Poem of the Week, by Ellery Akers

California, choo choo train cloudsMany years ago I read Innumeracy, a slender, astonishing book by John Allen Paulos, about how the understanding or lack thereof of basic math and statistics affects everything about the way we live our lives. What I learned in that book humbled me and has stayed me with me ever since, especially the singular fact that every breath every one of us takes contains at least three molecules of the air breathed by every human being and creature who has ever lived on this earth. Gandhi. Hitler. Wooly mammoths. Jesus Christ. The prophet Mohammad. Your great grandparents, your great grandchildren. Every, single, breath. This poem makes me think of that all over again, in yet another way. Poem of the Week, by Ellery Akers.

– Ellery Akers

I love to feel as if I’m just another body, a breather along with the others:
blackbirds taking sips of air, garter snakes
lapping it up with their split tongues,
and all those plants
that open and close and throw up streamers of oxygen:
maybe that cottonwood that tilts across the creekbed
is the very one that just sucked up carbon dioxide
and let me breathe, maybe I should hang a card around it,
Thank you for the next two minutes of my life,
maybe some of
the air I just swallowed used to be inside the hot larynx of a fox,
or the bill of an ash-throated flycatcher,
maybe it just coursed past
the scales of a lizard–a bluebelly –
as he wrapped himself around his mate,
maybe he took an extra breath and let it out
and that’s the one I got.
Maybe all of us are standing side by side on the earth
our chests moving up and down,
every single one of us, opening a window,
loosening a belt, unzipping a pair of pants to let our bellies swell,
while in the pond a water beetle
clips a bubble of air to its shell and comes back up for another.
You want sanitary? Go to some other planet:
I’m breathing the same air as the drunk Southerner,
the one who rolls cigarettes with stained yellow thumbs
on the bench in the train station,
I’m breathing the same air as the Siamese twins
at the circus, their heads talking to each other,
quarreling about what they want to do with their one pair of hands
and their one heart.
Tires have run over this air,
it’s passed right over the stiff hair of jackrabbits and road kill,
drifted through clouds of algae and cumulus,
passed through airplane propellers, jetprops,
blades of helicopters,
through spiderlings that balloon over the Tetons,
through sudden masses of smoke and sulfur,
the bleared Buick filled with smoke
from the Lucky Strikes my mother lit, one after another.
Though, as a child, I tried my best not to breathe,
I wanted to take only the faintest sips,
just enough to keep the sponges inside,
all the lung sacs, rising and falling.
I have never noticed it enough,
this colorless stuff I can’t see,
circulated by fans, pumped into tires,
sullenly exploding into bubbles of marsh gas,
while the man on the gurney drags it in and out of his lungs
until it leaves his corpse and floats past doorknobs
and gets trapped in an ice cube, dropped into a glass.
After all, we’re just hanging out here in our sneakers
or hooves or talons, gripping a branch, or thudding against the sidewalk:
as I hold onto my lover
and both of us breathe in the smell of wire screens on the windows
and the odor of buckeye.
This isn’t to say I haven’t had trouble breathing, I have:
sometimes I have to pull the car over and roll down the window,
and take in air, I have to remember I’m an animal,
I have to breathe with the other breathers,
even the stars breathe, even the soil,
even the sun is breathing up there,
all that helium and oxygen,
all those gases blowing and shredding into the solar wind.


For more information about Ellery Akers, please click here.

Poem of the Week, by Rebecca Foust

I had another poem all ready to go this morning. Then I got a text from a distant city where someone I love lives: “Went to the tree lighting last night but the crowd was so huge that we got afraid of being in the middle of it so we watched from afar.” This text and the following one, “Avoiding crowds at all costs,” felt like the capper to a hard week of hard news. So I turned to my file of comfort-poems, like The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry, like Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye, like To My Young Friends Who Are Afraid by William Stafford, but none of them felt right. Then I read this one, by Rebecca Foust, and it struck the right chord. Poem of the Week.

– Rebecca Foust

Some things we believe cannot be redeemed.
But in a valley the Railroad finally forgot,
the silted, slugged ditch we would not eat fish from
runs again, a river, rilled as before
by clear water, not black. Grass grows back
between tracks and rails. Limestone spalls
hewn from the mountain heal into soil.
Stumps heaped with live coals, split, and winched out
in spring frail a new circlet of green.
Panthers are seen. A son is born blue, and lives.
Some things we believe cannot be redeemed,
but the dawn, as yet, is diurnal. The woods keep
a hushed vigil, then rustle with life we can’t see;
small ponds well from the ground while we sleep.


For more information on Rebecca Foust, please click here.

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What I'm Reading, November 2015

Reading list, November 2015My son recently returned from a year trekking in Nepal and Australia, where he migrated from hostel to tent to hammock to hostel, living out of a single backpack and waiting tables, bartending, reading and writing nonstop. Each month he would post a photo of his current book supply lined up on a wooden floor. I loved those photos, which is why I’m totally stealing the idea from him.

1. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, by Elana Ferrante. This is the fourth and final of a quartet of novels set in Naples (translated from the original Italian) about the intense, lifelong, always-challenging friendship between two women. From girlhood to old age, these books track their lives against the backdrop of a gritty neighborhood in a gritty city in a rapidly changing country. I was obsessed with these novels and read them one after another as fast as I could (which is not fast; I’m a slow reader). I can’t even tell you why they absorbed me so utterly; they tell instead of show, they are full of minute, step by step description of action, both women frequently annoyed me . . . and yet I couldn’t put them down and will never forget them. Highly recommend.

2. We Forgot Brock! I picked this book up at a book conference in Los Angeles at the end of October, read it through on the spot, and immediately began gnashing my teeth that I hadn’t thought this idea up myself –about a little kid and his invisible friend, both of whom are hilarious beyond measure– and written this book myself, so that then I could look at it and feel full of happiness that I had done something worthwhile with my life, instead of looking at it and feeling jealous that nooooo, somebody named Carter Goodrich had written it. AND illustrated it. Curses! Carter Goodrich happened to be sitting at the table next to me at the time, and I told him how jealous I was, and he turned out to be a really great and funny guy, which was even worse because I couldn’t be pissed at him. Go out and read this book because I guarantee you will love it.

3. A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler. I have been reading Anne Tyler novels all my life. She’s one of my favorite writers. This one was a tough read for me, different from her others in a way I can’t pinpoint. Maybe because it felt too close to some aspects of old age as I have observed them? Not sure. I recommend it anyway.

4. Yes, Please! by Amy Poehler. A few years ago, when Bossypants (by Tina Fey) came out, I lay on a window seat in my friends’ house in Canada and read it straight through, laughing out loud the entire way. Amy’s book is a worthy successor, or maybe a lady-in-waiting, to the throne of Hilarious Badass Women Who Write Disjointed All Over the Map Books. Amy and Tina are fearless and confident in the way I want all girls to be fearless and confident.

5. All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. I was at the launch reading of this book, at an old church-turned-public-library in Greenwich Village, at the end of October, and I was electrified by the reading. This book is co-written in two voices, a black teen and a white teen. It takes as its central event the brutal beating of the black teen and spirals out from there into a personal exploration of what it means to be white and what it means to be black in the  same school, same neighborhood, same city. A fast and intense and thought-provoking read.

6. Between Me and the World, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. 150 slim pages of pure, intense, distilled thinking and experience of race, the assumptions of human beings on what race is, and how those assumptions play out in the everyday life of those considered by themselves and others to be black or white. All of which serves as the framework and context for the murder of Coates’ friend Prince Jones. This is an astonishing, disturbing, brilliant and profound book told in eerily calm words, a letter from a black man to his black son, written and framed in terms of the physical body, on what it means to live in this country.

7. Maybe a Fox, by Kathi Appelt and me. I read this thing for the seven zillionth time this week, changing a few pronouns and swapping out the word “gulped” for anything else that would make sense in its place. (How many times can one smallish novel contain the word gulped? Not nearly as many as we had, I can tell you that.) My lovely friend Kathi and I, inspired by 1) a poem about a fox and 2) the fact that we adore each other, started writing this book together a bunch of years ago, and I just went through it for the last –please dear God let us hope– time, because it goes to print next week. How many times did we re-write this sucker? We have no idea. We don’t even want to know. Suffice it to say that our eyes are glazed over, our brains are fried, and we are both in need of strong drink.








Poem of the Week, by Franz Wright

Me last Thursday, on the way to the airport and halfway into a deep conversation about religious extremism with my Somali-born Uber driver: “It horrifies me. How does the longing for purpose and passion that every young person has turn into the belief that their god is the only god, and that their god justifies murder and mayhem and terror?”

Him (31 years old, handsome, laughing, who along with his Somali-born wife works full-time on different shifts so that they can trade off taking care of their four little kids): “I will tell you something. I almost became one of them.”


“Um. . . you did?”

“Yes. After we fled the civil war in Somalia we lived in Nairobi for three years and I went to a new mosque. I was 18. And the leader taught hate. I began to be filled with hate and to think that others should suffer and die.”

“What changed?”

“I felt my heart turning hateful. And I decided to bring a notebook to the mosque with me for one week. I had one column Hate and another column Love and I kept track of what he was teaching. At the end of the week it was all hate. And I stopped going to the mosque.”

“And now? Did you find a mosque in Minneapolis that feels right to you?”

“I don’t go to any mosque anymore. I don’t raise my kids in any religion. If I want to pray, I pray inside my own head. My religion is two words only. You want to know what they are?”

“I do.”

“Don’t hate.”

Poem of the week, by Franz Wright.

– Franz Wright

What is the meaning of kindness?
Speak and listen to others, from now on,
as if they had recently died.
At the core the seen and unseen worlds are one.


For more information about Franz Wright, please click here.

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Poem of the Week, by Kathleen Jamie

When I was a child the story of the Pied Piper, who lured the children of Hamelin out of town and  into the side of a mountain, from which they never appeared again, held a dark fascination. Typing that last sentence out made me realize that it still does. The piper with his irresistible tune, the children who willingly followed, the finality of the mountain closing behind them: something about that story is enchanting in an awful way. This poem, which feels translated from a long-ago time (even though it’s not), brings me right back to the feeling that those old legends and fairy tales –the Grimm versions, not the sanitized Disney versions, conjures up in me.

The Hinds
– Kathleen Jamie

Walking in a waking dream
I watched nineteen deer
pour from ridge to glen-floor,
then each in turn leap,
leap the new-raised
peat-dark burn. This
was the distaff side;
hinds at their ease, alive
to lands held on long lease
in their animal minds,
and filing through a breach
in a never-mended dyke,
the herd flowed up over
heather-slopes to scree
where they stopped, and turned to stare,
the foremost with a queenly air
as though to say: ‘Aren’t we
the bonniest companie?
Come to me,
You’ll be happy, but never go home.’

For more about Kathleen Jamie, please click here.

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