Favorite Poets / Poems
Here are some poems that move me (listed in alpha order by poet’s last name). This list is not static. It frequently evolves and morphs. Check back occasionally. Please note: because of their elevated stature among my most favorite poets, you can find my separate blog posts for Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop and Kay Ryan elsewhere on this website.
Bakery of Lies
My favorite is the cream puff lie,
the kind inflated with hot air,
expanded to make an heroic-sized story.
Another is the cannoli, a long lie,
well-packed with nutty details,
lightly wrapped in flakey truth.
A macaroon isn’t a little white lie,
but it’s covered
with self-serving coconut.
The apple tart carries slices
of sour gossip, only
slightly sweetened with truth.
Then there’s the napoleon,
an Iago lie of pernicious intent,
layer upon layer of dark deceit.
HOW TO BE A POET
(to remind myself)
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill – more of each
than you have – inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb|
the silence from which it came.
Freedom of Speech
If my own voice falters, tell them hubris was my way of adoring you.
The hollow of the hulk of you, so feverish in life, cut open,
Reveals ten thousand rags of music in your thoracic cavity.
The hands are received bagged and examination reveals no injury.
Winter then, the body is cold to the touch, unplunderable,
Kept in its drawer of old-world harrowing.
Teeth in fair repair. Will you be buried where; nowhere.
Your mouth a globe of gauze and glossolalia.
And opening, most delft of blue,
Your heart was a mess—
A mob of hoofprints where the skittish colts first learned to stand,
Catching on to their agility, a shock of freedom, wild-maned.
The eyes have hazel irides and the conjunctivae are pale,
With hemorrhaging. One lung, smaller, congested with rose smoke.
The other, filled with a swarm of massive sentimentia.
I adore you more. I know
The wingspan of your voice, whole gorgeous flock of harriers,
Cannot be taken down. You would like it now, this snow, this hour.
Your visitation here tonight not altogether unexpected.
The night-laborers, immigrants all, assemble here, aching for to speaking,
Longing for to work.
FUCK (about her grandmother)
is what she said, but what mattered was the tone—
not a drive-by spondee and never the fricative
connotation as verb, but from her mouth
voweled, often preceded by well, with the “u” low
as if dipping up homemade ice cream, waiting to be served
last so that she’d scoop from the bottom
where all the good stuff had settled down.
Imagine: not a word cold-cocked or screwed to the wall
but something almost resigned, a sigh, an oh, well,
the f-word made so fat and slow it was basset hound,
chunky with an extra syllable, just enough weight
to make a jab to the ribs more of a shoulder shrug.
Think of what’s done to “shit” in the South; this is
sheeee-aaatt but flicked with a whip, made a little more
tart. Well, fuck, Betty Sue, I never did see that coming.
Can you believe?
Or my favorite, not as explicative but noun—fucker,
she said, but what she meant was darlin, sugar pie, sweet beets,
a curse word made into a term of endearment, as in
Come here, you little fucker, and give your grandma a kiss.
If the child was young enough for diapers, he’d still be a shitass,
but big enough to lift his arms and touch his hands together
over his toddling tow head, he was so big, all grown, a cute little
fucker, watch him go.
Fuck is what she said, but what she needed was a drum,
a percussion to beat story into song, a chisel tapping
to crack the honey from the meanest rock,
not just fuck if I know or fuck me running or fuck me
sideways or beats the fuck out of me but said tender,
knowing there was only one thing in this whole world
you needed to hear most: you fucker you, don’t you know
there wasn’t a day when you weren’t loved?
If you still don’t understand, try this: a woman
up from poor soil, bad dirt, pure clay. A woman as
succulent, something used to precious little
water, hard sun. Rock crop maybe, threading roots
able to suck nutrients from the nothing
of gravel, the nothing of stone, a thriving thing
sturdy, thorned, green out of mere
spite, and because you least expect it,
laughing, cussing up a storm—my grandmother
who didn’t ask for power but took it
in bright, full, fuck-it-all bloom.
Ode to Winter
~Gillian Clarke, National Poet of Wales
We hoard light, hunkered in holt and burrow,
in cave, cwtsh, den, earth, hut, lair. (cwtsh is not a typo)
Sun blinks. Trees take down their hair.
Dusk wipes horizons, seeps into the room,
the last flame of geranium in the gloom.
In the shortening day, bring in the late flowers
to crisp in a vase, beech to break into leaf,
a branch of lark. Take winter by the throat.
Feed the common birds, tits and finches,
the spotted woodpecker in his opera coat.
Let’s learn to love the icy winter moon,
or moonless dark and winter constellations,
Jupiter’s glow, a slow, incoming plane,
neighbourly windows, someone’s flickering screen,
a lamp-lit page, drawn curtains.
Let us praise intimacy, talk and books,
music and silence, wind and rain,
the beautiful bones of trees, taste of cold air,
darkening fields, the glittering city,
that winter longing, hiraeth, something like prayer.
Under the stilled heartbeat of trees,
wind-snapped branches, mulch and root,
a million bluebell bulbs lie low
ready to flare in lengthening light,
after the dark, the frozen earth, the snow.
Out there, fox and buzzard, kite and crow
are clearing the ground for the myth.
On the darkest day bring in the tree,
cool and pungent as forest. Turn up the music.
Pour us a glass. Dress the house in pagan finery.
Introduction to Poetry
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
~E. E. Cummings, 1894 – 1962
Eruptive lightnings flutter to and fro
Above the heights of immemorial hills;
Thirst-stricken air, dumb-throated, in its woe
Limply down-sagging, its limp body spills
Upon the earth. A panting silence fills
The empty vault of Night with shimmering bars
Of sullen silver, where the lake distils
Its misered bounty.—Hark! No whisper mars
The utter silence of the untranslated stars.
THE GRAND DRAGON OF THE KKK IS BURIED NEAR MY HOUSE
They let him down, four local boys
with faces valleyed by years,
and eyes that skitch away sideways
like outdoor dogs. He’d never miss a piece
o’ blueberry pie says the one, agreement
hanging between them like long years,
like all the black mornings through which
they’d staggered home, drunk as a man could get
if he drank from overtime to closing time.
They were men in various stages of falling down.
They lowered him home, and it’s a good thing
he died young, thought at least one,
my strength ain’t what it once was,
I don’t know how much longer I’ll hold up.
He was somethin’ says the guy
whose shoulder hurts worst, remember
the summer we was all on TV? and he lifts his eyes
upward toward memory: himself at 19,
his muscles coiled ready inside his skin.
He really was a man to be reckoned with.
Nobody says nothing, but they’re all agreeing,
rubbing the young back into their joints,
his name like a balm that burns away the years.
And again, as if somebody had disagreed:
His name means something here, everybody
knowed him for somebody, and they lift
their eyes again, to bodies before pain,
to the value of a name, here, where every
grave is a pauper’s grave, off this nowhere
road, where every car is a car from here.
~Rachel Custer footnote: “I like to write poems that challenge me. Sometimes, I challenge myself to write about people or situations that elicit strong reactions. I like to write against my own emotions, thoughts, and judgments. Sometimes it teaches me something about myself, or about what it means to be human. Sometimes it cements in me what I already knew. Sometimes it shows me what I don’t.”
Nun on a Bicycle
Now here she comes, rattling over cobbles,
powered by her sandals, the gentle downhill
and the grace of God. Now here she comes, her habit
what it was always waiting to become:
a slipstream. Past stop signs, the pedestrian
traffic at rush hour, the humdrum mopeds,
on a day already thirty in the shade:
with her robe fluttering like solid air,
she makes her own weather. Who could blame her
as the hill sharpens, she picks up speed and smiles
into her future, if she interrupted
the Our Fathers she’s saying in her head,
to say Whee, a gentle Whee, under her breath?
O cycle, Sister! Look at you now, freewheeling
through the air conditioning of the morning –
who’s to say the God who isn’t there
isn’t looking down on you and grinning?
~T S Elliot
Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit
of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.
It is right
that I fall to my knees
on this damp, stony cake,
that I bend my back
and bow my head.
Sun warms my shoulders,
the nape of my neck.
The air is tangy with rot.
Bulbs rustle like spirits
in their sack.
I bury each one
a trowel’s width under.
May they take hold,
rising green in time,
to help us weep
On the fire escape, one
stupid petunia still blooms,
purple trumpet blowing
high notes at the sky long
after the rest of the band
has packed up
and gone home.
The Mushroom Hunters
Science, as you know, my little one, is the study
of the nature and behaviour of the universe.
It’s based on observation, on experiment, and measurement,
and the formulation of laws to describe the facts revealed.
In the old times, they say, the men came already fitted with brains
designed to follow flesh-beasts at a run,
to hurdle blindly into the unknown,
and then to find their way back home when lost
with a slain antelope to carry between them.
Or, on bad hunting days, nothing.
The women, who did not need to run down prey,
had brains that spotted landmarks and made paths between them
left at the thorn bush and across the scree
and look down in the bole of the half-fallen tree,
because sometimes there are mushrooms.
Before the flint club, or flint butcher’s tools,
The first tool of all was a sling for the baby
to keep our hands free
and something to put the berries and the mushrooms in,
the roots and the good leaves, the seeds and the crawlers.
Then a flint pestle to smash, to crush, to grind or break.
And sometimes men chased the beasts
into the deep woods,
and never came back.
Some mushrooms will kill you,
while some will show you gods
and some will feed the hunger in our bellies. Identify.
Others will kill us if we eat them raw,
and kill us again if we cook them once,
but if we boil them up in spring water, and pour the water away,
and then boil them once more, and pour the water away,
only then can we eat them safely. Observe.
Observe childbirth, measure the swell of bellies and the shape of breasts,
and through experience discover how to bring babies safely into the world.
And the mushroom hunters walk the ways they walk
and watch the world, and see what they observe.
And some of them would thrive and lick their lips,
While others clutched their stomachs and expired.
So laws are made and handed down on what is safe. Formulate.
The tools we make to build our lives:
our clothes, our food, our path home…
all these things we base on observation,
on experiment, on measurement, on truth.
And science, you remember, is the study
of the nature and behaviour of the universe,
based on observation, experiment, and measurement,
and the formulation of laws to describe these facts.
The race continues. An early scientist
drew beasts upon the walls of caves
to show her children, now all fat on mushrooms
and on berries, what would be safe to hunt.
The men go running on after beasts.
The scientists walk more slowly, over to the brow of the hill
and down to the water’s edge and past the place where the red clay runs.
They are carrying their babies in the slings they made,
freeing their hands to pick the mushrooms.
~Dana Gioia (pronounced Joy-a)
So much of what we live goes on inside–
The diaries of grief, the tongue-tied aches
Of unacknowledged love are no less real
For having passed unsaid. What we conceal
Is always more than what we dare confide.
Think of the letters that we write our dead.
~Joy Harjo (US Poet Laureate)
Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
Extract of ‘A Farewell to English’ Part Seven
This road is not new.
I am not a maker of new things.
I cannot hew
out of the vacuum cleaner minds
the sense of serving dead kings.
I am nothing new
I am not a lonely mouth
trying to chew
a niche for culture
in the clergy-cluttered south.
But I will not see
great men go down
who walked in rags
from town to town
finding English a necessary sin
the perfect language to sell pigs in.
I have made my choice
and leave with little weeping:
I have come with meagre voice
to court the language of my people.
Letter to a Poet
A mockingbird leans
from the walnut, bellies,
riffling white, accomplishes
his perch upon the eaves.
I witnessed this act of grace
in blind California
in the January sun
where families bicycle on Saturday
and the mother with high cheekbones
and coffee-colored iridescent
hair curses her child
in the language of Pushkin–
John, I am dull from
thinking of your pain,
this mimic world
which make us stupid
with the totem griefs
we hope will give us
power to look at trees,
at stones, one brute to another
like poems on a page.
What can I say, my friend?
There are tricks of animal grace,
poems in the mind
we survive on. It isn’t much.
You are 4,000 miles away &
this world did not invite us.
When I am in a restaurant or bar, I watch
women listening. They listen to men talk
about unfinished basements, art projects,
or how the land is very rocky around Sudbury.
I admire how women are resourceful in making
themselves comfortable while listening. One
cradles her chin in her palm, her spine
a deep c-curve. Another woman sits
very upright and sips her martini
while following the zigzag of waiters.
The woman to my left appears to be using
the time to memorize how her hands look
in case they are lost or stolen and she needs
to describe them to the police while a man explains
that industrial strawberry farming has created
a monoculture. The woman with perfect posture
is receiving directions to a trailhead
in another country. The woman
with the swan-neck spine stealthily adjusts
her belt as a man informs her Lolita
is really an allegory about art-making. After all
these years of listening, I am so good at it that I can
even listen to the women’s listening. It sounds
like a wind over a great plain laid to waste
by a retreating army or the pages of a book
abandoned on the sand by a swimmer
whose strong arms have taken her beyond
where waves crash so she can float and listen
to the rush of her blood, the shriek of gulls.
She can hear the gulls’ ribs creak as they inhale
before each cry. She can hear the rustle
as urchins pass over the decay they feast on.
She can hear silver on the sides of fish
and the loneliness of an uncoupled eel. She listens
to her own sounds as well: the current
of her nerves slowing, her hair lifting
and floating away, the sacs in her lungs
reaching greedy mouths to the sky
Three Deer in Oquossoc
East will take me back. I drive
west. I wend between snowbanks,
until the road delivers me
to a sleeping boat launch.
They stand on the frozen ramp;
watch me with coats that are
better than mine. Ice houses
and snowmobiles edge the distance.
I have to turn around, I say
to them, I went the wrong
way. They stamp and chuff.
No, they tell me, this is the way.
Please flood her nerves with sedatives
and keep her strong enough to crack a smile
so disbelieving friends and relatives
can temporarily sustain denial.
Please smite that intern in oncology
who craves approval from department heads
Please ease her urge to vomit; let there be
kind but flirtatious men in nearby beds.
Given her hair, consider amnesty
for sins of vanity; make mirrors vanish.
Surround her with forgiving family
and nurses not too numb to cry. Please banish
trite consolations; take her in one swift
and gentle motion as your final gift.
We Lived Happily During the War
And when they bombed other people’s houses, we
but not enough, we opposed them but not
enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.
I took a chair outside and watched the sun.
In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money
in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war.
That Map of Bone and Opened Valves
That was the summer we damned only the earth.
That was the summer strange helicopters circled.
We examined each other’s ears, we spoke with our hands in the air—
It is the air. Something in the air wants us too much.
On the second day
helicopters circle and our legs run
in the fever-milk of their own separate silences.
A sound we do not hear lifts the birds off the water where a woman
takes iron and fire in her mouth.
Her husband is trying to make
sense of her face, that map of bone and opened valves.
The earth is still.
The tower guards eat sandwiches.
On the third day
the soldiers examine ears
of bartenders, of accountants, of soldiers, you wouldn’t know
the wicked things silence does to soldiers.
They tear Pasha’s wife from her bed like a door off a bus.
On the sixth day, we damn only the earth.
My soul runs on two naked feet to hear Vasenka.
I no longer have words to complain
my God and I see nothing in the sky and stare up and
clearly I do not know why I am alive.
And we enter the city that used to be ours
past the theaters and gardens past wooden staircases and wrought iron
gates in the morning that puts ringing in our ears.
Be courageous, we say
but no one is courageous
As a sound we do not hear lifts the birds off the water.
In the Basement of the Goodwill Store
In musty light, in the thin brown air
of damp carpet, doll heads and rust,
beneath long rows of sharp footfalls
like nails in a lid, an old man stands
trying on glasses, lifting each pair
from the box like a glittering fish
and holding it up to the light
of a dirty bulb. Near him, a heap
of enameled pans as white as skulls
looms in the catacomb shadows,
and old toilets with dry red throats
cough up bouquets of curtain rods.
You’ve seen him somewhere before.
He’s wearing the green leisure suit
you threw out with the garbage,
and the Christmas tie you hated,
and the ventilated wingtip shoes
you found in your father’s closet
and wore as a joke. And the glasses
which finally fit him, through which
he looks to see you looking back—
two mirrors which flash and glance—
are those through which one day
you too will look down over the years,
when you have grown old and thin
and no longer particular,
and the things you once thought
you were rid of forever
have taken you back in their arms
The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.
I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:
Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
Plows have piled a whitened range—
faux mountains at the end of our street,
slopes shrinking, glazed, grayed. Fog
rules the day. In woolly air, shapes
stir—slow cars leave a trace
of exhaust, careful walkers share
loud intimacies. My mother’s birth
slides across a calendar. Like
a stranger who jumps off a bus,
crosses tracks and strides toward us,
memory parts the sodden gloom
of our winter, as though, today,
only she can see where she
goes and track where she’s been.
For the Sake of Strangers
No matter what the grief, its weight,
we are obliged to carry it.
We rise and gather momentum, the dull strength
that pushes us through crowds.
And then the young boy gives me directions
so avidly. A woman holds the glass door open,
waiting patiently for my empty body to pass through.
All day it continues, each kindness
reaching toward another—a stranger
singing to no one as I pass on the path, trees
offering their blossoms, a child
who lifts his almond eyes and smiles.
Somehow they always find me, seem even
to be waiting, determined to keep me
from myself, from the thing that calls to me
as it must have once called to them—
this temptation to step off the edge
and fall weightless, away from the world.
A voice from the dark called out,
‘The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.’
But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses . . .
A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.
Waiting For a Poem
Translated by Henry Israeli and Shpresa Qatipi
I’m waiting for a poem,
something rough, not elaborate or out of control,
something undisturbed by curses, a white raven
released from darkness.
Words that come naturally, without aiming at anything,
a bullet without a target,
warning shots to the sky
in newly occupied lands.
A poem that will well up in my chest
and until it arrives
I will listen to my children fighting in the next room
and cast my gaze down at the table
at an empty glass of milk
with a trace of white along its rim
my throat wrapped in silver
a napkin in a napkin ring
waiting for late guests to arrive.
July in Washington
The stiff spokes of this wheel
touch the sore spots of the earth.
On the Potomac, swan-white
power launches keep breasting the sulphurous wave.
Otters slide and dive and slick back their hair,
raccoons clean their meat in the creek.
On the circles, green statues ride like South American
liberators above the breeding vegetation—
prongs and spearheads of some equatorial
backland that will inherit the globe.
The elect, the elected . . . they come here bright as dimes,
and die disheveled and soft.
We cannot name their names, or number their dates—
circle on circle, like rings on a tree—
but we wish the river had another shore,
some further range of delectable mountains,
distant hills powdered blue as a girl’s eyelid.
It seems the least little shove would land us there,
that only the slightest repugnance of our bodies
we no longer control could drag us back.
~Archibald MacLeish, 1892 – 1982
A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,
As old medallions to the thumb,
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,
Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,
Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.
A poem should be equal to:
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—
A poem should not mean
When I die
Give what’s left of me away
And old men that wait to die.
And if you need to cry,
Cry for your brother
Walking the street beside you.
And when you need me,
Put your arms
And give them
What you need to give to me.
I want to leave you something,
Look for me
In the people I’ve known
And if you cannot give me away,
At least let me live on your eyes
And not on your mind.
You can love me most
hands touch hands,
Bodies touch bodies,
And by letting go
That need to be free.
Love doesn’t die,
So, when all that’s left of me
Give me away.
I’ll see you at home
In the earth.
~W. S. Merwin
I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war
don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity
just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice
he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally
it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop
he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England
as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry
he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
translated by CZESLAW MILOSZ
You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.
What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty;
Blind force with accomplished shape.
Here is a valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge
Going into white fog. Here is a broken city;
And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave
When I am talking with you.
What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.
They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.
Winter Solstice: 4:22 p.m.
The blunt air morning-stark,
a glass light that levels everything,
makes me forget my intention for this or that,
the insistent hands home to roost
even if my walk is sodden.
Trees gleam like bronze etchings
rising from the cacophony of
cell phone rings, car tires’ turnings.
The night must have its way
even against the snow geese slightly lost
until they find their rut in the wind.
The solstice is a bird with feathers so black
they mirror the buildings, then lift
to land back to this date in time as if time
never left its perch. The motion of breath,
or a wayward finger tapping on the wooden desk
aged by light. The inward turn of stillness,
a slight sway as if standing on a bus, holding
tight to the bar when the wheels mount a sharp corner
and something completely new appears.
Solstice and then the world at this point
flips over, begins arming itself
~Naomi Shibab Nye
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.”
~Mary Oliver (blog post)
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice – – –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations – – –
though their melancholy
was terrible. It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do – –
determined to save
the only life you could save.
The Summer Day
~Mary Oliver (blog post)
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
To Be Alive
To be alive. Not just
The carcass but the spark,
That’s crudely put, but…
If we’re not supposed to dance,
Why all this music?
In these times when anger
Is turned into anxiety
And someone has stolen
The horizons and the mountains,
Our small emperors on parade
Never expect our indifference
To disturb their nakedness
They keep their heads down
And their eyes gleam with reflection
From Aluminum economic ground,
The media wraps everything
In a cellophane of sound,
And the ghost surface of the virtual
Overlays the breathing earth.
The industry of distraction
Makes us forget
That we live in a universe
We have become converts
To the religion of stress
And its deity of progress
That we may have courage
To turn aside from it all
And come to kneel down before the poor,
To discover what we must do,
How to turn anxiety
Back into anger,
How to find our way home.
A Return to Seasons
In the waistband of the earth,
time lingers, a dog in a patch of sun.
But here, where the tilt of the poles
pulls each season back on itself, marking
the years as starkly as frost crisping grass,
an afternoon is everything
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Of those so close behind me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.
Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lonely worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air;
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.
What’s in My Journal
Odd things, like a button drawer. Mean
things, fishhooks, barbs in your hand.
But marbles too. A genius for being agreeable.
Junkyard crucifixes, voluptuous
discards. Space for knickknacks, and for
Alaska. Evidence to hang me, or to beautify.
Clues that lead nowhere, that never connected
anyway. Deliberate obfuscation, the kind
that takes genius. Chasms in character.
Loud omissions. Mornings that yawn above
a new grave. Pages you know exist
but you can’t find them. Someone’s terribly
inevitable life story, maybe mine.
YOU AND ART
Your exact errors make a music
that nobody hears.
Your straying feet find the great dance,
And you live on a world where stumbling
always leads home.
Year after year fits over your face––
when there was youth, your talent
later, you find your way by touch
where moss redeems the stone;
And you discover where music begins
before it makes any sound,
far in the mountains where canyons go
still as the always-falling, ever-new flakes of snow.
Lyric night of the lingering Indian Summer,
Shadowy fields that are scentless but full of singing,
Never a bird, but the passionless chant of insects,
The grasshopper’s horn, and far-off, high in the maples,
The wheel of a locust leisurely grinding the silence
Under a moon waning and worn, broken,
Tired with summer.
Let me remember you, voices of little insects,
Weeds in the moonlight, fields that are tangled with asters,
Let me remember, soon will the winter be on us,
Snow-hushed and heavy.
Over my soul murmur your mute benediction,
While I gaze, O fields that rest after harvest,
As those who part look long in the eyes they lean to,
Lest they forget them.
Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
met a man.
I recognized his hips
and the lean of him. I wanted
all of it.
I can’t keep secrets.
They slip out of me
when I’m not looking
falling onto magnolia leaves
and people hear them
so I’m keeping this lust
to myself until I find it.
Did You See the Sky
~Rachel Jamison Webster
Did you see the sky through me
tonight, carbon blues and clouds like ropes
of wool behind a fringe of branches,
great combs of black stilling in their sap,
stiffening with winter. I like to imagine
love can pull your essence like red thread
through the cold needle of my life now
without you. I was just driving home
from the grocery store and looking up
over the roofs, I remembered once when
I was overthrowing my thoughts
for doubts you said, I know how to love you
because I hitchhiked, and it was never the same sky twice.
Now, I hear you say, this music is like wind
moving through itself to wind, intricate
as the chimes of light splintering into
everything while glowing more whole.
It is nothing like those dusty chords
on your radio, each an ego
of forced air, heavy with the smells
of onions, mushrooms, sage and rain.
Drink it in, you say, those corded clouds
and throaty vocals. You will miss all this
when you become the changing.
For the Student Strikers
Go talk with those who are rumored to be unlike you,
And whom, it is said, you are so unlike.
Stand on the stoops of their houses and tell them why
You are out on strike.
It is not yet time for the rock, the bullet, the blunt
Slogan that fuddles the mind toward force.
Let the new sound in our streets be the patient sound
Of your discourse.
Doors will be shut in your faces, I do not doubt.
Yet here or there, it may be, there will start,
Much as the lights blink on in a block at evening,
Changes of heart.
They are your houses; the people are not unlike you;
Talk with them, then, and let it be done
Even for the grey wife of your nightmare sheriff
And the guardsman’s son
Between the Dragon and the Phoenix
Fire in the heart, fire in the sky, the sun just
a smallish smudge resting on the horizon
out beyond the reef that breaks the waves,
fiery sun that waits for no one. I was little more
than a child when my father explained
that the mongrel is stronger than the thoroughbred,
that I was splendidly blended, genetically engineered
for survival. I somehow forgot this, misplaced this,
time eroding my memory as it erodes everything.
But go ask someone else to write a poem about Time.
Out over the bay, the sun is rising, and I am running
out of time. Each and every year, on my birthday,
I wake to watch the sunrise. I am superstitious.
And today, as in years past, it is not my father
but my father’s father who comes to shout at me:
Whether you like it or not, you are a child of fire. You
descend from the Dragon, descend from the Phoenix.
Your blood is older than England, older than Castille.
Year after year, he says the same thing, this old man
dead long before I was born. So, I wake each year
on the day of my birth to watch the fire enter the sky
while being chastised by my dead grandfather.
Despite being a creature of fire, I stay near the water.
Why even try to avoid what can extinguish me?
There are times I can feel the fire flickering inside my frame.
The gulls are quarreling, the palm trees shimmering—
the world keeps spinning on its axis. Some say I have
nine lives. Others think me a machine. Neither is true.
The truth is rarely so conventional. Fire in my heart, fire
in my veins, I write this down for you and watch
as it goes up in flames. There are no paragraphs
wide enough to contain this fire, no stanzas
durable enough to house it. Blood of the Dragon,
blood of the Phoenix, I turn my head slowly
toward the East. I bow and call for another year.
I stand there and demand one more year.
Hours Days Years Unmoor Their Orbits
tonight I’m cleaning baby portobellos
for you, my young activist
wiping the dirty tops with a damp cloth
as carefully as I used to rinse raspberries
for you to adorn your fingertips
before eating each blood-red prize
these days you rarely look me in the eye
& your long shagged hair hides your smile
I don’t expect you to remember or
understand the many ways I’ve kept you
alive or the life my love for you
has made me live