The exemplary sentence

Despite the madness of war, we lived for a world that would be different.

Several years ago, I started posting favorite passages from prose that I am reading. I stole the title “The exemplary sentence,” from Mark Doty’s blog. It seems apt. This excerpt is from Tadeusz Borowski’s amazing book, This Way for the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen, which I first read in a Penguin paperback in the 70s and reread recently. The book is a collection of stories, the first stories that made the concentration camp experience seem real to me, to see how it simply became daily life for the participants, who to stay alive, necessarily became collaborators in their own imprisonment.

Here is one passage, slightly edited:

“Despite the madness of war, we lived for a world that would be different. For a better world to come when all this is over. And perhaps even our being here is a step toward that world. Do you really think that, without hope that such a world is possible, that the rights of man will be restored again, we could stand the concentration camp even for one day? It is that very hope that makes people go without a murmur to the gas chambers, keeps them from risking a revolt, paralyses them into numb inactivity…It is hope that compels man to hold on to one more day of life, because that day may be the day of liberation. Ah, and not even the hope for a different, better world but simply for life, a life of peace and rest…We were never taught how to give up hope, and this is why today we perish in gas chambers…

But still we continue to long for a world in which there is love between men, peace, and serene deliverance from our baser instincts…And yet, first of all, I should like to slaughter one or two men, just to throw off the concentration camp mentality, the effects of continual subservience, the effects of helplessly watching other being beaten and murdered, the effects of all this horror. I suspect though, that I will be marked for life. I do not know whether we shall survive, but I like to think that one day we shall have the courage to tell the world the whole truth and call it by its proper name.”

Borowski did survive, and the power of his work led Larry and I to find and translate his poetry years later, still the only selected poems of his in English. His survival was brief however, as like many survivors, he couldn’t stand that the world had not changed, that telling the truth made little difference. His life ended in suicide in 1951. Nonetheless, the work remains for those who care to read it.

Yannis Ritsos

This morning in my email I found this poem from the Paris Review. I loved the tone of it–quiet, haunting–no pretentions or duties.

Achilles After Dying

He was very tired—who cared about glory any longer? Enough was enough.
He had come to know enemies and friends—purported friends:
behind all the admiration and love they hid their self-interest,
their own suspicious dreams, those cunning innocents.
on the little island of Leuce, alone at last, peaceful, no pretensions,
no duties or tight armor, most of all without
the humble hypocrisy of heroism, hour after hour he can taste
the saltiness of evening, the stars, the silence, and that feeling—
mild and endless—of general futility, his only companions the wild goats.
But here too, even after dying,
he was pursued by new admirers—usurpers of his memory, these:
they set up altars and statues in his name, worshipped, left.
Sea-gulls alone stayed with him; now every morning they fly down to the shore,
wet their wings, fly back quickly to wash the floor of his temple
with gentle dance movements. In this way
a poetic idea circulates in the air (maybe his only justification)
and a condescending smile for everyone and everything crosses his lips
as he waits yet again for new pilgrims (and he knows how much he likes that)
with all their noise, their Thermos bottles, their eggs and phonographs,
as he now waits for Helen—yes, that same Helen for whose
fleshly and dreamy beauty
so many Achaeans and Trojans (he among them) were destroyed.

Yannis Ritsos—Translated from the Greek by Edmund Keeley

The exemplary sentence

I’ve been rereading Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, my favorite of her books. As it opens, lovely, graceful, and without money of her own, Lily Barth needs to find a husband. She’s already 29, old for the job. But it’s hard for her. She attaches herself to Percy Gryce, a rich, eligible bachelor and draws him out on his favorite books, but he is so boring that just thinking about him later brings his droning voice clearly to mind, and she imagines the work of getting him to propose, summed up in this sentence.

“She had been bored all the afternoon by Percy Gryce–the mere thought seemed to raise an echo of his droning voice–but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honor of boring her for life.”

Funny, but ultimately tragic for Lily, who can never quite bring herself to this wholly mercenary level. A wonderful read to finish up the summer.

Natalie Diaz

I know I’ve posted something from  her book, Post-Colonial Love Poem, but I came across this one recently and love the sensuality in contrast to the landscape and car details.

If I Should Come Upon Your House Lonely in the West Texas Desert

I will swing my lasso of headlights
across your front porch,
let it drop like a rope of knotted light
at your feet.
While I put the car in park,
you will tie and tighten the loop
of light around your waist —
and I will be there with the other end
wrapped three times
around my hips horned with loneliness.
Reel me in across the glow-throbbing sea
of greenthread, bluestem prickly poppy,
the white inflorescence of yucca bells,
up the dust-lit stairs into your arms.
If you say to me, This is not your new house
but I am your new home,
I will enter the door of your throat,
hang my last lariat in the hallway,
build my altar of best books on your bedside table,
turn the lamp on and off, on and off, on and off.
I will lie down in you.
Eat my meals at the red table of your heart.
Each steaming bowl will be, Just right.
I will eat it all up,
break all your chairs to pieces.
If I try running off into the deep-purpling scrub brush,
you will remind me,
There is nowhere to go if you are already here,
and pat your hand on your lap lighted
by the topazion lux of the moon through the window,
say, Here, Love, sit here — when I do,
I will say, And here I still am.
Until then, Where are you? What is your address?
I am hurting. I am riding the night
on a full tank of gas and my headlights
are reaching out for something.

Natalie Diaz
originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine (April 1, 2021).

Keetje Kuipers

At the Minnesota Northwoods Writers’ Conference, Keetje Kuipers gave a knock-out reading. I bought her most recent book, All its Charms, and have been slowly reading through it. She has the amazing ability to make her poetry seem like easy, natural speech, while at the same time packing so much into each word.  I especially love the tenderness in her work. Here’s a sample:

Landscape with Ocean and Nearly Dead Dog

Should I lay him on the slab at the vet’s? Let
somebody else do the work? Or back at home

in the yard, my coward’s hand on the syringe,
the last of the bird song in our ears? Now I find

one pink shell, one gray, watch my daughter
knee-deep in the waves as a child swims toward her

chewing flecks of styrofoam. It’s chicken, says the girl,
Eat it. And the ibis eyeing them, god-only-knows

in its gullet. What makes me want to take these fractures
home? The shale of blue plastic covered in stony

warts, starfish arm severed in the night, feelers
still tickling the air. I hold the dog’s head

in my lap, let him smell on my salted hands
every little thing we’re willing to give up.

Keetje Kuipers


I just finished a slim, posthumous book of Adam Zagajewski’s poems. This little poem seems to me to capture exactly how it feels to long to write when you can’t:


We always forget what poetry is
(or maybe it happens only to me).
Poetry is a wind blowing from the gods, says
Cioran, citing the Aztecs.

But there are so many quiet, windless days.
The gods are napping then
or they’re preparing tax forms
for even loftier gods.

Oh may that wind return.
The wind blowing from the gods
let it come back, let that wind

from The Life
translated by Clare Cavanagh

Raymond Carver

It’s rare that a writer can work well in both prose and poetry. Raymond Carver, best known for his short stories, has also written some intriguing short poems. Here’s one:

Sunday Night

Make use of the things around you.
This light rain
outside the window, for one.
This cigarette between my fingers,
these feet on the couch.
The faint sound of rock-and-roll,
the red Ferrari in my head.
The woman bumping
drunkenly around in the kitchen . . .
put it all in,
make use.

Raymond Carver


My high school had an ancient Dutch Elm on a hillside that was the logo of the school, so the blight that hit the elms was devastating, not just for itself, but for the school’s identity. The school recovered, of course, though the elm did not. So the title caught my attention when I saw Valencia Robin’s poem. But the quality of the poem was what made me post it here–it’s turn from and return to the absence of trees so imbued with sadness:

Valencia Robin
first printed in the New York Times and later iin Poetry Daily





One of the deep pleasures of this blog is discovering poets I hadn’t encountered before whose work dazzles me. Today it’s Megan Nichols, whose poem I first read in Poetry Daily. My mother, a psychoanalyst, was a thoughtful interpreter of dreams. It was her forté–she could ask the right questions to eke out the often confusing meaning. So I found this poem especially vivid and moving as it cascades to the action of the ending.

Interpreting Dreams

If everyone in the dream is you
(and everyone in the dream is you)
then when you stand naked in the classroom,
you are the classmates, the teacher, and the flesh.
And when your mother drowns you in the tub
you are the mother, the child, and the bathwater.
And when all your teeth fall out at once, think
of yourself as not just the Chiclets clattering
to the tile, not just the empty mouth gaping, gums
softening like frozen yogurt melt. No, think
of yourself as the fall too, not the thing that will fall,
or the thing that has fallen, not the force behind
the falling, nor the thing that falls. You are the verb,
the act of, the motion as it moves.

Megan Nichols

from Threepenny Review

Not Monday, but…

I will be rafting next week, so this post is for next Monday.  I saw this lovely lobster poem in Sean the Sharpener’s morning missive–poems about crustaceans. I had previously posted Nemerov’s wonderful lobster poem. Kay had an “s” on flamenco, which I ruthlessly and presumptuously removed. I hope she doesn’t mind. Also in Sean’s post was a link to a Robert Johnson tune,

I enjoy Robert Johnson’s music, but to me every tune of his seems the same, which I mentioned to Larry. “But that’s because when Alan Lomax recorded him, he only wanted him to play the blues,” said Larry. “He played all kinds of music, popular tunes, dance tunes, whatever people wanted, but that’s the only recording of him we have.”

He went on to tell me that when Lomax’s recording came out, in 1961 it had a huge influence on the Rolling Stones and other rock groups in England, which then came back across to influence American rock and roll. Robert Johnson was almost unknown when he died, and for decades after, but when that record came out his influence was huge.

“Too bad he’d already sold his soul at the crossroads and died,” I commented, referring to a legend about Johnson.

“Well, at least he attained an aristocratic place in hell,” was Larry’s quick response.

All this to bring you this little poem:

Crustacean Island

There could be an island paradise
where crustaceans prevail.
Click, click, go the lobsters
with their china mits and
articulated tails.
It would not be sad like whales
with their immense and patient sieving
and the sobering modesty
of their general way of living.
It would be an island blessed
with only cold-blooded residents
and no human angle.
It would echo with a thousand castanets
and no flamenco.

Kay Ryan
from Elephant Rocks