We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” “Answer. That you are here — that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?” — John Keating (Robin Williams), Dead Poets Society


10 Notable Poems

Ask Me” by 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.


Getting It Right” by Matthew Dickman:

Your ankles make me want to party,

want to sit and beg and roll over

under a pair of riding boots with your ankles

hidden inside, sweating beneath the black tooled leather;

they make me wish it was my birthday

so I could blow out their candles, have them hung

over my shoulders like two bags

full of money. Your ankles are two monster-truck engines

but smaller and lighter and sexier

than a saucer with warm milk licking the outside edge;

they make me want to sing, make me

want to take them home and feed them pasta,

I want to punish them for being bad

and then hold them all night long and say I’m sorry, sugar, darling,

it will never happen again, not

in a million years. Your thighs make me quiet. Make me want to be

hurled into the air like a cannonball

and pulled down again like someone being pulled into a van.

Your thighs are two boats burned out

of redwood trees. I want to go sailing. Your thighs, the long breath of them

under the blue denim of your high-end jeans,

could starve me to death, could make me cry and cry.

Your ass is a shopping mall at Christmas,

a holy place, a hill I fell in love with once

when I was falling in love with hills.

Your ass is a string quartet,

the northern lights tucked tightly into bed

between a high-count-of-cotton sheets.

Your back is the back of a river full of fish;

I have my tackle and tackle box. You only have to say the word.

Your back, a letter I have been writing for fifteen years, a smooth stone,

a moan someone makes when his hair is pulled, your back

like a warm tongue at rest, a tongue with a tab of acid on top; your spine

is an alphabet, a ladder of celestial proportions.

When I place my fingers along it there isn’t an instrument in the world

I’d rather be playing. It’s a map of the world, a time line,

I am navigating the North and South of it.

Your armpits are beehives, they make me want

to spin wool, want to pour a glass of whiskey, your armpits dripping their honey,

their heat, their inexhaustible love-making dark.

Your arms are the arms of nations, they hail me like a cab.

I am bright yellow for them.

I am always thinking about them,

resting at your side or high in the air when I’m pulling off your shirt. Your arms

of blue and ice with the blood running

through them. Close enough to your shoulders

to make them believe in God. Your shoulders

make me want to raise an arm and burn down the Capitol. They sing

to each other underneath your turquoise slope-neck blouse.

Each is a separate bowl of rice

steaming and covered in soy sauce. Your neck

is a skyscraper of erotic adult videos, a swan and a ballet

and a throaty elevator

made of light. Your neck

is a scrim of wet silk that guides the dead into the hours of Heaven.

It makes me want to die, your mouth, which is the mouth of everything

worth saying. It’s abalone and coral reef. Your mouth,

which opens like the legs of astronauts

who disconnect their safety lines and ride their stars into the billion and one

voting districts of the Milky Way.

Darling, you’re my President; I want to get this right!


Head, Heart” by Lydia Davis:

Heart weeps.

Head tries to help heart.

Head tells heart how it is, again:

You will lose the ones you love. They will all go.

But even the earth will go, someday.

Heart feels better, then.

But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart.

Heart is so new to this.

I want them back, says heart.

Head is all heart has.

Help, head. Help heart.


The Old Poet, Dying” by August Kleinzahler:

He looks eerily young,

what’s left of him,

purged, somehow, back into boyhood.

It is difficult not to watch

the movie on TV at the foot of his bed,

40″ color screen,

a jailhouse dolly psychodrama:

truncheons and dirty shower scenes.

I recognize one of the actresses,

now a famous lesbian,

clearly an early B-movie role.

The black nurse says “Oh dear”

during the beatings.

– TV in this town is crap , he says.

His voice is very faint.

He leans toward me,

sliding further and further,

until the nurse has to straighten him out,

scolding him gently.

He reaches out for my hand.

The sudden intimacy rattles me.

He is telling a story.

Two, actually,

and at some point they blend together.

There are rivers and trains,

Oxford and a town near Hamburg.

Also, the night train to Milan

and a lovely Italian breakfast.

The river in Oxford-

he can’t remember the name;

but the birds and fritillaria in bloom …

He remembers the purple flowers

and a plate of gingerbread cookies

set out at one of the colleges.

He gasps to remember those cookies.

How surprised he must have been

by the largesse,

and hungry, too.

– He’s drifting in and out:

I can hear the nurse

on the phone from the other room.

He has been remembering Europe for me.

Exhausted, he lies quiet for a time.

– There’s nothing better than a good pee ,

he says and begins to fade.

He seems very close to death.

Perhaps in a moment, perhaps a week.

Then awakes.

Every patch of story, no matter how fuddled,

resolves into a drollery.

He will perish, I imagine,

en route to a drollery.

Although his poems,

little kinetic snapshots of trees and light,

so denuded of personality

and delicately made

that irony of any sort

would stand out

like a pile of steaming cow flop

on a parquet floor.

We are in a great metropolis

that rises heroically from the American prairie:

a baronial home,

the finest of neighborhoods,

its broad streets nearly empty

on a Saturday afternoon,

here and there a redbud in bloom.

Even in health,

a man so modest and soft-spoken

as to be invisible

among others, in a room of almost any size.

It was, I think, a kind of hardship.

– Have you met what’s-his-name yet?

he asks.

You know who I mean,

the big shot.

-Yes , I tell him, I have.

-You know that poem of his?

Everyone knows that poem

where he’s sitting indoors by the fire

and it’s snowing outside

and he suddenly feels a snowflake

on his wrist?

He pauses and begins to nod off.

I remember now the name of the river

he was after, the Cherwell,

with its naked dons, The Parson’s Pleasure.

There’s a fiercesome catfight

on the TV, with blondie catching hell

from the chicana.

He comes round again and turns to me,

leaning close,

– Well, of course , he says,

taking my hand,

his eyes narrowing with malice and delight:

– That’s not going to be just any old snowflake,

now, is it?


Poem for Everyman” by John Woods:

I will present you

parts of my self slowly

if you are patient and tender

I will open drawers that mostly stay closed

and bring out places and people and things sounds and smells,

loves and frustrations, hope and sadnesses,

bits and pieces of three decades of life

that have been grabbed off in chunks

and found lying in my hands that have eaten

their way into my memory,

carved their way into

my heart,

— altogether you or I will never see them

they are me,

if you regard them lightly,

deny that they are important

or worse, judge them

I will quietly, slowly,

begin to wrap them up,

in small pieces of velvet, like worn silver and gold jewelry,

tuck them away

in a small wooden chest of drawers

and close.


Ray” by Hayden Caruth:

How many guys are sitting at their kitchen tables

right now, one-thirty in the morning, this same

time, eating a piece of pie? – that’s what I

wondered. A big piece of pie, because I’d just

finished reading Ray’s last book. Not good pie,

not like my mother or my wife could’ve

made, but an ordinary pie I’d just bought, being

alone, at the Tops Market two hours ago. And how

many had water in their eyes? Because of Ray’s

book and especially those last poems written

after he knew: the one about the doctor telling

him, the one where he and Tess go down to

Reno to get married before it happens and shoot

some craps on the dark baize tables, the one

called “After-Glow” about the little light in the

sky after the sun sets. I can just hear him,

if he were still here and this were somebody

else’s book, saying, “Jesus,” saying, “This

is the saddest son of a bitch of a book I’ve

read in a long time,” saying, “A real long time.”

And the thing is, he knew we’d be saying this

about his book, he could just hear us saying it,

and in some part of him he was glad! He

really was. What crazies we writers are

our heads full of language like buckets of minnows

standing in the moonlight on a dock. Ray

was a good writer, a wonderful writer, and his

poems are good, most of them and they made me

cry, there at my kitchen table with my head down,

me, a sixty-seven-year-old galoot, an old fool

because all old men are fools, they have to be,

shoveling big jagged chunks of that ordinary pie

into my mouth, and the water falling from my eyes

onto the pie, the plate, my hand, little speckles

shining in the light, brightening the colors, and I

ate that goddamn pie, and it tasted good to me.


Table Talk” by Billy Collins:

Not long after we had sat down to dinner

at a long table in a restaurant in Chicago

and were deeply engrossed in the heavy menus,

one of us–a bearded man with a colorful tie–

asked if any one of us had ever considered

applying the paradoxes of Zeno to the martyrdom of St. Sebastian.

The differences between these two figures

were much more striking than the differences

between the Cornish hen and the trout amandine

I was wavering between, so I looked up and closed my menu.

If, the man with the tie continued,

an object moving through space

will never reach its destination because it is always

limited to cutting the distance to its goal in half,

then it turns out that St. Sebastian did not die

from the wounds inflicted by the arrows.

No, the cause of death was fright at the spectacle of their endless approach.

St. Sebastian, according to Zeno, would have died of a heart attack.

I think Ill have the trout, I told the waiter,

for it was now my turn to order,

but all through the elegant dinner

I kept thinking of the arrows forever nearing

the pale, quivering flesh of St. Sebastian

a fleet of them perpetually halving the tiny distances

to his body, tied to a post with rope,

even after the archers had packed it in and gone home.

And I thought of the bullet never reaching

the wife of William Burroughs, an apple trembling on her head,

the tossed acid never getting to the face of that girl,

and the Oldsmobile never knocking my, dog into a ditch.

The theories of Zeno floated above the table

like thought balloons from the fifth century before Christ,

yet my fork continued to arrive at my mouth

delivering morsels of asparagus and crusted fish,

and after we all talked and ate and lifted our glasses,

we left the restaurant and said goodbye on the street

then walked our separate ways in the world where things do arrive,

where people get where they are going–

where the train pulls into the station in a cloud of vapor,

where geese land with a splash to the surface of the lake,

and the one you love crosses the room and arrives in your arms–

and, yes, where sharp arrows will pierce a torso,

splattering the groin and the bare feet of the saint,

that popular subject of European religious painting.

One hagiographer compared him to a hedgehog bristling with quills.


Why I Opted for the More Expensive Oil at Jiffy Lube” by Julie Price Pinkert:

This one is better for a car as old as yours, he says.

It won’t glob up, he says. And spring is almost here,

so of course you need a thicker oil.

And I say, So with this good oil my car will run better

and it’ll be washed and waxed every time I get in it?

Yes, he says. And you’ll never have to put another drop of gas in it.

And when I start the car, a big bag of money will appear in the back seat?

Yes, he says. And cash will shoot out your exhaust pipe

and people will be glad when they see you coming.

And will I look rested? Like I’ve gotten plenty of sleep every night?

That goes without saying, he says.

And when I roll over in bed and look at the man

who says he loves me, will I finally believe he loves me?

You, he says, won’t be able to believe anything else. Your heart

will soak up the goodness and you will smile and beam and sigh

like a pig in mud.

And what about my parents? I ask. Will this oil keep them from dying?

They’re very old.

Let’s call them and tell them the happy news, he says.


Wild, Wild” by Mary Oliver:

I want to make poems that say right out, plainly,

what I mean, that don’t go looking for the

laces of elaboration, puffed sleeves. I want to

keep close and use often words like

heavy, heart, joy, soon, and to cherish

the question mark and her bold sister

the dash. I want to write with quiet hands. I

want to write while crossing the fields that are

fresh with daisies and everlasting and the

ordinary grass. I want to make poems while thinking of

the bread of heaven and the

cup of astonishment; let them be

songs in which nothing is neglected,

not a hope, not a promise. I want to make poems

that look into the earth and the heavens

and see the unseeable. I want them to honor

both the heart of faith, and the light of the world;

the gladness that says, without any words, everything.


“Even After All This Time” by Hafiz:

All this time
The Sun never says to the Earth,

You owe me.

What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the whole sky.

© Rugger Burke, 2018