Category Archives: Reading

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Hello, all!

Pack your bags!! Update your bookmarks!! My blog has upgraded and moved to a new location. I hope you all will follow; you have been such a supportive community.

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Reading Poems—The Art of Dabbling

Sometimes—particularly when life feels a little too busy, or the days need a little more structure (like the summer!)—I find myself immersed in the art of what I’ve come to call “dabbling.” This might mean simply browsing around on Google, or the newest Best American Poetry, specifically looking at names I do not recognize in the literary magazines I’m subscribed to, or following VerseDaily and Poem-A-Day. . . But the whole point during one of these phases is to be exposed, at least minimally, to as many new poems AND poets (whether “new” or “new to me” is not the concern) as possible.

I have this somewhat-romantic expectation that the great poets, whether those who are widely-defined as “great,” or those I personally aspire to, perform this act of dabbling on a regular basis—digging through all the voices and names and topics for that new talent, that voice that is particularly fresh, that “move” in a poem that is especially invigorating. It’s an act that I truly aspire to transform into a habit, because these phases of dabbling feel like the moments when I am learning the most, when I am the most open to change and new attempts in my work and reading; and I imagine this sort of constant flux is what keeps some of the greats so many steps ahead of the rest. . .

Below, I have included four poems that I have found particularly interesting lately via Poem-A-Day, as well as a few closing thoughts of what these four have taught me lately.





Saturn seems habitual,
The way it rages in the sky
When we’re not looking.
On this note, the trees still sing
To me, and I long for this
Mottled world. Patterns
Of the lamplight on this leather,
The sun, listening.
My brother, my sister,
I was born to tell you certain
Things, even if no one
Really listens. Give it back
To me, as the bird takes up
The whole sky, ruined with
Nightfall. If I can remember
The words in the storm,
I will be well enough to sit
Here with you a little while.







I have faith in the single glossy capsule of a butterfly egg.
I have faith in the way a wasp nest is never quiet

and never wants to be. I have faith that the pile of forty
painted turtles balanced on top of each other will not fall

as the whole messy mass makes a scrabble-run
for the creek and away from a fox’s muddy paws.

I have been thinking of you on these moonless nights—
nights so full of blue fur and needle-whiskers, I don’t dare

linger outside for long. I wonder if scientists could classify
us a binary star—something like Albireo, four-hundred

light years away. I love that this star is actually two—
one blue, one gold, circling each other, never touching—

a single star soldered and edged in two colors if you spy it
on a clear night in July. And if this evening, wherever you are,

brings you face to face with a raccoon or possum—
be careful of the teeth and all that wet bite.

During the darkest part of the night, teeth grow longer
in their mouths. And if the oleander spins you still

another way—take a turn and follow it. It will help you avoid
the spun-light sky, what singularity we might’ve become.







All summer
it was on fire
I was as always
in California,
looking out my window,
discovering nothing,
then flying back
east far
above those forests
filled with black
smoke to feel
again that way
I will keep
failing to name.
O the same mistakes
O the mythical
different results.
It’s true one day
I walked a ridge
saw a hawk
read three letters
by Keats, bought
some postcards
I will never send,
and in a blue
scrawl made
a list then fell
asleep holding
volume twelve
of the old
some stranger
sent to fill
me with pictures
and information
about that land
where no president
has ever been born.
I woke wanting
so much to go
inside the mountain
they call
The Cabinet
to find
a few bats
and the daughter
of the chambers
drawing ibex
on the walls
so I can ask
her how soon
and in what manner
we will join them.







     Sunday mornings I would reach
high into his dark closet while standing
     on a chair and tiptoeing reach
higher, touching, sometimes fumbling
     the soft crowns and imagine
I was in a forest, wind hymning
     through pines, where the musky scent
of rain clinging to damp earth was
     his scent I loved, lingering on
bands, leather, and on the inner silk
     crowns where I would smell his
hair and almost think I was being
     held, or climbing a tree, touching
the yellow fruit, leaves whose scent
     was that of a clove in the godsome
air, as now, thinking of his fabulous
     sleep, I stand on this canyon floor
and watch light slowly close
     on water I’m not sure is there.




In this particular batch of poems, I have read each of the writers before, but what became so interesting to me was what each of these poems were able to teach me about these writers—the involvement with image, the influence of the familial (and certainly the philosophical—inviting the outside in), the sharpness of voice and persona, the complication of image against content, that juxtaposition.

They’re beautiful, these poems, and what they offer. Perhaps what is even more beautiful is the chance under which I read them: for the first time, in this particular order, back-to-back-to-back, allowing these voices and images to influence and transpose upon one another.

That is the sharpest beauty of dabbling: that chance.

The sort of poem that might arrive, after reading these in quick succession, could be beautiful. And better, it could be striking. At least that’s one of my greatest hopes.


Reading Joan Aleshire


all came with gifts to the birth:
one with laughter, one with strength,
one with luck, one with love,
one with grace, one with hope,
one with imagination, one with insight,
one with health, one with keen senses,
one with will, and one—
angry with the others or with
my mother, who didn’t believe
in fairy godmothers, took half
my fingers, twisted both my arms.



The only sign on the Certificate of Birth
of something not quite right: the note
in an angular, stiff—unlike my mother’s
generous, round—script: Please Do Not Visit.

And under Trade, profession or particular kind
of work done, as housekeeper, typist, nurse,
clerk, etc
.—the only work women might do—
comes Housewife, in the same awkward,
unfamiliar hand. Under Industry or business
in which work was done, as own home,
lawyer’s office, silk mill, etc
.—which further
dates the document—the writer’s put Home.
Under Total time (years) spent in this work,
she’s written Life, as if she never was a child.

At the end, in the blank after: I hereby
certify to the birth of this child,
who was
______________, the writer’s marked,
in a firm, round, close-to-my-mother’s
usual script, as if her head has cleared
against the official world, her hand steadied,
Alive, this 18th day of March, 1938.



She wouldn’t have taken that
first photograph of me—a few days old,
swaddled in a blanket so neither hands
nor feet appear, lying separate, alone
on a floor in a triangle of light,
with shadows deep as black curtains
framing it on either side and almost
hiding the nurse-like figure who hovers
in a kind but helpless way nearby.
It’s as if I’m being judged,
about to be left there.


all from Joan Aleshire’s Happily (Tribeca: Four Way Books, 2012)


Reading Frank Stanford


He jumps up high
against the night,
rattling his gills
and the hooks
in his back.
The Indian says
he is like a goose
passing in front
of the moon.



There was always a great darkness

moving out
like a forest of arrows

So many ships in the past

their bows bearing women
as stalks bear eyes

The burning ships

that drove their bowspirits
between the thighs of dreams

With my ear to the ground
I heard the black prows coming

plowing the night
into water

and the wind comes up
and I smell the sour wood

leaving a wake I want to be
left alone with

Night after night

like a sleeping knife that runs deep
through the belly

the tomb ships come




If I press
on its head,
the eyes
will come out
like stars.
The ripples
it makes
can move
the moon.



I was thinking about back then
before I thought I
heard chords on a flute
when there was no young bird
beating its wings inside my belly
no light in my eyes
This was long ago
before the wise shadows
of the fantoccini
commanded the land
when the moon
was the blind eye of a fish
in the back of a cave



The movie has not begun.
Girls from a private school
are forming their lines.
They have long socks on,
tweed skirts, blue weskits,
berets. The colors
of God and their school
are sewn in their scarfs.

My money and my hand
are in a machine.
The cup does not come down,
but the ice and cola do.
I make a cup with my hands.

They stand there, moving
in one direction
like does in clover.
The nun tells them to form.

Why are they afraid of me?

I am holding my hands together
like a gloveless hunter
drinking water in the morning
or calling up owls in the forest;
I am holding my hands together
like a hunter in winter
with his hands in the water
washing away the blood.

Outside, a man with a lunch box
walks past the marquee.
His new stamps
fly out of his hands;
orange triangles from San Salvador
fly into the traffic.
I am holding my hands
like the nun.

Then fly over Front Street.
He is looking up;
other people are looking up.
The stamps tremble
like the butterflies
from the Yazoo Basin
stuck to the radiator
of my father’s car.

The girls are in the seventh grade.
The backs of their thighs
and their foreheads are damp.

What are they learning?
Ballet? French?

The nun is on her toes.

Their booties dance
in the leotards,
rounding out like the moon.
They are making a debut.

The girls are following the nun
into the dark.
The movie is beginning.
The lid on the machine
comes down like a guillotine.


all from Frank Stanford’s The Singing Knives (Lost Roads Publishing Company, Number 18, 1979)


Reading Matthew Dickman


When grief comes to you as a purple gorilla
you must count yourself lucky.
You must offer her what’s left
of your dinner, the book you were trying to finish
you must put aside
and make her a place to sit at the foot of your bed,
her eyes moving from the clock
to the television and back again.
I am not afraid. She has been here before
and now I can recognize her gait
as she approaches the house.
Some nights, when I know she’s coming,
I unlock the door, lie down on my back,
and count her steps
from the street to the porch.
Tonight she brings a pencil and a ream of paper,
tells me to write down
everyone I have ever known
and we separate them between the living and the dead
so she can pick each name at random.
I play her favorite Willie Nelson album
because she misses Texas
but I don’t ask why.
She hums a little,
the way my brother does when he gardens.
We sit for an hour
while she tells me how unreasonable I’ve been,
crying in the check-out line,
refusing to eat, refusing to shower,
all the smoking and all the drinking.
Eventually she puts one of her heavy
purple arms around me, leans
her head against mine,
and all of a sudden things are feeling romantic.
So I tell her,
things are feeling romantic.
She pulls another name, this time
from the dead
and turns to me in that way that parents do
so you feel embarrassed or ashamed of something.
Romantic? She says,
reading the name out loud, slowly
so I am aware of each syllable
wrapping around the bones like new muscle,
the sound of that person’s body
and how reckless it is,
how careless that his name is in one pile and not the other.



Because Laura was driving I was free
to take pictures of the cows who looked so close
when I pushed down my index finger, making the camera
click. Those slow giants, I thought
they’d come out glossy and huge like the tasteless
strawberries people grow in California,
but they didn’t, they came out small like the wild ones
in Oregon, in someone’s backyard
next to the tomato and rosemary.
This was along the coast, the cows with their souls
mooing away in their hearts
like the wind in old westerns
you might have seen when you were young and it forever shook
you to tears or made you love
someone you’d never known. Those big-hearted cows,
black and white gods chewing the grass
of America, making milk or making meat
I don’t know which, but making something there
on the hillside. I was looking out
toward the ocean where the whales were hiding, orbiting
along some aquatic jet-stream like dark planets,
and I was looking into the rear-view mirror as well,
where Laura’s eyes were looking at me, both of us
so close to the cows and the sea
at the same time, reminding me
of an India I read about
where kindness is called Ahimsa
though it could be something else, something like a red balloon
or an open hand. I often take pictures of people or animals
so when they’re gone I can remind myself
that they’re real, that I have proven the unprovable fact
that not only do I have a heart
but it grows like a sentimental chrysanthemum
my parents planted in the seventies
while their friends were flying helicopters over what was left
of Saigon. I don’t know why
I miss the cows so deeply, why
when I look at the picture and they appear so small
I want to cry. Loss is a funny thing to feel
when you never knew the thing you miss. But I suppose
I loved the cows, my irrational heart
blowing open the doors of the schmaltzy saloon
where my feelings stay up late
drinking scotch, listening to old punk records,
which aren’t even old
in the fossil-universe-space-station we live in.
Maybe it was Laura making everything
sublime with her red hair doing crazy things, the window
rolled down, the salt in the air.
The night before we had driven down a little road
with the stars and the fences
and I knew I was living my life
there in the car, looking out
but not knowing if it was the ocean or the hills.
Sometimes, when you’re driving in the dark,
you can be anywhere, you can turn
the headlights off and bend toward hope and happiness and the good
stuff about death. Death! My favorite kind
of fear. I think about it whenever I fly
and whenever something good happens I give it a little kiss.
If I were more like the cows
it wouldn’t matter. But it’s good to be human and have
a little fear tucked away in some corner of my body,
in the orange bathtub at the B&B
where I had death hiding in my left hand,
where I brought the washcloth up
and felt the water running down her shoulders,
burning a candle in the room
and Laura in or out of her clothes.
I had never thought about the life
expectancy of cows or how they would make me feel
Elysian, that they would mean so much,
that I would even suffer
because of my great feelings for them or that I would dream about Laura
the night I came home, and in it
she would be sitting near me in a theater where we had gone to see
a movie about Sweden we both loved in different ways.


both from Matthew Dickman’s All-American Poem (Philadelphia: The American Poetry Review/Copper Canyon Press/Consortium, 2008)


Reading Mary Ruefle


The empty, almost weightless, onionated brain.
Planet-on-a-branch. The first lantern to glow in space
when Wang Bo thought, I’ll look a little closer
I’ll lift this flame inside
His footsteps. His panting. His words
of announcement: how beautiful, how useful.
Not knowing what to say. Not knowing which would please
his boss. The distinct possibility of execution.
Thirteen months of his life already lost watching.
The secretions. The daily layer. The idea of doing it
himself. But who would believe such a thing?
To build a house out of paper and then abandon it.



Happy the sad friends who look into the bright water
as into a dirty mirror:
they do not see themselves
and all is well.
The fish go slipping by. They seem to leave their scales
upon the water.
I say there is a word for it
and it is not shimmer.
We argue over this.
We cut the trout, wrinkled and gold.
We cut the cheese, wrinkled and yellow.
We finish the bottle.
The light pours down on our faces,
on the crumbs at the end of our lips.
Shen Fu was a conspicuous failure—
who could argue?—yet once he saw
how rare the world is,
he ceased to live in vain.



When I was a boy
a young man from our village
was missing for three days.
My father, my uncle and I
went looking for him in a cart
drawn by our horse, Samuel.
We went deep into the swamp
where we found three petrified trees,
gigantic and glorious. From them
we make beautiful cabinets,
polished like glass.



Anything above a primer would split my head today.
In the catalogue, two women in a field are wearing
two colors called appaloosa and wild potato, and seem to be
relaxed, waiting for a monsoon, and when I turn the page
it is raining and they are in a room, apparently without
furniture, having changed into whirlpool and minnow.
The room bothers me. I try to imagine a lawn without grass.
The women seem happy enough, not quite the happiness
of saints, but still—they deserve some credit.
I wonder if they are at that point in their lives when everyone
starts to say I love you whenever they say goodbye?
I wonder if they live up to their reputation of being
each other’s best friend?
One of them gives me a look which says she’s too young
to know what I mean. The other one gives me a look
I can only describe as assuming I have no valves in my heart.
I try to remain reasonable. After all, I’m anxious to get
to know them. But later on, after the rain has stopped, after
we are on some kind of balcony overlooking a chateau,
wearing chalice and gossamer, I can see that it’s useless.
I’m not expected to choose between them. I’m supposed to want
them both. I’m expected to want a change of air in paradise
and a change of angels, too. Someone has invented happiness.
I’m not expected to be bored. That’s why they look at me
with disbelief. That’s why I love their feet.



The empty grocery cart is beginning to roll
across the empty parking lot. It’s beginning to act
like Marlon Brando might if no one were watching.
It’s a joyous sight, but it might not end all that
happily, the way someone light in the head
does something charming and winds up dead.
My thoughts are so heavy, you couldn’t lift
the bier. They are so light and stray so far
someone in a uniform wants to bring them in.
The world might be in agony, but I don’t think so.
Somewhere a woman is swathed in black veils
and smiling too. It might be the eve of her baptism,
the day after her son hit a pole.
How can she signal her acceptance of life?
What if a hummingbird enters her mouth? I hate
the thought, whizzing by in red clothes.
Yet I admire its gloves. Hands are unbearably beautiful.
They hold on to things. They let things go.


all from Mary Ruefle’s Cold Pluto (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1996)


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