for a daughter who leaves :: janice mirikitani

“More than gems in my comb box shaped by the
God of the Sea, I prize you, my daughter. . .”
Lady Otomo, 8th century, Japan

A woman weaves
her daughter’s wedding
slippers that will carry
her steps into a new life.
The mother weeps alone
into her jeweled sewing box
slips red thread
around its spool,
the same she used to stitch
her daughter’s first silk jacket
embroidered with turtles
that would bring luck, long life.
She remembers all the steps
taken by her daughter’s
unbound quick feet:
dancing on the stones
of the yard among yellow
butterflies and white breasted sparrows.
And she grew, legs strong
body long, mind
independent.
Now she captures all eyes
with her hair combed smooth
and her hips gently
swaying like bamboo.
The woman
spins her thread
from the spool of her heart,
knotted to her daughter’s
departing
wedding slippers.

ways of talking :: ha jin

We used to like talking about grief
Our journals and letters were packed
with losses, complaints, and sorrows.
Even if there was no grief
we wouldn’t stop lamenting
as though longing for the charm
of a distressed face.

Then we couldn’t help expressing grief
So many things descended without warning:
labor wasted, loves lost, houses gone,
marriages broken, friends estranged,
ambitions worn away by immediate needs.
Words lined up in our throats
for a good whining.
Grief seemed like an endless river—
the only immortal flow of life.

After losing a land and then giving up a tongue,
we stopped talking of grief
Smiles began to brighten our faces.
We laugh a lot, at our own mess.
Things become beautiful,
even hailstones in the strawberry fields.

appeal to the grammarians :: paul violi

We, the naturally hopeful,
Need a simple sign
For the myriad ways we’re capsized.
We who love precise language
Need a finer way to convey
Disappointment and perplexity.
For speechlessness and all its inflections,
For up-ended expectations,
For every time we’re ambushed
By trivial or stupefying irony,
For pure incredulity, we need
The inverted exclamation point.
For the dropped smile, the limp handshake,
For whoever has just unwrapped a dumb gift
Or taken the first sip of flat beer,
Or felt love or pond ice
Give way underfoot, we deserve it.
We need it for the air pocket, the scratch shot,
The child whose ball doesn’t bounce back,
The flat tire at journey’s outset,
The odyssey that ends up in Weehawken.
But mainly because I need it—here and now
As I sit outside the Caffe Reggio
Staring at my espresso and cannoli
After this middle-aged couple
Came strolling by and he suddenly
Veered and sneezed all over my table
And she said to him, “See, that’s why
I don’t like to eat outside.”

pura vida :: john updike

(¡Pura vida! — Costa Rican phrase for “O.K.” or “Great!”)

Such heat! It brings the brain back to its basic blank.
Small, recurrent events become the daily news—
the white-nosed coati treading the cecropia’s
bending thin branches like sidewalks in the sky,
the scarlet-rumped tanager flitting like a spark
in the tinder of dank green, the nodding palm leaves
perforated like Jacquard cards in a code of wormholes,
the black hawk skimming nothingness over and over.

What does the world’s wide brimming mean, with hunger
the unstated secret, dying the proximate reality?
Con mucho gusto—the muchness extends to the stars,
as wet and numerous as larvae underground
where the ants in their preset patterns scurry and nurture,
and the queen, immobilized, pours forth her eggs
in the dark. We are far from oaks and stoplights,
from England’s chill classrooms and Tuscany’s paved hills.

For thought is a stridulation, an insect sizzling,
knit of the moment’s headlines and temperate-zone quips,
viable in the debris of our rotting educations,
that thatch where peer-groups call each to each in semes
ecosystematically. Great God Himself
wilts with a rise in temperature, a drop in soil acidity,
a new language in its grimacing opacity.
The brain’s dry buzz revives, a bit, as evening falls.

In Memorium, 1932-2009

god says yes to me :: kaylin haught

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
thanks God I said
and is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

\o/

Courtesy of S.L.

the cabbage :: ruth stone

You have rented an apartment.
You come to this enclosure with physical relief,
your heavy body climbing the stairs in the dark,
the hall bulb burned out, the landlord
of Greek extraction and possibly a fatalist.
In the apartment leaning against one wall,
your daughter’s painting of a large frilled cabbage
against a dark sky with pinpoints of stars.
The eager vegetable, opening itself
as if to eat the air, or speak in cabbage
language of the meanings within meanings;
while the points of stars hide their massive
violence in the dark upper half of the painting.
You can live with this.

the electricity of your acupuncture is breathing :: g. c. waldrep

Take a deep breath: there, now you’ve stooped to doing what poems tell you. It’s all downhill from here: the sordid parties, the fabulous butterflies that winter in the brain, leaving it choked with newscasters and verdigris. When you obey the poem, you always find yourself, sooner or later, in the darkest corridor of the grand hotel inside the moon, looking for either a lavatory or else the misplaced wonder of childhood. Your slippers feel rough and scaly, as if they’d been manufactured of asbestos, or sharkskin. You shuffle forward cautiously. Somewhere inside this poem Albany is lurking, and the last thing you want to do is trip over it in the dark. From the ambassador suite, the voice of the poem commands you to breathe again, and you do: left lung, right lung. Soldiers have surrounded the hotel, but that’s OK. You saw them earlier in the bar, decked out in mylar and mufti. They simply didn’t look very serious. Now, in the hallway in the dark, you hear voices shouting, and what might be rifle fire. Breathe, whispers the poem. And you do.

From Memorious, Issue 11, December 2008

daybreak, spokane, september 2001 :: joe wilkins

They’re tearing down the Olympia Beer sign
from atop the Empire Hotel.

The geese wing south again,

above the char color of the city,
through the still dark house of the sky.

Last week a woman threw herself in the river.

***

I dream winter—wind leaning hard
down the mountains, blown snow

and ice—reading James Wright
for the first time.

How sad and lovely,

because in his poems everything and everyone
was always dying,

yet looking up from the page
I had never before wanted so wholly to live.

***

Across the black river, I watch
bricks fall from the hotel without sound,
flowers of smoke blossom above the coal stacks,

and now the first sun break shivers me
in my dew-soaked shoes.

It is time to grieve, to believe in the world again.

From BOXCAR Poetry Review, January 2009

for julia, in the deep water :: john m. morris

The instructor we hire
Because she does not love you
Leads you into the deep water,
The deep end
Where the water is darker—
Her open, encouraging arms
That never get nearer
Are merciless for your sake.

You will dream this water always
Where nothing draws nearer,
Wasting your valuable breath
You will scream for your mother—
Only your mother is drowning
Forever in the thin air
Down at the deep end.
She is doing nothing,
She never did anything harder.
And I am beside her.

I am beside her in this imagination.
We are waiting
Where the water is darker.
You are over your head,
Screaming, you are learning
Your way toward us,
You are learning how
in the helpless water
It is with our skill
We live in what kills us.

Courtesy M.M.; for C.A. & K.D.

first they came… :: martin niemöller

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

There are multiple versions of this poem, but I found this version in the posthumous editorial of assassinated Sri Lankan journalist, Lasantha Wickramatunge.

inaugural poem :: elizabeth alexander

Praise song for the day.

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others’ eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, “Take out your pencils. Begin.”

We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, “I need to see what’s on the other side; I know there’s something better down the road.”

We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by “Love thy neighbor as thy self.”

Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.

Alexander is the fourth poet in American history to read at a presidential inauguration, a tradition that began with Robert Frost reading a poem at the inauguration for John F. Kennedy in 1961, followed by Maya Angelou and Miller Williams at President Bill Clinton’s inaugurations.

some trees :: john ashbery

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far as this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.

elms :: louise glück

All day I tried to distinguish
need from desire. Now, in the dark,
I feel only bitter sadness for us,
the builders, the planers of wood,
because I have been looking
steadily at these elms
and seen the process that creates
the writhing, stationary tree
is torment, and have understood
it will make no forms but twisted forms.

oranges :: mary oliver

Cut one, the lace of acid
rushes out, spills over your hands.
You lick them, manners don’t come into it.
Orange−the first word you have heard that day−

enters your mind. Everybody then
does what he or she wants−breakfast is casual.
Slices, quarters, halves, or the whole hand
holding an orange ball like the morning sun

on a day of soft wind and no clouds
which it so often is. “Oh, I always
want to live like this,
flying up out of the furrows of sleep,

fresh from water and its sheer excitement,
felled as though by a miracle
at this first sharp taste of the day!”
You’re shouting, but no one is surprised.

Here, there, everywhere on the earth
thousands are rising and shouting with you−
even those who are utterly silent, absorbed−
their mouths filled with such sweetness.

equinox :: joy harjo

I must keep from breaking into the story by force
for if I do I will find myself with a war club in my hand
and the smoke of grief staggering toward the sun,
your nation dead beside you.

I keep walking away though it has been an eternity
and from each drop of blood
springs up sons and daughters, trees,
a mountain of sorrows, of songs.

I tell you this from the dusk of a small city in the north
not far from the birthplace of cars and industry.
Geese are returning to mate and crocuses have
broken through the frozen earth.

Soon they will come for me and I will make my stand
before the jury of destiny. Yes, I will answer in the clatter
of the new world, I have broken my addiction to war
and desire. Yes, I will reply, I have buried the dead

and made songs of the blood, the marrow.

meditation at lagunitas :: robert hass

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you
and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

Courtesy of D.H.

a home in dark grass :: robert bly

In the deep fall, the body awakes,
And we find lions on the seashore—
Nothing to fear.
The wind rises, the water is born,
Spreading white tomb-clothes on a rocky shore,
Drawing us up
From the bed of the land.

We did not come to remain whole.
We came to lose our leaves like the trees,
The trees that are broken
And start again, drawing up on great roots;
Like mad poets captured by the Moors,
Men who live out
A second life.

That we should learn of poverty and rags,
That we should taste the weed of Dillinger,
And swim in the sea,
Not always walking on dry land,
And, dancing, find in the trees a saviour,
A home in the dark grass,
And nourishment in death.

eh? :: nathalie anderson

Eh he said and she
dreamed eh. It was
like that between them.

Not that his lips dreamed,
not that his dreamed lips
parted. Eh he’d say

and her dream was eh,
was all eh, all and
only. Sometimes

a near kiss an almost tide
drawn back withdrawn withdrawing.
Sometimes the hackled wave

raised, drew back its lip, sheered
its teeth, coughed its raw
guttural. Or

she herself voicing
involuntary eh
his whatever, his

what-it-is. But
sometimes his naked eh
with her ah alongside−

the rocked hulls nudging nuzzling
or was it scraping what
did she care? Would his eh

oh? How fast she’d
founder, taking on water,
mouth emptying full.

By day she’d hear on the air
his syllable, turn
toward or away, does it

matter? If she said ah
would he dream ah? Oh−
not like that between them.

From The New Yorker; January 19, 2009

sunflower sonnet / number two :: june jordan

Supposing we could just go on as two
voracious in the days apart as well as when
we side by side (the many ways we do
that) well! I would consider then
perfection possible, or else worthwhile
to think about. Which is to say
I guess the costs of long term tend to pile
up, block and complicate, erase away
the accidental, temporary, near
thing/pulsebeat promises one makes
because the chance, the easy new, is there
in front of you. But still, perfection takes
some sacrifice of falling stars for rare.
And there are stars, but none of you, to spare.

what was told, that :: rumi

translated by coleman barks

What was told to the rose that made it open was said
to me here in my chest.

What was told the cypress that made it strong
and straight, what was

whispered the jasmine so it is what it is, whatever made
sugarcane sweet, whatever

was said to the inhabitants of the town of Chigil in
Turkestan that makes them

so handsome, whatever lets the pomegranate flower blush
like a human face, that is

being said to me now. I blush. Whatever put eloquence in
language, that’s happening here.

The great warehouse doors open; I fill with gratitude,
chewing a piece of sugarcane,

in love with the one to whom every that belongs!

after twenty years :: adrienne rich

Two women sit at a table by a window. Light breaks
unevenly on both of them.
Their talk is striking of sparks
which passers-by in the street observe
as a glitter in the glass of that window.
Two women in the prime of life.
Their babies are old enough to have babies.
Loneliness has been part of their story for twenty years,
the dark edge of the clever tongue,
the obscure underside of the imagination.
It is snow and thunder in the street.
While they speak the lightning flashes purple.
It is strange to be so many women,
eating and drinking at the same table,
those who bathed their children in the same basin
who kept their secrets from each other
walked the floors of their lives in separate rooms
and flow into history now as the woman of their time
living in the prime of life
as in a city where nothing is forbidden
and nothing permanent.

autumn sky :: charles simic

In my great grandmother’s time,
All one needed was a broom
To get to see places
And give the geese a chase in the sky.

The stars know everything,
So we try to read their minds.
As distant as they are,
We choose to whisper in their presence.

Oh Cynthia,
Take a clock that has lost its hands
For a ride.
Get me a room at Hotel Eternity
Where Time likes to stop now and then.

Come, lovers of dark corners,
The sky says,
And sit in one of my dark corners.
There are tasty little zeroes
In the peanut dish tonight.

caged bird :: matthew j. spireng

Some believe there’s somewhere in the brain
that senses minor fluctuations in the Earth’s
magnetic field and uses a sort of memory
of that to travel the same route year after year
over thousands of miles, over open ocean
on moonless, clouded nights, and a built-in clock
that, save for weather’s influence, tells
when it’s time to go. But they utter nothing
of thwarted dreams in birds’ brains, how
a few cubic feet near the ground, however
well-kept and lighted, however large it seems
around a small bright bird, is like a fist
closed tight on feather and bone, how, certain times
of year, the bird’s heart races as if to power flight.

blues :: elizabeth alexander

I am lazy, the laziest
girl in the world. I sleep during
the day when I wan to, ’til
my face is creased and swollen,
’til my lips are dry and hot. I
eat as I please: cookies and milk
after lunch, butter and sour cream
on my baked potato, foods that
slothful people eat, that turn
yellow and opaque beneath the skin.
Sometimes come dinnertime Sunday
I am still in my nightgown, the one
with the lace trim listing because
I have not mended it. Many days
I do not exercise, only
consider it, then rub my curdy
belly and lie down. Even
my poems are lazy. I use
syllabics instead of iambs,
prefer slant to the gong of full rhyme,
write briefly while others go
for pages. And yesterday,
for example. I did not work at all!
I got in my car and I drove
to factory outlet stores, purchased
stockings and panties and socks
with my father’s money.

To think, in childhood I missed only
one day of school per year. I went
to ballet class four days a week
at four-forty-five and on
Saturdays, beginning always
with plie, ending with curtsy.
To think, I knew only industry,
the industry of my race
and of immigrants, the radio
tuned always to the station
that said, Line up your summer
job months in advance. Work hard
and do not shame your family,
who worked hard to give you what you have.
There is no sin but sloth. Burn
to a wick and keep moving.

I avoided sleep for years,
up at night replaying
evening news stories about
nearby jailbreaks, fat people
who ate fried chicken and woke up
dead. In sleep I am looking
for poems in the shape of open
V’s of birds flying in formation,
or open arms saying, I forgive you, all.

Hear Elizabeth Alexander read at the presidential inauguration on January 20th!

measure :: robert hass

Recurrences.
Coppery light hesitates
again in the small-leaved

Japanese plum. Summer
and sunset, the peace
of the writing desk

and the habitual peace
of writing, these things
form an order I only

belong to in the idleness
of attention. Last light
rims the blue mountain

and I almost glimpse
what I was born to,
not so much in the sunlight

or the plum tree
as in the pulse
that forms these lines.

año nuevo :: alison deming

A man with four children
crowding like saplings around him
whistles to wake up
the elephant seal who has hulked
his impossible body onto the beach.

A loser, says the egghead kid. The winners
herd onto the Point with females and mate.

Cameras,scopes, and tripods.
And the seal sleeps, his buried heart
rippling the surface of his flesh
like something beginning to boil.
He sleeps on his face. His snout
flaps against the sand when he snores,
shapeless neck wearing
the crusted garland of blood.

He doesn’t move when the occasional wave
washes around him. A breathing rock.

People down the beach
with their red plaids and pink stripes.
A woman walks six inches from the collapsed
warrior without looking. They want the animal
to acknowledge them, to care
as much about the human presence
as they care about his. They want him to ripple up
monstrous out of his torpor so they
can run back to safety, laughing.

Sometimes a tremor will pass
along his length as if to shake off
the body’s necessities.
The surf is a white cuff
trimming the placid ocean and the right-angled
cliff glistens with buttery sunlight.
The picnics continue, the cameras, and hawks.

Now a white-haired docent arrives,
draws with his presence
a circle twenty feet wide.
Even so, some still need reminding.

Now the side flipper
stretches up, its hand flexing
as the creature sighs deeper into sleep,
the combat falling from his mind.

burning the old year :: naomi shihab nye

Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.

Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.

Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.

we are always too late :: eavan boland

Memory
is in two parts.

First, the revisiting:

the way even now I can see
those lovers at the café table. She is weeping.

It is New England, breakfast time, winter. Behind her,
outside the picture window, is
a stand of white pines.

New snow falls and the old,
losing its balance in the branches,
showers down,
adding fractions to it. Then

the reenactment. Always that.
I am getting up, pushing away
coffee. Always, I am going towards her.

The flush and scald is
to her forehead now, and back down to her neck.

I raise one hand. I am pointing to
those trees, I am showing her our needs for these
beautiful upstagings of
what we suffer by
what what survives. And she never even sees me.