American Life in PoetryColumn 039


Many of us keep journals, but while doing so
few of us pay much attention to selecting
the most precise words, to determining
their most effective order, to working
with effective pauses and breath-like pacing,
to presenting an engaging impression of a single,
unique day. This poem by Nebraskan Nancy McCleery
is a good example of one poet's carefully recorded

December Notes

The backyard is one white sheet
Where we read in the bird tracks

The songs we hear. Delicate
Sparrow, heavier cardinal,

Filigree threads of chickadee.
And wing patterns where one flew

Low, then up and away, gone
To the woods but calling out

Clearly its bright epigrams.
More snow promised for tonight.

The postal van is stalled
In the road again, the mail

Will be late and any good news
Will reach us by hand.

Reprinted from "Girl Talk," The Backwaters Press,
2002, by permission of the author. Copyright (c)
1994 by Nancy McCleery. 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 David Salner

Lou Gehrig at the MDA Clinic
in Morgantown, West Virginia

As I enter the waiting room
I see a life-size poster of the iron man.
He is more handsome than Gary Cooper
as he leans on his bat--the knob
pressed into the heel of his hand--
and he is not even thinking that
the round end in the turf
could wander out from under him.
(Oh, how the fit
relax in such awkward positions,
how a schoolgirl can sit
cross-legged on the hard floor
for hours, as if she were Gandhi;
how a boy can hang off of a couch
watching TV upside down
and not even notice it.) And there is not
the slightest suggestion of a crutch
in the way he leans on the bat.

The other patients in the waiting room
browse Family Circle, or their own thoughts,
as if it were their job--even the children,
whose wisdom is like a desert island
(quietly, they assert their existence
although they might never be discovered).

Lou does not connect with them
because he has the eyes of a hero,
limpid, prepared for anything
but this. I try to comfort the iron man
in the poster, but it isn't necessary.
He is still leaning on his bat,
years from discovering
the disease that will bear his name.

-originally appeared in The Cimmarron Review


American Life in Poetry: Column 038


I'd guess that many women remember the risks
and thrills of their first romantic encounters
in much the same way California poet
Leslie Monsour does in this poem.


The boys who fled my father's house in fear
Of what his wrath would cost them if he found
Them nibbling slowly at his daughter's ear,
Would vanish out the back without a sound,
And glide just like the shadow of a crow,
To wait beside the elm tree in the snow.
Something quite deadly rumbled in his voice.
He sniffed the air as if he knew the scent
Of teenage boys, and asked, "What was that noise?"
Then I'd pretend to not know what he meant,
Stand mutely by, my heart immense with dread,
As Father set the traps and went to bed.

Reprinted from "The Alarming Beauty of the Sky,"
published by Red Hen Press, 2005, by permission
of the author. Copyright (c) 1998 by Leslie Monsour.
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 Elaine Cavanaugh


I plant a hedge of wild rose. I leave a row of uncut
pines. I stack new firewood on a hill, sensing
all boundaries and words for ownership are lost
in the language of cemetery stones.

I borrow the earth like a cup of sugar needed
for baking a birthday cake. It comes back to me
in light sprinkled on batches of larkspur,
in field corn, on the steps of a hillside

I climb like a ladder, hand-over-hand,
until the time I can step from
its green rungs
into the sky.

-Originally appeared in A Wise Woman's Garden (1996) Katus Hortus, editor.


American Life in Poetry: Column 037


Painful separations, through divorce,
through death, through alienation,
sometimes cause us to focus on the
objects around us, often invested
with sentiment. Here's Shirley Buettner,
having packed up what's left of a relationship.

The Wind Chimes

Two wind chimes,
one brass and prone to anger,
one with the throat of an angel,
swing from my porch eave,
sing with the storm.
Last year I lived five months
under that shrill choir,
boxing your house, crowding books
into crates, from some pages
your own voice crying.
Some days the chimes raged.
Some days they hung still.
They fretted when I dug up
the lily I gave you in April,
blooming, strangely, in fall.
Together, they scolded me
when I counted pennies you left
in each can, cup, and drawer,
when I rechecked the closets
for remnants of you.
The last day, the house empty,
resonant with space, the two chimes
had nothing to toll for.
I walked out, took them down,
carried our mute spirits home.

From "Thorns," published by Juniper Press,
1995. Copyright (c) 1995 by Shirley Buettner
and reprinted with permission of the author.
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 Jeri McCormick

Considering Swallows

Look quick
to track these roller coaster birds,
propelled by the fork-tailed laws
of speed, their flight a flash-dip
of ascent, descent, as they shear and tack
the thin fabric of air. And though
it’s hard to zero in on their conquests,

picture the target—a mosquito canape
rising from its grass-dense universe,
lifting, drifting to sunlight in slow
fragile ignorance, gliding up. . . up. . .
then instantly down, proboscis and all,
down the swoop-dark throat
of oblivion.

-first appeared in Poetry Ireland Review, Spring 1999


by Joyce E. Latham


I return.
To swaying tobacco flowers,
Sturdy corn platoons,
Grass made blue from lime

to realms of cloned homes--
Kentucky Landing, Monet
Gardens, Rabbit Run

Of Confederate auto plates or
bumper proverbs: ENJOY SMOKING;

Of horses, horses, magnificent
meat. Coffee, blue-black, chestnut.
Bred for callous play, their
delicate stems so freely snapped.

Of groaning boards: hoecake, corn
pudding, briney ham, see-through
pie, fried chicken to sin for.

Of bubba & blonde,
more bubba & blonde,
Never saw so many, marvels
a swarthy traveling friend.

Relentless Anglo-Saxon stock--
Mall-trotting, towheads in tow,
Crazed on basketball

Pruning their not-blue
subdivision chemlawns,
All-you-can-eating at Shoney's.

Scots-Irish, too. Tough ones, those.
Urging into hollow and field,
to blue mountain and gray mine, to
marry cousins and fear all else.

Gritty, unhaltable. Talking nasal
more than southern. Moaning and
yelping the white man's blues.

Previously published in
Poetry Motel
broadside series, 1994


American Life in Poetry: Column 036


In this poem by western New Yorker Judith Slater,
we're delivered to a location infamous for brewing
American stories--a bar. Like the stories of John
Henry, Paul Bunyan, or the crane operator in this
poem, tales of work can be extraordinary, heroic
and, if they are sad, sometimes leavened by a little

In The Black Rock Tavern

The large man in the Budweiser tee
with serpents twining on his arms
has leukemia. It doesn't seem right
but they've told him he won't die for years
if he sticks with the treatment.
He's talking about his years in the foundry,

running a crane on an overhead track in the mill.
Eight hours a day moving ingots into rollers.
Sometimes without a break
because of the bother of getting down.
Never had an accident.
Never hurt anyone. He had that much control.

His problem is that electricity
raced through his body and accumulated.
When he got down at the end of a shift
he could squeeze a forty-watt light bulb
between thumb and finger and make it flare.
All the guys came around to see that.

Judith Slater is a clinical psychologist
and her poem first appeared in "Prairie
," Vol 78, No. 3, Fall 2004 by
permission of the University of Nebraska
Press with the permission of the author.
Poem copyright (c) 2004 by The University
of Nebraska Press. 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 Eve Robillard


I love the language of witches--all bogus Latin
and hocus-pocus. I love their magic hands
and their nails, I love their thrift-shop clothing

and their weird, improbable voices. I'd like to see
more of them working in bookstores, in schools, telling
stories to children, or cruising the high-school halls.

Their pointy noses sniffing out weed; free condoms tucked
into their nun-like sleeves. Sometimes I wish I could find
some really small witches--ones who'd live on my fingers

like rings, or hide in my hair, or wrap themselves
like garlic around my neck. Or sit on my tongue
like a lozenge, dissolving their wickedness, their wisdom,
into my discreet unremarkable body.
-from everything happens twice, Fireweed Press, 2002


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.



by Elaine Cavanaugh


Apples bleed–
yellowed skins remembered
by hornets,
hungry in the hour of their deaths.

In a theater of small things,
In the arc of our breathing,

what would we speak of anyway?

Tires grate against gravel. Rain-washed
bottle glass reflects. In dusk's light,
love arrives and dies in all disguises.

What would we speak of anyway?

Beside a painted handle, in the hush
of our breaths, blue granite-ware
overflows. Poet steps in, washes
her clay-caked feet.

What would we speak of anyway?

-appeared in Poems Inspired by Other Poems (2004) Shoshauna Shy, Editor


American Life in Poetry: Column 030


Naomi Shihab Nye
lives in San Antonio, Texas. Here she perfectly captures a moment in childhood that nearly all of us may remember: being too small for the games the big kids were playing, and fastening tightly upon some little thing of our own.

Boy and Egg

Every few minutes, he wants
to march the trail of flattened rye grass
back to the house of muttering
hens. He too could make
a bed in hay. Yesterday the egg so fresh
it felt hot in his hand and he pressed it
to his ear while the other children
laughed and ran with a ball, leaving him,
so little yet, too forgetful in games,
ready to cry if the ball brushed him,
riveted to the secret of birds
caught up inside his fist,
not ready to give it over
to the refrigerator
or the rest of the day.

Reprinted from "Fuel," published by BOA Editions by permission of the author. Copyright (c) 1998 by Naomi Shihab Nye, whose most recent book is "A Maze Me" Harper Collins/Greenwillow, 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 Kim Roberts


We make a landscape
from flat bands of color:
blue at the top is always sky,
the orange of the porch
is the ground on which we stand,

looking out across the fields.
It is human to reason,
to try to make sense
from the abstract. It is human
to place ourselves on the porch.

The hot colors of the lowest band
rush toward us, as hot colors
tend to do: masculine
orange and red reach out,
invite, while the cool greens and blues

recede: private, female.
The figure on the porch is a woman.
Her head might be a smudge,
a thumb print– she balances
between figure and mere shape–

but she stares out over the water
as we do, looking at her looking
at bands of color, stripes on a canvas,
light caught but not static,
trapped but still shimmering.

-first appeared in Ekphrasis, Vol. 1, No. 5, 1999.


by Alice D'Alessio

Full Moon Tonight

Now that the guests are gone
packing their leftover mousse,
their aches and unfulfilled intents,
we take a walk around the block
shaking out crumbs. Yellow window squares
and street lights
eat away great sections of the night.

First fallen leaves crush underfoot.
I'm dragging my bucket of sad notes:
the decisions made wrong
that can't go right, and how one yes or no
can trigger aftershocks
eroding your heart inch by inch,
like weathering shale. The inevitability of it.
How it grabs you in the gut at night.
How it goes on.

Then you gather my jangled chords
in both your hands, and patient as a prayer,
reconstruct the melody. Turning the corner
we see the full moon rise above the roofs.

We put on Miles and wrestle dirty dishes.
At night we float in silver moon-surf,
riding a sea half full,
half empty.
-from Earth's Daughters 2003


American Life in Poetry: Column 029


Many of you have seen flocks of birds
or schools of minnows acting as if
they were guided by a common intelligence,
turning together, stopping together.
Here is a poem by
Debra Nystrom that
beautifully describes a flight of
swallows returning to their nests,
acting as if they were of one mind.
Notice how she extends the description
to comment on the way human behavior
differs from that of the birds.

Cliff Swallows
--Missouri Breaks

Is it some turn of wind
that funnels them all down at once, or
is it their own voices netting
to bring them in--the roll and churr
of hundreds searing through river light
and cliff dust, each to its precise
mud nest on the face--
none of our own isolate
groping, wishing need could be sent
so unerringly to solace. But
this silk-skein flashing is like heaven
brought down: not to meet ground
or water--to enter
the riven earth and disappear.

Reprinted from "Torn Sky,"
Sarabande Books, 2004, by permission
of the poet. Copyright (c) 2004 by
Debra Nystrom, an Associate Professor
of English at the University of Virginia.
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.



Jeri McCormick

The Hiding Place

Why not the great walnut chifforobe
sparsely hung with widow’s dresses?
Why not the massive sideboard
replete with drawers, shelves and bins?
We all knew Great Grandma’s secret,

even the children, though none of us
could say why she’d chosen the clock.
She’d been reaching into that chiming
wooden case for years, ever since
the Depression’s bleak wrenching

that left her husband dead and her life
reset across the Cumberlands
where she’d come to lend a hand
in bringing up her daughter’s brood.
No one doubted her medicinal need,

but wasn’t the clock a strange
repository for whiskey? Fifty years
after her death I try to calibrate
an answer. Perhaps she was drawn
to the classic Roman numerals,

the pendulum’s rhythmic swing—
history and craftsmanship in balance;
perhaps it was the melodic tone
resonating with dearly-held times
she’d spent with Morgan

who’d bought her the timepiece
during their years together
in North Carolina. Just a swig
from its cabinet would ease harried days
among teetotalers in the hinterlands

of Kentucky; it would rewind memories
she could not bear to lose. A boost
from the clock’s heart-pulse
would jump-start a survivor’s resolve,
keep old dreams from ticking away.

-first appeared in Kalliope, Vol XXVI, No. 1


American Life in Poetry: Column 028


Although this poem by North Carolina
native Ron Rash may seem to be just
about trout fishing, it is the first
of several poems Rash has written
about his cousin who died years ago.
Indirectly, the poet gives us clues
about this loss. By the end, we see
that in passing from life to death,
the fish's colors dull; so, too, may
fade the memories of a cherished life
long lost.

Speckled Trout

Water-flesh gleamed like mica:
orange fins, red flankspots, a char
shy as ginseng, found only
in spring-flow gaps, the thin clear
of faraway creeks no map
could name. My cousin showed me
those hidden places. I loved
how we found them, the way we
followed no trail, just stream-sound
tangled in rhododendron,
to where slow water opened
a hole to slip a line in
and lift as from a well bright
shadows of another world,
held in my hand, their color
already starting to fade.

First published in "Weber Studies,"
1996, and reprinted from "Raising
the Dead," Iris Press, 2002, by
permission of the author.
Copyright (c) 1996 by Ron Rash,
a writer and professor of
Appalachian Cultural Studies at
Western Carolina University, whose
newest novel is "Saints at the
River," Picador 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 Eve Robillard



Your coffins
were hasty
and crude, I am sure

and little is left
of you now--
a buckle, perhaps,

or a sword,
a button gleaming like a heart
between your wandering ribs,

but this is to say
there is moonlight
and rain

somewhere a fiddle
and now this mouse (little scout, little grey)
little far-from-home.

-from everything happens twice (Fireweed Press, 2002)


American Life in Poetry: Column 027


In this lovely poem by Angela Shaw, who
lives in Pennsylvania, we hear a voice of
wise counsel: Let the young go, let them
do as they will, and admire their grace
and beauty as they pass from us into the

Children in a Field

They don't wade in so much as they are taken.
Deep in the day, in the deep of the field,
every current in the grasses whispers hurry
hurry, every yellow spreads its perfume
like a rumor, impelling them further on.
It is the way of girls. It is the sway
of their dresses in the summer trance--
light, their bare calves already far-gone
in green. What songs will they follow?
Whatever the wood warbles, whatever storm
or harm the border promises, whatever
calm. Let them go. Let them go traceless
through the high grass and into the willow--
blur, traceless across the lean blue glint
of the river, to the long dark bodies
of the conifers, and over the welcoming
threshold of nightfall.

Reprinted from "Poetry," September, 2004,
Vol. 184, No. 5, by permission of the
author. Poem copyright (c) 2004 by
Angela Shaw. 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.



American Life in Poetry: Column 026


Descriptive poetry depends for its effects in part upon the vividness of details. Here the Virginia poet, Claudia Emerson, describes the type of old building all of us have seen but may not have stopped to look at carefully. And thoughtfully.


One rusty horseshoe hangs on a nail
above the door, still losing its luck,
and a work-collar swings, an empty
old noose. The silence waits, wild to be
broken by hoofbeat and heavy
harness slap, will founder but remain;
while, outside, above the stable,
eight, nine, now ten buzzards swing low
in lazy loops, a loose black warp
of patience, bearing the blank sky
like a pall of wind on mourning
wings. But the bones of this place are
long picked clean. Only the hayrake's
ribs still rise from the rampant grasses.

Poem copyright (c) 1997 by Claudia Emerson Andrews, a 2005 Witter Bynner Fellow of the Library of Congress. Reprinted from "Pharoah, Pharoah" (1997) by permission of the author, whose newest book, "Late Wife," will appear this fall; both collections are published by Louisiana State University's Southern Messenger Poets. 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.


American Life in Poetry: Column 025


Emily Dickinson said that poems come at the truth at a slant. Here a birdbath and some overturned chairs on a nursing home lawn suggest the frailties of old age. Masterful poems choose the very best words and put them in the very best places, and Michigan poet Rodney Torreson has deftly chosen "ministers" for his first verb, an active verb that suggests the good work of the nursing home's chaplain.

The Bethlehem Nursing Home

A birdbath ministers
to the lawn chairs,
all toppled: a recliner
on its face, metal arms
trying to push it up;
an overturned rocker,

curvature of the spine.

Armchairs on their sides,

webbing unraveled.
One faces the flowers.
A director's chair
as if prepared

to be taken up.

From "A Breathable Light," New Issues Poetry and Prose, 2002, and first published in "Cape Rock". Copyright (c) 2002 by Rodney Torreson; reprinted by permission of the author. 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.


American Life in Poetry: Column 024


In this poem by New York poet Martin Walls, a common
insect is described and made vivid for us through a
number of fresh and engaging comparisons. Thus an
ordinary insect becomes something remarkable and

Cicadas at the End of Summer

Whine as though a pine tree is bowing a broken violin,
As though a bandsaw cleaves a thousand thin sheets of
They chime like freight wheels on a Norfolk Southern
slowing into town.

But all you ever see is the silence.
Husks, glued to the underside of maple leaves.
With their nineteen fifties Bakelite lines they'd do
just as well hanging from the ceiling of a space

What cicadas leave behind is a kind of crystallized memory;
The stubborn detail of, the shape around a life turned

The color of forgotten things: a cold broth of tea & milk
in the bottom of a mug.
Or skin on an old tin of varnish you have to lift with
lineman's pliers.
A fly paper that hung thirty years in Bird Cooper's pantry
in Brighton.

Reprinted from "Small Human Detail in Care of National Trust,"
New Issues Press, Western Michigan University, 2000,
by permission of the author. Poem copyright (c) by Martin
Walls, a 2005 Wytter Bynner Fellow of the Library of Congress.
His latest collection "Commonwealth" is available from
March Street Press. 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


You live
For the high windy days
When clouds tumble like metaphors
Across your mind
July evenings with so many
Hermit thrushes their song
Lines tangle in the air

The rest of the days, rain
Or else heat and humility
Sticky weather
Thighs to chair
Paper to itself
Images to gray pavement
You struggle to survive
The rain-slant of November
Mud of April
Each day with
Its own mocking

-originally appeared in Patchwork Journal, Issue 4, 2004.


by Catherine Jagoe


I will not forget the summer I forced myself
out onto the deck and sat there in despair,
swollen-eyed, slatternly, my throat raw,
my head heavy with drugs that made me
endlessly sleep and eat but did not cure my pain,

how you suddenly appeared, suspended
in mid-air, a jewelled messenger
on wings of living, iridescent green.
The ruby at your throat glowed in the sun
as our eyes met. No one else saw you.

I knew your message was yourself: green
flame of concentrated life, scrap of pure
unbounded energy. The next time I labored
under the same weight, you reappeared:
hovering between the lilacs and the bleeding heart.

-originally appeared in Red Wheelbarrow


by David Salner


November 19, 1968

He could have been the seventy-ninth.
It was his first job, and he couldn't sleep.
After the moon rose, he stared through the window
into the backyard, which he'd just mowed, to the
creek, overgrown with sumacs and maples.

He heard the tires slick by in the rain,
walked past his parents' door, and listened
to the sound his father made, the breathing.
His father worked daylights at the face
but already he couldn't sleep lying down.

His mother looked tired in the kitchen light
from the dust– but more from contending
with everything else. "Your bucket's ready.
Eat something." He looked into his hands
and then the boy spoke"I could get a job

in the glass plant or the carbon factory."
More hoot-owl traffic went by in the rain
and one of the cars pulled into the drive.
For a moment, she stared at her son
as if she were giving him a bath and needed

to study his body for cuts or bruises.
Then she got up, breaking the watch,
and waved the car on. It sped off, late now,
for hoot-owl shift at Consol Number Nine.
Five months later, the mine kept exploding

even after they sealed the portal with concrete
and steel–on the other seventy-eight.

-first appeared in The Potomac Review.


American Life in Poetry: Column 022 BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE
In this short poem by Vermont writer Jean L. Connor, an older speaker challenges the perception that people her age have lost their vitality and purpose. Connor compares the life of such a person to an egret fishing. Though the bird stands completely still, it has learned how to live in the world, how to sustain itself, and is capable of quick action when the moment is right.

Of Some Renown

For some time now, I have
lived anonymously. No one
appears to think it odd.
They think the old are,
well, what they seem. Yet
see that great egret

at the marsh's edge, solitary,
still? Mere pretense
that stillness. His silence is
a lie. In his own pond he is
of some renown, a stalker,
a catcher of fish. Watch him.

Reprinted from "Passager," 2001 by permission of the author. Copyright (c) 2001 by Jean L. Connor whose first book of poetry, "A Cartography of Peace," is published by Passager Books, Baltimore. 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 Judith Strasser

The Astronomers

They debate the meaning of rifts
on Jupiter's cracked, crazed,
planet-like moon. Oceans roiling under
the surface? An eggshell coating of ice?
And the off-center wobbles of stars--
do they suggest the orbits of planets,
or nearby brown dwarves, unlit?

The astronomers tune mechanical ears
to search for the song of intelligent life.

One night I take Teisha, 11 and poor,
to the observatory. I want her to know
the opening dome, shadowed craters,
bright lunar disc, worlds beyond her own.
As we walk up the hill, she tells me the plot
of She's Having A Baby. She can't believe
I've never seen it; she's rented it seven times.

She peers through the telescope, shrugs. She sees
a slice of holey cheese; no man, no mystery.

When the astronomers find what they're
seeking (an audible sigh, fragments
of proteins) we will know that we're
not unique. What life they find will also be
a little lower than angels. We'll be left
to our children, like Teisha, who says--
walking back to the car through the silvery night--

I can't wait to have babies. My cousin has
a new baby, round-faced, bright as the moon.

-first appeared in Blue Unicorn, February 2005


by Maxine Scates


The cut office hours, kids sitting
outside in sunlight, spring, concrete

and cigarette butts, the grass still sodden
with winter, all the wisdom they don’t have

and what little they know about themselves,
their own godliness, their own greed,

all falling away as the man at the lectern
tried to say something about the woman

he’d loved those afternoons, voice quavering,
birds tumbling in flight, seats creaking, students

settling. He was old, the pause seemed
almost holy, the late strings of Beethoven

hovering then answering, as if he would give
that long ago lover a gift, offer again

the moments before consequence, like those summer
mornings when having dreamt you so long

it seemed I had not yet awakened when you came
to me in the room under the eaves. Afterwards

we’d sit on the porch looking out at the garden,
the apple tree just past blossoming, the grape

arbor where the cat slept. I knew
you were married, but good or bad wasn’t part of it,

not yet, maybe that’s what the man meant,
the time between where we belonged to nothing,

still innocent, no one bruised, nothing broken.
Not until late in the summer when you left her,

when you asked if I’d thought what it meant for us–
not until then the scrim of dirty edges

I didn’t want, unready, but when you thought
of returning I knew what I wanted. On August

nights like this one, the ballgame on low,
the dog asleep on the floor, I remember

how the light hung then, heavy, burnished,
the unpicked apples falling into gutters all over town.

-from Black Loam. Originally appeared in North American Review.


by Jeri McCormick

Assurances of Trees

Death has come and gone again
and I walk my loss on paths
in northern woods, where high
presences weave a canopy

of comfort, recite a canticle
of grief. The oaks, brown
as monks in their rumpled habits;
the firs serene and symmetrical

in their thick green vestments;
birches wild as evangelists
waving their holy-ghost arms—
an ecumenical forest densely

sprung from leaf-nurtured soil,
sanctified centuries ago
by tribes of the lake country.
I think of my own forebears,

frontier-drawn from the colonies,
persevering across New World
generations, their branches hung
with hardship. So many offspring

they saw into life, so many buried
in mountain graves and city plots.
Still, we abide; tenacious, root-
sustained, we hold our ground.

-First appeared in Cup of Poems, No. 8


by Grace Cavalieri

I accept a path with strange signals

People brush my footprints away.
Tea alone today then my walk the V shaped sky
The brown hawk luminous green on the pigeon in the countryside
A field of dry sunflowers,

God allows this walk so, tell me then…
How much should a person be listened to?
How much…

My room inside so small, tonight cool air outside,
Only a window between.
Spirit that feels like terror – Love that is hooked to hate -
These make up my surface.
It will break open to a knowing you would not want to hear.

A flower is called ‘the end of things.’ I want it, still.
I will leave this house of anger and close The door behind.

I remember a black butterfly shining so blue
I thought it was a bluebird.
Being happy in spite of pain,
That’s what God is. Or maybe the pain is God’s way.
For without misery, I would not know Him.

from What I Would Do For Love: poems in the voice of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1767) Jacaranda Press (c2004)


by Kim Roberts


At night their pulsing bodies lean and sway
in the tide. With tongues as big as anchors,
they moor in salty grass and dream of stones.
They like to steer their course by the Pleiades.
They bless us by alighting on our shore.
By day, they portage slowly over fields
and drag behind a feeble rudder, just
a strip of leather coated with green flies.
They trawl for shade beneath the summer trees,
and sometimes sound a foghorn from a brig.
They bob like a flotilla by the fence,
some up, some down, some caught between the two
as if between two worlds, kneeling in prayer.

-First appeared in Laurel Review, Vol. 30, No. 2, 1996.


American Life in Poetry: Column 020


In this fascinating poem by the California poet, Jane Hirshfield, the speaker discovers that through paying attention to an event she has become part of it, has indeed become inseparable from the event and its implications. This is more than an act of empathy. It speaks, in my reading of it, to the perception of an order into which all creatures and events are fitted, and are essential.

The Woodpecker Keeps Returning

The woodpecker keeps returning
to drill the house wall.
Put a pie plate over one place, he chooses another.

There is nothing good to eat there:
he has found in the house
a resonant billboard to post his intentions,
his voluble strength as provider.

But where is the female he drums for? Where?

I ask this, who am myself the ruined siding,
the handsome red-capped bird, the missing mate.

Poem copyright (c) 2005 by Jane Hirshfield from her forthcoming book "After" (Harper Collins, 2006), and reprinted by permission of the author. 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 CX Dillhunt

More Haiku from China:

I'll write this poem
when the tallest pine tree sticks
to the full moon cake

Himalaya pine
looks down on me speaking tall
and green forever

Sunday afternoon
flute practicing in garden
all roses listening

Walking under these
parasol trees with you just
walking not talking

One wasp circling
the classroom hanging around
looking for the answer

Sorting the garbage
with this afternoon shade--look
today is different


American Life in Poetry: Column 019


At the beginning of the famous novel, "Remembrance of Things Past," the mere taste of a biscuit started Marcel Proust on a seven-volume remembrance. Here a bulldozer turns up an old doorknob, and look what happens in Shirley Buettner's imagination.


While clearing the west
quarter for more cropland,
the Cat quarried
a porcelain doorknob

oystered in earth,
grained and crazed
like an historic egg,
with a screwless stem of

rusted and pitted iron.
I turn its cold white roundness
with my palm and
open the oak door

fitted with oval glass,
fretted with wood ivy,
and call my frontier neighbor.
Her voice comes distant but

clear, scolding children
in overalls
and highbutton shoes.
A bucket of fresh eggs and

a clutch of rhubarb rest
on her daisied oil-cloth.
She knew I would knock someday,
wanting in.

From "Walking Out the Dark" (Juniper Press, 1984). Copyright (c) 1984 by Shirley Buettner and reprinted by permission of the author. 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 Sandy Stark

February Feathers

Today I opened the second drawer
on the left side of the dark brown desk
and took out the cards you gave me
for Valentine’s Day, the same day
we decided to celebrate the cat’s birthday,
calling him our sweetheart, Mr. Max.

Now Max and I are left here looking
for the first sign of a long winter’s end--
a change in the cardinal’s call,
the house finch at the feeder--
the bright red glow of the one,
the rosy pink of the next.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s how to be undone
by the wish to leap backwards in time.
As for stiff-legged Mr. Max,
today I like to think he too dreams
of being younger and lighter- boned,
of the days of wing-like leaps,
and the taste of feathers on the tongue.

-originally published in the 2005
Wisconsin Poets Calendar


by Jesse Lee Kercheval

Rose Red

Just back from the laundromat, Mother, soul and socks both clean, I am feeling rather blessed, drinking wine from far Provence, sitting in my wicker chair on cushions bright as schools of feeding fish. For dinner I ate nothing but young food--scrambled eggs, small round potatoes, the kind they call red bliss. How long have I been waiting for this new life? Free, at last, from history, that hallucination, from the sandy pit of grief. I sink into the tufted cushions of my life and become again the child who watched you set the table every night for dinner until she was old enough to help. Beyond the kitchen window, a rose, red faced, dyes the clouds pink as skin, blushing throat to ankle. Behind the clouds, the universe, all bones and moving stars. I hear an owl and know it's you. I hear a mouse inside the walls and know it's you. I close my eyes. I see a bridge. I walk across it.

From Dog Angel (University of Pittsburgh Press).


American Life in Poetry: Column 018


Every reader of this column has at one time felt
the frightening and paralyzing powerlessness of
being a small child, unable to find a way to
repair the world. Here the California poet,
Dan Gerber, steps into memory to capture such a moment.

The Rain Poured Down

My mother weeping
in the dark hallway, in the arms of a man,
not my father,
as I sat at the top of the stairs unnoticed--
my mother weeping and pleading for what I didn't know
then and can still only imagine--
for things to be somehow other than they were,
not knowing what I would change,
for, or to, or why,
only that my mother was weeping
in the arms of a man not me,
and the rain brought down the winter sky
and hid me in the walls that looked on,
indifferent to my mother's weeping,
or mine,
in the rain that brought down the dark afternoon.

Dan Gerber's most recent book is "Trying to Catch the Horses"
(Michigan State University Press, 1999).
"The Rain Poured Down" copyright (c) 2005 by Dan Gerber
and reprinted by permission of the author.
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.