It’s neither red
nor sweet.
It doesn’t melt
or turn over,
break or harden,
so it can’t feel
pain,
yearning,
regret.

It doesn’t have 
a tip to spin on,
it isn’t even
shapely—
just a thick clutch
of muscle,
lopsided,
mute. Still,
I feel it inside
its cage sounding
a dull tattoo:
I want, I want—

but I can’t open it:
there’s no key.
I can’t wear it
on my sleeve,
or tell you from
the bottom of it
how I feel. Here,
it’s all yours, now—
but you’ll have
to take me,
too.

Copyright © 2017 Rita Dove. Used with permission of the author.

Out here, there’s a bowing even the trees are doing.
                 Winter’s icy hand at the back of all of us.
Black bark, slick yellow leaves, a kind of stillness that feels
so mute it’s almost in another year.

I am a hearth of spiders these days: a nest of trying.

We point out the stars that make Orion as we take out
       the trash, the rolling containers a song of suburban thunder.

It’s almost romantic as we adjust the waxy blue
       recycling bin until you say, Man, we should really learn
some new constellations.

And it’s true. We keep forgetting about Antlia, Centaurus,
       Draco, Lacerta, Hydra, Lyra, Lynx.

But mostly we’re forgetting we’re dead stars too, my mouth is full
       of dust and I wish to reclaim the rising—

to lean in the spotlight of streetlight with you, toward
       what’s larger within us, toward how we were born.

Look, we are not unspectacular things.
       We’ve come this far, survived this much. What

would happen if we decided to survive more? To love harder?

What if we stood up with our synapses and flesh and said, No.
     No, to the rising tides.

Stood for the many mute mouths of the sea, of the land?

What would happen if we used our bodies to bargain

for the safety of others, for earth,
                 if we declared a clean night, if we stopped being terrified,

if we launched our demands into the sky, made ourselves so big
people could point to us with the arrows they make in their minds,

rolling their trash bins out, after all of this is over?

From The Carrying (Milkweed Editions, 2018) by Ada Limón. Copyright © 2018 by Ada Limón. Used with the permission of Milkweed Editions. milkweed.org.

Lately waking at an indeterminate hour, 
I know no one’s looking for me. 

I could walk across a bridge & back
or burrow in, king of my oscillating 

fan. Minutes sag like low branches 
in snow. I’m taking my adulthood slow, 

like medicine. Arranging flowers in a vase 
is something nice to do for yourself, 

that color rush, serotonin spike, even if 
they won’t survive the week. The cut stems 

stripped of function, the smaller griefs
in that. Like how my niece at night stands 

in her crib refusing sleep, eyelids fluttering
open, closed. Soon, all the world’s 

nieces will be old enough to want another 
earth, a second chance, as we warm 

by degrees. We’re at a boil now, over-
flowing with want. These are trying times. 

But time’s trying, asking us to stay awhile
longer inside the length of this moment.

From So Long (Four Way Books, 2023) by Jen Levitt. Copyright © 2023 by Jen Levitt. Used with the permission of the publisher.

Papier-mache body; blue-and-black cotton jersey cover.
Metal stand. Instructions included.
   —Sears, Roebuck Catalogue
              O my coy darling, still
              You wear for me the scent
         Of those long afternoons we spent,
               The two of us together,
    Safe in the attic from the jealous eyes
                 Of household spies
    And the remote buffooneries of the weather;
                         So high,
    Our sole remaining neighbor was the sky,
              Which, often enough, at dusk,
    Leaning its cloudy shoulders on the sill,
Used to regard us with a bored and cynical eye.

              How like the terrified,
              Shy figure of a bride
         You stood there then, without your clothes,
                  Drawn up into
         So classic and so strict a pose
      Almost, it seemed, our little attic grew
Dark with the first charmed night of the honeymoon.
         Or was it only some obscure
      Shape of my mother’s youth I saw in you,
There where the rude shadows of the afternoon
         Crept up your ankles and you stood
         Hiding your sex as best you could?—
         Prim ghost the evening light shone through.

From A Donald Justice Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose, by Donald Justice, published by Middlebury/The University of New England Press. Copyright © 1991 by Donald Justice. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

This elephant keeper shoved a hose up
The ass of an elephant every day. He
Told a man. The man said, So why don't
You quit? And the keeper said, You have
To understand: elephant bowels are fragile,
You only spray a little and shit flies
All over. . . .  And the man said, I understand, 
I think, someone has to, but why don't you
Quit?  And the keeper said, And leave show
Business?  I don't know who first told me,
You'll die someday, you can't live forever. 
I don't know who took my hand and said,
Some things, not all things, are possible. 
At a state mental hospital where I work
I asked a patient once what he remembered.
Everything. Everything that ever happened.
Thinking back, incompletely, I think
I must've disbelieved his ease, his willingness
To witness all his loss always, so I asked,
Just having heard the stupid elephant joke:
Anything about elephants? pets?  He had a dog:
Bean, Bingo, something like that. And he walked
Him every day on a leash and they bought
A hamburger every day on South Harrison
Or North Harrison, somewhere in Shelbyville.
I asked where the dog was. He said he loved
Him so much he'd drink out of the river
And the dog would too, he loved him
So much. I have to admit I had to say
Something and of course there was nothing
To say. His head was down as he drank.
The water was sweet. Easily I left him
Alone to walk myself out of the river
Of sense. I remember riding shotgun
In a truck with my Uncle Ralph across flat
Kansas. He said something. I said, Really? 
And he said, Hell yes boy, do you think
I'd lie? Why do you always say really?  
And I didn't know, God help me, I don't
Know. He was my uncle. He wouldn't lie.
Truth is I hadn't been listening,
But watching the long rows pass my window,
I was busy being elephant keeper
And elephant, the hose inside, the dog
That drank with a man, and the river, where
Everything is equal, is possible, where
I knew I'd die someday and live without
Sight or sound or touch, possibly forever.

From Any Given Day, by Ralph Burns, published by University of Alabama Press. Copyright © 1994 by Ralph Burns. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

At first, the scissors seemed perfectly harmless.
They lay on the kitchen table in the blue light.

Then I began to notice them all over the house,
at night in the pantry, or filling up bowls in the cellar

where there should have been apples. They appeared under rugs,
lumpy places where one would usually settle before the fire,

or suddenly shining in the sink at the bottom of soupy water.
Once, I found a pair in the garden, stuck in turned dirt

among the new bulbs, and one night, under my pillow,
I felt something like a cool long tooth and pulled them out

to lie next to me in the dark. Soon after that I began
to collect them, filling boxes, old shopping bags,

every suitcase I owned. I grew slightly uncomfortable
when company came. What if someone noticed them

when looking for forks or replacing dried dishes? I longed
to throw them out, but how could I get rid of something

that felt oddly like grace? It occurred to me finally
that I was meant to use them, and I resisted a growing compulsion

to cut my hair, although in moments of great distraction,
I thought it was my eyes they wanted, or my soft belly

—exhausted, in winter, I laid them out on the lawn.
The snow fell quite as usual, without any apparent hesitation

or discomfort. In spring, as expected, they were gone.
In their place, a slight metallic smell, and the dear muddy earth.

From The Good Thief. Copyright © 1988 by Marie Howe. Reprinted by permission of Persea Books, Inc., New York.

Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.

From Great Balls of Fire. Copyright © 1990 by Ron Padgett. Published by Coffee House Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

Why I Am Not a Painter, copyright © 2008 by Maureen Granville-Smith, from Selected Poems by Frank O’Hara, edited by Mark Ford. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

I think I will learn some beautiful language, useless for commercial
Purposes, work hard at that.
I think I will learn the Latin name of every song-bird, not only in
     America but wherever they sing.
(Shun meditation, though; invite the controversial:
Is the world flat? Do bats eat cats?) By digging hard I might deflect 
     that river, my mind, that uncontrollable thing,
Turgid and yellow, strong to overflow its banks in spring, carrying 
     away bridges;
A bed of pebbles now, through which there trickles one clear
     narrow stream, following a course henceforth nefast—

Dig, dig; and if I come to ledges, blast.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, "Intention to Escape from Him" from Collected Poems. Copyright 1931, 1934, 1939, © 1958 by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Norma Millay Ellis. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Holly Peppe, Literary Executor, The Millay Society. www.millay.org.

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

From Collected Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, published by Harper & Brothers Publishers. Copyright © 1956 by Norma Millay Ellis.

I wandered lonely as a Cloud
   That floats on high o’er Vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
   A host of golden Daffodils;
Beside the Lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
   And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
   Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
   Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:—
A Poet could not but be gay
   In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft when on my couch I lie
   In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
   Which is the bliss of solitude,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the Daffodils.

This poem appeared in Poem-a-Day on October 1, 2017. This poem is in the public domain.

Near the entrance, a patch of tall grass.
Near the tall grass, long-stemmed plants;

each bending an ear-shaped cone
to the pond’s surface. If you looked closely,

you could make out silvery koi
swishing toward the clouded pond’s edge

where a boy tugs at his mother’s shirt for a quarter.
To buy fish feed. And watching that boy,

as he knelt down to let the koi kiss his palms,
I missed what it was to be so dumb

as those koi. I like to think they’re pure,
that that’s why even after the boy’s palms were empty,

after he had nothing else to give, they still kissed
his hands. Because who hasn’t done that—

loved so intently even after everything
has gone? Loved something that has washed

its hands of you? I like to think I’m different now,
that I’m enlightened somehow,

but who am I kidding? I know I’m like those koi,
still, with their popping mouths, that would kiss

those hands again if given the chance. So dumb.

From Scale. Copyright © 2017 by Nathan McClain. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Four Way Books, www.fourwaybooks.com.

My friends are dead who were

the arches    the pillars of my life 

the structural relief when

the world gave none.

 

My friends who knew me as I knew them

their bodies folded into the ground or burnt to ash.

If I got on my knees

might I lift my life as a turtle carries her home?  

 

Who if I cried out would hear me?

My friends—with whom I might have spoken of this—are gone.

Copyright © 2022 by Marie Howe. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 22, 2022, by the Academy of American Poets.

For Palestinian poet Reefat Alareer, with lines from his poems

We live.
We live.
We do.
                  ——Refaat Alareer


You were killed today            December 7th            
            my birthday     It was today    son of Shujaiya
 

                        in an Israel airstrike                you were killed          
            visiting            your brother’s home   in Gaza City
 

Today, the anniversary                       of when my grandfather
            only 12 years old                    climbed onto the roof
 

                        of his dormitory                      to watch the bombs
            fall on the American naval base         built over Puʻuloa
           
Your brother               your sister                   and four of her 
            children were killed, too                     You were                  

                        just a few years                       younger than me
 

            This morning              after Israel’s birds       of death       
   

screeched down                      toward you                  my children woke up             
            on their own    in Honolulu     though it was still dark
 

                        their breath      like soil           their voices     like soil          
             their kisses     like soil           blinking when touched by rain    
      

And my youngest        rubbing her eyes                     asked if 
            it was my birthday—              And am I now 47?—       
          

                        before singing             in our ancestors’ language     
            we are learning                       to speak together         after 
 

the wreckage   of English                   and Americans
            And my oldest            who is learning                       to speak
 

                        in speech therapy        giggled            in her grogginess       
            then sang                     her own song  too     
           

And what did I do       to deserve                    such tenderness                      
            this early morning?     Or to live                     this long     
                

                        having heard bombs and guns            fired only
            from a distance?                      Having stood   safely 
 

                        scared  as a child                     and angry        as an adult     
            at the sound     of our lands and waters        Kahoʻolawe      
         

Pōhakuloa                   Mākua                Wahiawa                     battered
            bruised burned poisoned                         in live fire practice? 
 

                        By bombs that may have        fallen on you   or close 
                                    to you on those you loved full-hearted          recklessly
 

                                              those you learned to cling to even harder            bombs 
                                    that may have hurt or killed children like mine            who
 

                        could still sing?                       And you                      what did you do 
                                    to deserve                    your shorter poet’s life                except 
 

                                                tell the truth    and sow the seeds        of songs 
                                   in your students        except grow your        love for them         
 

                        for your people           for your land               and country                
                                    for the promise                        within the wreckage
 

                                                that is this English                  echoing 
                                    all the way here                       to Honolulu     where I resisted
 

                        opening my TikTok feed        to savor my children’s sleepy 
                                    sweetness                    a little longer               before facing 
 

                                                that birthdays are death days              too?  

           
                                    That each day              bombs and schools     
                        hospitals and houses               fall                   each day children     
  

     are pulled from rubble          children          are pulled away
                        crying           from rubble             that buried              their mothers                        
       that they feel                  alone                         that their hurt seeps 
                        down               into the dirt                    as they look heaven in the eye
 

                                    somewhere in Gaza?              That they         have written   
                        their names     and their parents’ names         on their limbs
 

                                    so their bodies             or maybe just these parts                   
                        if that is all                         that’s left                     can be known            
 

                                    to anyone                    who finds them?     
   

     That                 if they          if you                must die          
            so easily uprooted       from the earth             so harshly unsung
     

let it be a tale                and why not    write poems   to birth 
            the strongest words                    of love             like rocks?
 

                        like seeds?                   like songs?      like names? 
            And why not               hold those rocks          in your hands?
                      

Your arms?            Pull them              to your chest       like children   
          lighting         the darkest            of birthday mornings?
 

                        Why not feel               their full weight                      and cling 
                        even harder         to live            to live                dear poet 
 

                        of Shujaiya                  of Gaza           of Palestine                
                        just before                  they                  just before         you

                                                                                                                            take flight? 

Copyright © 2024 by Brandy Nālani McDougall. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 15, 2024, by the Academy of American Poets. 

My favorite children’s bedtime prayer
is the one that goes:

                 Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,
                 The bed be blest that I lie upon,

                 Four angels to my bed,
                 Four angels around my head,
                 One to watch and one to pray,
                 And two to bear my soul away.

This is such a vast improvement
over the more popular,

                 Now I lay me down to sleep,
                 I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
                 If I should die before I wake,
                 I pray the Lord my soul to take.

The difference is that
in one, you get to go
to bed with four men.

But in both, the child is afraid
he will die in the middle
of the night in his sleep.

                                               (Why? What’s going on in these homes?
                     Where’s Child Protective Services when they’re needed?)

Later, the child will grow up
and realize the lie hidden 
in those prefabricated prayers.

That is what most people want:
to die in your sleep,
to die in your own bed.

From Gutted (Manic D Press, 2006) by Justin Chin. Copyright © 2006 by Justin Chin. Used with the permission of the publisher.

    Someone had spread an elaborate rumor about me, that I was
in possession of an extraterrestrial being, and I thought I knew who
it was. It was Roger Lawson. Roger was a practical joker of the
worst sort, and up till now I had not been one of his victims, so
I kind of knew my time had come. People parked in front of my
house for hours and took pictures. I had to draw all my blinds
and only went out when I had to. Then there was a barrage of
questions. “What does he look like?” “What do you feed him?” “How
did you capture him?” And I simple denied the presence of an
extraterrestrial in my house. And, of course, this excited them
all the more. The press showed up and started creeping around
my yard. It got to be very irritating. More and more came and
parked up and down the street. Roger was working overtime
on this one. I had to do something. Finally, I made an announcement.
I said, “The little fellow died peacefully in his sleep at 11:02
last night.” “Let us see the body,” they clamored. “He went up
in smoke instantly,” I said. “I don’t believe you,” one of them
said. “There is no body in the house or I would have buried it
myself,” I said. About half of them got in their cars and drove
off. The rest of them kept their vigil, but more solemnly now.
I went out and bought some groceries. When I came back about an
hour later another half of them had gone. When I went into the kitchen
I nearly dropped the groceries. There was a nearly transparent
fellow with large pink eyes standing about three feet tall. “Why
did you tell them I was dead? That was a lie,” he said. “You
speak English,” I said. “I listen to the radio. It wasn’t very
hard to learn. Also we have television. We get all your channels.
I like cowboys, especially John Ford movies. They’re the best,”
he said. “What am I going to do with you?” I said. “Take me
to meet a real cowboy. That would make me happy,” he said. “I
 don’t know any real cowboys, but maybe we could find one. But
people will go crazy if they see you. We’d have press following
us everywhere. It would be the story of a century,” I said.
“I can be invisible. It’s not hard for me to do,” he said.
“I’ll think about it. Wyoming or Montana would be our best bet, but
they’re a long way from here,” I said. “Please, I won’t cause
you any trouble,” he said. “It would take some planning,” I said.
I put the groceries down and started putting them away. I tried
not to think of the cosmic meaning of all this. Instead, I
treated him like a smart little kid. “Do you have any sarsaparilla?”
he said. “No, but I have some orange juice. It’s good for you,”
I said. He drank it and made a face. “I’m going to get the maps
out,” I said. “We’ll see how we could get there.” When I came
back he was dancing on the kitchen table, a sort of ballet, but
very sad. “I have the maps,” I said. “We won’t need them. I just
received word. I’m going to die tonight. It’s really a joyous
occasion, and I hope you’ll help me celebrate by watching The
Magnificent Seven,” he said. I stood there with the maps in my
hand. I felt an unbearable sadness come over me. “Why must
you die?” I said. “Father decides these things. It is probably
my reward for coming here safely and meeting you,” he said. “But
I was going to take you to meet a real cowboy,” I said. “Let’s
pretend you are my cowboy,” he said.

“The Cowboy,” from The Ghost Soldiers, published by Ecco, 2008. Copyright © 2008 by James Tate. Reprinted with permission.

The sky was blue, so blue that day
    And each daisy white, so white,
O, I knew that no more could rains fall grey
    And night again be night.

                    . . . . .                    

I knew, I knew.   Well, if night is night,
    And the grey skies greyly cry,
I have in a book for the candle light,
    A daisy dead and dry.

From Caroling Dusk (Harper & Brothers, 1927), edited by Countee Cullen. This poem is in the public domain.

Napoleon's hat is an obvious choice I guess to list as a famous hat, but that's not the hat I have in mind. That was his hat for show. I am thinking of his private bathing cap, which in all honesty wasn't much different than the one any jerk might buy at a corner drugstore now, except for two minor eccentricities. The first one isn't even funny: Simply it was a white rubber bathing cap, but too small. Napoleon led such a hectic life ever since his childhood, even farther back than that, that he never had a chance to buy a new bathing cap and still as a grown-up--well, he didn't really grow that much, but his head did: He was a pinhead at birth, and he used, until his death really, the same little tiny bathing cap that he was born in, and this meant that later it was very painful to him and gave him many headaches, as if he needed more. So, he had to vaseline his skull like crazy to even get the thing on. The second eccentricity was that it was a tricorn bathing cap. Scholars like to make a lot out of this, and it would be easy to do. My theory is simple-minded to be sure: that beneath his public head there was another head and it was a pyramid or something.

From Reckoner, published by Wesleyan University Press, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by James Tate. Reprinted with permission.

There is one atop each of the Girls’ heads. Clearly they have been playing this game for a while. There is only one girl whose turkey is still full of air, and that girl is Girl D. The game is called Duck, Duck, Turkey. They go through the motions of having an “it,” and having that “it” walk around the outside of the circle of sitting girls, tapping them on their turkey heads while saying, “duck, duck, duck, duck...” until they say “turkey!” while hitting the turkey on the head of a girl and then running around the circle, trying to sit down in the open spot in the circle before getting tagged. The general stance over here is based on the unshakeable belief that playing this game is going to lead to a better, more just society for all, once everybody’s turkey is equally deflated. And although most of the turkeys are, indeed, mostly deflated, none of the girls can keep themselves from glancing furtively at the head of Girl D, her hair positively radiant in the light bouncing off of the almost fully inflated rubber turkey on her head. How can this be? What is wrong with everyone else’s turkey? Did Girl D get a refill? Or more air than others to begin with? Is that really a turkey? Maybe Girl D’s turkey is not made out of rubber like the rest. What if the rubber turkey of Girl D was filled with turkey? 

Copyright © 2018 by Sawako Nakayasu. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 21, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

ARE YOU DEAD? is the subject line of her email.
The text outlines the numerous ways she thinks
I could have died: slain by an axe-murderer, lifeless
on the side of a highway, choked to death by smoke
since I’m a city girl and likely didn’t realize you needed
to open the chimney flue before making a fire (and,
if I do happen to be alive, here’s a link to a YouTube
video on fireplace safety that I should watch). Mom
muses about the point of writing this email. If I am
already dead, which is what she suspects, I wouldn’t
be able to read it. And if I’m alive, what kind of daughter
am I not to write her own mother to let her know
that I’ve arrived at my fancy residency, safe and sound,
and then to immediately send pictures of everything,
like I promised her! If this was a crime show, she posits,
the detective might accuse her of sending this email
as a cover up for murder. How could she be the murderer,
if she wrote an email to her daughter asking if she was murdered?
her defense lawyers would argue at the trial. In fact,
now that she thinks of it, this email is the perfect alibi
for murdering me. And that is something I should
definitely keep in mind, if I don’t write her back
as soon as I have a free goddamn second to spare.

Copyright © 2018 by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz. This poem originally appeared in How to Love the Empty Air (Write Bloody Publishing, 2018). Reprinted with permission of the publisher.