9:3: “Evening in Pompeii”, by Rachel Swirsky...

Four days, we’ve gathered
in the ampitheatre
watching the death god’s children dance,
their enervated limbs drooping
through movements slow
as old women’s speech.
In place of eyes,
their hollowed sockets burst
with meadow flowers
orange and red and bold.
On the horizon, Vesuvius
rumbles with malice divine
showering white ash
across the dimming sky.
Wine sours, goats starve,
in their beds dying women plead
for children to return
with cooling cloths
and cupped hands filled
with comforting caresses.
We sons and daughters numb
our skin against
raw ache
of needs impossible
to salve.
We are like the dancers’ eyes,
blooming,
our poor legs rooted
to where we wait, rapt,
for night when flowers close.


Rachel Swirsky is a graduate student at the Iowa Writers Workshop where she’s learning all about snow. Her poetry has appeared in markets including Abyss & Apex, Mothering Magazine, Sybil’s Garage, Lone Star Stories, and Electric Velocipede (forthcoming). Visit her website at http://www.rachelswirsky.com to learn more about her poetry and fiction. She says:

“Evening in Pompeii” arrived as a set of strange images written rapidly in ink on a reporter’s pad. The process of writing the poem involved chipping away at the images, to discover the narrative that tied them together.

Swirsky is sure that her experiences touring the ruins of the abandoned seaport Ostia, near Rome, informed her decision to set the poem in Pompeii.

9:1: “Mundane”, by Rachel Swirsky...

  Pressed blind by black fathoms of space
  our ship, like a deep sea fish, creeps
  sluggish from the last known port.
  Like crippled feet, our rockets shudder—
  we yearn to rush like fluid light from star to star,
  but physical law forbids us.

Through portholes, we watch silence
ring between distant stars.
Barrens, craters,
Carbon atoms languishing
never yearning, joining, twining into chains
of lipids, sugars, proteins, nucleic acids.

There is no life but us
we lonely creatures boxed lonesome within our brains
like Carbon restive and alone.
At mess over rations, we discuss foolish
ancient dreams of mingling thoughts
forming choruses of sentient song.

but it is impossible.
The universe is isolation:
awareness evolving only once, on one planet,
with scarce ability to leave,
hemmed inside single skulls with just enough
intelligence to conceive of solitude.

Our exploration limps, inert
and monotonous. We fill empty hours
imagining mirages that sparkle bright
beneath dim stars. We approach each
to measure and retreat, disappointed
as potential vanishes to dark.


In addition to Ideomancer, Rachel Swirsky’s poetry has appeared in markets including Lone Star Stories, Goblin Fruit, and Mothering Magazine.

7:4: “Exodus”, by Rachel Swirsky...

The hens don’t want to trust me. They flap and rustle, crowding their roost. I’m everything they fear: chilling howl, arctic fur, glistening teeth. Hunger yawns in my stomach. I control it.

The full moon shines down, rich as alabaster. I open the coop and pad inside. The hens panic. I transfix them with my gaze and make them still.

Out, I tell them, Past the corrals. Past the farmhouses stippling the hills and the slow-eyed cattle standing while they dream. Past the corn fields and lonely roads and blackberry bushes.

Into the woodland where falling leaves enrich the soil with worms. Where shrubs and trees give shelter. Where roosters will put life in you, and where you can keep your eggs. All that. Only come with me.

They understand. We are conspirators now. We are allies.

We slip out of the coop. The farmer’s dogs growl, rattling chains. Shouts follow. Silhouetted against the moon, a man with a gun. He fires. Takes aim, fires again. Cursing and shouting, he looses the dogs. They streak after us, yellow and brown and black.

We are too fast. With me, the hens are quick as moonlight. I lead them past the fields and cattle and river and into the woodsland, the safe land, the land Robin’s rich grandfather deeded her last summer.

We’ve been running for hours. The gunshots and baying dogs are as remote as the dimming stars. Dawn is breaking, grey light turning the trees ghostly. My body aches, stretches, writhes. My paws unfurl into fingers and toes. Goosebumps rise along my newly naked skin.

Robin stands nearby, holding sweatpants and a coat. She tosses them to me.

“Any trouble?”

“Farmer’s dogs heard me. He set out with a gun.”

“Did he see anything?”

“Just a white wolf.” I grin, buttoning the coat to my collarbone. Robin pulls her foot back from a hen who wants to investigate the food potential of her toes. Dreadlocks sway against her shoulders. Her dark skin glows with vegan health.

I kiss her neck. She smells of patchouli and wet leaves.

“We can’t keep this a secret,” she says. “Other chapters are trying to emulate us. A boy got shot last night in Jackson.”

“Remind them I’m unique.”

“I have. No one believes me.” She hooks her thumbs through her belt loops. “They want to move off the little guys, get a crack at the factory farms.”

“I’ll do it eventually. Give me enough full moons.”

“It’s not fast enough. Animals are suffering now. We need more like you.”

She pauses, gives me a long look. There’s invitation in her eyes. I cock my head, trying to read her like I read prey. “Are you sure you want me to do this?”

The sun bleeds orange over the horizon. A rooster crows. Hens flap and peck in reply. Around us, the woods are full of freedom.

She holds her ground. Her gaze is sharp and wintry.

“All right,” I say, and draw her close.


Rachel Swirsky is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her fiction has appeared in a number of venues, including Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, Interzone, and Subterranean. She is the editor of the world’s first audio fantasy magazine, PodCastle.

Swirsky wrote “Exodus” in a fit of flash fiction. She began by assigning herself to write about a werewolf, and thought about the cliche position in which to discover one—going after chickens in the coop. She decided to reverse the cliché and have the werewolf rescue the chickens, and discovered the rest of the story from there.

6:3: “Inside Her Heart”, by Rachel Swirsky...

The morning

our youngest
leaves for college,

my wife sits down
in the breakfast nook.
“I’m done being a woman,”

she says. “I’m going to try
being a house.”

She draws a sweater
over her chest like
curtains, a wide hat
like a roof perched
atop her head. Weeds
spread across the linoleum

at her feet, littered
with forget-me-nots
and matchbox cars.
She moves from
the chair by the stove
to one near the window.
“Better neighborhood,”
she says.

At night, she

opens her mouth.
Lights pour out,
and scratchy music
like old records.
She beckons me
parting the curtains
so I can press my ear
to her heart and hear

tiny people’s footsteps
inside her, dancing
reckless, full
of opportunity.


Rachel Swirsky is a graduate of Clarion West 2005 and a fiction MFA student at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her poetry has appeared in markets including Abyss & Apex, Goblin Fruit, and Sybil’s Garage.

Rachel is intrigued by speculative fiction which enters the domestic realm, something which has at times been considered antithetical to a genre that spans space ships and epic battles. With this in mind, she is writing a series of poems on the topic of Domestic Transformations, of which this is the first.