The universe breathed through my mouth
when I read the first chapter of patience.
I held the book away from my body
when the illustrations became life-like:

the kite flew over the grass, a child tumbled
down a hill and landed at the mouth of neon waters.
The fox curled into itself under the tree
and an eagle parted the sky like the last curtains.

I found myself wandering the forest, revising
the stories as I worked the heavens.
I lived inside the candied house
and hung the doors with sweetness.

I devoured the windows and I was greedy.
With all this sugar, I still felt trapped.
I sought to change the moral
so I filled my baskets daily with strawberry,

thorn, and vine, piled my home
with pastries and the charge of regret.
I placed those regrets inside the oven
and watched the pie rise. I wanted

everything in the pie and yearned
all the discarded ingredients.
I kept myself in the kitchen for years.
Everything up in smoke and yet my apron

was pristine, my hair done just right.
You can say it was perfection, a vision
from the past, waving a whisk through a bowl
as if it were a pitchfork. When I left the house

made of confection, that’s when I began to live,
for everything I gave up was in that house.
I remember you there. Your fingerprints vaguely
visible in the layer of flour on the table.

Copyright © 2020 Tina Chang. This poem was co-commissioned by the Academy of American Poets and the New York Philharmonic as part of the Project 19 initiative.

We were dancing—it must have
been a foxtrot or a waltz,
something romantic but
requiring restraint,
rise and fall, precise
execution as we moved
into the next song without
stopping, two chests heaving
above a seven-league
stride—such perfect agony
one learns to smile through,
ecstatic mimicry
being the sine qua non
of American Smooth.
And because I was distracted
by the effort of
keeping my frame
(the leftward lean, head turned
just enough to gaze out
past your ear and always
smiling, smiling),
I didn’t notice
how still you’d become until
we had done it
(for two measures?
four?)—achieved flight,
that swift and serene
before the earth
remembered who we were
and brought us down.

From American Smooth. Copyright © 2004 Rita Dove. Used with the permission of the poet.

When I smell the dirt on the oiled leather
I fear that I am leaving everyone to become
A field of wind and sunlight.
I climb a stone wall to look at the ocean
With a bird call stuck in my mind.
The frog, my spirit animal, cocks
Its bulging eyeball at me and its throat
Enlarges as if to laugh, to engulf
All the air since neither of us wishes to live
In a gloomy house of fish scales
And neither of us can perform basic manual tasks
Like re-greasing the axle, repotting the hydrangea
Or knitting a new sweater maybe
Because I dropped the knife on my toes
When I was 8—I was trying to hack
A pumpkin from its vine but the mouse
Darting through the garden startled me
And some spec or mote dove into
The abyss of my insides where I am
The night watchman at the perfume factory
Where the machines never quit humming
Where the stench is overwhelming
Where I have to wear a mask or I’ll black out
I’ll float down the river, get stuck in the reeds
Or torn to shreds in the sudden eddies.
Blood gushed from my big toe but the knife
Didn’t make a clean cut. Something else was wounded
So I put on my gold star badge. I, sheriff
Of the cosmos, must cordon off the attic.
The mold has made it unstable and besides
No one can breathe, even with the oxygen pump
That the doctor left dangling in the branches
Of the oak that shades the eastern side of the yard.
The cabbages look neon in the maturing sun—
There’s time for one last cup of coffee before
The raindrops dive straight at the old glove
And bucket of balls. When the sky clouds over
It’s like Dad’s staring at me again.
I’m not even sleeping. It’s the middle of the day
And he lives 200 miles away—
He just buried his dog in a black mound near the pond
He just opened a box of love letters
He just ran his finger over the lumpy dough
Remembering when we stopped by the big lake
On our way to the museum—the sun had just come up
And I felt like I was holding a hammer
That would break the glossy water into little pieces
That would spin around the lookout station—
I was 10 or 11. I had just discovered hairspray—
I was trying to make my head a hammer
But this is not a memoir—this is not a personal account
Of each burning nanosecond of wakefulness.
I picked up the old mitt just to smell the leather.

Copyright © 2019 Nathan Hoks. This poem originally appeared in Poetry Northwest, Winter & Spring 2019. Used with permission of the author.

The white bowls in the orderly
cupboards filled with nothing.

The sound
of applause in running water.
All those who've drowned in oceans, all 
who've drowned in pools, in ponds, the small 
family together in the car hit head on. The pantry

full of lilies, the lobsters scratching to get out of the pot, and God

being pulled across the heavens
in a burning car.

The recipes
like confessions.
The confessions like songs.
The sun. The bomb. The white

bowls in the orderly
cupboards filled with blood. I wanted

something simple, and domestic. A kitchen song.

They were just driving along. Dad 
turned the radio off, and Mom 
turned it back on.

Copyright © 2002 by the University of Massachusetts Press. Used by permission. All rights reserved.