The Big State

I used to wonder how the German citizens could have let the Holocaust happen, but have since experienced the helplessness that government actions makes me feel. I think this piece by James Tate is a perfect summary of the feeling of vague guilt and helplessness in the face of the State.

The Sweep

A friend of mine, Claude Larkin, was taken into custody
yesterday and was being held on suspicion, suspicion of what
I don’t know. Claude was probably the most upright citizen
I knew. A reporter I know called me. “I’m just concerned,” she
said, “because I’ve never seen the police be so secretive. They wouldn’t
tell me what he’s being charged with. And when I asked them when
I might be able to see him, they told me he has already been
transported to federal facilities,” Patricia said. “Federal?”
I said. “That sounds scary. Jesus, you know Claude, they don’t come
any straighter than him. It must be some kind of mistake.” “Well,
yes, it certainly seems that way, but it is also my experience that
you don’t really know anybody. I mean, you know one side of them,
but there’s also another hidden side. Some cases of this are more
dramatic than others,” she said. “Well, in theory I’m sure you’re
right, but I’ve known Claude for a very long time and as much
as it might delight me to find out he has a hidden side, I’m afraid he
just doesn’t,” I said. She said she would get back to me if she
learned anything. As the weeks passed by I became more and more
obsessed with the fate of Claude Larkin, but to my shame I did Continue reading “The Big State”

Ruth Stone

Ruth Stone was discovered in her 80’s, which should give hope to many.

What Is a Poem?

Such slight changes in air pressure,
tongue and palate,
and the difference in teeth.
Transparent words.
Why do I want to say ochre,
or what is green-yellow?
The sisters of those leaves on the ground
still lisp on the branches.
Why do I want to imitate them?

Having come this far
with a handful of alphabet,
I am forced,
with these few blocks,
to invent the universe.

Ruth Stone, In the Dark

Another from the Writer’s Almanac

I really like the way this poem moves, its sudden shifts and its unsentimental ending.

The Beginning of Something Is Always the End of Another

Take the day, for instance: How the ruff
of sun’s first light shoulders the night

aside and when I butt my morning
cigarette, my absolute last cigarette,

I begin to chew my cuticles and why
my next-door neighbor drops by

daily to cry about her ex who ran off
with some little slut he met in tango class,

and when my twenty-year-old cat
misses the litter box, howls at

headlights that strafe the ceiling,
I know this will end in ashes

at a cemetery where we stood
over my mother’s urn, hugless, useless

hands dangling from our dumb arms
while on the hill above us a guy wearing

soiled khakis lounged in a golf cart,
waiting for us to understand this was it,

the end, we needed to leave already
so he could finally begin to dig.

“The Beginning of Something Is Always the End of Another” by Sarah Freligh from Sad Math. © Moon City Press, 2015. 

Antidotes to Fear of Death

Once in awhile I discover a scientist who writes a poem that moves me. That was the case with this poem, by the astronomer Rebecca Elson. I wish I’d had a chance to know her. She died at 39, but wrote, A Responsibility to Awe, edited and published after her death.

Antidotes to Fear of Death

Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.

Sometimes, instead, I stir myself
Into a universe still young,
Still warm as blood:

No outer space, just space,
The light of all the not yet stars
Drifting like a bright mist,
And all of us, and everything
Already there
But unconstrained by form.

And sometime it’s enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:

To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls,
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.

Rebecca Elson (1960-1999)


I know it’s appropriate to post a patriotic poem on July 4th, but a poem by our first US Poet Laureate is the best I can do. It seems to me that this is one of the few formal poems that feels entirely natural.

The Silken Tent

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.
Robert Frost

Hands on

I first encountered Yehuda Amichai in Chana Bloch’s translation.  Having slaughtered and cleaned many chickens, I love the image in this  excerpt, from another translator:

God’s Hand in the World

God’s hand in the world
like my mother’s
in the guts of the slaughtered hen
on Friday.
What does God see beyond the window
as he puts his hand into the world?
What does my mother see?

Yehuda Amichai (tr. from Hebrew by Harold Schimmel)

No words

Another week of mourning the senseless deaths of children. This poem, by a Jewish resistance leader against the Nazi’s is the best I can do.


It will not last. A few more weeks,
a month, two at the most,
the wounds will heal.
Everything will get better.
Apart from what is no longer there.

Abba Kovner (tr. from Hebrew by Eddie Levenston)

Thanks once again to Sean Singer for his posts, where I saw this.

Jamaal May

I heard Jamaal May read about 10 years ago. A real treat, and here is a more recent poem of his I found. His book, Hum, is worth owning. I haven’t yet read his newer book, The Big Book of Exit Strategies, where you can find this poem.


There are birds here

for Detroit

There are birds here,
so many birds here
is what I was trying to say
when they said those birds were metaphors
for what is trapped
between buildings
and buildings. No.

The birds are here
to root around for bread
the girl’s hands tear
and toss like confetti. No,

I don’t mean the bread is torn like cotton,
I said confetti, and no
not the confetti
a tank can make of a building.
I mean the confetti
a boy can’t stop smiling about
and no his smile isn’t much
like a skeleton at all. And no
his neighborhood is not like a war zone.

I am trying to say
his neighborhood
is as tattered and feathered
as anything else,
as shadow pierced by sun
and light parted
by shadow-dance as anything else,
but they won’t stop saying

how lovely the ruins,
how ruined the lovely
children must be in that birdless city.

Jamaal May

Poetry and cooking

As someone who loves both, I was so pleased to see this inventive political poem in the Paris Review archives:

Little Cambray Tamales

          (makes 5,000,000 little tamales)
        —for Eduardo and Helena who asked me
   for a Salvadoran recipe

Two pounds of mestizo cornmeal
half a pound of loin of gachupin
cooked and finely chopped
a box of pious raisins
two tablespoons of Malinche milk
one cup of enraged water
a fry of conquistador helmets
three Jesuit onions
a small bag of multinational gold
two dragon’s teeth
one presidential carrot
two tablespoons of pimps
lard of Panchimalco Indians
two ministerial tomatoes
a half cup of television sugar
two drops of volcanic lava
seven leaves of pito
(don’t be dirty-minded, it’s a soporific)
put everything to boil
over a slow fire
for five hundred years
and you’ll see how tasty it is.
Claribel Alegría
Translated by Darwin J. Flakoll