Poem of the Week, by Lisel Mueller

IMG_4241Long ago, only fifteen years after they were first discovered by farmers digging a well near Xian, I went to see the terracotta warriors. The memory haunts me. The place wasn’t well organized back then – you sort of stumbled around and then down into the ground, where the clay soldiers, thousands of them, stood at attention. Signs: “No spitting. No taking pictures. No taking artifacts.” The guy we had hired to drive us out to the site bent down at one point and scraped up some clay dust and dropped it right into my pocket. No taking artifacts, I whispered to him, and he shrugged and laughed and said, Now you’ve got some 10,000 year old dirt to take back to America. It was the soldiers that haunt me, though. Their faces, their bodies, their height and weight, the breadth of their shoulders: All different, like looking at an army of real men frozen in time. I stood looking at them, wondering about their lives. This poem by Lisel Mueller makes me remember them all over again.

     – Lisel Mueller

In Sleeping Beauty’s castle
the clock strikes one hundred years
and the girl in the tower returns to the
So do the servants in the kitchen,
who don’t even rub their eyes.
The cook’s right hand, lifted
an exact century ago,
completes its downward arc
to the kitchen boy’s left ear;
the boy’s tensed vocal cords
finally let go
the trapped, enduring whimper,
and the fly, arrested mid-plunge
above the strawberry pie,
fulfills its abiding mission
and dives into the sweet, red glaze.
As a child I had a book
with a picture of that scene.
I was too young to notice
how fear persists, and how
the anger that causes fear persists,
that its trajectory can’t be changed
or broken, only interrupted.
My attention was on the fly;
that this slight body
with its transparent wings
and lifespan of one human day
still craved its particular share
of sweetness, a century later.


For more information on Lisel Mueller, please click here.

Poem of the Week, by Major Jackson

IMG_4221Walking Man was someone I first noticed many years ago because he walked as fast as me (apparently I walk with great purpose), and he seemed to walk all day long, every day of the year, tromping the lakes and streets of our southwest Minneapolis neighborhood. He was a strong, well-built, handsome man. In summer he wore shorts and a t-shirt, in winter jeans and a parka. One time only has Walking Man returned my hello; his eyes are usually fixed on a far horizon. Once, about fifteen years in, I passed a man sitting on a bench on Lake Calhoun and did a double-take. Was that Walking Man? Sitting? Yes. The first time I ever saw him not in motion. Two days ago an old man in jeans and a t-shirt came toward me on Lake Street: extreme bowlegs, a mane of flowing white hair, a rocking gait that hurt to witness, so painful did it look. I watched that old man lurch toward me, hoped he didn’t have far to walk, wondered if I could help. Then I realized who it was.

How to Listen
     – Major Jackson

I am going to cock my head tonight like a dog
in front of McGlinchy’s Tavern on Locust;
I am going to stand beside the man who works all day combing
his thatch of gray hair corkscrewed in every direction.
I am going to pay attention to our lives
unraveling between the forks of his fine-tooth comb.
For once, we won’t talk about the end of the world
or Vietnam or his exquisite paper shoes.
For once, I am going to ignore the profanity and
the dancing and the jukebox so I can hear his head crackle
beneath the sky’s stretch of faint stars.


For more information on Major Jackson, please click here.

Poem of the Week, by Ocean Vuong

IMG_4539A few months ago I began reading poems by Ocean Vuong, at first because his name, Ocean, enchanted me and then because his poems enchanted me. I have read the one below many times now, and each time, that opening line —Ocean, don’t be afraid– brings a lump to my throat. (How many times I have told myself Be brave, Alison, don’t live a fearful life.) The title, Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong, hits me in the same gut-punch way. This is one of those poems which I can’t sum up in a “What’s it about” kind of way, but because my heart responds to it in a below-the-surface way, I don’t need to. Months after I first discovered his work, I learned that Ocean Vuong thinks and writes in intricate English while communicating with his family in elementary Vietnamese, that he saved every penny he could from awards and publications for a down payment on a house for his family, and that his mother found it unfathomable that words –spun out from her son’s head and sent around the world in print and on youtube– could result in something tangible: a key to a house they could call their own. A poem borne of so many threads, so many years, so many tides and currents.

Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong
– Ocean Vuong

Ocean, don’t be afraid.
The end of the road is so far ahead
it is already behind us.
Don’t worry.
Your father is only your father
until one of you forgets. Like how the spine
won’t remember its wings
no matter how many times our knees
kiss the pavement. Ocean,
are you listening? The most beautiful part
of your body is wherever
your mother’s shadow falls.
Here’s the house with childhood
whittled down to a single red tripwire.
Don’t worry. Just call it horizon
& you’ll never reach it.
Here’s today. Jump. I promise it’s not
a lifeboat. Here’s the man
whose arms are wide enough to gather
your leaving. & here the moment,
just after the lights go out, when you can still see
the faint torch between his legs.
How you use it again & again
to find your own hands.
You asked for a second chance
& are given a mouth to empty into.
Don’t be afraid, the gunfire
is only the sound of people
trying to live a little longer. Ocean. Ocean,
get up. The most beautiful part of your body
is where it’s headed. & remember,
loneliness is still time spent
with the world. Here’s the room with everyone in it.
Your dead friends passing
through you like wind
through a wind chime. Here’s a desk
with the gimp leg & a brick
to make it last. Yes, here’s a room
so warm & blood-close,
I swear, you will wake—& mistake these walls
for skin.


For a fascinating and beautiful interview with Ocean Vuong, please click here.

Poem of the Week, by Stephen Dunn

IMG_0447I’m teaching a Creative Writing Boot Camp this week. Six days in a row, seven hours a day, nineteen of us gather in a windowed classroom halfway between Minneapolis and St. Paul to write and write and talk and talk about the art and craft and act of writing. Poems and tiny short stories, tiny memoirs. Beautiful, painful, funny, wistful fragments of life, captured on paper and released into the invisible air of the room. I could teach for another fifty years and never lose this astonishment, that nurses and truck drivers and musicians and stay at home parents and hair stylists and sex workers and clerks and commodities traders and group home workers, Muslim and Christian and atheist, come together in a single small room and transform themselves and me and the whole outside world by the power of sharing stories. If a teacher asked me to name a sacred place, the classroom would be mine.

The Sacred
     – Stephen Dunn

After the teacher asked if anyone had
a sacred place
and the students fidgeted and shrank

in their chairs, the most serious of them all
said it was his car,
being in it alone, his tape deck playing

things he’d chosen, and others knew the truth
had been spoken
and began speaking about their rooms,

their hiding places, but the car kept coming up,
the car in motion,
music filling it, and sometimes one other person

who understood the bright altar of the dashboard
and how far away
a car could take him from the need

to speak, or to answer, the key
in having a key
and putting it in, and going.


For more information about Stephen Dunn, please click here.