Toti O’Brien

Toti O’Brien

Toti O’Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. Born in Rome, living in Los Angeles, she is an artist, musician and dancer. She is also the author of Other Maidens (BlazeVOX, 2020), and An Alphabet of Birds (Moonrise Press, 2020).


He trades in silks and spice, he said.
My fan slipped through my fingers
falling on wooden boards with a click
like a snapping bone. I gasped while
he bent, picked it up, dusted it off
flourishing an immaculate scarf.

It is silk and spices. Silk is one.
It unspools, tight, unbroken, from our
bustling harbor to a place small as a dot
receding horizon where the sun hides.
Impalpable like a taste of tea
unique lingering promise.

Spices are quintessentially multitude
spread of powders in wooden bowls
rainbow of earthy juices, crushed jewels
tender petals and leaves. Spices
are symphonies saturating the senses
scattered butterfly wings.

Gingerly I put my fan away, lest
I drop it once more. Lest it disappear
through the planches, gulped
by thick oily waters. I looked at vessels
wrapped in mist. I would marry him, I knew.
No one can resist a trader.

First published in Gyroscope


Rows of pines
lace the horizon
like unbuttoned eyelets.
A festooning of green

capped in grey
rimmed by slivers of pink
like skin showing
between dress and glove.

Orange rust
of terraces and tiles
floats within ocher seas
of platanus leaves

fogged by mystery, hushed
in secretly whispered spells.
Church bells
are silent still.

First published in Sheila-Na-Gig


I recall the fragility of the boat
the immensity of the ocean.
The incredible depth of color blue
with its oily thickness.
The dense surface
tensed like the skin of a snake
like the heart of an animal
prehistoric and blind.

With my eyes wide open
I could see only my oar
puncturing the water.
The sky was pale gray
and empty of clouds. Not a bird.
Nothing was ahead or behind me
but a terrifying absence.
I thought I had reached
alone, the top of the curve.

One more inch and I’d plunge
the void swallowing me
like a grain of sand.
But no sand was in view.
I felt I’d never touch land again.
They were all dead, all sunk.
The night
sooner or later
would fall.

First published in Gyroscope


The pink shade of the dune
melts into golden dust
peering through lacy clouds.
It echoes the tone of your flesh
the feel of your touch
in large expanding waves.
As soft drafts of serenity
reach my edge
spilled out of your fingers
I understand this corner of sand
in soft twilight
is another island.

Did I escape from a wreck
swim away from sudden catastrophe?
Did the ship sink? If not
I would not have known Ithaca
was close by
hiding in a soap bubble, a rain drop.
Is this Ithaca? I can’t be surer
than I was about disaster to come.
Life is always past the next corner.
All I can see is a slice.
A small rest.
A break between lines.

First published in Altadena Poetry Review


Hi Penelope, Queen of Ithaca
tall, dark haired fairy of my childhood
princess of rebellion and faith.
Did you win your battle against power, greed
and in favor of patience… did you?
Countless years sitting at the loom
weaving and unweaving your web
with a steady beat, a firm pulse
like a moon incessantly waning and waxing
in the sky, deep and black
like the ocean where Ulysses is lost.
Since when? You don’t know
because you stopped time in the island
with a tight loop, with the nervous twitch
of your hand, your eyes down.

Was he worth it?
When the young lads who reached
for the throne vibrated with arrogance
didn’t you ever desire them?
Didn’t you feel alone? Was your bed
ever cold, or unbearably hot, or too wide?
Like the ocean where Ulysses is lost.
Since when, you don’t know for you lost
your mind. Were you insane from the start?
A poor speechless woman.
All you knew were uxorial duty
the care of the house and the thread.
You kept quietly in your place.
You’ve been waiting for your entire life.

But tonight he comes back.
You heard the dog bark because of his smell
a thin blade cutting through scents of sweat
liquor, flowers. Now a cane
hits the pavement of the porch.
Light clicks. They get louder.
And your lips disclose, Queen, my love.
You say nothing. You sing ancient songs.

First published in Altadena Poetry Review


Eyes like birds, taking flight.
or else resurrected.
Clumps of cheap mascara
like charcoal, like grit.
Eyes like fire
beyond the iron bars
of a porcelain stove.


She has watched the bull slip
lose his balance, cartwheel
over sand as the sun went down
a las cinco. She has watched
the bull collapse in slow motion.
She has recalled the resistance
the fight, fingers trapped
in fingers, limbs entangled
sheets soaked in sweat.


Eyes like butterflies, breaking
out of fragile chrysalides.
A brisk flap, and then gone.
Snaps of clothes unbuttoned
and a sigh. Delivery? Or agony.
She recalls the minotaur’s gaze
the melancholy prior to the fall.
Empty arena. Last streak of sunset.
She dances.

Poetry in this post: © Toti O’Brien
Published with the permission of Toti O’Brien