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