Chelsea Dingman

Damage Assessment



At dusk, fireworks pop in the street. I hear
my brother’s old cap-guns, the wind in the leaves
around a graveyard where my father didn’t want to be

buried, a cigarette, crackling & snapping
as he took a long drag. Even as a child I knew
the malady of living in a place he refused.


Then: my mother, swearing
     she’s overweight, wearing nylon
stockings like second skin
     under her clothes. She eyes herself
in dressing room mirrors,
               pushing & prodding the skin
around her thighs. I learn forgiveness
          can be weighed
& measured. My father’s body, hurled from
     a bridge, has a heft all its own.


We drive from Atlanta to Wesley Chapel
     & I allow my sons their devices.
I want them to be quiet
     enough that my husband & I can talk
like we used to. 30 years ago,
     I played car baseball & counted
punch buggies as my father smoked
     & my mother read magazines. I picture
my kids telling this story later, how they quiet
     in the quiet I’ve left.


Once, my father’s hands weren’t grey
     & swollen. I wasn’t nine
years old. He’s wasn’t breathing
     water instead of silver smoke
from an unfiltered cigarette. I wasn’t
     wondering about the scar
that ran lengthwise away
     from his left hand. The white dots
where a needle pulled through
     skin, left silken threads
to dissolve. He wasn’t just another man
     who held me, saying I’m sorry.


Pray for him, my mother
          says, but I won’t say
his name when I pray. Nor
               the name of a ruler
who might grow us somewhere
     safe. Prayer, now, is about the ritual
of moving my lips. Of words that pull like water
          at my ribs, as I ask myself,
what is a father, if not another word
               for suffering?



Chelsea Dingman is an MFA candidate at the University of South Florida. Her first book, Thaw, won the National Poetry Series and is forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press (2017). In 2016, she also won The Southeast Review’s Gearhart Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the Auburn Witness Prize, Arcadia’s Dead Bison Editor’s Prize, Phoebe’s Greg Grummer Poetry Award, and Crab Orchard Review’s Student Awards. Other forthcoming work can be found in Washington Square, American Literary Review, and Third Coast, among others. Visit her website: