Category: Poems for These Days

Three Yaddo Poets Affirm the Agency of the Dispossessed

A moment of stillness, a zing of recognition, a window opened on the soul— these are among the rewards of poetry, each of them sorely needed right now. Join us here for an occasional Yaddo series, curated by Soren Stockman.

Roberto Sosa Photo: Evaristo López Rojas

“The Poor” by Roberto Sosa, translated by Spencer Reece

Source: Poetry (March 2012)

Sosa manipulates the expectation that a poem whose subject is “the poor” will flatten the toxic circumstances that enable and sustain poverty into merely a celebration of those who survive it. The lines “They see the buildings / where they wish / they could live with their children” foreground a previously understood, and thereby calming, simplicity. Sosa’s expected lament turns to an unexpected, and almost fearsome, empowerment, as “They / can steady the coffin / of a constellation on their shoulders. / They can wreck / the air.” While the disenfranchised “enter and exit through mirrors of blood,” those who are witness to their dormant power “cannot forget them.” — SS

Eliza Griswold Photo: Antonin Kratochvil

Landay by the poet known as Rahila Muska, translated by Eliza Griswold (pictured)

Source: © 2018 Poetry Foundation

The landay form, in which one nine-syllable line is followed by one thirteen-syllable line, has long folk traditions within the community of Pashtun women across Afghanistan and Pakistan. The lone surviving landay by Rahila Muska (a pseudonym translating to “love smile”), who was beaten after her poetry was discovered, and died after setting herself on fire in protest, appears below in full:

I call. You’re stone.

One day you’ll look and I’ll be gone.

The poem is an alchemy, transforming the vulnerability of her speaker’s unmet needs into power fortified by her own value and authority to answer those needs herself. — SS

Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhrán Photo: Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhrán

“waterssong” by Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhrán

Source: NEA Literature Fellowships » 2019 – Poetry

Bodhrán concentrates on the fluid dynamics of agency, even between seemingly defined subjects. When the boat his speaker occupies “is moved—forward. You move forward,” the two united in action. Retreating to a wider perspective, he writes “this wet orb hurtling through space . . . yet, everything-everything seems still,” emphasizing by virtue of scale the tenuous relation of boat to ocean. He then further convolutes the distinction between the two: “You cross the other side crosses you. You cross over. You arrive; are the arrival.” Ultimately a love poem written to suture two separate people, Bodhrán signals the malleability of all things accepted prematurely as eternal. — SS

Three Yaddo Poets Extol the Strength of Unity

A moment of stillness, a zing of recognition, a window opened on the soul— these are among the rewards of poetry, each of them sorely needed right now. Join us here for an occasional Yaddo series, curated by Soren Stockman.

Jacqueline Jones LaMon Photo: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

“Socratic” by Jacqueline Jones LaMon

Source: Poetry (June 2017)

A community must realize its own power in order to determine an equitable future. Here, a teacher empowers students who “just stare outside at the lot / of parked cars,” demoralized by the question of “how could they / not indict. And why won’t justice ever be / served.” LaMon compares government to “our failed / technology,” two impersonal yet essential entities that ultimately function according to finances and must be directed specifically by exterior humanist concerns. A generation that will not wait for permission to progress no longer requires it. LaMon’s speaker exemplifies this responsibility for her classroom, “tell(ing) them / every true thing I know — that they are / the power who will save what needs saving.” — SS

Etheridge Knight Photo: Indiana Historical Society

“A Fable” by Etheridge Knight

Source: “A Fable” from The Essential Etheridge Knight, by Etheridge Knight, © 1986. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.Source: The Essential Etheridge Knight (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986)

Knight constructs an allegory for the insidious psychological discord of oppression and incarceration. The poem’s characters “were innocent of any crimes; they were in prison / because their skins were black,” a damning scenario the poem takes to be tragically realistic. Knight’s prisoners each advocate disparately for what they identify as “the only way” to get free, be it to “emulate the non-/colored people,” “pray to my god,” “quietly dig,” “follow all the rules,” or “shoot our way out,” each person’s desperation at their captivity driving them to distrust each other’s solutions, and thereby distrust each other. Knight confesses his fear that such an oppressed group, fractured further within itself, is “still arguing . . . in their prison cells, their stomachs / trembling with fear.” — SS

Dolores Kendrick Photo: Darrow Montgomery

“Epoch” by Dolores Kendrick


The late D.C. poet laureate employs dense, compact lines composed of no more than three words each to speak in precise distillations. “We are,” the piece opens in declaration, “flesh and blood / steel and skin / struggling within / a linear light / toward one heartbeat.” Kendrick acknowledges the unquestionable ties that bind us to one another, as well as the difficulty of withstanding those very ties. “Our fragile / dreams that rise / upon a muscle / of memory / and wind” depend on us to share in the vulnerability of others. We must find strength in each other in the service of amending a sorrow not only our own. — SS

Three Yaddo Poets Measure the Length of Empire

A moment of stillness, a zing of recognition, a window opened on the soul— these are among the rewards of poetry, each of them sorely needed right now. Join us here for an occasional Yaddo series, curated by Soren Stockman.

Chet’la Sebree Photo: Kiersten Ness

The Lure” by Chet’la Sebree

Source: Connotation Press, Issue VI, Volume X : July 2019

Sebree’s speaker interrogates the pastoral tranquility essential to the American self-conception first by admitting the lull of its beauty, confessing “I can be seduced by globular street lamps . . . Victorian houses shaded by wax-shine leaves.” Her exclusion from this vision shutters its allure. When “freight trains . . wind through rural central wherever,” we understand she is not at home. Sebree states “I’ve always wanted to write a poem like this,” however these images of land and property belong to wealth available only to a select group. The very symbol decorating this gaudy setting inescapably matches that of her violent denial of entry: “I’ve always wanted to feel safe anywhere, but / there’s chaos in the cloth writhing on the flagpole.” — SS

Tanure Ojaide Photo: Lynn Roberson and courtesy of Tanure Ojaide

“A Poem for My Grandchild” by Tanure Ojaide


Imperialism’s new forms cannot disguise it’s brutal impact. Ojaide’s speaker identifies “crude oil gushing into slave ships / refurbished into free-market super-tankers,” noting profits from the extraction of natural resources never return to those who live on plundered land: “My children have no scholarships . . . the river transformed into a snake of a tomb.” Lamenting the degradation of a country depleted of its rightful wealth by “Marines keep(ing) the pipeline safe” while “villages of imploring eyes . . . are mowed down,” Ojaide concludes “the new Stone Age . . . has begun . . . poaching inland as centuries ago.” — SS

Mari Evans Photo: C.B. Claiborne

“The Rebel” by Mari Evans


The trappings of racism and discrimination are so ingrained, they persist even beyond the realm of the living. Evans speculates “When I / die / I’m sure / I will have a / Big Funeral …” yet the innocuous thought concerning her death turns swiftly to the nefarious framing she cannot elude in her life. Laundering her own language, Evans refers to “Curiosity / seekers” visiting her funeral, evoking a public spectacle of unspeakable cruelty. In clipped lines that betray incredulity to the point of pity, she acknowledges the crowd in her mind is “coming to see / if I / am really / Dead … / or just / trying to make / Trouble.” — SS

Three Yaddo Poets Reclaim Power for the People

A moment of stillness, a zing of recognition, a window opened on the soul— these are among the rewards of poetry, each of them sorely needed right now. Join us here for an occasional Yaddo series, curated by Soren Stockman.

Alice Walker Photo: Ana Elena

“The World We Want Is Us” by Alice Walker

Copyright © 2014 by Alice Walker. Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database

Walker’s speaker addresses a gathering crowd, remarking “It moves my heart to see your awakened faces; / the look of ‘aha!’ / shining, finally,” capturing the warmth of spirit inherent to a demand for collective justice. Walker implores her audience, assembled by a common imagination of a peaceful future, to see their own present actions as the slow fulfillment of that vision: “all of us / refusing to forget / each other.” Efforts to actualize change need to capitalize on the momentum of their progress to further their goals. Walker mirrors this success by fulfilling the promise of her title in the poem’s penultimate line, having steadied her reader to see “the world we want is Us; united.” — SS

Sharan Strange Photo: Don J. Usner

“Streetcorner Church” by Sharan Strange

Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Published in Volume 3, Number 1, Winter 2002.

Strange invokes a divine accountability that communal energy makes possible, particularly when its goal is liberating glory from the purview of a few to the possession of all. Her speaker witnesses a congregation worship outside of its familiar institution, and asks “Is grace delivered / on twilight wings of air?,” a question that becomes rhetorical when she sees that outside, “the ceiling dispatches prayer / straight upstairs.” Strange clarifies that any gatekeepers assigned to any kingdom must, as a direct result of that position, live outside of it. There, they may see that in the celestial close of day, “the sun seeps burgundy, / gone-to-glory behind the altar,” regardless of human boundaries. — SS

Pamela Sneed Photo: Patricia Silva

“Never Again” by Pamela Sneed

Brooklyn Rail, March 2019

History is woven from competing patterns. Sneed retraces the steps of state-sponsored harm, and does not spare the individuals who propagate its legacy. “At the end of every holocaust film I’ve seen,” her speaker is left “wondering how it could have ever happened at all,” before realizing “it is again / as I look at the deportations.” Confronted by a reader over the presence, and therefore value, of race in her poems, Sneed “wanted to scream HELLO haven’t you seen the news? . . . And no one even cares what happens to women/ / Black lesbians or lesbians of color / There’s no public outcry.” We must follow the thread by which “at rallies, at protests, they show the coat hangers . . . women were forced to use.” We must amplify the legacy of resistance over a system of violence. — SS 

Three Yaddo Poets Enlarge the Meaning of Love

A moment of stillness, a zing of recognition, a window opened on the soul— these are among the rewards of poetry, each of them sorely needed right now. Join us here for an occasional Yaddo series, curated by Soren Stockman.

Carolyn Beard Whitlow Photo: Brianna Glenn

“Local Call” by Carolyn Beard Whitlow


To be known is to be loved. Whitlow’s speaker asserts that her worth is superior to her treatment at the hands of an unknown, would-be beloved, noting “You handle me like I’m a local call. / I’m expensive. Long distance.” Taken for granted, Whitlow discerns the exhaustion of insisting upon one’s value to those who “laugh in another language.” Her strength and understanding of self grows in response to this external undermining: “‘Don’t want nobody / don’t want me.’” Though she cannot make another person understand her value, “having never been loved, knowing I don’t know how,” she has found the language by which to assert it herself. — SS

CM Burroughs Photo: Jordan Boyer

“Gwendolyn as Lover” by CM Burroughs

Source: Poetry (June 2017)

Burroughs highlights the sensual humanity of those long entrenched in conflicts of justice. Here, she permits legendary poet and heroic elder Gwendolyn Brooks to be made vulnerable by lust and yearning for the body. When Burroughs asks after “his hands in your hair, your nerves rising kinetically / to the cupola of his palms?,” she salutes the complex simultaneity Brooks endured as a freedom fighter in need of love. In fact, the two personas demand each other, as when Burroughs imagines Brooks “teasing tut-tut in arousing / admonition at what he was after, knowing, as you prepared / to keep him, that you were young yet and gleaning, gleaning.” — SS

Shayla Lawson Photo: Kareem Black

“Strawberry Swing” by Shayla Lawson

Source: Witness, VOL. XXIX NO. 3 (WINTER 2016)

Lawson’s poem opens, “I listen to the guns. They clear / the ground of all its color / & I flirt,” defining an ocean of violence in which her speaker grasps for love like air.  Too often made to choose survival over life, she continues, “For everyone of us // I see die, I take you in . . . I let you go just to keep breathing.” The speaker here experiences intimacy as a spell cast against, and indivisible from, an oncoming brutality. Her fear of becoming “the chalk-drawn street . . . cold in the blood” returns her to “the strawberries // we trowel between our mouths.” At once both in the wake and face of harm, Lawson declares her saving grace to the world as much as to her lover: “I need you / to know: I have // loved; I have love.” — SS

Three Yaddo Poets Dispel False Prophesies

A moment of stillness, a zing of recognition, a window opened on the soul— these are among the rewards of poetry, each of them sorely needed right now. Join us here for an occasional Yaddo series, curated by Soren Stockman.

M. Nzadi Keita Photo: Ryan Collerd

“A in the morning dirt” by M. Nzadi Keita


Keita’s persona poem in the voice of Anna Murray Douglass rings with the authority of Genesis, beginning “my mark / starts the chain / leading all words from crawl,” in reference to her crucial aid in facilitating Fredrick Douglass’s escape from slavery in 1838. Detailing the transcendence of literacy she herself was denied, “A” aligns her acts with “that young man in Bethlehem who / turns storm into hammers . . . seeds / and a world on his tongue.” Keita honors Anna Murray Douglass’s indelible voice in the chorus of Black liberation, “like that Miss Tubman . . . going at the front with God in a thimble.” — SS

Amber Flora Thomas Photo:

“Shed” by Amber Flora Thomas

Copyright © 2013 Amber Flora Thomas. “Shed” originally appeared in Callaloo, Vol. 36, No. 2. Used with permission of the author.

Implicit in Thomas’s visceral atmosphere is the aftermath of an almighty collapse: “She is not afraid of gods. She leaves her skin,” and the ensuing quiet, “an atrium from scalding noon. She treats the dark like a cathedral.” All divinity here caters to the soul, which has survived cruelty cloaked in religion, “the heart working / under every scale to outgrow a fortified spiral . . . No gods are left.” Having persevered against an omnipotent foe, Thomas resolutely imagines the next great work of cleaning up after gods run amok with wrath, and presents the unflinching command: “Dig your brooms into corners.” — SS

Ruth Ellen Kocher Photo: Patricia Colleen Murphy

“We May No Longer Consider the End” by Ruth Ellen Kocher

Copyright © 2018 by Ruth Ellen Kocher. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 19, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

Kocher’s speaker pinpoints the crumbling facade of an imagined innocence, noting “the time of birds died . . . Hope was pro-forma then,” and recounts her upbringing equipping her to persist within the far more deadly reality: “My father . . . gave me my first knife . . . He showed me the proper kind of fist and the sweet spot on the jaw.” Her memory frames the immediate danger she faced as a child, the implacable vulnerability of which no guardian can protect against. “There were probably birds on the long walk home but I don’t / remember them because pastoral is not meant for someone / with a fist in each pocket waiting for a reason.” — SS

Three Yaddo Poets Forge Our Path to Freedom

A moment of stillness, a zing of recognition, a window opened on the soul— these are among the rewards of poetry, each of them sorely needed right now. Join us here for an occasional Yaddo series, curated by Soren Stockman.

Taylor Johnson Photo: Sean D. Henry-Smith

“Trans is against nostalgia” by Taylor Johnson

Source: Four Way Review (Issue 14), 15 November 2018

A trickle of freedom becomes a flood. Johnson prepares themselves accordingly, synchronizing their first step toward liberation with that liberation’s realization. “O New Day, I get to build the boat!,” Johnson exclaims, “I tell myself to live again.” Those most endangered call on those for whom danger is still an imminent idea, and make visible that danger in order to safeguard against it. “Somehow I survived / my loneliness and throwing up in a jail cell . . . I’ve picked up the hammer everyday / and forgiven myself.” We enter into the labors of others and are astonished by their immensity and duration. There, we chisel ourselves free. — SS

Hermine Pinson Photo: Stephen Salpukas

Test for Cognitive Function” by Hermine Pinson

Source: Split This Rock: Poem of the Week, 22 August 2014

Pinson’s speaker understands as a child that the power of community not only begets safe passage through duress, but sustains a legacy. “Mama said, ‘Walk together, children’ was code for / escaping to freedom, walking away,” Pinson writes. Love provokes love beyond its time, connects us to ourselves and others, and clears a space for collective emotion. Those who have fought to make our present fight possible still watch over us now, wistful at our opportunity. “Every season she’s gone / she walks memory’s winding / corridors . . . for safe keeping.” Our heroes continuously redeem the past, and leave the future to us. — SS

Ronaldo V. Wilson Photo: Joel Gregory

“71. Realizing Lucy” by Ronaldo V. Wilson

Copyright © 2016 Ronaldo V. Wilson. Used with permission of the author.

The journey to escape false hierarchies will be as arduous as the wrath with which those hierarchies were ingrained. Wilson’s speaker is witness to “the signal,” which declares this journey necessary, and which he defines by a process of elimination: “It is not the dead bird, lying out flat and face down in the middle of the street, its brown / belly on the pavement . . . It is not in my chest, which opens up in sections as I breathe . . . It is not the breath.” The mountain in front of us is the deadly imagination within, punctuated by fear of the perceived other. We follow the footsteps of those who have emerged. “This summer.” Wilson announces, “I burn off another self, sprinting up the high hill of my own making.” — SS

Three Yaddo Poets Defy the Violence of Injustice

A moment of stillness, a zing of recognition, a window opened on the soul— these are among the rewards of poetry, each of them sorely needed right now. Join us here for an occasional Yaddo series, curated by Soren Stockman.

Elizabeth Alexander Photo: Stan Godlewski, The Washington Post

“Ars Poetica #1,002: A Rally” by Elizabeth Alexander

From Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010 (Graywolf Press, 2010). Copyright © 2010 by Elizabeth Alexander. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Graywolf Press.

Alexander weaves a dreamscape in which the sister realms of poetry and protest crystallize into their natural symbiosis by virtue of the human voice. “I dreamed a pronouncement / about poetry and peace,” she writes, in which her father declares “‘’The true intellectual / speaks truth to power.” Justice is the renunciation of violence that does not respect life. For both individuals and communities who are victims of violence, peace is indivisible from justice. Should justice require the destruction of oppressive systems to build replacements, “Rally // all your strength . . . erecting, destroying.” — SS

“Two Elizas”: Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

After Another Death” by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Copyright © 2019 Connotation Press, Issue VI, Volume X: July 2019.

Noting “something outside was / being hunted,” Griffiths identifies the perpetrator, stating “The father / has been dead a long time. Shadow / at your throat.” Griffiths stages the ominous, inescapable fact of a corrupt legacy of leadership in the quiet of midnight, which she imbues with the suffering it muffles. “We learned / to cry without breathing, the way / some wounds bleed without / our understanding pain.” An inability to protect oneself and one’s community with peaceful protest is beyond comprehension. No chokehold or baton has ever stopped a person from weeping. — SS

Safiya Sinclair Photo: Willy Somma

“Center of the World” by Safiya Sinclair

Source: Poetry (December 2015).

“The meek inherit nothing,” Sinclair begins, her speaker emboldened enough to reprimand “God in his tattered coat,” whose weakness she has seen and felt all too vividly. No more shall authority be self-justified: “I have milked / the stout beast of what you call America; / and wear your men across my chest / like furs.” If there is no virtue in authority, there can be no meekness in tearing that authority down. Where there once was someone subject to absolute power, now “a towering sphinx roams the garden, / her wet dawn devouring.” — SS

Three Yaddo Poets Demand Honor for the Fallen

A moment of stillness, a zing of recognition, a window opened on the soul— these are among the rewards of poetry, each of them sorely needed right now. Join us here for an occasional Yaddo series, curated by Soren Stockman.

Toi Derricotte Photo: Orlando Luis Pardo

“Not Forgotten” by Toi Derricotte

Toi Derricotte, “Not Forgotten” from Tender. Copyright © 1997 by Toi Derricotte. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, Used by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press. Source: Tender (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997)

Grief is a war unto itself, distinct from the fight that precedes loss. Wrenching as it is to consider life beyond heartbreak, Derricotte observes ants honoring their dead: “They carry them off like warriors on their steel / backs  . . . so that every part will be of service.” To derive from unspeakable tragedy the possibility that war will not harm yet another generation is to return to that tragedy a saving grace. “I think of / my husband at his father’s grave—“ she continues, “the name had disappeared . . . he swept it / with his handkerchief to make it clear.” Just as we cannot forget those lost to the fight, we cannot forget those lost to grief, either. — SS

Cyrus Cassells Photo: Hillviews Magazine (2019)

“The World That the Shooter Left Us” by Cyrus Cassells

Copyright © 2018 by Cyrus Cassells. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 30, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

Cassells opens with a warning: “Beware, be clear: the brown man . . . never makes it out of the poem alive.” Nodding to the 21st century’s digital audience, the speaker makes fruitless overtures first to “the far-seeing sages” to redeem “the brusque spectacle of point-blank force.” Unable to escape “the brute, churning / surfaces of the world” that “bear our beloved citizen away—,” Cassells turns finally to the “austere saints / and all-seeing masters” of history, translating their instructions himself. We must turn “the ruse of self-defense / into justice-cries and ballots.” — SS

Langston Hughes Photo: Carl Van Vechten / Carl Van Vechten Trust / Beinecke Library, Yale

“I look at the world” by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes, “I look at the world” from (New Haven: Beinecke Library, Yale University, ) Source: Poetry (January 2009)

“I look at the world,” Hughes’ speaker proclaims, the title’s repetition in the poem’s first line evolving its sentiment into a groundswell of reclamation, “from awakening eyes in a black face—.” Hughes must look through a world crafted for his own downfall to envision the natural world that persecution obscures. After dawn lights “these walls oppression builds,” his newfound sight demands the destruction of cruelty’s facade, a prison from which fellowship is the only way back to what is real: “I see that my own hands can make / the world that’s in my mind. / Then let us hurry, comrades, / the road to find.” — SS

Three Yaddo Poets Nurture a Lineage of Grace

A moment of stillness, a zing of recognition, a window opened on the soul— these are among the rewards of poetry, each of them sorely needed right now. Join us here for an occasional Yaddo series, curated by Soren Stockman.

Dorianne Laux Photo: John Campbell

“Ray at 14” by Dorianne Laux

Poem copyright ©2000 by Dorianne Laux, “Ray at 14,” (Smoke, BOA Editions, 2000. Poem reprinted by permission of BOA Editions, Ltd.

Laux’s speaker is struck by a boy’s “strong face,” a portal she recognizes to her late brother, “who jumped with me from the roof / of the playhouse, my hand in his hand.” These blessings of protection, communion, and joy are woven into a lineage that tragedy cannot tarnish. “I thought he was gone forever,” Laux writes. Our heroes, porous to the melody of an earlier music, received these gifts as we have before passing them on. We too can sustain this legacy: “But Ray runs into the kitchen . . . He says, Feel my muscle, and I do.” — SS

Denise Levertov Photo: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

“The Broken Sandal” by Denise Levertov

“The Broken Sandal” by Denise Levertov, from Poems 1968-1972, copyright © 1970 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Levertov illustrates the slick and steep hill down which the quotidian slips suddenly into catastrophe, as the tangible detail of a broken sandal collapses into its imagined consequences. “The sharp stones, the dirt. I would / hobble,” she laments, “And — / Where was I going?” Yet pain focuses the mind, shaking it loose from ingrained persistence into more valuable questions. To travel in the direction of one’s salvation, one must first stop to identify one’s point of departure. “Where am I standing, if I’m / to stand still now?” — SS

Galway Kinnell Photo: Bobbie Bristol

“The Gray Heron” by Galway Kinnell

From Collected Poems by Galway Kinnell. Copyright © 2017 The Literary Estate of Galway Kinnell. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Should we, as Kinnell’s speaker does, pursue the majesty we favor, and find ourselves instead face to face with “a three-foot-long lizard / in ill-fitting skin,” our unmet expectations may make available a separate grace. No matter the glimpse of glory we swear by, finding its kingdom and our ensuing crown is a lost cause. The unexpected lizard, both alien and prehistoric, bequeaths a magnificent, nimble grace when challenged, “watching me / to see if I would go / or change into something else.” — SS

Three Yaddo Poets Trust in the Everlasting

A moment of stillness, a zing of recognition, a window opened on the soul— these are among the rewards of poetry, each of them sorely needed right now. Join us here for an occasional Yaddo series, curated by Soren Stockman.

Cynthia Cruz Photo: Cynthia Cruz

“Midnight Office” by Cynthia Cruz

Source: Poetry (October 2015)

“The child is not dead,” Cruz begins, as if to say, “you are not guilty.” We clutch more tightly to our angels when they work overtime, like a parent returning home briefly before bed and the next morning’s early work. Those who identify as protectors, their “circle(s) of fire / Maddening around the tree,” surround an intractable loss, and search for a way to “put the word / back into her: / A heavy kind of music.” We stand on the land left to us, and faith rises like roots into our feet. The child free, our prayer builds us deeper into the earth until, becoming another tree in a vast forest, we are surrounded by angels. — SS

Malachi Black Photo: The Amy Clampitt Residency

“Land’s End” by Malachi Black

Source: Horsethief (Issue 7)

Bewildered anew at each first sight of an unknowable world, mornings are a twofold exercise. We blink first into a forgotten landscape before remembering again the bleak outline of the coming day. Black wonders whether we could stretch that window a bit wider. Though “where your warmth was, all / was winter’s paw,” and despite there being “no safety in the world outside / this quilt,” Black’s speaker declares, “Lie here.” If the world has shrunken to a pillow, then to a single “bare thread,” tender are the braids we weave in each other’s hair. Our shriveled lives may fit in the palms of our hands, yet they do thankfully coincide, each of our “fingers cast(ing) an ancient net / into a brightness they can’t hold.” — SS

John Ashbery Photo: Peter Hujar

“How to Continue” by John Ashbery

John Ashbery, “How to Continue” from Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems. Copyright © 2007 by John Ashbery. Reprinted with the permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. on behalf of the author. Source: Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems (The Ecco Press, 2007)

The rhythms we once took for granted carry a jingle in the mind’s constantly replayed commercials for them — a perfect, simple rhyme: “And it was always a party there / always different but very nice / New friends to give you advice / or fall in love with you which is nice.” When the boat of tourists leaves like a dream from sleep, and the “little paths” we’ve worn down are “so startled” by a gale of absence, the past takes on a stubborn life of its own. The trails we’ve taken, unencumbered by the present, may refuse to exit their preferred circumstances, and who could blame them? They took us to the love we look back on now. We continue because we trust the path. — SS 

Three Yaddo Poets Sing in the Dusk

A moment of stillness, a zing of recognition, a window opened on the soul— these are among the rewards of poetry, each of them sorely needed right now. Join us here for an occasional Yaddo series, curated by Soren Stockman.

Joanna Klink Photo: Antonia Wolf

“Auroras” by Joanna Klink

Joanna Klink, “Auroras” from Circadian. Copyright © 2007 by Joanna Klink. Reprinted by permission of Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA), LLC.Source: Circadian (Penguin Books, 2007).

Klink collapses any distinction between the interior and exterior worlds, tracing the contours of our homebound living newly imbued with imagination desperate to fill in the blanks. “It began in a foyer of evenings . . . we moved through a room of leaves,” and the pillars of reality rearrange themselves, wind recrossing rivers “room into room.” As we wait, and stay, and lack, and do not, Klink draws us deeper toward “a wood emptied of trees // It was enough to hollow us out.” We find within ourselves the topography we lack, becoming our own answers when the carousel of questions circles back.  — SS

Mary Jo Bang Photo: Cybele Knowles

“You Know” by Mary Jo Bang

Copyright © 2010 by Mary Jo Bang. Used with permission of the author.

This summer may well string together evenings “laid out like a beach ball gone airless,” as Bang’s opening line coyly suggests we intuitively understand. Her renderings of the feverish mundane spark further recognition – our yet-unknown functionality indivisible from our purgatorial setting: a spectator spectating other spectators, the real game beyond us and somehow already gone. The spell cast for an analog world in which memories themselves substitute for the screens they now occupy, we arrive at “an ever-widening abyss / with a sea on the bottom.” The poem’s title flashing in the reader’s mind like a stop sign before a car crash, “the crowd will quiet when the sea reaches us.” Such memories are often silent films.  — SS

Henri Cole Photo: Claudia Gianvenuti

“Dandelions (II)” by Henri Cole

Source: Poetry (September 2014)

Five sentences resound in one another like a series of nesting bells, their sounds cascading in staggered simultaneity like a painter “getting / the white stems / and blurry seed heads / just right” in a wild field. Suddenly, “‘Nobody there,’ / the new disease / announced, / with black-tie gloom, / ‘nobody there’ / after he’d succumbed.” Cole’s clipped lines echo the fate of “nobody,” ending too soon. The soul here is a tenuous flower, and illness “an insect chorus,” ravaging. Yet the solace of drawing “these dandelions” reflects the value of that very fragility. Cole’s speaker asks them, the embodiment of his own care, to “please take / care of me.” — SS

Three Yaddo Poets Extend Their Hands

A moment of stillness, a zing of recognition, a window opened on the soul— these are among the rewards of poetry, each of them sorely needed right now. Join us here for an occasional Yaddo series, curated by Soren Stockman.

June Jordan Photo: Gwen Phillips

“Poem for Haruko” by June Jordan

June Jordan, “Poem for Haruko” from Directed by Desire. Copyright © 2005 by June Jordan. Reprinted by permission of Copper Canyon Press. Source: Directed by Desire (Copper Canyon Press, 2005)

Jordan’s speaker distinguishes between reminiscing and reliving. She begins “I never thought I’d keep a record of my pain / or happiness.” Though the cause of such mindful transition is at first unclear, the borders of the present moment open, swirling chronology to accommodate as wide a harbor of immediate peace as possible. “But now I do / receive an afternoon of apricots,” and “the low tide” of another’s unthinking touch. “Now I do / relive an evening . . . of lust and tender trembling” in which sensation threw its wild arms in the air. Admitting finally to being “alone and longing for you,” and so in need of time’s sudden simultaneity, she succeeds in ushering it forth: “now I do.” — SS

Patricia Spears Jones Photo: KalaLea

“May Perpetual Light Shine” by Patricia Spears Jones

Copyright © 2017 by Patricia Spears Jones. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 17, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.

Love is the original and persistent pattern threaded into our human days and nights. If our emotional reservoirs may shelter us from “storms / perfect in their drench and wreck,” offering a space in which to hold and calm whatever comes, we owe their grandeur to “love, what can become / the heart’s food stored away for some future / famine.” The night is dark, as is our grief, yet both permit the private sparkles of “stars embracing” far enough away that time cannot reach them. It is not possible to grieve that which we have not loved. It is not possible for love to disappear. — SS

Stanley Kunitz Photo: Lynn Saville

“Touch Me” by Stanley Kunitz

Copyright © 1995 by Stanley Kunitz. All rights reserved. Used by permission. from Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected (W. W. Norton, 1995)

Distress is not necessary to our sense of self burrowing underground. Time’s passing can deepen the hole in which our lives hide without any assistance. “It is my heart that’s late,” Kunitz laments, “it is my song that’s flown.” Below ground, the faintest whispers of the earth are discernible, “the crickets trilling . . . so clear / and brave a music” that “desire, desire, desire” may again stir in us. Tenderness exhumes the spirit, and does not care for it’s battered reasoning, nor for it’s former lack. “Darling, do you remember / the man you married?” asks love. “Touch me,” we answer, “remind me who I am.” — SS

Three Yaddo Poets Bend but do not Bow

A moment of stillness, a zing of recognition, a window opened on the soul— these are among the rewards of poetry, each of them sorely needed right now. Join us here for an occasional Yaddo series, curated by Soren Stockman.

Tomaž Šalamun Photo: Blue Flower Arts

“’Historical brutality’” by Tomaž Šalamun

Source: Poetry (May 2015)

Louise Gluck writes, “At the end of my suffering / there was a door.” Beyond the door are the poems of Tomaž Šalamun, thumbing their noses at wretchedness and pain. There is no sugared coating here; brutality carries with it “a black scepter, silk / wings.” Yet, Šalamun’s speaker defies the sovereignty of hardship and commands it teasingly, deeming brutality no more than a common troublemaker: “Enchant me then, rabble.” Should we be consumed even momentarily, he tells us, may it be on our terms. May we empower ourselves, at least, to taunt history when it steps out of line. — SS

Mary Ruefle Photo: Hannah Ensor

“I Cannot Be Quiet an Hour” by Mary Ruefle

Copyright © 2018 by Mary Ruefle. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 31, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

As the ordinary leans and staggers into the absurd, one’s mind attempts to merge the two. Ruefle charts the variety of forms this attempt takes, her speaker confiding “I begin / to talk to violets. / Tears fall into my soup / and I drink them.” Isolation gathers momentum like dust. Any distinction between projecting humanity onto one’s surroundings, and projecting human pettiness onto them, recedes and grows vague. Mercy means turning the mind from the self to others whose absurdity finds communion with one’s own. Though one may feel alone, the “clock-repairers” attending to their benevolent, unrelenting business next door are “sleeping peacefully at night.” What is broken will be fixed. — SS

Stephen Dunn Photo: Matt Valentine

“The Revolt of the Turtles” by Stephen Dunn

Source: Poetry 180: A Poem a Day for American High Schools, Hosted by Billy Collins, U.S. Poet Laureate, 2001-2003

In Dunn’s telling, the meek inherit the earth but do not stop there. Having restored their collective dignity after enduring “various cruelties / such as turning turtles over on their backs,” our heroes dream of detaching power from punishment, redefining strength as a gentleness that breaks open all the world’s narrow corridors. Dunn’s turtles survive “People Who Among / Other Atrocities Want to Turn You into Soup,” and wish only to extinguish all cruelties. Suffering is not final. “Only fairness, only decency” lasts forever. — SS

Three Yaddo Poets Discover Hidden Comforts

A moment of stillness, a zing of recognition, a window opened on the soul— these are among the rewards of poetry, each of them sorely needed right now. Join us here for an occasional Yaddo series, curated by Soren Stockman.

Olena Kalytiak Davis Photo: Official UK Chapbook Chart

“Not This” by Olena Kalytiak Davis

Olena  Kalytiak Davis, “Not This” from The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems.  Copyright © 2014 by Olena  Kalytiak Davis.  Reprinted by permission of Copper Canyon Press,

Weary of remembering quotidian days unappreciated in their time, and exhausted by the now unrecognizable scale of their freedom? Davis rejects such fantastical recollection, just as she rejects the divergent past — “I am not made of them and they / are through.” Rather, she values the “fevered few days” in which she felt transcendence. We recall the precious few from the unremarkable many. The dry hours of these lethargic days spent inside feel endless, but they are punctuated by heightened moments of respite: a conversation with an old friend, a favorite sandwich, any commiseration at all. — SS

Camille T. Dungy Photo: the Poetry Foundation

“There are these moments of permission” by Camille T. Dungy

Copyright © 2012 by Camille T. Dungy. Used with permission of the author.

It is daunting to be depended on in times of danger, and more so when one cannot guarantee safe passage. Dungy’s speaker occupies “the undrenched intervals” of air within rain through which someone else sleeps soundly, though she understands her protection is nothing more than the negative space of a storm, and not its ending. As “imperceptible” as that distinction may be, Dungy finds her “old self necessary” to imbue even a downpour with something familiar. — SS

Jana Prikryl Photo: Willy Somm

“Pillow” by Jana Prikryl

Jana Prikryl, “Pillow” from The After Party.  Copyright © 2016 by Jana Prikryl.  Used by permission of Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.Source: The After Party (Tim Duggan Books, 2016)

Our pillows are portals to possibilities beyond what presently constrains us. Prikryl captures the immense personification of objects toward which those stuck at home easily drift, especially in the case of those objects that we touch, and with which we are physically intimate in times of solitude. Pillows on which we lay our breathing faces, from which we rise and to which we return, may serve as needed company. As much of interpersonal communication is stricken from the record, Prikryl’s deference to the “truffle(d)” wishes and “stateless” countenance of her bedroom itself brings the comfort of a wider living. — SS

Three Yaddo Poets Light the Torch of Resilience

A moment of stillness, a zing of recognition, a window opened on the soul— these are among the rewards of poetry, each of them sorely needed right now. Join us here for an occasional Yaddo series, curated by Soren Stockman.

Jean Valentine Photo: Max Greenstreet

“Hospital: strange lights” by Jean Valentine

From Little Boat by Jean Valentine. Copyright © 2008 by Jean Valentine. Reprinted with permission of Wesleyan University Press.

We are removed from time, and then thrust back into the coming seconds. We retreat from the mind, and then cascade abruptly into each passing thought. Valentine tracks her speaker’s reconciliation of the bizarre path each hour takes within its natural, linear arrangement. Every step backwards begets a wider perception: “not just the other room, / another frame,” in which each feeling is “blue / or brighter blue.” At the end of both past and future, there is precise, human detail: “you turning and turning my coat buttons.” — SS

Gwendolyn Brooks Photo: Getty Images

“To Prisoners” by Gwendolyn Brooks

From To Disembark (Third World Press, 1981). Copyright © 1981 by Gwendolyn Brooks. Reprinted by consent of Brooks Permissions.

Many of us feel we are “dark gardening / in the vertigo cold,” reaching into the earth, hoping our efforts produce a harvest. Others are reaching madly while the soil poisons their hands. When we care for those most vulnerable among us, wherever they are, we cultivate our own “particular silences” into songs. Brooks is the ferocious ally one never forgets “in the non-cheering dark, / in the many many mornings-after.” Though the “long blows” are indeed devastating, we are endowed with tenderness for one another that is equally fierce. — SS

Mark Strand Photo: Lawrence Schwartzwald

“The Coming of Light” by Mark Strand

Excerpted from The Late Hour by Mark Strand. Copyright © 2002 by Mark Strand. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

The more difficult it becomes to permit oneself even tempered, brief sketches of happiness within a greater dread, the more crucial it is to find those illuminations that may sustain perseverance. “Even this late,” Strand tells us, “the candles are lit.” They warm the air. There are dreams to be remembered and followed, still. Tomorrow, our breath and bones will flare to meet what’s needed. Tonight, there is room for both to rest. — SS

Three Yaddo Poets Find Faith in Stillness

A moment of stillness, a zing of recognition, a window opened on the soul— these are among the rewards of poetry, each of them sorely needed right now. Join us here for an occasional Yaddo series, curated by Soren Stockman.

Jenny Xie Photo: Ben Rosser Photography

“To Be a Good Buddhist Is Ensnarement” by Jenny Xie

Copyright © 2018 by Jenny Xie. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 30, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

When doing what is right means not doing what is wrong, we are stuck by inaction like butterflies pinned under glass. When life feels like the absence of life, restlessness pours over us, disbelieving that to be good is to be passive. Xie teaches that to sustain stillness when there is no identifiable “right” act or word is to persevere under an appetite that cannot be fed. To find food we hadn’t tasted and be nourished differently. To be newly good. — SS

Nick Flynn Photo: Geordie Wood

“forgetting something” by Nick Flynn

Copyright © 2011 by Nick Flynn. Reprinted from The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands with the permission of Graywolf Press.

Intimate bewilderment, and tender fear. Isolated communion, and knowledgeable questions. Flynn’s speaker is declarative within syntactic delirium, like a person putting one foot in front of the other as the sidewalk melts. Nothing is known in the poem but an immense devastation and the hope necessary to withstand it. Not even the other is known. but the future is real. If we cannot carry there all that shines, all that we know, we can carry our knowledge of the shine itself, and the faith that what we have will catch that light. — SS

Patricia Smith Photo: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

“VOODOO V: ENEMY BE GONE” by Patricia Smith

Copyright © 2008 by Patricia Smith. From Blood Dazzler (Coffee House Press, 2008). Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database

There is grace in lending humanity even to an unfeeling enemy, in order to understand our own suffering more clearly. Smith’s collection “Blood Dazzler” harkens back to Hurricane Katrina, the effects of which New Orleans has not yet fully escaped. We look after a storm for what has been taken and what has been left, as though looking directly into the sun. We lend the storm our own emotional landscape, our own human fallibility, because we know that to be generous with our tormenter is to escape some part of its torment, and to return to ourselves that very kindness in our grief. — SS

Three Yaddo Poets Stop Time at the Precipice

A moment of stillness, a zing of recognition, a window opened on the soul— these are among the rewards of poetry, each of them sorely needed right now. Join us here for an occasional Yaddo series, curated by Soren Stockman.

James Baldwin Photo: Ralph Gatti / Getty Images

“Untitled” by James Baldwin

James Baldwin, “Untitled” from Jimmy’s Blues. Copyright © 2014 by The James Baldwin Estate. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press. Source: Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems (Beacon Press, 2014)

Baldwin’s plea for respite in a storm quickly becomes an urgent command for mercy, buoyed by a final statement of his own vulnerability. His deference to a greater power transforms into a reckoning with his own comparative powerlessness, though the two are ultimately intertwined. Accepting what one cannot control coincides with taking all available action. Though we are vulnerable witnesses to the great force of the water’s landing, we are not passive observers. Our vulnerability determines that we step into our own guardianship, and perform the divinity we require. — SS 

Jane Hirshfield Photo: Michael Lionstar

“My Life Was the Size of My Life” by Jane Hirshfield

Originally published in The Beauty (Knopf, 2015); all rights reserved. Copyright © by Jane Hirshfield.

Hirshfield portrays her meandering, unsteady relationship to her own life first by emphasizing it’s indistinguishable banality, before pivoting to her own sudden and voracious embrace of that particular banality as hers. Our lives can seemingly become entirely distinct from ourselves at certain calamitous moments, the intense dislocation of which can feel bewildering even aside from the calamity itself. It is worth remembering the ordinary in extraordinary times. It is worth remembering what is always truly extraordinary. — SS

Marie Howe Photo: Brad Fowler

“Part of Eve’s Discussion” by Marie Howe

From The Good Thief. Copyright © 1988 by Marie Howe. Reprinted by permission of Persea Books, Inc., New York.

Anticipation breeds uncertainty, and motivates the mind to reach for clarity. In “Part of Eve’s Discussion,” Howe invokes the Keatsian notion of negative capability, in which a person may rest within ambiguity, and frames the mythic proportions of an unknown future in modest, everyday circumstances. When fact and reason escape understanding, Howe practices accommodating the unknown, and reminds us that the unknown is our most ancient companion, and will outlast us. — SS