When I heard Ada Limon read, “Joint Custody,” I was so moved, as was my daughter, Angie, who is a child of divorce. Ada’s poem got me thinking about a certain kind of psychological transformation that can occur when something that is painful moves towards a kind of acceptance. I am interested in poems that reflect this type of change.
For me, I remember most a generalized anger—almost forty years of it— towards my dad, that as I reached my sixties and to my great surprise, evolved first to pity, then compassion. I feel that surprise in Ada’s poem. My acceptance of my father was the kind of relief that Wendell Berry describes in his poem, “Enemies:” ‘Forgiven, they go/ free of you, and you of them;/ they are to you as sunlight/ on a green branch.’
For this feature, I solicited work from poets I admire that show this kind of psychological transformation and asked each writer to describe it as best they could. I was moved by their responses— the rush of poems that came back to me with such generosity and genuine enthusiasm. I think, especially during these fraught times, the pull towards the healing power of poetry, its ability to help each of us to accept and to forgive others and ourselves to some degree, is even more important. I can’t recall where I read it, but Octavio Paz spoke of this need, how pain requires transformation in order that it be bearable—to allow us to go on.
The ten poets here are approaching “forgiveness” and “acceptance” in very different spheres and realms: from the sacred to the quotidian, from intense personal grief to grief about humankind. From what constitutes the homeland of the mind to a speaker’s discovering their love for the geographical place in which they live.
A giant thank you to all the poets for the time and care they have given to this feature.
“Prayer works for me like a kind of righting-the-compass—praying with my brother as I was doing in this poem very practically and tangibly led me back towards loving my brother, seeing and celebrating our singular and irreproducible love. Prayer, like poetry, doesn’t supplant action—it points towards it.”
How Prayer Works
Tucked away in our tiny bedroom so near each other
the edge of my prayer rug covered the edge of his, my
brother and I prayed. We were 18 and 11 maybe, or 19
and 12. He was back from college where he built his own
computer and girls kissed him on the mouth. I was barely
anything, just wanted to be left alone to read and watch
We prayed together as we had done thousands of times,
rushing ablutions over the sink, laying our janamazes out
toward the window facing the elm which one summer
held an actual crow’s nest full of baby crows: fuzzy, black-
beaked fruit, they were miracles we did not think to
My brother and I hurried through sloppy postures of
praise, quiet as the light pooling around us. The room
was so small the twin bed took up nearly all of it, and
as my brother, tall and endless, moved to kneel, his foot
caught the coiled brass doorstop, which issued forth a
loud brooong. The noise crashed around the room like a
long, wet bullet shredding through porcelain.
My brother bit back a smirk and I tried to stifle a snort
but solemnity ignored our pleas—we erupted, laughter
quaking out our faces into our bodies and through the
floor. We were hopeless, laughing at our laughing, our
glee an infinite rope fraying off in every direction.
It’s not that we forgot God or the martyrs or the Prophet’s
holy word—quite the opposite, in fact, we were boys built
to love what was in front of our faces: my brother and I
on the floor draped across each other, laughing tears into
our prayer rugs.
Kaveh Akbar, “How Prayer Works” from Pilgrim Bell. Copyright © 2021 by Kaveh Akbar.
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Graywolf Press, graywolfpress.org.
Kaveh Akbar is the author of Pilgrim Bell (Graywolf Press, 2021) and Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books, 2017), and editor of The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse (Penguin 2022). Born in Tehran, Iran, he teaches at Purdue University and in the low-residency MFA programs at Randolph College and Warren Wilson, and serves as poetry editor for The Nation.
“The work of a poem is to change us–both the writer and the reader. This poem did that for me. I took another step toward acceptance of the past. And my obsession–wishing that it had been different–loosened its grip just a little. The most important change came in recognizing the seriously strong love and commitment of my daughter.”
As I’m walking on West Cliff Drive, a man runs
toward me pushing one of those jogging strollers
with shock absorbers so the baby can keep sleeping,
which this baby is. I can just get a glimpse
of its almost translucent eyelids. The father is young,
a jungle of indigo and carnelian tattooed
from knuckle to jaw, leafy vines and blossoms,
saints and symbols. Thick wooden plugs pierce
his lobes and his sunglasses testify
to the radiance haloed around him. I’m so jealous.
As I often am. It’s a kind of obsession.
I want him to have been my child’s father.
I want to have married a man who wanted
to be in a body, who wanted to live in it so much
that he marked it up like a book, underlining,
highlighting, writing in the margins, I was here.
Not like my dead ex-husband, who was always
fighting against the flesh, who sat for hours
on his zafu chanting om and then went out
and broke his hand punching the car.
I imagine when this galloping man gets home
he’s going to want to have sex with his wife,
who slept in late, and then he’ll eat
barbecued ribs and let the baby teethe on a bone
while he drinks a cold dark beer. I can’t stop
wishing my daughter had had a father like that.
I can’t stop wishing I’d had that life. Oh, I know
it’s a miracle to have a life. Any life at all.
It took eight years for my parents to conceive me.
First there was the war and then just waiting.
And my mother’s bones so narrow, she had to be slit
and I airlifted. That anyone is born,
each precarious success from sperm and egg
to zygote, embryo, infant, is a wonder.
And here I am, alive.
Almost seventy years and nothing has killed me.
Not the car I totaled running a stop sign
or the spirochete that screwed into my blood.
Not the tree that fell in the forest exactly
where I was standing—my best friend shoving me
backward so I fell on my ass as it crashed.
And I gave birth to a child.
So she didn’t get a father who’d sling her
onto his shoulder. And so much else she didn’t get.
I’ve cried most of my life over that.
And now there’s everything that we can’t talk about.
We love—but cannot take
too much of each other.
Yet she is the one who, when I asked her to kill me
if I no longer had my mind—
we were on our way into Ross,
shopping for dresses. That’s something
she likes and they all look adorable on her—
she’s the only one
who didn’t hesitate or refuse
or waver or flinch.
As we strode across the parking lot
she said, O.K., but when’s the cutoff?
That’s what I need to know.
“Indigo” from Indigo, Copper Canyon Press, 2020
Ellen Bass’ most recent book is Indigo (Copper Canyon, 2020). Among her honors are a Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the NEA and three Pushcart prizes. She coedited the first major anthology of women’s poetry, No More Masks! and coauthored The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. A Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, she teaches in Pacific University’s MFA in Writing Program.
Since 2016, I’ve been lending a hand at several organizations that help animals in need, and while I have my fair share of sweet moments, like holding a milk-drunk orphan squirrel in my palm or scratching the long sugar-scoop ears of a donkey, it’s not always easy work. I’ve been bit and kicked and scratched and head-butted more times than I can now count. When I first began volunteering, I was like a lot of folks who watch silly-sweet animal videos on social media, convinced that wildlife rehabilitation centers and farm sanctuaries are all cuteness all the time. But the real learning began when I truly understood just how animals have personalities and moods and needs of their own, just like we do, and the better they know someone, the less they’re afraid and thus apt to show who they really are. It was when I surrendered my idea of what I thought animals should be and started to really listen to what they had to say to me that things began to change. It was then I began to become the kind of person who found the love I needed by giving it away.
is possum-nipped. Is pig-bit. Is cat-scratched. Is goosed
by a cantankerous goose, a goose egg of a welt rising up green
on my thigh. Is my left pinkie, sprung by a cow
not mean at all but blind and simply elated to hear
the rattle of feed in her bowl; is my right wrist, hen-pecked
by a hen sadly brooding over one warm egg
that will never hatch.
Shit-streaked and mud-slung, I shine,
goat turds trapped in my hair and in the cuffs of my jeans,
one dried renegade somehow making its singular way
into the toe of a Saturday-night stiletto
I never wear anymore. It wasn’t always this way:
once, a temperamental sheep took aim
with his sledgehammer skull to boss me into surrendering
my wheelbarrow of hay and I was done in—I let him
take what he wanted, sunk defeated to my knees and swore
I’d quit all this nonsense farm work. But then I realized:
he considered me part of the flock—otherwise,
he’d never treat me that way. It was then I knew
I meant something to my non-human kin, that I’m
family now. So I got up, shepherded that troublesome boy
behind the fence, finished my chores for the day. Later,
in the shower, I bore witness to all
the little nicks and scrapes, every sunspot and bruise,
all the imperfections marking
the different kind of animal
Nickole Brown is the author of Sister and Fanny Says. She lives in Asheville, NC, where she volunteers at several animal sanctuaries. To Those Who Were Our First Gods, a chapbook of poems about these animals, won the 2018 Rattle Prize, and her essay-in-poems, The Donkey Elegies, was published by Sibling Rivalry Press in 2020. In 2021, Spruce Books of Penguin Random House published Write It! 100 Poetry Prompts to Inspire, a book she co-authored with her wife Jessica Jacobs, and they regularly teach generative writing sessions together as part of their SunJune Literary Collaborative.
“This poem came as a great surprise to me twenty years after my father’s sudden death. When he was sick with Hepatitis C, we never expected him to pass away so quickly, and so I often treated his requests for attention with resistance and, sometimes, outright hostility. Looking back through the poem, though, I was able to see how much pain he was in, and feel compassion both for him and for my twenty year old self, not knowing how much I would miss those times together when he was no longer here.”
All I Want
Two decades without him, and all I want
is one of my father’s plain white T-shirts
draped over the back of a chair after work,
to trace the map of grease-stains and islands
leftover from his dried-out sweat.
To feel it peeling off his back as he asks
for another massage, and to give it this time
with full knowledge of how much pain he’s in,
without counting down the minutes
on his bedside clock.
To see that jade cross
dangling beneath the band of his V-neck
as he bends to tend the tomatoes, to ask
why he dug it out of a flea market box,
and started wearing it those last months,
rubbing the stone when he thought
no one was looking.
To lift one of his T-shirts
out of the closet where I keep them, and feel
my hand reaching through the cotton weave
to work the knots from his aching back
one last time.
From Every Waking Moment. Lynx House Press, 2021. Reprinted with permission of the poet.
James Crews is editor of the bestselling anthology, How to Love the World, featured on NPR’s Morning Edition, as well as in The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post. He is the author of four prize-winning collections of poetry: The Book of What Stays, Telling My Father, Bluebird, and Every Waking Moment, and his poems have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Ploughshares, and The Sun. Crews teaches in the Poetry of Resilience seminars, and lives with his husband in Shaftsbury, Vermont. To sign up for weekly poems and prompts, visit: www.jamescrews.net.
“’Pass Over’ is a poem I began in blind rage. Rage at the cruelty we visit upon one another, most egregiously upon helpless children, rage at my own powerlessness to change things in any significant way. I won’t say the transformation is toward acceptance, exactly, but it is toward a calmer take on the long histories of human suffering. Structurally, the poem’s invocation of collective narrative and ceremony modulates from bitter irony to something more like acknowledgment: others have been here; others have witnessed this; others have sought comfort in community.”
- Plague of Darkness
You point a camera at a kid, the kid
to smile, he said. No matter part
of his mouth is missing, eyelid
the rest of his face such a mass
of infection and half-healed burns they’ll
make it right again. You know
what the surgeon found in his scalp?
Six broken points of it, puncture wounds
some of them twelve months old. They figure
made him wear a ski mask for those
thousand and some odd miles on the bus
didn’t somebody turn her in? The kid
is eight, the camera belongs to forensics, and
he’s supposed to smile. Do the math.
If anyone here were in charge, my vote is scrap us
and start over.
- Plague of Frogs
Indicator species is the phrase, I think.
Which means we pour our poisons in the streams
and these poor creatures grow an extra
leg or lingual tumors or a cell wall so
that the larvae fail. In my new favorite
movie it begins as rain, a burst
and mucus on the hero’s car, the hero
such as he is, poor man, who’s lost
his gun and now
is lost himself before the windshield’s slick
indictment, throat of frog, webbed foot
of frog, split
belly sliding down the glass in red
and yellow closeup, thence to join
on the street, boot deep now, bred
of neither air nor water but of god’s disgust
Behold them, said the prophet, in
thine ovens and thy kneading troughs. And
then he said, Take,
eat. This is the body you have made.
- Plague of Locusts
Because there’s never enough. No, not
in this bright
field of surfeit: milk rings on the phone bill, tracked-in
honey where the cats came through, lost
last year’s coggins on the tackroom floor.
My neighbor back in Somerville had only the
path to walk, from table to toilet, toilet
to bed, the rest was floor to ceiling with what normal
away. I see how it comes to this. Never
enough of it battened down. I lose my pills, he said
to me once,
they’re rolling around on the floor somewhere.
The Parsis bring their dead, as Zoroaster
to have taught them, to Malabar Hill, where
when the world was well the birds
to simplicity in ninety minutes flat.
The birds are purpose-built for this, their scabrous
a nearly paraphrastic kinship to the fetid
stuff they tunnel in. O who will come who will
The birds cannot keep up.
- Hyssop, Lamb
Explain to me the writing on the door posts,
will you, now,
while the angel gorges on them
and theirs, each that was first to open the
still matters in this first world,
that much I have seen and do in part
Archived in the space behind the lintel
and its hasty script, a logic of division
that has made
the world articulate, a portal for each
fine discrimination of the covenanting
And heaven has its discards too, there’s not
a book I know that tells me otherwise.
trouble reading in this light though.
Was it something in the water, or before?
“Pass Over” from WATERBORNE by Linda Gregerson. Copyright © 2002 by Linda Gregerson. Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.
Linda Gregerson’s seventh book of poems, CANOPY, was published by Ecco in March. She teaches at the University of Michigan, where she also directs the Helen Zell Writers’ Program.
“It’s easy to believe, especially when young, that national, cultural, even familial constructs are immovable facts, simply The Way Things Are. So as a queer Jewish tomboyish girl growing up in Central Florida in the televangelist-inflicted ‘80s and ‘90s, I often felt like not just an aberration but an abomination, someone who would be shunned if anyone ever saw me as I truly was. Yet it wasn’t clear to me until writing this poem that in my rejection of the norms that pressed me to be both straight and far more feminine, I had also rejected any affiliation with organized religion, seeing at that time only the parts of Judaism that made me, as a woman, feel like less than a full person (it wasn’t until my twenties that I saw a female rabbi or a woman carry a Torah). And now that I’ve returned to Judaism, despite delving into the study of Torah and surrounding texts, despite writing an entire collection inspired by the Book of Genesis, I often find my old insecurities returning, wondering if I’ll ever be Jewish enough, ever feel like I’m anything enough. Yet this poem also helped me reconnect with the earlier version of myself who didn’t turn away from what she knew to be her guiding truths, and encouraged me to want to do right by her.”
“Thorns and thistles will sprout for you when you seek to eat the grasses
of the field; by the sweat of your brow shall you get bread
to eat.”—Genesis 3:18-19
Imposter Syndrome Among the Thorns and Thistles
How old were you, when the world tipped
its hand? When things you thought were natural
showed their seams? I was thirteen. On trucked-in pallets
across the street, squares of scutch grass
stacked high as my head. Did you know a lawn
could be delivered? I didn’t. But lured by promises
of doing equal work with the boys,
I hauled and placed, puzzling them neat
as a sheet of graph paper.
The girls that year had begun
to paint their faces, a line of cheap orange stark
along their jaws. Unlike me, they had not yet learned the art
of how to blend: all those boys I pretended to like, all the girls
I pretended not to. In thrift stores, we tried on others’
past-season selves—the clothes, like the kids in the hallways,
grouped by color and type. We wore masks of slang and song lyrics,
dropped band names like currency, smoked skunk weed
copped from an older brother’s underwear drawer. Mirrors held
a special magnetism: Instead of homework, I studied myself.
Remembered synagogue as something I’d been forced
to attend; prayers, as music for the lives of other people.
And after school, I walked past the grass, the contrived
squares busy stitching and joining into a lawn, passing
themselves off like they’d been there all along. Yet I could still
feel the weight of that sod, the wet itch of it on my skin, the wonder
that wherever I set it, that patch would bind itself
to the ground below.
Outside, the lawn; inside, me: Were both fake
just because I’d helped make them?
All day, my neighbors’ sprinklers stuttered covenants
of rainbows. All night, to the hiss of their groundwater whispers,
I traced out my new hips and breasts, the possibilities
I might evolve into.
And now, decades on, I’m trying to grow
a lawn on me, transplanting the tradition
of my ancestors. Heavy with questions,
I zip myself into Judaism like a patchwork parka
of grass, hoping it might take hold, might
one day fit snug as a golf course greenway.
If something isn’t natural can it still be true?
This poem first appeared in Talking River and was written for Matthew Olzmann’s Constellation Route (Alice James Books, 2022).
Jessica Jacobs is the author of Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going (Four Way Books), Pelvis with Distance (White Pine Press), and Write It! 100 Poetry Prompts to Inspire (Spruce Books/PenguinRandomHouse), co-authored with her wife Nickole Brown. Four Way Books will publish her collection in conversation with the Book of Genesis in 2024.
“When I was in elementary school, I was entranced by the story of a Revolutionary-era girl who saved her horse from being conscripted by soldiers by hiding it in her upstairs bedroom. How cool not only to have a horse, but to keep it in your bedroom! And then, on a field trip to Tempe Wick’s house, I realized with great disappointment that this couldn’t actually have happened. I think the surprise, in writing the poem, was realizing how much I still want to believe the story—the safeguarding of this huge, wild, powerful animal spirit—and realizing, too, that there’s some deep way in which I actually do believe it, even though my logical mind knows it’s a legend, a myth.”
Even as a child, I knew the story
couldn’t be true
when I saw the house
where the girl is said
to have prevented British soldiers
from seizing her horse during the Revolution
by hiding it in a bedroom
on the upper floor. That staircase
too narrow and steep
to ever have admitted
such a creature. Still,
something in me wants
to keep the story
close, the way the girl
must have wanted
to keep close the enormous
animal. Look now,
you can see them
climbing: the girl’s one hand
clasping the bridle, the other
the neck’s damp silk,
the horse’s hooves ringing
against worn wood, as it moves
trembling, nostrils flared—
each step bringing it closer
to a place it has never seen.
Copyright@ Kasey Jueds
Kasey Jueds is the author of Keeper and The Thicket, both from the University of Pittsburgh Press. She lives in a small town in the mountains of New York State.
“Almost thirty years ago I was talking to the Nebraska poet, William Kloefkorn on the street one day and he asked me if I’d been invited to read poems at an event out on Grand Island, Nebraska, and I said no I hadn’t heard about it at all and I was generally sort of angered by this thinking I had been left out of something. And I said, “Tell you what, Bill, I’m going home tonight and write a poem about Nebraska, and I want you to take it and read it out there.” And I intended to go home and write a snotty poem about Nebraska and how small it was and one thing and another like that, and I got home and started working on this thing, and knowing I had to get it done in the morning I worked pretty late into the night and as I wrote I began to understand how much I really love this place where I live.”
So This Is Nebraska
The gravel road rides with a slow gallop
over the fields, the telephone lines
streaming behind, its billow of dust
full of the sparks of redwing blackbirds.
On either side, those dear old ladies,
the loosening barns, their little windows
dulled by cataracts of hay and cobwebs
hide broken tractors under their skirts.
So this is Nebraska. A Sunday
Afternoon; July. Driving along
with your hand out squeezing the air,
a meadowlark waiting on every post.
Behind a shelterbelt of cedars,
top-deep in hollyhocks, pollen and bees,
a pickup kicks its fenders off
and settles back to read the clouds.
You feel like that; you feel like letting
your tires go flat, like letting the mice
build a nest in your muffler, like being
no more than a truck in the weeds,
clucking with chickens or sticky with honey
or holding a skinny old man in your lap
while he watches the road, waiting
for someone to wave to. You feel like
waving. You feel like stopping the car
and dancing around on the road. You wave
instead and leave your hand out gliding
larklike over the wheat, over the houses.
From Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980), © Ted Kooser 1980, used by permission of the author and the publisher. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Poetry Foundation recording made on 10 July 2007, Lincoln, Nebraska.
Ted Kooser’s most recent collection of poems is a chapbook from Pulley Press, “A Man with a Rake.” He lives in rural Nebraska and is a former US poet laureate and Pulitzer winner.
“The strange thing about living long enough, is having the same experience from different vantage points. Parents know about this kind of upside down déjà vu. So do teachers. We’ve all had it at some point. I started to write this poem when I stumbled upon my own: packing boxes for a sibling who died by suicide. Once, as an unknown friend of a friend (or even more removed?), and once, a decade or so later, for my own brother. In the first several drafts, I could not let go of the slight resentment I felt toward the helpers. The sense of how they were not at the heart of the horror. I envied their remove. I’m not sure I felt it at the time (I was so overwhelmed), but I did in memory.
However, I know a poem is not interesting if it rests with its feet in their original position. It must walk, find another vantage point. It was then that I realized the obvious—my family and I needed those helpers, not only for their practical support, but also for their cool remove, which kept the emotional temperature in the air at bearable levels. In the end, it feels more like an ode to innocence, or, if not innocence, then to the emotional distance of the spectator, the hoverer, the one, in that moment (we all take our turn), outside the center of the storm.”
It’s a faint memory now—a hot day in June,
a stranger’s house on a hill. Packing the sheets,
the towels, the books. Myself and others—no evidence
of blood or spilled pills on the rug. No length of rope
hanging from the rafters. Only the stale dishes, left in the sink,
and by the door, boots, still crusted with dirt.
I tried not to look at her, the sister, bereft, her face
flushed and blank as she moved about the room,
picking things up, putting them back down, tossing them
into the boxes on the floor.
I kept my eyes downcast, an interloper, trespassing
among the ruins. And all the while, I felt—how
to name it?—the small, immodest flower
of helpfulness, bloom in my chest.
How could I have known I, too, would pack away
my brother’s life in cardboard squares,
gather the impossible burden of his shirts, his shoes,
the black, leather jacket that still smelled of his cologne.
I can almost recall one or two (the babysitter? her friend?)
hovering around—as I once did—safe in their periphery.
Going about the motions without having to enter the story.
And worse, feeling better, having done their part
to erase him. Though, in truth, what would
I have done without them, passing from room
to room, busying themselves with purpose,
the fragrance of their innocence buffering the air.
Danusha Laméris’ first book, The Moons of August (2014), was chosen by Naomi Shihab Nye as the winner of the Autumn House Press Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the Milt Kessler Book Award. Some of her work has been published in: The Best American Poetry, The New York Times, Orion, The American Poetry Review, The Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, and Prairie Schooner. Her second book, Bonfire Opera, (University of Pittsburgh Press, Pitt Poetry Series), was a finalist for the 2021 Paterson Poetry Award and the winner of the Northern California Book Award in Poetry. The 2018-2020 Poet Laureate of Santa Cruz County, California, she currently co-leads Poetry of Resilience webinars with James Crews, and is on the faculty of Pacific University’s Low Residency MFA program.
“Using “I pardon” began, as the title declares, as an exercise—in its many senses. Who, in idiomatic speech, uses the sovereign expression “I pardon”? I began with a catalog of lines meaningful to me, though not particularly profound. As an emotional thrust took hold of the poem toward the end, my parents entered the poem, including my father for whom I’ve felt the strongest resentments. I wouldn’t say that the poem represents a complete reconciliation with a man who could not let go of anger or express love, but it forgives his powerlessness, his being caught in the “cage” of his afflictions.”
Exercising a Verb Seldom Used in the First Person
I pardon fastness and lassitude and the wind
for its wiliness. I pardon
hope for facing off against hope,
I pardon Sundays in the long ago, their hours
as long as whale songs.
I pardon my ancestors for being landless
and squirrels for their rodent ways and wearing boas
at the wrong end. I pardon literalness and
fear of flying, fear of diving, fear of spiders,
because I’ve never had them, but once
in the Manuel Antonio house I smashed a spider
the size of a fist and its liquid splattered the skin
of my arms and legs, and it was fearsome and unforgettable.
I pardon knowledge for its impossible vastness
and the God particle for its infinitesimal infinitude
and the bureau of time for defining
the exact hour of twilight. I pardon a scientist
for harvesting fog, but science brings up too many
numbers after the decimal point, so excuse me
if I go back to my own anxiety,
which I pardon for its namelessness, but not for its
clammy grip. I pardon, you pardon, he/she/it pardons
my lost friend for hopscotching out of the lines,
and never, not once, looking back.
I pardon whoever left the mess of sequin hearts
on the living room rug, because holding one in my hand
distracts me from the next pardon, the hardest,
to pardon my mother for dying
before I arrived, and I pardon her, too,
for leaving a last pulse
to let me know I was that close.
And as for you Henry, not yet, I thought at the start,
it wasn’t in me to pardon you, but now, having practiced,
why not, why not do it, Dad,
pardon you, pardon me,
your hullabaloos, my grudges,
your muteness, my blasphemy,
your blustering, my defiance.
So here then I pardon you
for never moving past anger on the list of emotions,
pardon you your cage,
pardon you for not knowing how to love
the inevitable company
we made together in our misery.
Poem used by permission of the author and Penguin Random. ©2010. All rights reserved.
Barbara Ras is the author of four poetry collections: The Blues of Heaven (Pitt Poetry Series, 2021), The Last Skin (Penguin, 2010), which won the Texas Institute of Letters Best Book of 2010, One Hidden Stuff (Penguin, 2006), and Bite Every Sorrow, which won the Walt Whitman Award (selected by C. K. Williams) and also received the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. In 2004, Ras published an anthology of short fiction in translation, Costa Rica: A Traveler’s Literary Companion. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations, among others. She lives in Denver.
“I grew up in LA and we went every year to see the swallows return to Capistrano. It’s possible it was enchanting and enjoyable at one time, but it became a duty as I got older. My father was of his time, patriarchal, selfish you could say. My mother was in charge of us (all five) while he forged ahead. When I began the poem, I was focused on my resentment, his lack of respect for my mom and women in general. And as happens when one is excavating memory, I had a flash. One particular ride home for some reason, he wasn’t driving but sitting with me and my younger brother in the back seat. I was maybe twelve. We had a sort of bantering, affectionate exchange for a while before I fell asleep. Because my father had very recently died, those few close, positive memories were golden. And it turned the poem in a much better, more interesting direction. “
Revisiting San Juan Capistrano
The place would have been a mess
with so many birds, but what I’ve kept
is my mother in her picture hat
like a halo, the newest baby on her hip.
And I’d swear to bougainvillea, tumbling
in pink torrents over walls halfway to ruin.
It turns out there isn’t a vault in the brain
where memories are preserved like relics;
they assemble afresh each time,
like swallows flocking
through shadow and sun. My father strides
forever ahead, flourishing
his cigar as he extols beauty and proportion.
But who’s to say he wasn’t kind?
That he didn’t sit beside me on the ride home
while I settled to sleep on his shoulder.
From Red Wheelbarrow
Cynthia White’s poems have appeared in Adroit, Narrative, Massachusetts Review, New Letters and ZYZZYVA among others. Her work can be found in numerous anthologies, including “Grabbed: Poets and Writers on Sexual Assault, Empowerment, and Healing.” She was a finalist for The Slapering Hol 2021 Chapbook Prize and the winner of the Julia Darling Memorial Prize from Kallisto Gaia Press. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.
“Landscape With a Hundred Turns” is a poem about misunderstanding integration. It is, in its intentions, a poem describing the experience of loving someone who constantly changes. Yet, the repetition of writing those changes, of participating and lamenting through the safe retelling of metaphor, taught me how I had fundamentally misunderstood the task to be about my own adaptability. I wanted the changing “rooms” to stay, so I stayed despite overwhelming evidence that they would not stay with me. Even in writing, I wanted the abstract changes to come together into a certain sense. But the poem revealed exactly what it says. I enter many rooms in my life: rooms with and without a past lover, rooms that are pages, rooms that are homes I have lived in. And in each room there live these illuminations which make this constellation. The shape cannot be predicted or known. But it traces necessary changes—movements of the consciousness and the heart that make a life “far in the past and far in the future.”
Landscape with a Hundred Turns
When you turned into a hundred rooms,
I returned each month as a door
that opened only one.
When you turned into a hundred rooms
the wind flung through
each of them wailing
and left a hundred songs
in hopes you would return for it
and me and
once, finding a doe locked up,
the trees blued up
the mountain pass, I understood
you had transformed into your multiple,
as the rain is different
each step from the moon. Sleeping
in a hundred rooms, a hundred dreams
of you appear—though by day
your voice has frozen into standing stones.
When you turned into a hundred rooms,
I met with a mirror in each eye
your growing absence.
When I moved, the shadows without you
followed me. In the hundred rooms,
I cannot pick one,
for each combines into the other
where I piece-by-piece the shadows
you have ceased
to remember. As the rain
is different each day of the year,
when I turned for you
and hoped you’d return to me,
was it I who left
and you who remained the same?
For when you changed,
the furniture in the rooms.
A hundred birds flew over a hundred fields.
A mountain flowed into a hundred rivers
In a hundred rooms,
I turned and turned,
hoping to return to you.
O, the chrysanthemums grew
in the hundred rooms!
Far in the past and far in the future
were those numinous and echoing stars.
Copyright 2021 by Yanyi. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July, 2021, by The Academy of American Poets.
Yanyi is the author of Dream of the Divided Field (One World 2022) and The Year of Blue Water (Yale University Press 2019), winner of the 2018 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, finalist for the 2020 Lambda Literary Award in Transgender Poetry, and one of 2019’s Best Poetry Books by New York Public Library. Currently, he gives creative advice at The Reading and teaches poetry at large. Find out more at yanyiii.com.