The war was all over my hands.
I held the war and I watched them
die in high-definition. I could watch
anyone die, but I looked away. Still,
I wore the war on my back. I put it
on every morning. I walked the dogs
and they too wore the war. The sky
overhead was clear or it was cloudy
or it rained or it snowed, and I was rarely
afraid of what would fall from it. I worried
about what to do with my car, or how
much I could send my great-aunt this month
and the next. I ate my hamburger, I ate
my pizza, I ate a salad or lentil soup,
and this too was the war.
At times I was able to forget that I
was on the wrong side of the war,
my money and my typing and sleeping
sound at night. I never learned how
to get free. I never learned how
not to have anyone’s blood
on my own soft hands.
Copyright © 2019 by Donika Kelly. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 25, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
To Tommaso De’ Cavalieri Veggio co’ bei vostri occhi. With your fair eyes a charming light I see, For which my own blind eyes would peer in vain; Stayed by your feet, the burden I sustain Which my lame feet find all too strong for me; Wingless upon your pinions forth I fly; Heavenward your spirit stirreth me to strain; E'en as you will, I blush and blanch again, Freeze in the sun, burn ’neath a frosty sky. Your will includes and is the lord of mine; Life to my thoughts within your heart is given; My words begin to breathe upon your breath: Like to the moon am I, that cannot shine Alone; for lo! our eyes see nought in heaven Save what the living sun illumineth.
This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on February 24, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
The room is as we left it
But mellowed to a heightened
Have summer coverings
The teakwood lamps are there,
And still the bed sags
To the center,
And the table throws
Its weight of shadow
On the spread . . . .
. . . Folly to have left the room unused:
You did not merit such a nicety . . . .
A ragged ache of light
Sifts through the dust:
A grotesque of the present
Upon the patterns of the past . . .
My hands are bruised by surfaces
I do not see,
My fingers falter up and down
A tracery of years,
I sense the echo of a voice
I do not hear,
I am not sure the breath I hold
This poem is in the public domain.
I have wanted other things more than lovers … I have desired peace, intimately to know The secret curves of deep-bosomed contentment, To learn by heart things beautiful and slow. Cities at night, and cloudful skies, I’ve wanted; And open cottage doors, old colors and smells a part; All dim things, layers of river-mist on river— To capture Beauty’s hands and lay them on my heart. I have wanted clean rain to kiss my eyelids, Sea-spray and silver foam to kiss my mouth. I have wanted strong winds to flay me with passion; And, to soothe me, tired winds from the south. These things have I wanted more than lovers … Jewels in my hands, and dew on morning grass— Familiar things, while lovers have been strangers. Friended thus, I have let nothing pass.
This poem is in the public domain.
I didn’t want to break my own heart
oh no you didn’t exist as a point on a plane
in a modern philosophy of time my new thing
nope not today in a world where transcendent
incompetence is easy to spot if that’s what you want to see
and efficiency is still the enemy of poetry and of love
oh no you didn’t write poems on forgetting fearsome leave-taking
or crypto-amnesia that act of forgetting to cite fierce attachment
nope today is a day to be free to transcend pedestrian realities
O ethical imperative dire as plagiarism nope
O emotional appropriation not today
one form of redress is if you write me a letter
I will write you back give and take means
no hearts broken if we concede to exist
as a sudden broken thing not fearful enemies of love
we grow fierce as yes transcendence yes
on a plane in the sky or in my mind
no you didn’t forget nor did I nope not today
Copyright © 2019 by Tina Cane. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 15, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
What have I
To say in my wrong tongue
Of what is gone To know something is
Lost but what You have forgotten what
You long forgot If I am
What survives I am here but I am not
Much of anything at all To be what’s left
And all the rest scooped out
And dropped into the sea My flesh
Forming a knot on itself is a habit
Learned from whom A mind reaching back
Into the dark a body releasing itself
Backward into space a faith
I have no prayer in which to keep
Am I home or merely caught
Between two unmarked graves
I’m saying where we live
It’s a mistake A compromise
I’m made to make
I’m told come willingly
Halfway across a bridge to where
I’m halfway human Or else
A door bricked over
Behind which all I am
To be shadow cast by shadows cast
By no one’s hand And now
Whose fault am I It’s said
I stand against the grain
Of natural law A being in chaos
In argument with itself What would it be
To be simply I am here but what of me
That’s gone stays gone
Copyright © 2019 by Camille Rankine. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 5, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
Walking, I drew my hand over the lumpy
bloom of a spray of purple; I stripped away
my fingers, stained purple; put it to my nose,
the minty honey, a perfume so aggressively
pleasant—I gave it to you to smell,
my daughter, and you pulled away as if
I was giving you a palm full of wasps,
deceptions: “Smell the way the air
changes because of purple and green.”
This is the promise I make to you:
I will never give you a fist full of wasps,
just the surprise of purple and the scent of rain.
Reproduced from Nebraska: Poems by Kwame Dawes by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 2019 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.
my father moved through dooms of love
through sames of am through haves of give,
singing each morning out of each night
my father moved through depths of height
this motionless forgetful where
turned at his glance to shining here;
that if (so timid air is firm)
under his eyes would stir and squirm
newly as from unburied which
floats the first who, his april touch
drove sleeping selves to swarm their fates
woke dreamers to their ghostly roots
and should some why completely weep
my father’s fingers brought her sleep:
vainly no smallest voice might cry
for he could feel the mountains grow.
Lifting the valleys of the sea
my father moved through griefs of joy;
praising a forehead called the moon
singing desire into begin
joy was his song and joy so pure
a heart of star by him could steer
and pure so now and now so yes
the wrists of twilight would rejoice
keen as midsummer’s keen beyond
conceiving mind of sun will stand,
so strictly (over utmost him
so hugely) stood my father’s dream
his flesh was flesh his blood was blood:
no hungry man but wished him food;
no cripple wouldn’t creep one mile
uphill to only see him smile.
Scorning the Pomp of must and shall
my father moved through dooms of feel;
his anger was as right as rain
his pity was as green as grain
septembering arms of year extend
less humbly wealth to foe and friend
than he to foolish and to wise
offered immeasurable is
proudly and (by octobering flame
beckoned) as earth will downward climb,
so naked for immortal work
his shoulders marched against the dark
his sorrow was as true as bread:
no liar looked him in the head;
if every friend became his foe
he’d laugh and build a world with snow.
My father moved through theys of we,
singing each new leaf out of each tree
(and every child was sure that spring
danced when she heard my father sing)
then let men kill which cannot share,
let blood and flesh be mud and mire,
scheming imagine, passion willed,
freedom a drug that’s bought and sold
giving to steal and cruel kind,
a heart to fear, to doubt a mind,
to differ a disease of same,
conform the pinnacle of am
though dull were all we taste as bright,
bitter all utterly things sweet,
maggoty minus and dumb death
all we inherit, all bequeath
and nothing quite so least as truth
—i say though hate were why men breathe—
because my Father lived his soul
love is the whole and more than all
Copyright © 1940, 1968, 1991 by the Trustees for the E. E. Cummings Trust from The Complete Poems: 1904-1962 by E. E. Cummings, Edited by George J. Firmage. Reprinted by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
were crude assemblages of paper sacks and twine,
amalgams of pilfered string and whittled sticks,
twigs pulled straight from his garden, dry patch
of stony land before our house only he
could tend into beauty, thorny roses goaded
into color. How did he make those makeshift
diamonds rise, grab ahold of the wind to sail
into sky like nothing in our neighborhood
of dented cars and stolid brick houses could?
It wasn’t through faith or belief in otherworldly
grace, but rather a metaphor from moving
on a street where cars rusted up on blocks,
monstrously immobile, and planes, bound
for that world we could not see, roared
above our heads, our houses pawns
in a bigger flight path. How tricky the launch
into air, the wait for the right eddy to lift
our homemade contraption into the sullen
blue sky above us, our eyes stinging
with the glut of the sun. And the sad tangle
after flight, collapse of grocery bags
and broken branches, snaggle of string
I still cannot unfurl. Father, you left me
with this unsated need to find the most
delicately useful of breezes, to send
myself into the untenable, balance my weight
as if on paper wings, a flutter then fall,
a stutter back to earth, an elastic sense
of being and becoming forged in our front
yard, your hand over mine over balled string.
From My Father's Kites (Steel Toe Books, 2010). Copyright © 2010 by Allison Joseph. Used with the permission of the author.
This is not how it begins but how you understand it. I walk many kilometers and find myself to be the same— the same moon hovering over the same, bleached sky, and when the officer calls me it is a name I do not recognize, a self I do not recognize. We are asked to kneel, or stand still, depending on which land we embroider our feet with— this one is copious with black blood or so I am told. Someone calls me by the skin I did not know I had and to this I think—language, there must be a language that contains us all that contains all of this. How to disassemble the sorrow of beginnings, how to let go, and not, how to crouch beneath other bodies how to stop breathing, how not to. Our fathers are not elders here; they are long-bearded men shoving taxi cabs and sprawled in small valet parking lots— at their sight, my body dims its light (a desiccated grape) and murmur, Igziabher Yistilign— our pride, raw-purple again. We begin like this: all of us walking in solitude walking a desert earth and unforgiving bodies. We cross lines we dare not speak of; we learn and unlearn things quickly, or intentionally slow (because, that, we can control) and give ourselves new names because these selves must be new to forget the old blue. But, sometimes, we also begin like this: on a cold, cold night memorizing escape routes kissing the foreheads of small children hiding accat in our pockets, a rosary for safekeeping. Or, married off to men thirty years our elders big house, big job, big, striking hands. Or, thinking of the mouths to feed. At times we begin in silence; water making its way into our bodies— rain, or tears, or black and red seas until we are ripe with longing.
Copyright © 2018 by Mahtem Shiferraw. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 16, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets
It was not fate which overtook me,
Rather a wayward, wilful wind
That blew hot for awhile
And then, as the even shadows came, blew cold.
What pity it is that a man grown old in life’s dreaming
Should stop, e’en for a moment, to look into a woman’s eyes.
And I forgot!
Forgot that one’s heart must be steeled against the east wind.
Life and death alike come out of the East:
Life as tender as young grass,
Death as dreadful as the sight of clotted blood.
I shall go back into the darkness,
Not to dream but to seek the light again.
I shall go by paths, mayhap,
On roads that wind around the foothills
Where the plains are bare and wild
And the passers-by come few and far between.
I want the night to be long, the moon blind.
The hills thick with moving memories,
And my heart beating a breathless requiem
For all the dead days I have lived.
When the Dawn comes—Dawn, deathless, dreaming—
I shall will that my soul must be cleansed of hate,
I shall pray for strength to hold children close to my heart,
I shall desire to build houses where the poor will know
shelter, comfort, beauty.
And then may I look into a woman’s eyes
And find holiness, love and the peace which passeth understanding.
From The Book of American Negro Poetry (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922), edited by James Weldon Johnson. This poem is in the public domain.
Ahead and Around
Met, quarreled, quilled the bird of peace,
Untidied a pleasant plane.
Ahead accused Around of complete deceit,
Around accused Ahead of being discontented.
Neither listened to each.
Either lined on,
Making round straight and straight round,
Permitting nothing in-between,
Licked space clean,
Fattened unhappily and flew
Along the geometrical faith of two-and-two,
Hated apart; and far and far
Hoped toward a spiritually reconnoitered heaven.
“For,” cried sinuous Around,
“More and less than I, am I,
Nature of all things, all things the nature of me.”
Ahead echoed the cry.
Sped toward its own eternity
Of the sweet end before the bitter beyond, beyond.
And both were brave and both were strong,
And the ways of both were like and long,
And adventured freely in fettered song:
One that circled as it sang,
One that longitudinally rang.
The spite prospered. The spite stopped.
Both earned the same end differently,
Prided along two different paths,
Reached the same humility
Of an old-trodden start.
Birth is the beginning where all part.
Death is the beginning where they meet.
This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on May 22, 2022, by the Academy of American Poets.