The Math of Gifts


By HeidiLynn Nilsson 2016, 28 pages, winner of the 2015 Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Prize.

“Nilsson’s chapbook is a staggering accomplishment– these poems show a gifted poet who is not afraid to look into how humans try to excavate the spirit that moves and motivates us all.” –Philip Lee Williams

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For all that we have left undone, father, forgive
is my favorite phrase to pray.

For all that we have done is too exact
but that a lack of doing damns, also, adequately

makes the mercy more amazing.
So I was happy on Assateague at midnight—

ink-wet light
on black water—

or so the spirit seemed—
to be alone in my own liturgy

(for all that I have left undone…)
until I recalled the sins

I could have, along the way, enjoyed
and I wanted that pleasure, in the end,

that I denied myself,
to count among the all I’ve left undone—

to even things, so to speak, out.
You walked also with me with your

shoes on and neck bent
and said nothing.

The moon was, that night,
slopping her mouth-water

across the face of the sea
and that’s not the way

to love but the sea kept nodding patiently.
So my God receives me

and not always, I say
a little sadly, but when the waxing

surface of your face makes
your feelings clear

a love leans forth in me
in which no behavior is saved.

Then I don’t know my own head
from the tethered boat.

I don’t know the straight road of sand
from your throat.


HeidiLynn Nilsson holds a bachelor’s degree in English and Religious Studies from the University of Virginia and an MFA in Writing from Washington University in St. Louis. Her poems have been featured in the New Voices anthology from the Academy of American Poets and American Poets emerging poets’ series. Her poems have also appeared in Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, and Pleiades, among other places. She teaches life skills classes at The Salvation Army in Athens, Georgia, where she lives with her family.