translated by Ursula K. Le Guin
When I’m walking, everything
on earth gets up
and stops me and whispers to me,
and what they tell me is their story.
And the people walking
on the road leave me their stories,
I pick them up where they fell
in cocoons of silken thread.
Stories run through my body
or sit purring in my lap.
So many they take my breath away,
buzzing, boiling, humming.
Uncalled they come to me,
and told, they still won’t leave me.
The ones that come down through the trees
weave and unweave themselves,
and knit me up and wind me round
until the sea drives them away.
But the sea that’s always telling stories,
the wearier I am the more it tells me...
The people who cut trees,
the people who break stones,
want stories before they go to sleep.
Women looking for children
who got lost and don’t come home,
women who think they’re alive
and don’t know they’re dead,
every night they ask for stories,
and I return tale for tale.
In the middle of the road, I stand
between rivers that won’t let me go,
and the circle keeps closing
and I’m caught in the wheel.
The riverside people tell me
of the drowned woman sunk in grasses
and her gaze tells her story,
and I graft the tales into my open hands.
To the thumb come stories of animals,
to the index fingers, stories of my dead.
There are so many tales of children
they swarm on my palms like ants.
When my arms held
the one I had, the stories
all ran as a blood-gift
in my arms, all through the night.
Now, turned to the East,
I’m giving them away because I forget them.
Old folks want them to be lies.
Children want them to be true.
All of them want to hear my own story,
which, on my living tongue, is dead.
I’m seeking someone who remembers it
leaf by leaf, thread by thread.
I lend her my breath, I give her my legs,
so that hearing it may waken it for me.
Cuando camino se levantan
todas las cosas de la tierra
y me paran y cuchichean
y es su historia lo que cuentan.
Y las gentes que caminan
en la ruta me la dejan
y la recojo caída
en capullos que son de huella.
Historias corren mi cuerpo
o en mi regazo ronronean.
Tantas son que no dan respiro,
zumban, hierven y abejean.
Sin llamada se me vienen
y contadas tampoco dejan…
Las que bajan por los árboles
se trenzan y se destrenzan,
y me tejen y me envuelvan
hasta que el mar los ahuyenta.
Pero el mar que cuenta siempre
más rendida, más me deja...
Los que están mascando bosque
y los que rompen la piedra,
al dormirse quieren historias.
Mujeres que buscan hijos
perdidos que no regresan,
y las que se creen vivas
y no saben que están muertas,
cada noche piden historias,
y yo me rindo cuenta que cuenta.
A medio camino quedo
entre ríos que no me sueltan,
el corro se va cerrando
y me atrapa en la rueda.
Los ribereños me cuentan
la ahogada sumida en hierbas,
y su mirada cuenta su historia,
y yo las tronco en mis palmas abiertas.
Al pulgar llegan las de animales,
al índice las de mis muertos.
Las de niños, de ser tantas
en las palmas me hormiguean.
Cuando tomaba así mis brazos
el que yo tuve, todas ellas
en regalo de sangre corrieron
mis brazos una noche entera.
Ahora yo, vuelta al Oriente,
se las voy dando porque no recuerdo.
Los viejos las quieren mentidas,
los niños las quieren ciertas.
Todos quieren oír la historia mía
que en mi lengua viva está muerta.
Busco alguna que la recuerde
hoja por hoja, herbra por hebra.
Le presto mi aliento, le doy mi marcha
por si el oírla me la despierta.
From Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral: Translated by Ursula K. Le Guin. Copyright © 2003 Ursula K. Le Guin. Courtesy of University of New Mexico Press. Published in Poem-a-Day on September 27, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
I am hovering over this rug
with a hair dryer on high in my hand
I have finally, inevitably, spilled
red wine on this impractically white
housewarming hand-me-down from my cousin, who
clearly, and incorrectly, thought this was a good idea
With the help of a little panic,
sparkling water and a washcloth,
I am stunned by how quickly the wine washes out,
how I was sure this mistake would find me
every day with its gaping mouth, reminding me
of my own propensity for failure
and yet, here I am
with this clean slate
The rug is made of fur,
which means it died
to be here
It reminds me of my own survival
and everyone who has taught me
to shake loose the shadow of death
I think of inheritance, how this rug
was passed on to me through blood,
how this animal gave its blood
so that I may receive the gift of its death
and be grateful for it
I think of our inability
to control stories of origin
how history does not wash away
with water and a good scrub
I think of evolution,
what it means to make it through
this world with your skin intact,
how flesh is fragile
but makes a needle and thread
of itself when necessary
I think of all that I have inherited,
all the bodies buried for me to be here
and stay here, how I was born with grief
and gratitude in my bones
And I think of legacy,
how I come from a long line of sorcerers
who make good work of building
joy from absolutely nothing
And what can I do with that
but pour another glass,
thank the stars
for this sorceress blood
and keep pressing forward
Copyright © 2020 by L. Ash Williams. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 30, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
Let me begin again as a quiet thought
in the shape of a shell slowly examined
by a brown child on a beach at dawn
straining to see their future. Let me begin
this time knowing the drumming in my dreams
is me inheriting the earth, is morning
lighting up the rivers. Let me burn
my vanities: old music in the pines, sifters
of scotch, a day moon like a signature
of night. This time, let me circle
the island of my fears only once then
live like a raging waterfall and grow
a magnificent mustache. Let me not ever be
the birdcage or the serrated blade or
the empty season. Dear Glacier, Dear Sea
of Stars, Dear Leopards disintegrating
at the outer limits of our greed; soon we will
encounter you only in motivational tweets.
Reader, I should have married you sooner.
This time, let me not sleep like the prophet who
believes he’s seen infinity. Let me run
at break-neck speeds toward sceneries
of doubt. I have no more dress rehearsals
to attend. Look closer: I am licking my lips.
Copyright © 2021 by Major Jackson. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 26, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.
Little grey dreams,
I sit at the ocean’s edge,
At the grey ocean’s edge,
With you in my lap.
I launch you, one by one,
And one by one,
Little grey dreams,
Under the grey, grey, clouds,
Out on the grey, grey, sea,
You go sailing away,
From my empty lap,
Little grey dreams.
Into the black,
At the horizon’s edge.
This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on June 26, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.
to Fernand Léger
I died in loneliness
for no one cared for me enough
to become a woman for them
that was not my only thought
and with a woman
she wanted another one
I died in loneliness
of that I am not afraid
but that I am a clank
upon the gutter, a new guard at twilight
without a dream of adolescence
frustration plucked as strong
I died in loneliness
without friends or money
they were taken off
long ago, a melodrama
sounded out my name, the glass key of a
torch song on Father’s Day
I died in loneliness
away from the beach and speeding cars
back seat in love with Bunny
on the way to Howard Johnson’s
beyond the blue horizon
hunting for a lost popular tune.
From Supplication: Selected Poems of John Wieners, edited by Joshua Beckman, CAConrad, and Robert Dewhurst © 2015 John Wieners Literary Trust, Raymond Foye, Administrator. Reprinted with the permission of The John Wieners Literary Trust.
I must be far from men and women
To love their ways.
I must be on a mountain
Breathing greatly like a tree
If my heart would yearn a little
For the peopled, placid valley.
I must be in a bare place
And lonely as a moon
To find the graceless ways of people
Worthful as a flower’s ways,
A flower that lives for loneliness
And dies when beauty dies.
I cannot find music
On the tongues of men and women
Unless I hear their voices
Like echoes, silence-softened.
Their many words mean little.
Their mouths are blatant sparrows.
I must be far from men and women,
As God is far away,
To keep my faith with Beauty,
My heart sweet towards them,
And love them with a god’s tranquility.
From On a Grey Thread (Will Ransom, 1923) by Elsa Gidlow. This poem is in the public domain.
The sound of quiet. The sky
deeper from the top, like tea.
In the absence
of anything else, my own
breathing became obscene.
I heard the beating
of bats’ wings before
the air troubled above
my head, turned to look
and saw them gone.
On the surface of the black
lake, a swan and the moon
still. I knew this was
a perfect moment.
Which would only hurt me
to remember and never
live again. My God. How lucky to have lived
a life I would die for.
Copyright © 2023 by Leila Chatti. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 3, 2023, by the Academy of American Poets.
I am ashamed to keep thinking of death
as a chute that connects to the garbage. I know
I should picture it more like the pneumatic tubes
at banks of the past: you put in your name
and your paper and up you go. I know a bank
should be the operative metaphor
for every facet of existence, every time. I’m sorry
I haven’t more regularly made reference
to a bank. When I fail to liken something to a bank,
that’s how I can tell I’m tired. That’s not me,
I assure everybody. That’s the long week talking. Time
for bed. Time for the window, the hectoring sky,
the streetlight bright as the bright saved people
see before they die, but I don’t die.
Copyright © 2023 by Natalie Shapero. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on September 4, 2023, by the Academy of American Poets.
And I carried to that emptiness
between us the birds
that had been calling out
all night. I carried an old
bicycle, a warm meal,
some time to talk.
I would have brought
them to you sooner
but was afraid your own
hopelessness would keep you
crouched there. If you spring up,
let it not be against me
but like a weed or a
fountain. I grant you
the hard spine of your
childhood. I grant you
the frowning arc of this morning.
If I could I would grant you
a bright throat and even
brighter eyes, this whole hill
of olive trees, its
calmness of purpose.
Let me not forget
ever what I owe you.
I have loved the love
you felt for those gardens
and I would grant you
the always steadying
presence of seeds.
I bring to that trouble
between us a bell that might
blur into air. I bring the woods
and a sense of what lives there.
Like you, I turn to sunlight for
answers. Like you, I am
not sure where it has gone.