Showing posts from 2020


            for my father

Hanging up
from the call
I set to cleaning
the floor,
the sink,
the counters,
the fridge,
as if the grim
I heard
were grime
I could
scour away,
a pail of
dirty water
I could
pour down
the drain.
You were
father to
fields and barns,
too much
a man
to spend time
in a kitchen.
Yet for all
my scrubbing
this is where
the stubborn stain
of your suffering

Play notes: My father was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Christmas Eve. He is now under hospice care. Love you, Dad.


How to bless you these wild precious days?
Throw open the door before you knock.
Receive every shade of who you are.
Seat you at the table before you’re hungry.
Greet the light that shimmers in your chair.
Pour your tea like ceremony.
Wait upon the words you say
like the soundings of a bell
not rung since ancient times.
Speak truth to you, keeping faith,
even when its sharp edge glistens.
Help you walk the ground of your soul
and soar the heavens of your mind.

My joy in you overflows every cup.
Not even sorrow or fear can hold it.
In this world together, by miracle or fate,
we lean into its pleasures and pain,
each moment between us a living shrine.
I won’t ask for your blessing.
Already it is mine.

Play notes: I wrote this with intention, wanting a poem to share in this season of celebration. It needed, I felt, to be a blessing. Thank you for blessing me with your attention.


I weep to hear
my mother weep
telling how her mother wept
forty years before,
not enough money
in her tin
to buy my brother
a wedding gift.

Thus are the
tears of the mothers
visited upon their daughters
through generations.

We blot the grief
from our mothers’ cheeks
with rosebuds and pansies
hand-stitched on hankies
by the needles of Eve.

Play notes: A family story, recently shared by my mother, is at the heart of this one.

What the Moon Said

You can go away
and come back
without ever leaving. 

Sometimes you must shrink
to grow. 

You have many faces 
that are true. 

Sometimes you must repeat yourself
to be fully understood. 

Darkness is light
waiting its turn. 

Sometimes you best reveal yourself
in slivers. 

Your hidden influence
alters worlds. 

Sometimes you’re undervalued
until you disappear. 

Even when you seem gone, 
you’re always there.

Play notes: A conversation with the moon, when full, inspired this poem. 

A Creation Story

After “Everybody,” by Marie Sheppard Williams

In the beginning was a poem.
And in the poem lived an old man
fashioned from the damp and dust of words,
breathing the fresh air of white space.
This man wore a dirty canvas coat,
thick with signatures,
thousands of names in black and blue—
the ink of people at bus stops,
on bridges, in stores,
in factories and hospital wards,
in prisons, on porches,
on street corners waiting for the light to change—
everybody he’d ever asked to sign,
in every place he’d ever gone,
trying to get every soul.

On a certain day in summer,
a woman chanced upon that gap-toothed man
living in his poem in the heart of a book
she took down from a neglected shelf in her home.
As soon as they met, his coat flew up from the page
and built a nest in the tree of her mind.

There it remained until winter blew in
and knocked the coat from its forgotten perch.
She found it in a box in her cluttered closet,
no longer scruffy but new, somehow,
cardinal red instead of brown,
made not of canvas but quilted goose down.

I am part of everybody, she wrote in black
above her name in the middle of the back.

Can I sign too? asked her young son.

Thus was another coat begun,
big enough to carry the world.

Play notes: Perhaps you've heard about my red "I am part of everybody" coat. I started wearing it nine years ago. Anybody who believes that they're "part of everybody" can sign it. This is a tribute poem for Marie Sheppard Williams, whose poem planted the idea for this piece of performance art in my mind. Read Williams' poem here.

When I Said You're Beautiful

When I said You’re beautiful, you
stared at me without speaking.
Shook your head.
Chewed harder on your gum.
Opened your eyes wide.
Arched your brows.
Stepped back in shock.
Hid behind your shades.
Adjusted your hat.
Glanced away.
Tucked strands of hair behind your ears.
Scratched at your whiskers.
Struck a pose in fun.
Smiled behind your hand.
Beamed a grin.
Laughed as if I’d told a joke.
Gazed at me calmly.
Bit your lip.
Wiped away tears.
Covered your face.
Said You’re calling me beautiful?
       What do you mean?
       Only my mom tells me that.
       I can’t talk about this….
       Precious to hear you say so—sometimes I forget.
       I’m beautiful in my own way.
       It’s one of those things you want to tell yourself 
       but you never fully believe.
       I work on it. Every single day.
       You’ve got to be at peace with yourself.
       You’ve got to know your worth.
       Beauty comes from within.
       Everyone should wake up in the morning 
       and like what they see in the mirror.
       The world needs more of this.
       That’s kind. That’s sweet.
       You just made my day.
       Thank you. Thank you.
       You’re beautiful, too.

Play notes: Last week I watched an hour-long video filmed by Thoraya Maronesy. She'd recorded the reactions of random individuals when she told them simply, “You’re beautiful.” Most of her subjects—an endless parade of ages, colors, and backgrounds—were taken aback by her words. Nearly all of them seemed touched, in different ways. When the video ended, I distilled those beautiful people into this poem.

Note to the Pandemic

Forgive us for writing this brief note
instead of speaking face-to-face.
We thought it better, for safety’s sake.
It’s been hard to know just how to relate
since you first barged through our door.
We’d never met before that day,
yet you didn’t knock—
just swept in like you owned the place
and settled yourself for a nice, long stay.

What were we supposed to do?
Let you move about, but keep our distance?
Lock you in the master suite?
Some thought if we let you have your way,
you’d soon get bored and go away.

Every day you wander room to room,
listing all the flaws in our big old house.
She’s sick, you say, pointing out the cracks
in the foundation and the walls,
the outdated wiring,
the leaky roof,
the leaden pipes,
the uneven floors,
all the crooked windows and doors,
every corner that isn’t square—
problems we never knew were there
or didn’t want to see.
We can always tell where you’ve been inspecting
by the smell that rises up and spreads.
We’ve learned to hold our breath.
When the house at night is trying to sleep,
it fills with the sound of your quiet weeping.

Right now you’re up in the attic again,
rafters creaking beneath your feet.
We’ve laid your suitcase on your bed.
When you finish, please pack and go.
You’ve done us a favor, exposing our troubles,
though we wish you’d chosen another way.
Leave us your list of things to fix.
The best place to start is where we begin.

Play notes: I asked myself, "What might the pandemic have come to teach us?" This poem is the answer that emerged.


In the dark
In the cold
You burn
Not trying to give light
Just being light
Not trying to give warmth
Just being warmth
Not regretting
Not fretting
Not grasping
Not holding back
Not needing a sermon
Or a reason
Not hoping for thanks
Or wanting praise
Not fearing puffs of breath
Or drops of water
Or even the snuffer’s cone
Just dancing
Where you stand
As candles do
A little wick
A pillar of wax
Till your burning’s

Play notes: An older poem, brought out of hiding.

58 Pandemic Prayers

            on my 58th birthday, March 26, 2020 

May we all survive to another birthday.
May we greet the sun each morning and rejoice in being alive.
May we breathe the miracle of fresh air.
May we honor every moment as a chance to begin anew.
May we root our faith in richer soil than worry.
May we let separation knit us close.
May we see faces besides our own in the mirror.
May we recognize all people as kin.
May we cherish them as much as ourselves.
May we stay home to keep them safe.
May we nurture the body that houses our soul.
May we have adequate shelter, food, water, medicine, and rest.
May we share freely from our abundance.
May we resist the temptation to hoard.
May we ask for help without hesitation or shame.
May we draw comfort from the company of animals, flowers, and trees.
May we befriend the sounds of silence.
May we welcome the intimacies of solitude.
May we dive to the depths of our being and bring up blessings we didn’t know we had.
May we be sanctuary for one another.
May we refuse to dwell in the blindness of denial, indifference, or contempt.
May we tame our temper and carry no grudge.
May we empathize even with those we dislike.
May we gift one another with radical attention.
May we listen to one another as if lives depend on it.
May we speak as if our voice will be the last sound ever heard.
May we explore how to touch without touching, how to hold without holding.
May we not be embarrassed by tears and trembling.
May we learn from our children the joy of unstructured time and the solace of routines.
May we reassure our children about the monsters beneath their beds.
May we create new rituals of togetherness.
May we laugh from our bellies.
May we cultivate wonder.
May we help our society to do better than it has done.
May we examine problems from all angles and talk straight as lines.
May we base decisions on collective wisdom rather than contagious fear.
May we invest our trust in those who are experts, not those who pretend.
May we value health over wealth.
May we dedicate our daily work both to those we love and to the common good.
May we sustain those workers whose invisible labor sustains us all.
May we protect those who put themselves at risk to protect us.
May we transform the impossible into the doable.
May we inquire into the welfare of strangers.
May we stand up for those who are scapegoated and targeted by hate.
May we sing porch to porch until all the world is our neighbor.
May we drop expectations of how hard or long this road will be.
May we pace ourselves as we go.
May we each shoulder more of the load so that nobody stumbles beneath it.
May we prepare ourselves for the unknown.
May we follow the light of our brightest prayers.
May we live together into better versions of ourselves.
May we plant the seeds of a new world in what remains of the old one.
May we remember in the dark hours that we’re not alone.
May we let no one die forsaken, in pain, or untouched by kindness.
May we grieve the lost, though we cannot gather.
May we do right by their memory.
May we not waste a minute of the precious time they should have had.
May we love one another as we would be loved.
May our children survive us all.

Play notes: As you can see from the epigraph, I wrote this list poem back in March, in the early days of the pandemic in the U.S. It first appeared on my blog at Since then, many people have asked to share it elsewhere, so I've decided to also post it here, to give it greater exposure. Perhaps you could create your own list poem for your birthday? (Note: Depending on your device, the long lines of this poem may not break as they should. Use a computer to visit the poem's page at My Poetry Studio to read it in its proper form.)

You Asked Me to Write You a Poem

You asked me to write you a poem,
one to remember me by, someday:
Please don’t type it. Write it out.
It’s more personal that way.

Do you believe my hand is steady,
my scribbles easy to read?
Do you think the paper of my life is clean
and the ink will never fade?
There’s no perfect in me or what I make;
only struggle, and play, and a jot of grace.

I tell my pen now: Move straight, stroke slow.
Pay attention to what comes before it goes.
Set down the text in the plainest speech you know.
Laugh aloud at your clunkers and mistakes.
Don’t worry—you get as many tries as it takes.
Leave enough space to find yourself
between the letters, the words, the lines.
Nap between stanzas, or have a glass of wine.
Abandon this desk to walk in the world.
Absorb the rhythms and rhymes that swirl.
When you’re back inside and begin to write more,
nothing will be as it was before.

These shaky lines are my right hand’s best.
May they matter to you, though we’ve never met.
I do what I do for the sake of love—
every poem, too soon, is over and done.

Play notes: This poem surprised me. I almost always write in free verse. But when the fairly regular meter and rhyme began to appear in my first draft, I relaxed into what the poem wanted to be, without binding myself to a particular structure or rhyme scheme.

The Next Thing That Love Demands

In the moment we wake up, lost
and alone, choking on desert sand,
we understand: we can go home again.
We wait to move until the cool of night
when animals come out to hunt and play.
Wind has erased every trace of our old
steps from the dunes. We look to the stars,
follow their compass toward morning.
We lap up dew from desert grasses.
We sleep in the shadow of red rocks,
lazy vultures spiraling high above.
We track pigeons and doves for miles.
Just as our throats begin to burn with despair,
the straight line of a wild bee leads to a well.
Here by yellow primroses we swill down life.
Here we soothe our parched skin and soak
our clothes, preparing to carry on. Here we fill
goatskin bags with water and shimmy up
tall palms to pick sweet dates, gifts to slake
the thirst of those we love but left so long ago.
Now we know how desperate a body can be
for even a sip to swallow. Now we know
how a spirit can rejoice to find in desolation
what keeps it alive. It is here, in wilderness,
where we learn to do the next thing that love
demands. It is here where our wandering guides
us back to the home we left but did not lose.

Play notes: I jotted down the title for this poem on my recent retreat in the woods. I can't remember where the words came from—I don't think that I dreamed them up, but I can't locate their source anywhere. I had no idea what the poem would be about. It led me into the desert, of all places!

Praise This Life

            for Pat Schneider, 1934-2020

The bowl looks down from the highest
shelf, nearly beyond your reach.
Had it been meant for ringing,
its maker would have cast its bronze
as a bell, but this bowl is meant for singing
a tone, like you were meant to sing in poems.
Shades of night are crowding in, but
fugitive light from a single lamp gleams
on metal as you lift the bowl down.
The gift once given to you, you give to me,
laying it in my palms like an old book of psalms,
hymns of praise illuminated by paint and gold.

One last time you tap the wooden mallet
on the side of the bowl—strike, too harsh
a word. A deep voice rises up to bless
and soothe. The bowl always answers
when called upon, more faithful than a muse.
We sink into the stillness of the sound.

This is the patience of ordinary things.
They live among us, awaiting our full attention;
are faithful until we pass them on, with full affection.
And like this plain bronze bowl, held by hands
that love but dare not cling, their voices always
praise this life when asked by the heart to sing.

Play notes: The poet Pat Schneider, whom I counted as a friend, passed away in August. I didn't learn of her death until October. When I sat down to write a tribute poem for her, my way of grieving, my mind filled with the night she gave me her singing bowl. It was the last time I saw her in person. I sound that bowl each morning upon rising from bed. Also in the background of this poem were some of Pat's writings, including her poem "The Patience of Ordinary Things" and a blog post in which she describes "trouble ... [as] the key that opens the door for praise to come through." Rest in peace, Pat. No more troubles. 

Conversation with My Nice White Self

I’m not a racist.
I’m a nice person. 

      We know
      a lot of really nice
      just like us.

But I don’t see race.
I only see people.

      Is that why we’re afraid to be alone
     in an elevator with a black man?

Black people are racist, too.

      Don’t change the subject.
      We’re talking about us.

It’s impolite to notice
the color of someone’s skin.

     It’s impossible not to notice.
     Impolite is pretending
     color doesn’t matter.

Talking about race divides the country.

       Not talking about race divides the country.
      We’ve never learned how to do it.

Being white in this society
doesn’t benefit me one bit.

      Like being a fish in water
      doesn’t help the fish?

That’s just your opinion.     

      Ask any fish.

There’s no such thing as white privilege.

      We’re swimming in it.
      We can only see it
      if we’re brave enough
      to beach ourselves
      on dry land.
      We can only change it
      if we learn how
      to stand up  
      and breathe
      out of water.

Things will get better faster
if we just make nice. 

      History suggests otherwise.

Why don’t they just get over it?

      Maybe because
      it’s far from over.

Everything I say
they take the wrong way.

      Maybe if we talk less
      and listen more?

But you don’t understand.

      What don’t we understand?

I’m a nice person.
I really am.
Isn’t that enough?

Play notes: This poem has a very different style and tone from much of my poetry. I'm not sure it works, but I wanted to try. I believe that along with every other white person in this country, I'm racist. I can't help but be, having been born into a racist society as a member of the dominant caste. Racism isn't everything I am, but it's built in. With effort I can learn to be anti-racist.


Please Don't Stop By the House Unannounced

            for L. H.

you can’t bear
any tires on the gravel
any footfall on the porch
any shoes inside the door
any coat on the hook
any food in the fridge
any body in the chair
any face
any touch
any voice
any story
any love
that isn’t his

Play notes: This wasn't play at all. I wrote it for a poet friend upon learning that her husband had been killed in an accident. Peace to you in your grief, L.H.

Hiking a Poem

Start out not knowing where you’re going.
Leave your phone at home, or switch it off.
Pack only what’s essential.
Wear sturdy shoes well suited to your feet.
Don’t borrow someone else’s.
Bring trekking poles, maybe a friend or two,
for balance and support,
Be prepared for all kinds of weather.
Hope for anything, expect nothing. 

Follow your inner compass,
even if the needle points you straight
into wilderness where every mile looks like the last.
We pay closer attention when we’re lost.

Set your own pace.
Respect the heart of the land.
Avoid ruts. Take no shortcuts.
Laugh at your stumbles.
Appreciate the muck you must wade through;
the piles of dung you step in, too—
you’re not the only critter in this poem.

When the ground is level, keep your head up.
Notice the pelicans on the lake, the season of the trees,
the wedges of geese, the Pleiades.
When toiling uphill, keep your eyes on your feet.
Sink your body into the slog.
Don’t be in a rush to descend again.
Downhills can be hard on the knees.

Don’t ask if the poem is good enough.
Walk its path as a guest, with nothing to prove.
You’ll reach the end when you get there.
Pass through the place with such humility
and care, no trace of you will survive
the wild words you find, not even
your name carved on a tree.

Play notes: This poem can be traced to an earlier one, "Hiking the Loop." When posting that, I accidentally typed "Hiking the Poem." I laughed aloud. Wasn't that a title begging for a text? I drafted it during last week's personal writing retreat in the woods (which, by the way, involved a fair amount of hiking).

Let's Start with a Poem

I’m writing this poem
because it’s all I can do.

I can’t set the world right.
I can’t put out the wildfires.
I can’t calm the hurricanes.
I can’t lower the oceans.
I can’t hold back the floods.
I can’t end the pandemic.
I can’t heal the sick.
I can’t raise the dead.
I can’t cancel the debts.
I can’t hire those without work.
I can’t house the homeless.
I can’t feed the hungry multitudes.
I can’t keep the schoolchildren safe.
I can’t relieve the droughts on the farms.
I can’t stop the violence in the cities.
I can’t pretend that color doesn’t matter.
I can’t wash away the sins of slavery.
I can’t get racist knees off dark-skinned necks.
I can’t return this land to its original peoples.
I can’t tear down the border wall.
I can’t uncage the children.
I can’t restore their mothers’ stolen wombs.
I can’t deflate the conspiracy theories.
I can’t spin all the lying into truth.
I can’t make new enemies become old friends again.
I can’t build peace out of scraps of hate.

But I will still try
to find words for this poem.

This is how we can begin.

Play notes: This was the first poem I wrote on the personal writing retreat from which I've just returned. Perhaps like you, I'm sometimes overwhelmed by despair over the state of my country and the world at large. Writing this proved cathartic. It enabled me to move into a somewhat lighter creative field.

Hiking the Loop

Head the other way for once.
Backward to your usual forward.
South instead of north.
The trail won’t mind if you do.

Let the sun peer over
your other shoulder.
Let the mirror of the lake
reflect your shadow side.
The water will still hug the shore.

Go around the burial ground
only a half-mile in
instead of hours later.
The dead will still keep
company with the sod.

Enter the open stretch of prairie
from the west instead of the east.
Its tall grasses will still bow their heads,
worshipping the breeze.

Rise up into the woods
instead of sloping down.
The trees will still welcome you.
The hawks will still watch,
the blue jays still squawk,
the squirrels still scatter.

Somewhere out in the middle of the loop
you’re apt to meet your old self
striding down the narrow path.
Smile to greet her.
Step aside to let her pass.

Play notes: Funny how habituated we can become to the smallest things! I wrote this poem after hiking a loop trail (ha, I first typed "after hiking a poem") clockwise after having always hiked it the other direction. 

Hard Freeze

It’s too early in the season
but no one told the frost. 
The sky, flat and gray
as an old griddle, promises
no cover. The only clouds 
around are the faint plumes
of your breath as you stoop
through the helpless garden
picking green tomatoes, 
yanking unripe peppers, 
scavenging for baby beans, 
mourning half-grown melons. 
So much is beyond saving. 
Too many living things, still
in their prime, about to perish
from this precious patch 
of earth. If this is the dying 
time, as the forecasts predict, 
you’ve reached the end
of your humble powers.
All you can do now is prepare
yourself for the fall of night: 
tuck your little ones tight 
in their beds, trusting sheets
of cloth to keep them safe
as the killing cold descends.

Play notes: The seed for this poem was a hard freeze in our garden on September 10, 2020. I wrote it the following day, the tragic anniversary of "9-11." I didn't consciously connect the poem with those terrible events but noticed a resonance after finishing.


            for my son, Nathan LanTian Cole-Dai

Before you were born
I dreamed of you,
old man in a baby’s body,
speaking in a sage’s voice,
telling me secrets of the universe.

These days I dream dreams
of another you, a child
of five or six, always beyond
my field of vision,
the sound of my voice,
the reach of my hands.

Both dreams are true—
both man and boy
are at home in you.
In my heart, too.
The man, getting comfortable,
the boy, running in and out,
each playing his part.

Let them be as they are.
You’re growing into the son
I’ve loved from the start.

Play notes: I wrote this for my son's eighteenth birthday, September 4, 2020.


They say the story’s too strange to believe.
No way it can be true. But aren’t we born for this—
to make room for impossibilities? To live at
the porous border between known and unknown,
where ghosts and spirits may gather and speak?
Aren’t we like grandmothers holding open the door
for mysteries, those breathless children running in
from the yard to cool themselves in the shade
of our breasts? We catch the door behind them
before it bangs shut, ease it back into place between
ourselves and infinity, the light and shadows
of other worlds passing through the wire screen.

Play notes: I've had too many strange experiences and heard too many stories not to believe in forms of energy we call "ghost" or "spirit" or "ancestor." How about you?

Your Turn

I believe in
        neighborly potlucks and pots of coffee
        trees (especially old ones)
        bicycles and flowers and porches
        boats and balloons and birds—
              anything that floats or flies
        the air we breathe without thinking
        sanctuaries and solitude
        the delight of digging potatoes
        the necessity of pulling weeds
        wide open sky, ever changing
        gentle rains on wild grasses
        deep snow in the high country
        wandering in the wilderness
              to find ourselves again
        fires on the hearth
I believe in
        the blessing of this hard, precious day
        the uncertain ground we walk upon
        the promise of children
        the faithfulness of friends
        the kindness of strangers
        love that doesn’t cling
        the wisdom of letting good things be
        our responsibility to step over the line
              of what’s nice
              for the sake of what’s right
        every poem and story and song
        whatever it takes to crack us open
              to question
              to dream
              to build

I believe in
        the smallness of what I know
        the value of what you know
        the vastness of what we can know together
        the existence of what we can’t know at all

I believe in

Play notes: If you subscribe to Staying Power, you might recognize that this poem began as an essay. One subscriber mentioned to me that my prose sounded very poetic, so I decided to play around with it, crossing genres. I thank her for that nudge. I also thank my teenage son Nathan, who offered suggestions that improved my late drafts. Now, as the poem title says, it's your turn. If you'd like, write a poem about what you believe in.

Old Teacher

                        for R.L.

Her envelope arrives by postal miracle,
addressed in Alzheimer hieroglyphs.
Inside the card are five scrawled lines
of nonsense, the ink smudged by her skin,
sent from the prison of her disease.
I can’t begin to say what they mean.
Yet her signature at the end is letter-perfect,
unchanged as basic rules of grammar,
small victory won over her runaway brain.

I abandon my keyboard, take up a pen and paper,
negotiate a truce between my hand and the page.
I don’t mean to condescend.
I print for her with care, as if a child again.

Play Notes: R.L. was one of my elementary school teachers who nurtured my early writing instincts. An itty-bitty woman with a soft raspy voice, she could nevertheless command a class's attention. I adored her. We stayed in touch over the years until she was afflicted, much too young, by Alzheimer's. It eventually claimed her life. This poem is about the last communication we shared.

In Line at the Grocery Store, 6PM

I miss
the tenderness,
the man
of me
to his cart,
or to the
to me,
six feet
in tears
my mask.

Play Notes: This poem grew out of something I witnessed while standing in line at a corner market more than 20 years ago. I just placed it in a pandemic setting. The grocery store, by the way, is a great place to shop for poetic inspiration, even during a pandemic. If you must buy your groceries in person, watch for a "good deal" from your muse on your next trip.

So Your Teacher Made You Hate Poetry

Stand up straight, she said, then stared,
waiting for you to recite by heart an old sonnet
or ode you couldn’t follow. Poetry’s meant 
for someone smart, you told yourself, mumbling
memorized words that sounded like hooey,
or secret code. Every time you stumbled,
she made you start again from the top.

Why can’t poets just say what they mean?
you thought, pausing for breath between stanzas.
And just like that you forgot the next word.
Every trace of chalk, erased from the blackboard
of your miserable mind. Back you went to that awful
first line. Enough, she said at last with a smirk,
red pen scribbling in her green gradebook.

Why do I have to read this stuff? you wanted
to shout, but clamped your mouth shut,
and locked your voice down, and never read
another poem in your life, by choice anyhow,
until now—when finally you’ve begun
to see it’s never too late to learn to love
what somebody else once taught you to hate.

Play Notes: So many people have told me stories over the years about how they learned to dislike poetry when they were forced to recite it in school. This poem is for all of them! But as the last two lines reveal, the poem is about more than poetry. You might try to write a poem in which the significance of the text changes, or takes on an added dimension, at the very end. This sort of thing is common in poems, especially in "wisdom" or "didactic" poetry.

The Mistake

Power sees it and punishes.
Mercy sees it and forgives.
Fear sees it and pretends it doesn’t.
Anger sees it and doesn’t forget.
Wisdom sees it and seeks to change.
Shame sees it and piles on.
Compassion sees it and understands.
Apathy sees it and doesn’t care.
Friendship may see it before it happens.
Love sees it and loves anyway.
Vanity never looks.

Play Notes: I dashed off this poem after a recent mistake that I regretted very much. By the time I finished, I was feeling better. If you're burdened by a mistake or regret, try playing with it on paper and see if a poem arises.

The Back Pew

The worn back pew has emptied fast,
the one where you and your friends always sat.
You’re the last to go. You’ve made your peace
with losing your place. You know you’re due.
Your bones are brittle, your heart is tired,
your nose has grown long as a liar’s, your ears
are big and deaf as lettuce leaves. Years ago
you struck a deal with death: till your turn
came, you’d do your best to love the rest
and keep them safe. But now death’s gone
and taken your son before you. It gets you
thinking it’s true, that thing nobody wants
to say: that every blessed soul under heaven
spends every day on the same hard bench.

Play Notes: My immediate inspiration for this poem was a message received from an elder friend who had just suffered the death of his son. But lingering in the background are all who experience loss. Nobody is immune. We're all mortal, and to pretend that we're not does nobody any favors. Perhaps you could try to write a poem in which you express, or wrestle with, your own sense of mortality.

Advice for the Mountains

Craggy stacks rise from the floor around your worn armchair.
They squat atop your desk.
They march across your piano and kitchen table.
They tower in twin peaks beside your bed. 
In the living room a ridge of books runs in that sweet space
between the top of the bookcase and the ceiling with the peeling 
Elevations are always shifting, but generally the peaks are 
     inching higher. 
Some have grown so tall, a few titles are shrouded in clouds. 
A faint trail stretches from one distant end of the range to the 
Take it in short segments. 
Attempting a through-hike in one season is not recommended. 
Your poor eyes wouldn’t make it to the finish. 
Best to start somewhere in the middle. 
Pack enough food and drink for the journey, 
and a dictionary to brush up on your vocabulary. 
You can always burn it, page by page, to warm your hands in a 
Expect plenty of tough climbs. 
(Mountains are rarely flat, after all.) 
Don’t skip the hard parts, lest you miss a sentence that could 
     alter your view. 
Beware of tremors that could trigger an avalanche, 
especially right above you, 
though being buried in books would be a happy way to go. 
Let your progress be a grand slog. 
Stretch often, and be kind to your eyes.
They carry you up and down the slopes, keeping your hike alive.
Trust them when they say they need to rest. 
Don’t count how many pages you turn per day. 
This isn’t a race. Don’t be in a hurry.
Bring along a friend if you want, but give them plenty of space.
Remember extra coffee. Forget your map and compass.
Getting lost out here is fine.

Play Notes: Doggone, but this blog template doesn't like long lines—forgive the strange breaks. Anyway, this playful poem grew out of my obvious affection for books and my inability to read as fast as I would like. The idea came to write an extended an analogy between living among stacks of books waiting to be read and hiking among mountains. I did some Internet browsing related to "mountain hiking advice." That brief bit of research helped me compose the poem. If you were going to compare your reading habits to another activity, what would it be? Could that comparison inspire a poem?


Three thousand miles south
of this place, your mouth opens
wide into the Gulf of Mexico.
But here, at your humble source,
your waters creep north. Your life,
lived in ceaseless rounds
from lake to sea to sky to rain—
has made this much plain:
To get where you must go,
you must sometimes go
somewhere else. The way
forward depends on the lay
of the land. You follow
the givens, what’s necessary
and true, right through
to the end. I can’t see
around the next bend.
But here light ripples
on your quiet face. Young fish
stroke your belly. Warblers sing,
cattails shiver, insect wings offer
hushed applause, all for love
of you. Rest a while longer.
The journey will find you
after the pause.

(At the headwaters of the Mississippi,
Lake Itasca, Minnesota)

Play notes: My recent (and first) visit to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, located on the north end of Minnesota's Lake Itasca, inspired this poem. Such a peaceful, humble beginning for such a mighty river! Poets have often drawn life lessons from their observations of rivers and other bodies of water. Perhaps you could visit one near you, or draw upon memory, to compose such a poem of your own. "River" (above) was originally twice as long; the text meandered all over the place. Don't be surprised if your river poem wants to flood your page too.

Good Trouble

            for Congressman John Robert Lewis (1940-2020),
                after Isaiah 11:1-9

A shoot came out from the stump of slaves
       and a branch from the roots of sharecroppers
The spirit of the divine rested upon him
       the spirit of wisdom and understanding
       the spirit of counsel and might
He did not judge by what his eyes saw
       or decide by what his ears heard

              We Serve Whites Only
              Whites Only Beyond This Point
              Colored Only Served in Rear
              No Dogs, No Negroes, No Mexicans, No Jews

but with righteousness he judged the poor
       and decided with equity for the meek of the earth

              Peace cannot exist where justice is not served

He struck the earth with the rod of his mouth

              Get in good trouble, necessary trouble
              and help redeem this country’s soul
              When you see what is not right
              not fair
              not just
              you have to speak up
              You have to move your feet
              Never be afraid to make some noise

Righteousness was the belt around his waist
       faithfulness was the belt around his loins
and freedom was the robe upon his shoulders
       worn in pulpits and on the streets
       worn at lunch counters not meant for his kind
       worn in forbidden seats on public buses
       worn across the bloody Edmund Pettus Bridge
       worn in beatings, in shackles, in jails
       worn for the March on Washington
       worn straight into the halls of Congress

The wolf shall live with the lamb
       and the leopard shall lie down with the kid

              It’s not enough to just dream
              You get out and push
              And you pull
              And you preach
              And you get men and women
              of goodwill
              to act

The cow and the bear shall graze
       and the lion shall eat straw like the ox

              Create a society at peace with itself
              We all live in the same house

       and a little child shall lead them

              You are the light
              Never let any person or force
              dampen or diminish it

They will not hurt or destroy
       on all this holy mountain

              Release all bitterness
              Hold only love and peace in your heart
              Lay down the burden of hate and division
              It’s too heavy a burden to bear

For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the divine
       as the waters cover the sea

              We have been too quiet for too long
                      This is the time

Play Notes: I felt a tremendous loss when I heard that Representative John Robert Lewis had died last Friday. He was a vital force for good and "the conscience of the Congress" to the very end. One of his favorite biblical passages was Isaiah 11:1-9. To form the core of this poem, written in homage to him, I decided to interweave some of that passage with his own words. In a way, this is yet another "response poem." Have you tried one of your own yet?

On the Cemetery Road

          for Molu Zarpeleh, 2010-2020

This cemetery road has never felt so walked on.
Hundreds of heels, grinding gravel down to dust.
Our trudging behind your hearse is the only sound
beneath the wailing of your mother. They say
that people in your native land still mourn in ways
we white people no longer do. We no longer gather
to wash the body. We no longer build the coffin,
the body’s last house. We no longer carry the body
to the grave, shouldering together what we’ve lost.
We no longer dig with our own shovels the final bed.
We no longer lay the body down in the ground
with our own hands and cover it with a quilt of soil.
We no longer rip our clothes and shred the air
with moans. So, here in this silence, on this road,
it’s the wind in our faces that wails with your mother,
wanting her not to feel so alone. And now a baby, too,
is crying. It must remind her of you, her first, her only
son. Molu. I never met you, but I whisper your name
in rhythm with my steps. Molu. They say your bike
and sandals lay in the soft grass at the edge of a pond.
Molu. They say that’s where they found you, drowned
at the bottom. Molu. They say it was an accident.
They do not say why a smart boy who smiled and danced
through the halls of his school would wade into that water
when he couldn’t swim. Molu. Our loose procession
up this lonely stretch of road will bring you home
to your ancestors. Molu. They are waiting all around
your canopied grave. We don’t have the eyes to see
them but already, marching down this hill, we weep
to feel them, wrapping their arms around this world
of sorrows. Even in death, Molu, you are kind. Forgive
us for not keeping you safe enough. Forgive us
for slowing our steps, for holding back, for holding on.

Play Notes: This poem is based on the funeral procession of 10-year-old Molu Zarpeleh, a Liberian immigrant residing in Brookings, SD. Molu drowned in a pond. As of this writing, his death is still under investigation. Sometimes pouring heartbreak into a poem helps me contain the grief. Perhaps you could write a poem about a recent loss that you (or your community) have suffered.


At your voice on the recording,
a tear plows down
the slope of my cheek.
I hadn’t really been listening
to the message playing,
too distracted by a chore,
until something umbilical
in my blood tuned in
to the tenderness
on the machine,
to the sound that’s been there
since before my life began.
The daughter in me heard
what the rest of me didn’t
and she wept a tear to know you
are still there, but won’t always be.

Play Notes: During this pandemic, it's a great sadness in my life that I can only be with my mother via the phone or FaceTime. Perhaps you, too, are estranged from someone you love. Write them a poem? I read this one to my mother, and we both got teary.


          After Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers
perched on nothing, in mid-air —
so black against the glare of sun
it makes me stop and stare —

Now I spot my eye’s mistake —
the bird’s on a sapling’s tip
high above the marshy lake —
feet clamped upon a twig —

The blackbird isn’t still at all
but swaying in the breeze —
he warbles not to keep me warm
but to startle souls from sleep —

You can hear him in the chillest lands —
beside the strangest seas —
his voice is sweetest in the storm —
of deep extremity —

He fluffs his feathers — swells his chest —
displays his badge of fire —
parts his beak and trills his best —
is answered by a choir —

He sings the tune without the words
and never stops — at all—
he’s asking more than crumbs of us—
but who will heed the call?

Play Notes: The inspiration for this poem was a red-winged blackbird that my husband and I noticed, perched at the very top of a sapling. At first, the bird appeared to be perched in mid-air, because we couldn't see the tree's tip. It was a stunning sight. Later, while trying to write about it, I thought of Emily Dickinson's "Hope Is a Thing with Feathers." I decided to play off her poem. Perhaps you could write a poem playing off a famous poem that you like?

Old Friend

After months of quarantine,
heavy heartache and quiet,
the world sucking up
all the air in the house,
I sit down and try to write again.

Outside the door
imagination begs
let me in, let me in.
Of all the loves in my life
I may have loved her longest
and best but all loves change
under the influence of absence.
Intimacy grows into a stranger,
estrangement into kin.

Now she’s out and about
behind her mask but I’m still
in lockdown. I stay
on the surface of words,
keeping my distance,
afraid of turning
the key to admit her.
How to be touched?

I pray she finds
a way to open me,
comes tripping in,
old friend shining through
the skin of what’s new,
and of all that’s been lost
and broken, too.

Play Notes: I've found the pandemic a very difficult time to write sustained projects, like a novel. But I've been drawn to writing poetry. So grateful for the visits of my muse! Perhaps you could write a poem that personifies your muse (or imagination) in some way and describes your efforts to connect with it.

If You Ever Wonder

          A response poem for Gloria Heffernan

I want you to know
in these dark days
when all the world
is utterly changed,
one thing that remains
is how we feel
when anyone opens
the book of Us
to a random page
and finds a truth
they had forgotten.

Nurses and doctors,
meat packers and crop pickers,
journalists and janitors,
clerics and counselors,
bus drivers and truckers,
mail carriers and shelf stockers,
first responders and trash collectors,
scientists and governors and cooks,
every essential worker
eats and drinks
from the book of Us.

Pots and pans clang
from balconies and windows
flung wide from street to sky.
We are the cheering crowd, the book of Us
assembled and bound
together between soft covers
by a strong, supple spine.
Every page is sacred text.
Nobody is not essential.
We are the prayer for our ailing world
and this is the beginning of our shift.

Play notes: A few months ago, the poet Gloria Heffernan sent a poem of gratitude to me and my co-editor Ruby R. Wilson for Poetry of Presence. Ruby and I had never met Gloria, or even communicated. Gloria’s poem, “In Case You Ever Wonder,” floored me. By way of reply, I decided to write a “response poem,” building on Gloria’s own words. You can read the two poems here, side by side. I've since shared this poem through the Gatherings project, a powerful “art-and-poetry based experiment in giving and receiving” that has emerged from the pandemic. You might wish to try writing your own poem in response to another poet's reflections on the pandemic. (You could even write in response to this one!)

I Want to Play

I want to play like the bird
          that plunges from sky into lake
and surfaces with beak dripping
          with fish. I want to play
like ebony and ivory beneath the knobby
          fingers of an old pianist,
home at last after a life in exile.
          I want to play like my toddler son
once did, making friends of monsters,
          tunnels of doors, secret rooms
of walls. I want to play
          like the bumblebee bouncing
over my tingling skin
          without ever stinging.
I want to play like Brandi Chastain
          ripping off her jersey on the soccer field,
baring skin without shame
          for joy. I want to play
like eyes that study the chessboard
          with such care and skill
and still make the wrong move,
          and laugh out loud. I want to play
like the leaves that turn their silver bellies
          up to the wind, inviting rain. I want to play
like the magician whose sleight of hand
          is so practiced, nobody wants to learn
how it’s done. I want to play like words
          cascading down the page
in search of a soft place to land,
          freefall of pleasure.
I want to play as if hard work never taught me
          to forget how.

Play notes: I drafted this poem last month during an online class with Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, one of the finest poets and kindest people I know. Ruby Wilson and I featured several of her poems in Poetry of Presence, our popular anthology of mindfulness poems. I invite you to follow Rosemerry's prompt: Think of a repeated phrase along the lines of "I want to play," or "I want to sit," or "I want to dream." Then write a poem in which you complete this phrase, line after line, with images. As Rosemerry would say, lower your expectations and just have fun.