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American Life in Poetry: Column 442 

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE




Tracy K. Smith won the Pulitzer Prize for her book of poems, Life on Mars, from which I’ve selected this week’s poem, which presents a payday in the way many of us at some time have experienced it. The poet lives in Brooklyn, New York. 




The Good Life 

When some people talk about money
They speak as if it were a mysterious lover
Who went out to buy milk and never
Came back, and it makes me nostalgic
For the years I lived on coffee and bread,
Hungry all the time, walking to work on payday
Like a woman journeying for water
From a village without a well, then living
One or two nights like everyone else
On roast chicken and red wine.



American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Tracy K. Smith from her most recent book of poems, Life on Mars, Graywolf Press, 2011. Poem reprinted by permission of Tracy K. Smith and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

(Source: americanlifeinpoetry.org)

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American Life in Poetry: Column 441

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE



April Lindner is a poet living in Pennsylvania who has written a number of fine poems about parenting. Here’s an example that shows us just one of the many hazards of raising a child. 




Dog Bite 

The worst for him was his friend turned wolf,
and the blood that splattered as he ran. The worst
for us: the hospital, his upper lip tugged back
to show the gash—the flesh halved deeply,
cleanly—while I hold him for the needle
that rubs pain out. He submits
to the quick stitch, the thread black
against pink skin, calm now he sees
the doctor can be trusted, his voice
soothing, his face clean shaven,
the clues that signal kindness to a child.
He’s worried, though, about his pet
who didn’t mean it, Mom. His voice is flat.
He knows the months he’s tried to woo this dog
were over when it leapt for his throat
and caught his mouth. The scars, at least,
will be invisible. At home, he’ll sleep,
big boy between his parents, till he’s sure
no beast will tear into his dreams. And we
will want him there, our bodies makeshift walls.
We who led the stranger to our home,
fixed him a bowl, taught him to sleep
under our blankets, we who taught our son
to rub the muzzle that sheathes the teeth.



American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by April Lindner from her most recent book of poems,This Bed Our Bodies Shaped, Able Muse Press, 2012. Poem reprinted by permission of April Lindner and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

(Source: americanlifeinpoetry.org)

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American Life in Poetry: Column 440

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE




On a perfect Labor Day, nobody would have to work, and even the “associates” in the big box stores could quit stocking shelves. Well, it doesn’t happen that way, does it? But here’s a poem about a Labor Day that’s really at rest, by Joseph Millar, from North Carolina. 




Labor Day 

Even the bosses are sleeping late
in the dusty light of September.

The parking lot’s empty and no one cares.
No one unloads a ladder, steps on the gas

or starts up the big machines in the shop,
sanding and grinding, cutting and binding.

No one lays a flat bead of flux over a metal seam
or lowers the steel forks from a tailgate.

Shadows gather inside the sleeve
of the empty thermos beside the sink,

the bells go still by the channel buoy,
the wind lies down in the west,

the tuna boats rest on their tie-up lines
turning a little, this way and that.



American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by Joseph Millar from his most recent book of poems, Blue Rust, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2012. Poem reprinted by permission of Joseph Millar and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

(Source: americanlifeinpoetry.org)

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American Life in Poetry: Column 439

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE



Here’s a fine poem about the stages of grief by Helen T. Glenn, who lives in Florida.






Noguchi’s Fountain 

The release of water in the base
so controlled that the surface tension,
tabletop of stability, a mirror,
remains unbroken. Moisture seeps
down polished basalt sides.

This is how I grieve, barely
enough to dampen river stones,
until fibers in my husband’s
tweed jacket brush my fingers
as I fold it into a box. How close
the whirlpool under my feet.





American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by Helen T. Glenn, and reprinted from the Nimrod International Journal, Vol. 56, no. 1, 2012, by permission of Helen T. Glenn and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

(Source: americanlifeinpoetry.org)

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American Life in Poetry: Column 438

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE



One of the first things an aspiring writer must learn is to pay attention, to look intently at what is going on. Here’s a good example of a poem by Gabriel Spera, a Californian, that wouldn’t have been possible without close observation. 




Grubbing 

The jay’s up early, and attacks the lawn
with something of that fervor and despair
of one whose keys are not where they always are,
checking the same spots over and again
till something new or overlooked appears—
an armored pillbug, or a husk of grain.
He flits with it home, where his mate beds down,
her stern tail feathers jutting from the nest
like a spoon handle from a breakfast bowl.
The quickest lover’s peck, and he’s paroled
again to stalk the sodgrass, cockheaded, obsessed.
He must get something from his selfless work—
joy, or reprieve, or a satisfying sense
of obligation dutifully dispensed.
Unless, of course, he’s just a bird, with beaks—
too many beaks—to fill, in no way possessed
of traits or demons humans might devise,
his dark not filled with could-have-beens and whys.



American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by Gabriel Spera from his most recent book of poems, The Rigid Body, Ashland Poetry Press, 2012. Poem reprinted by permission of Gabriel Spera and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

(Source: americanlifeinpoetry.org)

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American Life in Poetry: Column 437

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE



To capture an object in words is a difficult chore, but when it’s done exceptionally well, as in this poem by A. E. Stallings, I’d rather read the description than see the object itself. A. E. Stallings is an American poet living in Greece. 




The Pull Toy 

You squeezed its leash in your fist,
It followed where you led:
Tick, tock, tick, tock,
Nodding its wooden head.

Wagging a tail on a spring,
Its wheels gearing lackety-clack,
Dogging your heels the length of the house,
Though you seldom glanced back.

It didn’t mind being dragged
When it toppled on its side
Scraping its coat of primary colors:
Love has no pride.

But now that you run and climb
And leap, it has no hope
Of keeping up, so it sits, hunched
At the end of its short rope

And dreams of a rummage sale
Where it’s snapped up for a song,
And of somebody—somebody just like you—
Stringing it along.



American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by A. E. Stallings, whose most recent book of poems is Olives, Northwestern University Press, 2012. Poem reprinted from Five Points, Vol. 14, no. 3, by permission of A. E. Stallings and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

(Source: americanlifeinpoetry.org)

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American Life in Poetry: Column 436 

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE



Poor Richard’s Almanac said, “He that lieth down with dogs shall rise up with fleas,” but that hasn’t kept some of us from sleeping with our dogs. Here’s a poem about the pleasure of that, by Joyce Sidman, who lives and sleeps in Montana. Her book, Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night, won a 2011 Newbery Honor Award. 




Dog in Bed 

Nose tucked under tail,
you are a warm, furred planet
centered in my bed.
All night I orbit, tangle-limbed,
in the slim space
allotted to me.

If I accidentally
bump you from sleep,
you shift, groan,
drape your chin on my hip.

O, that languid, movie-star drape!
I can never resist it.
Digging my fingers into your fur,
kneading,
      I wonder:
How do you dream?
What do you adore?
Why should your black silk ears
feel like happiness?

This is how it is with love.
Once invited,
it steps in gently,
circles twice,
and takes up as much space
as you will give it.



American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2003 by Joyce Sidman, whose most recent book of poems is Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature, Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2011. Poem reprinted from The World According to Dog, Houghton Mifflin, 2003, by permission of Joyce Sidman and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

(Source: americanlifeinpoetry.org)

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Thursday Night at the Redlight Redlight

There’s a little bar in town called the Redlight Redlight. I say “little” though it’s no longer so, having moved twice since I wrote this piece. But six years ago, it was in a little upstairs space in Hannibal Square. You just looked for the “Bakery” awning near the Chez Vincent, and next to that, the “Bar” awning over the stairs leading up and in. It was dark and brick and exposed pipe, and on this night, a place for writing. 

Thursday Night at the Redlight Redlight … 

Energy here is cool, 

a 30-something wanna-be beatnik chill of 

live jazz trio 

(Stand-up base, guitar, and drum): 

hip-casual cats who gather to play for other 

hip-casual cats because they enjoy it, 

savor it, 

play with it like 

a fine wine rolled on the tongue 

some evening, in jeans on the back patio 

once the weather has turned to just the cool side of balmy, 

laughter and chatter dancing with the leaves of 

Wisteria, Jasmine, antique rose 

languishing on the arbor … 

glint of drink glasses and wine glasses glittering with 

the light of oil lamps set out to 

scare away the late September mosquitos, 

eyeglasses shining with the sparkle of ideas 

their coveted eyes leak, 

laugh lines crinkling and 

eye teeth grinning through the wide-mouthed conversations of

comfort with friends. 

Back from fantasy, I find myself 

temporary party of one, watcher of belongings, left to my imaginings at a table 

full of clutter — empty cans and half-full glasses abandoned for 

the moments to smoke a 21st birthday cigar.

I was asked earlier this evening to come up with a bit of wisdom —

some vaguely recognizable thought-meme to to plant in my baby brother’s brain.

Live the life you love, and 

Love the life you live. 

I could sit here for the evening, listening to the 

texture of language, 

catching only the occasional word, 

and laughter cutting sharp-quick through the murmur, like 

a jumping fish momentarily recognizable before 

falling back into the water, 

to leave ripples, hints of passage, here … 

I try to pin to drunkenness the effect of 

losing the distinctions, but 

deeper thought shows me that it’s a thousand different currents making this sea of sound.

 Not just 

surfaces, and 

spaces, and 

crowd … 

not just the mood of every vocal individual, 

or the sound absorbing properties of every silent one. 

It’s the totality – set by beer and food and human interaction,

flavored by the passion coming from the three musician’s chatter during break,

and with their rapid fire answers to the questions posed,

responding quick and lively with an inner fire,

burning through the names of guitars, amplifiers, nationalities, and 

vagaries of use, 

before heading back to stage to play another set.

Live.

And Love.

© Naomi Butterfield 2007

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American Life in Poetry: Column 435

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE



Perhaps there’s a kind of afterlife that is made up of our memories of a departed person, especially as these cling to that person’s belongings. Bruce Snider, who lives and teaches in California, suggests that here. 




Afterlife 

I wake to leafless vines and muddy fields,
patches of standing water. His pocketknife

waits in my dresser drawer, still able to gut fish.
I pick up his green shirt, put it on for the fourth day

in a row. Outside, the rusty nail he hammered
catches me, leaves its stain on everything.

The temperature drops, the whole shore
filling with him: his dented chew can, waders,

the cattails kinked, bowing their distress.
At the pier, I use his old pliers to ready the line:

fatheads, darters, a blood worm jig. Today, the lake’s
one truth is hardness. When the trout bite,

I pull the serviceable things glistening into air.



American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by Bruce Snider from his most recent book of poems, Paradise, Indiana, Pleiades Press, 2012. Poem reprinted by permission of Bruce Snider and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

(Source: americanlifeinpoetry.org)

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