The Personal Viewpoint in Poetry

Transcending the Particular to Touch the Universal

David Rutiezer

Critical Paper and Program Bibliography

Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in Creative Writing, Pacific Lutheran University, August 2012

A woman in a workshop I once took had brought a poem she’d written about a circle dance at a lesbian gathering.  The experience had obviously been one full of love, celebration, joy, and gratitude. But when she spoke of the dance itself, she said something like: “Legs, hips, breasts move in unison…” By speaking in more general terms, the woman gave what should have been an intimate moment a strangely disembodied feeling, distancing both herself and us from the material. She shied away from her poem’s very moment of power.

How often have I heard at writing critiques: You don’t understand this poem because you’re a man, or You’ve never had cancer, or You didn’t grow up Catholic?  One time a woman whose poem line, Banished from the mainstream, I and others criticized for being too vague lashed out: Well, maybe you’d understand if you’d been marginalized. Eventually the workshop leader backed me up, but, please: gay, Jewish, a very ADHD child– which of these is mainstream to you? It is so tiresome when people can’t see past their own experiences.

So how can poems reach past the specifics that divide us, and take the reader to a deeper understanding of the human experience? What are some ways poets use to push their personal poems past particulars towards their emotional truths, and allow the emotion to percolate through the material? What is universal in the specific, anyway? How is it that we can relate to the emotion of writing that describes a different life experience than our own?  And why is it that poems often attain their greatest power and resonance when they’re most specific, and lose that power when they try to generalize?

A couple of points of clarification: first, this is not meant to be a comprehensive or exhaustive compilation of all the amazing poems in the world that are written from the personal narrative point of view, nor even a collection of the best. I have chosen some poems I’ve remembered even after many years, others from my own personal collection of poetry books, and still other poems I’ve come across only recently, all of which I think exemplify different ways poems can convey universal emotions. Second, I don’t necessarily think a poem has to be about universal emotions in order to be a good poem. Some poems are concerned primarily with language, or with ideas, not with feelings or experiences, and I believe there’s a place for the many kinds of poems that have been written. But, universal emotion in poems is what I’m concerned with here, because poetry as a universal method of communication, and as a universal language of the human experience, is an aspect of poetry I’m particularly passionate about.

Yusef Komunyakaa, A Break from the Bush

When I first read this poem, what stayed with me was the ending’s poignance. Komunyakaa juxtaposes the laughter of a young man playing a ball game with what will happen three days after. In war, death is happening all around, but no one can predict when or to whom. The poem underscores the vulnerability and fragility of life during war in a way that readers who’ve never fought a war can relate to- the ferocity, urgency, intensity of their playing. Is it any accident the most joyous music in the world comes from those cultures that have experienced great suffering?  Komunyakaa sets the immediate scene, and then alludes to the gunfire miles away, showing the reader that the specter of death is never far removed. Then, of course, we have the irony of burying oneself in sand and playing dead, as a soldier surrounded by the portent of death. It’s no coincidence that he puts impending death with description of young man’s laughter in not only the same sentence, but the same breath.

Yusef Komunyakaa, Thanks

Here the same poet uses a different method, always returning to thanks, which when repeated here becomes almost a mantra, a prayer. If you’d never read other poems by this poet alluding to the war in Vietnam, you’d still know where you are within the first four lines. In the line that begins Some voice, he tells us he relinquishes credit for his survival. I love the way Komunyakaa enfolds the memory of the woman, exactly the way thoughts and memories distract us, only in this case, the irony is that instead of being an inconvenience, the distraction may have saved his life. “Deadly game for blind gods,” is, for me, the least effective part of the poem, too vague, distant, and abstract, trying to encompass too much, not to mention the iteration of “blind” as synonymous with ineffective, incompetent, recalcitrant, an inappropriate and able-ist analogy at best. The end almost evokes a guardian angel scenario.

Most people can relate to at one time feeling watched over and protected– “Why did I survive when someone else died?” “Why did this happen to that person, instead of to me?”–and also, to seeing a person alive and vibrant, and then suddenly losing that person, or remembering a dead person’s vibrancy when still alive.  These poems reach in these ways beyond the narrower topic of war and combat to resonate with anyone who knows death and loss and sheer arbitrary luck– that is, to all of us. Like all the poems I’ve chosen, they work best when specific with details, without trying to summarize or speak generally. These poems reach past their containments of time and place, to speak about grief and gratitude.

Maxine Scates,  Her Voice

In this poem Scates starts with the olfactory sense, the scent of blossoming trees bringing her and her reader into the poem’s stream of consciousness. It’s easy for many of us to forget smell when we write, to rely solely on the more obvious senses of sight and sound– but I wonder, what would a deaf person, a blind person, write about? Which sense would prevail? Like the branches of the trees she describes, Scates interweaves time, back and forth, from the present to the past and back again. I relate to the line in which she describes Ohio in winter as a bleakness/ the West does not understand as a native Chicagoan who remembers the winters there. Yet, by contrasting this with the previous image of flowers, she beckons in those who have not experienced Midwest winters, by implying those winters as the opposite of blooming, something many Northwesterners can relate to. Then, suddenly it seems, Scates has this: I came here to talk about work/ and poetry though it was my mother who labored/ as I have not. She’s saying she feels like a charlatan; she’s talking about the difference between generations and their ideas of work. She’s still interweaving past with present, just as so often in life– some days more than others, it seems– memories weave their way into our present realities.

Lola Haskins, my first year mentor, once told me that things in poems that seem unrelated can be emotionally related. In a list poem told from personal narrative point-of-view, each item, if you will, gains layers of meaning when measured against what comes before and after it on the list.

By the end, Scates has built a pedestal and established within this succession of memories a dynamic of looking up to her mother as she self-deprecates. The implications: fear someone will find out I’m a fake, feeling that my mother should be on this stage instead of me, fear of not matching up, or not living up to someone else’s expectations, always comparing oneself to others.  By ending with the image of her mother’s hands, Scates implies so much: that the mother herself is stronger, more capable, more resilient, with perhaps even a feeling that she’s let her mother down. Though the poem’s trajectory of juxtaposed scenes may at first seem disjointed, when looked at in layers, whole volumes of meaning emerge. For instance, starting at line 10, the description of the mother figuring, I know now, a way out leading immediately to the narrator’s own wandering down a chilly street seeking warmth in a cup of soup may at first seem an abrupt and incongruous transition, until one realized that both people were seeking solace, and both on their own. In order to provide context, one can’t be taken without the other; they must be read back-to-back. Ironically here, the only “comfort” comes from the coldest, most mechanical allusion in the poem, the whistle of the train, perhaps comforting because it’s so ubiquitous and familiar. Scates compares herself to her mother through this entire poem, even when relating seemingly superfluous incidents. For instance, what does this description of her walks in the woods with an old dog have to do with anything? Again, when looking at things in terms of what Scates has already set up in the poem, this dynamic with the mother, and keeping in mind Lola Haskins’ idea of emotional relation, Scates’ meaning becomes clear: her memory, presumably of childhood, in which she’s proud to lift stones from a wheelbarrow, seems pitiful and embarrassing now, compared with all her mother carried, and not only physically. Everything in Scates’ poem benefits from being read in the context of the complicated relationship the poem always points toward. That’s how the universal themes in the poem emerge: the specific details tell a story of loss, of lack of confidence, of not feeling one ever can measure up.

When revising a list poem of your own, you can use the same strategy. How does any item change by being compared or contrasted with what comes before or after it? And, how does changing the order affect the emotional impact? Try this exercise I learned from poet Henry Hughes. Read a rough draft of your poem, starting from the end.

Philip Levine, Library Days

This is a really good poem, I think, but one of the reasons I chose it is because I, too, used to work in a library, and like Levine, it was not a great experience for me. But beyond that, I’d like to look at ways this poem might resonate with someone who’s never worked in, or even spent much time in, a library.

First, I love how Levine starts this poem as though he’s already been telling the story, and we’ve been set down suddenly right in the middle of it. I also love how the librarian is “assembling a frown”– I can see one grouchy librarian in particular from my library days. And there’s something peculiarly perfect about the smell of used tea bags. With “In late August/ of 1951” Levine sneaks in a bit of exposition, and a bit later, he uses an interesting and effective telescoping effect. By telling us: “Other men, my former schoolmates, were off/ on a distant continent in full retreat,” he implies the Korean War without ever specifying, then pulls the focus in to his garden. This makes the outside world seem even more distant, and how ironic to use “retreat” to refer to the soldiers in Korea, rather than himself. Levine’s establishing his own mindset of immunity. He seems to build the poem towards an inevitable ending that at first seems calloused but could also be read as an escape into intellectual stimulation in a world with lack of it, or as an antidote to the feeling of helplessness. And this is how larger topics come into this poem, ones many people can relate to. This is how it becomes about something much more than working in a library. Where is the line between self-preservation and denial? Between literature as escape, and literature as planting the seeds of change? The library itself, in this poem, appears not as a shelter, or a haven, but seems as dysfunctional as the world outside, as it seemed when I worked there. The irony is, he’s not working– there are no “deliveries” ever, are there? Or did I miss something? And the biggest irony is that he criticizes the coldness of others even as he worries about being as aloof as they are from the world’s woes and pains. What is the role of good writing– whatever the form or genre– if not to remind us of our roles as human beings, and what of those times when people read great literature about the generosity and resilience of the human spirit, only to return to their myopic ways?

George Venn, Forgive us…

It’s interesting and powerful how Venn opens with an addressing voice.  It’s also ironic that the butchering is used to illustrate the grandfather’s humaneness. My immigrant Jewish grandmother kept kosher, and of course, in that tradition, too, animals when butchered are never supposed to suffer. So, there is some universality in that concern, as well as in cruelty. “…I know/ now the need for meat.” is weighty, yet I’d almost argue for its exclusion here: the theme or moral here, after all, is not hunger, nourishment, nutrition, or want, nor the learning of it, and it seems to pull the poem a bit away from its true emotional core– the concern about the condition and well-being of the grandfather. I love this list he starts with “Nothing should suffer,” of all the things Grandfather could never harm.

The poem’s title, as Venn explained to me in an email, comes from the Lord’s Prayer: “While the irony and source of the title have not been noted by reviewers, I intended it to suggest the poet’s persona in the text as protesting the “trespasses” of God (the conventional religious sense) in prolonging the suffering of my grandfather–a powerful, sincere, and devout man–from Parkinson’s Disease.” Venn’s grandfather never let anything suffer, and never took God’s name in vain, yet God let him suffer. Therefore, God could learn a thing or two from the grandfather. The anger Venn feels at God for “letting” this happen to his loved one is palpable– and anyone who’s lost someone to illness, injury, war, genocide, homicide, or natural disaster could relate to that anger. 

I remember reading this poem years ago in an anthology, and though I hadn’t read it again until now, I never forgot it, or its emotional impact on me. I remember reading the part about the grandfather’s bed of manure, and weeping, reminded of my own grandfather, of the loss of dignity and quality of life at the end of his. These common sorrows cut across the differences– it no longer mattered that my grandfather wasn’t a butcher, or was Jewish.

With “And now this God, Grandfather…”, Venn really begins to talk of loss of faith, of questioning God, and there’s an implication of irony that the author’s faith is not as strong as the grandfather’s, that the questions he has for God about his grandfather’s fate are questions the grandfather himself never asked, or even thought to ask. Venn’s poem brings up many questions about religion and faith, in direct relation to pain and death: What is “dignified”? When we talk about courage, especially in the face of death, what do we mean? Is it really more courageous to suffer than to die quickly?  And, if we choose to believe in God, how do we reconcile that belief with the suffering in the world?

Venn touches upon universal issues in this poem: measuring up to previous generations; questioning our faith and our fate; aging, independence, death and autonomy in relation to faith; the nature of courage; how much suffering is acceptable; and growing up to question the beliefs of our predecessors.

Cortney Davis, The Smoke We Make Pictures Of

Davis read her poems years ago when she came to Portland. I was lucky enough to take a workshop from her, and I still remember how powerful this poem was. It’s ironic how the wrapping of presents– what should be a happy occasion– instead triggers this meditation on loss, on gifts, on what has been given to us, and what taken away. The title refers both to the future’s nebulosity, and to the cigarette smoking of her parents–and its consequences. Davis takes a deceptively simple premise– watching a clock tick in a mirror and thinking about time reversing itself– and seems to just take off running. Yet, in almost-detached observation, she tells us so much– of the illnesses that took her parents, and of the failures of marriages. Without anything implicit, there’s more than a suggestion of sexual violation in the scene with the father. But the poem’s end, and I’d argue, its real resonance, is a rumination on life’s arbitrariness. What if my parents had never met? What are the chances of any of us being here at all? And who among us has never wondered? Davis’ poem seems perfect in its reach– it wouldn’t have been nearly as provocative had she ended with a sweet childhood memory; she had to go back further, past both happy and sad events, to really access the full power of the poem– the universal question of our very existence.

How interesting that Davis’ poem’s emotionally climactic moment occurs at the poem’s very end, before she was born. What can we do to access that emotionally universal human moment when we write poetry? One suggestion came from Henry Hughes in a workshop I took at Fishtrap in the summer of 2011. His exercise consisted of simply reading our poem drafts aloud– but in reverse order, starting with the last lines we wrote, and working our way back, finishing where we began writing. The reason for this? Hughes said we often write toward our emotional truths, so reading backward, you start with what you were working towards all along, and read toward the expositions we often start with, some of which we may be able to discard, or work into our poems in other ways. Hughes suggested we try this with our own poems, to see where they feel most potent, and where they might be trimmed.

Fleda Brown, I Return to Fayetteville After Twenty Years

Brown’s title does more than many of these poems’ titles to set up perspective, and with the part I’ve grown so tallthings really get interesting in terms of the disconnect we often experience with memory, almost as though we have two distinct identities, then and now. Have you ever felt as though you’re watching yourself in a movie? Brown’s poem invites us to join her on this kind of journey, one in which one observes oneself in a detached way, in which one looks at choices, forks in our roads of life, as if each choice we didn’t make, each person we never met, is a path we opted out of, one that led to someone we would have been.  Her way of talking about the neighbors is so effective, consigned to these anonymous lives in interchangeable houses with weird yet oddly similar problems. 

With inside the house are the original/houses of my mother, my father Brown sets up a dollhouse or Through the Looking Glass dynamic, in which one’s peering into a replica of one’s own life. One of the poem’s most provocative portions begins: From up here,/ I lean down as if my life were a lesson/ I have to teach. Do we tell our own stories as least partly so others won’t repeat our mistakes? So they’ll learn from us what’s really important?  So our blunders and pain won’t have been in vain? Is that how we achieve immortality?

But then, what an interesting turn this poem takes with Brown’s description of the mother. I love this visual of the mother’s arm: so alive/ the hairs on her arm glisten. It’s so intimate, bringing us so close to her, and then: Listen, does she/ say anything to live by? When I read that line, I think of all the times people say things that are not useful or helpful, things that are routine, ordinary, stupid, or just ignorant, all the human moments when our shortcomings are most apparent.

And then, Brown at the very end throws the poem open: No, it’s always/ the chimes, and the space between/ where everything else gets in. To my thinking, this is the grand everything else of learning by osmosis, by living and by observing the living of others, by trial and error, by passing time, and all of these ideas and theories are resonant and relevant to me as a reader and transcend boundaries of time, space and generations, overcoming the fact that I have never been to Brown’s Arkansas, nor am I Methodist.

Christopher Howell, Something Borrowed

The title refers to the well-known nursery rhyme thought to originally come from old England, a list of things a bride should wear to her wedding. Howell ends the poem’s first stanza with what most readers, unfamiliar with the subject matter, would find humor in– a father-in-law’s minor irritation at the smiling bridegroom. But the crux is revealed only in the second stanza, and in the last four lines, at that. Howell’s daughter, Emma, died at age 20, and someone who knows or has met Howell, or knows anything about him, would have known that. Clearly, this is a poem occasioned by Emma’s death. In fact, I remember Howell years ago pausing at a reading to tell us he couldn’t yet read his next poem, and then moving on to other poems– perhaps the poem he wasn’t emotionally able to read yet was this one, or an earlier draft of it?  In any case, for most readers unfamiliar with Howell, this poem’s conclusion will come as a shock. Of course, there is a great sense of loss in the poem, in this case the death of a young person, out-of-sequence, too soon (the title of one of Oregon poet Penelope Scambly Schott’s collections puts it this way: May the Generations Die in the Right Order.), and the witnessing and struggle by parents and family to somehow pick up the pieces and go on living. But there’s more going on here. The poem explores not only loss itself, but our ways of coping with it. Like Fleda Brown’s poem, there’s this idea with the dreams of alternate futures, the dream’s preferable one elaborated on in the first stanza, only to be slammed against the actual reality of a life without that person in the second. This really accentuates the sense of the hole that’s created in the lives of those left to continue on. With the sparrow, there’s almost a sense of trapped spirit, of energy or of potential looking for and not knowing where to go without this person. Howell’s ending is a bit up in the air, as well– with this oblique last line as this dream begins again, is he suggesting that it is the alternate dream, the one with Emma, that begins again, a perseverating of a fantasy of what might have been? Or is it a reference to having to start over, without her? Either way, the ending feels surprising, as if it opens the poem even more, in unexpected ways. Now, imagine using Henry Hughes’ exercise here, on this poem, starting with the ending. What if Howell had started with something like: She died eight years ago, leaving us all/ in the suddenly empty church…” and then had gone on to elaborate on the dream of her living. It wouldn’t work. It would deflate the poem’s power, which lies in conveying the human condition of being unprepared for the death of a young person.  The poem is perfectly ordered. It’s not about our sadness at Howell’s loss, nor even really about the loss itself, but about our human defenses, our coping mechanisms, the ways we deal with such devastating loss by painting ourselves out of our own realities, to the point of constructing imaginary ones.  In such circumstances of great sadness, haven’t we all wished, or asked ourselves, “What if…”?

Lois Baker, Elegy for a Stepmother

In so few words, Baker describes a complicated, distant, tension-filled relationship between narrator and stepmother, using compact, disjointed lines and enjambments, unusual among the poems in her book. The description of cold is so visceral that the stepmother seems to imbue everything she touches, even the stairwell, with iciness. The depiction of the other patients so accurately depicts the typical state-of-mind of many who are ill, desperate to keep things light, to talk and to think about anything besides their own condition. It’s interesting to contrast their approach with the stepmother’s.

But the second stanza takes us in another direction altogether, evoking sympathy for the stepmother by bringing us readers, with the image of the stepmother’s stained nightgown, through her loss of bodily function. Baker ends by describing the balcony’s emptiness and watching freeway traffic endlessly moving in opposite directions. Despite the stepmother’s unpleasant qualities, there’s a feeling of alienation and loneliness, as there often is when someone dies or falls ill, no matter our personal feelings about that person. In this way, Baker’s poem points us past particulars– the stepmother, calling AAA– in the direction of broader observations about the clinical feel of many hospitals and end-of-life environments; the dynamics of estrangement; the tensions between an ill person and a caretaker; the loss of control an ill person experiences; and the sense of loss the surviving person may feel, no matter the nature of the relationship. 

Dorianne Laux, Bakersfield 1969

Despite the poem’s ostensibly casual beginning, or how it might appear at first glance, it’s not really about the boy, or even about how the narrator and the boy met. But Laux reveals the crux when the time is right. There’s a great description of how this boy played guitar, “picked at it, like a scab,” implying many possibilities, or combinations thereof: that the boy perseverated in his guitar playing rather than creating something inspired; that he was doing something because it was there, or because he was bored, or it bothered him to do nothing; that he had a nervous tic; that he knew he’d never match up to the aforementioned Taj Mahal Then Laux isolates the description of another incident, perhaps because it colors everything that came after; of course, this is the encounter with the boy’s mother. She really sets up the tension with this description: “I … set the last dish/ carefully in the rack.” She lets the description replicate for us readers how on edge we feel after someone mistreats us, is unkind, attacks us out of the blue. She doesn’t return to this exchange until later, as we, too, often don’t really process difficult experiences until much later, sometimes years.  The photograph is also another window, into the poem’s core, the memory of the affair, I’ll call it, with this boy. It’s interesting how Laux constructs time in this poem, not in a linear fashion, but in windows, and how the incident with the mother is one portal, and the photo another.  With the photo, Laux adds ever more layers of meaning in the details– with merely the visual description of this photo, the glittery hope of the narrator’s own youth, the description of the heat that seemed as intimate a lover as any person, and equally capable of brutality. Finally, she ends with what the poem is really about: what prompted their visits in the first place –the feeling that someone’s not acting, but being real with you. The core of the poem, what people will relate to across boundaries of different human experiences, is the power of loving–or at least liking– someone, of caring about someone, and what that love or caring makes us do.

Crystal Williams, The Embrace

This poem, while on the surface being also a poem about the poet’s mother, is a very different creation from Scates’ poem, addressing different emotions and consequences, and reaching other conclusions. Relatively soon in the poem, Williams relates the judgments people make about other people without knowing the whole story– in this case, judging her for not going to her mother’s grave. And then, there are these wonderful leaps, from the grass at the gravesite to the girl in the shop, pirhouetting, to a memory of the mother taking great joy from something so seemingly simple as being clean, something able-bodied people take for granted all the time (I know I do) that becomes special in times of infirmity and physical limitation. This provides a key to Williams’ poem: her memory of her mother’s joy is the essence of her mother to her. That’s how this poem becomes both a questioning and a reclamation. Who is in charge of our own memories? And who has the right to tell us how we should grieve? Of course, no one, but the fact that these kinds of pressures, from other people and from larger society, exist, and that we all must live within a world with these pressures every day, and the problem of what to do about it, coexists in Williams’ poem side-by-side with her championing of her mother’s joyfulness, her tribute to her mother’s fearlessness about showing her joy, and her fervent reclaiming of the ideals of glee and bliss that, to her, embodied the spirit of her mother, and perhaps one of the most important and lasting lessons Williams learned from her.

Natasha Trethewey, White Lies

So far, I’ve been talking about universal themes in poetry of the personal experience– that is to say, poems that draw upon emotions, ideas, problems and ideals that many people around the world, regardless of the differences that often divide us, could relate to or understand, whether intellectually, emotionally, or in other ways. So, what about a poem like this? Can someone who has not had the experience of being black in the United States of America relate to this poem? And if so, in what ways?

First of all, the title points to the irony of that commonly-used expression, especially in relation to race relations and oppression in this country, though the expression appears to have no known connection to race or racial references. Even though Trethewey’s self-description in the poem’s first stanza is certainly not how I– or many others– could accurately describe our own physical appearances, in the second stanza, she begins to reach past personal descriptions to begin describing circumstances– living in poverty, daydreaming of the better life that the pretty dresses represent– that people who’ve lived in poverty, grew up poor, or ever worried about having enough money, could understand, anywhere in the world, African-American or not.

Then, Trethewey relates a poignant moment when another girl mistakes her for white. What are the implications here? To find out even more about the dynamics of race in this country, particularly involving someone whose skin happens to be light enough for the person to “pass” as white, I read, years ago, poet Toi Derricotte’s compelling memoir, The Black Notebooks. Ask me, as a gay man, how it feels when someone says I shouldn’t mention gayness, that it doesn’t matter anymore, when I’ve only mentioned it in the context of a discussion, in order to make a certain point. Trethewey’s poem talks about the price of having to keep a secret, the pressure to pretend to be something you’re not, or to hide your true self.  The price is shame, serious problems with self-esteem and self-worth, and guilt.

What might have happened had Trethewey told the white girl Trethewey was really black? What would the consequences, the ramifications, have been? And, what does her poem’s ending say about that price? The relationship that suffered most– besides her relationship with herself– was, eventually, her relationship with her mother. Believing, it seems, that she deserved the punishment her mother exacted, she imagines herself…what? Becoming white, like the suds? Purified? What is the price, even, of our language,? Of the idea of heaven as a white light, or angels with white wings? Of the phrase it was a dark time in my life? What unstated ideas does it reinforce about the value of color? And, beyond that, the last two lines pull the poem completely open. What is the solution for shame? How does one recover from feelings of guilt for having lied? Or begin to understand the ways one has survived, within the context of a larger, societal reality that required lying, hiding, dishonesty, discretion, in order merely to survive? Trethewey’s “lesson” applies to us all, black or not, and she shows us how it applies, not only by inviting us to imagine the choices we might have, or not have, in her shoes, but by having us fill in the poem with parallels from our own lives– being excluded or targeted for whatever reason, being judged, being made the keeper of secrets, and the burdens we bear by internalizing those messages to mean that we are somehow bad people, to our marrow. We’re left with an indelible sense of shame, sorrow, and loneliness, able to confide in others, perhaps, hopefully, in adulthood, and realize the irony that many of our defense mechanisms kept us alive.

Bruce Weigl, In the House of Immigrants

How ironic that Weigl starts with this indelible visual of cats that’s really about mothering, and ends with the words of the immigrant mother. He peppers the first stanza with references – Mozart, the games of ball, the chicken dish the mother’s cooking– that show the stitching of many immigrant lives, the varied cultural references that make up modern American experiences.  The poem here seems concerned primarily with the goings-on of everyday life, and the obligations of motherhood: the energy they expend, the sacrifices they make, the levels of exhaustion they must experience. Yet, Weigl’s sudden stanza break implies a split, a point beyond which there’s no turning back. There’s a moment in social situations, when one’s behaved a certain way, or spoken in a certain way, after which there’s only damage control; arguments can escalate so quickly before you even have time to realize you’re in one. This break implies the rupture, the ragged gap between before and after.

This poem reminds me of the Bulgarians, Macedonians and other eastern Europeans I’ve met here in Portland. They have a very different view of this country, one that’s flavored, of course, by the hardships they endured before coming here. And it’s easy to forget all that, as non-immigrants who’ve only known life here. Weigl’s second stanza addresses this disconnect, when people argue under the assumption they’re coming from the same experience. Also, when the father speaks, it’s in disjointed, broken-off streams of words, inviting us as readers to imagine ourselves the immigrants, in a new country where we have to learn and communicate in a new language. The author and the father are not on an equal playing field, because English is the native tongue of only one of them; the father must resort to putting his thoughts and feelings into this new language as best he can, without, apparently, much empathy for his struggle from the author. We get so caught up in our own feelings, in arguments, we can easily forget things like language barriers and vastly different reference points and life experiences, but in this case, the mother takes care of that. I love the declarative, end-stopped lines the mother has. They are so powerful that you feel the energy deflated from their argument, the approach of awkward silence. What more could either man say?

By ending with the mother’s words, this sudden statement that makes everyone stop, reexamine everything, Weigl brings up so many universal issues about human communication and connection. Who has control over our own life experiences, feelings, memories? What happens when people’s experiences are politicized, or made into slogans and soundbites? How does one– or can, or should one– separate art from the deeds of the maker of the art? What are the long-term effects of war and genocide? What is the price of the expectation not to talk about memories of genocide? How does this expectation manifest itself? And, how can people argue constructively, without denying anyone dignity?

Terrance Hayes, At Pegasus

This poem, which begins Hayes’ 1999 collection, Muscular Music (it’s even in its own section), was a shock when I first read it. Now, years later, I still feel my amazement just reading it, for its unabashed embracing of human sexuality in all its complexity. I found it even more surprising coming from an ostensibly straight, black American male poet. At the time, I was aware not only of how few black gay men I knew here in Portland, Oregon, but how rampant homophobia has historically been in many black churches. I still see more Asian gay men, who usually, though not always, come from Buddhist upbringings, whose teachings are often more sympathetic.

I love how Hayes positions the poem’s lines as staggered tercets, giving the visual appearance on the page the poem etches in its bi-windowed, past-and-present approach. And, how many times have I seen this guy in gay male environments: I’m just here for the music. This memory of Curtis, how even the tadpoles are slippery as sperm, and the slapping of skin, really blurs the lines between sexuality and sensuality, and shows how arbitrary that line can be. Again, later, the references to this ambiguity continue: bodies blurred sexless/ by the music’s spinning light and, perhaps even more provocative: A young man slips his thumb/ into the mouth of an old one/ and I am not that far away. Does Hayes partly mean, perhaps, that he’s not that far from being these people himself, unashamed of having a sexuality, whatever that might be? I love, too, how seamlessly Hayes goes back and forth between the moment with Curtis and the present scene in the disco– the lines, The whole scene raw and delicate/ as Curtis’s foot gashed/ on a sunken bottle shard./ They press hip to hip,/ each breathless as a boy/ carrying a friend on his back, evoking both past and present, coexistent in each sentence. Especially intriguing and almost wistful is the passage But I remember his weight/ better than I remember/ my first kiss. Really? He remembers it better? What an amazing and powerful statement, not only about memory, but the very nature of sexuality.

Hayes really took a chance with this, a brave, daring, surprising poem the likes of which I’ve not seen before or since. By using specifics to bring out his own human vulnerability in this poem, Hayes speaks about the ambiguity of sexual desires. All humans are mammals, with innately sexual natures, and sexuality is part of our human experience. Here, Hayes feels perhaps a bit envious of this group of people’s ability to allow that sexuality to consume them for a while, to let it be a part of them, to be at peace with it. Instead of being horrified, or focusing on sexual compulsions or obsessions or addictions, instead of distancing himself from the activity around him, Hayes becomes in his quiet way a part of their celebration. How interesting and telling that his last description of the group uses holy, not a word you’d expect to hear when someone’s describing people dancing at a gay disco. Hayes has created a poem that speaks to and celebrates the sexual aspect of us all.

William Stafford, Serving with Gideon

I first became aware of Stafford’s extensive work years ago, through volunteer work for Friends of William Stafford, and have reacquainted myself with this poem as a featured reader at two of the commemorative readings this year to honor what would have been his 98th birthday.

The refrain I remember is a great writing prompt, but here Stafford uses it perhaps to imply suppressed memory that’s come up again and is difficult to look at: Now I remember. The way he sets up the inequity is so visual, so palpable, that we can see the difference between the glass and the cup. Even the line break so he could/ drink it elsewhere because he was black, creates the aural sense of dismissal, despising, derision. Also, in stanza 2, he uses a line break to offer a point of clarification, an exception to the rules, by showing with that pause who was included in the in-group, who reaped the benefits, and who did not: they were generous/ to their sons or the sons of friends.

Then, in stanza 3, the closing fist evokes tension and violence in a description of the winter light, of all things. And, the allusion to war, enveloping a room from a radio, at once present and far away, overpowered by the illusion of grandness the radio promoted. Themes of privilege really come out in the last stanza, this touching, heartbreaking admission to the stars. I guess some religious people might look at this as a confession of sin. But either way, any religious context aside, the reality has sunk in: I could have become like the “boys”.  I had every opportunity, unlike the black elevator man, towards whom his allegiance and empathy seem to be leaning at the last line. Or, one could see it as a choosing: I choose the side of the elevator man, by drinking out of a cup, too. I also love the electricity in the air at Stafford’s description of the library– that it seethed and sparked, that reading can be dangerous, can upset the status quo.

The whole poem is a touching, tension-filled portrait of a young man’s first encounter with power, his own privilege in a racist society, and coming into himself amid difficult situations with no guidebook to help him.

We know poetry can touch a place of shared humanity, of common understandings and shared experiences, across barriers of race, religion, gender, orientation, culture, geography, physical appearance and ability, age, life experiences, family dynamics and upbringing, and all the other particulars that so often divide us. I’ve only given examples of fifteen such poems that do just that. We also know everyone has a story. And, with our current rate of human overpopulation of this planet, there are ever more everyones out there, not part of the machinery of power and privilege, with stories yet to be heard. So, at the same time that poetry– and, indeed, education itself, economic stability, and access to other basic human needs– is falling farther and farther out of reach for so many of the world’s people, the need for poetry, as a voice for those who’ve been denied it, may never have been stronger. With all the poetry books out there that are never read, that sit dusty on shelves, looked at as antiquated and irrelevant, it might seem sometimes that humankind has “poemed” ourselves out. But what if poetry has really only scratched the surface of the human experience? So this is not a conclusion at all, but a moving point somewhere along the human journey of poetry into our own human souls.


A Break from the Bush

The South China Sea
drives in another herd.
The volleyball’s a punching bag:
Clem’s already lost a tooth
& Johnny’s left eye is swollen shut.
Frozen airlifted steaks burn
on a wire grill, & miles away
machine guns can be heard.
Pretending we’re somewhere else,
we play harder.
Lee Otis, the point man,
high on Buddha grass.
buries himself up to his neck
in sand. “Can you see me now?
In this spot they gonna build
a Hilton. Invest in Paradise.
Bang, bozos! You’re dead.”
Frenchie’s cassette player
unravels Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”.
Snake, 17, from Daytona,
sits at the water’s edge,
the ash on his cigarette
pointing to the ground
like a crooked finger.  CJ,
who in three days will trip
a fragmentation mine,
runs after the ball
into the whitecaps,

Yusef Komunyakaa
from Neon Vernacular



Thanks for the tree
between me & a sniper’s bullet.
I don’t know what made the grass
sway seconds before the Viet Cong
raised his soundless rifle.
Some voice always followed,
telling me which foot
to put down first.
Thanks for deflecting the ricochet
against that anarchy of dusk.
I was back in San Francisco
wrapped up in a woman’s wild colors,
causing some dark bird’s love call
to be shattered by daylight
when my hands reached up
& pulled a branch away
from my face. Thanks
for the vague white flower
that pointed to the gleaming metal
reflecting how it is to be broken
like mist over the grass,
as we played some deadly
game for blind gods.
What made me spot the monarch
writhing on a single thread
tied to a farmer’s gate,
holding  the day together
like an unfingered guitar string,
is beyond me. Maybe the hills
grew weary & leaned a little in the heat.
Again, thanks for the dud
hand grenade tossed at my feet
outside Chu Lai. I’m still
falling through its silence.
I don’t know why the intrepid
sun touched the bayonet,
but I know that something
stood among those lost trees
& moved only when I moved.

Yusef Komunyakaa
from Neon Vernacular


Her Voice

Early yesterday morning on my way
to catch a plane the wild cherry blossomed
and the yellow gorse and when I spoke
I heard my mother’s voice on another morning
fifty years ago when she roused me before light
and wrapped me in a blanket to make
the journey downtown with my father
where he’d drop us at my grandparents’
on his way to work. In that house of dust
and silence she whispered with her sister
figuring, I know now, a way out. This morning
I walked down Main to Water Street in Kent,
Ohio, where spring has not arrived, salt
underfoot because it’s snowing, a bleakness
the West does not understand, stopped
at a drug store and bought a Times, then found
a deli and a cup of soup. In the motel parking
lot the jackhammer is rattling, the garbage trucks
came at three a.m. to empty the dumpster so I know
they won’t be back, blocks away the train
whistle calls every two hours, a comfort
as it is at home. I came here to talk about work
and poetry though it was my mother who labored
as I have not. Today my friend will show me
her house– it’s yellow, her dog is black, bearish
with winter, and the tree outside her window,
she tells me, will cast its amber light in autumn.
The birds are singing a little now. I used to go
into the woods with my old dog. She’d carry
her ball; I’d push the wheelbarrow and while
she rooted in the stream I’d lift large stones,
proud that I could heft them. My mother’s voice
on that morning, its timbre of resolve, is a small tear
through which she’s slipped in time. She’s eighty-six,
still lives alone and will not cross a picket line–
she used to say she could do the work a man could do,
her hands are large, still stronger than mine.

Maxine Scates
from Undone, c. 2011


Library Days

I would sit for hours with the sunlight
streaming in the high windows and know
the delivery van was safe, locked in the yard
with the brewery trucks, and my job secure.
I chose first a virgin copy of The Idiot
by Dostoyevsky, every page of which confirmed
life was irrational. The librarian, a woman
gone gray though young, sat by the phone
that never rang, assembling a frown
reserved exclusively for me when I entered
at 10 A.M. to stay until the light dwindled
into afternoon. No doubt her job was to guard
these treasures, for Melville was here, Balzac,
Walt Whitman, my old here, in multiple copies
each with the aura of used tea bags. In late August
of 1951 a suited gentleman reader creaked
across the polished oaken floor to request
the newest copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships
only to be told, “This, sir, is literature!”
in a voice of pure malice. I looked up
from the text swimming before me in hopes
of exchanging a first smile; she’d gone back
to her patient vigil over the dead black phone.
Outside I could almost hear the world, trucks
maneuvering the loading docks or clogging
the avenues and grassy boulevards of Detroit.
Other men, my former schoolmates, were off
on a distant continent in full retreat, their commands
and groans barely a whisper across the vastness
of an ocean and mountain range. In the garden
I’d planted years before behind the old house

I’d long ago deserted, the long winter was over;
the roses exploded into smog, the African vine
stolen from the zoo strangled the tiny violets
I’d nursed each spring, the mock orange snowed
down and bore nothing, its heavy odor sham.
“Not for heaven or earth would I trade my soul,
rather would I lie down to sleep among the dead,”
Prince Myshkin mumbled on page 437.
a pure broth of madness, perhaps my part,
the sole oracular part in the final act
of the worst play ever written. I knew then
that soon I would rise up and leave the book
to go back to the great black van waiting
patiently for its load of beer kegs, sea trunks
and leather suitcases bound for the voyages
I’d never take, but first there was War and Peace,
there were Cossacks riding their ponies
toward a horizon of pure blood, there was Anna,
her loves and her deaths, there was Turgenev
with his impossible, histrionic squabbles,
Chekhov coughing into his final tales. The trunks–
with their childish stickers– could wait, the beer
could sit for ages in the boiling van slowly
morphing into shampoo. In the offices and shops,
out on the streets, men and women could curse
the vicious air, they could buy and sell
each other, they could beg for a cup of soup,
a sandwich and tea, some few could face life
with or without beer, they could embrace or die,
it mattered not at all to me, I had work to do.

Philip Levine
from News of the World, c. 2009


Forgive Us…

Fifty years of your butchering art
are here, Grandfather. I hear the crash
of your falling ax into alder, the whisk
of your keen knife on the blue steel
while lambs and wethers bleat in the barn.

They know your one quick stroke across
their throats would make their ends
the best you could create. I still don’t
like the blood, Grandfather, but I know
now the need for meat.

“Nothing should suffer,” you said,
and sought out old dying queens in hives
and pinched their heads. Mensik’s calf—
you told us not to watch; bad dreams
would come, you said, so we walked out

and watched you anyway through a crack
in the wall—one deadly swing, no more—
from the spiking maul buckled the calf
instantly to its knees on the hay.
We knew your power then, and ran away.

And now this God, Grandfather, this God
whose songs you sang, whose church
your worship built, whose book you read,
whose name you never said in vain—
He’s got you here in his shepherd’s barn.

Oh, he’s a shoddy butcher, Grandfather.
He’s making you suffer his rusty dull
deathknife for years, crippling your legs,
then cutting off your speech to tremble,
then tying you up in a manured bed.

He won’t bring you down with any grace
or skill or swift humane strike of steel.
Day after day, you sit in His hallway
in your wheelchair and nurses walk by
like angels and shout half your name.

Ah, this God of yours, Grandfather, this
God has not learned even the most simple
lesson from the country of your hands.
You should have taught him how to hone
His knife, that the slaughtering of rams
is the work of those brave enough to love
a fast deft end.

George Venn
From Off The Main Road, Prescott St. Press, 1978. Appeared in Poetry Northwest, Volume 19, Issue 2, 1978; Pushcart Prize IV: Best of the Small Presses, Pushcart Press, 1979; Rain In the Forest, Light In the Trees: Contemporary Poetry From the Northwest, Owl Creek Press, 1983; Marking the Magic Circle, Oregon State University Press, 1987; and From Here We Speak: An Anthology of Oregon Poetry, Oregon State University Press, 1993.


The Smoke We Make Pictures of

Wrapping presents, I look up
and see the clock in the mirror,
how it seems to tick backwards.

In the living room, gifts unwrap,
ribbons recoil on their spools;
my life peels like a time-lapse flower.

I haven’t yet met you.
My first marriage falls apart,
my children’s legs telescope into their bodies

and they scamper away, curl
like the ends of unused ribbon.
I feel them drawn into me; my water,

splashed at the doctor’s shoes, gathers
and the sack seals. For a moment
I think we could start again,

but the hands click back,
the cells of my tiny children shrink
into droplets. Sperm swim, frantic,

and disappear into my husband.
I am free. My hair grows long,
I’m in college throwing water balloons–

they explode, spray rises
and settles like sequins.
Now I’m in my yard in Pittsburgh,

the sprinkler waves a shimmering barrier,
my bare feet paint the grass.
Father, just balding, still drinking,

laughs and lights a cigarette.
Mother, tall and pretty in her housedress,
her dark glasses black as night,

comes out with Zipper. He wags his tail
and smacks his jaws at the mist falling.
I’m so happy I want to stop the hands,

but they inch back and I’m three, sitting
by the mantle, father snapping a Kodak
as I frown up, waiting for Santa.

I don’t know that mother’s just home
from the doctor, her lung cradling
its dark spot, returned from the jar

where it will rest thirty years later.
Father’s breath is tinged with Four Roses,
his arms with their spotty freckles

rewind the film, undoing the knot of cancer
drifting in his colon, scattering the pages
of the novel he knows he can write,

but never will. Then I spiral into myself,
we all disappear into mother’s angular hips.
Her uterus bulges under the hot fuchsia skirt

my father loved. It’s the weekend he was home
on leave. As they lie pressed together,
he takes back that part of me he will love most:

the way I draw horses with manes flying up
like blackbirds, frightened, rising in unison.
The way I let him stroke my long fingers

late at night, while mother waits upstairs.
With the final gasp of their union,
I am gone.

Father reaches for a match.
They talk about how I’ll be theirs someday,
and they watch the clock on the bureau

tick, each of them exhaling smoke into air,
clouds they make pictures of. A house
at Christmas. A dog. A little girl.

Cortney Davis
from Details of Flesh, c. 1997


I Return to Fayetteville After Twenty Years

The Methodist church still chimes its electric
hymns. I’m still in junior high study hall,
desk bolted to the floor. I’ve grown so tall,
though, that I hover over myself, where
I’m scratching a crude house on the desktop
with a straightened paper clip. It’s a long way
down to the house, the one on Whitham Street,
with the creek and the crazy ironing lady
and the field and the chloroformed kittens
and the crying. Or the one on Maxwell Drive
with the crawl space and the mother cat
and the gun and the other crying,
and the impatient sex wicking itself into
the sheets. Inside the house are the original
houses of my mother, my father. They fit
the space exactly, wall against wall, all
their plots and expositions, their little worlds
carved out of materials at hand. How sweetly
the gouges improve on the desktop’s
varnish! How fiercely the pencil lead drives
a darkness in, for remembrance. From up here,
I lean down as if my life were a lesson
I have to teach. Look, I say to myself, that’s
you in the house, crumbling shredded wheat
into the bowl. There’s you mother, so alive
the hairs on her arm glisten. Listen, does she
say anything to live by? No, it’s always
the chimes, and the space between
where everything else gets in.

Fleda Brown
from Reunion, c. 2007


Something Borrowed

Again I allow myself to see her,
twenty-eight now, maybe
getting married, clinging happily to me
as we walk toward the minister or rabbi
or whatever
and the smiling bridegroom
whom I hate
only a little and whom I anyway imagine

has no sense
at all of what he’s in for.

Sunlight is bolting down through the high
windows. Up among the roof beams
a trapped sparrow flutters and sings
as I hand her over, vowing silently never to tell
that she died eight years ago, leaving us all
in the suddenly empty church, the bird
like something flown out of us and circling
as this dream begins again.

Christopher Howell
from the website Oregon Poetic Voices


Elegy for a Stepmother

Go, you say, just

go and I carry the

cold that since

yesterday has crept

from your hands to

elbows down

the ice-blue


to Parking. Keys

locked in the car. I

wait outside for AAA where

seersucker pajama’d

ambulatory patients tell

        jokes under a dirty city

moon. How many Poles

(the one with an oxygen

tank) do you need to

make an eclipse?


Tomorrow I will

launder the stained

nightgown you hid

from nurses. Restore

your apartment walls to their

original blonde. Set out two

chairs, at the distance

we kept between us, on

a starless little balcony.

Watch freeway traffic

pulsing north and south.

Lois Baker
from Man Covered with Bees, c. 2001


Bakersfield, 1969

I used to visit a boy in Bakersfield, hitchhike
to the San Diego terminal and ride the bus for hours
through the sun-blasted San Fernando Valley
just to sit on his fold-down bed in a trailer
parked in the side yard of his parents’ house,
drinking Southern Comfort from a plastic cup.
His brother was a sessions man for Taj Mahal,
and he played guitar, too, picked at it like a scab.
Once his mother knocked on the tin door
to ask us in for dinner. She watched me
from the sides of her eyes while I ate,
When I offered to wash the dishes she told me
she wouldn’t stand her son being taken
advantage of. I said I had no intention
of taking anything and set the last dish
carefully in the rack. He was a bit slow,
like he’d been hit hard on the back of the head,
but nothing dramatic. We didn’t talk much anyway,
just drank and smoked and fucked and slept
through the ferocious heat. I found a photograph
he took of my getting back on the bus or maybe
stepping off into his arms. I’m wearing jeans
with studs punched into the cuffs.
a T-shirt with stars on the sleeves, a pair

of stolen bowling shoes and a purse I made
while I was in the loony bin, wobbly X’s
embroidered on burlap with gaudy orange yarn.
I don’t remember how we met. When I look
at this picture I think I might not even
remember this boy if he hadn’t taken it
and given it to me, written his name under mine
on the back. I stopped seeing him
after that thing with his mother. I didn’t know
I didn’t know anything yet. I liked him.
That’s what I remember. That,
and the I-don’t-know-what degree heat
that rubbed up against the trailer’s metal sides,
steamed in through the cracks between the door
and porthole windows, pressed down on us
from the ceiling and seeped through the floor,
crushing us into the damp sheets. How we endured it,
sweat streaming down our naked bodies, the air
sucked from our lungs as we slept. Taj Mahal says
If you ain’t scared, you ain’t right. Back then
I was scared most of the time. But I acted
tough, like I knew every street.
What I liked about him was that he wasn’t acting.
Even his sweat tasted sweet.

Dorianne Laux
from The Book of Men, c. 2011


The Embrace

I have never been
& likely will never go
to the spot on the earth
where my mother’s ashes are buried.
People do not understand.
Their eyes harden.
But I take comfort in the facts:
the grass there lengthens,
rusted leaves fall & rot,
industry’s soldiers
march across the letters of her name,
& today, when the small girl in the book shop
in her white toile princess dress twirls & twirls,
her throat warbling with glee,
jumps into the laughing eyes of her mother,
their arms & bodies clasped,
their heat radiant & necessary
as if they had never been torn apart, 
my mother’s papery arm
is again entwined with mine
as we plod from the hospital ward’s shower stall
down a dim hall, thin cotton gown
tight across her behind, when she,
in one of her last miracles—
as if a lithe Fred Astaire
& against all evidence—
kicks both feet in the air heel-to-heel
& squeals, “I am clean! I am clean!
Oooooh-weeeee! I am clean!”
Thus her eyes & bliss. Thus her arms
& bliss. There she is. My mother.
In that embrace. There.

Crystal Williams
from the website Oregon Poetic Voices


White Lies

The lies I could tell,
when I was growing up
light-bright, near-white,
high-yellow, red-boned
in a black place,
were just white lies.

I could easily tell the white folks
that we lived uptown,
not in that pink and green
shanty-fied shotgun section
along the tracks. I could act
like my homemade dresses
came straight out the window
of Maison Blanche. I could even
keep quiet, quiet as kept,
like the time a white girl said
(squeezing my hand), Now
we have three of us in this class

But I paid for it every time
Mama found out.
She laid her hands on me,
then washed out my mouth
with Ivory soap. This
is to purify
, she said,
and cleanse your lying tongue.

Believing her, I swallowed suds
thinking they’d work
from the inside out.

Natasha Trethewey
from Domestic Work, c. 2000


In the House of Immigrants

After milk, the kittens spill out of their box,
weary mother cat snapping at them,
too young for so many babies. In the bedroom
the boy bows his cello painfully
down the hall, Mozart. He loves his practice
more than ball with the boys who call him
through the summer’s open window. The grandfather
smokes, reads his Hungarian newspaper
moving his lips. The mother cooks
some nice chicken with garlic, some boiled
potatoes, and our children run in and out
of the house as if there were not enough time
to live because there isn’t, the solstice sun
already gone below the oaks looming over us,
and I argue with the father.

                                       He loves our country
no matter what, he says. There must
be sacrifices, our voices beginning to rise
above the cello, above the children,
above the kitchen noise until everyone freezes,
stares at us fearfully and with disappointment.
We’ve come too far to stop. I’m not
interested in details he says, only
the principle is important, his hands shaking
between us and a wronged light cast down
on his face until his mother steps
from the kitchen and tells us with her eyes to stop.
She shakes her finger at her husband and says
his name, stressing the syllables the way a mother
calls her child home across the dark
neighborhood and then she turns to me.
I was only a child she says
They lined you up without a word
and shot you like a dog.
I won’t listen to Russian music.
I don’t care if you say it is beautiful.
I won’t read Russian books.
I don’t care what you say.
They buried people in the school yard where I played.

Bruce Weigl
from Archaeology of the Circle, c. 1999; What Saves Us, c. 1992


At Pegasus

They are like those crazy women
     who tore Orpheus
          when he refused to sing,

these men grinding
     in the strobe & black lights
          of Pegasus. All shadow & sound.

“I’m just here for the music,”
     I tell the man who asks me
          to the floor. But I have held

a boy on my back before.
     Curtis & I used to leap
          barefoot into the creek; dance

among maggots & piss,
     beer bottles & tadpoles
          slippery as sperm;

we used to pull off our shirts
     & slap music into our skin.
          He wouldn’t know me now

at the edge of these lovers’ gyre,
     glitter & steam, fire,
          bodies blurred sexless

by the music’s spinning light.
     A young man slips his thumb
          into the mouth of an old one,

& I am not that far away.
     The whole scene raw & delicate
          as Curtis’s foot gashed

on a sunken bottle shard.
     They press hip to hip,
          each breathless as a boy

carrying a friend on his back.
     The foot swelling green
          as the sewage in that creek.

We never went back.
     But I remember his weight
          better than I remember

my first kiss.
     These men know something
          I used to know.

How could I not find them
     beautiful, the way they dive & spill
          into each other,

the way the dance floor
     takes them,
          wet & holy in its mouth.

Terrance Hayes
from Muscular Music, c. 1999


Serving with Gideon

Now I remember: in our town the druggist
prescribed Coca-Cola mostly, in tapered
glasses to us, and to the elevator
man in a paper cup, so he could
drink it elsewhere because he was black.

And now I remember The Legion– gambling
in the back room, and no women but girls, old boys
who ran the town. They were generous,
to their sons or the sons of friends.
And of course I was almost one.

I remember winter light closing
its great blue fist slowly eastward
along the street, and the dark then, deep
as war, arched over a radio show
called the thirties in the great old U.S.A.

Look down, stars– I was almost
one of the boys. My mother was folding
her handkerchief; the library seethed and sparked;
right and wrong arced; and carefully
I walked with my cup toward the elevator man.

William Stafford
from An Oregon Message, c. 1987



Baker, Lois. “Elegy for a Stepmother” from Man Covered with Bees, Howlett Press, 2001

Brown, Fleda. “I Return to Fayetteville After Twenty Years” from Reunion, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2007.

Davis, Cortney. “The Smoke We Make Pictures Of” from Details of Flesh, Calyx Books, 1997.

Hayes, Terrance. “At Pegasus” from Muscular Music, Tia Chucha Press, 1999.

Howell, Christopher. “Something Borrowed” taken from the website Oregon Poetic Voices

Komunyakaa, Yusef. “A Break from the Bush” and “Thanks” from Neon Vernacular, Wesleyan Poetry Series, 1993.

Laux, Dorianne. “Bakersfield 1969” from The Book of Men, W.W. Norton & Company, 2011

Levine, Philip.  “Library Days” from News of the World, Borzoi Books, Random House, 2009.

Mueller, Lisel. “When I am Asked” from Waving from Shore, Louisiana State University Press,1989; Alive Together: New & Selected Poems, Louisiana State University Press, 1996. “Curriculum Vitae” from Alive Together: New & Selected Poems.

Scates, Maxine. “Her Voice” from Undone, New Issues series, Western Michigan University, 2011.

Stafford, William. “Serving with Gideon” from The Way It is, Graywolf Press, 1998,  An Oregon Message,  1987.

Trethewey, Natasha. “White Lies” from Domestic Work, Greywolf Press, 1999.

Venn, George. “Forgive Us…” From Off The Main Road, Prescott St. Press, 1978. Appeared in Poetry Northwest, Volume 19, Issue 2, 1978; Pushcart Prize IV: Best of the Small Presses, Pushcart Press, 1979; Rain In the Forest, Light In the Trees: Contemporary Poetry From the Northwest,Owl Creek Press, 1983; Marking the Magic Circle, Oregon State University Press, 1987; and From Here We Speak: An Anthology of Oregon Poetry, Oregon State University Press, 1993.

Weigl, Bruce.  “In the House of Immigrants” from Archaeology of the Circle, Grove Press, 1999; What Saves Us, 1992.

Williams, Crystal. “The Embrace” taken from the website Oregon Poetic Voices