Perhaps we count to trace former selves. To get elsewhere or home. Perhaps we count remembering sleep, or how we follow wandering souls down a coast which can also be a lover’s body. All these larger motives are delicately suggested by Frances Donavan’s deceptively simply-titled “Five Butterflies.”

The poem cleanly verticalizes in three stories: what the beloved asks for as a story, the story her lover actually chooses, which is built on another morning’s story of a “brother who became a woman” at the thick heart of the poem, and the transfer of 5 butterflies from this story into the lover-poet’s desire to count in a way that both desires and honors what she’s heard. In this way the poet, unwilling to use conventional methods of re-telling simply to please the beloved, proclaims that what moves her most about the story-seeker includes her beloved’s past with its real history of sex and its tragic complexities. But this sad, true story is not the furthest extent of the poet’s desire. In the third, culminating move the poet offers to count, as the beloved once did, through a lyric mystery. And lets love rest there.

Happily, Donavan also literally keeps count throughout the poem: “two women,” “one,” “five,” “one,” “five.” I particularly like how the counting, like the body, transitions: after its more conventional “two” lovers together in the opening, the poem shifts from one lover into another in the figure of the lost sibling, joined by the grieving sister and now by the poet and her readers. The poet’s way of counting thus suggests that love’s true choice is really to be alone or be multiple. As “five” hangs on at the very whitest space on the right side of the page, we understand love’s own answer. Like you, dear one, I’ll choose the mysterious, the multiple, and the unlasting, says Donovan, and in this we feel her hand’s own lovely five-part touch.


for Elsa

You wanted me to write a story
about a hotel room in Provincetown,
how two women might have arrived there
and whether or not they made love
over or under the hideous bedspread
how one might have
let out a hoarse cry at climax
and the other died at the hands
of her jealous lover

But I am writing you this poem instead
about what you said at breakfast.
It was the five white butterflies hovering
outside the window beside our table
that reminded you of all the days you spent
tending to your brother, who became a
woman and died of AIDS in those early
dark days. You said you woke one morning to see five
white butterflies hovering outside your window
five stories above the asphalt
in the middle of a heat wave
in the Bronx
while he lay dying

You know best how to tell the story
and what those butterflies might mean.
Still, I would count them for you,
for the you who woke half-wreathed in sleep
to see them hanging there
with their delicate message


Frances Donovan has stood naked at the edge of the Pacific and driven a bulldozer in a GLBT Pride parade. Her work has appeared in Oddball Magazine, Incessant Pipe, Lyrical Somerville, PIF Magazine, The Writer, Chronogram, Perimeter, and Gender Focus. She curated the Poetry@Prose reading series and has appeared as a featured reader at numerous venues in the Northeast. You can find her climbing hills in Roslindale and online at

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