Poem of the Week, by Suzanne Cleary

Pascal’s Wager
– Suzanne Cleary

Pascal’s Wager is the kind of thing
you would discuss with a beer in your hand,
but then there was always a beer

in one of your hands, or passing from one to the other,
that summer we talked on your porch,
those rainy upstate nights, hot pavement steaming

as it cooled, the steam like fog close over a river,
beginning to lift toward invisibility.
I remember the wager like this: if we believe in God,

there is at least a chance we will see Heaven,
whereas, if we do not believe, we forfeit our place
in paradise. Pascal wrote there is no harm

in believing. If it turns out there is no God,
we’ve lost, he said, nothing, and if we do not believe,
and it turns out we are right, we have gained nothing,

Pascal not the kind of person, evidently,
to take satisfaction in having been right,
damned but right. I knew you drank. I saw the bottles.

I sat in your kitchen and I saw them, beside the stove.
You set your beer down to take a pot from the cupboard,
to pour rice into boiling water. You set it down again

to briefly admire, then chop, carrots and ginger,
to rinse red grapes, place them in a bowl,
all the while the two of us talking, a feast of ideas

and easy silence, as the small kitchen filled
with the smells of earth and, for all we knew,
for all we know, Heaven. When I think of you,

years later, it is usually because there is something
I want to tell you, or there is something I wonder about,
and I am alone in my wonder. I have thought

memory both Heaven and Hell. I wonder
if it is the same for you. Pascal’s theology,
as I understand it, examines doubt

because he believes faith commodious beyond reason,
as is God, who has made earth our home,
and lets us mistake it for Heaven.

​For more information on Suzanne Cleary, please click here: http://www.suzanneclearypoet.com/index.htm

My blog: alisonmcghee.com/blog

My Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/pages/Alison-McGhee/119862491361265?ref=ts

Poem of the Week, by Barbara Hamby

How to Pray
– Barbara Hamby

Falling down on your knees is the easy part, like drinking
a glass of cold water on a hot day, the parched straw
of your throat flooded, your knees hitting the ground,
a prizefighter in the final rounds. You’re bloody,
your bones like iron ties, hands trembling in the dust. What
do you do with your hands? Clasp them together
as if you’re keeping your heart between your palms,
like their namesakes in the desert oasis,
because that’s what you’re looking for now, a place
where you can rest. It has been a dry ride for months,
sand filling your mouth, crusting your half-blind eyes,
and you need to speak to someone—though who
you don’t really know. Pardon is on your mind. Perhaps
you could talk to your mother. You are fifteen
and think her life is over. You don’t say it, but you think it,
and she’s ten years younger than you are now,
her hair still dark. How do you thank her for waking up
each morning and taking on a day that would kill you
and not just one but thousands? How do you thank her
for the way she tossed words around and made them
spin and laugh and do cartwheels on the lawn?
And your father, he’s the one who loved poetry,
bought the book that opened your world to you
like someone cutting into a birthday cake the gods
have baked just for her. Do you talk to him about not caring
and teaching you that same cool touch?
And King James, how do you thank him for all the words
his scribes took from Wycliff and Tyndall, and Keats
for his odes, and Neruda for his. But this wasn’t meant to be a prayer
of thanksgiving but a scourge with a hair shirt and whips
and bowls of gruel. But is it blood the gods need,
or should your offering be all you have—words
and too many of them to count on the fingers pressed to your lips,
or maybe not enough and never the right ones.

–​For more information about ​​Barbara Hamby, please click here: http://www.barbarahamby.com/biography/​

My Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/pages/Alison-McGhee/119862491361265?ref=ts

Poem of the Week, by Patricia Smith

When the Burning Begins
– Patricia Smith
for Otis Douglas Smith, my father

The recipe for hot water cornbread is simple:
Cornmeal, hot water. Mix till sluggish,
then dollop in a sizzling skillet.
When you smell the burning begin, flip it.
When you smell the burning begin again,
dump it onto a plate. You’ve got to wait
for the burning and get it just right.

Before the bread cools down,
smear it with sweet salted butter
and smash it with your fingers,
crumple it up in a bowl
of collard greens or buttermilk,
forget that I’m telling you it’s the first thing
I ever cooked, that my daddy was laughing
and breathing and no bullet in his head
when he taught me.

Mix it till it looks like quicksand, he’d say.
Till it moves like a slow song sounds.

We’d sit there in the kitchen, licking our fingers
and laughing at my mother,
who was probably scrubbing something with bleach,
or watching Bonanza,
or thinking how stupid it was to be burning
that nasty old bread in that cast iron skillet.
When I told her that I’d made my first-ever pan
of hot water cornbread, and that my daddy
had branded it glorious, she sniffed and kept
mopping the floor over and over in the same place.

So here’s how you do it:

You take out a bowl, like the one
we had with blue flowers and only one crack,
you put the cornmeal in it.
Then you turn on the hot water and you let it run
while you tell the story about the boy
who kissed your cheek after school
or about how you really want to be a reporter
instead of a teacher or nurse like Mama said,
and the water keeps running while Daddy says

You will be a wonderful writer
and you will be famous someday and when
you get famous, if I wrote you a letter and
sent you some money; would you write about me?

and he is laughing and breathing and no bullet
in his head. So you let the water run into this mix
till it moves like mud moves at the bottom of a river,
which is another thing Daddy said, and even though
I’d never even seen a river,
I knew exactly what he meant.
Then you turn the fire way up under the skillet,
and you pour in this mix
that moves like mud moves at the bottom of a river,
like quicksand, like slow song sounds.

That stuff pops something awful when it first hits
that blazing skillet, and sometimes Daddy and I
would dance to those angry pop sounds,
he’d let me rest my feet on top of his
while we waltzed around the kitchen
and my mother huffed and puffed
on the other side of the door. When you are famous,
Daddy asks me, will you write about dancing
in the kitchen with your father?
I say everything I write will be about you,
then you will be famous too. And we dip and swirl
and spin, but then he stops.
And sniffs the air.

The thing you have to remember
about hot water cornbread
is to wait for the burning
so you know when to flip it, and then again
so you know when it’s crusty and done.
Then eat it the way we did,
with our fingers,
our feet still tingling from dancing.
But remember that sometimes the burning
takes such a long time,
and in that time,

poems are born.

​For more information on Patricia Smith, please click here: http://www.wordwoman.ws/

My blog: alisonmcghee.com/blog

My Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/pages/Alison-McGhee/119862491361265?ref=ts

Poem of the Week, by Gary Soto

Gary Soto

The first time I walked
With a girl, I was twelve,
Cold, and weighted down
With two oranges in my jacket.
December.  Frost cracking
Beneath my steps, my breath
Before me, then gone,
As I walked toward
Her house, the one whose
Porch light burned yellow
Night and day, in any weather.
A dog barked at me, until
She came out pulling
At her gloves, face bright
With rouge.  I smiled,
Touched her shoulder, and led
Her down the street, across
A used car lot and a line
Of newly planted trees,
Until we were breathing
Before a drugstore.  We
Entered, the tiny bell
Bringing a saleslady
Down a narrow aisle of goods.
I turned to the candies
Tiered like bleachers,
And asked what she wanted –
Light in her eyes, a smile
Starting at the corners
Of her mouth.  I fingered
A nickel in my pocket,
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
I didn’t say anything.
I took the nickel from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quietly on
The counter.  When I looked up,
The lady’s eyes met mine,
And held them, knowing
Very well what it was all

A few cars hissing past,
Fog hanging like old
Coats between the trees.
I took my girl’s hand
in mine for two blocks,
Then released it to let
Her unwrap the chocolate.
I peeled my orange
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, from some distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making a fire in my hands.

​For more information about Gary Soto, please click here: http://www.garysoto.com/

My blog: alisonmcghee.com/blog

My Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/pages/Alison-McGhee/119862491361265?ref=ts

My baby done graduated

She was a scruffy little thing when they handed her to me. Fingers in mouth. Brushy black hair worn off in back from scrubbing her head back and forth on the crib mattress. Skinny legs kicking wildly below a little sleeveless purple-and-white striped number.

We first laid eyes on each other in a stuffy room in an office building 6,824 miles from Minneapolis. It was suffocatingly hot that summer and we were both sweaty. For one second, as I held my arms out to her and she looked at me for the first time, she screwed up her face to cry.

“Don’t cry, don’t cry,” I said in Chinese, desperate to soothe her. “It’s going to be okay. We’re going to have so much fun. I promise you.”

She stared at me and listened, her face still twisted in fear and confusion. Then she took the fingers out of her mouth and gave me a huge smile, a smile that made her entire body wiggle.

Later that day, when we were alone in the hotel room, I laid her down on my stomach in her diaper. She stared at me with her deep dark eyes and wiggled and smiled. She took her fingers out of her mouth, stuck them back in. I played peek a boo and she laughed a throaty little chuckle of a laugh.

When I had to get up to go to the bathroom I put her in her crib and her dark, dark eyes followed me across the room.

In a restaurant a few days later, four waitresses took turns holding her. When they realized I spoke Chinese they beckoned me to a corner and, unsmiling, told me that I had to tell her something when she got older.

Tell her she was wanted, they said. Explain to her about the one-child policy. Tell her about us, here in this restaurant, and how we thought she was beautiful and funny. No matter what anyone ever says, don’t ever let her think she wasn’t wanted.

On the flight to Minneapolis she slept and stared out the window and sucked down bottle after bottle and wiggled her legs and laughed. The pilot gave her some plastic wings and she stuck them in her mouth.

6,824 miles later, at midnight, we landed.

There have been many miles since.

How many trips we have been on together, her riding shotgun, me driving. Through the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains and the White Mountains. Down south, hugging the Mississippi and then venturing east to the southern wilds of the Florida panhandle.

Driving west from Minneapolis, feeling the earth swell and rise beneath the car, all the way to Idaho and then heading north to the Canadian Rockies. Most recently down the Pacific Coast Highway in the rain and clouds, Big Sur in the mist, stopping to listen to the sea lions on the rocks.

Hundreds, thousands of miles. She is my road warrior daughter. Dozens of playlists masterminded by her: one perfect song after another. She long ago stopped sticking those two fingers in her mouth, but her dark, dark eyes are as observant as ever.

We play a game I think of as Sure. She points and asks, I answer.

Mom, can I have an elephant?


Mom, can we live there?


Mom, can I quit school and we’ll go on an around the world trip?


Once, a few years ago, we flew eastward, back over those same thousands of miles to the land she was born in. We hiked the Great Wall in 106 degree heat, ate dumplings, melted into the middle of crowds to cross the terrifying streets.

She weighed almost nothing in the beginning. She couldn’t sit up by herself and her  big brother and sister liked to haul her around like a floppy stuffed animal. When she was little her main goal in life was to make them laugh, and she was very good at that task.

She didn’t walk until she was almost two but once she did, she was an unstoppable force of nature. She used to throw herself at the car windows if we passed a playground. She zipped around the block on her trike or scooter or rollerblades. She would shriek like a tiny madwoman if anyone tried to keep her off the slide or the swings.

Eighteen years went by.

Now she’s asleep upstairs, having just gotten home from the all-night high school graduation party. Her purple cap and purple gown are crumpled on the dining room table. Her dog waits patiently for her to wake up. When she does, she will pet him and then drink a mug of strong black coffee.

Come the end of August she will be living 1463 miles away from me, when in all these years since I met her she has never been farther than a few blocks.

Once she didn’t exist. Then she was born. Then I flew a long way to meet her, and we came home to a world that was new because we were new to each other, just getting to know each other, figuring each other out.

What am I trying to say here? Nothing that isn’t a cliche. A cliche about how the day you meet your baby, time slows down inside but speeds up outside. How the years whirl by until the night comes when you’re sitting in a huge auditorium while someone at a microphone is calling out name after name, and your daughter steps across the stage, smiling and shaking hand after hand.

You applaud and smile but inside you’re remembering that very first moment, when she looked at you and almost cried, but didn’t.

I still have the journal I kept about her all those years ago, tucked in a cardboard box with the tiny purple striped outfit, her original passport, the first photo I ever saw of her.

Now I look at the journal and think, She wasn’t even born yet when you began this thing. Strange. But that’s how babies begin. How parenthood begins. How works of art begin. You dream about something that doesn’t yet exist.

Miles to go before we sleep.