My wife is the best. This pandemic time has been pretty hard on both of us, but she has managed to find little ways to help beat back the dreariness, including sending me occasional poems. Some days, these have felt like precious little gifts. Poems, said Mary Oliver, “are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.” I think that’s one reason so many folks have been turning to poetry during this dark season. With that in mind, I thought I’d share some of the ones I’ve enjoyed coming across over the past few months, most of them thanks to my wife. Hope you enjoy them too!
- “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
- “On the Pulse of Morning” (excerpt), by Maya Angelou, spoken at Bill Clinton’s inauguration, Jan. 20, 1993
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am the Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.
I, the Rock, I, the River, I, the Tree
I am yours—your passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes
Upon this day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts.
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, and into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
- “Prayers of Steel” by Carl Sandburg
Lay me on an anvil, O God.
Beat me and hammer me into a crowbar.
Let me pry loose old walls.
Let me lift and loosen old foundations.
Lay me on an anvil, O God.
Beat me and hammer me into a steel spike.
Drive me into the girders that hold a skyscraper together.
Take red-hot rivets and fasten me into the central girders.
Let me be the great nail holding a skyscraper through blue nights into white stars.
- “You Are Tired (I Think)” by e.e. cummings
You are tired,
Of the always puzzle of living and doing;
And so am I.
Come with me, then,
And we’ll leave it far and far away—
(Only you and I, understand!)
You have played,
And broke the toys you were fondest of,
And are a little tired now;
Tired of things that break, and—
So am I.
But I come with a dream in my eyes tonight,
And knock with a rose at the hopeless gate of your heart—
Open to me!
For I will show you the places Nobody knows,
And, if you like,
The perfect places of Sleep.
Ah, come with me!
I’ll blow you that wonderful bubble, the moon,
That floats forever and a day;
I’ll sing you the jacinth song
Of the probable stars;
I will attempt the unstartled steppes of dream,
Until I find the Only Flower,
Which shall keep (I think) your little heart
While the moon comes out of the sea.
- “Small Kindnesses” by Danusha Laméris
I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead — you first,” “I like your hat.”
- “The August Preoccupations” by Catherine Barnett
So this morning I made a list
of obsessions and you were on it.
And waiting, and forgiveness, and five-dollar bills,
and despots, telescopes, anonymity, beauty,
silent comedy, and waiting.
I could forswear all these things
and just crawl back into the bed
you and I once slept in.
What would happen then?
Play any film backwards and it’s elegy.
Play it fast-forward it’s a gas.
I try not to get attached.
I see stars when I look at him.
- “What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade” by Brad Aaron Modlin
Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,
how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
questions on how not to feel lost in the dark
After lunch she distributed worksheets
that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s
voice. Then the class discussed falling asleep
without feeling you had forgotten to do something else—
something important—and how to believe
the house you wake in is your home. This prompted
Mrs. Nelson to draw a chalkboard diagram detailing
how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks,
and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts
are all you hear; also, that you have enough.
The English lesson was that I AM
is a complete sentence.
And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation
look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,
and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person
add up to something.
- “If China” by Stanislaw Baranczak (Tr. Magnus J. Krynski)
If china, then only the kind
you wouldn’t miss under the movers’ shoes or the treads of a tank;
if a chair, then one that’s not too comfortable, or
you’ll regret getting up and leaving;
if clothes, then only what will fit in one suitcase;
if books, then those you know by heart;
if plans, then the ones you can give up
when it comes time for the next move,
to another street, another continent or epoch
who told you you could settle in?
who told you this or that would last forever?
didn’t anyone tell you that you’ll never
in the world
feel at home here?
- “Badly” by Lynn Ungar
Anything worth doing
is worth doing badly.
No one ever did something well
without doing it poorly first.
But if we’re going to get real,
the chances of your ever getting
really good are slim at best.
The Olympics and the pro leagues
fled with the end of your puberty.
Maybe the Nobel or Pulitzer
is out there waiting, but
I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Even on our best days
most of us are merely competent,
and much of the time
adequate is a stretch.
Appearances aside, this might be
one of the happiest things I know.
I hereby absolve you
of the need to be better
than anyone else. Poof.
It is possible to suck at things
with great love. Grab your uke
and I’ll get my mandolin.
Meet me on the porch.
We’ll play together, under tempo
and ever so slightly out of tune.
- “In the Morning, Before Anything Bad Happens” by Molly Brodak
The sky is open
all the way.
Workers upright on the line
I know there is a river somewhere,
lit, fragrant, golden mist, all that,
whose irrepressible birds
can’t believe their luck this morning
and every morning.
I let them riot
in my mind a few minutes more
before the news comes.
- “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” (excerpt), by W. H. Auden
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
- “Today” by Mary Oliver
Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word
I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.
The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.
But I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m traveling
a terrific distance.
Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.