Two Poems by Lisa Houlihan Stice

Widows Receive a Free Ticket to the Birthday Ball


Shadows of the fallen ones
crowd the black-draped table—
a single chair
for all who joined
one long history—
vigilant rose and flame,
sword and gloves at rest,
a purple heart for blood
Inverted place setting,
wine glass upside down,
silverware reversed,
they eat
in mirror to the living
lemon and salt of fate—


Seated at a table of honor,
silk and rhinestones
no stiff wool jackets
no red striped trousers
the gold star spouses answer the roll call
for those who widowed them,
receive a standing ovation,
ooh-rahs and whistles.
They bow their heads
toward white linen,
pick at birthday cake.


We sit in rings of couples
around our linen tables—
pass bread baskets, spread butter,
clink our glasses, complain about
small portions of beef and chicken.
We hold hands under tablecloths
wishing we could kiss
the one beside for once.
Maybe we will dance.
Maybe we will retire early.

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A Funeral for Our Own

And there we were
all together for the first time
with one of us in an open casket
and a husband grieving for
the three months not shared.
Our hearts beat a cadence.
How little we help each other.
The life in slides looks like any
of us who smile for a camera,
hug near-strangers in times of public grief,
and in the end we embrace each other,
say This is a sign, we need to be there
but one honest wife says with car keys in her hand
In the sixteen years
I have been married to the Corps,
this is the first time
I have gotten together with other wives.
I don’t think it will happen again.

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Author: Lisa Houlihan Stice

Lisa Stice is a military wife who lives in North Carolina with her husband, daughter and dog. She received a BA in English literature from Mesa State College (now Colorado Mesa University) and an MFA in creative writing and literary arts from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She is the author of a full-length poetry collection, Uniform (Aldrich Press, 2016). You can find out more about her and her publications at and

4 thoughts on “Two Poems by Lisa Houlihan Stice”

  1. Both of these poems were written soon after my husband returned from deployment. It was a particularly difficult deployment as one of my friends, the wife of one of my husband’s team members unexpected died halfway into the deployment. I thought more than ever about the fragility of life, how we get so little time to spend with loved ones and so must always make the most of it, how people can deeply impact others’ lives.

  2. These two contemporary plain-style poems feel like vignettes, focused more on an external scene than on interior thoughts — and their primary strength is probably the tension between carefully engineered social ritual on the one hand, and an individual’s reluctance be fully engaged on the other.

    Whether I am right or wrong, in my reading of “Widows . . .” I sense that the first section’s initial neutral, reportorial tone cannot be sustained, and the ending dash wonderfully suggests that the speaker is uncomfortable when she catches herself thinking darker thoughts than the event (a Marine Corps birthday party) is meant to evoke.

    In the second section, the speaker seems to acknowledge the vast and terrible difference between herself and other Marine Corps wives, who seem to derive no comfort from the ooh-rahs. Picking at the birthday cake without appetite is a nice symbolic act: they try to join in, but cannot. The speaker knows that she could have been at that table had her husband’s tour gone wrong.

    The third section, apparently happening after the ritual speeches and toasts, is a welcome return to the quotidian pleasures of food, small talk, laughter and romance. The banter lightly complaining about small portions, unlike the widows’ disinterest, is an excellent touch (a sign of moving beyond death, in favor of a renewed interest in seizing the pleasures of the day). The repeated word “Maybe” restores the tension, and the fine last line hints at not only a young couple retiring early from the shroud in order to slip into the sheets, but also — maybe — the speaker’s beginning to hope that her husband will retire from the Corps early, before she joins the other widows getting a free ticket to a eulogy. I have perhaps misread the poet’s intentions here, and interpreted the poem in ways she would not endorse, but poets are used to that. I welcome differing interpretations to my comments here.

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