Published on Academy of American Poets (

They Ate the Bulbs of Tulips

I’d have to hear it spoken in mind somehow,
my father said, of the Frisian word for hunger,
but I’d settle for memory, or grief, under
the category things that undo me. It’s a funny
thing to think. Who would be the speaker
if not him? His mother, maybe,
holding hands in the hospital with his father
after 76 years. Married the day after the war,
when the stores had no windows—the Nazis
took the glass. The mourning doves
might have the right vowels, or the red belly
in the leafless dogwood, now winging
through the sunlight peplummed through
the pines, blue tarp peeled back
on the cotton bales in the field beyond,
Merry Christmas spraypainted in blue
upon the white. Snowless, starless,
a man goes on trial in France for helping
refugees. Could’ve been your grandparents,
my father says, your Pake hid in barns, woke
once to mouse feet scrambling across his face,
but in France it was a 2 year old in a ditch,
dying of dehydration, & when I look down
I’ve pulled the petals from the bouquet,
& as I’ve neither French nor Frisian nor
courage, all I can do is sweep the body
of petals into my palms, & pour them into
the cathedral of water in front of me.


Copyright © 2017 by Mark Wagenaar. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 31, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“‘They Ate the Bulbs of Tulips’ casts its line between a speaker who is hearing a piece of familial history—a grandfather who hid in barns from the Nazis—and one of the more pressing problems of our time, the plight of Middle Eastern migrants who are fleeing war, at Christmas time. I hope the poem asks big questions of us—what is a just and merciful response to this crisis? What risks are we willing to take for the sake of the most vulnerable?”
—Mark Wagenaar


Mark Wagenaar

Mark Wagenaar is the author of Southern Tongues Leave Us Shining (Red Hen Press, 2018), winner of the 2016 Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award.

Date Published: 2017-03-31

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