Illinois

On December 11, 2003, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich named Kevin Stein the state’s fourth poet laureate, following Howard Austin, Carl Sandburg, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Stein has published eight poetry collections and chapbooks, three scholarly books, and two poetry anthologies.

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In a Breath

     To the Williamson Brothers

High noon. White sun flashes on the Michigan Avenue asphalt. Drum of hoofs and whirr of motors. Women trapsing along in flimsy clothes catching play of sun-fire to their skin and eyes.

Inside the playhouse are movies from under the sea. From the heat of pavements and the dust of sidewalks, passers-by go in a breath to be witnesses of large cool sponges, large cool fishes, large cool valleys and ridges of coral spread silent in the soak of the ocean floor thousands of years.

A naked swimmer dives. A knife in his right hand shoots a streak at the throat of a shark. The tail of the shark lashes. One swing would kill the swimmer… Soon the knife goes into the soft underneck of the veering fish… Its mouthful of teeth, each tooth a dagger itself, set row on row, glistens when the shuddering, yawning cadaver is hauled up by the brothers of the swimmer.

Outside in the street is the murmur and singing of life in the sun—horses, motors, women trapsing along in flimsy clothes, play of sun-fire in their blood.

Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight

(In Springfield, Illinois)
 
It is portentous, and a thing of state   
That here at midnight, in our little town   
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,   
Near the old court-house pacing up and down,   
   
Or by his homestead, or in shadowed yards
He lingers where his children used to play,   
Or through the market, on the well-worn stones   
He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away.   
   
A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,   
A famous high top-hat and plain worn shawl
Make him the quaint great figure that men love,   
The prairie-lawyer, master of us all.   
   
He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.   
He is among us:—as in times before!   
And we who toss and lie awake for long,
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.   
   
His head is bowed. He thinks of men and kings.   
Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?   
Too many peasants fight, they know not why;   
Too many homesteads in black terror weep.
   
The sins of all the war-lords burn his heart.   
He sees the dreadnaughts scouring every main.   
He carries on his shawl-wrapped shoulders now   
The bitterness, the folly and the pain.   
   
He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn
Shall come;—the shining hope of Europe free:   
A league of sober folk, the Workers' Earth,   
Bringing long peace to Cornland, Alp and Sea.   
   
It breaks his heart that things must murder still,   
That all his hours of travail here for men
Seem yet in vain. And who will bring white peace   
That he may sleep upon his hill again?

The Chicago Poem

				       for Ted Berrigan & Alice Notley

the bridges of Chicago
are not the bridges of Paris
or the bridges of Amsterdam
except they are a definition
almost no one bothers to define
like life full of surprises
in what now looks to be the oldest
modern American city
o apparition of the movie version of
the future circa 1931
the bridges soon filled with moving lines
of people workers' armies
in the darkness of first December visit
along the water
bend of the Chicago River
the cliffs of architecture like palisades
at night the stars in windows
stars in the poem you wrote a sky
through which the el train pulls its lights
in New York streets of childhood
is like a necklace (necktie) in the language of
old poems old memories
old Fritz Lang visions of the night before
the revolution the poor souls
of working people we all love
fathers or uncles
lost to us in dreams & gauze
of intervening 1960s
there are whole tribes of Indians
somewhere inhabiting
a tunnel paradise
they will wait it out still
with a perfect assurance of things to come
everyone so well read in old novels
maybe the economics of disaster Ted
depressions of the spirit
so unlike the bright promise of
the early years
gloss of the young life easing death
atop a hill in Lawrence Kansas
the afternoon sky became aluminum
(illumination)
played on a tambourine to calm
the serpent fear
the material corpse that leaves us vulnerable
everyone will come to it I think
I do not think you dig it
getting so out of hand so far away
but we remain & I will
make another visit soon
hope we can take a walk
together it is night & we are
not so bad off have turned forty
like poets happy with our sadness
we are still humans in a city overhung
with ancient bridges
you pop your pill I laugh
look back upon the future of
America & remember
when we both wrote our famous poems called
Modern Times