Brianna Cunliffe

Brianna Cunliffe is an environmental justice activist and storyteller. As a queer woman who grew up on a disintegrating Carolina coastline, her work explores fiercely loving the fragile places we call home. Her work appears in Reckoning Magazine, Vagabond City, Lucent Dreaming, Storm Cellar, Claw and Blossom, and more, and you can find her on Twitter @BriannaCunliffe.

winged hunger

seek the source of all this cacaphony
rise, from my sun-lulled world of fern-eaters
to seek the toppled domino
that had set the island screaming
bare feet press my head above the shielding green
and a comet brawls through the blue
a clumsy entourage of shrieking light
the bird of prey brings noise, but the heart of it
is a silent earth gone airborne
a continental plate in flight
feathered soils, the silt of river valleys, dark and deep
the clay of the world’s first makers, red and rough
sand from deserts of our hunger
pressing on through the wind
a world rent, shapeshifting, delving—

with each beat of the massive wings
on this high bluff above the ocean,
my outstretched palms fossilize
a fable of the consequence
of running like a rabbit when a great noise sounds
and i am no more alone, a small, spreading colossus
but bound to a shifting continent
this god with great hollow bones
and eyes that see me stand

its passing pins the keening world
and leaves eloquent legions tongueless
ferns curling back into their roots
the small island birds somewhere buried
their song bubbling up as gemstones
when the continents move again

the fire, lately

Pushcart Nominee 2023

the only spruces here spread, young and ankle-high. I guide her hand
to feel the sacred angle in their needles, the uncompromising arrow of green

around, the firs spiral up, deities of the scrub-temple, sacrament-red blood
beating in their bark, tender reprimand in the brush of their branches

she feels it, now. the difference that tells the names.
I take a shaft of this green light, like it’s a hand I could clasp in oath—

we rest on rocks that shift, seismic, toppling births
sit under juniper-shelter and hallucinate coming desert rains

but I cannot get the young spruces out of my mind
the way they crawl hand over hand towards clouded light

blights lived through, resurrection
ghost-giants making themselves remembered

in the places in this open forest where once
the uncompromising evergreen ate its fill of the deep sky, until the toppling rot—

but they have returned, low and spreading with sacred anger, readying themselves
I let their needles pierce my palms, lick at my crimson soil

these children, fierce and bright.
a deathless hope that the blight is at an end

headland requiem

In the headlands as the weathervane rusts
the gulls nest among the gravestones

somewhere between the first crack of the egg
into sunlight, between fledging and flight
they learn, in a wordless barren
of blueberry and two grey stones
how to wrap the ebb of time about them
to feather it for their children with the passing days

what it is that they know and go on knowing
that we do not, can never,
is how to shelter in the shadow of death
to live beside the strewn picked-apart bones
of your brother, to take the pieces
of a cracked egg and give them to the sea and
scream out endless for life, more life
all the while the years and the grey stone burning underneath

but we are consumed
by that fire, choked
by its smog, sitting
silently amongst the bones and the wreckage
and cannot wail our grief to the broken-open sky

if i could i would
beg for hollow bones
to feel nothing but shelter from the lichen of the grave
i would unlearn
every word and year until
all i knew was a blueberry barren
the cradle of time unceasing
and the endless scream
for life, more life

launch site in the rearview

we drive through the desert, listen to talk of death,
of this vastness that snatches at our heels –

the charred cracked earth comes suddenly.
I imagine it as the liftoff of the
shuttle, in orbit, now, its remnant burning in the minds below

I do not know what bled the rest of the red dirt of its heart
dreaming it was worship of stardust
changes everything and nothing

but driving through the desert I remember the roots
where I found the sweet tangle of a beating heart,
subterranean gods drinking sun at last
and yes, we talk of death here. there is no better place.
the pulverized shells clack under our feet and we drink slow of the river-water
and watch the air fill with the mortal molecules that call us home

what better, what else to be, than this?
the desert rolls. I recall women and bears, the way we shed our skins
like mystics, every morning, in some cold coronation
eaten by a vastness with friendly tongue,
yes. cracked open. benevolence.
as the worship of stardust, as death, it changes
everything and nothing

rain fills the wanting
and I drive on.

whittler’s lineage

Previously published elsewhere

My father makes small talk with a tupelo farmer
he culls his artist’s harvest from the swamplands
subdivided and brought to heel
ripe and sweet for carving

They were dying already, the man says,
might as well die for a reason

In our back yard it is black tupelo, and not white-
not desired by the makers, useless
beneath the knife, and so when the salt rises
and they die anyway
It will be for no reason at all

My father considers the long-suffering river
lifting a hand as if to heal or at least frame it
in portraits he paints it is a deep blue
not muddy-gray, under his brush, the marsh-flowers
each bloom their immortal names
and the only tugging tide is sky-bound
breathless in the sight of this setting world

My father and the tupelo-farmer plot how to save
my inheritance, and I am dreaming of how to send it up in flames
So that at the end, beyond harvest, beyond canvas, beneath sea
all of this could be for a reason