
My script is to ask for a story. Sister,
dear, how about one of your pretty tales
to while away the night?
If the king agrees, she will live
another day, and I will return
to wait underneath and to regret
all of the reasons why, as a child, I wanted her dead.
The anis-seed she stole from me, also
the next-town vizier’s son.

Every night for three years
I lie cupped beneath the fierce aroma
of their nights together, his bed sheets
perfumed with woman’s blood
left over from all the wives before.

Every night I fall asleep to her voice, talking
to keep him awake, teasing out
endings she refuses to give, holding at bay
not sex but death,
emptying him out and whetting his need
for some tale whose ending only she knows. Her death
rests on the other side of each ending.

But clinging to the roots of each end come
the sprouted starts of the next story, leaving the king hungry,
three years hungry for closure.

These thousand nights might have driven him mad,
if he hadn’t been mad already. Perhaps
they cured him. Or perhaps
I helped, the witness that I was,
the sister who waited, the child.

The Challenge: Do you have a poem in you on this word? Write one here.