february 29 :: jane hirshfield

An extra day—

Like the painting’s fifth cow,
who looks out directly,
straight toward you,
from inside her black and white spots.

An extra day—

Accidental, surely:
the made calendar stumbling over the real
as a drunk trips over a threshold
too low to see.

An extra day—

With a second cup of black coffee.
A friendly but businesslike phone call.
A mailed-back package.
Some extra work, but not too much—
just one day’s worth, exactly.

An extra day—

Not unlike the space
between a door and its frame
when one room is lit and another is not,
and one changes into the other
as a woman exchanges a scarf.

An extra day—

Extraordinarily like any other.
And still
there is some generosity to it,
like a letter re-readable after its writer has died.

the lonely death :: adelaide crapsey

In the cold I will rise, I will bathe
In waters of ice; myself
Will shiver, and shrive myself,
Alone in the dawn, and anoint
Forehead and feet and hands;
I will shutter the windows from light,
I will place in their sockets the four
Tall candles and set them a-flame
In the grey of the dawn; and myself
Will lay myself straight in my bed,
And draw the sheet under my chin.

miss rosie :: lucille clifton

when i watch you
wrapped up like garbage
sitting, surrounded by the smell
of too old potato peels
when i watch you
in your old man’s shoes
with the little toe cut out
sitting, waiting for your mind
like next week’s grocery
i say
when i watch you
you wet brown bag of a woman
who used to be the best looking gal in georgia
used to be called the Georgia Rose
i stand up
through your destruction
i stand up

the pet :: cate marvin

I rode him through the village, smiling.
He tossed his tasseled mane in distress.
The villagers took his gesture as vanity,
and made no attempt to rein him back.
Camped at night by stream and fire,

he seemed to think stories were in order.
The ghoulish tales twisting out his mouth
no longer frightened me. On leaving,
I’d taken on a certain complacency. Later,
he’d characterize my silence as merely

mean. But what is mean about a mouth
that, having no stories, claims it can provide
no flower for the ear, no wine for the wind?
I tried: I told the tale of him, which he
(the version being mine) was not much

interested in. But all of us, the fattening
moon, the yewey trees, the sharp-toothed
stars who combed their glowing backs against
the sky like cats: we laughed. And now
that I had left, where would I take him?

He was vehicle and, as such, responsibility.
He was deadening, tiresome, and necessary.
I made ourselves a home and kept him gently
as a pet. Visitors often wonder aloud,
How do you manage to keep such a creature

inside? The floors are stained with his keep.
I tell them my heart is huge and its doors
are small. Once I took him in he grew. Now
I cannot remove him without killing him,
which, frankly, I have never wanted to do.

enough music :: dorianne laux

Sometimes, when we’re on a long drive,
and we’ve talked enough and listened
to enough music and stopped twice,
once to eat, once to see the view,
we fall into this rhythm of silence.
It swings back and forth between us
like a rope over a lake.
Maybe it’s what we don’t say
that saves us.

mighty pawns :: major jackson

If I told you Earl, the toughest kid
on my block in North Philadelphia,
bow-legged and ominous, could beat
any man or woman in ten moves playing white,
or that he traveled to Yugoslavia to frustrate the bearded
masters at the Belgrade Chess Association,
you’d think I was given to hyperbole,
and if, at dinnertime, I took you
into the faint light of his Section 8 home
reeking of onions, liver, and gravy,
his six little brothers fighting on a broken love-seat
for room in front of a cracked flat-screen,
one whose diaper sags it’s a wonder
it hasn’t fallen to his ankles,
the walls behind doors exposing the sheetrock
the perfect O of a handle, and the slats
of stairs missing where Baby-boy gets stuck
trying to ascend to a dominion foreign to you and me
with its loud timbales and drums blasting down
from the closed room of his cousin whose mother
stands on a corner on the other side of town
all times of day and night, except when her relief
check arrives at the beginning of the month,
you’d get a better picture of Earl’s ferocity
after-school on the board in Mr. Sherman’s class,
but not necessarily when he stands near you
at a downtown bus-stop in a jacket a size too
small, hunching his shoulders around his ears,
as you imagine the checkered squares of his poverty
and anger, and pray he does not turn his precise gaze
too long in your direction for fear he blames
you and proceeds to take your Queen.

blue dementia :: yusef komunyakaa

In the days when a man
would hold a swarm of words
inside his belly, nestled
against his spleen, singing.

In the days of night riders
when life tongued a reed
till blues & sorrow song
called out of the deep night:
Another man done gone.
Another man done gone.

In the days when one could lose oneself
all up inside love that way,
& then moan on the bone
till the gods cried out in someone’s sleep.

already I’ve seen three dark-skinned men
discussing the weather with demons
& angels, gazing up at the clouds
& squinting down into iron grates
along the fast streets of luminous encounters.

I double-check my reflection in plate glass
& wonder, Am I passing another
Lucky Thompson or Marion Brown
cornered by a blue dementia,
another dark-skinned man
who woke up dreaming one morning
& then walked out of himself
dreaming? Did this one dare
to step on a crack in the sidewalk,
to turn a midnight corner & never come back
whole, or did he try to stare down a look
that shoved a blade into his heart?
I mean, I also know something
about night riders & catgut. Yeah,
honey, I know something about talking with ghosts.

beyond recall :: sharon bryan

Nothing matters
to the dead,
that’s what’s so hard

for the rest of us
to take in—
their complete indifference

to our enticements,
our attempts to get in touch—
they aren’t observing us

from a discreet distance.
they aren’t listening
to a word we say—

you know that,
but you don’t believe it,
even deep in a cave

you don’t believe
in total darkness,
you keep waiting

for your eyes to adjust
and reveal your hand
in front of your face—

so how long a silence
will it take to convince us
that we’re the ones

who no longer exist,
as far as X is concerned,
and Y, that they’ve forgotten

every little thing
they knew about us,
what we told them

and what we didn’t
have to, even our names
mean nothing to them

now—our throats ache
with all we might have said
the next time we saw them.

brief afternoons :: ira sadoff

In the brief afternoons of February,
when the whole God question comes up
like a knock on the door from Jehovah’s witnesses—
no, not like them, but really them
and their stack of newspapers and questions, swirling
in the snow—I’m cautious, impatient, defenseless.
I guard the door like St. Peter or Cerberus,
The Word before it’s written. We discuss the proof
of the snowflake, God’s design and the sin of the self.
We require uplifting because of the chill
and the solitude, because we project onto the pines
endings and beginnings, the whiteness of snow
in the darkening quill of afternoon,
where January can no longer be corrected; December’s
a parent’s perpetual death and July a child’s fairy tale.
But now they’re at my door with their gloomy accusations,
and because of the lateness of the hour,
because I have no defense, no justification
outside myself, I invite them in for tea—
together, white man and black man, the lapsed
and the saved, we watch the wind push the snow,
we listen to the woodstove chatter and whisper and hiss.

the stone :: rebecca lilly

The stone is plain and irregular, not the pure form of fire or air. A bulwark, it rests for centuries in desert ruins, or dry stream beds, or under the forest earth as a tomb. If it pokes through, like the hull of a sunboat, or the rim of a cauldron that once boiled witches’ brew, wind and rainfall eventually expose it.

For the nymph who bathes in lake waters, with her negligee of moss, it’s a movable bench, while the naturalist marvels at its bumps and crevices, as if it had a lamp behind it. “Ah, fossils and shell scraps. What to make of its pocked eyes?” wonders the naturalist, who admires its survivalist creed, “and if we read it properly, what secrets would it tell if it could speak!” Cleared of snow-melt, sun-baked on an over-look, or by a woods stream, a stone shows itself to be merely nothing more, and ages with dignity.

If an animal ingests it accidentally with its leaves or berries, it’s excreted unchanged, and fares well over the centuries, a dewed covering of ivy, moss or lichen sparkling after rain, attracting a butterfly’s fireworks. Dust motes are radiant in crevices and other hiding places when the sun strikes: praying mantises, ladybugs, snakes, toads, and other insects rest inside.

So the legend goes, wood sprites and elves will claim ownership, for a stone records the history of forest-dwellers. Before dark settled on our world, fire marked ocean floors, caverns and grottoes, now knobbed and scarred. The stone is a peephole on the cosmos, holding the sun’s heat even as it darkens–remnant of its previous life when the stone was a star.

ask me :: william stafford

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden: and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

the rain-bow :: thomas love peacock

The day has pass’d in storms, though not unmix’d
With transitory calm. The western clouds,
Dissolving slow, unveil the glorious sun,
Majestic in decline. The wat’ry east
Glows with the many-tinted arch of Heav’n.
We hail it as a pledge that brighter skies
Shall bless the coming morn. Thus rolls the day,
The short dark day of life; with tempests thus,
And fleeting sun-shine chequer’d. At its close,
When the dread hour draws near, that bursts all ties,
All commerce with the world, Religion pours
Hope’s fairy-colors on the virtuous mind,
And, like the rain-bow on the ev’ning clouds,
Gives the bright promise that a happier dawn
Shall chase the night and silence of the grave.

what the dead know :: mark kraushaar

They know to keep quiet.
But they would tell you don’t worry.
They would tell you there’s
sloping gentle fields and a marvelous light.
They’d whisper, Mister,
take it easy, they would signal Madam, buy a hat.
They would tell you start again, rent a room, move
forward, breathe a little, read a little,
take a walk, watch your step.
They would tell you God
wears plaid pants, six-eyelet
oxfords, and a wrist watch, Helbros, gold.
They would tell you God’s
a girl in third grade knotting Her shoe.
They would tell you God’s a man with cracked glasses
mowing His yard, or He lives with Lilly,
His wife, and a son named Sal.
They would tell you He works in auto body repair
and plays the guitar.
They would tell you He’s thought up Himself,
that He thinks up botany and basketball,
eczema, mustard, and mayhem.
They would tell you He makes up the malls
and the back-alleys, the droplets, and the tiny specks
and spores, and the long, loud parties
that reach deep into the morning and mean
for someone a meeting, for someone
a mating and for someone a crashed
yellow Chevy and a trip to the joint.
They would say He makes up the frowsy freeways
and the dirty everyday, or that regarding a white cloud
in the shape of a thumbless glove, He thinks up breakfast
with bacon that sizzles and curls on itself like a lie though He
may never speak of this even to Himself.
What do the dead know?
They’ve signed on to keep quiet,
but if they could tell you they would,
and if they could they would comfort you.
They’d tell you, Go on and be happy, try it.
You would.

the waves :: mimi khalvati

Every day the world is beloved by me, the seagull eager
for its perch. I woke this morning to a darkened room,

my soul stabled at the gate. We grow older, quieter,
hearing degrees of movement, distance, and the dead

would listen if they could to the voices of the living
as bedrock listens to the ocean. I listen to the waves,

trying to make them go one, two, one, two, to hear
what Virginia Woolf heard. But she heard it in memory,

darling memory that delineates. One, two, one, two,
and all the variable intervals in between surrendering

to ‘the very integer’ Alice Oswald rhymed with water,
creating a thumb hole through which to see the world.

Light fluctuates and my soul fluctuates like a jellyfish
underwater. My hand throws animal shadows on paper

and there, outlined, is a single goat, black and white,
standing on top of the mountain, like a tiny church.

for you, friend :: ted kooser

this Valentine’s Day, I intend to stand
for as long as I can on a kitchen stool
and hold back the hands of the clock,
so that wherever you are, you may walk
even more lightly in your loveliness;
so that the weak, mid-February sun
(whose chill I will feel from the face
of the clock) cannot in any way
lessen the lights in your hair, and the wind
(whose subtle insistence I will feel
in the minute hand) cannot tighten
the corners of your smile. People
drearily walking the winter streets
will long remember this day:
how they glanced up to see you
there in a storefront window, glorious,
strolling along on the outside of time.

via the writer’s almanac

some feel rain :: joanna klink

Some feel rain. Some feel the beetle startle
in its ghost-part when the bark
slips. Some feel musk. Asleep against
each other in the whiskey dark, scarcely there.
When it falls apart, some feel the moondark air
drop its motes to the patch-thick slopes of
snow. Tiny blinkings of ice from the oak,
a boot-beat that comes and goes, the line of prayer
you can follow from the dusking wind to the snowy owl
it carries. Some feel sunlight
well up in blood-vessels below the skin
and wish there had been less to lose.
Knowing how it could have been, pale maples
drowsing like a second sleep above our temperaments.
Do I imagine there is any place so safe it can’t be
snapped? Some feel the rivers shift,
blue veins through soil, as if the smokestacks were a long
dream of exhalation. The lynx lets its paws
skim the ground in snow and showers.
The wildflowers scatter in warm tints until
the second they are plucked. You can wait
to scrape the ankle-burrs, you can wait until Mercury
the early star underdraws the night and its blackest
districts. And wonder. Why others feel
through coal-thick night that deeply colored garnet
star. Why sparring and pins are all you have.
Why the earth cannot make its way towards you.

the emptiness of man :: joão cabral de melo neto

The emptiness of man is not like
any other: not like an empty coat
or empty sack (things which do not stand up
when empty, such as an empty man),
the emptiness of man is more like fullness
in swollen things which keep on swelling,
the way a sack must feel
that is being filled, or any sack at all.
The emptiness of man, this full emptiness,
is not like a sack of bricks’ emptiness
or a sack of rivets’, it does not have the pulse
that beats in a seed bag or bag of eggs.

The emptiness of man, though it resembles
fullness, and seems all of a piece, actually
is made of nothings, bits of emptiness,
like the sponge, empty when filled,
swollen like the sponge, with air, with empty air;
it has copied its very structure from the sponge,
it is made up in clusters, of bubbles, of non-grapes.
Man’s empty fullness is like a sack
filled with sponges, is filled with emptiness:
man’s emptiness, or swollen emptiness,
or the emptiness that swells by being empty.

(translated by Galway Kinnell)

300 goats :: naomi shihab nye

In icy fields.

Is water flowing in the tank?

Will they huddle together, warm bodies pressing?

(Is it the year of the goat or the sheep?

Scholars debating Chinese zodiac,

follower or leader.)

O lead them to a warm corner,

little ones toward bulkier bodies.

Lead them to the brush, which cuts the icy wind.

Another frigid night swooping down — 

Aren’t you worried about them? I ask my friend,

who lives by herself on the ranch of goats,

far from here near the town of Ozona.

She shrugs, “Not really,

they know what to do. They’re goats.”

want :: joan larkin

She wants a house full of cups and the ghosts
of last century’s lesbians; I want a spotless
apartment, a fast computer. She wants a woodstove,
three cords of ash, an axe; I want
a clean gas flame. She wants a row of jars:
oats, coriander, thick green oil;
I want nothing to store. She wants pomanders,
linens, baby quilts, scrapbooks. She wants Wellesley
reunions. I want gleaming floorboards, the river’s
reflection. She wants shrimp and sweat and salt;
she wants chocolate. I want a raku bowl,
steam rising from rice. She wants goats,
chickens, children. Feeding and weeping. I want
wind from the river freshening cleared rooms.
She wants birthdays, theaters, flags, peonies.
I want words like lasers. She wants a mother’s
tenderness. Touch ancient as the river.
I want a woman’s wit swift as a fox.
She’s in her city, meeting
her deadline; I’m in my mill village out late
with the dog, listening to the pinging wind bells, thinking
of the twelve years of wanting, apart and together.
We’ve kissed all weekend; we want
to drive the hundred miles and try it again.

goofer-dust :: thomas lux

      (dirt stolen from an infant’s grave around midnight)

Do not try to take it from my child’s grave, nor
from the grave
of my childhood,
nor from any infant’s grave I guard—voodoo, juju, boo-hoo rites
calling for it or not! This dust, this dirt, will not
be taken at dawn or noon
or at the dusky time,
and if you approach
this sacred place near midnight,
then I will chop,
one by one, your fingers off
with which you do your harm. Goofer-dust: if you want it,
if you need it, then
erect downwind from a baby’s grave
a fine-meshed net
and gather it
one-half grain, a flaky mote, an infinitesimally small fleck
of a flake at a time
and in such a way
it is given to you
by the day, the wind, the world,
it is given to you, thereby
diminishing the need to steal
this dirt displaced by a child
in a child’s grave.

full moon :: alice oswald

Good God!
What did I dream last night?
I dreamt I was the moon.
I woke and found myself still asleep.

It was like this: my face misted up from inside
And I came and went at will through a little peephole.
I had no voice, no mouth, nothing to express my trouble,
except my shadows leaning downhill, not quite parallel.

Something needs to be said to describe my moonlight.
Almost frost but softer, almost ash but wholer.
Made almost of water, which has strictly speaking
No feature, but a kind of counter-light, call it insight.

Like in woods, when they jostle their hooded shapes,
Their heads congealed together, having murdered each other,
There are moon-beings, sound-beings, such as deer and half-deer
Passing through there, whose eyes can pierce through things.

I was like that: visible invisible visible invisible.
There’s no material as variable as moonlight.
I was climbing, clinging to the underneath of my bones, thinking:
Good God! Who have I been last night?

desired appreciation :: solmaz sharif

Until now, now that I’ve reached my thirties:
All my Muse’s poetry has been harmless:
American and diplomatic: a learned helplessness
Is what psychologists call it: my docile, desired state.
I’ve been largely well-behaved and gracious.
I’ve learned the doctors learned of learned helplessness
By shocking dogs. Eventually we things give up.
Am I grateful to be here? Someone eventually asks
If I love this country. In between the helplessness,
The agents, the nation must administer
A bit of hope: must meet basic dietary needs:
Ensure by tube, by nose, by throat, by other
Orifice. Must fistbump a janitor. Must muss up
Some kid’s hair and let him loose
Around the Oval Office. click click could be cameras
Or the teeth of handcuffs closing to fix
The arms overhead. There must be a doctor on hand
To ensure the shoulders do not dislocate
And there must be Prince’s “Raspberry Beret.”
click click could be Morse code tapped out
Against a coffin wall to the neighboring coffin.
Outside my window, the snow lights cobalt
For a bit at dusk and I’m surprised
Every second of it. I had never seen the country
Like this. Somehow I can’t say yes. This is a beautiful country.
I have not cast my eyes over it before, that is,
In this direction
, is how John Brown put it
When he was put on the scaffold.
I feel like I must muzzle myself,
I told my psychologist.

     “So you feel dangerous?” she said.
     “So you feel like a threat?”
     Why was I so surprised to hear it?

deciphering the alphabet :: francine sterle

Winter advances
leaving its white tracks
bounding over the hills
I climb each December
to get to the river
where velvety shrews,
voles and squirrels
crisscross in the snow,
their claw marks
reminding me of the exquisitely
complicated pattern
I watched an Ojibwe
bite into a birchbark.
(Art as old as the world,
the woman said to me.)

In the origin myth of Eskimos
the first children
sprouted from fertile soil
and, like tender plants,
stayed rooted there,
being nourished by the earth.
No one knows how one boy
and one girl grew into adults
able to walk into the world,
able to meet and marry.

Each tree
was a letter once.
spelled out their secrets
by threading
the proper leaves
in proper order—
Birch tree, Heather leaf,
leaf of the Ash.
A language
you could hold in your hand.
Words that quivered,
turned color in the fall,
that could be taken back,
burned in regret.
Lonely winters
when there was nothing
to say.

From a north window,
the choked river,
a slippery crack of light.
Does my neighbor notice me
crouched down,
my bare fingers exploring
the deer tracks I’ve found,
some chips in the ice?
I wave once,
but she stares
absentmindedly into the cold.
Pure imitation.
The great bored glacier of her face.

How many have known
the endless emptiness
inside an ordered room?
How many, a silence
so profound, inside
and out?

I turn, startled,
as if someone
dogged my steps.
Midday sun
scatters down
among sapling ash.
At my feet, birdtracks
wherever I look.
The only ciphers of the day.
My footprints merge
with the ones laid down here,
my whole body,
heart, lung, muscle,
leaving its trace.

Everything that moves
leaves a story. No story
can exist by itself.

What am I
to the wolf and the rabbit and the fox?
To the songless birds
balancing on branches?
To the solitary pines
dipped in frost?

First the trough
where it plowed forward,
then the wide belly-slide
down the bank,
the musty scent-post,
the scat, the smooth hole
where the otter slipped
through a window in the ice.
Scattered all around,
a wolverine’s fresh tracks,
the slashes where its claws
raked as it slid to a stop.
Stiff gusts of wind
kick up around me.
Twigs and bits of debris
soon mar the tracks.
Before long, the sharp edges
will begin to slump.
By early next week,
everything will be erased,
the immaculate snow
unable to keep the shape
of a single creature.

regret :: louis jenkins

There’s no use in regret. You can’t change anything.
Your mother died unhappy with the way you turned
out. You and your father were not on speaking terms
when he died, and you left your wife for no good
reason. Well, it’s past. You may as well regret missing
out on the conquest of Mexico. That would have been
just your kind of thing back when you were eighteen:
a bunch of murderous Spaniards, out to destroy a
culture and get rich. On the other hand, the Aztecs
were no great shakes either. It’s hard to know whom
to root for in this situation. The Aztecs thought they
had to sacrifice lots of people to keep the sun coming
up every day. And it worked. The sun rose every day.
But it was backbreaking labor, all that sacrificing.
The priests had to call in the royal family to help,
and their neighbors, the gardener, the cooks…. You
can see how this is going to end. You are going to
have your bloody, beating heart ripped out, but you
are going to have to stand in line, in the hot sun, for
hours, waiting your turn.

purple :: alexis rotella

In first grade
Mrs. Lohr said
my purple teepee
wasn’t realistic enough
that purple was no color
for a tent,
that purple was a color
for people who died,
that my drawing
wasn’t good enough to hang
with the others.

I walked back to my seat
counting the swish swish swishes
of my baggy corduroy trousers.
With a black crayon
nightfall came to my purple tent
in the middle of an afternoon.

In second grade
Mr. Barta said draw anything,
he didn’t care what.

I left my paper blank
and when he came around
to my desk
my heart beat like a tom tom.
He touched my head
with his big hand
and in a soft voice said
the snowfall
how clean
and white
and beautiful.

silent letter :: katha pollitt

It’s what you don’t hear
that says struggle
as in wrath and wrack
and wrong and wrench and wrangle.

The noiseless wriggle
of a hooked worm
might be a shiver of pleasure
not a slow writhing

on a scythe from nowhere.
So too the seeming leisure
of a girl alone in her blue
bedroom late at night

who stares at the bitten
end of her pen
and wonders how to write
so that what she writes

stays written.