Sawnie Morris on ‘Signaling to You’:
“Signaling to You” began with a dream. I had no idea what the dream was “about” and felt an urgency to explore it. The dream caught my interest because in it two realities existed in the exact same time and place. The dream also caught my attention because it contained a wild creature behaving like a domestic one. What’s the story with that leopard?, I kept asking myself. Just getting most of the way into a first draft was a slow process over a couple of weeks –– and once in, I wasn’t sure how to get out. I was eventually rescued by a waking life encounter with a renowned dream-worker, the late Jeremy Taylor. He heard something crucial in the dream –– something I had not considered ––regarding the nature of allies. This inspired a perspective on the dream that was helpful to me in life and, thankfully, in the resolution of the poem.
Rafael Campo on ‘Ophthalmology’:
“Ophthalmology” came to me a part of a larger sequence of poems, each one taking as its title a medical specialty, and each one written in a different received form (pantoum, sonnet, villanelle, etc). In the poem, and the larger sequence also, I was interested in juxtaposing the mechanisms and technology of poetic craft with the rigidity of medical science, and asking whether either could sufficiently accommodate a more humane way of knowing about the experience of human suffering. I wanted to push against both kinds of container with the boundlessness of what we can see and feel. In “Ophthalmology,” looking inside the eyes of a young woman beaten by her husband, the speaker observes a retinal hemorrhage, but feels anger at his own disdain for her and ashamed by seeing himself as complicit in the violence inflicted on her. In my teaching role at Harvard Medical School, I share poetry with medical students and junior doctors, as a way into discussions about empathy, cross cultural awareness, and perspective-taking, all essential capacities for the work of healing, but considered by many to be unteachable. Turns out that reading (and sometimes writing) poetry helps us to transcend the limitations of a narrow biomedical approach to illness, and to heal even when the cure eludes us. Yet I hope that the poem also complicates the clichéd poetic notion that “the eyes are the window to the soul,” as its speaker still struggles with his identification with his patient: we make our rounds, we diagnose and treat, and even if we recognize something of all of us in those under our care, too often we find ourselves right back where we started.
Laura Kolbe on ‘Brothers’:
Mary Jo Salter on ‘Forgetting Names’:
It is perhaps fitting that I don’t entirely remember writing this poem about forgetting. The occasion was only a year or so ago, which makes the forgetting worse. In any case, my father was dying after a long period with dementia. Names went first—his wife’s name and my name and my brothers’ names. He developed a crush on a woman at the nursing home who also had dementia, and my stepmother didn’t mind at all. After all, the two sweethearts did little more than hold hands across the gap of their two wheelchairs and gaze into space. When I asked the other woman’s name, my father said in a rare burst of eloquence, “When you care about people, you don’t need to know their names.” Like many people in his condition, he was canny about disguising what he had forgotten, and he had his moments of clarity. There was more than a little wisdom in what he’d said.
Whenever it was that I typed a first draft of this little poem into my laptop, I know it came from a sudden and rather liberating accommodation to the fact that most of us are subject to the world’s enduring dementia. We are cared about for a while, but the world has never needed to know our names. And it’s all right.
Clare Rossini on ‘AFTERNOON AT THE METROPOLITAN, NYC’:
In the mid-1980’s, I was a graduate student in New York City, taking and teaching classes. When my schedule allowed, I liked to walk from my apartment on the Upper West Side to the Metropolitan Museum, where I’d empty my change purse at the door–the entry fee was “voluntary”–and find a painting to hang out with awhile. The work I write about here, by the 17th century German painter Georg Flegel, was a favorite. You can find it online at
Like many still lives of the period, the Flegel pictures a table set with food and drink: an ordinary, domestic scene. But each object is painted with such tender, fierce attention to detail that you begin to feel that the painting is about something else, some quality or mystery beyond the visible. Then and now, I find it a relief to give over to such paintings, where color and shape, light and dark are carefully weighed and balanced –composed. And, at 10.5 by 13.4 inches, the Flegel seems very efficient: so much life and feeling in such a small space! Not unlike a good poem.
Mark Irwin on ‘Bright in June Sun’:
Grief. —Yes, it’s long, sometimes seemingly unending sentence—like this poem’s.
Grief. Yes, all its seemingly different perspectives. Does it help? —Grief, its color,
sometimes for me the glare of white. Grief, its distance—an astronaut’s from earth,
or a polar bear or gull’s from its prey on ice? There is the problem with tomb, a
mother’s. How do the daughter or son ever arrive? —With their leaking sacks of
time. With all the once bright-lit become dusky space.
Ramón García on ‘The Image’ and ‘Missed Romance’:”
Both “The Image” and “Missed Romance” can be loosely categorized as “love” poems. They are based on memory, the return of images I didn’t know I had repressed. Both poems, written years apart, were inspired by photographs. I wrote “The Image” after I came across a forgotten photograph of a college boyfriend, as described in the poem. In “Missed Romance” the photograph of a sinking ship, the Istanbul, came to symbolize the longing for romance and the myth of sexual passion. The passing of time revealed that I unexpectedly experienced the opposite of buyer’s remorse, a surprising regret of not having bought a photograph that continues to haunt me, I don’t know why. The private irony, that doesn’t appear in the poem, is that I have only been on ships a few times in my life, and since I am sensitive to motion sickness, they have not been amusing experiences. And yet, I’m fascinated by ships and sailors and sea life, hence my love of Moby Dick, Robert Louis Stevenson, Álvaro Mutis’s Maqroll stories and poems about albatrosses. But literature is not life, and love has an afterlife in the images that inescapably memorialize it.
Martha Rhodes on ‘How Sad’:
“How Sad” is a poem from a manuscript I am working on which looks like it will become a book-length sequence of poems (as of this writing in January 2020). The sequence is not theme-oriented in an overt way — there’s no real sense of time or place in terms of specifics and one can’t name any of the speakers. But there are threads that link the poems, one to the next — loss of place, attachments, faith, movements from interior to exterior terrains — subjective to objective realms. I guess it’s a dark book at this point — no apology here for darkness. I think there’s some dry humor as well. Sadness, vulnerability. “How Sad” seems to fit in with the other poems of this collection — at least thus far.
Charles Baxter on ‘Timetable’: