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American Life in Poetry provides newspapers and online publications with a free weekly column featuring contemporary American poems. 

The American Life in Poetry project—whose sole mission is to promote poetry—is an initiative of Ted Kooser, the past U. S. Poet Laureate (2004-2006 Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress). The Poetry Foundation has formed a partnership with the Library of Congress to support the project.  Administrative support is provided by the English Department of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where the offices of the American Life in Poetry project are located.

We're pleased to have over 400 of the columns, below, the most recent posted first.  Find the latest postings at americanlifeinpoetry.org.

Poet Laureate Kooser mentioned cowboy poetry at a poetry conference, when speaking about the popularity of poetry, as reported by Tanya in a June 9, 2005 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer

"For a while people believed poetry was taken away from them," said Ted Kooser, poet laureate of the United States and winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. "They felt excluded from it because they felt it was difficult to understand."

Kooser said that for a long time there was a move away from such things as rhyme and telling stories in poems. The verse that was praised by critics and scholars was obscure and difficult to understand.

But then, he said, poetry started focusing again on everyday life, using everyday language, and that reintroduced poetry to the general public in a non-threatening way. Then came rap, cowboy poetry, and spoken-word performance.

The article, Poetry is finding fans—even cash, reports on the popularity of poetry readings, poetry slams, spoken-word performances, poetry anthologies, and audio collections. Poet Laureate Kooser's words were presented at the West Chester University Poetry Conference, "the largest annual all-poetry writing conference in America."

Kooser is the only Midwesterner to have served as Poet Laureate. His poetry collection, Delights and Shadows, received the Pulitzer Prize. Another book of interest to poets is his recent The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Practical Advice for Beginning Poets.  

Some Links

American Life in Poetry
Ted Kooser Biography

The Library of Congress
Poet Laureate

The Poetry Foundation

 

 



Find the latest postings at americanlifeinpoetry.org.

Most recent posted first, below:

Maureen Ash, "Church Basement"
Patricia Clark, "Fifty-Fifty"

 Michael McFee, "Saltine"

Linda Hogan, "The Sandhills"
Jeff Daniel Marion, "Playing to the River"
Ron Koertge, "Burning the Book"
Robert Morgan, "Living Tree"
Bruce Guernsey, "Back Road"

Robert Gibb, "Kites"
Lynne Sharon Schwartz, "Cement Backyard"
Jeffrey Harrison, "Mailboxes in Late Winter"
Mark Irwin, "Portraits"
Mark Sanders, "The Cranes, Texas January"

Richard M. Berlin, "Einstein’s Happiest Moment"
Eamon Grennan, "Up Against It"
Andrew Jones, "The Softest Word"
Terri Kirby Erickson, "Sponge Bath"
Casey Pycior, "Sledding in Wichita"

Barton Sutter, "A Little Shiver"
Ted Kooser, "Christmas Mail"
Jeffrey Harrison, "Nest"

Susan Kolodny, "Koi Pond, Oakland Museum"
Derek N. Otsuji, "Theater of the Shadlows"

Judith Slater, "Family Vacation"
Tim Nolan, "Thanksgiving"
Michael Walsh, "Barn Clothes"
David Hernandez, "At the Post Office"
Judith Harris, "My Mother Goes to Vote"

Nancy Price, "Trick or Treat"
Douglas S. Jones, "Centrifugal"
Wyatt Townley, "Finding the Scarf"
Geraldine Connolly, "Flathead Lake, October"
Daniel J. Langton, "School"

Kay Ryan, "Pinhole"
David St. John "From a Bridge"
Minnie Bruce Pratt, "Temporary Job"
Judson Mitcham, "Writing"
Christine Stewart-Nuñez, "Breakfast for Supper"

Carol V. Davis, "Mockingbird II"
Jo McDougall, "Telling Time"
Patrick Phillips, "Elegy with Oil in the Bilge"
Judith Slater, "Zippo"
Jane Hirshfield, "The Promise"

Linda Parsons Marion, "Snapshot"
Shawn Pittard, "The Silver Fish"
Debra Wierenga, "Chiller Pansies"
Julie Suk, "Loving the Hands"
Dan Gerber, "Marriage"

Mark Vinz, "Absences"
Kathryn Stripling Byer, "I Still Can't Get it Right"
Jillena Rose, "Taos"
Wendy Videlock, "Disarmed"
Dana Gioa, "Pity the Beautiful"

Janet Eigner, "Isaac's Blessing"
Laurel Blossom, "Red Balloon Rising"
Jared Harel, "Numbers"
Carol Light, "Prairie Sure"
Jeanne Wagner, "My mother was like the bees"

Carrie Shipers, "Love Poem for Ted Neeley In Jesus Christ Superstar"
Sarah A. Chavez, "In Childhood"
Penelope Scambly Schott, "Second Tour"
Sara Ries, "Fish Fry Daughter"
Anya Silver, "Leaving the Hospital"

Carol L. Gloor "Moment"
Claudia Emerson, "Eight Ball"
Jaimee Kuperman, "The New Dentist"

Edward Hirsch, "I Was Never Able to Pray"
Candace Black, "Mr. D Shops At Fausto’s Food Palace"

Bill Trowbridge, "Rental Tux"
Lisel Mueller, "Sometimes, When the Light"
Anne Coray, "The Art of Being"
Mark Jarman, "After Disappointment"

Stanley Plumly, "Off A Side Road Near Staunton"

Denise Low, "Two Gates"
Catherine Tufariello, "The Cricket in the Sump"
Richard Levine, "Believe This"
Richard Newman, "Bless Their Hearts"
Molly Fisk, "Winter Sun"

David Black, "Sleepers"
Jorge Evans, "Overtime"
J.T. Ledbetter, "Crossing Shoal Creek"
Roy Scheele, Woman Feeding Chickens

Don Thompson, "October"

Judith Harris, "Mockingbird"
Daniel Nyikos, "Potato Soup"
Michael Ryan, "Girls’ Middle School Orchestra"
Leo Dangel, "Behind the Plow"
Ladan Osman, "Tonight"

Kay Mullen, "Bonsai at the Potter's Stall"
Dana Gioia, "Reunion"

Robert Cording, "Old Houses"
Linda Pastan, "Counting Backwards"

Kathleen M. McCann, "Lone Egret"

Robert Wrigley, "After a Rainstorm"
Roy Scheele, "Produce Wagon"

Angelo Giambra, "The Water Carriers"
Karin Gottshall, "More Lies"

April Linder, "Our Lady of Perpetual Help"

Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, "One Day"
Barbara Schmitz, "Uniforms"

Joe Paddock, "One’s Ship Comes In"
Cathy Smith Bowers, "Peace Lilies"
Joe Mills, "How Do You Know"

 Jehanne Dubrow, "Chernobyl Year"
Ava Schicke, "I am"
Christopher Todd Matthews, "Window Washer"
Judith Harris, "End of Market Day"
David St. John, "Peach Fires"

Michael McFee, "Spitwads"
Jane Varley,"Packing the Car for Our Western Camping Trip"
Peter Everwine, "Back from the Fields"
Ellery Akers, "The Word That is a Prayer"
Peggy Shumaker, "Night Dive"

Marilyn L. Taylor, "Home Again, Home Again"
Joyce Sutphen, "The Aunts"
Connie Wanek, Mysterious Neighbors
Lois Beebe Hayna, Brief Eden
Nathaniel Perry, "Remaking a Neglected Orchard"

Tim Nolan, "Picasso"
Frannie Lindsay, "The Thrift Shop Dresses"
Bruce Guernsey, "For My Wife Cutting My Hair"

Grace Cavalieri, "Tomato Pies, 25 Cents"
T. Alan Broughton, "Great Blue Heron"

Molly Fisk, "Hunter's Moon"
Christopher Todd Matthews, "Eating Them As He Came"
Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, "At the Office Holiday Party"

George Bilgere, "Blank"
Stephen Behrendt, "Developing the Land"

David Allan Evans, "Girl Riding a Horse in a Field of Sunflowers"
Todd Davis, "Veil"
Joyce Sutphen, "The Exam"
Katie Cappello, "A Ghost Abandons the Haunted"

Mark Smith-Soto, "Nightwatch"

Liz Rosenberg, "I Leave Her Weeping"
Michelle Y. Burke, "Nocturne"
James Doyle, "Love Story"
Robert Gibb, "For the Chipmunk in My Yard"
Chana Bloch, "Through a Glass"

Tara Bray, "Once"
Carl Little, "The Clearing"

Tony Gloeggler, "Five Years Later"
Edward Hirsch, "Early Sunday Morning"
Leo Dangel, "One September Afternoon"

Marilyn Kallet, "Fireflies"
Mary Meriam, "The Romance of Middle Age"
Peter Everwine, "Rain"
Thomas Reiter, "Rehab"
Donal Heffernan, "My Hometown"

Patricia Frolander, "Denial"
Alicia Suskin Ostriker, "T
he Blessing of the Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog"

Michael Sowder, "Fishing, His Birthday"
Don Thompson, "Yard Work"
Ned Balbo, "Fire Victim"

Jan Mordenski, "Crochet"
Carolyn Miller, "The Word as It is"
Peter Cooley, "The One Certain Thing"
Susan Meyers, "
Mother, Washing Dishes"
Rachel Contreni Flynn, "The Yellow Bowl"

Jeff Daniel Marion, "78 RPM"
Wendy Videlock, "The Owl"
Jill Bialosky, "Music is Time"
Michael Chitwood, "The Coffins"
Andrea Hollander Budy, "Betrayal"

Dana Bisignani, "Bankruptcy Hearing"
Freya Manfred, "Green Pear Tree in September"
David Baker, "Old Man Throwing a Ball"
Gary Metras, "Lint"

Jeff Worley, "On Finding a Turtle Shell in Daniel Boone National Forest"

Wesley McNair, "For My Wife"
Lucille Lang Day, "Tooth Painter"
Ann Struthers, "Not Knowing Why"
 Nancyrose Houston, "The Letter from Home"
Lyn Lifshin, "The Other Fathers"

Joette Giorgis, "(Untitled)"
Christine Stewart-Nunez, "Convergence"
Tim Nolan, "At the Choral Concert"
Ben Vogt, "Grandpa Vogt’s—1959"
Trish Crapo, "Back Then"

Susie Patlove, "Poor Patriarch"
George Bilgere, "Night Flight"
Marie Sheppard Williams, "Everybody"
Kathy Mangan, "The Whistle"
Elizabeth Klise von Zerneck, "Like Coins, November"

Philip Memmer, "The Paleontologist’s Blind Date"
David Lee Garrison, "Bach in the DC Subway"
Bruce Guernsey, "Yam"
Dore Kiesselbach, "Aubade"
Cecilia Woloch, "The Pick"

David Bottoms, "My Father’s Left Hand"
Michelle Bennett, "Western"
Diane Glancy, "Indian Summer"
Thomas R. Smith, "Baby Wrens’ Voices"
Sue Ellen Thompson, "Helping My Daughter Move into Her First Apartment"

Ron Koertge, "First Grade"
Mark Vinz, "Cautionary Tales"
Cecilia Woloch, "My Mother's Pillow"
Jane Hirshfield, "Green-Striped Melons"
Ronald Wallace, "Sustenance"

Margaret Kaufman, "Photo, Brownie Troop, St. Louis, 1949"
Jean Nordhaus, "I Was Always Leaving"
Alexandra Teague, "Language Lessons"
Coleman Barks, "Glad"
Todd Boss, "This Morning in a Morning Voice"

Joseph Stroud, "Night in Day"
Deborah Warren, "Marginalia"
Marie Howe, "Hurry"
Kevin Griffith, "Spinning"
Judy Loest, "Faith"

David Wojahn, "Walking to School, 1964"
Susan Browne, "On Our Eleventh Anniversary"
Bill Holm, "Earbud"
Regan Huff, "Occurrence on Washburn Avenue"
Anne Marie Macari, "From the Plane"

Joseph O. Legaspi, "At the Bridal Shop"
Miller Williams, "Going Deaf"
Gerald Fleming, "Long Marriage"
Sebastian Matthews, "Barbershop Quartet, East Village Grille"
Matthew Vetter, "Wild Flowers"

George Bilgere, "Corned Beef and Cabbage"
Cecilia Woloch, "Anniversary"
Charles Harper Webb, "The Animals are Leaving"
David Wagoner, "The Cherry Tree"
Don Welch, "At 14"

Chris Forhan, "What My Father Left Behind"
Anne Pierson Wiese, "Inscrutable Twist"
Zozan Hawez, "Self Portrait"
Cornelius Eady, "A Small Moment"
Jose Angel Araguz, "Gloves"

Conrad Hilberry, "Christmas Night"
Russell Libby, "Applied Geometry"
Robert Haight, "How Is It That the Snow"
Robert Wrigley, "Finding a Bible in an Abandoned Cabin"
Pat Mora, "Fences"

Minnie Bruce Pratt, "Cutting Hair"
Gary Dop, "On Swearing"
Dick Allen, "The Accompanist"

Dan Lechay, "Ghost Villanelle"
James Lenfestey, "Daughter"

Robert Hedin, "The Old Liberators"
John Maloney, "After Work"
Judith Harris, "Gathering Leaves in Grade School"
Kaelum Poulson, "The Crow"
Stuart Kestenbaum, "Prayer for the Dead"

Emmett Tenorio Melendez, "My name came from. . ."
D. Nurkse, "Bushwick: Latex Flat, 2001"
Gary Dop, "Father, Child, Water"
Kristen Tracy,"Rain at the Zoo"
Frank Steele, "Sunflower"

Berwyn Moore, "Driving to Camp Lend-A-Hand"
Joelle Biele, "To Katharine: At Fourteen Months"
Patrick Phillips, "Piano"
Veronica Patterson, "Marry Me"
Ann Struthers, "Planting the Sand Cherry"

Sam Green, "Night Dive"
Rick Campbell, "Heart"
Mary-Sherman Willis, "The Laughter of Women"
Sharmila Voorakkara, "For the Tattooed Man"
R. S. Gwynn, "Fried Beauty"

Robert Bly, "Seeing the Eclipse in Maine"
Ellen Bass, "Dead Butterfly"
Max Mendelsohn, "Ode to Marbles"
Richard Hoffman, "Summer Job"
Jonathan Holden, "Car Showroom"

Steve Orlen, "Three Teenage Girls: 1956"
Allan Peterson, "The Inevitable"
Frank Steele, "Part of a Legacy"
Judith Harris, "In Your Absence"
David Tucker, "Today's News"

Marianne Boruch, "Hospital"
Yusef Komunyakaa, "Yellowjackets"
Trish Dugger, "Spare Parts"
Carrie Shipers, "Medical History"
Steven Huff, "Safe"

Ed Ochester, "What the Frost Casts Up"
Linda Pastan, "The Quarrel"
Lee McCarthy, "Santa Paula"
William Kloefkorn, untitled
Marvin Bell, "Veterans of the Seventies"

Rynn Williams, "Insomnia"
Jackson Wheeler, "How Good Fortune Surprises Us"
Steve Orlen, "In the House of the Voice of Maria Callas"
Linda Gregg, "Elegance"
Thomas R. Smith, "Trust"

Steven Schneider, "Chanukah Lights Tonight"
Bruce Guernsey, "The Lady and the Tramp"
Deborah Cummins, "At a Certain Age"
Jessy Randall, "Superhero Pregnant Woman"
 Todd Davis, "Sleep"

Ruth Moose, "The Crossing"
Kathleen Flenniken, "Old Woman With Protea Flowers, Kahalui Airport"
David Baker, "Afterwards"
Peter Pereira, "The Garden Buddha"
Jean Nordhaus, "A Dandelion for My Mother"

Anne Pierson Wiese, "Columbus Park"
Betty Adcock "Louisiana Line"
Devon Regina DeSalva, "Snip Your Hair"
Marianne Boruch, "Nest"
Karin Gottshall, "The Raspberry Room"

Barry Goldensohn, "Subway"
Patrick Phillips, "Matinee"
Joshua Weiner, "Found Letter"
Wesley McNair, "Hymn to the Comb-Over"
Mike White, "Wind"

Kim Noriega, "Heaven, 1963"
Joseph Stanton, "Banana Trees"
Warren Woessner, "Albert"

Nancy Botkin, "Geometry"
Roy Jacobstein, "Safari, Rift Valley"

Jeffrey Harrison, "Visitation"
Robert West, "Echo"
Freya Manfred, "Swimming With A Hundred Year Old Snapping Turtle"
Elizabeth Hobbs, "Slow Dancing on the Highway: the Trip North"
Felecia Caton Garcia, "Drought"

Juliana Gray, "Summer Downpour on Campus"
Sue Ellen Thompson, "Wallpapering"

Kay Ryan, "Houdini"
Naomi Shihab Nye, "Supple Cord"

Judith Kitchen, "Catching the Moles"

Ruth Moose, "Laundry"
Marge Saiser, "Where They Lived"
Rick Snyder, "How Are You Doing?"
Jane Whitledge, "Morel Mushrooms"
Cynthia Rylant, "Wax Lips"

Wesley McNair, "The One I Think of Now"
Sharon Chmielarz, "New Water"
Robert Wrigley, "Kissing a Horse"

Mary Jo Salter, "Somebody Else's Baby"
Andrea Hollander Budy, "For Weeks After the Funeral"

John Haines, "Young Man"
Floyd Skloot, "Silent Music"
Tatiana Ziglar, "Common Janthina"
Linda Parsons Marion,
"Home Fire"

Mark Vinz, "Driving Through"
Bill Holm, "Bread Soup: An Old Icelandic Recipe"
Sue Ellen Thompson, "No Children, No Pets"
Christopher Chambers, "My Father Holds the Door for Yoko Ono"
David Allan Evans, "Raking"

Linda Pastan, "The Birds"
Lisel Mueller, "In November"
Connie Wanek, "Amaryllis"
 Dale Ritterbusch, "Green Tea"
Jeff Vande Zande, "Clean"
Tess Gallagher, "Under Stars"

James McKean, "Elegy for an Old Boxer"
Alex Phillips, "Work Shy"
 Bruce Guernsey, "Moss"

Li-Young Lee, "Early in the Morning"

Jeff Daniel Marion, "Reunion"

Lita Hooper, "Love Worn"
David Mason, "In the Mushroom Summer"
Roy Scheele, "Planting a Dogwood"
Jan Beatty, "My Father Teaches Me to Dream"
Albert Garcia, "August Morning"

Sharon Olds, "My Son the Man"
Marsha Truman Cooper, "Ironing After Midnight"
Wendell Berry, "They Sit Together on the Porch"
Catherine Barnett, "Family Reunion"
Marie Howe, "The Copper Beech"

Keith Althaus. "Homecoming"
Lola Haskins, "Grandmother Speaks of the Old Country"
David Tucker, "The Dancer"
James McKean, "Bindweed"
Leslie Monsour, "The Education of a Poet"

Julia Kasdorf, "What I Learned From My Mother"
Amy Fleury, "At Twenty-Eight"
Pat Schneider, "There Is Another Way"
Richard Newman, "Coins"
Don Welch, "At the Edge of Town"

Jo McDougall, "What We Need"
Ruth L. Schwartz, "Tangerine"
Peter Pereira, "A Pot of Red Lentils"
Connie Wanek, "Radiator"
Jim Harrison, "Marching"

Grace Bauer, "Against Lawn"
Rodney Torreson, "On A Moonstruck Gravel Road"
Walt McDonald, "Some Boys are Born to Wander"
Robert Morgan, "Holy Cussing"
Bob King, "Geology"

Ann Caston, "Sunday Brunch at the Old Country Buffet"
David Baker, "Mongrel Heart"
Lola Haskins, "To Play Pianissimo"
David Bengtson, "What Calls Us"
Diane Thiel, "Family Album"

Alberto Rios, "A Yellow Leaf"
Nancy McCleery, "December Notes"
Leslie Monsour, "Fifteen"
Shirley Buettner, "The Wind Chimes"
Judith Slater, "In The Black Rock Tavern"

J. Lorraine Brown, "Tintype on the Pond, 1925"
Jim Daniels, "Dim"
Katy Giebenhain, "Glucose Self-Monitoring"
Kurt Brown, "Road Report"
Gloria g. Murray, "In My Mother's House"

Naomi Shihab Nye, "Boy and Egg"
Debra Nystrom, "Cliff Swallows--Missouri Breaks"
Ron Rash, "Speckled Trout"
Angela Shaw, "Children in a Field"
Claudia Emerson, "Stable"

Rodney Torreson, "The Bethlehem Nursing Home"
Martin Walls, "Cicadas at the End of Summer"
E. G. Burrows, "Camping Out"

Jean L. Connor, "Of Some Reknown"
Karin Gottshall, "The Ashes"

Jane Hirshfield, "The Woodpecker Keeps Returning"
Shirley Buettner, "Discovered"
Dan Gerber, "The Rain Poured Down"
Wendell Berry, "The Peace of Wild Things"
Lisel Mueller, "Love Like Salt"

Janet McCann, "The Woman Who Collects Noah's Arks"
"Georgiana Cohen, "Old Woman in a Housecoat"
Kevin Griffith, "Turning Forty"

Andrei Guruianu, "Grandfather"
David Wagoner, "Peacock Display"

Marge Piercy, "More Than Enough"
James Doyle, "The City's Oldest Known Survivor of the Great War"
Karma Larsen, "Moonflowers"
Leonard Nathan, "The Potato Eaters"
Barton Sutter, "Sober Song"

David Baker, "Neighbors in October"
Ruth Stone, "Another Feeling"
Marnie Walsh, "Bessie Dreaming Bear"
Jonathan Greene, "At the Grave"
David Allan Evans, "Neighbors"



 
American Life in Poetry: Column 424

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

It’s a difficult task to accurately imagine one’s self back into childhood. Maybe we can get the physical details right, but it’s very hard to recapture the innocence and wonder. Maureen Ash, who lives in Wisconsin, gets it right in this poem.


Church Basement
 
The church knelt heavy
above us as we attended Sunday School,
circled by age group and hunkered
on little wood folding chairs
where we gave our nickels, said
our verses, heard the stories, sang
the solid, swinging songs.
 
It could have been God above
in the pews, His restless love sifting
with dust from the joists. We little
seeds swelled in the stone cellar, bursting
to grow toward the light.
 
Maybe it was that I liked how, upstairs, outside,
an avid sun stormed down, burning the sharp-
edged shadows back to their buildings, or
how the winter air knifed
after the dreamy basement.
 
Maybe the day we learned whatever
would have kept me believing
I was just watching light
poke from the high, small window
and tilt to the floor where I could make it
a gold strap on my shoe, wrap
my ankle, embrace
any part of me.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by Maureen Ash. Reprinted by permission of Maureen Ash. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 


American Life in Poetry: Column 423

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE


If you had to divide your favorite things between yourself and somebody else, what would you keep? Patricia Clark, a Michigan poet, has it figured out.


Fifty-Fifty
 
You can have the grackle whistling blackly
    from the feeder as it tosses seed,
 
if I can have the red-tailed hawk perched
    imperious as an eagle on the high branch.
 
You can have the brown shed, the field mice
    hiding under the mower, the wasp’s nest on the door,
 
if I can have the house of the dead oak,
    its hollowed center and feather-lined cave.
 
You can have the deck at midnight, the possum
    vacuuming the yard in its white prowl,
 
if I can have the yard of wild dreaming, pesky
    raccoons, and the roaming, occasional bear.
 
You can have the whole house, window to window,
    roof to soffits to hardwood floors,
 
if I can have the screened porch at dawn,
    the Milky Way, any comets in our yard.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2004 by Patricia Clark, whose forthcoming book of poetry is Sunday Rising, Michigan State University Press, 2013. Poem reprinted from She Walks into the Sea, Michigan State University Press, 2009, by permission of Patricia Clark and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 



 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 422

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

I love writing poems about the most ordinary of things, and was envious, indeed, when I found this one by Michael McFee, who lives in North Carolina. How I wish I'd written it.

Saltine
 
How well its square
fit my palm, my mouth,
a toasty wafer slipped
onto the sick tongue
or into chicken soup,
 
each crisp saltine a tile
pierced with 13 holes
in rows of 3 and 2,
its edges perforated
like a postage stamp,
 
one of a shifting stack
sealed in wax paper
whose noisy opening
always signaled snack,
peanut butter or cheese
 
thick inside Premiums,
the closest we ever got
to serving hors d'oeuvres:
the redneck's hardtack,
the cracker's cracker.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by Michael McFee from his most recent book of poems That Was Oasis, Carnegie Mellon Univ. Press, 2012. First printed in Threepenny Review #107, Vol. 27, no. 3, (Fall 2006). Poem reprinted by permission of Michael McFee and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 421
BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

This column originates in Nebraska, and our office is about two hours' drive from that stretch of the Platte River where thousands of sandhill cranes stop for a few weeks each year. Linda Hogan, one of our most respected Native writers and Writer in Residence for The Chickasaw Nation, perfectly captures their magic and mystery in this fine poem.

The Sandhills
 

The language of cranes
we once were told
is the wind. The wind
is their method,
their current, the translated story
of life they write across the sky.
Millions of years
they have blown here
on ancestral longing,
their wings of wide arrival,
necks long, legs stretched out
above strands of earth
where they arrive
with the shine of water,
stories, interminable
language of exchanges
descended from the sky
and then they stand,
earth made only of crane
from bank to bank of the river
as far as you can see
the ancient story made new.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem reprinted from Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas, Ed. by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, The Univ. of Arizona Press, 2011, by permission of Linda Hogan and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 420

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE


There’s something wonderful about happening upon a musician playing for his or her own pleasure, completely absorbed in the music. Jeff Daniel Marion is a fine poet from east Tennessee. And here’s a woman playing the bagpipes.



Playing to the River

She stands by the riverbank,
notes from her bagpipes lapping
across to us as we wait

for the traffic light to change.
She does not know we hear—
she is playing to the river,

a song for the water, the flow
of an unknown melody to the rocky
bluffs beyond, for the mist

that was this morning, shroud
of past lives: fishermen
and riverboat gamblers, tugboat captains

and log raftsmen, pioneer and native
slipping through the eddies of time.
She plays for them all, both dirge

and surging hymn, for what has passed
and is passing as we slip
into the currents of traffic,
the changed light bearing us away.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by Jeff Daniel Marion, whose most recent book of poems is Father, Wind Publications, 2009. First appeared in Still: The Journal, an online publication, Winter 2013. Poem reprinted by permission of Jeff Daniel Marion. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 419

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

It pains an old booklover like me to think of somebody burning a book, but if you’ve gotten one for a quarter and it’s falling apart, well, maybe it’s OK as long as you might be planning to pick up a better copy. Here Ron Koertge, who lives in Pasadena, has some fun with the ashes of love poems.


Burning the Book
 
The anthology of love poems I bought
for a quarter is brittle, anyway, and comes
apart when I read it.
 
One at a time, I throw pages on the fire
and watch smoke make its way up
and out.
 
I’m almost to the index when I hear
a murmuring in the street. My neighbors
are watching it snow.
 
I put on my blue jacket and join them.
The children stand with their mouths
open.
 
I can see nouns—longing, rapture, bliss
land on every tongue, then disappear.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by Ron Koertge, whose most recent book of poems is Fever, Red Hen Press, 2006. Poem reprinted by permission of Ron Koertge. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 418

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Robert Morgan, who lives in Ithaca, New York, has long been one of my favorite American poets. He’s also a fine novelist and, recently, the biographer of Daniel Boone. His poems are often about customs and folklore, and this one is a good example.


Living Tree
 
It’s said they planted trees by graves
to soak up spirits of the dead
through roots into the growing wood.
The favorite in the burial yards
I knew was common juniper.
One could do worse than pass into
such a species. I like to think
that when I’m gone the chemicals
and yes the spirit that was me
might be searched out by subtle roots
and raised with sap through capillaries
into an upright, fragrant trunk,
and aromatic twigs and bark,
through needles bright as hoarfrost to
the sunlight for a century
or more, in wood repelling rot
and standing tall with monuments
and statues there on the far hill,
erect as truth, a testimony,
in ground that’s dignified by loss,
around a melancholy tree
that’s pointing toward infinity.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by Robert Morgan, whose most recent book of poems is Terroir, Penguin Poets, 2011. Poem reprinted from The Georgia Review, Spring 2012, by permission of Robert Morgan and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 417

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE


There’s an old country-western song with the refrain, “That’s what happens when two worlds collide,” and in this poem by Bruce Guernsey, who divides his year between Illinois and Maine, we see a near collision between two worlds.


Back Road
 
Winter mornings
driving past
I’d see these kids
huddled like grouse
in the plowed ruts
in front of their shack
waiting for the bus,
three small children
bunched against the drifts
rising behind them.
 
This morning
I slowed to wave
and the smallest,
a stick of a kid
draped in a coat,
grinned and raised
his red, raw hand,
the snowball
packed with rock
aimed at my face.
 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by Bruce Guernsey from his most recent book of poems, From Rain: Poems, 1970-2010, Ecco Qua Press, 2012. Poem reprinted by permission of Bruce Guernsey and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 416

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE


This kite-flying poem caught me right up and sent me flying as soon as Robert Gibb described those dimestore kites furled tighter than umbrellas, a perfect image. Gibb lives in Pennsylvania.


Kites
 
Come March we’d find them
In the five-and-dimes,
Furled tighter than umbrellas
About their slats, the air
 
In an undertow above us
Like weather on the maps.
We’d play out lines
Of kite string, tugging against
 
The bucking sideways flights.
Readied for assembly,
I’d arc the tensed keel of balsa
Into place against the crosspiece,
 
Feeling the paper snap
Taughtly as a sheet, then lift
The almost weightless body
Up to where it hauled me
 
Trolling into the winds—
Knotted bows like vertebrae
Flashing among fields
Of light. Why ruin it
 
By recalling the aftermaths?
Kites gone down in tatters,
Kites fraying like flotsam
From the tops of the trees.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by Robert Gibb from his most recent book of poems, Sheet Music, Autumn House Press, 2012. Poem reprinted by permission of Robert Gibb and Autumn House Press. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 415

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

I’ve recently published a children’s book about a man who is so fussy about his yard that he loses his home, so I was immediately taken by this fine poem by Lynne Sharon Schwartz about a similar man. We all enjoy writing that confirms what we’ve privately observed about the world. Schwartz lives in New York City.


Cement Backyard
 
My father had our yard cemented over.
He couldn’t tell a flower from a weed.
The neighbors let their backyards run to clover
and some grew dappled gardens from a seed,
 
but he preferred cement to rampant green.
Lushness reeked of anarchy’s profusion.
Better to tamp the wildness down, unseen,
than tolerate its careless brash intrusion.
 
The grass interred, he felt well satisfied:
his first house, and he took an owner’s pride,
surveying the uniform, cemented yard.
Just so, he labored to cement his heart.
 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by Lynne Sharon Schwartz from her most recent book of poems, See You in the Dark, Curbstone/Northwestern University Press, 2012. Reprinted with permission from Curbstone/Northwestern University Press. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 414

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

When spring finally arrives, it can be fun to see what winter left behind, and Jeffrey Harrison of Massachusetts is doing just that in this amusing poem.


Mailboxes in Late Winter
 
It’s a motley lot. A few still stand
at attention like sentries at the ends
of their driveways, but more lean
askance as if they’d just received a blow
to the head, and in fact they’ve received
many, all winter, from jets of wet snow
shooting off the curved, tapered blade
of the plow. Some look wobbly, cocked
at oddball angles or slumping forlornly
on precariously listing posts. One box
bows steeply forward, as if in disgrace, its door
lolling sideways, unhinged. Others are dented,
battered, streaked with rust, bandaged in duct tape,
crisscrossed with clothesline or bungee cords.
A few lie abashed in remnants of the very snow
that knocked them from their perches.
Another is wedged in the crook of a tree
like a birdhouse, its post shattered nearby.
I almost feel sorry for them, worn out
by the long winter, off-kilter, not knowing
what hit them, trying to hold themselves
together, as they wait for news from spring.


 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by Jeffrey Harrison, whose most recent book of poems is Incomplete Knowledge, Four Way Books, 2006. Poem reprinted from Southwest Review, Vol. 97, no. 1, 2012, by permission of Jeffrey Harrison and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 


American Life in Poetry: Column 413

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE


Every day, hundreds of thousands of us are preoccupied with keeping up a civil if not loving relationship with our parents. In this poem, Mark Irwin (who lives in Colorado) does a beautiful job in portraying, in a dreamlike manner, the complexities of just one of those relationships.


Portraits
 
Mother came to visit today. We
hadn’t seen each other in years. Why didn’t
you call? I asked. Your windows are filthy, she said. I know,
I know. It’s from the dust and rain. She stood outside.
I stood in, and we cleaned each one that way, staring into each other’s eyes,
rubbing the white towel over our faces, rubbing
away hours, years. This is what it was like
when you were inside me, she said. What? I asked,
though I understood. Afterwards, indoors, she smelled like snow
melting. Holding hands we stood by the picture window,
gazing into the December sun, watching the pines in flame.
 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Mark Irwin, whose most recent book of poems is Tall If, New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2008. Poem reprinted from The Sun, July, 2010, by permission of Mark Irwin and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 412

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE


Mark Sanders, who lives in Texas, is not only a good poet, but he’s an old friend to the poetry of my home ground, working hard as teacher, editor, and publisher to bring Great Plains poetry to the attention of readers across the country. Here’s an example of one of his poems.


The Cranes, Texas January

 
I call my wife outdoors to have her listen,
to turn her ears upward, beyond the cloud-veiled
sky where the moon dances thin light,
to tell her, “Don’t hear the cars on the freeway—
 
it’s not the truck-rumble. It is and is not
the sirens.” She stands there, on deck
a rocking boat, wanting to please the captain
who would have her hear the inaudible.
 
Her eyes, so blue the day sky is envious,
fix blackly on me, her mouth poised on question
like a stone. But, she hears, after all.
                           January on the Gulf,
warm wind washing over us,
we stand chilled in the winter of those voices.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Mark Sanders from his most recent book of poems, Conditions of Grace: New and Selected Poems, Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2011. Poem reprinted by permission of Mark Sanders and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 411

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE


It seems that love poems have a better chance of being passed around from person to person than other poems, and here’s one by Richard M. Berlin, who lives in the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts, that we’d like to pass along to you.


Einstein’s Happiest Moment
 
Einstein’s happiest moment
occurred when he realized
a falling man falling
beside a falling apple
could also be described
as an apple and a man at rest
while the world falls around them.
 
And my happiest moment
occurred when I realized
you were falling for me,
right down to the core, and the rest,
relatively speaking, has flown past
faster than the speed of light.


 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Richard M. Berlin from his most recent book of poems, Secret Wounds, BkMk Press, 2011. Poem reprinted by permission of Richard M. Berlin and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 410



BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

If you’ve followed this column through a good part of the seven years we’ve been publishing it, you know how hooked I am on poems that take a close look at the ordinary world. Here’s a fine poem by Eamon Grennan, who lives in New York state, about bees caught up against a closed window.


Up Against It
 
It’s the way they cannot understand the window
they buzz and buzz against, the bees that take
a wrong turn at my door and end up thus
in a drift at first of almost idle curiosity,
cruising the room until they find themselves
smack up against it and they cannot fathom how
the air has hardened and the world they know
with their eyes keeps out of reach as, stuck there
with all they want just in front of them, they must
fling their bodies against the one unalterable law
of things—this fact of glass—and can only go on
making the sound that tethers their electric
fury to what’s impossible, feeling the sting in it.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Eamon Grennan from his most recent book of poems, Out of Sight: New & Selected Poems, Graywolf Press, 2010. Poem reprinted by permission of Eamon Grennan and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 409

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

It’s wonderful when a very young person discovers the pleasures of poetry and gives it a try. Here’s a poem by a first grader, Andrew Jones of Ferndale, Washington, who, if we’re lucky, will go on to write poems the rest of his life.


The Softest Word
 
The softest word is leaf
it zigzags
in the air and
falls on the yellow ground
 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Seattle Arts and Lectures, from their most recent book of poems, Our Beautiful Robotic Hearts, Seattle Arts and Lectures, 2011. Poem reprinted by permission of Seattle Arts and Lectures. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 408


BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Here’s a lovely poem for the caregivers among us, by Terri Kirby Erickson, who lives in North Carolina.


Sponge Bath
 
Draped in towels,
my grandmother sits in a hard-backed
chair, a white bowl
 
of soapy water on the floor.
She lifts her frail arm, then rests it,
 
gratefully, in her daughter’s palm.
Gliding a wet
 
washcloth, my mother’s hand
becomes a cloud, and every bruise, a rain-
drenched flower.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Terri Kirby Erickson from her most recent book of poems, In the Palms of Angels, Press 53, 2011. Poem reprinted by permission of Terri Kirby Erickson and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

[Ed: Find more about Terri Kirby Erickson and more of her poetry here at CowboyPoetry.com.]


 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 407


BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Kansas is flat and we all know that. So, where does a boy go when he feels like sledding down a hill? Casey Pycior, raised in Kansas, tells us.


Sledding in Wichita
 
As cars pass, laboring through the slush,
a boy, bundled against the stiff wind
in his snow suit, gloves, and scarf,
leans on his upright toboggan,
waiting his turn atop
the snow-packed overpass—
the highest point in town.
First one car exits, and then another,
each creeping down the icy ramp.
The brown grass pokes through
the two grooves carved in the short hill.
As the second car fishtails to a stop at the bottom,
brake lights glowing on the dirty snow,
the boy’s turn comes.
His trip to the bottom is swift—
only a second or two—
and he bails out just before the curb.
It’s not much, but it’s sledding in Wichita.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Casey Pycior and reprinted by permission of the poet. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 406



BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Another winter is upon us, and Barton Sutter, a poet who lives in Duluth, knows all about cold and snow. Here’s a preview to get us thinking about what’s in store for us.


A Little Shiver
 
After the news, the forecaster crowed
With excitement about his bad tidings:
Eighteen inches of snow! Take cover!
A little shiver ran through the community.
Children abandoned their homework.
Who cared about the hypotenuse now?
The snowplow driver laid out his long johns.
The old couple, who’d barked at each other
At supper, smiled shyly, turned off the TV,
And climbed the stairs to their queen-size bed
Heaped high with blankets and quilts.
And the aging husky they failed to hear
Scratch the back door, turned around twice
In the yard, settled herself in the snow,
And covered her nose with her tail.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by Barton Sutter, from his most recent book of poems, The Reindeer Camps, BOA Editions, Ltd., 2012. Poem reprinted by permission of Barton Sutter and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 405



BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

When we began this column in 2005, I determined not to include any of my own poems because I wanted to introduce our readers to the work of as many of the other American poets as I could. But from time to time someone has requested that I publish one of my own. So here’s a seasonal poem, for those who’ve asked.


Christmas Mail
 
Cards in each mailbox,
angel, manger, star and lamb,
as the rural carrier,
driving the snowy roads,
hears from her bundles
the plaintive bleating of sheep,
the shuffle of sandals,
the clopping of camels.
At stop after stop,
she opens the little tin door
and places deep in the shadows
the shepherds and wise men,
the donkeys lank and weary,
the cow who chews and muses.
And from her Styrofoam cup,
white as a star and perched
on the dashboard, leading her
ever into the distance,
there is a hint of hazelnut,
and then a touch of myrrh.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by Ted Kooser, whose most recent book of poems is Together, Brooding Heron Press, 2012. Poem reprinted by permission of Ted Kooser. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 404



BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

The first winter my wife and I lived in the country, I brought a wild juniper tree in from our pasture and prepared to decorate it for Christmas. As it began to warm up, it started to smell as if a coyote, in fact a number of coyotes, had stopped to mark it, and it was soon banished to the yard. Jeffrey Harrison, a poet who lives in Massachusetts, had a much better experience with nature.


Nest
 
It wasn’t until we got the Christmas tree
into the house and up on the stand
that our daughter discovered a small bird’s nest
tucked among its needled branches.
 
Amazing, that the nest had made it
all the way from Nova Scotia on a truck
mashed together with hundreds of other trees
without being dislodged or crushed.
 
And now it made the tree feel wilder,
a balsam fir growing in our living room,
as though at any moment a bird might flutter
through the house and return to the nest.
 
And yet, because we’d brought the tree indoors,
we’d turned the nest into the first ornament.
So we wound the tree with strings of lights,
draped it with strands of red beads,
 
and added the other ornaments, then dropped
two small brass bells into the nest, like eggs
containing music, and hung a painted goldfinch
from the branch above, as if to keep them warm.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Jeffrey Harrison, whose most recent book of poems is Incomplete Knowledge, Four Way Books, 2006. Reprinted from upstreet, No. 8, June 2012, by permission of Jeffrey Harrison and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 403



BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Among the most ancient uses for language are descriptions of places, when a person has experienced something he or she wants to tell somebody else about. Some of these get condensed and transformed into poetry, and here’s a good example, by Susan Kolodny, a poet from the Bay Area of California.


Koi Pond, Oakland Museum
 
Our shadows bring them from the shadows:
a yolk-yellow one with a navy pattern
like a Japanese woodblock print of fish scales.
A fat 18-karat one splashed with gaudy purple
and a patch of gray. One with a gold head,
a body skim-milk-white, trailing ventral fins
like half-folded fans of lace.
A poppy-red, faintly disheveled one,
and one, compact, all indigo in faint green water.
They wear comical whiskers and gather beneath us
as we lean on the cement railing
in indecisive late-December light,
and because we do not feed them, they pass,
then they loop and circle back. Loop and circle. Loop.
“Look,” you say, “beneath them.” Beneath them,
like a subplot or a motive, is a school
of uniformly dark ones, smaller, unadorned,
perhaps another species, living in the shadow
of the gold, purple, yellow, indigo, and white,
seeking the mired roots and dusky grasses,
unliveried, the quieter beneath the quiet.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Susan Kolodny from her first book of poems, After the Firestorm, Mayapple Press, 2011. Poem first appeared in the New England Review, Vol. 18, no. 1, 1997. Reprinted by permission of Susan Kolodny and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 402

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Shadow play is among the few free entertainments left, and it must go on delighting children all around the globe. Derek N. Otsuji lives in Hawaii, and here’s his reminiscence.


Theater of Shadows

Nights we could not sleep—
       summer insects singing in dry heat,
              short-circuiting the nerves—
 
Grandma would light a lamp,
        at the center of our narrow room,
               whose clean conspiracy of light
 
whispered to the tall blank walls,
       illuminating them suddenly
              like the canvas of a dream.

Between the lamp and wall

       her arthritic wrists grew pliant
              as she molded and cast
 
improbable animal shapes moving
       on the wordless screen:
              A blackbird, like a mynah, not a crow.
 
A dark horse’s head that could but would not talk.
       An ashen rabbit (her elusive self)
           triggered in snow
 
that a quivering touch (like death’s)
       sent scampering into the wings
              of that little theater of shadows
    
that eased us into dreams.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Derek N. Otsuji. Reprinted from Descant, 2011, Vol. 50, by permission of Derek N. Otsuji and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


American Life in Poetry: Column 401



BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

As children, many of us played after dark, running out to the border of the reach of light from the windows of home. In a way, this poem by Judith Slater, who lives in New York State, remembers the way in which, at the edge of uncertainty, we turned back.


Family Vacation

 
Four weeks in, quarreling and far
from home, we came to the loneliest place.
A western railroad town. Remember?
I left you at the campsite with greasy pans
and told our children not to follow me.
The dying light had made me desperate.
I broke into a hobbled run, across tracks,
past warehouses with sun-blanked windows
to where a playground shone in a wooded clearing.
Then I was swinging, out over treetops.
I saw myself never going back, yet
whatever breathed in the mute woods
was not another life. The sun sank.
I let the swing die, my toes scuffed earth,
and I was rocked into remembrance
of the girl who had dreamed the life I had.
Through night, dark at the root, I returned to it.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Judith Slater from her most recent book of poems, The Wind Turning Pages, Outriders Poetry Project, 2011. Reprinted by permission of Judith Slater and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 400



BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Here’s a poem for this season by Tim Nolan, of Minnesota. Once we begin to be thankful for things, there are more and more things to be thankful for.


Thanksgiving
 
Thanks for the Italian chestnuts—with their
tough shells—the smooth chocolaty
skin of them—thanks for the boiling water—
 
itself a miracle and a mystery—
thanks for the seasoned sauce pan
and the old wooden spoon—and all
 
the neglected instruments in the drawer—
the garlic crusher—the bent paring knife—
the apple slicer that creates six
 
perfect wedges out of the crisp Haralson—
thanks for the humming radio—thanks
for the program on the radio
 
about the guy who was a cross-dresser—
but his wife forgave him—and he
ended up almost dying from leukemia—
 
(and you could tell his wife loved him
entirely—it was in her deliberate voice)—
thanks for the brined turkey—
 
the size of a big baby—thanks—
for the departed head of the turkey—
the present neck—the giblets
 
(whatever they are)—wrapped up as
small gifts inside the cavern of the ribs—
thanks—thanks—thanks—for the candles
 
lit on the table—the dried twigs—
the autumn leaves in the blue Chinese vase—
thanks—for the faces—our faces—in this low light.

 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by Tim Nolan, from his most recent book of poems, And Then, New Rivers Press, 2012. Poem reprinted by permission of Tim Nolan and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 399

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE


Our sense of smell is the one sense most likely to transport us through time. A sniff of fried fish on a breeze and I can wind up in my grandmother’s kitchen sixty years ago, getting ready to eat bluegills. Michael Walsh, a Minnesotan, builds this fine poem about his parents around the odor of cattle that they carry with them, even into this moment.


Barn Clothes
 
Same size, my parents stained and tore
alike in the barn, their brown hair
 
ripe as cow after twelve hours of gutters.
At supper they spoke in jokey moos.
 
Sure, showers could dampen that reek
down to a whiff under fingernails, behind ears,
 
but no wash could wring the animal from their clothes:
one pair, two pair, husband, wife, reversible.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 University of Arkansas Press, from The Dirt Riddles by Michael Walsh, University of Arkansas Press, 2010. Reprinted by permission of Michael Walsh and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 398


BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

David Hernandez is a Californian who knows how to have a good time with his writing. Here’s a delightful flight of fancy based on a negotiation with a postal clerk.


At the Post Office
 
The line is long, processional, glacial,
and the attendant a giant stone, cobalt blue
with flecks of white, I’m not so much
looking at a rock but a slab of night.
The stone asks if anything inside the package
is perishable. When I say no the stone
laughs, muted thunderclap, meaning
everything decays, not just fruit
or cut flowers, but paper, ink, the CD
I burned with music, and my friend
waiting to hear the songs, some little joy
after chemo eroded the tumor. I know flesh
is temporary, and memory a tilting barn
the elements dismantle nail by nail.
I know the stone knows a millennia of rain
and wind will even grind away
his ragged face, and all of this slow erasing
is just a prelude to when the swelling
universe burns out, goes dark, holds
nothing but black holes, the bones of stars
and planets, a vast silence. The stone
is stone-faced. The stone asks how soon
I want the package delivered. As fast
as possible, I say, then start counting the days.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by David Hernandez from his most recent book of poems, Hoodwinked, Sarabande Books, 2011. Reprinted by permission of David Hernandez and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 397

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE


It’s a good thing to have a poem about voting in the week of the election, and here’s a fine one by Judith Harris, who lives in Washington, D.C.


My Mother Goes to Vote
 
We walked five blocks
to the elementary school,
my mother’s high heels
crunching through playground gravel.
We entered through a side door.
 
Down the long corridor,
decorated with Halloween masks,
health department safety posters—
we followed the arrows
to the third grade classroom.
 
My mother stepped alone
into the booth, pulling the curtain behind her.
I could see only the backs of her
calves in crinkled nylons.
 
A partial vanishing, then reappearing
pocketbook crooked on her elbow,
our mayor’s button pinned to her lapel.
Even then I could see—to choose
is to follow what has already
been decided.
 
We marched back out
finding a new way back down streets
named for flowers
and accomplished men.
I said their names out loud, as we found
 
our way home, to the cramped house,
the devoted porch light left on,
the customary meatloaf.
I remember, in the classroom converted
into a voting place—
there were two mothers, conversing,
squeezed into the children’s desk chairs.


 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by Judith Harris, whose most recentbook of poems, Night Garden, is forthcoming from Tiger Bark Press, spring 2013. Poem reprinted by permission of Judith Harris and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 396

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

I’m not alone in noticing how time accelerates as we grow older, and as the seasons grow ever more brief the holidays are gone in a wink. This poem by Nancy Price about Halloween catches a little of that. She’s an Iowan whose poems are so heartfelt, clear and useful that we could run them every week and none of you would complain.



Trick or Treat
 
The ghost is a torn sheet,
the skeleton’s suit came from a rack in a store
the witch is flameproof, but who knows
what dark streets they have taken here?
Brother Death, here is a candy bar.
For the lady wearing the hat from Salem: gum.
And a penny for each eye, Lost Soul.
They fade away with their heavy sacks.
Thanks! I yell just in time.
                         Thanks for another year!


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2007 by Nancy Price from her book of poetry Two Voices and a Moon, Malmarie Press, 2007. Reprinted by permission of Nancy Price and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 395

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Here’s a delightful poem by Douglas S. Jones about a bicycle rider sharing his bike with a spider. Jones lives in Michigan and spiders live just about everywhere.


Centrifugal
 
The spider living in the bike seat has finally spun
its own spokes through the wheels.
I have seen it crawl upside down, armored
black and jigging back to the hollow frame,
have felt the stickiness break
as the tire pulls free the stitches of last night’s sewing.
We’ve ridden this bike together for a week now,
two legs in gyre by daylight, and at night,
the eight converting gears into looms, handle bars
into sails. This is how it is to be part of a cycle—
to be always in motion, and to be always
woven to something else.


 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Douglas S. Jones, whose most recent book of poems is the chapbook No Turning East, Pudding House Press, 2011. Poem reprinted from The Pinch, Vol. 31, no. 2, 2011, by permission of Douglas S. Jones and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


American Life in Poetry: Column 394

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE


A Kansas poet, Wyatt Townley has written a number of fine poems about the swift and relentless passage of time, one of the great themes of the world’s poetry, and I especially like this one.


Finding the Scarf

The woods are the book
we read over and over as children.
Now trees lie at angles, felled
by lightning, torn by tornados,
silvered trunks turning back

to earth. Late November light
slants through the oaks
as our small parade, father, mother, child,
shushes along, the wind searching treetops
for the last leaf. Childhood lies

on the forest floor, not evergreen
but oaken, its branches latched
to a graying sky. Here is the scarf
we left years ago like a bookmark,

meaning to return the next day,
having just turned our heads
toward a noise in the bushes,
toward the dinnerbell in the distance,

toward what we knew and did not know
we knew, in the spreading twilight
that returns changed to a changed place.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2007 by Wyatt Townley from her most recent book of poems, The Afterlives of Trees, Woodley Press, 2011. Poem reprinted by permission of Wyatt Townley and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 393

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Much of the poetry that has endured the longest is about the relentless movement of time, and in ways all art is about just that. Here’s a landscape in which time is at work, by Geraldine Connolly, who lives in Montana.


Flathead Lake, October
 
The eagle floats and glides,
circling the burnished aspen,
 
then takes the high pines
with a flash of underwing.
 
As surely as the eagle sails
toward the bay’s open curve,
 
as surely as he swoops and seizes
the struggling fish, pulling
 
it from an osprey’s beak;
so too, autumn descends,
 
to steal the glistening
summer from our open hands.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2007 by Geraldine Connolly, from her most recent book of poems, Hand of the Wind, Iris Press, 2009. Reprinted by permission of Geraldine Connolly and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 392

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE


It’s the time of the year for school supplies, and here’s a poem by Daniel J. Langton about just one of the items you’ll need to pick up. Langton lives in San Francisco.


School
 
I was sent home the first day
with a note: Danny needs a ruler.
My father nodded, nothing seemed so apt.
School is for rules, countries need rulers,
graphs need graphing, the world is straight ahead.
 
It had metrics one side, inches the other.
You could see where it started
and why it stopped, a foot along,
how it ruled the flighty pen,
which petered out sideways when you dreamt.
 
I could have learned a lot,
understood latitude, or the border with Canada,
so stern compared to the South
and its unruly river with two names.
But that first day, meandering home, I dropped it.
 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Daniel J. Langton, whose most recent book of poems, During Our Walks, is forthcoming from Blue Light Press. Poem reprinted from New Letters, Vol. 77, nos. 3&4, by permission of Daniel J. Langton and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 391

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Kay Ryan was our nation’s Poet Laureate at The Library of Congress for the 2008-2010 terms. Her poetry is celebrated for its compression; she can get a great deal into a few words. Here’s an example of a poem swift and accurate as a dart.

Pinhole
 
We say
pinhole.
A pin hole
of light. We
can’t imagine
how bright
more of it
could be,
the way
this much
defeats night.
It almost
isn’t fair,
whoever
poked this,
with such
a small act
to vanquish
blackness.
 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Kay Ryan, whose most recent book of poems is Odd Blocks, Selected and New Poems, Carcanet Press, 2011. Poem reprinted from Poetry, October 2011, by permission of Kay Ryan and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 390

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

David St. John is a California poet whose meticulous care with every word has always impressed me. This poem is a fine example of how clarity can let us see all the way to the heart.


From a Bridge
 
I saw my mother standing there below me
On the narrow bank just looking out over the river
 
Looking at something just beyond the taut middle rope
Of the braided swirling currents

Then she looked up quite suddenly to the far bank

Where the densely twined limbs of the cypress

Twisted violently toward the storm-struck sky

There are some things we know before we know

Also some things we wish we would not ever know

Even if as children we already knew & so

Standing above her on that bridge that shuddered

Each time the river ripped at its wooden pilings

I knew I could never even fate willing ever

Get to her in time
 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by David St.John, whose new collection, The Auroras, is forthcoming from Harper Collins. Poem reprinted from Poetry, July/August 2011, by permission of David St. John and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 389



BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Perhaps by the time this column appears, our economy will have improved and people who want to work can find good work. Minnie Bruce Pratt, who lives in Syracuse, N.Y., has a new book, mentioned below, in which there are a number of poems about the difficulties of finding work and holding on to it. Here’s an example:


Temporary Job
 
Leaving again. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t be
grieving. The particulars of place lodged in me,
like this room I lived in for eleven days,
how I learned the way the sun laid its palm
over the side window in the morning, heavy
light, how I’ll never be held in that hand again.
 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org) , publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Minnie Bruce Pratt from her most recent book of poems, Inside the Money Machine, Carolina Wren Press, 2011. Reprinted by permission of Minnie Bruce Pratt and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 388

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

There are people who believe that the afterlife exists in how we are remembered by the living, that we are rewarded or punished in the memories of people who knew us. Writing is a means of keeping memories fresh and vivid, and in this poem Judson Mitcham, a Georgia poet, gives his father a nudge toward immortality.


Writing
 
But prayer was not enough, after all, for my father.
His last two brothers died five weeks apart.
He couldn’t get to sleep, had no appetite, sat
staring. Though he prayed,
he could find no peace until he tried
to write about his brothers, tell a story
for each one: Perry’s long travail
with the steamfitters’ union, which he worked for;
and Harvey—here the handwriting changes,
he bears down—Harvey loved his children.

I discovered those few sheets of paper

as I looked through my father’s old Bible
on the morning of his funeral. The others
in the family had seen them long ago;
they had all known the story,
and they told me I had not, most probably, because
I am a writer,
and my father was embarrassed by his effort. Yet
who has seen him as I can: risen
 
in the middle of the night, bending over
the paper, working close
to the heart of all greatness, he is so lost.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2003 by Anhinga Press. Judson Mitcham’s most recent book of poems is A Little Salvation: Poems Old and New, Univ. of Georgia Press, 2007. Poem originally printed in This April Day, Anhinga Press, 2003; reprinted from The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, 2nd ed., Michael Simms, Ed., Autumn House Press, 2011, by permission of Judson Mitcham and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 387

 

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

One of my favorite poems is by Ruth Stone, about eating at a McDonald’s, and I have myself written a poem about a lunch at Arby’s. To these fast-food poems I now propose we add this fine one about IHOP, by Christine Stewart-Nuñez, who teaches at South Dakota State University.



Breakfast for Supper

At IHOP, after the skinny brunette
with a band-aid covering her hickey
comes to whisk away burnt toast,
Mom mentions Theresa, face
brightening. She had a dream
about her—80s flip hair, smooth
complexion. I’ve been living
in Tulsa for eighteen years,
Theresa said. I understand.
Even as I watched men lower
her casket, I fantasized the witness
protection program had resettled her.
 
How funny we look, mother
and daughter laughing over
scrambled eggs, tears dripping
onto bacon, hands hugging
coffee mugs. For a moment Mom felt
Theresa there. Such faith. Freshen
your cup? the waitress asks me, poised
to pour. Cloudy in the cold coffee,
my reflection. I offer the mug.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Christine Stewart-Nuñez from her most recent book of poems, Keeping Them Alive, WordTech Editions, 2011. Reprinted by permission of Christine Stewart- Nuñez and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 386

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE


A while back, we published a poem about a mockingbird, but just because one poet has written a poem about something, he or she doesn’t hold rights to the subject in perpetuity. Here’s another fine mockingbird poem from Carol V. Davis, who lives in Los Angeles.


Mockingbird II
 
    How perfectly he has mastered
the car alarm, jangling us from sleep.
    Later his staccato scatters smaller birds
that landed on the wire beside him.
    Perhaps the key to success
is imitation, not originality.
    Once, when the cat slinked up
the orange tree and snatched a hatchling,
    the mockingbird turned on us,
marked us for revenge.
    For two whole weeks he dive bombed
whenever I ventured out the screen door
    lured by his call: first tricked into thinking
the soft coo was a mourning dove courting,
    next drawn by the war cry of a far larger animal.
He swooped from one splintered eave, his mate from the other,
    aiming to peck out my eyes, to wrestle
the baby from my arms, to do God knows what
    with that newborn.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by Carol V. Davis, from her most recent book of poems, Between Storms, Truman State University Press, 2012. Reprinted by permission of Carol V. Davis and the publisher. Poem first appeared in Permafrost, Vol. 30, Summer 2008. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 385

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

I am very fond of poems that don’t use more words than they have to. They’re easier to carry around in your memory. There are Chinese poems written 1300 years ago that have survived intact at least in part because they’re models of succinctness. Here’s a contemporary version by Jo McDougall, who lives not in China but in Kansas.


Telling Time
 
My son and I walk away
from his sister’s day-old grave.
Our backs to the sun,
the forward pitch of our shadows
tells us the time.
By sweetest accident
he inclines
his shadow,
touching mine.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2001 by Autumn House Press. Jo McDougall’s most recent book of poems is Satisfied with Havoc, Autumn House Poetry, 2004. Poem reprinted from The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, 2nd ed., 2011, by permission of Jo McDougall and Autumn House Press. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 384

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

It would be nice if we could all get one last ride through a part of our lives we’d left behind. Patrick Phillips, who lives in Brooklyn, is our guide and pilot in this fine poem.


Elegy with Oil in the Bilge
 
By the time we got out on the water
the sun was so low, it wasn’t like water

but a field of gray snow that we plowed

in one endless white furrow of water

as I skirted the rocks and wrecked trawlers

and abandoned old jetties just under the water,

while you moaned in the bow, slick with fever,

whispering back to whatever the water

chattered and hissed through the hull—

until at last there were lights on the water

and I let the old Mercury rattle and sputter

its steaming gray rainbows out onto the water

as we drifted, at idle, for the last time in your life,

through that beloved, indifferent harbor.
 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Patrick Phillips, whose most recent book of poems is Boy, VQR Poetry Series, 2008. Poem reprinted from the New England Review, Vol. 32, no. 2, 2011, by permission of Patrick Phillips and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 383

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Sometimes, when we are children, someone or something suddenly throws open a window and the world of adults pours in. And we never quite get over it. Here’s a poem about an experience like that by Judith Slater, who lives in New York.

Zippo
 
I didn’t think handsome then, I thought
my father the way he saunters down Main Street,
housewives, shopkeepers, mechanics calling out,
children running up to get Lifesavers. The way
he pauses to chat, flipping his lighter open,
tamping the Lucky Strike on his thumbnail.

I sneak into his den when he’s out, tuck

into the kneehole of his desk and sniff
his Zippo until dizzy, emboldened;
then play little tricks, mixing red and black
inks in his fountain pen, twisting together
paperclips. If I lift the telephone receiver

quietly, I can listen in on our party line.

That’s how I hear two women
talking about him. That’s why my mother
finds me that night sleepwalking, sobbing.
“It’s all right,” she tells me,
“you had a nightmare, come to bed.”


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Judith Slater from her most recent book of poems, The Wind Turning Pages, Outriders Poetry Project, 2011. Poem reprinted by permission of Judith Slater and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 382

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE


Jane Hirshfield, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, is one of our country’s finest poets, and I have never seen a poem of hers that I didn’t admire. Here’s a fine one that I see as being about our inability to control the world beyond us.


The Promise

 
Stay, I said
to the cut flowers.
They bowed
their heads lower.

Stay, I said to the spider,

who fled.
 
Stay, leaf.
It reddened,
embarrassed for me and itself.

Stay, I said to my body.

It sat as a dog does,
obedient for a moment,
soon starting to tremble.

Stay, to the earth

of riverine valley meadows,
of fossiled escarpments,
of limestone and sandstone.
It looked back
with a changing expression, in silence.
 
Stay, I said to my loves.
Each answered,
Always.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Jane Hirshfield, from her most recent book of poems, Come, Thief, Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Poem reprinted by permission of Jane Hirshfield and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

 


American Life in Poetry: Column 381

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

I’d guess that many of you have looked at old snapshots taken of you by doting relatives and tried to recall what it was like to be that person in the picture who seems to be you yet is such a stranger today. Here Linda Parsons Marion, who lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, touches upon the great distance between then and now.


Snapshot

My mother sends the baby pictures she promised—
egg hunting in Shelby Park, wooden blocks
and Thumbelina tossed on the rug, knotty pine
walls in a house lost to memory. I separate out
the early ones, studying my navel or crumbs
on the tray, taken before my awareness
of Sylvania Superflash. Here I am sitting
on the dinette table, the near birthday cake
striking me dumb. Two places of wedding china,
two glasses of milk, posed for the marvelous
moment: the child squishes the fluted rosettes,
mother claps her hands, father snaps the picture
in the face of time. When the sticky sweet
is washed off the page, we are pasted in an album
of blessed amnesia. The father leaves the pine house
and sees the child on weekends, the mother
stores the china on the top shelf until it’s dull and crazed,
the saucer-eyed girl grips her curved spoon
like there’s no tomorrow.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Linda Parsons Marion, from her most recent book of poetry, Bound, Wind Publications, 2011. Reprinted by permission of Linda Parsons Marion and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 380

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Lots of contemporary poems are merely little personal anecdotes set into lines, but I prefer my anecdotes to have an overlay of magic. Here’s just such a poem by Shawn Pittard, who lives in California.


The Silver Fish
 
I killed a great silver fish,
cut him open with a long
 
thin knife. The river carried
his heart away. I took his
 
dead eyes home. His red flesh
sang to me on the fire I built
 
in my backyard. His taste
was the lost memory of my
 
wildness. Behind amber clouds
of cedar smoke, Orion
 
drew his bow. A black moon rose
from the night’s dark waters,
 
a sliver of its bright face
reflecting back into the universe.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Shawn Pittard, from his most recent book of poems, Standing in the River, Tebot Bach, 2011. Poem reprinted by permission of Shawn Pittard and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 379

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

I have irises that have been handed down through my family over the generations, being dug up again and again, moved to another house, another garden. Here’s a poem about that sort of inheritance, by Debra Wierenga, who lives in Michigan.


Chiller Pansies
 
Your pansies died again today.
All June I’ve watched them scorch and fall
by noon, their faces folding down
to tissue-paper triangles.
I bring them back with water, words,
a pinch, but they are sick to death
of resurrection. You planted them
last fall, these “Chillers” guaranteed
to come again in spring. They returned
in April—you did not. You who said
pick all you want, it just makes more!
one day in 1963,
and I, a daughter raised on love
and miracles, believed it.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Debra Wierenga, whose most recent book of poems is Marriage and Other Infidelities, Finishing Line Press, 2007. Poem reprinted from the Nimrod International Journal, Spring/Summer 2011, Vol. 54, No. 2, by permission of Debra Wierenga and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 377

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Julie Suk is a North Carolinian who, like all good writers, has taught herself to pay attention to what’s happening right under her nose. Here’s a good example of her poetry.


Loving the Hands

I could make a wardrobe
with tufts of wool
caught on thistle and bracken.

Lost-the scraps
I might have woven whole cloth.

Come watch, the man says,
shearing sheep
with the precision of long practice,
fleece, removed all of a piece,
rolled in a neat bundle.

I've been so clumsy
with people who've loved me.

Straddling a ewe,
the man props its head on his foot,
leans down with clippers,
each pass across the coat a caress.

His dogs, lying nearby,
tremble at every move—as I do,
loving the hands that have learned
to gentle the life beneath them.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Julie Suk, from her most recent book of poems, Lie Down with Me: New and Selected Poems, Autumn House Press, 2011. Poem reprinted by permission of Julie Suk and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 376

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Though most of us are not formally known as diplomats, many of us learn to be experts at domestic diplomacy, and the sorts of complex negotiations we find ourselves in can require a lot of patience. Here’s Dan Gerber, who lives in California, showing us some of that patience.



Marriage
 
When you are angry it’s your gentle self
I love until that’s who you are.
In any case, I can’t love this anger any more
than I can warm my heart with ice.
I go on loving your smile
till it finds its way back to your face.



American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Dan Gerber. In 2012, Copper Canyon Press will publish Dan Gerber’s Sailing Through Cassiopeia. Poem reprinted by permission of Dan Gerber. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 375

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Bill Holm was a Minnesota poet and essayist and a dear friend to many of us who live and write in flyover country. He is much missed. Mark Vinz has written this fine tribute to Bill.


Absences
 
“Even when you are not in a room,
you are in it, your voice everywhere.” –Bill Holm


The message that's recorded on the phone
is unmistakably bad news, and then
another call tells us it's one we love-
a sudden death while traveling, somehow
appropriate for one who always
seized life too completely to stand still.

A door slams shut, a wall has dropped away,
and once again I'm driven back to
empty pages, insufficient words,
to rooms he always filled on entering-
rooms lined with books, piano music, and
good friends who raise their glasses one last time.

And now, as all the lights are blinking off
in every prairie town we've ever loved,
when all the toasts are made and songs are sung,
when leaving is the only certainty,
a single voice keeps echoing, along
each dark, untraveled hallway of the heart.
 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Mark Vinz, whose most recent book of poems is The Work Is All, Red Dragonfly Press, 2010. Poem reprinted from the South Dakota Review, Vol. 48, no. 3, Fall 2010, by permission of Mark Vinz and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 374

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

The following poem by Kathryn Stripling Byer is the second in a series of related poems called Southern Fictions. Despite all the protective barriers we put up between us and the world, there’s always a man with a wink to rip right through. Byer has served as North Carolina’s Poet Laureate.


I still can’t get it right
 
I don’t know. I still can’t get it right,
the way those dirt roads cut across the flats
and led to shacks where hounds and muddy shoats
skulked roundabouts. Describing it sounds trite
as hell, the good old South I love to hate.
The truth? What’s that? How should I know?
I stayed inside too much. I learned to boast
of stupid things. I kept my ears shut tight,
as we kept doors locked, windows locked,
the curtains drawn. Now I know why.
The dark could hide things from us. Dark could see
what we could not. Sometimes those dirt roads shocked
me, where they ended up: I watched a dog die
in the ditch. The man who shot him winked at me.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2001 by Kathryn Stripling Byer from her most recent book of poems, Southern Fictions, Jacar Press, 2011. Descent, her new collection, is forthcoming from LSU Press. Reprinted by permission of Kathryn Stripling Byer and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 


American Life in Poetry: Column 373

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE


The paintings of Georgia O’Keefe taught us a lot about bones in the desert, but there’s more to learn, and more to think our way into. Here’s a fine poem by Jillena Rose, who lives in Michigan.


Taos
 
Bones are easier to find than flowers
in the desert, so I paint these:
Fine white skulls of cows and horses.
 
When I lie flat under the stars
in the back of the car, coyotes howling
in the scrub pines, easy to feel how those bones
are so much like mine: Here is my pelvis,
like the pelvis I found today
bleached by the sun and the sand. Same
hole where the hip would go, same
 
white curve of bone beneath my flesh
same cradle of life, silent and still in me.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Jillena Rose. Poem reprinted from Third Wednesday, Volume 3, Issue 1, Winter 2011, by permission of Jillena Rose and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.
 

 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 372

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE


We’ve published a number of engaging poems about parenthood in this column, and we keep finding more. Here’s Wendy Videlock, who lives in Colorado, taking a look into a child’s room.


Disarmed

 
I should be diligent and firm,
I know I should, and frowning, too;
again you’ve failed to clean your room.
Not only that, the evidence
of midnight theft is in your bed—
cracked peanut shells and m&m’s
are crumbled where you rest your head,
and just above, the windowsill
is crowded with a green giraffe
(who’s peering through your telescope),
some dominoes, and half a glass
of orange juice. You hungry child,

how could I be uncharmed by this,

your secret world, your happy mess?

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2003 by Wendy Videlock from her most recent book of poems, Nevertheless, Able Muse Press, 2011. Poem reprinted by permission of Wendy Videlock and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 371

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE


Dana Gioia, who served as Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, did a marvelous job of bringing the arts to Americans, arguably the best job that anyone in that position has done. He was a fine poet before he took that job, and he is a fine poet after. Here’s an example of his recent work.


Pity the Beautiful
 
Pity the beautiful,
the dolls, and the dishes,
the babes with big daddies
granting their wishes.
 
Pity the pretty boys,
the hunks, and Apollos,
the golden lads whom
success always follows.
 
The hotties, the knock-outs,
the tens out of ten,
the drop-dead gorgeous,
the great leading men.
 
Pity the faded,
the bloated, the blowsy,
the paunchy Adonis
whose luck’s gone lousy.
 
Pity the gods,
no longer divine.
Pity the night
the stars lose their shine.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Dana Gioia, whose most recent book of poems is Pity the Beautiful, Graywolf Press, 2012. Poem reprinted from Poetry, May 2011, by permission of Dana Gioia and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 370

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Here’s a fine poem about family love and care by Janet Eigner, who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. You can feel that blessing touch the crown of your head, can’t you?

Isaac’s Blessing

 
When Isaac, a small, freckled boy
approaching seven, visits us for Family Camp,
playing pirate with his rubber sword,
 
sometimes he slumps in grief,
trudging along, his sacrifice and small violin
in hand, his palm over his chest,
 
saying, Mother is here
in my heart. Before he leaves for home,
we ask if he’d like a Jewish blessing.
 
Our grandson’s handsome face ignites;
he chirps a rousing, yes, for a long life.
We unfold the prayer shawl,
 
its Hebrew letters silvering the spring light,
hold the white tallis above his head,
recite the blessing in its ancient language
 
and then the English, adding, for a long life.
Isaac complains, the tallis didn’t
touch his head, so he didn’t feel the blessing.
 
We lower its silken ceiling
to graze his dark hair,
repeat the prayer.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Janet Eigner, whose most recent book of poetry is What Lasts is the Breath, Black Swan Editions, 2012. Reprinted from Cornstalk Mother, Pudding House Publications, 2009, by permission of Janet Eigner and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 


American Life in Poetry: Column 369

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE


E.B. White, one of my favorite writers, used to say, “Simplify, simplify, simplify,” but that doesn’t mean that writing has to be simple, which is a different matter. Here’s a fine poem by Laurel Blossom of South Carolina that’s been simplified into a pure, clean beauty.


Red Balloon Rising

I tied it to your wrist
With a pretty pink bow, torn off
By the first little tug of wind.
I’m sorry.

I jumped to catch it, but not soon enough.
It darted away.

It still looked large and almost within reach.
Like a heart.

Watch, I said.
You squinted your little eyes.

The balloon looked happy, waving
Good-bye.

The sky is very high today, I said.
Red went black, a polka dot,

Then not. We watched it,
Even though we couldn’t

Spot it anymore at all.
Even after that.
 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Laurel Blossom, whose most recent book of poetry is Degrees of Latitude, Four Way Books, 2007. Poem reprinted from Pleiades, Vol. 31, no. 1, 2011, by permission of Laurel Blossom and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



American Life in Poetry: Column 368

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE


My mother kept a handwritten record of every cent she spent from the day she and my father were married until the day she died. So it’s no wonder I especially like this poem by Jared Harel, who teaches creative writing at Centenary College in Hackettstown, New Jersey.


Numbers
 
My grandmother never trusted calculators.
She would crunch numbers in a spiral notebook
at the kitchen table, watching her news.
Work harder and I’d have more to count,
she’d snap at my father. And so my father worked
harder, fixed more mufflers, gave her receipts
 
but the numbers seldom changed.
There were silky things my mother wanted,
glorious dinners we could not afford.
 
Grandma would lecture her: no more garbage,
and so our house was clean. The attic spotless.
In fact, it wasn’t until after she died
 
that my parents found out how much she had saved us.
What hidden riches had been kept in those notebooks,
invested in bonds, solid blue digits
etched on each page. She left them
in the kitchen by her black and white television
we tossed a week later, though it seemed to work fine.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Jared Harel, whose chapbook, The Body Double, is forthcoming from Brooklyn Arts Press. Reprinted from Cold Mountain Review, Volume 39, no. 1, Fall 2010, by permission of Jared Harel and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 367

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE


I’ve lived on the Great Plains all my life, and if I ever left this region for too long, I would dearly miss it. This lovely poem by Carol Light, who lives in Washington state, reminds me of that.


Prairie Sure
 
Would I miss the way a breeze dimples
the butter-colored curtains on Sunday mornings,
or nights gnashed by cicadas and thunderstorms?
The leaning gossip, the half-alive ripple
of sunflowers, sagging eternities of corn
and sorghum, September preaching yellow, yellow
in all directions, the windowsills swelling
with Mason jars, the blue sky bluest borne
through tinted glass above the milled grains?
The dust, the heat, distrusted, the screen door
slapping as the slat-backed porch swing sighs,
the hatch of houseflies, the furlongs of freight trains,
and how they sing this routine, so sure, so sure—
the rote grace of every tempered life?


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Carol Light, whose poems have been published in Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest and elsewhere. Poem reprinted from The Literary Bohemian, Issue 12, June 2011, by permission of Carol Light and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 


 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 366

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE



I don’t think we’ve ever published a poem about a drinker. Though there are lots of poems on this topic, many of them are too judgmental for my liking. But here’s one I like, by Jeanne Wagner, of Kensington, California, especially for its original central comparison.


My mother was like the bees
 
because she needed a lavish taste
on her tongue,
a daily tipple of amber and gold
to waft her into the sky,
a soluble heat trickling down her throat.
Who could blame her
for starting out each morning
with a swig of something furious
in her belly, for days
when she dressed in flashy lamé
leggings like a starlet,
for wriggling and dancing a little madly,
her crazy reels and her rumbas,
for coming home wobbly
with a flicker of clover’s inflorescence
still clinging to her clothes,
enough to light the darkness
of a pitch-black hive.

 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Jeanne Wagner from her most recent book of poetry, In the Body of Our Lives , Sixteen Rivers Press, 2010. Poem reprinted by permission of Jeanne Wagner and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 365

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE


It’s an ancient and respected tradition: Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote “Idylls of the King” to celebrate the life of King Arthur, and dedicated it to yet another of the royals, Albert, Prince Consort to Queen Victoria. How many poems have been written for people the poet admired? Here Carrie Shipers, who teaches in Wisconsin, writes about a contemporary superstar.


Love Poem for Ted Neeley In Jesus Christ Superstar
                                  Lincoln, Neb., 2009

 
That man’s too old to play Christ, someone said
when you appeared onstage—thirty years
in those white robes, spotlights tracking
your graceful sleeves, the attentive angle
of your head as you worked a crowd. I agreed
that you looked tired, but when Mary Magdalene
anointed you, when you cast merchants
and money changers from the temple, I forgot
your thinning hair and wrinkled brow, forgot
how your story ended: your broken voice
crying on the cross, your body arched as you
ascended. I’d lost track of how many songs
were in the second act, thought there might
be more—the empty tomb, your appearance
on the road, to Peter in Jerusalem—but the cast
came out for applause: soldiers, Apostles,
and women; Annas, Caiaphas, Pilate; Mary
in her red dress; Peter, that sturdy fisherman;
Judas, who has all the best songs; and finally
you, head bowed at our ovation. I didn’t come
to worship but you’ve left me no choice—
I don’t care how old you are, how many times
you’ve done this act before—you still rock
those power ballads, still heal with the same
sweet force before you rise. We’ll always want
too much from you. Tonight, I’ll believe until
the curtain closes, your tour bus rolls away.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Carrie Shipers, whose most recent book of poems is Ordinary Mourning, ABZ Press, 2010. Poem reprinted from New Letters, Vol. 22, no. 2, 2011, by permission of Carrie Shipers and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 364

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE


Sarah A. Chavez is a California poet, and here she writes about the yearning of children to find, amidst the clutter of adult life, places they can call their own.


In Childhood
 
In childhood Christy and I played in the dumpster across the street
from Pickett & Sons Construction. When we found bricks, it was best.
Bricks were most useful. We drug them to our empty backyard
and stacked them in the shape of a room. For months
we collected bricks, one on top another. When the walls
reached as high as my younger sister’s head, we laid down.
Hiding in the middle of our room, we watched the cycle
of the sun, gazed at the stars, clutched hands and felt at home.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Sarah A. Chavez. Reprinted by permission of Sarah A. Chavez. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 363

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


Psychologists must have a word for it, the phenomenon of shifting the focus of sadness from the source of that sadness to something else. Here’s a fine poem on this subject by Penelope Scambly Schott, who lives in Oregon.



Second Tour


While my husband packed to fly back to Vietnam,
this time as a tourist instead of a soldier,

I drove to the zoo to say goodbye to the musk oxen
who were being shipped out early next morning

to Tacoma. We were getting lions instead.
When I got there, it was too easy to park.

The zoo was closing early so they wouldn’t let me in.
I went back to my car and slid into the driver’s seat.

Sobs tore from deep in my chest, I who had never
seen a musk ox and never cared until now.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Penelope Scambly Schott, from her most recent book of poems, Crow Mercies, Calyx Books, 2010. Poem first appeared in Arroyo Literary Review, Vol. 2, Spring 2010. Reprinted by permission of Penelope Scambly Schott and the publishers. Introduction copyright ©2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 362

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


Sara Ries is a poet from Buffalo, N.Y., whose parents run a diner. Here’s one of her delightful poems about family life for a short order cook.



Fish Fry Daughter


Holiday Inn kitchen, the day I am born:
My father is frying fish for a party of seventeen
when the call comes from the hospital. He stays
until the batter is crispy, cold salads scooped
on platters, rye bread buttered.

Dad never told me this story.
He told my boyfriend, one short order cook to another.
Mom doesn’t know why Dad was late
for her screams and sweat on the hospital bed.
Once, when she was angry with him, she told me:
When your father finally got there, the nurse had to tell
him to get upstairs, “Your wife is having that baby now.
I hope that when Dad first held me,
it was with haddock-scented hands, apron
over his black pants still sprinkled with flour,
forehead oily from standing over the deep fryer,
telling the fish to hurry 
hurry.

  
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Sara Ries from her most recent book of poetry, Come In, We’re Open, National Federation of State Poetry Societies Press, 2010. Poem reprinted by permission of Sara Ries and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 361

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


If you’ve been in a hospital, and got out alive, you’re really alive. In this poem, Anya Silver, who lives in Georgia, celebrates just such an escape.


Leaving the Hospital


As the doors glide shut behind me,
the world flares back into being—
I exist again, recover myself,
sunlight undimmed by dark panes,
the heat on my arms the earth’s breath.
The wind tongues me to my feet
like a doe licking clean her newborn fawn.
At my back, days measured by vital signs,
my mouth opened and arm extended,
the nighttime cries of a man withered
child-size by cancer, and the bells
of emptied IVs tolling through hallways.
Before me, life—mysterious, ordinary—
holding off pain with its muscular wings.
As I step to the curb, an orange moth
dives into the basket of roses
that lately stood on my sickroom table,
and the petals yield to its persistent
nudge, opening manifold and golden.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Anya Silver, whose most recent book of poetry is The Ninety-Third Name of God, Louisiana State University Press, 2010. Poem reprinted from the New Ohio Review, No. 9, Spring, 2011, by permission of Anya Silver and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 360

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


Carol L. Gloor is an attorney living in Chicago and Savanna, Illinois. I especially like this poem of hers for its powerful ending, which fittingly uses the legal language of trusts and estates.



Moment


At the moment of my mother’s death
I am rinsing frozen chicken.
No vision, no rending
of the temple curtain, only
the soft give of meat.
I had not seen her in four days.
I thought her better,
and the hospital did not call,
so I am fresh from
an office Christmas party,
scotch on my breath
as I answer the phone.
And in one moment all my past acts
become irrevocable.

  
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Carol L. Gloor, whose chapbook is Giving Death the Raspberries, Thorntree Press, 1991. Poem reprinted from Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women, Vol. 25, no. 3, Winter 2010, by permission of Carol L. Gloor and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 359

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


At a time when a relationship is falling apart, sometimes the news of its failure doesn’t come out of a mouth but from gestures. Claudia Emerson, who lives in Virginia, here captures a telling moment.



Eight Ball


It was fifty cents a game
       beneath exhausted ceiling fans,
the smoke’s old spiral. Hooded lights
       burned distant, dull. I was tired, but you
insisted on one more, so I chalked
       the cue—the bored blue—broke, scratched.
It was always possible
       for you to run the table, leave me
nothing. But I recall the easy
       shot you missed, and then the way
we both studied, circling—keeping
       what you had left me between us.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2005 by Claudia Emerson, whose most recent book of poetry is Figure Studies, Louisiana State University Press, 2008. Poem reprinted from Late Wife, Louisiana State University Press, 2005, by permission of Claudia Emerson and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 358

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


Jaimee Kuperman is a poet living and working in the Washington, D.C., area, and she shares with many of us the experience of preparing one’s self for a visit to the dentist. Do you, too, give your teeth an especially thorough brushing before entering that waiting room?



The New Dentist


Driving to the new dentist’s office
the slow drive of a new place
with the McDonalds that I don’t go to
on the left, the mall two miles away.
The Courthouse and the Old Courthouse
road signs that break apart, the fork in the road
that looks nothing like a fork or a spoon, in fact
at best, maybe a knife bent in a dishwasher
that leans to one side. And I know the dentist
will ask about my last visit and want to know
in months that I can’t say some time ago
and I know he will ask me about flossing
and saying when I’m in the mood won’t be
the appropriate answer.
He will call out my cavities
as if they were names in a class.
I brush my teeth before going in.
It’s like cleaning before the cleaning person
but I don’t want him to know I keep an untidy
mouth. That I am the type of person who shoves
things in the closet before guests arrive.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Jaimee Kuperman and reprinted from her most recent book of poetry, You Look Nice Strange Man, ABZ Poetry Press, 2010. Reprinted by permission of Jaimee Kuperman and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 357

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


The title of this beautiful poem by Edward Hirsch contradicts the poem, which is indeed a prayer. Hirsch lives in New York and is president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, one of our country’s most distinguished cultural endowments.



I Was Never Able To Pray


Wheel me down to the shore
where the lighthouse was abandoned
and the moon tolls in the rafters.

Let me hear the wind paging through the trees
and see the stars flaring out, one by one,
like the forgotten faces of the dead.

I was never able to pray,
but let me inscribe my name
in the book of waves

and then stare into the dome
of a sky that never ends
and see my voice sail into the night.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Edward Hirsch, whose most recent book of poetry is The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. Reprinted from the Northwest Review, Vol. 48, No. 2, 2010, by permission of Edward Hirsch and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 356

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


Nothing brings a poem to life more quickly than the sense of smell, and Candace Black, who lives in Minnesota, gets hold of us immediately, in this poem about change, by putting us next to a dumpster.



Mr. D Shops At Fausto’s Food Palace


For years he lived close enough to smell
chicken and bananas rotting
in the trash bins, to surprise a cashier on break
smoking something suspicious when he walked

out the back gate. Did they have an account?
He can’t remember. Probably so, for all the milk
a large family went through, the last-minute
ingredients delivered by a smirking bag boy.

He liked to go himself, the parking lot’s
radiant heat erased once he got past the sweating
glass door, to troll the icy aisles in his slippers.
This was before high-end labels took over

shelf space, before baloney changed
its name to mortadella, before water
came in flavors, before fish
got flown in from somewhere else.

  
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Candace Black, from her most recent book of poetry, Casa Marina, RopeWalk Press, 2010. Reprinted by permission of Candace Black and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 355

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


Here’s an experience that I’d guess most of the men who read this column have had, getting into a rental tuxedo. Bill Trowbridge, a poet from Missouri, does a fine job of picturing that particular initiation rite.



Rental Tux


It chafed like some new skin we’d grown,
or feathers, the cummerbund and starched collar
pinching us to show how real this transformation
into princes was, how powerful we’d grown
by getting drivers’ licenses, how tall and total
our new perspective, above that rusty keyhole
parents squinted through. We’d found the key:
that nothing really counts except a romance
bright as Technicolor, wide as Cinerama,
and this could be the night. No lie.


   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2006 by William Trowbridge, from his most recent book of poems, Ship of Fool, Red Hen Press, 2011. Introduction copyright ©2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 354

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


A wise friend told me that since the Age of Reason we’ve felt we had to explain everything, and that as a result we’ve forgotten the value of mystery. Here’s a poem by Lisel Mueller that celebrates mystery. Mueller is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet from Illinois.



Sometimes, When the Light


Sometimes, when the light strikes at odd angles
and pulls you back into childhood

and you are passing a crumbling mansion
completely hidden behind old willows

or an empty convent guarded by hemlocks
and giant firs standing hip to hip,

you know again that behind that wall,
under the uncut hair of the willows

something secret is going on,
so marvelous and dangerous

that if you crawled through and saw,
you would die, or be happy forever.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©1980 by Lisel Mueller, from her most recent book of poems, Alive Together: New and Selected Poems, Louisiana State University Press, 1996. Poem reprinted by permission of Lisel Mueller and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 353

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


Anne Coray is an Alaskan, and in this beautiful meditation on the stillness of nature she shows us how closely she’s studied something that others might simply step over.



The Art of Being


The fern in the rain breathes the silver message.
Stay, lie low. Play your dark reeds
and relearn the beauty of absorption.
There is nothing beyond the rotten log
covered with leaves and needles.
Forget the light emerging with its golden wick.
Raise your face to the water-laden frond.
A thousand blossoms will fall into your arms.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Anne Coray from her most recent book of poetry, A Measure’s Hush, Boreal Books, 2011. Poem reprinted by permission of Anne Coray and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 352

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Here’s a moving poem about parenthood, about finding one’s self to be an adult but still trying to care for the child within. Mark Jarman teaches at Vanderbilt University.


After Disappointment


To lie in your child’s bed when she is gone
Is calming as anything I know. To fall
Asleep, her books arranged above your head,
Is to admit that you have never been
So tired, so enchanted by the spell
Of your grown body. To feel small instead
Of blocking out the light, to feel alone,
Not knowing what you should or shouldn’t feel,
Is to find out, no matter what you’ve said
About the cramped escapes and obstacles
You plan and face and have to call the world,
That there remain these places, occupied
By children, yours if lucky, like the girl
Who finds you here and lies down by your side.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©1997 by Mark Jarman and reprinted from Bone Fires: New and Selected Poems, Sarabande Books, 2011, by permission of Mark Jarman and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 351

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

In many of those Japanese paintings with Mt. Fuji in the background, we find tiny figures moving along under the immensity of the landscape. Here’s an American version of a scene like that, by Stanley Plumly of Maryland, one of our country’s most accomplished poets.



Off A Side Road Near Staunton


Some nothing afternoon, no one anywhere,
an early autumn stillness in the air,
the kind of empty day you fill by taking in
the full size of the valley and its layers leading
slowly to the Blue Ridge, the quality of country,
if you stand here long enough, you could stay
for, step into, the way a landscape, even on a wall,
pulls you in, one field at a time, pasture and fall
meadow, high above the harvest, perfect
to the tree line, then spirit clouds and intermittent
sunlit smoky rain riding the tops of the mountains,
though you could walk until it’s dark and not reach those rains—
you could walk the rest of the day into the picture
and not know why, at any given moment, you’re there.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Reprinted from Old Heart, by Stanley Plumly. Copyright ©2007 by Stanley Plumly. Used by permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 350

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


The persons we are when we are young are probably buried somewhere within us when we’ve grown old. Denise Low, who was the Kansas poet laureate, takes a look at a younger version of herself in this telling poem.



Two Gates


I look through glass and see a young woman
of twenty, washing dishes, and the window
turns into a painting. She is myself thirty years ago.
She holds the same blue bowls and brass teapot
I still own. I see her outline against lamplight;
she knows only her side of the pane. The porch
where I stand is empty. Sunlight fades. I hear
water run in the sink as she lowers her head,
blind to the future. She does not imagine I exist.

I step forward for a better look and she dissolves
into lumber and paint. A gate I passed through
to the next life loses shape. Once more I stand
squared into the present, among maple trees
and scissor-tailed birds, in a garden, almost
a mother to that faint, distant woman.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Denise Low, from her most recent book of poetry, Ghost Stories of the New West, Woodley Memorial Press, 2010. Poem reprinted by permission of Denise Low and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 349

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


Here’s a fine poem about a cricket by Catherine Tufariello, who lives in Indiana. I especially admire the way in which she uses rhyme without it ever taking control of the poetry, the way rhyme can.



The Cricket in the Sump


He falls abruptly silent when we fling
A basket down or bang the dryer shut,
But soon takes up again where he left off.
Swept by a rainstorm through a narrow trough
Clotted with cobwebs into Lord knows what
Impenetrable murk, he’s undeterred—
You’d think his dauntless solo was a chorus,
This rusty sump, a field or forest spring.
And there is something wondrous and absurd
About the way he does as he is bidden
By instinct, with his gift for staying hidden
While making sure unseen is plainly heard.

All afternoon his tremolo ascends
Clear to the second story, where a girl
Who also has learned blithely to ignore us
Sings to herself behind her bedroom door.
Maybe she moves to her invented score
With a conductor’s flourish, or pretends
She’s a Spanish dancer, lost in stamp and whirl
And waving fan—notes floating, as she plays,
Through the open window where the willow sways
And shimmers, humming to another string.
There is no story where the story ends.
What does a singer live for but to sing?

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Catherine Tufariello, whose first book of poetry is Keeping My Name, Texas Tech, 2004. Reprinted from Able Muse, Inaugural Print Issue, Winter 2010, by permission of Catherine Tufariello and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 348

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


When we’re on all fours in a garden, planting or weeding, we’re as close to our ancient ancestors as we’re going to get. Here, while he works in the dirt, Richard Levine feels the sacred looking over his shoulder.



Believe This


All morning, doing the hard, root-wrestling
work of turning a yard from the wild
to a gardener’s will, I heard a bird singing
from a hidden, though not distant, perch;
a song of swift, syncopated syllables sounding
like, Can you believe this, believe this, believe?
Can you believe this, believe this, believe?

And all morning, I did believe. All morning,
between break-even bouts with the unwanted,
I wanted to see that bird, and looked up so
I might later recognize it in a guide, and know
and call its name, but even more, I wanted
to join its church. For all morning, and many
a time in my life, I have wondered who, beyond
this plot I work, has called the order of being,
that givers of food are deemed lesser
than are the receivers. All morning,
muscling my will against that of the wild,
to claim a place in the bounty of earth,
seed, root, sun and rain, I offered my labor
as a kind of grace, and gave thanks even
for the aching in my body, which reached
beyond this work and this gift of struggle.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright © 2010 by Richard Levine, from his most recent book of poetry, That Country’s Soul, Finishing Line Press, 2010, by permission of Richard Levine and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 347

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

My mother and her sisters were experts at using faint praise, and “Bless her heart” was a very useful tool for them. Richard Newman, of St. Louis, does a great job here of showing us how far that praise can be stretched.



Bless Their Hearts


At Steak ‘n Shake I learned that if you add
“Bless their hearts” after their names, you can say
whatever you want about them and it’s OK.
My son, bless his heart, is an idiot,
she said. He rents storage space for his kids’
toys—they’re only one and three years old!

I said, my father, bless his heart, has turned
into a sentimental old fool. He gets
weepy when he hears my daughter’s greeting
on our voice mail.
Before our Steakburgers came
someone else blessed her office mate’s heart,
then, as an afterthought, the jealous hearts
of the entire anthropology department.
We bestowed blessings on many a heart
that day. I even blessed my ex-wife’s heart.
Our waiter, bless his heart, would not be getting
much tip, for which, no doubt, he’d bless our hearts.
In a week it would be Thanksgiving,
and we would each sit with our respective
families, counting our blessings and blessing
the hearts of family members as only family
does best. Oh, bless us all, yes, bless us, please
bless us and bless our crummy little hearts.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Richard Newman from his most recent book of poetry, Domestic Fugues, Steel Toe Books, 2009. Reprinted by permission of Richard Newman. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 346

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


It seems to me that most poems are set in spring or summer, and I was pleased to discover this one by Molly Fisk, a Californian, set in cold midwinter.



Winter Sun


How valuable it is in these short days,
threading through empty maple branches,
the lacy-needled sugar pines.

Its glint off sheets of ice tells the story
of Death’s brightness, her bitter cold.

We can make do with so little, just the hint
of warmth, the slanted light.

The way we stand there, soaking in it,
mittened fingers reaching.

And how carefully we gather what we can
to offer later, in darkness, one body to another.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Molly Fisk from her most recent book of poetry, The More Difficult Beauty, Hip Pocket Press, 2010. Reprinted by permission of Molly Fisk and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.





American Life in Poetry: Column 345

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


Somebody tells somebody else about something that happened. It comes naturally. We’ve been doing that for as long as our species has been around. But to elevate an anecdote into art requires more than just relating an incident. It requires a talent for pacing, for detail, for persuasion, and more. Here David Black, of Virginia, tells a good story in an artful manner.


Sleepers

A sleeper, they used to call it—
four passes with the giant round saw
and you had a crosstie, 7 inches by 9 of white oak—
at two hundred pounds nearly twice my weight
and ready to break finger or toe—

like coffin lids, those leftover slabs,
their new-sawn faces turning gold and brown
as my own in the hot Virginia sun,
drying toward the winter and the woodsaw

and on the day of that chore
I turned over a good, thick one
looking for the balance point

and roused a three-foot copperhead,
gold and brown like the wood,
disdaining the shoe it muscled across,

each rib distinct as a needle stitching leather,
heavy on my foot as a crosstie.


   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2000 by David Black, whose most recent book of poetry is The Clown in the Tent, Persimmon Tree Press, 2010. Reprinted by permission of David Black. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 344

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


I love listening to shop talk, to overhear people talking about their work. Their speech is not only rich with the colorful names of tools and processes, but it’s also full of resignation. A job is, after all, a job. Here’s a poem by Jorge Evans of Minnesota, who’s done some hard work.



Overtime


Fair season and we’re tent pitching
on holy grounds in central Illinois,
busting through pavement with jack hammers,
driving home a stake that will be pulled two months
from now. One of us holds, the other presses
down, grease shooting between cracks
in the old hammer’s worn shell
to our hands and faces—one slip and we’ve
lost our toes. I’m from the warehouse,
not the tent crew. I haven’t ridden around
in tent haulers across the nation
popping tents here and there, but for this,
the state fair, the warehousers are let out
to feel important. Around us a silvered city
has risen, white vinyl tents at full mast
and clean for the first time in a year. It’s August.
It’s the summer’s dogged days when humidity
doesn’t break until midnight, an hour after
the fair’s closed down. We’re piled on back
of a flatbed with our tools, our tiredness.
We’re a monster understood best
by Midwesterners, devouring parking lots
and fields, our teeth stained by cigarette
and chew, some of us not old enough, some
too old. All of us here for the overtime.


   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Jorge Evans. Reprinted from the South Dakota Review, Vol. 48, no. 2, Summer 2010, by permission of Jorge Evans and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 343

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


Most of us have received the delayed news of the death of a family member or friend, and perhaps have reflected on lost opportunities. Here’s a fine poem by J. T. Ledbetter, who lives in California but grew up on the Great Plains. 



Crossing Shoal Creek



The letter said you died on your tractor
crossing Shoal Creek.
There were no pictures to help the memories fading
like mists off the bottoms that last day on the farm
when I watched you milk the cows,
their sweet breath filling the dark barn as the rain
that wasn’t expected sluiced through the rain gutters.
I waited for you to speak the loud familiar words
about the weather, the failed crops—
I would have talked then, too loud, stroking the Holstein
moving against her stanchion—
but there was only the rain on the tin roof,
and the steady swish-swish of milk into the bright bucket
as I walked past you, so close we could have touched.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by J.T. Ledbetter, and reprinted from his most recent book of poetry, Underlying Premises, Lewis Clark Press, 2010, by permission of J.T. Ledbetter and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 


American Life in Poetry: Column 342

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Your high school English teacher made an effort to teach you and your bored classmates about sonnets, which have specific patterns of rhyme, and he or she used as an example a great poem by Keats or Shelley, about some heroic subject. To counter the memory of those long and probably tedious hours, I offer you this perfectly made sonnet by Roy Scheele, a Nebraska poet, about a more humble, common subject.


Woman Feeding Chickens


Her hand is at the feedbag at her waist,
sunk to the wrist in the rustling grain
that nuzzles her fingertips when laced
around a sifting handful. It’s like rain,
like cupping water in your hand, she thinks,
the cracks between the fingers like a sieve,
except that less escapes you through the chinks
when handling grain. She likes to feel it give
beneath her hand’s slow plummet, and the smell,
so rich a fragrance she has never quite
got used to it, under the seeming spell
of the charm of the commonplace. The white
hens bunch and strut, heads cocked, with tilted eyes,
till her hand sweeps out and the small grain flies.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Roy Scheele from his most recent book of poetry, A Far Allegiance, The Backwaters Press, 2010. Reprinted by permission of Roy Scheele and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 341

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Here’s a poem of mixed feelings by Don Thompson to help us launch October. Thompson lives in Buttonwillow, California, which sounds like the name of a town in a children’s story, don’t you think?




October


I used to think the land
had something to say to us,
back when wildflowers
would come right up to your hand
as if they were tame.

Sooner or later, I thought,
the wind would begin to make sense
if I listened hard
and took notes religiously.
That was spring.

Now I’m not so sure:
the cloudless sky has a flat affect
and the fields plowed down after harvest
seem so expressionless,
keeping their own counsel.

This afternoon, nut tree leaves
blow across them
as if autumn had written us a long letter,
changed its mind,
and tore it into little scraps.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Don Thompson, whose most recent book of poetry is Where We Live, Parallel Press, 2009. Reprinted from Plainsongs, Vol. 30, no. 3, Spring 2010, by permission of Don Thompson and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 340

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


I like birds, and poems about birds, and several years ago I co-edited an anthology of bird poems called The Poets Guide to the Birds. I wish Judith Harris had written this lovely description of a mockingbird in time for us to include it, but it’s brand new. Harris lives in Washington, D.C.



Mockingbird


I can hear him,
now, even in darkness,
a trickster under the moon,
bristling his feathers,
sounding as merry
as a man whistling in a straw hat,
or a squeaky gate
to the playground, left ajar
or the jingling of a star,
having wandered too far
from the pasture.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright © 2010 by Judith Harris, whose most recent book of poetry is The Bad Secret, Louisiana State University Press, 2006. Poem reprinted from Narrative, Summer, 2011, by permission of Judith Harris. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 339

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


People have been learning to cook since our ancient ancestors discovered fire, and most of us learn from somebody who knows how. I love this little poem by Daniel Nyikos of Utah, for its contemporary take on accepting directions from an elder, from two elders in this instance.



Potato Soup


I set up my computer and webcam in the kitchen
so I can ask my mother’s and aunt’s advice
as I cook soup for the first time alone.
My mother is in Utah. My aunt is in Hungary.
I show the onions to my mother with the webcam.
“Cut them smaller,” she advises.
“You only need a taste.”
I chop potatoes as the onions fry in my pan.
When I say I have no paprika to add to the broth,
they argue whether it can be called potato soup.
My mother says it will be white potato soup,
my aunt says potato soup must be red.
When I add sliced peppers, I ask many times
if I should put the water in now,
but they both say to wait until I add the potatoes.
I add Polish sausage because I can’t find Hungarian,
and I cook it so long the potatoes fall apart.
“You’ve made stew,” my mother says
when I hold up the whole pot to the camera.
They laugh and say I must get married soon.
I turn off the computer and eat alone.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Daniel Nyikos. Reprinted by permission of Daniel Nyikos. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 338

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


We all hope our children’s lives will be better than our own, and invest in that hope in a variety of ways. Here Michael Ryan of California compares what we can provide for them with what we can’t.



Girls’ Middle School Orchestra


They’re all dressed up in carmine
floor-length velvet gowns, their upswirled hair
festooned with matching ribbons:
their fresh hopes and our fond hopes for them
infuse this sort-of-music as if happiness could actually be
each-plays-her-part-and-all-will-take-care-of-itself.
Their hearts unscarred under quartz lights
beam through the darkness in which we sit
to show us why we endured at home
the squeaking and squawking and botched notes
that now in concert are almost beautiful,
almost rendering this heartrending music
composed for an archduke who loved it so much
he spent his fortune for the musicians
who could bring it brilliantly to life.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Michael Ryan, whose most recent book of poetry is New and Selected Poems, Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Reprinted from The American Poetry Review, Vol. 39, no. 5, Sept./Oct. 2010, by permission of Michael Ryan and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 337

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


South Dakota poet Leo Dangel has written some of the best and truest poems about rural life that I’m aware of. Here’s a fine one about a chance discovery.



Behind the Plow


I look in the turned sod
for an iron bolt that fell
from the plow frame
and find instead an arrowhead
with delicate, chipped edges,
still sharp, not much larger
than a woman’s long fingernail.
Pleased, I put the arrowhead
into my overalls pocket,
knowing that the man who shot
the arrow and lost his work
must have looked for it
much longer than I will
look for that bolt.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©1987 by Leo Dangel, whose most recent book of poems is The Crow on the Golden Arches, Spoon River Poetry Press, 2004. Poem reprinted from A Harvest of Words: Contemporary South Dakota Poetry, Patrick Hicks, Ed., Pine Hill Press, Inc., 2010, by permission of Leo Dangel and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 336

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

This week’s column is by Ladan Osman, who is originally from Somalia but who now lives in Chicago. I like “Tonight” for the way it looks with clear eyes at one of the rough edges of American life, then greets us with a hopeful wave.


Tonight

Tonight is a drunk man,
his dirty shirt.

There is no couple chatting by the recycling bins,
offering to help me unload my plastics.

There is not even the black and white cat
that balances elegantly on the lip of the dumpster.

There is only the smell of sour breath. Sweat on the collar of my shirt.
A water bottle rolling under a car.
Me in my too-small pajama pants stacking juice jugs on neighbors’ juice jugs.

I look to see if there is someone drinking on their balcony.

I tell myself I will wave.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Ladan Osman, and reprinted by permission of the poet. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 335

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


I’ve always been fascinated by miniatures of all kinds, the little glass animals I played with as a boy, electric trains, dollhouses, and I think it’s because I can feel that I’m in complete control. Everything is right in its place, and I’m the one who put it there. Here’s a poem by Kay Mullen, who lives in Washington, about the art of bonsai.

Bonsai at the Potter's Stall

Under fluorescent light,
aligned on a bench

and table top, oranges
the size of marbles dangle

from trees with glossy
leaves. White trumpets

bloom in tiny clay pots.
Under a firethorn’s twisted

limbs, a three inch monk
holds a cup from which

he appears to drink
the interior life. The potter

prizes his bonsai children
who will never grow up,

never leave home.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2006 by Kay Mullen, and reprinted from her most recent book of poetry, A Long Remembering: Return to Vietnam, FootHills Publishing, 2006, by permission of Kay Mullen and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 334

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Those of us who have gone back home to attend a reunion of classmates may have felt the strangeness of being a vaguely familiar person among others who, too, seem vaguely familiar. Dana Gioia, who served the country for four years as the Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, is an accomplished poet and a noted advocate for poetry.



Reunion


This is my past where no one knows me.
These are my friends whom I can’t name—
Here in a field where no one chose me,
The faces older, the voices the same.

Why does this stranger rise to greet me?
What is the joke that makes him smile,
As he calls the children together to meet me,
Bringing them forward in single file?

I nod pretending to recognize them,
Not knowing exactly what I should say.
Why does my presence seem to surprise them?
Who is the woman who turns away?

Is this my home or an illusion?
The bread on the table smells achingly real.
Must I at last solve my confusion,
Or is confusion all I can feel?

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Dana Gioia, whose most recent book of poetry is Interrogations at Noon, Graywolf Press, 2001. Poem reprinted from Poetry, September, 2010, by permission of Dana Gioia and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 333

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Here is a lovely poem by Robert Cording, a poet who lives in Connecticut, which shows us a fresh new way of looking at something commonplace. That’s the kind of valuable service a poet can provide.



Old Houses


Year after year after year
I have come to love slowly

how old houses hold themselves—

before November’s drizzled rain
or the refreshing light of June—

as if they have all come to agree
that, in time, the days are no longer
a matter of suffering or rejoicing.

I have come to love
how they take on the color of rain or sun
as they go on keeping their vigil

without need of a sign, awaiting nothing

more than the birds that sing from the eaves,
the seizing cold that sounds the rafters.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Robert Cording from his most recent book of poetry, Walking with Ruskin, CavanKerry Press, Ltd., 2010. Reprinted by permission of Robert Cording. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 332

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I’d guess that nearly everyone is aware that time seems to speed up as we age. Whenever I say that something happened ten years ago, my wife reminds me that it was twenty. Here’s a poem about time by the distinguished Maryland poet, Linda Pastan.



Counting Backwards


How did I get so old,
I wonder,
contemplating
my 67th birthday.
Dyslexia smiles:
I’m 76 in fact.

There are places
where at 60 they start
counting backwards;
in Japan
they start again
from one.

But the numbers
hardly matter.
It’s the physics
of acceleration I mind,
the way time speeds up
as if it hasn’t guessed

the destination—
where look!
I see my mother
and father bearing a cake,
waiting for me
at the starting line.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Linda Pastan, whose most recent book of poems is Traveling Light, W.W. Norton, 2011. Poem reprinted from Nimrod International Journal, Awards 32, Vol. 54, no. 1, 2010. Rights granted by Linda Pastan, in care of the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 331

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


It is estimated that one out of five Americans enjoys spending time bird watching, or birding, and here’s a poem for some of those people by Kathleen M. McCann, who lives in Massachusetts. I especially like the way she captures the egret’s stealthy motion in the second stanza.



Lone Egret


Classically stagy, goose-neck
elegant, river’s third eye.
Pencil thin head. S
for a throat. Skeleton of a saint.

Plodder, preening posturer.
One foot,
another.
Up from the dank weeds.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Kathleen M. McCann, whose most recent book of poetry is A Roof Gone to Sky, Carpenter Gothic Publishers, Inc., 2010. Reprinted from South Dakota Review, Vol. 48, no. 1, 2010, by permission of Kathleen M. McCann and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 330

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


Humans first prized horses for their strength and speed, but we have since been captivated by their beauty, their deep eyes and mysterious silences. Here’s a poem by Robert Wrigley, who lives in Idaho, where the oldest fossilized remains of the modern horse were found.



After a Rainstorm


Because I have come to the fence at night,
the horses arrive also from their ancient stable.
They let me stroke their long faces, and I note
in the light of the now-merging moon

how they, a Morgan and a Quarter, have been
by shake-guttered raindrops
spotted around their rumps and thus made
Appaloosas, the ancestral horses of this place.

Maybe because it is night, they are nervous,
or maybe because they too sense
what they have become, they seem
to be waiting for me to say something

to whatever ancient spirits might still abide here,
that they might awaken from this strange dream,
in which there are fences and stables and a man
who doesn’t know a single word they understand.

  
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Robert Wrigley from his most recent book of poetry, Beautiful Country, Penguin Books, 2010. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 329

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I’ve gotten to the age at which I spend a lot of time remembering, and it’s the fragments that seem to affect me the most, fleeting glimpses into the past that leave me still reaching for something I can’t quite grasp. Here Roy Scheele, a fine Nebraska poet, perfectly captures one of those passing memories.



Produce Wagon


The heat shimmer along our street
one midsummer midafternoon,
and wading up through it a horse’s hooves,
and each shoe raising a tongueless bell
that tolled in the neighborhood,
till the driver drew in the reins
and the horse hung its head and stood.

And something in a basket thin
as shavings (blackberries? or a ghost
of the memory of having tasted them?)
passing into my hands as mother paid,
and the man got up again,
slapping the loop from the reins,
and was off on his trundling wagon.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Roy Scheele from his most recent book of poetry, A Far Allegiance, The Backwaters Press, 2010. Reprinted by permission of Roy Scheele and the publisher.  Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 328

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

How I love poems in which there is evidence of a poet paying close attention to the world about him. Here Angelo Giambra, who lives in Florida, has been keeping an eye on the bees.



The Water Carriers


On hot days we would see them
leaving the hive in swarms. June and I
would watch them weave their way
through the sugarberry trees toward the pond
where they would stop to take a drink,
then buzz their way back, plump and full of water,
to drop it on the backs of the fanning bees.
If you listened you could hear them, their tiny wings
beating in unison as they cooled down the hive.
My brother caught one once, its bulbous body
bursting with water, beating itself against
the smooth glass wall of the canning jar.
He lit a match, dropped it in, but nothing
happened. The match went out and the bee
swam through the mix of sulfur and smoke
until my brother let it out. It flew straight
back to the hive. Later, we skinny-dipped
in the pond, the three of us, the August sun
melting the world around us as if it were
wax. In the cool of the evening, we walked
home, pond water still dripping from our skin,
glistening and twinkling like starlight.


 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Angelo Giambra, whose most recent book of poetry is Oranges and Eggs, Finishing Line Press, 2010. Poem reprinted from the South Dakota Review, Vol. 47, no. 4, Winter 2009, by permission of Angelo Giambra and publisher. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 327

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Some of us have more active fantasy lives than others, but all of us have them. Here Karin Gottshall, who lives in Vermont, shares a variety of loneliness that some of our readers may have experienced. 

More Lies

Sometimes I say I’m going to meet my sister at the café—
even though I have no sister—just because it’s such
a beautiful thing to say. I’ve always thought so, ever since

I read a novel in which two sisters were constantly meeting
in cafés. Today, for example, I walked alone
on the wet sidewalk, wearing my rain boots, expecting

someone might ask where I was headed. I bought
a steno pad and a watch battery, the store windows
fogged up. Rain in April is a kind of promise, and it costs

nothing. I carried a bag of books to the café and ordered
tea. I like a place that’s lit by lamps. I like a place
where you can hear people talk about small things,

like the difference between azure and cerulean,
and the price of tulips. It’s going down. I watched
someone who could be my sister walk in, shaking the rain

from her hair. I thought, even now florists are filling
their coolers with tulips, five dollars a bundle. All over
the city there are sisters. Any one of them could be mine.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Karin Gottshall, whose most recent book of poetry is Crocus, Fordham University Press, 2007. Poem reprinted from the New Ohio Review, No. 8, Fall 2010, by permission of Karin Gottshall and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 326

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I am especially fond of what we might call landscape poems, describing places, scenes. Here April Lindner, who lives in Philadelphia, paints a scene we might come upon on the back side of any great American city. 



Our Lady of Perpetual Help


The burnt church up the street yawns to the sky,
its empty windows edged in soot, its portals
boarded up and slathered with graffiti,
oily layers, urgent but illegible.
All that can be plundered has been, all
but the carapace—the hollow bell tower,
the fieldstone box that once served as a nave.
The tidy row of homes that line this block
have tended lawns and scalloped bathtub shrines.
Each front porch holds a chair where no one sits.
Those who live here triple lock their doors
day and night. Some mornings they step out
to find a smoking car stripped to its skeleton
abandoned at the curb. Most afternoons
the street is still but for a mourning dove
and gangs of pigeons picking through the grass.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help is gray,
a dead incisor in a wary smile.
A crevice in her wall allows a glimpse
into the chancel, where a sodden mattress
and dirty blanket indicate that someone
finds this place a sanctuary still,
takes his rest here, held and held apart
from passers by, their cruelties and their kindnesses,
watched over by the night’s blind congregation,
by the blank eyes of a concrete saint.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Able Muse Review and April Lindner, whose most recent novel is Jane, Poppy, 2010. Poem reprinted from Able Muse Anthology, Able Muse Press, 2010, by permission of the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 325

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Many of us have attempted to console friends who have recently been divorced, and though it can be a pretty hard sell, we have assured them that things will indeed be better with the passage of time. Here’s a fine poem of consolation by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, who teaches at Penn State.



One Day


One day, you will awake from your covering
and that heart of yours will be totally mended,
and there will be no more burning within.
The owl, calling in the setting of the sun
and the deer path, all erased.
And there will be no more need for love
or lovers or fears of losing lovers
and there will be no more burning timbers
with which to light a new fire,
and there will be no more husbands or people
related to husbands, and there will be no more
tears or reason to shed your tears.
You will be as mended as the bridge
the working crew has just reopened.
The thick air will be vanquished with the tide
and the river that was corrupted by lies
will be cleansed and totally free.
And the rooster will call in the setting sun
and the sun will beckon homeward,
hiding behind your one tree that was not felled.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley from her fourth book of poetry, Where the Road Turns, Autumn House Press, 2010. Poem reprinted by permission of Patricia Jabbeh Wesley and the publisher. Introduction copyright 2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 324

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Here’s a fine poem by my fellow Nebraskan, Barbara Schmitz, who here offers us a picture of people we’ve all observed but haven’t thought to write about.



Uniforms


It is very hot—92 today—to be wearing
a stocking cap, but the adolescent swaggering
through the grocery store automatic door
doesn’t seem to mind; does not even appear
to be perspiring. The tugged-down hat
is part of his carefully orchestrated outfit:
bagging pants, screaming t-shirt, high-topped
shoes. The young woman who yells to her friends
from an open pickup window is attired
for summer season in strapless stretch
tube top, slipping down toward bountiful
cleavage valley. She tugs it up in front
as she races toward the two who have
just passed a cigarette between them
like a baton on a relay team. Her white
chest gleams like burnished treasure
as they giggle loudly there in the corner
and I glance down to see what costume
I have selected to present myself to
the world today. I smile; it’s my sky blue
shirt with large deliberately faded Peace sign,
smack dab in the middle, plus grey suede
Birkenstocks—a message that “I lived through
the sixties and am so proud.” None of the
young look my way. I round the corner and
walk into Evening descending.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Barbara Schmitz, whose most recent book of poems is How Much Our Dancing Has Improved, Backwaters Press, 2005. Poem reprinted from the South Dakota Review, Vol. 47, no. 3, 2009, by permission of Barbara Schmitz and the publisher. Introduction copyright 2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 323

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Joe Paddock is a Minnesota poet and he and I are, as we say in the Midwest, “of an age.” Here is a fine poem about arriving at a stage when there can be great joy in accepting life as it comes to us.


One’s Ship Comes In

I swear
my way now will be
to continue without
plan or hope, to accept
the drift of things, to shift
from endless effort
to joy in, say,
that robin, plunging
into the mossy shallows
of my bird bath and
splashing madly till
the air shines with spray.
Joy it will be, say,
in Nancy, pretty in pink
and rumpled T-shirt,
rubbing sleep from her eyes, or
joy even in
just this breathing, free
of fright and clutch, knowing
how one’s ship comes in
with each such breath.



American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Joe Paddock from his most recent book of poetry, Dark Dreaming, Global Dimming, Red Dragonfly Press, 2009. Reprinted by permission of Joe Paddock and the publisher. Introduction copyright 2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 


American Life in Poetry: Column 322

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Cathy Smith Bowers was recently appointed poet laureate of North Carolina, and I want to celebrate her appointment by showing you one of her lovely poems, a peaceful poem about a peaceful thing.



Peace Lilies


I collect them now, it seems. Like
sea-shells or old
thimbles. One for
Father. One for

Mother. Two for my sweet brothers.
Odd how little
they require of
me. Unlike the

ones they were sent in memory
of. No sudden
shrilling of the
phone. No harried

midnight flights. Only a little
water now and
then. Scant food and
light. See how I’ve

brought them all together here in
this shaded space
beyond the stairs.
Even when they

thirst, they summon me with nothing
more than a soft,
indifferent furl-
ing of their leaves.


 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2004 by Cathy Smith Bowers, whose most recent book of poetry is The Candle I Hold Up to See You, Iris Press, 2009. Poem reprinted from A Book of Minutes, Iris Press, 2004, by permission of Cathy Smith Bowers and the publisher. Introduction copyright 2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 321
BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


For me, the most worthwhile poetry is that which reaches out and connects with a great number of people, and this one, by Joe Mills of North Carolina, does just that. Every parent gets questions like the one at the center of this poem.



How You Know


How do you know if it’s love?
she asks,
and I think if you have to ask, it’s not,
but I know this won’t help. I want to say
you’re too young to worry about it,
as if she has questions about Medicare
or social security, but this won’t help either.
“You’ll just know” is a lie, and one truth,
“when you still want to be with them
the next morning,” would involve too
many follow-up questions. The difficulty
with love, I want to say, is sometimes
you only know afterwards that it’s arrived
or left. Love is the elephant and we
are the blind mice unable to understand
the whole. I want to say love is this
desire to help even when I know I can’t,
just as I couldn’t explain electricity, stars,
the color of the sky, baldness, tornadoes,
fingernails, coconuts, or the other things
she has asked about over the years, all
those phenomena whose daily existence
seems miraculous. Instead I shake my head.
I don’t even know how to match my socks.
Go ask your mother. She laughs and says,
I did. Mom told me to come and ask you.

  
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Joe Mills, whose most recent book of poetry is Love and Other Collisions, Press 53, 2010. Poem reprinted from Rattle, Vol. 16, no. 1, Summer 2010, by permission of Joe Mills and the publisher. Introduction copyright 2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 320

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


When I was a little boy, the fear of polio hung over my summers, keeping me away from the swimming pool. Atomic energy was then in its infancy. It had defeated Japan and seemed to be America’s friend. Jehanne Dubrow, who lives and teaches in Maryland, is much younger than I, and she grew up under the fearsome cloud of what atomic energy was to become.


Chernobyl Year


We dreamed of glowing children,
their throats alive and cancerous,
their eyes like lightning in the dark.

We were uneasy in our skins,
sixth grade, a year for blowing up,
for learning that nothing contains

that heat which comes from growing,
the way our parents seemed at once
both tall as cooling towers and crushed

beneath the pressure of small things—
family dinners, the evening news,
the dead voice of the dial tone.

Even the ground was ticking.
The parts that grew grew poison.
Whatever we ate became a stone.

Whatever we said was love became
plutonium, became a spark
of panic in the buried world.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Jehanne Dubrow, whose most recent book of poems is Stateside, Northwestern Univ. Press, 2010. Poem reprinted from West Branch, No. 66, 2010, by permission of Jehanne Dubrow and the publisher. Introduction copyright 2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 319

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Here’s a poem in which eight-year-old Ava Schicke, who lives in Omaha, Nebraska, tells us just who she is and what she thinks.


I am


I am a daughter and a sister.
I wonder when I will die.
I hear the warm weather coming.
I see stars in the day.
I want to learn my whole ballet dance.
I am a daughter and a sister.

I pretend to be a teacher at home.
I feel like I am a teacher.
I touch hands that are growing.
I worry that I will never change.
I cry when something or someone dies.
I am a daughter and a sister.

I understand that teachers work hard for students.
I say that I don’t like bullies.
I dream about me not moving while trying really hard to run.
I try to become a good friend.
I hope that there is no more dying or killing.
I am a daughter and a sister.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Ava Schicke. Introduction copyright 2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 318

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I love poems that take pains to observe people at their tasks, and here’s a fine one by Christopher Todd Matthews, who lives in Virginia.

 Window Washer

One hand slops suds on, one
hustles them down like a blind.
Brusque noon glare, filtered thus,
loosens and glows. For five or
six minutes he owns the place,
dismal coffee bar, and us, its
huddled underemployed. A blade,
black line against the topmost glass,

begins, slices off the outer lather,
flings it away, works inward,
corrals the frothy middle, and carves,
with quick cuts, the stuff down,
not looking for anything, beneath
or inside. Homes to the last,
cleans its edges, grooms it for
the end, then shaves it off

and flings it away. Which is
splendid, and merciless. And all
in the wrist. Then, he looks at us.
We makers of filth, we splashers
and spitters. We sitters and watchers.
Who like to see him work.
Who love it when he leaves
and gives it back: our grim hideout,
half spoiled by clarity.

  
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Christopher Todd Matthews, and reprinted from Field, No. 82, 2010, by permission of Christopher Todd Matthews and the publisher. Introduction copyright 2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 317

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Our wars come home, sooner or later. Judith Harris lives in Washington, D.C., and in this poem gives us a veteran of Iraq back among the ordinary activities of American life.



End of Market Day


At five, the market is closing.
Burdock roots, parsley, and rutabagas
are poured back into the trucks.
The antique dealer breaks down his tables. 

Light dappled, in winter parkas
shoppers hunt for bargains:
a teapot, or costume jewelry,
a grab bag of rubbishy vegetables for stew.

Now twilight, the farmer’s wife
bundled in her tweed coat and pocket apron
counts out her cash from a metal box,
and nods to her grown-up son

back from a tour in Iraq,
as he waits in the station wagon
with the country music turned way up,
his prosthetic leg gunning the engine.

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Judith Harris, whose most recent book of poetry is The Bad Secret, Louisiana State University Press, 2006. Poem reprinted from The Southern Review, Vol. 46, no. 1, 2009, by permission of Judith Harris and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 316

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I’ve mentioned before how much I like poems that take the time to carefully observe people at work. Here David St. John, who lives in California, gives us a snapshot of workers protecting an orchard. 

Peach Fires

Out in the orchards the dogs stood

Almost frozen in the bleak spring night
& Mister dragged out into the rows
Between his peach trees the old dry limbs

Building at regular intervals careful pyres
While the teeth of the dogs chattered & snapped
& the ice began to hang long as whiskers

From the globes along the branches
& at his signal we set the piles of branches ablaze
Tending each carefully so as not to scorch

The trees as we steadily fed those flames
Just enough to send a rippling glow along
Those acres of orchard where that body—

Sister Winter—had been held so wisely to the fire

   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2002 by David St. John, whose most recent book of poetry is The Face: A Novella in Verse, Harper Collins, 2004. Poem reprinted from The Place That Inhabits Us, Sixteen Rivers Press, 2010, by permission of David St. John and the publishers. Introduction copyright © 2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 315

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006



We who teach creative writing have been known to tell our students that there is no subject so common and ordinary that it can’t be addressed in a poem, and this one, by Michael McFee, who lives in North Carolina, is a good example of that.



Spitwads


Little paper cuds we made
by ripping the corners or edges
from homework and class notes
then ruminating them into balls
we’d flick from our fingertips
or catapult with pencils
or (sometimes after lunch)
launch through striped straws
like deadly projectiles
toward the necks of enemies
and any other target where they’d
stick with the tiniest splat,
I hope you’re still there,
stuck to unreachable ceilings
like the beginnings of nests
by generations of wasps
too ignorant to finish them
or under desktops with blunt
stalactites of chewing gum,
little white words we learned
to shape and hold in our mouths
while waiting to let them fly,
our most tenacious utterance.


   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2005 by Michael McFee, whose most recent book of poetry is The Smallest Talk, Bull City Press, 2007. Poem reprinted from Shinemaster, Carnegie Mellon Univ. Press, 2006, by permission of Michael McFee and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 314

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


Maybe you have to be a poet to get away with sniffing the paws of a dog, and I have sniffed the paws of all of mine, which almost always smell like hayfields in sunlight. Here Jane Varley, who lives in Ohio, offers us a touching last moment with a dear friend. 



Packing the Car for Our Western Camping Trip


What we will remember—we tried to take the dog,
packed around him, making a cozy spot
at the back of the Subaru, blocking out the sun,
resisting the obvious—
he was too old, he would not make it.
And when he died in Minnesota,
we smelled and smelled his paws,
arthritic and untouchable these last many years,
took those marvelous paws up into our faces.
They smelled of dark clay
and sweet flower bloom decay.

   

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Jane Varley, whose most recent book is a memoir, Flood Stage and Rising, University of Nebraska Press, 2005. Poem reprinted from Poems & Plays, No. 16, 2009, by permission of Jane Varley and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 


American Life in Poetry: Column 313

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Go for a walk and part of whatever you walk through rides back on your socks. Here Peter Everwine, a California poet, tells us about the seeds that stick to us, in all their beauty and variety.

Back from the Fields

Until nightfall my son ran in the fields,
looking for God knows what.
Flowers, perhaps. Odd birds on the wing.
Something to fill an empty spot.
Maybe a luminous angel
or a country girl with a secret dark.
He came back empty-handed,
or so I thought.

Now I find them:
thistles, goatheads,
the barbed weeds
all those with hooks or horns
the snaggle-toothed, the grinning ones
those wearing lantern jaws,
old ones in beards, leapers
in silk leggings, the multiple
pocked moons and spiny satellites, all those
with juices and saps
like the fingers of thieves
nation after nation of grasses
that dig in, that burrow, that hug winds
and grab handholds
in whatever lean place.

It’s been a good day.


   
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2004 by Peter Everwine, whose most recent book of poetry is From the Meadow: Selected and New Poems, Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2004. Poem reprinted from The Place That Inhabits Us, Sixteen Rivers Press, 2010, by permission of Peter Everwine and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 312

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Ellery Akers is a California poet who here brings all of us under a banner with one simple word on it. 

The Word That Is a Prayer

One thing you know when you say it:
all over the earth people are saying it with you;
a child blurting it out as the seizures take her,
a woman reciting it on a cot in a hospital.
What if you take a cab through the Tenderloin:
at a street light, a man in a wool cap,
yarn unraveling across his face, knocks at the window;
he says, Please.
By the time you hear what he’s saying,
the light changes, the cab pulls away,
and you don’t go back, though you know
someone just prayed to you the way you pray.
Please: a word so short
it could get lost in the air
as it floats up to God like the feather it is,
knocking and knocking, and finally
falling back to earth as rain,
as pellets of ice, soaking a black branch,
collecting in drains, leaching into the ground,
and you walk in that weather every day.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©1997 by Ellery Akers, whose most recent book of poetry is Knocking on the Earth, Wesleyan University Press, 1989. Reprinted from The Place That Inhabits Us, Sixteen Rivers Press, 2010, by permission of Ellery Akers and the publishers. Introduction copyright © 2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 311

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Peggy Shumaker lives in Alaska, but she gets around the world. Here she takes us with her on a ninety-foot dive into colorful mid-Pacific waters.



Night Dive


Plankton rise toward the full moon
spread thin on Wakaya’s surface.
Manta rays’ great curls of jaw
scoop backward somersaults of ocean
in through painted caves of their mouths, out
through sliced gills. Red sea fans
pulse. The leopard shark
lounges on a smooth ramp of sand,
skin jeweled with small hangers-on.
Pyramid fish point the way to the surface.

Ninety feet down, blue ribbon eels cough,
their mouths neon cautions.
Ghost pipefish curl in the divemaster’s palm.
Soft corals unfurl rainbow polyps, thousands
of mouths held open to night.
Currents’ communion—giant clams
slam shut wavy jaws, send
shivers of water. Christmas tree worms
snap back, flat spirals tight,
living petroglyphs against the night.

  
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Peggy Shumaker from her most recent book of poetry, Gnawed Bones, Red Hen Press, 2010. Reprinted by permission of Peggy Shumaker and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 310

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

A friend saw a refrigerator magnet that read, PARENTING: THE FIRST 40 YEARS ARE THE HARDEST. And lots of parents, thinking their children have moved on, discover one day that those children are back. Here Marilyn L. Taylor, Poet Laureate of Wisconsin, writes of that.



Home Again, Home Again


The children are back, the children are back—
They’ve come to take refuge, exhale and unpack;
The marriage has faltered, the job has gone bad,
Come open the door for them, Mother and Dad.

The city apartment is leaky and cold,
The landlord lascivious, greedy and old—
The mattress is lumpy, the oven’s encrusted,
The freezer, the fan, and the toilet have rusted.

The company caved, the boss went broke,
The job and the love affair, all up in smoke.
The anguish of loneliness comes as a shock—
O heart in the doldrums, O heart in hock.

And so they return with their piles of possessions,
Their terrified cats and their mournful expressions,
Reclaiming the bedrooms they had in their teens,
Clean towels, warm comforter, glass figurines.

Downstairs in the kitchen the father and mother
Don’t say a word, but they look at each other
As down from the hill comes Jill, comes Jack.
The children are back. The children are back.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Marilyn L. Taylor, whose most recent book of poetry is Going Wrong, Parallel Press, 2009. Poem reprinted from Wisconsin Poets Laureate, Marsh River Editions, 2009, by permission of Marilyn L. Taylor and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 309

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I love poems that celebrate families, and here’s a fine one by Joyce Sutphen of Minnesota, a poet who has written dozens of poems I’d like to publish in this column if there only were weeks enough for all of them.


The Aunts


I like it when they get together
and talk in voices that sound
like apple trees and grape vines,

and some of them wear hats
and go to Arizona in the winter,
and they all like to play cards.

They will always be the ones
who say “It is time to go now,”
even as we linger at the door,

or stand by the waiting cars, they
remember someone—an uncle we
never knew—and sigh, all

of them together, like wind
in the oak trees behind the farm
where they grew up—a place

I remember—especially
the hen house and the soft
clucking that filled the sunlit yard.

  
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Joyce Sutphen from her most recent book of poetry, First Words, Red Dragonfly Press, 2010. Poem reprinted by permission of Joyce Sutphen and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


American Life in Poetry: Column 308

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


Connie Wanek is one of my favorite poets. She lives in Duluth and has a keen eye for what goes on around her. Here’s a locked and loaded scene from rural America. 



Mysterious Neighbors


Country people rise early
as their distant lights testify.
They don’t hold water in common. Each house
has a personal source, like a bank account,
a stone vault. Some share eggs,
some share expertise,
and some won’t even wave.
A walk for the mail elevates the heart rate.
Last November I saw a woman down the road
walk out to her mailbox dressed in blaze orange
cap to boot, a cautious soul.
Bullets can’t read her No Trespassing sign.
Strange to think they’re in the air
like lead bees with a fatal sting.
Our neighbor across the road sits in his kitchen
with his rifle handy and the window open.
You never know when. Once
he shot a trophy with his barrel resting on the sill.
He’s in his seventies, born here, joined the Navy,
came back. Hard work never hurt a man
until suddenly he was another broken tool.
His silhouette against the dawn
droops as though drought-stricken, each step
deliberate, down the driveway to his black mailbox,
prying it open. Checking a trap.

  
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Connie Wanek whose most recent book of poetry is On Speaking Terms, Copper Canyon Press, 2010. Reprinted from New Ohio Review, No. 7, Spring 2010, by permission of Connie Wanek and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



American Life in Poetry: Column 307

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I like this poem by 97-year-old Lois Beebe Hayna of Colorado for the way it captures restrained speech. The speaker spends most of her words in describing a season, but behind the changes of spring another significant change is suggested.


Brief Eden 

For part of one strange year we lived
in a small house at the edge of a wood.
No neighbors, which suited us. Nobody
to ask questions. Except
for the one big question we went on
asking ourselves.
                 That spring
myriads of birds stopped over
briefly. Birds we’d never seen before, drawn
to our leafy quiet and our brook and because,
as we later learned, the place lay beneath
a flyway. Flocks appeared overnight—birds
brilliant or dull, with sharp beaks
or crossed bills, birds small
and enormous, all of them pausing
to gorge at the feeder, to rest their wings,
and disappear. Each flock seemed surer than we
of a destination. By the time we’d watched them
wing north in spring, then make
an anxious autumn return,
we too had pulled it together and we too moved
into what seemed to be our lives.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Lois Beebe Hayna, whose most recent book of poems is Keeping Still, Higganum Hill Books, 2005. Poem reprinted from The Greensboro Review, No. 86, Fall 2009, by permission of Lois Beebe Hayna and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 306

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


My grandmother Moser made wonderful cherry pies from fruit from a tree just across the road from her house, and I have loved fruit trees ever since. A cherry tree is all about giving. Here’s a poem by Nathaniel Perry, who lives in Virginia, giving us an orchard made of words.



Remaking a Neglected Orchard

It was a good idea, cutting away
the vines and ivy, trimming back
the chest-high thicket lazy years
had let grow there. Though it wasn’t for lack

of love for the trees, I’d like to point out.
Years love trees in a way we can’t
imagine. They just don’t use the fruit
like us; they want instead the slant

of sun through narrow branches, the buckshot
of rain on these old cherries. And we,
now that I think on it, want those
things too, we just always and desperately

want the sugar of the fruit, the best
we’ll get from this irascible land:
sweetness we can gather for years,
new stains staining the stains on our hands.
 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Nathaniel Perry, and reprinted from Gettysburg Review, Vol. 23, no. 1, Spring 2010, by permission of Nathaniel Perry and the publisher. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 305

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

The great Spanish artist Pablo Picasso said that, in his subjects, he kept the joy of discovery, the pleasure of the unexpected. In this poem celebrating Picasso, Tim Nolan, an attorney in Minneapolis, says the world will disclose such pleasures to us, too, if only we pay close attention.

Picasso

How can we believe he did it—
every day—for all those years?

We remember how the musicians
gathered for him—and the prostitutes

arranged themselves the way he wanted—
and even the helmeted monkeys

with their little toy car cerebella—
posed—and the fish on the plate—

remained after he ate the fish—
Bones—What do we do with this

life?—except announce: Joy.
Joy. Joy
—from the lead—

to the oil—to the stretch of bright
canvas—stretched—to the end of it all.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by Tim Nolan, whose most recent book of poetry is The Sound of It, New Rivers Press, 2008. Poem reprinted from Water~Stone Review, Vol. 11, Fall 2008, by permission of Tim Nolan and the publisher. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 304

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

After my mother died, one of the most difficult tasks for my sister and me was to take the clothes she’d made for herself to a thrift shop. In this poem, Frannie Lindsay, a Massachusetts poet, remembers a similar experience.

The Thrift Shop Dresses

I slid the white louvers shut so I could stand in your closet
a little while among the throng of flowered dresses
you hadn’t worn in years, and touch the creases
on each of their sleeves that smelled of forgiveness
and even though you would still be alive a few more days
I knew they were ready to let themselves be
packed into liquor store boxes simply
because you had asked that of them,
and dropped at the door of the Salvation Army
without having noticed me
wrapping my arms around so many at once
that one slipped a big padded shoulder off of its hanger
as if to return the embrace.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Frannie Lindsay, from her most recent book of poems, Mayweed, The Word Works, 2009, and reprinted by permission of Frannie Lindsay and the publisher. The poem first appeared in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Vol. 34, no. 1, Winter 2009. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 303

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


There’s something wonderfully sweet about a wife cutting a husband’s hair, and Bruce Guernsey, who lives in Illinois and Maine, captures it beautifully in this poem. 

For My Wife Cutting My Hair

You move around me expertly like the good, round
Italian barber I went to in Florence,
years before we met, his scissors
a razor he sharpened on a belt.

But at first when you were learning, I feared
for my neck, saw my ears like sliced fruit
on the newspapered floor. Taking us back in time,
you cleverly clipped my head in a flat-top.

The years in between were styles no one had ever seen,
or should see again: when the wind rose
half my hair floated off in feathers,
the other half bristling, brief as a brush.

In the chair, almost asleep, I hear the bright
scissors dancing. Hear you hum, full-breasted as Aida,
carefully trimming the white from my temples,
so no one, not even I, will know.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Bruce Guernsey, whose most recent book of poems is New England Primer, Cherry Grove Collection, 2008. Reprinted from the Spoon River Poetry Review, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, Summer/Fall 2010, by permission of Bruce Guernsey and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 302

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

In Iowa in the 1950’s, when we at last heard about pizza, my mother decided to make one for us. She rolled out bread dough, put catsup on it, and baked it. Voila! Pizza! And inexpensive, too. Here’s Grace Cavalieri, a poet and playwright who lives in Maryland, serving something similar and undoubtedly better. 

Tomato Pies, 25 Cents

Tomato pies are what we called them, those days,
before Pizza came in,
at my Grandmother’s restaurant,
in Trenton New Jersey.
My grandfather is rolling meatballs
in the back. He studied to be a priest in Sicily but
saved his sister Maggie from marrying a bad guy
by coming to America.
Uncle Joey is rolling dough and spooning sauce.
Uncle Joey, is always scrubbed clean,
sobered up, in a white starched shirt, after
cops delivered him home just hours before.
The waitresses are helping
themselves to handfuls of cash out of the drawer,
playing the numbers with Moon Mullin
and Shad, sent in from Broad Street. 1942,
tomato pies with cheese, 25 cents.
With anchovies, large, 50 cents.
A whole dinner is 60 cents (before 6 pm).
How the soldiers, bussed in from Fort Dix,
would stand outside all the way down Warren Street,
waiting for this new taste treat,
young guys in uniform,
lined up and laughing, learning Italian,
before being shipped out to fight the last great war.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Grace Cavalieri from her most recent book of poetry, Sounds Like Something I Would Say, Goss 183 Casa Menendez, 2010. Reprinted by permission of Grace Cavalieri and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 301

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Some of us are fortunate to find companions among the other creatures, and in this poem by T. Alan Broughton of Vermont, we sense a kind of friendship without dependency between our species and another.



Great Blue Heron

I drive past him each day in the swamp where he stands
on one leg, hunched as if dreaming of his own form
the surface reflects. Often I nearly forget to turn left,
buy fish and wine, be home in time to cook and chill.
Today the bird stays with me, as if I am moving through
the heron’s dream to share his sky or water—places
he will rise into on slow flapping wings or where
his long bill darts to catch unwary frogs. I’ve seen
his slate blue feathers lift him as dangling legs
fold back, I’ve seen him fly through the dying sun
and out again, entering night, entering my own sleep.
I only know this bird by a name we’ve wrapped him in,
and when I stand on my porch, fish in the broiler,
wine glass sweating against my palm, glint of sailboats
tacking home on dusky water, I try to imagine him
slowly descending to his nest, wise as he was
or ever will be, filling each moment with that moment’s
act or silence, and the evening folds itself around me.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by T. Alan Broughton from his most recent book of poetry, A World Remembered, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2010. Reprinted by permission of T. Alan Broughton and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.





American Life in Poetry: Column 300

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


This is our 300th column, and we thank you for continuing to support us. I realized a while back that there have been over 850 moons that have gone through their phases since I arrived on the earth, and I haven’t taken the time to look at nearly enough of them. Here Molly Fisk, a California poet, gives us one of those many moons that you and I may have failed to observe.



Hunter's Moon  

Early December, dusk, and the sky
slips down the rungs of its blue ladder
into indigo. A late-quarter moon hangs
in the air above the ridge like a broken plate
and shines on us all, on the new deputy
almost asleep in his four-by-four,
lulled by the crackling song of the dispatcher,
on the bartender, slowly wiping a glass
and racking it, one eye checking the game.
It shines down on the fox’s red and grey life,
as he stills, a shadow beside someone’s gate,
listening to winter. Its pale gaze caresses
the lovers, curled together under a quilt,
dreaming alone, and shines on the scattered
ashes of terrible fires, on the owl’s black flight,
on the whelks, on the murmuring kelp,
on the whale that washed up six weeks ago
at the base of the dunes, and it shines
on the backhoe that buried her.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2000 by Molly Fisk, whose most recent book of poetry is The More Difficult Beauty, Hip Pocket Press, 2010. Poem reprinted from The Place That Inhabits Us, Sixteen Rivers Press, 2010, by permission of Molly Fisk and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 299

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Here’s a poem by Christopher Todd Matthews that I especially like for the depiction of the little boy who makes more of a snowball than we would have expected was there. This poet lives in Lexington, Virginia.



Eating Them As He Came


Dark by five, the day gives up and so do I,
stalled at the top of the stairs I forget what for,
adrift in a scrap of dream that’s not a dream
exactly but a stupor, unrefined. I go astray
in old routines, I dare myself to reconstruct
the rules of old invented games—that one
of throwing snowballs at the roof, to watch them
shrink as they rolled down, spinning to their pits,
to see the force that made them briefly a thing
so neatly undone. Today an old friend’s tiny boy
lobbied me to pitch some snowballs at him. I bowed
to his dense little will. But planned to miss.
As I packed and flung each one to its unpacking,
he hunted down the humble bits and crumbs
of every impact, as they ran from him along
the icy slope, and gathered and carried them
back to me at the top. Eating them as he came.
So that’s how you get to the marrow of breakdown.
I forgot. That you could put what’s left to your lips.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Christopher Todd Matthews and reprinted from West Branch, No. 65, Fall/Winter 2009, by permission of Christopher Todd Matthews and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 298

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


At any given moment, there must be 100,000 of us trying to fit in, and finding it next to impossible. Here’s a wonderful portrayal of that difficulty, by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, who lives in Astoria, New York.

At the Office Holiday Party

I can now confirm that I am not just fatter
than everyone I work with, but I’m also fatter
than all their spouses. Even the heavily bearded
bear in accounting has a little otter-like boyfriend.

When my co-workers brightly introduce me
as “the funny one in the office,” their spouses
give them a look which translates to, Well, duh,
then they both wait for me to say something funny.

A gaggle of models comes shrieking into the bar
to further punctuate why I sometimes hate living
in this city. They glitter, a shiny gang of scissors.
I don’t know how to look like I’m not struggling.

Sometimes on the subway back to Queens,
I can tell who’s staying on past the Lexington stop
because I have bought their shoes before at Payless.
They are shoes that fool absolutely no one.

Everyone wore their special holiday party outfits.
It wasn’t until I arrived at the bar that I realized
my special holiday party outfit was exactly the same
as the outfits worn by the restaurant’s busboys.

While I’m standing in line for the bathroom,
another patron asks if I’m there to clean it.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz from her most recent book of poetry, Everything is Everything, Write Bloody Publishing, 2010. Reprinted by permission of Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz and the publisher. First printed in Rattle, Vol. 15, no. 2, Winter 2009. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




 

American Life in Poetry: Column 297

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

To be stumped by the very last crossword puzzle you ever will work on, well, that’s defeat, but a small and amusing defeat. Here George Bilgere, a poet from Ohio, gives us a picture of his mother’s last day on earth.

Blank

When I came to my mother’s house
the day after she had died
it was already a museum of her
unfinished gestures. The mysteries
from the public library, due
in two weeks. The half-eaten square
of lasagna in the fridge.

The half-burned wreckage
of her last cigarette,
and one red swallow
of wine in a lipsticked
glass beside her chair.

Finally, a blue Bic
on a couple of downs
and acrosses left blank
in the Sunday crossword,
which actually had the audacity
to look a little smug
at having, for once, won.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by George Bilgere from his most recent book of poems, The White Museum, Autumn House Press, 2010. Reprinted by permission of George Bilgere and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 296

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Those of us who live in the country equate the word “development” with displacement, and it has often been said that subdivisions are named for what they replace, like Woodland Glade. Here’s a writer from my state, Nebraska, Stephen Behrendt, with a poem about what some call progress.

Developing the Land

For six nights now the cries have sounded in the pasture:
coyote voices fluting across the greening rise to the east
where the deer have almost ceased to pass
now that the developers have carved up yet another section,
filled another space with spars and studs, concrete, runoff.

Five years ago you saw two spotted fawns rise
for the first time from brome where brick mailboxes will stand;
only three years past came great horned owls
who raised two squeaking, downy owlets
that perished in the traffic, skimming too low across the road
behind some swift, more fortunate cottontail.

It was on an August afternoon that you drove in,
curling down our long gravel drive past pasture and creek,
that you saw, flickering at the edge of your sight,
three mounted Indians, motionless in the paused breeze,
who vanished when you turned your head.

We have felt the presence on this land of others,
of some who paused here, some who passed, who have left
in the thick clay shards and splinters of themselves that we dig up,
turn up with spade and tine when we garden or bury our animals;
their voices whisper on moonless nights in the back pasture hollow
where the horses snort and nicker, wary with alarm.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2005 by Stephen C. Behrendt from his most recent book of poetry, History, Mid-List Press, 2005. Reprinted by permission of Stephen C. Behrendt and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


American Life in Poetry: Column 295

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


The first poem we published in this column, back in the spring of 2005, was by David Allan Evans, the Poet Laureate of South Dakota, and it’s good to publish another one today, having recently had our five-year anniversary.

Girl Riding a Horse in a Field of Sunflowers

Sitting perfectly upright,
contented and pensive,
she holds in one hand,
loosely, the reins of summer:

the green of trees and bushes;
the blue of lake water;
the red of her jacket
and open collar; the brown
of her pinned-up hair,
and her horse, deep
in the yellow of sunflowers.

When she stops to rest,
summer rests.
When she decides to leave,
there goes summer
over the hill.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by David Allan Evans from his most recent book of poems, This Water. These Rocks. San Francisco Bay Press, 2009. Reprinted by permission of David Allan Evans and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 294

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I’m fond of poems about weather, and I especially like this poem by Todd Davis for the way it looks at how fog affects whatever is within and beneath it.


Veil


In this low place between mountains
fog settles with the dark of evening.
Every year it takes some of those
we love—a car full of teenagers
on the way home from a dance, or
a father on his way to the paper mill,
nightshift the only opening.
Each morning, up on the ridge,
the sun lifts this veil, sees what night
has accomplished. The water on our window—
screens disappears slowly, gradually,
like grief. The heat of the day carries water
from the river back up into the sky,
and where the fog is heaviest and stays
longest, you’ll see the lines it leaves
on trees, the flowers that grow
the fullest.

 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2007 by Todd Davis from his most recent book of poems, The Least of These, Michigan State University Press, 2010. Reprinted by permission of Todd Davis and the publisher. Poem first appeared in Albatross, No. 18, 2007. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 293

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

It’s a rare occasion when I find dozens of poems by just one poet that I’d like to share with you, but Joyce Sutphen, who lives in Minnesota, is someone who writes that well, with that kind of appeal. Here is just one example. How many of us have marveled at how well our parents have succeeded at a long marriage?

The Exam

It is mid-October. The trees are in
their autumnal glory (red, yellow-green,

orange) outside the classroom where students
take the mid-term, sniffling softly as if

identifying lines from Blake or Keats
was such sweet sorrow, summoned up in words

they never saw before. I am thinking
of my parents, of the six decades they’ve

been together, of the thirty thousand
meals they’ve eaten in the kitchen, of the

more than twenty thousand nights they’ve slept
under the same roof. I am wondering

who could have fashioned the test that would have
predicted this success? Who could have known?


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Joyce Sutphen, whose most recent book of poetry is First Words, Red Dragonfly Press, 2010. Poem reprinted by permission of Joyce Sutphen. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 292

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Here’s our Halloween poem for this year, in the thin dry voice of a ghost, as captured by Katie Cappello who lives in Northern California.

A Ghost Abandons the Haunted

You ignore the way light filters through my cells,
the way I have of fading out—still
there is a constant tug, a stretching,
what is left of me is coming loose. Soon,

I will be only crumbs of popcorn,
a blue ring in the tub, an empty
toilet paper roll, black mold
misted on old sponges,

strands of hair woven into
carpet, a warped door
that won’t open, the soft spot
in an avocado, celery, a pear,

a metallic taste in the beer, a cold sore
on your lip—and when I finally lose my hold
you will hear a rustle and watch me spill
grains of rice across the cracked tile.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Katie Cappello, from her first book of poetry, Perpetual Care, Elixir Press, 2009. Reprinted by permission of Katie Cappello and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 291

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I have three dogs and they are always insisting on one thing or another. Having a dog is like having a dictator. In this poem by Mark Smith-Soto, who teaches in North Carolina, his dog Chico is very much like my dogs, demanding human company on whatever mission they choose to pursue.



Night Watch


Chico whines, no reason why. Just now walked,
dinner gobbled, head and ears well scratched.
And yet he whines, looking up at me as if confused
at my just sitting here, typing away, while darkness
is stalking the back yard. How can I be so blind,
he wants to know, how sad, how tragic, how I
won’t listen before it is too late. His whines are
refugees from a brain where time and loss have
small dominion, but where the tyranny of now
is absolute. I get up and throw open the kitchen door,
and he disappears down the cement steps, barking
deeper and darker than I remember. I follow
to find him perfectly still in the empty yard—
the two of us in the twilight, standing guard.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Mark Smith-Soto, whose most recent book of poetry is Any Second Now, Main Street Rag Publishing Co., 2006. Poem reprinted from Poetry East, Nos. 64 & 65, Spring 2009, by permission of Mark Smith-Soto and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 290

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

During our more than four years of publishing this column we’ve shown you a number of poems about motherhood. Here’s another, beautifully observed by Liz Rosenberg, who lives in New York State. 

I Leave Her Weeping

I leave her weeping in her barred little bed,
her warm hand clutching at my hand,
but she doesn’t want a kiss, or to hug the dog goodnight—
she keeps crying mommy, uhhh, mommy,
with her lovely crumpled face
like a golden piece of paper I am throwing away.
We have been playing for hours,
and now we need to stop, and she does not want
to. She is counting on me to lower the boom
that is her heavy body, and settle her down.
I rub her ribcage, I arrange the blankets around her hips.
Downstairs are lethal phonecalls I have to answer.
Friends
dying, I need to call.
My daughter may be weeping all my tears,
I only know
that even this young
and lying on her side,
her head uplifted like a cupped tulip,
sometimes she needs to cry.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Liz Rosenberg, whose most recent book of poetry is Demon Love, Mammoth Press, 2009. Poem reprinted from Paterson Literary Review, Issue 37/2009-2010, by permission of Liz Rosenberg and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 289

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


There’s only so much we can do to better ourselves, and once we’ve done what we can, it still may not have been enough. Here’s a poem by Michelle Y. Burke, who lives in N.Y., in which a man who does everything right doesn’t quite do everything right.



Nocturne


A man can give up so much,
can limit himself to handwritten correspondence,
to foods made of whole grains,
to heat from a woodstove, logs
hewn by his own hand and stacked neatly
like corpses by the backdoor. 

He can play nocturnes by heart.
They will not make the beloved appear.
He can learn the names of all the birds
in the valley. Not one
will be enticed to learn his.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Michelle Y. Burke and reprinted from Lake Effect, Vol. 13, Spring 2009, by permission of Michelle Y. Burke and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



American Life in Poetry: Column 288

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I’ve spent my seventy years on The Great Plains and have lived all that time amidst vivid and touching stories about the settlement of our area, lots of them much like this one, about a long ago courtship and marriage, offered to us in a poem by James Doyle, who lives in Colorado.


Love Story

The kitchen door opens onto dirt
and the second half of the country
all the way to the Pacific. Rusted
prairie trains out of the tall weeds
elbow the last century aside, rumble
from every direction towards Chicago.

My great-grandfather, who would be
150 years old today, put on his one
tall hat and took the big trip
to Omaha for my great-grandma
with the family ring on his vest
and winter wheat lying wait in seed.

He gave her all the miles he had
and she gave him the future I walk
around in every day. The mountains
were too far west to count so they
doubled back over the land and century
and the real weather kept coming from them.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by James Doyle, whose most recent book of poetry is Bending Under the Yellow Police Tapes, Steel Toe Books, 2007. Poem reprinted from the Nimrod International Journal, Vol. 53, no. 1, Fall/Winter 2009, by permission of James Doyle and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 287

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I love to sit outside and be very still until some little creature appears and begins to go about its business, and here is another poet, Robert Gibb, of Pennsylvania, doing just the same thing.


For the Chipmunk in My Yard


I think he knows I’m alive, having come down
The three steps of the back porch
And given me a good once over. All afternoon
He’s been moving back and forth,
Gathering odd bits of walnut shells and twigs,
While all about him the great fields tumble
To the blades of the thresher. He’s lucky
To be where he is, wild with all that happens.
He’s lucky he’s not one of the shadows
Living in the blond heart of the wheat.
This autumn when trees bolt, dark with the fires
Of starlight, he’ll curl among their roots,
Wanting nothing but the slow burn of matter
On which he fastens like a small, brown flame.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. From What the Heart Can Bear by Robert Gibb. Poem copyright ©2009 by Robert Gibb. Reprinted by permission of the author and Autumn House Press. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 286

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


One of my friends told me he’d seen a refrigerator magnet that read, PARENTING; THE FIRST 40 YEARS ARE THE HARDEST. Here’s a fine poem about parenthood, and about letting go of children, by Chana Bloch, who lives in Berkeley, California.

Through a Glass

On the crown of his head
where the fontanelle pulsed
between spongy bones,
a bald spot is forming, globed and sleek
as a monk’s tonsure.

I was the earliest pinch of civilization,
the one who laced him
into shoe leather
when he stumbled into walking upright.
“Shoes are unfair to children,” he’d grouse.

Through a pane of glass
that shivers when the wind kicks up
I watch my son walk away.

He’s out the door, up the street, around
a couple of corners by now.
I’m in for life.
He trips; my hand flies out;

I yank it back. 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Chana Bloch from her most recent book of poems, Blood Honey, Autumn House Press, 2009, and reprinted by permission of Chana Bloch and Autumn House Press. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 285

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


In our busy times, the briefest pause to express a little interest in the natural world is praiseworthy. Most of us spend our time thinking about other people, and scarcely any time thinking about other creatures. I recently co-edited an anthology of poems about birds, and we looked through lots of books and magazines, but here is a fine poem we missed, by Tara Bray, who lives in Richmond, Virginia.

Once

I climbed the roll of hay to watch the heron
in the pond. He waded a few steps out,
then back, thrusting his beak under water,
pulling it up empty, but only once.
Later I walked the roads for miles, certain
he’d be there when I returned. How is it for him,
day after day, his brittle legs rising
from warm green scum, his graceful neck curled,
damp in the bright heat? It’s a dull world.
Every day, the same roads, the sky,
the dust, the barn caving into itself,
the tin roof twisted and scattered in the yard.
Again, the bank covered with oxeye daisy
that turns to spiderwort, to chicory,
and at last to goldenrod. Each year, the birds—
thick in the air and darting in wild numbers—
grow quiet, the grasses thin, the light leaves
earlier each day. The heron stood
stone-still on my spot when I returned.
And then, his wings burst open, lifting the steel-
blue rhythm of his body into flight.
I touched the warm hay. Hoping for a trace
of his wild smell, I cupped my hands over
my face: nothing but the heat of fields
and skin. It wasn’t long before the world
began to breathe the beat of ordinary hours,
stretching out again beneath the sky. 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2006 by Tara Bray, and reprinted from her most recent book of poems, Mistaken for Song, Persea Books, Inc., 2009, by permission of the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 284

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


I’d guess there are lots of people, like me, who sometimes visit places which in memory are hallowed but which, through time, have been changed irreparably. It is a painful experience but it underlines life. Here Carl Little, who lives in Maine, returns to a place like that.

The Clearing

The sunbox lies in pieces,
its strips of aluminum foil
flaking away to the wind,
tanning platform broken up
for kindling. Planted grass
sprouts where the path once
sharply turned to the left
circumventing underbrush,
there the man (a boy then)
stumbled on beauty’s wrath:
pale sisters yelling him off,
scrambling for clothes to cover.

All has been cleared, thick
cat briar raked into piles
and set ablaze, invincible
ailanthus stacked for dump.
All’s clear and calm save
his childhood rushing head-
long through tearing thickets,
and the sisters, barely glimpsed
against reflective flashing,
laughing after him, then
lying back to catch
all the sullen autumn sun they can.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2006 by Carl Little and reprinted from Ocean Drinker: New and Selected Poems, Deerbrook Editions, 2006, by permission of Carl Little and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 283

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I’ve read dozens of poems written about the events of September 11, 2001, but this one by Tony Gloeggler of New York City is the only one I’ve seen that addresses the good fortune of a survivor. 

Five Years Later

My brother was on his way
to a dental appointment
when the second plane hit
four stories below the office
where he worked. He’s never
said anything about the guy
who took football bets, how
he liked to watch his secretary
walk, the friends he ate lunch with,
all the funerals. Maybe, shamed
by his luck, he keeps quiet,
afraid someone might guess
how good he feels, breathing.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Tony Gloeggler, whose most recent book of poetry is The Last Lie, New York Quarterly Books, 2010. Poem reprinted from Paterson Literary Review, Issue 37, 2009/2010, by permission of Tony Gloeggler and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.





American Life in Poetry: Column 282

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Because I’m a senior citizen I’m easily attracted by poems about my brothers and sisters meandering into their golden years. Here’s a poem by Edward Hirsch, who lives in New York, that offers our younger readers a look at what’s to come.



Early Sunday Morning


I used to mock my father and his chums
for getting up early on Sunday morning
and drinking coffee at a local spot
but now I’m one of those chumps.

No one cares about my old humiliations
but they go on dragging through my sleep
like a string of empty tin cans rattling
behind an abandoned car.

It’s like this: just when you think
you have forgotten that red-haired girl
who left you stranded in a parking lot
forty years ago, you wake up

early enough to see her disappearing
around the corner of your dream
on someone else’s motorcycle
roaring onto the highway at sunrise.

And so now I’m sitting in a dimly lit
café full of early morning risers
where the windows are covered with soot
and the coffee is warm and bitter.



American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Edward Hirsch from his most recent book of poetry, The Living Fire, Knopf, 2010. First printed in the Northwest Review , Vol. 47, no. 7, 2009, and reprinted by permission of Edward Hirsch and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 281

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Anton Chekhov, the master of the short story, was able to see whole worlds within the interactions of simple Russian peasants, and in this little poem by Leo Dangel, who grew up in rural South Dakota, something similar happens. 

One September Afternoon

Home from town
the two of them sit
looking over what they have bought
spread out on the kitchen table
like gifts to themselves.
She holds a card of buttons
against the new dress material
and asks if they match.
The hay is dry enough to rake,
but he watches her
empty the grocery bag.
He reads the label
on a grape jelly glass
and tries on
the new straw hat again.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©1987 by Leo Dangel, whose most recent book of poetry is The Crow on the Golden Arches, Spoon River Poetry Press, 2004. Poem reprinted from Paddlefish, No. 3, 2009, by permission of Leo Dangel and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 280

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Marilyn Kallet lives and teaches in Tennessee. Over the years I have read many poems about fireflies, but of all of them hers seems to offer the most and dearest peace.

Fireflies

In the dry summer field at nightfall,
fireflies rise like sparks.
Imagine the presence of ghosts
flickering, the ghosts of young friends,
your father nearest in the distance.
This time they carry no sorrow,
no remorse, their presence is so light.
Childhood comes to you,
memories of your street in lamplight,
holding those last moments before bed,
capturing lightning-bugs,
with a blossom of the hand
letting them go. Lightness returns,
an airy motion over the ground
you remember from Ring Around the Rosie.
If you stay, the fireflies become fireflies
again, not part of your stories,
as unaware of you as sleep, being
beautiful and quiet all around you. 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Marilyn Kallet, from her most recent book of poetry, Packing Light: New and Selected Poems, Black Widow Press, 2009. Reprinted by permission of Marilyn Kallet. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 279

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Rhyming has a way of brightening a poem, and a depressing subject can become quite a bit lighter with well-chosen rhymes. Here’s a sonnet by Mary Meriam, who lives in Missouri. Are there readers among you who have felt like this? 

The Romance of Middle Age

Now that I’m fifty, let me take my showers
at night, no light, eyes closed. And let me swim
in cover-ups. My skin’s tattooed with hours
and days and decades, head to foot, and slim
is just a faded photograph. It’s strange
how people look away who once would look.
I didn’t know I’d undergo this change
and be the unseen cover of a book
whose plot, though swift, just keeps on getting thicker.
One reaches for the pleasures of the mind
and heart to counteract the loss of quicker
knowledge. One feels old urgencies unwind,
although I still pluck chin hairs with a tweezer,
in case I might attract another geezer.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Mary Meriam, whose most recent book of poetry is The Countess of Flatbroke, (afterword by Lillian Faderman), Modern Metrics/Exot Books, 2006. Poem reprinted from Rattle, Vol. 15, no. 2, Winter 2009, by permission of Mary Meriam and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


American Life in Poetry: Column 278

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Peter Everwine is a California poet whose work I have admired for almost as long as I have been writing. Here he beautifully captures a quiet moment of reflection. 



Rain


Toward evening, as the light failed
and the pear tree at my window darkened,
I put down my book and stood at the open door,
the first raindrops gusting in the eaves,
a smell of wet clay in the wind.
Sixty years ago, lying beside my father,
half asleep, on a bed of pine boughs as rain
drummed against our tent, I heard
for the first time a loon’s sudden wail
drifting across that remote lake—
a loneliness like no other,
though what I heard as inconsolable
may have been only the sound of something
untamed and nameless
singing itself to the wilderness around it
and to us until we slept. And thinking of my father
and of good companions gone
into oblivion, I heard the steady sound of rain
and the soft lapping of water, and did not know
whether it was grief or joy or something other
that surged against my heart
and held me listening there so long and late. 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by Peter Everwine, whose most recent book of poems is From the Meadow: Selected and New Poems, Pitt Poetry Series, Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2004. Reprinted from Ploughshares, Vol. 34, no. 1, Spring 2008, by permission of Peter Everwine and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 277

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


Here’s hoping that very few of our readers have to go through cardiac rehab, which Thomas Reiter of New Jersey captures in this poem, but if they do, here’s hoping that they come through it feeling wildly alive and singing at the tops of their lungs.



Rehab


We wear harnesses like crossing guards.
In a pouch over the heart,
over stent and bypass, a black
box with leads pressed onto metal
nipples. We pedal and tread and row
while our signals are picked up
by antennas on the ceiling, X’s
like the eyes cartoonists give the dead.

Angels of telemetry with vials of nitro
watch over us. We beam to their monitors
now a barn dance, now a moonwalk.
They cuff us and pump and we keep on
so tomorrow will live off today. Nurse,
we won’t forget the animated
video of our cholesterol highway
where LDL, black-hatted scowling
donut holes on wheels, blocked traffic.

But with muscles like gutta-percha,
can we leave time’s gurney in the dust?
By now only the dead know more about
gravity than we do. In reply, a tape
of Little Richard or Jerry Lee comes on
and we’re singing, aloud or not, all
pale infarcted pedalers, rowers, treadmillers,
and our hearts are rising in the east. 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Thomas Reiter, whose most recent book of poems is Catchment, Louisiana State University Press, 2009. Poem reprinted from The Hudson Review, Vol. LXII, no. 2, 2009, by permission of Thomas Reiter and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 276

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I live in Nebraska, where we have a town named Homer. Such a humble, homely name and, as it happens, the poet Donal Heffernan is from Homer, and here’s his hymn to the town and its history. Long live Homer. And while we’re celebrating Nebraska towns, let’s throw in Edgar, too.  

My Hometown

Oh, Homer!
Your village sleeps near the Missouri River
With your cousin Winnebago, both children of Lakotaland.
You kept your town at two stories, as flat as the surrounding prairie.
You taught the Iliad and Odyssey in honor of your namesake poet.
Your spirit outlasted the bleached fields of the Depression, and
Bravely swam against the raging Omaha Creek floods.
On warm, wet spring Saturday nights,
You provided dark places for your young
To launch your next generation
In pickups, unlighted. 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Donal Heffernan, whose most recent book of poetry is Duets of Motion, Lone Oak Press, 2001. Poem reprinted by permission of Donal Heffernan. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.





American Life in Poetry: Column 275

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I recognize the couple who are introduced in this poem by Patricia Frolander, of Sundance, Wyoming, and perhaps you’ll recognize them, too.

Denial

He called it “his ranch,”
yet each winter day found her beside him
feeding hay to hungry cows.

In summer heat
you would find her in the hayfield—
cutting, raking, baling, stacking.

In between she kept the books,
cooked, cleaned
laundered, fed bum lambs.

Garden rows straight,
canned jars of food
lined cellar walls.

Then she died.
I asked him how he would manage.
“Just like I always have,” he said.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Patricia Frolander, and reprinted from her most recent book of poems, Grassland Genealogy, Finishing Line Press, 2009, by permission of Pat Frolander and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 274

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Alicia Suskin Ostriker is one of our country’s finest poets. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey. I thought that today you might like to have us offer you a poem full of blessings.




The Blessing of the Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog


To be blessed
said the old woman
is to live and work
so hard
God’s love
washes right through you
like milk through a cow

To be blessed
said the dark red tulip
is to knock their eyes out
with the slug of lust
implied by
your up-ended skirt

To be blessed
said the dog
is to have a pinch
of God
inside you
and all the other
dogs can smell it 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “The Blessing of the Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog” from The Book of Seventy, by Alicia Suskin Ostriker, © 2009. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 273

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Equipment. I like to paint and draw, and I own enough art supplies to start my own store. And for every hobby there are lots of supplies that seem essential. In this poem we get a whole tackle box full of equipment from Michael Sowder, who lives and fishes in Utah.

Fishing, His Birthday


With adams, caddis, tricos, light cahills,
blue-wing olives, royal coachmen, chartreuse trudes,
green drakes, blue duns, black gnats, Nancy quills,
Joe’s hoppers, yellow humpies, purple chutes,
prince nymphs, pheasant tails, Eileen’s hare’s ears,
telicos, flashbacks, Jennifer’s muddlers,
Frank bugs, sow bugs, zug bugs, autumn splendors,
woolly worms, black buggers, Kay’s gold zuddlers,
clippers, tippet, floatant, spools of leader,
tin shot, lead shot, hemostats, needle nose,
rod, reel, vest, net, boots, cap, shades and waders,
gortex shell and one bent Macanudo—
I wade in a swirl of May-colored water,
cast a fine gray quill, the last tie of my father.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Michael Sowder, from his most recent book of poetry, The Empty Boat, Truman State University Press, 2004. Reprinted by permission of Michael Sowder. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 272

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Whether we like it or not, we live with the awareness that death is always close at hand, and in this poem by Don Thompson, a Californian, a dead blackbird can’t be pushed out of the awareness of the speaker, nor can it escape the ants, who have their own yard work to do. 



Yard Work


My leaf blower lifted the blackbird—
wings still spread, weightless,
floating on the loud, electric wind
almost as if it were alive.

Three or four times it flew,
but fell again, sideslipped down
like a kite with no string,
so I gave up. . . I had work to do,

and when the dust I raised
had settled in that other world
under the rose bushes, the ants
came back to finish theirs.  

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Don Thompson, and reprinted from his most recent book of poems, Where We Live, Parallel Press, 2009, by permission of Don Thompson and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


American Life in Poetry: Column 271

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Barnyard chickens, which are little more than reptiles with feathers, can be counted on to kill those among them who are malformed or diseased, but we humans, advanced animals that we think we are, are far more likely to just turn away from people who bear the scars of misfortune. Here’s a poem by Ned Balbo, who lives and teaches in Maryland.



Fire Victim


Once, boarding the train to New York City,
The aisle crowded and all seats filled, I glimpsed
An open space—more pushing, stuck in place—
And then saw why: a man, face peeled away,
Sewn back in haste, skin grafts that smeared like wax
Spattered and frozen, one eye flesh-filled, smooth,
One cold eye toward the window. Cramped, shoved hard,
I, too, passed up the seat, the place, and fought on
Through to the next car, and the next, but now
I wonder why the fire that could have killed him
Spared him, burns scarred over; if a life
Is what he calls this space through which he moves,
Dark space we dared not enter, and what fire
Burns in him when he sees us move away.  

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2005 by Ned Balbo, whose most recent book of poetry is Something Must Happen, Finishing Line Press, 2009. Poem reprinted from Lives of the Sleepers, University of Notre Dame Press, 2005, by permission of Ned Balbo and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 270

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

We are sometimes amazed by how well the visually impaired navigate the world, but like the rest of us, they have found a way to do what interests them. Here Jan Mordenski of Michigan describes her mother, absorbed in crocheting.


Crochet


Even after darkness closed her eyes
my mother could crochet.
Her hands would walk the rows of wool
turning, bending, to a woolen music.

The dye lots were registered in memory:
appleskin, chocolate, porcelain pan,
the stitches remembered like faded rhymes:
pineapple, sunflower, window pane, shell.

Tied to our lives those past years
by merely a soft colored yarn,
she’d sit for hours, her dark lips
moving as if reciting prayers,
coaching the sighted hands. 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©1995 by Jan Mordenski, and reprinted from “Quiet Music: A Plainsong Reader,” Plainsong Press, 1995, by permission of Jan Mordenski and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 269

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


It is enough for me as a reader that a poem take from life a single moment and hold it up for me to look at. There need not be anything sensational or unusual or peculiar about that moment, but somehow, by directing my attention to it, our attention to it, the poet bathes it in the light of the remarkable. Here is a poem like this by Carolyn Miller, who lives in San Francisco.  

The World as It is

No ladders, no descending angels, no voice
out of the whirlwind, no rending
of the veil, or chariot in the sky—only
water rising and falling in breathing springs
and seeping up through limestone, aquifers filling
and flowing over, russet stands of prairie grass
and dark pupils of black-eyed Susans. Only
the fixed and wandering stars: Orion rising sideways,
Jupiter traversing the southwest like a great firefly,
Venus trembling and faceted in the west—and the moon,
appearing suddenly over your shoulder, brimming
and ovoid, ripe with light, lifting slowly, deliberately,
wobbling slightly, while far below, the faithful sea
rises up and follows. 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Carolyn Miller, from her most recent book of poems, Light, Moving, Sixteen Rivers Press, 2009. Reprinted by permission of Carolyn Miller and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 268

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


If writers are both skilled and lucky, they may write something that will carry their words into the future, past the hour of their own deaths. I’d guess all writers hope for this, and the following poem by Peter Cooley, who lives in New Orleans and teaches creative writing at Tulane, beautifully expresses his hope, and theirs.  

The One Certain Thing

A day will come I’ll watch you reading this.
I’ll look up from these words I’m writing now—
this line I’m standing on, I’ll be right here,
alive again. I’ll breathe on you this breath.
Touch this word now, that one. Warm, isn’t it?

You are the person come to clean my room;
you are whichever of my three children
opens the drawer here where this poem will go
in a few minutes when I’ve had my say.

These are the words from immortality.
No one stands between us now except Death:
I enter it entirely writing this.
I have to tell you I am not alone.
Watching you read, Eternity’s with me.
We like to watch you read. Read us again.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Peter Cooley, whose most recent book of poems is Divine Margins, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2009. Poem reprinted from Pleiades, Vol. 29, no. 2, 2009, by permission of Peter Cooley and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 267

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Here’s a poem by Susan Meyers, of South Carolina, about the most ordinary of activities, washing the dishes, but in this instance remembering this ordinary routine provides an opportunity for speculation about the private pleasures of a lost parent.

Mother, Washing Dishes

                       She rarely made us do it—
we’d clear the table instead—so my sister and I teased
that some day we’d train our children right
and not end up like her, after every meal stuck
with red knuckles, a bleached rag to wipe and wring.
The one chore she spared us: gummy plates
in water greasy and swirling with sloughed peas,
globs of egg and gravy.

                        Or did she guard her place
at the window? Not wanting to give up the gloss
of the magnolia, the school traffic humming.
Sunset, finches at the feeder. First sightings
of the mail truck at the curb, just after noon,
delivering a note, a card, the least bit of news.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by the Univ. of So. Carolina Press. Susan Meyers’ most recent book of poems is Keep and Give Away, Univ. of So. Carolina Press, 2006. Poem reprinted from Tar River Poetry, Vol. 48, no. 1, Fall 2008, by permission of the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 266

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

The great American poet William Carlos Williams taught us that if a poem can capture a moment in life, and bathe it in the light of the poet’s close attention, and make it feel fresh and new, that’s enough, that’s adequate, that’s good. Here is a poem like that by Rachel Contreni Flynn, who lives in Illinois.
 

The Yellow Bowl

If light pours like water
into the kitchen where I sway
with my tired children,

if the rug beneath us
is woven with tough flowers,
and the yellow bowl on the table

rests with the sweet heft
of fruit, the sun-warmed plums,
if my body curves over the babies,

and if I am singing,
then loneliness has lost its shape,
and this quiet is only quiet.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Rachel Contreni Flynn, whose newest book, Tongue, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press. Reprinted from Haywire, Bright Hill Press, 2009, by permission of Rachel Contreni Flynn and the publisher. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 265

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Tell a whiny child that she sounds like a broken record, and she’s likely to say, “What’s a record?” Jeff Daniel Marion, a Tennessee poet, tells us not only what 78 rpm records were, but what they meant to the people who played them, and to those who remember the people who played them. 

78 RPM

In the back of the junkhouse
stacked on a cardtable covered
by a ragged bedspread, they rest,
black platters whose music once
crackled, hissed with a static
like shuffling feet, fox trot or two-step,
the slow dance of the needle
riding its merry-go-round,
my mother’s head nestled
on my father’s shoulder as they
turned, lost in the sway of sounds,
summer nights and faraway
places, the syncopation of time
waltzing them to a world
they never dreamed, dance
of then to the dust of now.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Jeff Daniel Marion. Reprinted from his most recent book of poems, Father, Wind Publications, 2009, by permission of Jeff Daniel Marion and the publisher. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.





American Life in Poetry: Column 264

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Wendy Videlock lives in western Colorado, where a person can stop to study what an owl has left behind without being run over by a taxi.


The Owl

Beneath her nest,
a shrew's head,
a finch's beak
and the bones
of a quail attest

the owl devours
the hour,
and disregards
the rest.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Reprinted from Poetry, January 2009, by permission of Wendy Videlock and the publisher. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 263

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Music lessons, well, maybe 80 out of every 100 of us had them, once, and a few of us went on to play our chosen instruments all our lives. But the rest of us? I still own a set of red John Thompson piano books that haven’t been opened since about 1950. Here Jill Bialosky, who lives in New York City, captures the atmosphere of one of those lessons.

Music Is Time

Music is time, said the violin master.
You can’t miss the stop or you’ll miss the train.
One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four,
one, two, three, four.


She clapped her hands together
as the boy moved the bow across the strings.
One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four,
one, two, three, four,
the violin master shouted,

louder and more shrill so that her voice
traveled through the house like a metronome,
guiding him, commanding him to translate the beat,
to trust his own internal rhythm.

Good boy, she said.
See how hard you have to be on yourself?
How will your violin know who you are
unless you make it speak?
 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by Jill Bialosky, from her most recent book of poems, Intruder, Alfred A. Knopf, 2008, by permission of Jill Bialosky and the publisher. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 262

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

When we hear news of a flood, that news is mostly about the living, about the survivors. But at the edges of floods are the dead, too. Here Michael Chitwood, of North Carolina, looks at what’s floating out there on the margins.


The Coffins

Two days into the flood
they appear, moored against
a roof eave or bobbing caught
in the crowns of drowned trees.
Like fancy life boats
from an adventurer’s flag ship,
brass plating and grips,
walnut sheen, scroll work,
they slip through the understory
on this brief, bad river.
What have they discovered
and come back to account?
Or is this the beginning
of the marvelous voyage
and they plan never to return?


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2000 by Michael Chitwood, whose most recent book of poems is Spill, Tupelo Press, 2007. Poem reprinted from Tar River Poetry, Vol. 48, no. 1, Fall, 2008, by permission of Michael Chitwood and the publisher. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 261

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

All over this country, marriage counselors and therapists are right now speaking to couples about unspoken things. In this poem, Andrea Hollander Budy, an Arkansas poet, shows us one of those couples, suffering from things done and undone.

Betrayal

They decide finally not to speak
of it, the one blemish in their otherwise
blameless marriage. It happened

as these things do, before the permanence
was set, before the children grew
complicated, before the quench

of loving one another became all
each of them wanted from this life.
Years later the bite

of not knowing (and not wanting
to know) still pierces the doer
as much as the one to whom it was done:

the threadbare lying, the insufferable longing,
the inimitable lack of touching, the undoing
undone. 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Andrea Hollander Budy, whose most recent book of poems is Woman in the Painting, Autumn House, 2006. Poem reprinted from Shenandoah, Vol. 59, no. 1, by permission of Andrea Hollander Budy and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 260

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

This column marks our fifth anniversary, and we send you our thanks for supporting what we try to accomplish here.

These days are brim full of bad news about our economy—businesses closing, people losing their houses, their jobs. If there’s any comfort in a situation like this, it’s in the fact that there’s a big community of sufferers. Here’s a poem by Dana Bisignani, who lives in Indiana, that describes what it feels like to sit through a bankruptcy hearing.  

Bankruptcy Hearing

They have us corralled
in the basement of the courthouse.
One desk and a row of folding chairs—
just like first grade, our desks facing Teacher
in neat little rows.

      Upstairs,
wooden benches like pews and red
carpet reserved for those who’ve held out
the longest. No creditors have come to claim us
today. We’re small-time.

This guy from the graveyard shift
stares at his steel-toed boots, nervous hands
in his lap. None of us look each other
in the eye. We steal quick looks—how did you
get here
. . .

chemo bills, a gambling addiction,
a summer spent unemployed and too many
cash advances to pay the rent.
We examine the pipes that hang
from the ceiling, the scratched tiles on the floor,

the red glow of the exit sign at the end of the hall
so like our other failed escapes:
light of the TV at night,
glass of cheap Merlot beside a lamp,
a stop light on the way out of town.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by Dana Bisignani and reprinted from Blue Collar Review, Vol. 12, Issue 2, Winter 2008-2009, by permission of Dana Bisignani and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




 

American Life in Poetry: Column 259

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Wisconsin writer Freya Manfred is not only a fine poet but the daughter of the late Frederick Manfred, a distinguished novelist of the American west. Here is a lovely snapshot of her father, whom I cherished among my good friends.

Green Pear Tree in September

On a hill overlooking the Rock River
my father’s pear tree shimmers,
in perfect peace,
covered with hundreds of ripe pears
with pert tops, plump bottoms,
and long curved leaves.
Until the green-haloed tree
rose up and sang hello,
I had forgotten. . .
He planted it twelve years ago,
when he was seventy-three,
so that in September
he could stroll down
with the sound of the crickets
rising and falling around him,
and stand, naked to the waist,
slightly bent, sucking juice
from a ripe pear.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2003 by Freya Manfred. Her most recent book of poems is Swimming With A Hundred Year Old Snapping Turtle, Red Dragonfly Press, 2008. Poem reprinted from My Only Home, Red Dragonfly Press, 2003, by permission of Freya Manfred and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 258

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


This marks the fourth time we’ve published a poem by David Baker, one of my favorite writers. Baker lives in Granville, Ohio, and teaches at Denison University. He is also the poetry editor for the distinguished Kenyon Review

Old Man Throwing a Ball

He is tight at first, stiff, stands there atilt
tossing the green fluff tennis ball down
the side alley, but soon he’s limber,
he’s letting it fly and the black lab

lops back each time. These are the true lovers,
this dog, this man, and when the dog stops
to pee, the old guy hurries him back, then
hurls the ball farther away. Now his mother

dodders out, she’s old as the sky, wheeling
her green tank with its sweet vein, breath.
She tips down the path he’s made for her,
grass rippling but trim, soft underfoot,

to survey the yard, every inch of it
in fine blossom, set-stone, pruned miniature,
split rails docked along the front walk,
antique watering cans down-spread—up

huffs the dog again with his mouthy ball—
so flowers seem to spill out, red geraniums,
grand blue asters, and something I have
no name for, wild elsewhere in our world

but here a thing to tend. To call for, and it comes.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by David Baker, whose most recent book of poems is Never-Ending Birds, W. W. Norton, 2009. Poem reprinted from Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 84, no. 2, Spring 2009, by permission of David Baker and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 257

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Often when I dig some change out of my jeans pocket to pay somebody for something, the pennies and nickels are accompanied by a big gob of blue lint. So it’s no wonder that I was taken with this poem by a Massachusetts poet, Gary Metras, who isn’t embarrassed.

Lint

It doesn’t bother me to have
lint in the bottoms of pant pockets;
it gives the hands something to do,
especially since I no longer hold
shovel, hod, or hammer
in the daylight hours of labor
and haven’t, in fact, done so
in twenty-five years. A long time
to be picking lint from pockets.
Perhaps even long enough to have
gathered sacks full of lint
that could have been put
to good use, maybe spun into yarn
to knit a sweater for my wife’s
Christmas present, or strong thread
whirled and woven into a tweedy jacket.
Imagine entering my classroom
in a jacket made from lint.
Who would believe it?
Yet there are stranger things—
the son of a bricklayer with hands
so smooth they’re only fit
for picking lint.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by Gary Metras, whose most recent book of poems is Greatest Hits 1980-2006, Pudding House, 2007. Poem reprinted from Poetry East, Nos. 62 & 63, Fall 2008, by permission of Gary Metras and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



American Life in Poetry: Column 256

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

A poem is an experience like any other, and we can learn as much or more about, say, an apple from a poem about an apple as from the apple itself. Since I was a boy, I’ve been picking up things, but I’ve never found a turtle shell until I found one in this poem by Jeff Worley, who lives in Kentucky.



On Finding a Turtle Shell in Daniel Boone National Forest


This one got tired
of lugging his fortress
wherever he went,
was done with duck and cover
at every explosion
through rustling leaves
of fox and dog and skunk.
Said au revoir to the ritual
of pulling himself together. . .

I imagine him waiting
for the cover of darkness
to let down his hinged drawbridge.
He wanted, after so many
protracted years of caution,
to dance naked and nimble
as a flame under the moon—
even if dancing just once
was all that the teeth
of the forest would allow. 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by Jeff Worley, whose most recent book of poems is Best to Keep Moving, Larkspur Press, 2009, which includes this poem. Reprinted from Poetry East, Nos. 62 & 63, Fall, 2008, by permission of Jeff Worley and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.





American Life in Poetry: Column 255

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

A honeymoon. How often does one happen according to the dreams that preceded it? In this poem, Wesley McNair, a poet from Maine, describes a first night of marriage in a tawdry place. But all’s well that ends well.

For My Wife

How were we to know, leaving your two kids
behind in New Hampshire for our honeymoon
at twenty-one, that it was a trick of cheap
hotels in New York City to draw customers
like us inside by displaying a fancy lobby?
Arriving in our fourth-floor room, we found
a bed, a scarred bureau, and a bathroom door
with a cut on one side the exact shape
of the toilet bowl that was in its way
when I closed it. I opened and shut the door,
admiring the fit and despairing of it. You
discovered the initials of lovers carved
on the bureau’s top in a zigzag, breaking heart.
How wrong the place was to us then,
unable to see the portents of our future
that seem so clear now in the naiveté
of the arrangements we made, the hotel’s
disdain for those with little money,
the carving of pain and love. Yet in that room
we pulled the covers over ourselves and lay
our love down, and in this way began our unwise
and persistent and lucky life together.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Wesley McNair, whose most recent book of poems is Lovers of the Lost: New and Selected Poems, Godine, 2010. Poem reprinted from Five Points, Vol. 12, no. 3, by permission of Wesley McNair and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 254

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

What might my late parents have thought, I wonder, to know that there would one day be an occupation known as Tooth Painter? Here’s a partial job description by Lucille Lang Day of Oakland, California. 

Tooth Painter

He was tall, lean, serious
about his profession,
said it disturbed him
to see mismatched teeth.
Squinting, he asked me
to turn toward the light
as he held an unglazed crown
by my upper incisors.
With a small brush he applied
yellow, gray, pink, violet
and green from a palette of glazes,
then fired it at sixteen hundred
degrees. We went outside
to check the final color,
and he was pleased. Today
the dentist put it in my mouth,
and no one could ever guess
my secret: there’s no one quite
like me, and I can prove it
by the unique shade of
the ivory sculptures attached
to bony sockets in my jaw.
A gallery opens when I smile.
Even the forgery gleams.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Lucille Lang Day and reprinted from The Curvature of Blue, Cervena Barva Press, 2009, by permission of Lucille Lang Day and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.





American Life in Poetry: Column 253

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Animals are incapable of reason, or so we’ve been told, but we imaginative humans keep talking to our dogs and cats as if they could do algebra. In this poem, Ann Struthers looks into the mystery of instinctive behavior.



Not Knowing Why


Adolescent white pelicans squawk, rustle, flap their wings,
lift off in a ragged spiral at imaginary danger.
What danger on this island in the middle
of Marble Lake? They’re off to feel
the lift of wind under their iridescent wings,
because they were born to fly,
because they have nothing else to do,
because wind and water are their elements,
their Bach, their Homer, Shakespeare,
and Spielberg. They wheel over the lake,
the little farms, the tourist village with their camera eyes.

In autumn something urges
them toward Texas marshes. They follow
their appetites and instincts, unlike the small beetles
creeping along geometric roads, going toward small boxes,
toward lives as narrow or as wide as the pond,
as glistening or as gray as the sky.
They do not know why. They fly, they fly.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Ann Struthers, whose most recent book of poems is What You Try to Tame, The Coe Review Press, 2004. Poem reprinted from the Coe Review, Vol. 39, no. 1, Fall 2008, by permission of Ann Struthers and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



American Life in Poetry: Column 252

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


My grandfather, when in his nineties, wrote me a letter in which he listed everything he and my uncle had eaten in the past week. That was the news. I love this poem by Nancyrose Houston of Seattle for the way it plays with the character of those letters from home that many of us have received. 

The Letter From Home

The dogs barked, the dogs scratched, the dogs got wet, the
dogs shook, the dogs circled, the dogs slept, the dogs ate,
the dogs barked; the rain fell down, the leaves fell down, the
eggs fell down and cracked on the floor; the dust settled,
the wood floors were scratched, the cabinets sat without
doors, the trim without paint, the stuff piled up; I loaded the
dishwasher, I unloaded the dishwasher, I raked the leaves,
I did the laundry, I took out the garbage, I took out the
recycling, I took out the yard waste. There was a bed, it was
soft, there was a blanket, it was warm, there were dreams,
they were good. The corn grew, the eggplant grew, the
tomatoes grew, the lettuce grew, the strawberries grew, the
blackberries grew; the tea kettle screamed, the computer
keys clicked, the radio roared, the TV spoke. “Will they ever
come home?” “Can’t I take a break?” “How do others keep
their house clean?” “Will I remember this day in fifty years?”
The sweet tea slipped down my throat, the brownies melted
in my mouth. My mother cooked, the apple tree bloomed, the
lilac bloomed, the mimosa bloomed, I bloomed. 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Seattle Arts & Lectures. Reprinted from Wake Up In Brightness: Poetry & Prose by Students 2008-2009, Writers in the Schools, 2009, by permission of Seattle Arts & Lectures. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



American Life in Poetry: Column 251

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

The poet Lyn Lifshin, who divides her time between New York and Virginia, is one of the most prolific poets among my contemporaries, and has thousands of poems in print, by my loose reckoning. I have been reading her work in literary magazines for at least thirty years. Here’s a good example of this poet at her best. 

The Other Fathers

would be coming back
from some war, sending
back stuffed birds or
handkerchiefs in navy
blue with Love painted
on it. Some sent telegrams
for birthdays, the pastel
letters like jewels. The
magazines were full of fathers who
were doing what had
to be done, were serving,
were brave. Someone
yelped there’d be confetti
in the streets, maybe
no school. That soon
we’d have bananas. My
father sat in the grey
chair, war after war,
hardly said a word. I
wished he had gone
away with the others
so maybe he would
be coming back to us


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by Lyn Lifshin, whose most recent book of poems is Persephone, Red Hen Press, 2008. Poem reprinted from Natural Bridge, No. 20, Winter, 2008, by permission of Lyn Lifshin and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscript


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 250

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I’m very fond of poems that demonstrate their authors’ attentiveness to the world about them, as regular readers of this column have no doubt noticed. Here is a nine-word poem by Joette Giorgis, who lives in Pennsylvania, that is based upon noticing and then thinking about something so ordinary that it might otherwise be overlooked. Even the separate words are flat and commonplace. But so much feeling comes through!

(Untitled)

children grown—
dust accumulates
on half the kitchen table


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Joette Giorgis and reprinted from Modern Haiku, Vol. 40.1, Winter-Spring 2009, by permission of Joette Giorgis and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 249

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

One of the wonderful things about small children is the way in which they cause us to explain the world. “What’s that?” they ask, and we have to come up with an answer. Here Christine Stewart-Nunez, who lives and teaches in South Dakota, tries to teach her son a new word only to hear it come back transformed. 

Convergence

Through the bedroom window
a February sunrise, fog suspended
between pines. Intricate crystals—
hoarfrost lace on a cherry tree.
My son calls out, awake. We sway,
blanket-wrapped, his head nuzzling
my neck. Hoarfrost, tree—I point,
shaping each word. Favorable
conditions: a toddler’s brain, hard
data-mining, a system’s approach.
Hoar, he hears. His hand reaches
to the wallpaper lion. Phenomena
converge: warmth, humidity,
temperature’s sudden plunge;
a child’s brain, objects, sound.
Eyes widening, he opens his mouth
and roars. 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Christine Stewart-Nunez, whose most recent book of poems is Postcard on Parchment, ABZ Press, 2008. Poem reprinted from the Briar Cliff Review, 2009, by permission of Christine Stewart-Nunez and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 248

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Many if not all of us have had the pleasure of watching choruses of young people sing. It’s an experience rich with affirmation, it seems to me. Here is a lovely poem by Tim Nolan, an attorney in Minneapolis.


At the Choral Concert

The high school kids are so beautiful
in their lavender blouses and crisp white shirts.

They open their mouths to sing with that
far-off stare they had looking out from the crib.

Their voices lift up from the marble bed
of the high altar to the blue endless ceiling

of heaven as depicted in the cloudy dome—
and we—as the parents—crane our necks

to see our children and what is above us—
and ahead of us—until the end when we

are invited up to sing with them—sopranos
and altos—tenors and basses—to sing the great

Hallelujah Chorus—and I’m standing with the other
stunned and gray fathers—holding our sheet music—

searching for our parts—and we realize—
our voices are surprisingly rich—experienced—

For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth—
and how do we all know to come in

at exactly the right moment?—Forever and ever—
and how can it not seem that we shall reign

forever and ever—in one voice with our beautiful
children—looking out into all those lights.



American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by Tim Nolan from his most recent book, The Sound of It, New Rivers Press, 2008, by permission of the author and publisher. First printed in Ploughshares, Winter 2007-2008. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 247

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Family photographs, how much they do capture in all their elbow-to-elbow awkwardness. In this poem, Ben Vogt of Nebraska describes a color snapshot of a Christmas dinner, the family, impatient to tuck in, arrayed along the laden table. I especially like the description of the turkey.


Grandpa Vogt’s—1959

The food is on the table. Turkey tanned
to a cowboy boot luster, potatoes mashed
and mounded in a bowl whose lip is lined
with blue flowers linked by grey vines faded
from washing. Everyone’s heads have turned
to elongate the table’s view—a last supper twisted
toward a horizon where the Christmas tree, crowned
by a window, sets into itself half inclined.
Each belly cries. Each pair of eyes admonished
by Aunt Photographer. Look up. You’re wined
and dined for the older folks who’ve pined
to see your faces, your lives, lightly framed
in this moment’s flash. Parents are moved,
press their children’s heads up from the table,
hide their hunger by rubbing lightly wrinkled
hands atop their laps. They’ll hold the image
as long as need be, seconds away from grace.



American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by Benjamin Vogt, whose most recent book of poems is Indelible Marks, Pudding House Press, 2004. Reprinted by permission of Benjamin Vogt. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.






American Life in Poetry: Column 246

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Childhood is too precious a part of life to lose before we have to, but our popular culture all too often yanks our little people out of their innocence. Here is a poem by Trish Crapo, of Leyden, Massachusetts, that captures a moment of that innocence.


Back Then


Out in the yard, my sister and I
tore thread from century plants
to braid into bracelets, ate
chalky green bananas,
threw coconuts onto the sidewalk
to crack their hard, hairy skulls.

The world had begun to happen,
but not time. We would live
forever, sunburnt and pricker-stuck,
our promises written in blood. Not yet

would men or illness distinguish us,
our thoughts cleave us in two.
If she squeezed sour calamondins
into a potion, I drank it. When I jumped
from the fig tree, she jumped. 

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2004 by Trish Crapo and reprinted from Walking Through Paradise Backwards, Slate Roof Press, 2004, by permission of Trish Crapo and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 245

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I love the way the following poem by Susie Patlove opens, with the little rooster trying to "be what he feels he must be." This poet lives in Massachusetts, in a community called Windy Hill, which must be a very good place for chickens, too.



Poor Patriarch

The rooster pushes his head
high among the hens, trying to be
what he feels he must be, here
in the confines of domesticity.
Before the tall legs of my presence,
he bristles and shakes his ruby comb.

Little man, I want to say
the hens know who they are.
I want to ease his mistaken burden,
want him to crow with the plain
ecstasy of morning light as it
finds its winter way above the woods.

Poor outnumbered fellow,
how did he come to believe
that on his plumed shoulders
lay the safety of an entire flock?
I run my hand down the rippled
brindle of his back, urge him to relax,
drink in the female pleasures
that surround him, of egg laying,
of settling warm-breasted in the nest
of this brief and feathered time.



American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2007 by Susie Patlove from Quickening, Slate Roof Press, 2007. Reprinted by permission of Susie Patlove and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 244

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Love predated the invention of language, but love poetry got its start as soon as we had words through which to express our feelings. Here’s a lovely example of a contemporary poem of love and longing by George Bilgere, who lives in Ohio.


Night Flight

I am doing laps at night, alone
In the indoor pool. Outside
It is snowing, but I am warm
And weightless, suspended and out
Of time like a fly in amber.

She is thousands of miles
From here, and miles above me,
Ghosting the stratosphere,
Heading from New York to London.
Though it is late, even
At that height, I know her light
Is on, her window a square
Of gold as she reads mysteries
Above the Atlantic. I watch

The line of black tile on the pool’s
Floor, leading me down the lane.
If she looks down by moonlight,
Under a clear sky, she will see
Black water. She will see me
Swimming distantly, moving far
From shore, suspended with her
In flight through the wide gulf
As we swim toward land together.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by George Bilgere, whose most recent book of poems is Haywire, Utah State University Press, 2006. Reprinted by permission of George Bilgere. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 243

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Lots of contemporary poems are anecdotal, a brief narration of some event, and what can make them rise above anecdote is when they manage to convey significance, often as the poem closes. Here is an example of one like that, by Marie Sheppard Williams, who lives in Minneapolis.

Everybody

I stood at a bus corner
one afternoon, waiting
for the #2. An old
guy stood waiting too.
I stared at him. He
caught my stare, grinned,
gap-toothed. Will you
sign my coat? he said.
Held out a pen. He wore
a dirty canvas coat that
had signatures all over
it, hundreds, maybe
thousands.
           I’m trying
to get everybody, he
said.
           I signed. On a
little space on a pocket.
Sometimes I remember:
I am one of everybody.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2006 by Marie Sheppard Williams. Reprinted from the California Review, Volume 32, no. 4, by permission of Marie Sheppard Williams and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 


American Life in Poetry: Column 242

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

There are lots of poems in which a poet expresses belated appreciation for a parent, and if you don’t know Robert Hayden’s poem, “Those Winter Sundays,” you ought to look it up sometime. In this lovely sonnet, Kathy Mangan, of Maryland, contributes to that respected tradition.

The Whistle

You could whistle me home from anywhere
in the neighborhood; avenues away,
I’d pick out your clear, alternating pair
of notes, the signal to quit my child’s play
and run back to our house for supper,
or a Saturday trip to the hardware store.
Unthrottled, wavering in the upper
reaches, your trilled summons traveled farther
than our few blocks. I’ve learned too, how your heart’s
radius extends, though its beat
has stopped. Still, some days a sudden fear darts
through me, whether it’s my own city street
I hurry across, or at a corner in an unknown
town: the high, vacant air arrests me—where’s home?


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©1995 by Kathy Mangan, from her most recent book of poems, Above the Tree Line, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1995. Reprinted by permission of Kathy Mangan and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 241

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I love poems in which the central metaphors are fresh and original, and here’s a marvelous, coiny description of autumn by Elizabeth Klise von Zerneck, who lives in Illinois.


Like Coins, November

We drove past late fall fields as flat and cold
as sheets of tin and, in the distance, trees

were tossed like coins against the sky. Stunned gold
and bronze, oaks, maples stood in twos and threes:

some copper bright, a few dull brown and, now
and then, the shock of one so steeled with frost

it glittered like a dime. The autumn boughs
and blackened branches wore a somber gloss

that whispered tails to me, not heads. I read
memorial columns in their trunks; their leaves

spelled UNUM, cent; and yours, the only head . . .
in penny profile, Lincoln-like (one sleeve,

one eye) but even it was turning tails
as russet leaves lay spent across the trails.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by Elizabeth Klise von Zerneck. Reprinted from The Spoon River Poetry Review, Vol. XXXIII, no. 1, 2008, by permission of Elizabeth Klise von Zerneck and the publisher. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 240

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

We haven’t shown you many poems in which the poet enters another person and speaks through him or her, but it is, of course, an effective and respected way of writing. Here Philip Memmer of Deansboro, N.Y., enters the persona of a young woman having an unpleasant experience with a blind date.


The Paleontologist’s Blind Date

You have such lovely bones, he says,
holding my face in his hands,

and although I can almost feel
the stone and the sand

sifting away, his fingers
like the softest of brushes,

I realize after this touch
he would know me

years from now, even
in the dark, even

without my skin.
Thank you, I smile—

then I close the door
and never call him again.



American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by Philip Memmer, whose most recent book of poetry is Lucifer: A Hagiography, Lost Horse Press, 2009. Poem reprinted from Threat of Pleasure, Word Press, 2008, by permission of Philip Memmer and the publisher. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




 

American Life in Poetry: Column 239

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

It’s likely that if you found the original handwritten manuscript of T. S. Eliot’s groundbreaking poem, “The Waste Land,” you wouldn’t be able to trade it for a candy bar at the Quick Shop on your corner. Here’s a poem by David Lee Garrison of Ohio about how unsuccessfully classical music fits into a subway.

Bach in the DC Subway

As an experiment,
The Washington Post
asked a concert violinist—
wearing jeans, tennis shoes,
and a baseball cap—
to stand near a trash can
at rush hour in the subway
and play Bach
on a Stradivarius.
Partita No. 2 in D Minor
called out to commuters
like an ocean to waves,
sang to the station
about why we should bother
to live.

A thousand people
streamed by. Seven of them
paused for a minute or so
and thirty-two dollars floated
into the open violin case.
A café hostess who drifted
over to the open door
each time she was free
said later that Bach
gave her peace,
and all the children,
all of them,
waded into the music
as if it were water,
listening until they had to be
rescued by parents
who had somewhere else to go.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem reprinted from
Rattle, Vol. 14, No. 2, Winter 2008, by permission of David Lee Garrison and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 


American Life in Poetry: Column 238

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Though some teacher may have made you think that all poetry is deadly serious, chock full of coded meanings and obscure symbols, poems, like other works of art, can be delightfully playful. Here Bruce Guernsey, who divides his time between Illinois and Maine, plays with a common yam.


Yam


The potato that ate all its carrots,
can see in the dark like a mole,


its eyes the scars
from centuries of shovels, tines.


May spelled backwards
because it hates the light,


pawing its way, paddling along,
there in the catacombs.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by Bruce Guernsey. Reprinted from New England Primer by Bruce Guernsey, Cherry Grove Collections, 2008, by permission of Bruce Guernsey and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 237

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

An aubade is a poem about separation at dawn, but as you’ll see, this one by Dore Kiesselbach, who lives in Minnesota, is about the complex relationship between a son and his mother.


Aubade

“Take me with you”
my mother says
standing in her nightgown
as, home from college,
I prepare to leave
before dawn.
The desolation
she must face
was once my concern
but like a bobber
pulled beneath
the surface
by an inedible fish
she vanished
into the life
he offered her.
It stopped occurring
to me she might return.
“I’ll be back” I say
and then I go.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by Dore Kiesselbach. Poem reprinted from Field, No. 79, Fall 2008, by permission of Dore Kiesselbach and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

 American Life in Poetry: Column 236

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006


Cecilia Woloch teaches in California, and when she’s not with her students she’s off to the Carpathian Mountains of Poland, to help with the farm work. But somehow she resisted her wanderlust just long enough to make this telling snapshot of her father at work.



The Pick

I watched him swinging the pick in the sun,
breaking the concrete steps into chunks of rock,
and the rocks into dust,
and the dust into earth again.
I must have sat for a very long time on the split rail fence,
just watching him.
My father’s body glistened with sweat,
his arms flew like dark wings over his head.
He was turning the backyard into terraces,
breaking the hill into two flat plains.
I took for granted the power of him,
though it frightened me, too.
I watched as he swung the pick into the air
and brought it down hard
and changed the shape of the world,
and changed the shape of the world again.



American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Reprinted from When She Named Fire, ed., Andrea Hollander Budy, Autumn House Press, 2009, by permission of Cecilia Woloch and the publisher. The poem first appeared in Sacrifice by Cecilia Woloch, Tebot Bach, 1997. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 235

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I tell my writing students that their most important task is to pay attention to what’s going on around them. God is in the details, as we say. Here David Bottoms, the Poet Laureate of Georgia, tells us a great deal about his father by showing us just one of his hands.


My Father’s Left Hand

Sometimes my old man’s hand flutters over his knee, flaps
in crazy circles, and falls back to his leg.

Sometimes it leans for an hour on that bony ledge.

And sometimes when my old man tries to speak, his hand waggles
in the air, chasing a word, then perches again

on the bar of his walker or the arm of a chair.

Sometimes when evening closes down his window and rain
blackens into ice on the sill, it trembles like a sparrow in a storm.

Then full dark falls, and it trembles less, and less, until it’s still.



American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by David Bottoms, whose most recent book of poems is Waltzing Through the Endtime, Copper Canyon Press, 2004. Poem reprinted from Alaska Quarterly Review, Vol. 25, No. 3 & 4, Fall & Winter 2008, by permission of David Bottoms and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 234

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

This week's poem is by a high school student, Michelle Bennett, who lives in Tukwila, Washington, and here she is taking a look at what comes next, Western Washington University in Bellingham, with everything new about it, including opportunity.


Western


You find yourself in a narrow bed you’ve never slept in,
on a tree-lined grassy field you've never walked upon,
on a cold toilet seat you have not sat on,
in a place you now call your home, your learning, your future.
Red stone pathways expose the buildings that will house
the knowledge you seek,
and the information you want to gather.

You crane your neck to look up
at the 13-story brick tower rising from the ground,
looming over you as you walk past. The melodies
and beats of different songs mix,
create a sound of their own,
flow from open windows. Crushed leeks
Top Ramen noodles ground into a blue
and speckled carpet attract armies of ants
to the communal kitchen on the sixth floor.

You pull your jacket tighter against your body,
strong, salty wind whips off the Sound,
and up the hill as you walk through
Red Square toward the clatter of knives,
forks and digesting bellies.

Finally, you are released like a white dove
from the hands of its owner, allowed to fly
discovering your dreams,
discovering what you are made of.




American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by Seattle Arts & Lectures. Reprinted from Dive Down Into the Loud, Seattle Arts & Letters, 2008, by permission of the author and publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 233

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Diane Glancy is one of our country's Native American poets, and I recently judged her latest book, Asylum in the Grasslands, the winner of a regional competition. Here is a good example of her clear and steady writing.

Indian Summer

There’s a farm auction up the road.
Wind has its bid in for the leaves.
Already bugs flurry the headlights
between cornfields at night.
If this world were permanent,
I could dance full as the squaw dress
on the clothesline.
I would not see winter
in the square of white yard-light on the wall.
But something tugs at me.
The world is at a loss and I am part of it
migrating daily.
Everything is up for grabs
like a box of farm tools broken open.
I hear the spirits often in the garden
and along the shore of corn.
I know this place is not mine.
I hear them up the road again.
This world is a horizon, an open sea.
Behind the house, the white iceberg of the barn.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Copyright ©2007 by Diane Glancy, whose novel The Reason For Crows, is forthcoming from State University of New York Press, 2009. Poem reprinted from Asylum in the Grasslands, University of Arizona Press, 2007, by permission of Diane Glancy. Introduction copyright ©2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 232

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I’ve built many wren houses since my wife and I moved to the country 25 years ago. It’s a good thing to do in the winter. At one point I had so many extra that in the spring I set up at a local farmers’ market and sold them for five dollars apiece. I say all this to assert that I am an authority at listening to the so small voices that Thomas R. Smith captures in this poem. Smith lives in Wisconsin.

Baby Wrens’ Voices

I am a student of wrens.
When the mother bird returns
to her brood, beak squirming
with winged breakfast, a shrill
clamor rises like jingling
from tiny, high-pitched bells.
Who’d have guessed such a small
house contained so many voices?
The sound they make is the pure sound
of life’s hunger. Who hangs our house
in the world’s branches, and listens
when we sing from our hunger?
Because I love best those songs
that shake the house of the singer,
I am a student of wrens.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2005 by Thomas R. Smith, whose most recent book of poetry is "Waking Before Dawn," Red Dragonfly Press, 2007. Poem reprinted from the chapbook "Kinnickinnic," Parallel Press, 2008, by permission of Thomas R. Smith and the publisher. The poem first appeared in
"There is No Other Way to Speak," the 2005 “winter book” of the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, ed., Bill Holm. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 231

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

This column originates on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and at the beginning of each semester, we see parents helping their children move into their dorm rooms and apartments and looking a little shaken by the process. This wonderful poem by Sue Ellen Thompson of Maryland captures not only a moment like that, but a mother’s feelings as well.


Helping My Daughter Move into Her First Apartment

This is all I am to her now:
a pair of legs in running shoes,

two arms strung with braided wire.
She heaves a carton sagging with CDs

at me and I accept it gladly, lifting
with my legs, not bending over,

raising each foot high enough
to clear the step. Fortunate to be

of any use to her at all,
I wrestle, stooped and single-handed,

with her mattress in the stairwell,
saying nothing as it pins me,

sweating, to the wall. Vacuum cleaner,
spiny cactus, five-pound sacks

of rice and lentils slumped
against my heart: up one flight

of stairs and then another,
down again with nothing in my arms



American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2006 by Sue Ellen Thompson, and reprinted from "When She Named Fire," ed., Andrea Hollander Budy, Autumn House Press, 2009, and reprinted by permission of the poet and publisher. First printed in "The Golden Hour," Sue Ellen Thompson, Autumn House Press, 2006. Introduction copyright ©2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 



American Life in Poetry: Column 230

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

It’s been sixty-odd years since I was in the elementary grades, but I clearly remember those first school days in early autumn, when summer was suddenly over and we were all perched in our little desks facing into the future. Here Ron Koertge of California gives us a glimpse of a day like that.

First Grade

Until then, every forest
had wolves in it, we thought
it would be fun to wear snowshoes
all the time, and we could talk to water.

So why is this woman with the gray
breath calling out names and pointing
to the little desks we will occupy
for the rest of our lives?


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by Ron Koertge, whose most recent book of poems is "Fever," Red Hen Press, 2006. Reprinted by permission of Ron Koertge. Introduction copyright ©2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 229

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

For over forty years, Mark Vinz, of Moorhead, Minnesota--poet, teacher, publisher--has been a prominent advocate for the literature of the Upper Great Plains. Here’s a recent poem that speaks to growing older.


Cautionary Tales

Beyond the field of grazing, gazing cows
the great bull has a pasture to himself,
monumental, black flanks barely twitching
from the swarming flies. Only a few strands of
wire separate us—how could I forget
my childhood terror, the grownups warning
that the old bull near my uncle’s farm
would love to chase me, stomp me, gore me
if I ever got too close. And so I
skirted acres just to keep my distance,
peeking through the leaves to see if he still
was watching me, waiting for some foolish move—
those fierce red eyes, the thunder in the ground—
or maybe that was simply nightmares. It’s
getting hard to tell, as years themselves keep
gaining ground relentlessly, their hot breath
on my back, and not a fence in sight.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by Mark Vinz, whose most recent book of poems is "Long Distance," Midwestern Writers Publishing House, 2006. Poem reprinted from "South Dakota Review" Vol. 46, no. 2, by permission of Mark Vinz and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 



American Life in Poetry: Column 228

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I don't often mention literary forms, but of this lovely poem by Cecilia Woloch I want to suggest that the form, a villanelle, which uses a pattern of repetition, adds to the enchantment I feel in reading it. It has a kind of layering, like memory itself. Woloch lives and teaches in southern  California.
 
 My Mother's Pillow
 
My mother sleeps with the Bible open on her pillow;
she reads herself to sleep and wakens startled.
She listens for her heart: each breath is shallow.
 
For years her hands were quick with thread and needle.
She used to sew all night when we were little;
now she sleeps with the Bible on her pillow
 
and believes that Jesus understands her sorrow:
her children grown, their father frail and brittle;
she stitches in her heart, her breathing shallow.
 
Once she "even slept fast," rushed tomorrow,
mornings full of sunlight, sons and daughters.
Now she sleeps alone with the Bible on her pillow
 
and wakes alone and feels the house is hollow,
though my father in his blue room stirs and mutters;
she listens to him breathe: each breath is shallow.
 
I flutter down the darkened hallway, shadow
between their dreams, my mother and my father,
asleep in rooms I pass, my breathing shallow.
I leave the Bible open on her pillow.
 
 
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2003 by Cecilia Woloch, whose most recent book of poetry is "Narcissus," Tupelo Press, 2008. Reprinted from "Late," by Cecilia Woloch,
published by BOA Editions, Rochester, NY, 2003, by permission of Cecilia Woloch. Introduction copyright ©2009 by The Poetry
Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library
of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 227

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Jane Hirshfield, a Californian and one of my favorite poets, writes beautiful image-centered poems of clarity and concision, which sometimes conclude with a sudden and surprising deepening. Here's just one example.


Green-Striped Melons

They lie
under stars in a field.
They lie under rain in a field.
Under sun.

Some people
are like this as well—
like a painting
hidden beneath another painting.

An unexpected weight
the sign of their ripeness.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2008 by Jane Hirshfield, whose most recent book of poems is "After," Harper Collins, 2006. Poem reprinted from "Alaska Quarterly," Vol. 25, nos. 3 & 4, Fall & Winter, 2008, by permission of Jane Hirshfield and the publisher. Introduction copyright (c)2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




 

American Life in Poetry: Column 226

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Elizabeth Bishop, one of our greatest American poets, once wrote a long poem in which the sudden appearance of a moose on a highway creates a community among a group of strangers on a bus. Here Ronald Wallace, a Wisconsin poet, gives us a sighting with similar results.


Sustenance

Australia. Phillip Island. The Tasman Sea.
Dusk. The craggy coastline at low tide in fog.
Two thousand tourists milling in the stands
as one by one, and then in groups, the fairy penguins
mass up on the sand like so much sea wrack and
debris. And then, as on command, the improbable
parade begins: all day they've been out fishing
for their chicks, and now, somehow, they find them
squawking in their burrows in the dunes, one by one,
two by two, such comical solemnity, as wobbling by
they catch our eager eyes until we're squawking, too,
in English, French, and Japanese, Yiddish and Swahili,
like some happy wedding party brought to tears
by whatever in the ceremony repairs the rifts
between us. The rain stops. The fog lifts. Stars.
And we go home, less hungry, satisfied, to friends
and family, regurgitating all we've heard and seen.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "Sustenance" from "For A Limited Time Only," by Ronald Wallace, (c) 2008. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press. The poem first appeared in "Poetry Northwest," Vol. 41, no. 4, 2001. Introduction copyright (c)2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 225

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

There have been many poems written in which a photograph is described in detail, and this one by Margaret Kaufman, of the Bay Area in California, uses the snapshot to carry her further, into the details of memory.


Photo, Brownie Troop, St. Louis, 1949

I'm going to put Karen Prasse right here
in front of you on this page
so that you won't mistake her for something else,
an example of precocity, for instance,
a girl who knew that the sky (blue crayon)
was above the earth (green crayon)
and did not, as you had drawn it, come right down
to the green on which your three bears stood.
You can tell from her outfit that she is a Brownie.
You can tell from her socks that she knows how
to line things up, from her mouth that she may
grow up mean or simply competent. Do not mistake
her for an art critic: when she told you
the first day of first grade that your drawing
was "wrong," you stood your ground and told her
to look out the window. Miss Voss told your mom
you were going to be a good example of something,
although you cannot tell from the way your socks sag,
nor from your posture, far from Brownie-crisp.
This is not about you for a change, but about
mis-perception, of which Karen was an early example.
Who knows? She may have meant to be helpful,
though that is not always a virtue,
and gets in the way of some art.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2008 by Margaret Kaufman, whose newest book of poems, "Inheritance," is forthcoming in spring, 2010, from Sixteen Rivers Press.  Poem reprinted from "The Chattahoochee Review," Vol. 28, no. 2,3, Spring/Summer 2008, by permission of Margaret Kaufman and the publisher.  Introduction copyright (c)2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 224

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

When we're young, it seems there are endless possibilities for lives we might lead, and then as we grow older and the opportunities get fewer we begin to realize that the life we've been given is the only one we're likely to get. Here's Jean Nordhaus, of the Washington, D.C. area, exploring this process.


I Was Always Leaving

I was always leaving, I was
about to get up and go, I was
on my way, not sure where.
Somewhere else. Not here.
Nothing here was good enough.

It would be better there, where I
was going. Not sure how or why.
The dome I cowered under
would be raised, and I would be released
into my true life. I would meet there

the ones I was destined to meet.
They would make an opening for me
among the flutes and boulders,
and I would be taken up. That this
might be a form of death

did not occur to me. I only know
that something held me back,
a doubt, a debt, a face I could not
leave behind. When the door
fell open, I did not go through.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2008 by Jean Nordhaus, whose most recent book of poems is "Innocence," Ohio State University Press, 2006. Poem reprinted from "The Gettysburg Review," Vol. 21, no. 4, Winter, 2008, by permission of Jean Nordhaus and the publisher. Introduction copyright (c)2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 223

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

There's lots of literature about the loss of innocence, because we all share in that loss and literature is about what we share. Here's a poem by Alexandra Teague, a San Franciscan, in which a child's awakening to the alphabet coincides with another awakening: the unsettling knowledge that all of us don't see things in the same way.


Language Lessons

The carpet in the kindergarten room
was alphabet blocks; all of us fidgeting
on bright, primary letters. On the shelf
sat that week's inflatable sound. The "th"
was shaped like a tooth. We sang
about brushing up and down, practiced
exhaling while touching our tongues
to our teeth. Next week, a puffy U
like an upside-down umbrella; the rest
of the alphabet deflated. Some days,
we saw parents through the windows
to the hallway sky. "Look, a fat lady,"
a boy beside me giggled. Until then
I'd only known my mother as beautiful.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2008 by Alexandra Teague, whose first book, "Mortal Geography," winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky Prize, is forthcoming in 2010 from Persea Books. Reprinted from "Third Coast," Fall 2008, by permission of Alexandra Teague and the publisher. Introduction copyright (c)2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




 

American Life in Poetry: Column 222

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Coleman Barks, who lives in Georgia, is not only the English language's foremost translator of the poems of the 13th century poet, Rumi, but he's also a loving grandfather, and for me that's even more important. His poems about his granddaughter, Briny, are brim full of joy. Here's one:


Glad

In the glory of the gloaming-green soccer
field her team, the Gladiators, is losing

ten to zip. She never loses interest in
the roughhouse one-on-one that comes

every half a minute. She sticks her leg
in danger and comes out the other side running.

Later a clump of opponents on the street is chant-
ing, WE WON, WE WON, WE . . . She stands up

on the convertible seat holding to the wind-
shield. WE LOST, WE LOST BIGTIME, TEN TO

NOTHING, WE LOST, WE LOST. Fist pumping
air. The other team quiet, abashed, chastened.

Good losers don't laugh last; they laugh
continuously, all the way home so glad.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2001 by Coleman Barks, from his most recent book of poems, "Winter Sky: New and Selected Poems, 1968-2008," University of Georgia Press, 2008, and reprinted by permission of Coleman Barks and the publisher. Introduction copyright (c)2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




 

American Life in Poetry: Column 221

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Sometimes, it's merely the sound of a child's voice in a nearby room that makes a parent feel immensely lucky. To celebrate Father's Day, here's a joyful poem of fatherhood by Todd Boss, who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.


This Morning in a Morning Voice

 to beat the froggiest
of morning voices,
 my son gets out of bed
and takes a lumpish song
 along--a little lyric
learned in kindergarten,
 something about a
boat. He's found it in
 the bog of his throat
before his feet have hit
 the ground, follows
its wonky melody down
 the hall and into the loo
as if it were the most
 natural thing for a little
boy to do, and lets it
 loose awhile in there
to a tinkling sound while
 I lie still in bed, alive
like I've never been, in
 love again with life,
afraid they'll find me
 drowned here, drowned
in more than my fair
 share of joy.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2008 by Todd Boss, whose most recent book of poems is "Yellowrocket," W. W. Norton & Co., 2008. Poem reprinted from "Poetry," December 2008, by permission of Todd Boss and the publisher. Introduction copyright (c)2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 220

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

One of the privileges of being U.S. Poet Laureate was to choose two poets each year to receive a $10,000 fellowship, funded by the Witter Bynner Foundation. Joseph Stroud, who lives in California, was one of my choices. This poem is representative of his clear-eyed, imaginative poetry.


Night in Day

The night never wants to end, to give itself over
to light. So it traps itself in things: obsidian, crows.
Even on summer solstice, the day of light's great
triumph, where fields of sunflowers guzzle in the sun—
we break open the watermelon and spit out
black seeds, bits of night glistening on the grass.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2009 by Joseph Stroud, and reprinted from his recent book of poems, "Of This World: New and Selected Poems 1966-2006," Copper Canyon Press, 2009, by permission of the author and publisher. Introduction copyright (c)2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 219

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

As we all know, getting older isn't hard to do. Time continues on. In this poem, Deborah Warren of Massachusetts asks us to think about the life lived between our past and present selves, as indicated in the marginal comments of an old book. There's something beautiful about books allowing us to talk to who we once were, and this poem captures this beauty.


Marginalia

Finding an old book on a basement shelf—
gray, spine bent—and reading it again,
I met my former, unfamiliar, self,
some of her notes and scrawls so alien

that, though I tried, I couldn't get (behind
this gloss or that) back to the time she wrote
to guess what experiences she had in mind,
the living context of some scribbled note;

or see the girl beneath the purple ink
who chose this phrase or that to underline,
the mood, the boy, that lay behind her thinking—
but they were thoughts I recognized as mine;

and though there were words I couldn't even read,
blobs and cross-outs; and though not a jot
remained of her old existence—I agreed
with the young annotator's every thought:

A clever girl. So what would she see fit
to comment on—and what would she have to say
about the years that she and I have written
since—before we put the book away?


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2008 by Deborah Warren, whose most recent book of poems is "Dream with Flowers and Bowl of Fruit," University of Evansville Press, 2008. Poem reprinted from the "Hudson Review," Vol. LXI, no. 3, Autumn 2008, and reprinted by permission of the author and publisher. Introduction copyright (c)2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 218

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Here is one of my favorite mother-daughter poems, by Marie Howe, who lives in New York City and who has a charming little girl.


Hurry

We stop at the dry cleaners and the grocery store
and the gas station and the green market and
Hurry up honey, I say, hurry,
as she runs along two or three steps behind me
her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down.

Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave?
To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown?
Today, when all the errands are finally done, I say to her,
Honey I'm sorry I keep saying Hurry--
you walk ahead of me. You be the mother.

And, Hurry up, she says, over her shoulder, looking
back at me, laughing. Hurry up now darling, she says,
hurry, hurry, taking the house keys from my hands.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2008 by Marie Howe, and reprinted from "When She Named Fire," ed., Andrea Hollander Budy, Autumn House Press, 2009. First published in "The Kingdom of the Ordinary" by Marie Howe, W.W. Norton, 2008. Used by permission of Marie Howe and the publisher. Introduction copyright (c)2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




 

American Life in Poetry: Column 217

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

American literature is rich with poems about the passage of time, and the inevitability of change, and how these affect us. Here is a poem by Kevin Griffith, who lives in Ohio, in which the years accelerate by their passing.


Spinning

I hold my two-year-old son
under his arms and start to twirl.
His feet sway away from me
and the day becomes a blur.
Everything I own is flying into space:
yard toys, sandbox, tools,
garage and house,
and, finally, the years of my life.

When we stop, my son is a grown man,
and I am very old. We stagger
back into each other's arms
one last time, two lost friends
heavy with drink,
remembering the good old days.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2006 by Kevin Griffith, whose most recent book of poetry is "Denmark, Kangaroo, Orange," Pearl Editions, 2007. Poem reprinted from "Mid-American Review," Vol. 26, no. 2, 2006, by permission of Kevin Griffith and the publisher.  Introduction copyright (c)2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




 

American Life in Poetry: Column 216

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Judy Loest lives in Knoxville and, like many fine Appalachian writers, her poems have a welcoming conversational style, rooted in that region's storytelling tradition. How gracefully she sweeps us into the landscape and the scene!


Faith

Leaves drift from the cemetery oaks onto late grass,
Sun-singed, smelling like straw, the insides of old barns.
The stone angel's prayer is uninterrupted by the sleeping
Vagrant at her feet, the lone squirrel, furtive amid the litter.

Someone once said my great-grandmother, on the day she died,
rose from her bed where she had lain, paralyzed and mute
For two years following a stroke, and dressed herself--the good
Sunday dress of black crepe, cotton stockings, sensible, lace-up shoes.

I imagine her coiling her long white braid in the silent house,
Lying back down on top of the quilt and folding her hands,
Satisfied. I imagine her born-again daughters, brought up
In that tent-revival religion, called in from kitchens and fields
To stand dismayed by her bed like the sisters of Lazarus,
Waiting for her to breathe, to rise again and tell them what to do.

Here, no cross escapes the erosion of age, no voice breaks
The silence; the only certainty in the crow's flight
Or the sun's measured descent is the coming of winter.
Even the angel's outstretched arms offer only a formulated
Grace, her blind blessings as indiscriminate as acorns,
Falling on each of us, the departed and the leaving.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2007 by Judy Loest. Poem reprinted from "After Appalachia," Finishing Line Press, 2007, by permission of Judy Loest and the publisher. Introduction copyright (c)2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




 

American Life in Poetry: Column 215

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

To commemorate Mother's Day, here's a lovely poem by David Wojahn of Virginia, remembering his mother after forty years.


Walking to School, 1964

Blurring the window, the snowflakes' numb white lanterns.
She's brewed her coffee, in the bathroom sprays cologne
And sets her lipstick upright on the sink.
The door ajar, I glimpse the yellow slip,

The rose-colored birthmark on her shoulder.
Then she's dressed--the pillbox hat and ersatz fur,
And I'm dressed too, mummified in stocking cap
And scarves, and I walk her to the bus stop

Where she'll leave me for my own walk to school,
Where she'll board the bus that zigzags to St. Paul
As I watch her at the window, the paperback

Romance already open on her lap,
The bus laboring off into snow, her good-bye kiss
Still startling my cheek with lipstick trace.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)1990 by David Wojahn, whose most recent book of poems is "Interrogation Palace: New and Selected Poems 1982-2004," University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006. "Walking to School, 1964" is from the longer poem "White Lanterns," printed in "Poetry," Vol. 157, 1990, by permission of David Wojahn and the publisher.  Introduction copyright (c)2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 214

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Sometimes I wonder at my wife's forbearance. She's heard me tell the same stories dozens of times, and she still politely laughs when she should. Here's a poem by Susan Browne, of California, that treats an oft-told story with great tenderness.


On Our Eleventh Anniversary

You're telling that story again about your childhood,
when you were five years old and rode your blue bicycle

from Copenhagen to Espergaerde, and it was night
and snowing by the time you arrived,

and your grandparents were so relieved to see you,
because all day no one knew where you were,

you had vanished. We sit at our patio table under a faded green
umbrella, drinking wine in California's blue autumn,

red stars of roses along the fence, trellising over the roof
of our ramshackle garage. Too soon the wine glasses will be empty,

our stories told, the house covered with pine needles the wind
has shaken from the trees. Other people will live here.

We will vanish like children who traveled far in the dark,
stars of snow in their hair, riding to enchanted Espergaerde.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2007 by Susan Browne, whose most recent book of poems is "Buddha's Dogs," Four Way Books, 2004. Poem reprinted from "Mississippi Review" Vol. 35, nos. 1-2, Spring 2007, and reprinted by permission of the author and publisher. Introduction copyright (c)2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




 

American Life in Poetry: Column 213

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Bill Holm, one of the most intelligent and engaging writers of our northern plains, died on February 25th. He will be greatly missed. He and I were of the same generation and we shared the same sense of wonder, amusement, and skepticism about the course of technology. I don't yet own an Earbud, but I won't need to, now that we have Bill's poem.


Earbud

Earbud--a tiny marble sheathed in foam
to wear like an interior earring so you
can enjoy private noises wherever you go,
protected from any sudden silence.
Only check your batteries, then copy
a thousand secret songs and stories
on the tiny pod you carry in your pocket.
You are safe now from other noises made
by other people, other machines, by chance,
noises you have not chosen as your own.
To get your attention, I touch your arm
to show you the tornado or the polar bear.
Sometimes I catch you humming or talking to the air
as if to a shrunken lover waiting in your ear.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2008 by Bill Holm, whose most recent book of poems is "Playing the Black Piano," Milkweed Editions, 2004. Poem reprinted by permission of Bill Holm. Introduction copyright (c)2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 212

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

We've published this column about American life for over four years, and we have finally found a poem about one of the great American pastimes, bowling. "The Big Lebowski" caught bowling on film, and this poem by Regan Huff of Georgia captures it in words.


Occurrence on Washburn Avenue

Alice's first strike gets a pat on the back,
her second a cheer from Betty Woszinski
who's just back from knee surgery. Her third—
"A turkey!" Molly calls out—raises everyone's eyes.
They clap. Teresa looks up from the bar.
At the fourth the girls stop seeing their own pins wobble.
They watch the little X's fill the row on Alice's screen—
That's five. That's six. There's a holy space
around her like a saint come down to bowl
with the Tuesday Ladies in Thorp, Wisconsin.
Teresa runs to get Al, and Fran calls Billy
at the Exxon. The bar crowds with silent men.
No one's cheering. No one's bowling now
except Alice's team, rolling their balls
to advance the screen around to Alice, who's stopped
even her nervous laugh, her face blank and smooth
with concentration. It can't go on
and then it does go on, the white bar
reading "Silver Dollar Chicken" lowering and clearing
nothing, then lowering and clearing nothing again.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2008 by Regan Huff and reprinted from the "Beloit Poetry Journal," Vol. 59, no. 1, by permission of Regan Huff and the publisher.  Introduction copyright (c) 2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 211

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Some of you are so accustomed to flying that you no longer sit by the windows. But I'd guess that at one time you gazed down, after dark, and looked at the lights below you with innocent wonder. This poem by Anne Marie Macari of New Jersey perfectly captures the gauziness of those lights as well as the loneliness that often accompanies travel.


From the Plane

It is a soft thing, it has been sifted
from the sieve of space and seems
asleep there under the moths of light.

Cluster of dust and fire, from up here
you are a stranger and I am dropping
through the funnel of air to meet you.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2008 by Anne Marie Macari and reprinted from "She Heads into the Wilderness," Autumn House Press, 2008, by permission of Anne Marie Macari. Introduction copyright (c) 2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



American Life in Poetry: Column 210

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

My father was the manager of a store in which chairs were strategically placed for those dutiful souls waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting for shoppers. Such patience is the most exhausting work there is, or so it seems at the time. This poem by Joseph O. Legaspi perfectly captures one of those scenes.


At the Bridal Shop

The gowns and dresses hang
like fleece in their glaring
whiteness, sheepskin-softness,
the ruffled matrimonial love in which the brides-
in-waiting dance around, expectantly,
hummingbirds to tulips. I was dragged here:
David's Bridal, off the concrete-gray arterial
highways of a naval town. I sink into the flush
bachelors' couch, along with other men sprinkled
throughout the shop, as my friend and her female compatriots parade
taffeta dresses in monstrous shades of pastels--persimmons,
lilacs, periwinkles--the colors of weddings and religious
holidays. Trains drag on the floor, sleeves drape
like limp, pressed sheets of candied fruits,
ribbons fluttering like pale leaves. I watch
families gathered together: the women, like worshippers,
circling around the smiling brides-to-be, as if they were
the anointed ones. The men, in turn, submerge
deeper into couches, into sleep, while the haloed,
veiled women cannot contain their joy,
they flash their winning smiles, and they are beautiful.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2007 by Joseph O. Legaspi, whose most recent book of poems is "Imago," Cavankerry Press, 2007. Poem reprinted from "Crab Orchard Review," Vol. 12, no. 2, 2007, by permission of Joseph O. Legaspi. Introduction copyright (c) 2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




 

American Life in Poetry: Column 209

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I've gotten to the age at which I am starting to strain to hear things, but I am glad to have gotten to that age, all the same. Here's a fine poem by Miller Williams of Arkansas that gets inside a person who is losing her hearing.


Going Deaf

No matter how she tilts her head to hear
she sees the irritation in their eyes.
She knows how they can read a small rejection,
a little judgment, in every What did you say?
So now she doesn't say What? or Come again?
She lets the syllables settle, hoping they form
some sort of shape that she might recognize.
When they don't, she smiles with everyone else,
and then whoever was talking turns to her
and says, "Break wooden coffee, don't you know?"
She pulls all she can focus into the face
to know if she ought to nod or shake her head.
In that long space her brain talks to itself.
The person may turn away as an act of mercy,
leaving her there in a room full of understanding
with nothing to cover her, neither sound nor silence.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)1995 by Miller Williams, whose most recent book of poems is "Time and the Tilting Earth," Louisiana State University Press, 2008. Poem reprinted from "Points of Departure: Poems by Miller Williams," by Miller Williams, University of Illinois Press, 1995, and reprinted by permission of the author and publisher. Introduction copyright (c) 2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 208

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

To have a helpful companion as you travel through life is a marvelous gift. This poem by Gerald Fleming, a long-time teacher in the San Francisco public schools, celebrates just such a relationship.


Long Marriage

You're worried, so you wake her
& you talk into the dark:
Do you think I have cancer, you
say, or Were there worms
in that meat, or Do you think
our son is OK, and it's
wonderful, really—almost
ceremonial as you feel
the vessel of your worry pass
miraculously from you to her—
Gee, the rain sounds so beautiful,
you say—I'm going back to sleep.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2005 by Gerald Fleming. Reprinted from "Swimmer Climbing onto Shore," by Gerald Fleming, Sixteen Rivers Press, San Francisco, 2005, by permission of the author. Introduction copyright (c) 2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 207

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

People singing, not professionally but just singing for joy, it's a wonderful celebration of life. In this poem by Sebastian Matthews of North Carolina, a father and son happen upon a handful of men singing in a cafe, and are swept up into their pleasure and community.


Barbershop Quartet,
      East Village Grille

Inside the standard lunch hour din they rise, four
seamless voices fused into one, floating somewhere
between a low hum and a vibration, like the sound
of a train rumbling beneath noisy traffic.
The men are hunched around a booth table,
a fire circle of coffee cups and loose fists, leaning in
around the thing they are summoning forth
from inside this suddenly beating four-chambered
heart. I've taken Avery out on a whim, ordered quesadillas
and onion rings, a kiddy milk with three straws.
We're already deep in the meal, extra napkins
and wipes for the grease coating our faces
and hands like mid-summer sweat. And because
we're happy, lost in the small pleasures of father
and son, at first their voices seem to come from inside
us. Who's that boy singing? Avery asks, unable
to see these men wrapped in their act. I let him
keep looking, rapt. And when no one is paying
attention, I put down my fork and take my boy's hand,
and together we dive into the song. Or maybe it pours
into us, and we're the ones brimming with it.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2008 by Sebastian Matthews, whose collection of poems, "We Generous," was published by Red Hen Press, 2007. Poem reprinted from "The Chattahoochee Review," V. 28, no. 2,3, 2008 by permission of Sebastian Matthews.  Introduction copyright (c) 2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 206

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Ah, yes, the mid-life crisis. And there's a lot of mid-life in which it can happen. Jerry Lee Lewis sang of it so well in "He's thirty-nine and holding, holding everything he can." And here's a fine poem by Matthew Vetter, portraying just such a man.


Wild Flowers

At fifty-six, having left my mother,
my father buys a motorcycle.
I imagine him because
it is the son's sorrowful assignment
to imagine his father: there,
hunched on his mount,
with black boots, with bad teeth,
between shifts at the mill,
ripping furrows in the backroads,
past barn and field and silo,
past creek and rock,
past the brown mare,
sleek in her impertinence,
never slowing until he sees
the bull. He stops, pulls
his bike to the side of the road,
where golden rod and clover grow,
walks up to the fence, admires
its horns, its wet snout snorting and blowing
its breath, its girth, its trampling
of small wild flowers.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2008 by Matthew Vetter. Reprinted from "The Louisville Review," No. 63, Spring 2008, by permission of Matthew Vetter.  Introduction copyright (c) 2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 205

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Memories have a way of attaching themselves to objects, to details, to physical tasks, and here, George Bilgere, an Ohio poet, happens upon mixed feelings about his mother while slicing a head of cabbage.


Corned Beef and Cabbage

I can see her in the kitchen,
Cooking up, for the hundredth time,
A little something from her
Limited Midwestern repertoire.
Cigarette going in the ashtray,
The red wine pulsing in its glass,
A warning light meaning
Everything was simmering
Just below the steel lid
Of her smile, as she boiled
The beef into submission,
Chopped her way
Through the vegetable kingdom
With the broken-handled knife
I use tonight, feeling her
Anger rising from the dark
Chambers of the head
Of cabbage I slice through,
Missing her, wanting
To chew things over
With my mother again.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2002 by George Bilgere, whose most recent book of poetry is "Haywire," Utah State University Press, 2006. Poem reprinted from "The Good Kiss," published by The University of Akron Press, 2002, by permission of the author and publisher. Introduction copyright (c) 2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 204

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Memories form around details the way a pearl forms around a grain of sand, and in this commemoration of an anniversary, Cecilia Woloch reaches back to grasp a few details that promise to bring a cherished memory forward, and succeeds in doing so. The poet lives and teaches in southern California.


Anniversary

Didn't I stand there once,
white-knuckled, gripping the just-lit taper,
swearing I'd never go back?
And hadn't you kissed the rain from my mouth?
And weren't we gentle and awed and afraid,
knowing we'd stepped from the room of desire
into the further room of love?
And wasn't it sacred, the sweetness
we licked from each other's hands?
And were we not lovely, then, were we not
as lovely as thunder, and damp grass, and flame?


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2008 by Cecilia Woloch. Reprinted from "Narcissus," by Cecilia Woloch, Tupelo Press, Dorset, VT, 2008, by permission of Cecilia Woloch.  Introduction copyright (c) 2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 203

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

To read in the news that a platoon of soldiers has been killed is a terrible thing, but to learn the name of just one of them makes the news even more vivid and sad. To hold the name of someone or something on our lips is a powerful thing. It is the badge of individuality and separateness. Charles Harper Webb, a California poet, takes advantage of the power of naming in this poem about the steady extinction of animal species.


The Animals are Leaving

One by one, like guests at a late party
They shake our hands and step into the dark:
Arabian ostrich; Long-eared kit fox; Mysterious starling.

One by one, like sheep counted to close our eyes,
They leap the fence and disappear into the woods:
Atlas bear; Passenger pigeon; North Island laughing owl;
Great auk; Dodo; Eastern wapiti; Badlands bighorn sheep.

One by one, like grade school friends,
They move away and fade out of memory:
Portuguese ibex; Blue buck; Auroch; Oregon bison;
Spanish imperial eagle; Japanese wolf; Hawksbill
Sea turtle; Cape lion; Heath hen; Raiatea thrush.

One by one, like children at a fire drill, they march
     outside,
And keep marching, though teachers cry, "Come back!"
Waved albatross; White-bearded spider monkey;
Pygmy chimpanzee; Australian night parrot;
Turquoise parakeet; Indian cheetah; Korean tiger;
Eastern harbor seal; Ceylon elephant; Great Indian
     rhinoceros.

One by one, like actors in a play that ran for years
And wowed the world, they link their hands and bow
Before the curtain falls.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2006 by Charles Harper Webb. Reprinted from "Amplified Dog," by Charles Harper Webb, published by Red Hen Press, 2006, by permission of the author and publisher.  Introduction copyright (c) 2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



American Life in Poetry: Column 202

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

David Wagoner, who lives in Washington state, is one of our country's most distinguished poets and the author of many wonderful books. He is also one of our best at writing about nature, from which we learn so much. Here is a recent poem by Wagoner that speaks to perseverance.


The Cherry Tree

Out of the nursery and into the garden
where it rooted and survived its first hard winter,
then a few years of freedom while it blossomed,
put out its first tentative branches, withstood
the insects and the poisons for insects,
developed strange ideas about its height
and suffered the pruning of its quirks and clutters,
its self-indulgent thrusts
and the infighting of stems at cross purposes
year after year. Each April it forgot
why it couldn't do what it had to do,
and always after blossoms, fruit, and leaf-fall,
was shown once more what simply couldn't happen.

Its oldest branches now, the survivors carved
by knife blades, rain, and wind, are sending shoots
straight up, blood red, into the light again.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2008 by David Wagoner, whose most recent book of poetry is "Good Morning and Good Night," University of Illinois Press, 2005. Reprinted from "Crazyhorse," No. 73, Spring 2008, by permission of David Wagoner. Introduction copyright (c) 2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 201

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Don Welch lives in Nebraska and is one of those many talented American poets who have never received as much attention as they deserve. His poems are distinguished by the meticulous care he puts into writing them, and by their deep intelligence. Here is Welch's picture of a 14-year-old, captured at that awkward and painfully vulnerable step on the way to adulthood.


At 14

To be shy,
to lower your eyes
after making a greeting.

to know
wherever you go
you'll be called on,

to fear
whoever you're near
will ask you,

to wear
the softer sides of the air
in rooms filled with angers,

your ship
always docked
in transparent slips

whose wharves
are sheerer than membranes.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2008 by Don Welch. Reprinted from "When Memory Gives Dust a Face," by Don Welch, published by Lewis-Clark Press, 2008, by permission of Don Welch and the publisher. Introduction copyright (c) 2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 200

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Here's a fine poem by Chris Forhan of Indiana, about surviving the loss of a parent, and which celebrates the lives that survive it, that go on. I especially like the parachute floating up and away, just as the lost father has gone up and away.


What My Father Left Behind

Jam jar of cigarette ends and ashes on his workbench,
hammer he nailed our address to a stump with,
balsa wood steamship, half-finished—

is that him, waving from the stern? Well, good luck to him.
Slur of sunlight filling the backyard, August's high wattage,
white blossoming, it's a curve, it comes back. My mother

in a patio chair, leaning forward, squinting, threading
her needle again, her eye lifts to the roof, to my brother,
who stands and jerks his arm upward—he might be

insulting the sky, but he's only letting go
a bit of green, a molded plastic soldier
tied to a parachute, thin as a bread bag, it rises, it arcs

against the blue—good luck to it—my sister and I below,
heads tilted back as we stand in the grass, good
luck to all of us, still here, still in love with it.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2008 by Chris Forhan from his most recent book of poetry "Black Leapt In," Barrow Street Press, 2009, and reprinted by permission of Chris Forhan and the publisher. Poem first appeared in "Pleiades," Vol. 28, no. 1, 2008. Introduction copyright (c) 2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


American Life in Poetry: Column 199

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I'd guess that most of us carry in our memories landscapes that, far behind us, hold significant meanings for us. For me, it's a Mississippi River scenic overlook south of Guttenberg, Iowa. And for you? Here's just such a memoryscape, in this brief poem by New Yorker Anne Pierson Wiese.


Inscrutable Twist

The twist of the stream was inscrutable.
It was a seemingly run-of-the-mill
stream that flowed for several miles by the side
of Route 302 in northern Vermont—
and presumably does still—but I've not
been back there for what seems like a long time.

I have it in my mind's eye, the way
one crested a rise and rounded a corner
on the narrow blacktop, going west, and saw
off to the left in the flat green meadow
the stream turning briefly back on itself
to form a perfect loop—a useless light-filled
water noose or fragment of moon's cursive,
a sign or message of some kind—but left behind.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2007 by Anne Pierson Wiese, whose most recent book of poetry is "Floating City," Louisiana State University Press, 2007. Poem reprinted from "Ploughshares," Vol. 33, no. 4, Winter 2007-08 by permission of Anne Pierson Wiese. Introduction copyright (c) 200p by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 198

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

This column has had the privilege of publishing a number of poems by young people, but this is the first we've published by a young person who is also a political refugee. The poet, Zozan Hawez, is from Iraq, and goes to Foster High School in Tukwila, Washington. Seattle Arts & Lectures sponsors a Writers in the Schools program, and Zozan's poem was encouraged by that initiative.


Self-Portrait

Born in a safe family
But a dangerous area, Iraq,
I heard guns at a young age, so young
They made a decision to raise us safe
So packed our things
And went far away.

Now, in the city of rain,
I try to forget my past,
But memories never fade.

This is my life,
It happened for a reason,
I happened for a reason.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2007 by Seattle Arts & Lectures. Reprinted from "We Will Carry Ourselves As Long As We Gaze Into The Sun," Seattle Arts & Lectures, 2007, by permission of Zozan Hawez and the publisher. Introduction copyright (c) 2009 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




 

American Life in Poetry: Column 197

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I suspect that one thing some people have against reading poems is that they are so often so serious, so devoid of joy, as if we poets spend all our time brooding about mutability and death and never having any fun. Here Cornelius Eady, who lives and teaches in Indiana, offers us a poem of pure pleasure.


A Small Moment

I walk into the bakery next door
To my apartment. They are about
To pull some sort of toast with cheese
From the oven. When I ask:
What's that smell? I am being
A poet, I am asking

What everyone else in the shop
Wanted to ask, but somehow couldn't;
I am speaking on behalf of two other
Customers who wanted to buy the
Name of it. I ask the woman
Behind the counter for a percentage
Of her sale. Am I flirting?
Am I happy because the days
Are longer? Here's what

She does: She takes her time
Choosing the slices. "I am picking
Out the good ones," she tells me. It's
April 14th. Spring, with five to ten
Degrees to go. Some days, I feel my duty;
Some days, I love my work.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 1997 by Cornelius Eady, from his most recent book of poetry, "Hardheaded Weather: New and Selected Poems," A Marian Wood Book, Putnam, 2008. Reprinted by permission of Cornelius Eady. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 196

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

One of the most effective means for conveying strong emotion is to invest some real object with one's feelings, and then to let the object carry those feelings to the reader. Notice how the gloves in this short poem by Jose Angel Araguz of Oregon carry the heavy weight of the speaker's loss.


Gloves

I made up a story for myself once,
That each glove I lost
Was sent to my father in prison

That's all it would take for him
To chart my growth without pictures
Without words or visits,

Only colors and design,
Texture; it was ok then
For skin to chafe and ash,

To imagine him
Trying on a glove,
Stretching it out

My open palm closing
And disappearing
In his fist.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2007 by Jose Angel Araguz. Poem reprinted from "Rattle," Vol. 13, no. 2, Winter 2007, by permission of Jose Angel Araguz. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 195

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Here is a poem, much like a prayer, in which the Michigan poet Conrad Hilberry asks for no more than a little flare of light, an affirmation, at the end of a long, cold Christmas day.


Christmas Night

Let midnight gather up the wind
and the cry of tires on bitter snow.
Let midnight call the cold dogs home,
sleet in their fur--last one can blow

the streetlights out. If children sleep
after the day's unfoldings, the wheel
of gifts and griefs, may their breathing
ease the strange hollowness we feel.

Let midnight draw whoever's left
to the grate where a burnt-out log unrolls
low mutterings of smoke until
a small fire wakes in its crib of coals.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2008 by Conrad Hilberry, whose most recent book of poetry is "After-Music," Wayne State University Press, 2008. Poem reprinted from "The Hudson Review," Vol. 60, no. 4, Winter 2008, by permission of Conrad Hilberry.  Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 194

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Father and child doing a little math homework together; it's an everyday occurrence, but here, Russell Libby, a poet who writes from Three Sisters Farm in central Maine, presents it in a way that makes it feel deep and magical.


Applied Geometry

Applied geometry,
measuring the height
of a pine from
like triangles,
Rosa's shadow stretches
seven paces in
low-slanting light of
late Christmas afternoon.
One hundred thirty nine steps
up the hill until the sun is
finally caught at the top of the tree,
let's see,
twenty to one,
one hundred feet plus a few to adjust
for climbing uphill,
and her hands barely reach mine
as we encircle the trunk,
almost eleven feet around.
Back to the lumber tables.
That one tree might make
three thousand feet of boards
if our hearts could stand
the sound of its fall.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2007 by Russell Libby, whose most recent book is "Balance: A Late Pastoral," Blackberry Press, 2007. Reprinted from "HeartLodge," Vol. III, Summer 2007, by permission of Russell Libby. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 193

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

The first two lines of this poem pose a question many of us may have thought about: how does snow make silence even more silent? And notice Robert Haight's deft use of color, only those few flecks of red, and the rest of the poem pure white. And silent, so silent. Haight lives in Michigan, where people know about snow.

How Is It That the Snow

How is it that the snow
amplifies the silence,
slathers the black bark on limbs,
heaps along the brush rows?

Some deer have stood on their hind legs
to pull the berries down.
Now they are ghosts along the path,
snow flecked with red wine stains.

This silence in the timbers.
A woodpecker on one of the trees
taps out its story,
stopping now and then in the lapse
of one white moment into another.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2002 by Robert Haight from his most recent book of poetry, "Emergences and Spinner Falls," New Issues Poetry and Prose, 2002. Reprinted by permission of Robert Haight. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 192

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Most of us love to find things, and to discover a quarter on the sidewalk can make a whole day seem brighter. In this poem, Robert Wrigley, who lives in Idaho, finds what's left of a Bible, and describes it so well that we can almost feel it in our hands.


Finding a Bible in an Abandoned Cabin

Under dust plush as a moth's wing,
the book's leather cover still darkly shown,
and everywhere else but this spot was sodden
beneath the roof's unraveling shingles.
There was that back-of-the-neck lick of chill
and then, from my index finger, the book

opened like a blasted bird. In its box
of familiar and miraculous inks,
a construction of filaments and dust,
thoroughfares of worms, and a silage
of silverfish husks: in the autumn light,
eight hundred pages of perfect wordless lace.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2007 by Robert Wrigley, whose most recent book of poetry is "Earthly Meditations: New and Selected Poems," Penguin, 2006. Poem reprinted from "The Hudson Review," Vol. LIX, no. 4, Winter, 2007, by permission of Robert Wrigley.  Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.





American Life in Poetry: Column 191

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Class, status, privilege; despite all our talk about equality, they're with us wherever we go. In this poem, Pat Mora, who grew up in a Spanish speaking home in El Paso, Texas, contrasts the lives of rich tourists with the less fortunate people who serve them. The titles of poems are often among the most important elements, and this one is loaded with implication.


Fences

Mouths full of laughter,
the turistas come to the tall hotel
with suitcases full of dollars.

Every morning my brother makes
the cool beach new for them.
With a wooden board he smooths
away all footprints.

I peek through the cactus fence
and watch the women rub oil
sweeter than honey into their arms and legs
while their children jump waves
or sip drinks from long straws,
coconut white, mango yellow.

Once my little sister
ran barefoot across the hot sand
for a taste.

My mother roared like the ocean,
"No. No. It's their beach.
It's their beach."


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 1991 by Pat Mora, whose most recent book of poetry is "Adobe Odes," University of Arizona Press, 2007. Poem reprinted from "Communion," Arte Publico Press, University of Houston, 1991, by permission of the writer and publisher. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




 

American Life in Poetry: Column 190

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Occupational hazards, well, you have to find yourself in the occupation to know about those. Here Minnie Bruce Pratt of Alabama gives us an inside look at a kind of work we all have benefited from but may never have thought much about.


Cutting Hair

She pays attention to the hair, not her fingers, and cuts herself
once or twice a day. Doesn't notice anymore, just if the blood
starts flowing. Says, Excuse me, to the customer and walks away
for a band-aid. Same spot on the middle finger over and over,
raised like a callus. Also the nicks where she snips between
her fingers, the torn webbing. Also spider veins on her legs now,
so ugly, though she sits in a chair for half of each cut, rolls around
from side to side. At night in the winter she sleeps in white
cotton gloves, Neosporin on the cuts, vitamin E, then heavy
lotion. All night, for weeks, her white hands lie clothed like
those of a young girl going to her first party. Sleeping alone,
she opens and closes her long scissors and the hair falls under
her hands. It's a good living, kind of like an undertaker,
the people keep coming, and the hair, shoulder length, French
twist, braids. Someone has to cut it. At the end she whisks
and talcums my neck. Only then can I bend and see my hair,
how it covers the floor, curls and clippings of brown and silver,
how it shines like a field of scythed hay beneath my feet.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2003 by Minnie Bruce Pratt. Reprinted from "The Dirt She Ate: Selected and New Poems," University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003, by permission of the publisher. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 189

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

In celebration of Veteran's Day, here is a telling poem by Gary Dop, a Minnesota poet. The veterans of World War II, now old, are dying by the thousands. Here's one still with us, standing at Normandy, remembering.


On Swearing

In Normandy, at Point Du Hoc,
where some Rangers died,
Dad pointed to an old man
20 feet closer to the edge than us,
asking if I could see
the medal the man held
like a rosary.
As we approached the cliff
the man's swearing, each bulleted
syllable, sifted back
toward us in the ocean wind.
I turned away,
but my shoulder was held still
by my father's hand,
and I looked up at him
as he looked at the man.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2007 by Gary Dop. Reprinted from "Whistling Shade," Summer, 2007, by permission of Gary Dop. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




 

American Life in Poetry: Column 188

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I really like this poem by Dick Allen, partially for the way he so easily draws us in, with his easygoing, conversational style, but also for noticing what he has noticed, the overlooked accompanist there on the stage, in the shadow of the singer.


The Accompanist

I've always worried about you--the man or woman
at the piano bench,
night after night receiving only such applause
as the singer allows: a warm hand please,
for my accompanist. At concerts,
as I watch your fingers on the keys,
and how swiftly, how excellently
you turn sheet music pages,
track the singer's notes, cover the singer's flaws,
I worry about whole lifetimes,
most lifetimes
lived in the shadows of reflected fame;
but then the singer's voice dies
and there are just your last piano notes,
not resentful at all,
carrying us to the end, into those heartfelt cheers
that spring up in little patches from a thrilled audience
like sudden wildflowers bobbing in a rain
of steady clapping. And I'm on my feet, also,
clapping and cheering for the singer, yes,
but, I think, partially likewise for you
half-turned toward us, balanced on your black bench,
modest, utterly well-rehearsed,
still playing the part you've made yours.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2007 by Dick Allen, whose most recent book of poetry is "Present Vanishing," Sarabande Books, 2008. Poem reprinted from "North Dakota Quarterly," Vol. 74, no. 3, Summer 2007, by permission of Dick Allen.  Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




American Life in Poetry: Column 187

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I thought that we'd celebrate Halloween with an appropriate poem, and Iowa poet Dan Lechay's seems just right. The drifting veils of rhyme and meter disclose a ghost, or is it a ghost?


Ghost Villanelle

We never saw the ghost, though he was there--
we knew from the raindrops tapping on the eaves.
We never saw him, and we didn't care.

Each day, new sunshine tumbled through the air;
evenings, the moonlight rustled in dark leaves.
We never saw the ghost, though: he was there,

if ever, when the wind tousled our hair
and prickled goosebumps up and down thin sleeves;
we never saw him. And we didn't care

to step outside our room at night, or dare
click off the nightlight: call it fear of thieves.
We never saw the ghost, though he was there

in sunlit dustmotes drifting anywhere,
in light-and-shadow, such as the moon weaves.
We never saw him, though, and didn't care,

until at last we saw him everywhere.
We told nobody. Everyone believes
we never saw the ghost (if he was there),
we never saw him and we didn't care.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2003 by Dan Lechay. Reprinted from "The Quarry," Ohio University Press, 2003, by permission of Dan Lechay.  Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 186

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Every child can be seen as a miracle, and here Minnesota poet James Lenfestey captures the beautiful mystery of a daughter.


Daughter

A daughter is not a passing cloud, but permanent,
holding earth and sky together with her shadow.
She sleeps upstairs like mystery in a story,
blowing leaves down the stairs, then cold air, then warm.
We who at sixty should know everything, know nothing.
We become dull and disoriented by uncertain weather.
We kneel, palms together, before this blossoming altar.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2007 by James P. Lenfestey from his most recent book of poetry, "A Cartload of Scrolls," Holy Cow! Press, 2007. Reprinted by permission of the author. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 185

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

When I was a boy, there were still a few veterans of the Spanish American War, and more of The Great War, or World War I, and now all those have died and those who served in World War II are passing from us, too. Robert Hedin, a Minnesota poet, has written a fine poem about these people.

The Old Liberators

Of all the people in the mornings at the mall,
it's the old liberators I like best,
those veterans of the Bulge, Anzio, or Monte Cassino
I see lost in Automotive or back in Home Repair,
bored among the paints and power tools.
Or the really old ones, the ones who are going fast,
who keep dozing off in the little orchards
of shade under the distant skylights.
All around, from one bright rack to another,
their wives stride big as generals,
their handbags bulging like ripe fruit.
They are almost all gone now,
and with them they are taking the flak
and fire storms, the names of the old bombing runs.
Each day a little more of their memory goes out,
darkens the way a house darkens,
its rooms quietly filling with evening,
until nothing but the wind lifts the lace curtains,
the wind bearing through the empty rooms
the rich far off scent of gardens
where just now, this morning,
light is falling on the wild philodendrons.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 1999 by Robert Hedin. Reprinted from "The Old Liberators: New and Selected Poems and Translations," Holy Cow! Press, 1999, by permission of Robert Hedin. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 184

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I hope it's not just a guy thing, a delight in the trappings of work. I love this poem by John Maloney, of Massachusetts, which gives us a close look behind the windshields of all those pickup trucks we see heading home from work.


After Work

They're heading home with their lights on, dust and wood glue,
yellow dome lights on their metallic long beds: 250s, 2500s—
as much overtime as you want, deadline, dotted line, dazed
through the last few hours, dried primer on their knuckles,
sawdust calf-high on their jeans, scraped boots, the rough
plumbing and electric in, way ahead of the game except for
the check, such a clutter of cans and iced-tea bottles, napkins,
coffee cups, paper plates on the front seat floor with cords
and saws, tired above the eyes, back of the beyond, thirsty.
There's a parade of them through the two-lane highways,
proudest on their way home, the first turn out of the jobsite,
the first song with the belt off, pure breath of being alone
for now, for now the insight of a full and answerable man.
No one can take away the contentment of the first few miles
and they know they can't describe it, the black and purple sky.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2007 by John Maloney, whose most recent book of poetry is "Proposal," Zoland Books, 1999. Poem reprinted from AGNI online, 2/2007, by permission of John Maloney. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 183

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Perhaps you made paper leaves when you were in grade school.  I did.  But are our memories as richly detailed as these by Washington, D.C. poet, Judith Harris?


Gathering Leaves in Grade School

They were smooth ovals,
and some the shade of potatoes--
some had been moth-eaten
or spotted, the maples
were starched, and crackled
like campfire.

We put them under tracing paper
and rubbed our crayons
over them, X-raying
the spread of their bones
and black, veined catacombs.

We colored them green and brown
and orange, and
cut them out along the edges,
labeling them deciduous
or evergreen.

All day, in the stuffy air of the classroom,
with its cockeyed globe,
and nautical maps of ocean floors,
I watched those leaves

lost in their own worlds
flap on the pins of the bulletin boards:
without branches or roots,
or even a sky to hold on to.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2007 by Judith Harris, whose most recent collection of poems is "The Bad Secret," Louisiana State University Press, 2006. Reprinted from "The Literary Review," Fall 2008, by permission of Judith Harris. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 182

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Poetry has often served to remind us to look more closely, to see what may have been at first overlooked. Today's poem is by Kaelum Poulson of Washington state. A middle school student and already accomplished maker of poems, he writes of the thankless toils of an unlikely but entirely necessary member of our community—the crow!


The Crow

So beautiful
but often unseen
a maid of nature
the street cleaner that's everywhere
never thanked
never liked
always ignored
so elegant in a way no one sees
but without it we would
be in trash up to our knees
with the heart of a lion
the mind of a fox
the color of the night sky
a crow
the unpaid workman
that helps in every way
each and every day


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) by Seattle Arts & Lectures. Reprinted from "The Universal Controversial Hive: poems, stories, & memoirs by students," Writers in the Schools, 2006, by permission of the publisher.  Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 181

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Stuart Kestenbaum, the author of this week's poem, lost his brother Howard in the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. We thought it appropriate to commemorate the events of September 11, 2001, by sharing this poem. The poet is the director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle, Maine.


Prayer for the Dead

The light snow started late last night and continued
all night long while I slept and could hear it occasionally
enter my sleep, where I dreamed my brother
was alive again and possessing the beauty of youth, aware
that he would be leaving again shortly and that is the lesson
of the snow falling and of the seeds of death that are in everything
that is born: we are here for a moment
of a story that is longer than all of us and few of us
remember, the wind is blowing out of someplace
we don't know, and each moment contains rhythms
within rhythms, and if you discover some old piece
of your own writing, or an old photograph,
you may not remember that it was you and even if it was once you,
it's not you now, not this moment that the synapses fire
and your hands move to cover your face in a gesture
of grief and remembrance.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2007 by Stuart Kestenbaum. Reprinted from "Prayers & Run-on Sentences," Deerbook Editions, 2007, by permission of Stuart Kestenbaum. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.
 



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 180

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

What's in a name? All of us have thought at one time or another about our names, perhaps asking why they were given to us, or finding meanings within them. Here Emmett Tenorio Melendez, an eleven-year-old poet from San Antonio, Texas, proudly presents us with his name and its meaning.


My name came from. . .

My name came from my great-great-great-grandfather.
He was an Indian from the Choctaw tribe.
His name was Dark Ant.
When he went to get a job out in a city
he changed it to Emmett.
And his whole name was Emmett Perez Tenorio.
And my name means: Ant; Strong; Carry twice
its size.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2000 by Emmett Tenorio Melendez. Reprinted from "Salting The Ocean: 100 Poems By Young Poets," Greenwillow Books, 2000, by permission of the editor. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.
 


 

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 179

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I've always loved shop talk, with its wonderful language of tools and techniques. This poem by D. Nurkse of Brooklyn, New York, is a perfect example. I especially like the use of the verb, lap, in line seven, because that's exactly the sound a four-inch wall brush makes.


Bushwick: Latex Flat
2001

Sadness of just-painted rooms.
We clean our tools
meticulously, as if currying horses:
the little nervous sash brush
to be combed and primped,
the fat old four-inchers
that lap up space
to be wrapped and groomed,
the ceiling rollers,
the little pencils
that cover nailheads
with oak gloss,
to be counted and packed:
camped on our dropsheets
we stare across gleaming floors
at the door and beyond it
the old city full of old rumors
of conspiracies, gunshots, market crashes:
with a little mallet
we tap our lids closed,
holding our breath, holding our lives
in suspension for a moment:
an extra drop will ruin everything.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2007 by D. Nurkse, whose newest book of poetry "The Border Kingdom," is forthcoming from Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Poem reprinted from "Broken Land: Poems of Brooklyn," ed., Julia Spicher Kasdorf & Michael Tyrrell, New York University Press, 2007, by permission of D. Nurkse. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 178

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

We mammals are ferociously protective of our young, and we all know not to wander in between a sow bear and her cubs. Here Minnesota poet Gary Dop, without a moment's hesitation, throws himself into the water to save a frightened child.


Father, Child, Water

I lift your body to the boat
before you drown or choke or slip too far

beneath. I didn't think—just jumped, just did
what I did like the physics

that flung you in. My hands clutch under
year-old arms, between your life

jacket and your bobbing frame, pushing you,
like a fountain cherub, up and out.

I'm fooled by the warmth pulsing from
the gash on my thigh, sliced wide and clean

by an errant screw on the stern.
No pain. My legs kick out blood below.

My arms strain
against our deaths to hold you up

as I lift you, crying, reaching, to the boat.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2008 by Gary Dop. Reprinted from "New Letters", Vol. 74, No. 3, Spring 2008, by permission of Gary Dop. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 177

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Kristen Tracy is a poet from San Francisco who here captures a moment at a zoo. It's the falling rain, don't you think, that makes the experience of observing the animals seem so perfectly truthful and vivid?


Rain at the Zoo

A giraffe presented its head to me, tilting it
sideways, reaching out its long gray tongue.
I gave it my wheat cracker while small drops
of rain pounded us both. Lightning cracked open
the sky. Zebras zipped across the field.
It was springtime in Michigan. I watched
the giraffe shuffle itself backwards, toward
the herd, its bone- and rust-colored fur beading
with water. The entire mix of animals stood
away from the trees. A lone emu shook
its round body hard and squawked. It ran
along the fence line, jerking open its wings.
Perhaps it was trying to shake away the burden
of water or indulging an urge to fly. I can't know.
I have no idea what about their lives these animals
love or abhor. They are captured or born here for us,
and we come. It's true. This is my favorite field.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)  Kristen Tracy, whose most recent teen novel is "Crimes of the Sarahs," Simon & Schuster, 2008. Poem reprinted from AGNI online, 9/2007, by permission of Kristen Tracy. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 176

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Hearts and flowers, that's how some people dismiss poetry, suggesting that's all there is to it, just a bunch of sappy poets weeping over love and beauty. Well, poetry is lots more than that. At times it's a means of honoring the simple things about us. To illustrate the care with which one poet observes a flower, here's Frank Steele, of Kentucky, paying such close attention to a sunflower that he almost gets inside it.


Sunflower

You're expected to see
only the top, where sky
scrambles bloom, and not
the spindly leg, hairy, fending off
tall, green darkness beneath.
Like every flower, she has a little
theory, and what she thinks
is up. I imagine the long
climb out of the dark
beyond morning glories, day lilies, four o'clocks
up there to the dream she keeps
lifting, where it's noon all day.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2001 by Frank Steele. Reprinted from "Singing into That Fresh Light," co-authored with Peggy Steele, ed., Robert Bly, Blue Sofa Press, 2001, by permission of Frank Steele. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 175

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

A part of being a parent, it seems, is spending too much time fearing the worst.  Here Berwyn Moore, a Pennsylvania poet, expresses that fear—irrational, but exquisitely painful all the same.


Driving to Camp Lend-A-Hand

for Emma Grace

The day we picked our daughter up from camp,
goldenrod lined the road, towheaded scouts
bowing on both sides, the parting of macadam
as we drove, the fields dry, the sky lacy with clouds.
A farmer waved.  A horse shrugged its haughty head.
We stopped for corn, just picked, and plums and kale,
sampled pies, still warm, and tarts and honeyed bread.
Sheets on a line ballooned out like a ship's sail.
Time stopped in those miles before we saw her.
For eight days we hadn't tucked her in or brushed
her hair or watched her grow, the week a busy blur
of grown-up bliss.  It came anyway, that uprush
of fear--because somewhere a child was dead:
at a market, a subway, a school, in a lunatic's bed.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2006 by Berwyn Moore, whose most recent book of poetry is "Dissolution of Ghosts," Cherry Grove Collections, 2005.  Poem reprinted from "Nimrod International Journal of Poetry and Prose," Vol. 49, no. 2, by permission of Berwyn Moore. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 174

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I'd guess you've all seen a toddler hold something over the edge of a high-chair and then let it drop, just for the fun of it. Here's a lovely picture of a small child learning the laws of physics. The poet, Joelle Biele, lives in Maryland.


To Katharine: At Fourteen Months

All morning, you've studied the laws
of spoons, the rules of books, the dynamics
of the occasional plate, observed the principles
governing objects in motion and objects
at rest. To see if it will fall, and if it does,
how far, if it will rage like a lost penny
or ring like a Chinese gong—because
it doesn't have to—you lean from your chair
and hold your cup over the floor.
It curves in your hand, it weighs in your palm,
it arches like a wave, it is a dipper
full of stars, and you're the wind timing
the pull of the moon, you're the water
measuring the distance from which we fall.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2007 by Joelle Biele, whose most recent book of poetry is "White Summer," Southern Illinois University Press, 2002. Poem reprinted from "West Branch," Fall/Winter, 2007, by permission of Joelle Biele. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 173

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Poets are especially good at investing objects with meaning, or in drawing meaning from the things of this world. Here Patrick Phillips of Brooklyn, New York, does a masterful job of comparing a wrecked piano to his feelings.


Piano

Touched by your goodness, I am like
that grand piano we found one night on Willoughby
that someone had smashed and somehow
heaved through an open window.

And you might think by this I mean I'm broken
or abandoned, or unloved. Truth is, I don't
know exactly what I am, any more
than the wreckage in the alley knows
it's a piano, filling with trash and yellow leaves.

Maybe I'm all that's left of what I was.
But touching me, I know, you are the good
breeze blowing across its rusted strings.

What would you call that feeling when the wood,
even with its cracked harp, starts to sing?


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 2008 by Patrick Phillips. Reprinted from his most recent book of poetry, "Boy," University of Georgia Press, 2008, by permission of Patrick Phillips. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 172

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I don't often talk about poetic forms in this column, thinking that most of my readers aren't interested in how the clock works and would rather be given the time. But the following poem by Veronica Patterson of Colorado has a subtitle referring to a form, the senryu, and I thought it might be helpful to mention that the senryu is a Japanese form similar to haiku but dealing with people rather than nature. There; enough said. Now you can forget the form and enjoy the poem, which is a beautiful sketch of a marriage.


Marry Me
     
      a senryu sequence

when I come late to bed
I move your leg flung over my side—
that warm gate

nights you're not here
I inch toward the middle
of this boat, balancing

when I turn over in sleep
you turn, I turn, you turn,
I turn, you

some nights you tug the edge
of my pillow under your cheek,
look in my dream

pulling the white sheet
over your bare shoulder
I marry you again


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2000 by Veronica Patterson, whose most recent book of poetry is "This Is the Strange Part," Pudding House Publications, 2002. Poem reprinted from "Swan, What Shores?" New York University Press, 2000, by permission of Veronica Patterson and New York University Press. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




 

American Life in Poetry: Column 171

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Sometimes I think that people are at their happiest when they're engaged in activities close to the work of the earliest humans: telling stories around a fire, taking care of children, hunting, making clothes. Here an Iowan, Ann Struthers, speaks of one of those original tasks, digging in the dirt.


Planting the Sand Cherry

Today I planted the sand cherry with red leaves—
and hope that I can go on digging in this yard,
pruning the grape vine, twisting the silver lace
on its trellis, the one that bloomed
just before the frost flowered over all the garden.
Next spring I will plant more zinnias, marigolds,
straw flowers, pearly everlasting, and bleeding heart.
I plant that for you, old love, old friend,
and lilacs for remembering. The lily-of-the-valley
with cream-colored bells, bent over slightly, bowing
to the inevitable, flowers for a few days, a week.
Now its broad blade leaves are streaked with brown
and the stem dried to a pale hair.
In place of the silent bells, red berries
like rose hips blaze close to the ground.
It is important for me to be down on my knees,
my fingers sifting the black earth,
making those things grow which will grow.
Sometimes I save a weed if its leaves
are spread fern-like, hand-like,
or if it grows with a certain impertinence.
I let the goldenrod stay and the wild asters.
I save the violets in spring. People who kill violets
will do anything.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2004 by Ann Struthers, whose most recent book of poetry is "What You Try To Tame," The Coe Review Press, 2004. Poem reprinted from "Stoneboat & Other Poems," by Ann Struthers, Iowa Poets Series, The Pterodactyl Press, 1988, by permission of the writer. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 170

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I've lived all my life on the plains, where no body of water is more than a few feet deep, and even at that shallow depth I'm afraid of it. Here Sam Green, who lives on an island north of Seattle, takes us down into some really deep, dark water.


Night Dive

Down here, no light but what we carry with us.
Everywhere we point our hands we scrawl
color: bulging eyes, spines, teeth or clinging tentacles.
At negative buoyancy, when heavy hands
seem to grasp & pull us down, we let them,

we don't inflate our vests, but let the scrubbed cheeks
of rocks slide past in amniotic calm.
At sixty feet we douse our lights, cemented
by the weight of the dark, of water, the grip
of the sea's absolute silence. Our groping

hands brush the open mouths of anemones,
which shower us in particles of phosphor
radiant as halos. As in meditation,
or in deepest prayer,
there is no knowing what we will see.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 1998 by Samuel Green. Reprinted by permission of the author, Sam Green, from his book "The Grace of Necessity," Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2008. First published in "Cistercian Studies Quarterly", Vol. 33.1, 1998. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




 

American Life in Poetry: Column 169

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I remember being scared to death when, at about thirty years of age, I saw an x-ray of my skull. Seeing one's self as a skeleton, or receiving any kind of medical report, even when the news is good, can be unsettling. Suddenly, you're just another body, a clock waiting to stop. Here's a telling poem by Rick Campbell, who lives and teaches in Florida.


Heart

My heart was suspect.
Wired to an EKG,
I walked a treadmill
that measured my ebb
and flow, tracked isotopes
that ploughed my veins,
looked for a constancy
I've hardly ever found.
For a month I worried
as I climbed the stairs
to my office. The mortality
I never believed in
was here now. They
say my heart's ok,
just high cholesterol, but
I know my heart's a house
someone has broken into,
a room you come back
to and know some stranger
with bad intent has been there
and touched all that you love. You know
he can come back. It's his call,
his house now.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2006 by Rick Campbell and reprinted from "Dixmont," Autumn House Press, 2008, by permission of the writer. First published in "The Florida Review," Fall, 2006. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 168

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

So often, reading a poem can in itself feel like a thing overheard. Here, Mary-Sherman Willis of Virginia describes the feeling of being stilled by conversation, in this case barely audible and nearly indecipherable.


The Laughter of Women

From over the wall I could hear the laughter of women
in a foreign tongue, in the sun-rinsed air of the city.
They sat (so I thought) perfumed in their hats and their silks,

in chairs on the grass amid flowers glowing and swaying.
One spoke and the others rang like bells, oh so witty,
like bells till the sound filled up the garden and lifted

like bubbles spilling over the bricks that enclosed them,
their happiness holding them, even if just for the moment.
Although I did not understand a word they were saying,

their sound surrounded me, fell on my shoulders and hair,
and burst on my cheeks like kisses, and continued to fall,
holding me there where I stood on the sidewalk listening.

As I could not move, I had to hear them grow silent,
and adjust myself to the clouds and the cooling air.
The mumble of thunder rumbled out of the wall
and the smacking of drops as the rain fell everywhere.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2007 by Mary-Sherman Willis. Reprinted from "The Hudson Review," Vol. LX, no. 3, (Autumn 2007), by permission of Mary-Sherman Willis. Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


American Life in Poetry: Column 167

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Among young people, tattoos are all the rage and, someday, dermatologists will grow rich as kings removing them from a lot of middle-aged people who have grown embarrassed by their colorful skins. I really like this poem by Sharmila Voorakkara of Ohio.


For the Tattooed Man

Because she broke your heart, "Shannon"'s a badge—
a seven-letter skidmark that scars up
across your chest, a flare of indelible script.
Between "Death or Glory," and "Mama," she rages,
scales the trellis of your rib cage;
her red hair swings down to bracket your ankles, whip
up the braid of your backbone, cuff your wrists. She keeps
you sleepless with her afterimage,

and each pinned and martyred limb aches for more.
Her memory wraps you like a vise.
How simple the pain that trails and graces
the length of your body. How it fans, blazes,
writes itself over in the blood's tightening sighs,
bruises into wisdom you have no name for.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2005 by Sharmila Voorakkara, whose most recent book of poetry is "Fire Wheel," Univ. of Akron Press, 2003.  Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

 

 


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 166

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Texas poet R. S. Gwynn is a master of the light touch. Here he picks up on Gerard Manley Hopkins' sonnet "Pied Beauty," which many of you will remember from school, and offers us a picnic instead of a sermon. I hope you enjoy the feast!


Fried Beauty

Glory be to God for breaded things—
 Catfish, steak finger, pork chop, chicken thigh,
   Sliced green tomatoes, pots full to the brim
With french fries, fritters, life-float onion rings,
 Hushpuppies, okra golden to the eye,
   That in all oils, corn or canola, swim

Toward mastication's maw (O molared mouth!);
 Whatever browns, is dumped to drain and dry
   On paper towels' sleek translucent scrim,
These greasy, battered bounties of the South:
                        Eat them.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2005 by R. S. Gwynn, whose most recent book of poetry is "No Word of Farewell: Poems 1970-2000," Story Line Press, 2001. Poem reprinted from "Light: A Quarterly of Light Verse," No. 50, Autumn, 2005, by permission of R. S. Gwynn.  Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 


American Life in Poetry: Column 165

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

In "The Moose," a poem much too long to print here, the late Elizabeth Bishop was able to show a community being created from a group of strangers on a bus who come in contact with a moose on the highway. They watch it together and become one. Here Robert Bly of Minnesota assembles a similar community, around an eclipse. Notice how the experience happens to "we," the group, not just to "me," the poet.


Seeing the Eclipse in Maine

It started about noon. On top of Mount Batte,
We were all exclaiming. Someone had a cardboard
And a pin, and we all cried out when the sun
Appeared in tiny form on the notebook cover.

It was hard to believe. The high school teacher
We'd met called it a pinhole camera,
People in the Renaissance loved to do that.
And when the moon had passed partly through

We saw on a rock underneath a fir tree,
Dozens of crescents—made the same way—
Thousands! Even our straw hats produced
A few as we moved them over the bare granite.

We shared chocolate, and one man from Maine
Told a joke. Suns were everywhere—at our feet.



American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem (c) 1997 by Robert Bly, whose most recent book of poetry is "My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy," Harper Perennial, 2006. Poem reprinted from "Music, Pictures, and Stories," Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 2002, by permission of the writer.  Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.



 

American Life in Poetry: Column 164

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

How often have you wondered what might be going on inside a child's head? They can be so much more free and playful with their imaginations than adults, and are so good at keeping those flights of fancy secret and mysterious, that even if we were told what they were thinking we might not be able to make much sense of it. Here Ellen Bass, of Santa Cruz, California, tells us of one such experience.


Dead Butterfly

For months my daughter carried
a dead monarch in a quart mason jar.
To and from school in her backpack,
to her only friend's house. At the dinner table
it sat like a guest alongside the pot roast.
She took it to bed, propped by her pillow.

Was it the year her brother was born?
Was this her own too-fragile baby
that had lived--so briefly--in its glassed world?
Or the year she refused to go to her father's house?
Was this the holding-her-breath girl she became there?

This plump child in her rolled-down socks
I sometimes wanted to haul back inside me
and carry safe again. What was her fierce
commitment? I never understood.
We just lived with the dead winged thing
as part of her, as part of us,
weightless in its heavy jar.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2007 by Ellen Bass and reprinted from "The Human Line," 2007, by permission of Copper Canyon Press, www.coppercanyonpress.org.  Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


 

American Life in Poetry: Column 163

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I have always enjoyed poems that celebrate the small pleasures of life. Here Max Mendelsohn, age 12, of Weston, Massachusetts, tells us of the joy he finds in playing with marbles.


Ode to Marbles

I love the sound of marbles
scattered on the worn wooden floor,
like children running away in a game of hide-and-seek.
I love the sight of white marbles,
blue marbles,
green marbles, black,
new marbles, old marbles,
iridescent marbles,
with glass-ribboned swirls,
dancing round and round.
I love the feel of marbles,
cool, smooth,
rolling freely in my palm,
like smooth-sided stars
that light up the worn world.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2004 by The Children's Art Foundation. Reprinted from "Stone Soup", May/June, 2004, by permission of the publisher, www.stonesoup.com.  Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




 

American Life in Poetry: Column 162

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

Though at the time it may not occur to us to call it "mentoring," there's likely to be a good deal of that sort of thing going on, wanted or unwanted, whenever a young person works for someone older. Richard Hoffman of Massachusetts does a good job of portraying one of those teaching moments in this poem.


Summer Job

"The trouble with intellectuals," Manny, my boss,
once told me, "is that they don't know nothing
till they can explain it to themselves. A guy like that,"
he said, "he gets to middle age--and by the way,
he gets there late; he's trying to be a boy until
he's forty, forty-five, and then you give him five
more years until that craziness peters out, and now
he's almost fifty--a guy like that at last explains
to himself that life is made of time, that time
is what it's all about. Aha! he says. And then
he either blows his brains out, gets religion,
or settles down to some major-league depression.
Make yourself useful. Hand me that three-eights
torque wrench--no, you moron, the other one."


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2006 by Richard Hoffman, and reprinted from his most recent book of poetry, "Gold Star Road," Barrow Street Press, 2007, by permission of the poet.  Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.




 

American Life in Poetry: Column 161

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006

I may be a little sappy, but I think that almost everyone is doing the best he or she can, despite all sorts of obstacles. This poem by Jonathan Holden introduces us to a young car salesman, who is trying hard, perhaps too hard. Holden is the past poet laureate of Kansas and poet in residence at Kansas State University in Manhattan.


Car Showroom

Day after day, along with his placid
automobiles, that well-groomed
sallow young man had been waiting for
me, as in the cheerful, unchanging
weather of a billboard--pacing
the tiles, patting his tie, knotting, un-
knotting the facade of his smile
while staring out the window.
He was so bad at the job
he reminded me of myself
the summer I failed
at selling Time and Life in New Jersey.
Even though I was a boy
I could feel someone else's voice
crawl out of my mouth,
spoiling every word,
like this cowed, polite kid in his tie
and badge that said Greg,
saying Ma'am to my wife, calling
me Sir, retailing the air with such piety
I had to find anything out the window.
Maybe the rain. It was gray
and as honestly wet as ever. Something
we could both believe.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 1985 by Jonathan Holden, whose most recent book of poetry is "Knowing: New & Selected Poems," University of Arkansas Press, 2000. Reprinted from "The Names of the Rapids," The University of Massachusetts Press, 1985, by permission of the author. First printed in "Black Warrior Review." Introduction copyright (c) 2008 by The Poetry Foundation.  The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.  We do