American Life in Poetry: Column 035


Massachusetts poet J. Lorraine Brown
has used an unusual image in "Tintype
on the Pond, 1925." This poem, like
many others, offers us a unique
experience, presented as a gift,
for us to respond to as we will.
We need not ferret out a hidden
message. How many of us will recall
this little scene the next time we
see ice skates or a Sunday-dinner roast?

Tintype on the Pond, 1925

Believe it or not,
the old woman said,
and I tried to picture it:
a girl,
the polished white ribs of a roast
tied to her boots with twine,
the twine coated with candle wax
so she could glide
across the ice--
my mother,
skating on bones.

Reprinted from "Eclipse" by permission
of the author. Poem copyright (c) 2004
by J. Lorraine Brown. This weekly column
is supported by The Poetry Foundation,
The Library of Congress, and the Department
of English at the University of Nebraska,
Lincoln. This column does not accept
unsolicited poetry.



by Kim Roberts


The journey starts in the morning,
the sun dropping its thick coins of light
into my eyes, blinding me with promise.

Sometimes it’s better not to see gold and white
that you can’t quite meet straight on,
the peripheries of cars and trees,

the objects of faith
that glow hot with possibility,
the edges of knowing, heat rising

against the crispness of the air.
This is the start, I whisper.
The miracle is that there is always

a place we call the start,
there is always a road, the sun
bouncing off and shimmering.

-Originally appeared in
Minimus,Volume 9, 2000.


by Jackie Langetieg

Letter To My Daughter

We never had the chance to know
the secrets of each other—how I learned to braid,
first with your great, great grandmother’s
silk stockings, crossing one over the other and then,
her unbound white hair—alive in my hands.

Would you have remembered

my touch on your cheek, breathing in your newness
kissing the soft fuzz on your head? When you became a teen,
I would have helped you add an outrageous color
to your blondness—would you have chosen magenta
like the young woman at work—to match her motorcycle? I chose
green food coloring on St. Patrick’s Day when I was fifteen, and

I would have told you

how I put a henna rinse in your grandmother’s hair,
the label promising to take away the gray. How it went orange
and we washed it again and again until she gave up
and covered the pale melon shade with a babushka, and
when you were older, you could have helped me comfort her
when chemo thinned her thick white hair.

And daughter

I would welcome your strength now, in my sixties,
lost in remembering what keeps and what fades. Still,
I feel some part of you here when I am waking or drifting into sleep—
the woman who stands on my shoulders and the shoulders
of all the women in our clan—that soul
who tried to find me when I was twenty, your nest
left in the pink disappearing water.

-Previously published in Wisconsin Academy Review, Summer 2003


American Life in Poetry: Column 034

In this poem by Pittsburgh resident Jim Daniels, a father struggles to heal his son's grief after an incident at school. The poem reminds us that when we're young little things can hurt in a big way.


Today my son realized someone's smarter
than him. Not me or his mom --
he still thinks we know everything --
one of the other kids, Nathan. Making fun
of him at the computer terminal
for screwing up at the math game.
Other kids laughing at him. Second grade.
I'm never gonna be as smart as him,
he says.
I'm never gonna be as smart
as half my students if we're talking
IQs. He doesn't want me to explain.
He wants me to acknowledge
that he's dumb. He's lying in bed
and taking his glasses off and on,
trying to get them perfectly clean
for the morning. I'm looking around
his dark room for a joke or some
decent words to lay on him. His eyes
are glassy with almost-tears. Second grade.
The world wants to call on him.
I take his hand in mine.

Reprinted from "The Paterson Literary Review," No. 32, by permission of the author. Copyright (c) 2004 by Jim Daniels, whose most recent book is "Show and Tell: New and Selected Poems" University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. This weekly column is supported by The Poetry Foundation, The Library of Congress, and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. This column does not accept unsolicited poetry.



by Ann McNeal


First fear, then the diagnosis.
I try to find her

amid all the busyness.
Then delay.
In nine months death grows close

until it’s here in the room,
a light white room with three people dying.
Beyond the curtain, a woman wipes

silently with a blue rag mop,
the space that held last night
a family’s muted cries,
another dying woman.

I come closer to her than I ever have,
see the distance more clearly.
Distance not to be crossed,
secrets not to be discussed.

Love keeps me quiet.
Or self-preservation.
It would not help to speak now.

She goes easily, an unexpected gift.
I believe I helped her give birth
to peace, her fourth child.

But what do I do
with my anger at her complicity,
with my sorrow for her narrow life,
the ways she held back from living?

I cannot say that peace is simple--
mine I mean, I don¹t know about hers.
My peace comes driving to work,
with dirty dishes left in the sink
and doubts still cobwebbing the corners.

First published in
Patchwork Journal, Issue 4, 2004.


American Life in Poetry: Column 033

Katy Giebenhain, an American living in Berlin, Germany, depicts a ritual that many diabetics undergo several times per day: testing one's blood sugar. The poet shows us new ways of looking at what can be an uncomfortable chore by comparing it to other things: tapping trees for syrup, checking oil levels in a car, milking a cow.

Glucose Self-Monitoring

A stabbing in miniature, it is,
a tiny crime,
my own blood parceled
drop by drop and set
on the flickering tongue
of this machine.
It is the spout-punching of trees
for syrup new and smooth
and sweeter
than nature ever intended.
It is Sleeping Beauty's curse
and fascination.
It is the dipstick measuring of oil
from the Buick's throat,
the necessary maintenance.
It is every vampire movie ever made.
Hand, my martyr without lips,
my quiet cow.
I'll milk your fingertips
for all they're worth.
For what they're worth.
Something like a harvest, it is,
a tiny crime.

Reprinted from "Best of Prairie Schooner: Fiction and Poetry," University of Nebraska Press, 2001, by permission of the author, whose most recent book is "Good Morning and Good Night", University of Illinois Press, 2005. This weekly column is supported by The Poetry Foundation, The Library of Congress, and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. This column does not accept unsolicited poetry.


by Catherine Jagoe


the radio antenna on my car

has suddenly sprouted
teeth. It has become

a prehistoric twig, bristling with white spines.
The wire fence around the heating plant has grown frost thorns.

Each stem and stalk and looping spray of the trees on the hill
is rimed with tiny hackles, stiffly raised

like the million sensitive feet of the dying starfish
or the inner tentacles of anemones as they dry.

On the corner by the railroad tracks someone appears to have planted
a Walmart s frosted pine.

The grizzled trees float above their trunks
in hazy clouds, like white lichen.

I walk through groves
of white coral.

Published in Red Wheelbarrow Volume 6: 2005.


American Life in Poetry: Column 032


Descriptions of landscape are common in poetry,
but in "Road Report" Kurt Brown adds a twist
by writing himself into "cowboy country." He
also energizes the poem by using words we
associate with the American West: Mustang,
cactus, Brahmas. Even his associations--such as
comparing the crackling radio to a shattered
rib--evoke a sense of place.

Road Report

Driving west through sandstone's
red arenas, a rodeo of slow erosion
cleaves these plains, these ravaged cliffs.
This is cowboy country. Desolate. Dull. Except
on weekends, when cafes bloom like cactus
after drought. My rented Mustang bucks
the wind--I'm strapped up, wide-eyed,
busting speed with both heels, a sure grip
on the wheel. Black clouds maneuver
in the distance, but I don't care. Mileage
is my obsession. I'm always racing off,
passing through, as though the present
were a dying town I'd rather flee.
What matters is the future, its glittering
Hotel. Clouds loom closer, big as Brahmas
in the heavy air. The radio crackles
like a shattered rib. I'm in the chute.
I check the gas and set my jaw. I'm almost there.

Reprinted from "New York Quarterly," No. 59,
by permission of the author, whose new book,
"Future Ship," is due out this summer from
Story Line Press. Poem copyright (c) 2003
by Kurt Brown. This weekly column is supported
by The Poetry Foundation, The Library of
Congress, and the Department of English at
the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. This column
does not accept unsolicited poetry.