And Words Are All I Have

A poet’s work … to name the unnameable, to point at frauds,
to take sides, start arguments, shape the world,
and stop it from going to sleep.

Salman Rushdie

Pure Poetry


This week I devote to the work of other poets I have come to admire. Their subjects in the pieces I've selected here range from moon exploration and box turtles to suburban lawn care and complex PTSD. And whole worlds in between.

These poets are among so many that inspire me to be better. To try that much harder. To read, and stop, and say out loud, astonished: "Yes, I see now." Their words, their work, compel me to examine the world more closely, to not flinch, and to never look away.

I collect these poems like jewels. Each one, to me, is a brilliantly polished gemstone.

I take delight in sharing them with you here.

After Graduate School
by Valencia Robin

Needless to say I support the forsythia’s war
against the dull colored houses, the beagle
deciphering the infinitely complicated universe
at the bottom of a fence post. I should be gussying up
my resume, I should be dusting off my protestant work ethic,
not walking around the neighborhood loving the peonies
and the lilac bushes, not heading up Shamrock
and spotting Lucia coming down the train tracks. Lucia
who just sold her first story and whose rent is going up,
too, Lucia who says she’s moving to South America to save money,
Lucia, cute twenty-something I wish wasn’t walking down train tracks
alone. I tell her about my niece teaching in China, about the waiter
who built a tiny house in Hawaii, how he saved up, how
he had to call the house a garage to get a building permit.
Someone’s practicing the trumpet, someone’s frying bacon
and once again the wisteria across the street is trying to take over
the nation. Which could use a nice invasion, old growth trees
and sea turtles, every kind of bird marching
on Washington. If I had something in my refrigerator,
if my house didn’t look like the woman who lives there
forgot to water the plants, I’d invite Lucia home,
enjoy another hour of not thinking about not having a job,
about not having a mother to move back in with.
I could pick Lucia’s brain about our circadian rhythms,
about this space between sunrise and sunset,
ask if she’s ever managed to get inside it, the air,
the sky ethereal as all get out—so close
and no ladder in sight.


Zero Gravity
by Eric Gamilanda

The dry basin of the moon must have held
the bones of a race, radiant minerals,
or something devoid of genesis, angel-heavy,
idea-pure. All summer we had waited for it,

our faces off-blue in front of the TV screen.
Nothing could be more ordinary—two figures
digging dirt in outer space—while mother repeated
Neil Armstrong’s words, like a prayer

electronically conveyed. The dunes were lit
like ancient silk, like clandestine pearl.
In the constant lunar night this luminescence
was all we hoped for. A creature unto itself,

it poured into the room like a gradual flood
of lightning, touching every object with the cool burn
of something not quite on fire. If we stepped out
Manila would be blank ether, way station,

a breathless abeyance. It didn’t matter,
at that moment, where our lives would lead:
father would disown one brother,
one sister was going to die. Not yet unhappy,

we were ready to walk on the moon. Reckless
in our need for the possible, we knew
there was no turning back, our bags already packed,
the future a religion we could believe in.


by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian
in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness
as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.


Because the pear tree
is as fluffy-white and absurd as a prize poodle,
and thunder clouds sidle into the blue sky like thieves;
because the maple's new leaves are as tiny
and perfect as the hands of a fetus,
and anyone can see that some toucans
lead secret lives as tulips;
because all the shades of green we've named are not
enough, and over and over we sow the seeds,
and peony buds bulge like bellies pregnant
with overdue babies,
while the lawn mower droning in the distance
aspires to be a hive of bees—
in spring, I should know better, but still—
I want to sink down on my knees.

by Jennifer Stewart Miller


The Neighbor
by Manuel Paul López

"I currently work for the Imperial County Office of Education.
I have already gotten caught three times writing poetry on the job. Oh well."

He cuts his grass three times a week,
Never more, never less.
And sometimes I catch him on his porch at night staring.
Small lump at his center drooping over the elastic of his shorts.
His garage is an immaculate jewelry box.
So much so, that I wouldn't be afraid
To lick a pipe, or rim a corkscrew.
His one car and two pick-up trucks
Glisten in the sun
Sitting on the carport
Like a queen aside the brawn
Of two heavy generals.

I often wonder how he sleeps at night
If he dreams
If he wonders
If he's smelled romance.

He's always outside,
Pestering the soil
The air
The peace
Like the mockingbird
That litters the hood of my car
With shit.

He and his wife hardly speak
Passing each other like two guards in a palace.

As the grass grows and grows.
My mind wanders
What could he have possibly done to her
Or she to him.

What if, I thought, he strayed?
Fucked her best friend on bedsheets
That told the story like a newspaper

Or maybe he socked her one,
Too many times beneath too much makeup
Or maybe he simply did nothing
But watch the grass grow and grow.


Bryant Park at Dusk
by Geoffrey Brock

Floodlights have flared on behind and above
Where I sit in my public chair.
The lawn that had gradually darkened has brightened.
The library windows stare.

I’m alone in a crowd—e pluribus plures.
Far from a family I miss.
I’d almost say I’m lonely, but lonely
Is worse, I recall, than this.

Loneliness is a genuine poverty.
I’m like a man who is flush
But forgot his wallet on the nightstand
When he left for work in a rush,

And now must go without food and coffee
For a few hours more than he’d wish.
That’s all. He still has a wallet. It’s bulging.
It floats through his brain like a fish...

Money for love: a terrible simile,
But maybe it’s fitting here,
A couple of blocks from Madison Avenue
Where commodities are dear,

Where all around me, rich skyscrapers
Woo the impoverished sky,
Having sent on their way the spent commuters
Who stream, uncertain, by—

And as for this whole splurge of a city,
Isn’t money at its heart?
But I’m blathering now. Forgetting my subject.
What I meant to say at the start

Is that I noticed a woman reading
In a chair not far from mine.
Silver-haired, calm, she stirred a hunger
Hard for me to define,

Perhaps because she doesn’t seem lonely.
And what I loved was this:
The way, when dusk had darkened her pages,
As if expecting a kiss,

She closed her eyes and threw her head back,
Book open on her lap.
Perhaps she was thinking about her story,
Or the fall air, or a nap.

I thought she’d leave me then for pastimes
More suited to the dark.
But she is on intimate terms, it seems,
With the rhythms of Bryant Park,

For that’s when the floodlights came on, slowly,
Somewhere far above my need,
And the grass grew green again, and the woman
Reopened her eyes to read.


What He Thought Belly Down, When I was 8 Years Old
by Duriel E. Harris

What he thought belly down, face down on the beige speckled tile floor,
new wax, drill holes where desks had been anchored. Of the shield-thick hovering air.
He could be a ribbon of wax, a thin trail of caulk.
Something left over above his breath and heart sounds he could hear waiting
like a hymn and pipe organs’ stop just before release.
What he thought belly down, face down on the ice
sliding between cars toward the gutter.
Of the rifle smug and steady at his forehead and jittery sawed-off
rushing his wife for her wedding rings. Of the streetlight shadow.
The hydrant hunched in the snow-crusted grass. The salted walk.
His little girl mid-step on the porch and the rod-iron storm door and front door ajar.
When I was 8 years old I thought my father was a monster.
When I was 8 years old I thought my father could fly.
When I was 8 years old I thought my father was a dark room
In a dark house with walls of eyes and teeth and banisters of thick rough skin.
The rooms around him were also monsters and they were tall
As telephone poles with flesh of kerosene and black fire.
Their arms were always open and they surrounded my father,
Keeping him warm for as long as he chose to stand on the earth
Watching me.


The Death of the Box Turtle
by Roy Bentley

I’m pretty sure that when she was dying
and sang “Amazing Grace” to him, she wasn’t
recalling running after him down the long hill
of Comanche Drive, spitting up burst bubbles
of blood from some dark place deep inside her.
He was her grandson. Old Devil, she called him.
The before-and-after photograph of a kid falling
from the top of the playground slide or executing
a dive off a refrigerator-top, educating the knees
of the umpteenth pair of Levi blue jeans
with kneeling in tar and brake fluid blotted
from the carport floor. Once, as a sort of joke,
he tied her apron strings to the slats of her rocker
as she dozed before Search for Tomorrow.
When Bobby—that was his name—was 8 or 9,
he would go out and come in, come in and go out,
slamming doors until there was no escaping him.
And he announced his boredom one afternoon
by jimmying a steel crossbar from a swing set
at the edge of the orchard behind our house
and bludgeoning a turtle to death with it—
where the steel had gone in, a shell fracture
revealed bloody interior curves. Bobby and I
recalled the death of the box turtle years later,
after the other wreckage of childhood
had retracted. We were driving back
from my having read poetry for a good fee
at a university in the Midwest. I was buzzing,
full of Merlot and poached salmon. Nothing
could’ve been further from my mind than
his handiwork come back in the phrase
Granny always liked you best. We were men.
Such things should have been put away long ago,
left to drift like the odor of rotting windfall apples
in orchards at the end of autumn. They hadn’t been.
I want to say the turtle expired easily, bled out,
the beneficiary of some unexpected grace loosed
like manna from the sky over Kettering, Ohio.
Truth is, its going took forever—someone else
had filled in the turtle’s wound with clods of earth,
some plump child perhaps trying to reconstruct something
in his or her image. Maybe some future veterinarian.
I want to say Bobby healed and all that pain fell away,
sloughed like shell a reptile head telescopes in and out of
to touch smell hear see bright Nothing, if nothing else.
But healing is part forgetting, a search for tomorrows.
He didn’t heal. He might have, had the song gone on
and Granny Potter, weak of heart, diabetic, come back
from the country of memory, some “holler”—
up from the deathbed of her terribly important one life.
Which, come to think of it, was what she did,
choosing Bobby to sing to before she died:
her piercing a Capella dirge of “Amazing Grace”
sounding in a hospital room by a creek where turtles
drank (had forever) and trudged off, small,
pitifully slow in the light.


Gods, Monsters, and Complex PTSD
by Elizabeth Train-Brown

I feel unraveled
I feel like scripture
I feel like the words of prophets
torn apart
spread to countries that don’t care
what I have to say.
I feel like taking out the middle man
taking out the writer
the pen
the page
burrowing my face through the undergrowth
slithering through the cracks
of a confession booth
and whispering my sins
through a mouthful of leaves.
I feel like when someone drops a book
in a bath
and a touch of everything written in me
circles the drain
you can dry me
shake your bathwater from my spine
but I will never be the same
and you will always know the difference.
I feel like a woman’s words
in a man’s book.
but in his voice.


Summer Morn in New Hampshire
by Claude McKay

All yesterday it poured, and all night long
I could not sleep; the rain unceasing beat
Upon the shingled roof like a weird song,
Upon the grass like running children’s feet.
And down the mountains by the dark cloud kissed,
Like a strange shape in filmy veiling dressed,
Slid slowly, silently, the wraith-like mist,
And nestled soft against the earth’s wet breast.
But lo, there was a miracle at dawn!
The still air stirred at touch of the faint breeze,
The sun a sheet of gold bequeathed the lawn,
The songsters twittered in the rustling trees.
And all things were transfigured in the day,
But me whom radiant beauty could not move;
For you, more wonderful, were far away,
And I was blind with hunger for your love.


Heavy Summer Rain
by Jane Kenyon

The grasses in the field have toppled,
and in places it seems that a large, now
absent, animal must have passed the night.
The hay will right itself if the day

turns dry. I miss you steadily, painfully.
None of your blustering entrances
or exits, doors swinging wildly
on their hinges, or your huge unconscious
sighs when you read something sad,
like Henry Adams’s letters from Japan,
where he traveled after Clover died.

Everything blooming bows down in the rain:
white irises, red peonies; and the poppies
with their black and secret centers
lie shattered on the lawn.


Angry Women
by Jim Harrison

Women in peignoirs are floating around
the landscape well out of eyesight
let alone reach. They are as palpable
as the ghost of my dog Rose whom I see
on long walks, especially when exhausted
and my half-blind eyes are blurred by cold wind
or sleet or snow. The women we've mistreated
never forgive us nor should they, thus their ghostly
energies thrive at dawn and twilight in this vast
country where any of the mind's movies can be played
against this rumpled wide-screened landscape.
Our souls are travelers. You can tell when your own
is gone, and then these bleak, improbable
visits from others, their dry tears because you were
never what you weren't, so that the world
becomes only what it is, the unforgiving flow
of an unfathomable river. Still they wanted you otherwise,
closer to their dreamchild, just as you imagined
fair maidens tight to you as decals to guide
you toward certainties. The new pup, uncrippled by ideals,
leaps against the fence, leaps at the mountains beyond.


I Think About Him Drowning
by Miller Oberman

The wind is loud on the water today
I think about him drowning
I walk to the store for a bottle
of wine I think about him drowning
I read to Rosie before nap
in the rocker where he’s drowning
I make her a peanut-butter sandwich
cut in triangles think about him drowning
I rinse her little blue plate and spoon
in cool water where he’s drowning
I get up to pee in the night
with the light off and he’s drowning
An old woman throws crusts to gulls
in their descent I see him drowning
Wondering if there’s a word for how birds
all move together drowning
Thinking about my father thinking about him
drowning I think about him drowning

train by Hopper
I am here, listening. Share your own stories with me, gentle reader.
pencil drawing red heart
tricia handwritten signature

I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions
of prose and poetry; that is prose; words in their best order; –
the best words in the best order.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The painting above, entitled Compartment C,
is by Edward Hopper (1882-1967).

Recent Post


Simply too good not to share.. Bioluminescence There’s a dark so deep beneath the sea the creatures beget their own light. This feat, this fact of adaptation, I could say, is beautiful though the creatures are hideous. Lanternfish. Hatchetfish. Viperfish. I, not unlike them, forfeited beauty to glimpse the world hidden by eternal darkness. I subsisted on falling matter, unaware …
Jello 🌊

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The Music of Leaving - Tricia McCallum

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