Poem of the Week, by Joe Mills

My poems podcast, Words by Wintercan be found here.

As a lone wolf when it comes to work and a non-team sports person, I don’t really know what being part of a team that wants to beat another team feels like. I think of myself as my own competitor: write better, do better, be better. When my kids played sports I used to sit on the bleachers and absentmindedly cheer if I saw a good goal, which doesn’t go over well if the other team made it.

Talking about competition is complicated, because if I claim I’m not competitive, others will often laugh and say “yes, you are.” So maybe I don’t really understand it. Maybe I don’t want to. Why do we agree to live in a system that emphasizes winning over others instead of mutual aid? Does the world have to be this way or do we make it this way? Isn’t everyone good at something others aren’t?

A couple of years ago on a family vacation I watched my children play a game called Pandemic, where all the players work together to beat a virus before it wipes them out. When I read this poem I thought of that game and its beautiful, imaginary, unfamiliar world.

Turning, by Joseph Mills

My friend’s kid runs the sideline, gets a pass,
turns, and scores with a kick to the near post.

It’s how the play should go, but at this age
rarely does. My son sprints to him, arms up.

They high five and celebrate a moment,
then turn to jog back to their positions.

Last year, they would have hopped around madly,
twirled, fallen backwards, and rolled in the grass.

This season, they are serious. No more
skipping. No more acting sweetly goofy.

Now, they turn towards one another rather
than towards us. No more checking that we’ve seen.

But we have. We know the score, and what’s lost
as they try to turn themselves into men.

For more information on Joe Mills, please check out his website.


Poem of the Week, by Rebecca Elson

My poems podcast, Words by Wintercan be found here.

When I was pregnant I used to look at people passing by on the sidewalk, sitting in restaurants, laughing and talking and arguing, and think Every single one of them came out of a woman. This fact reassured me, because the thought of giving birth was terrifying. How could this giant thing in my belly possibly emerge without breaking me apart?

In the same way, it reassures me to look around at everyone –the old man walking his old pug, the child darting down the trail with her stuffed monkey, the woman smiling at me with her eyes above her Gromit mask early this morning–and think, it will happen to all of them, too. My faith is a searching one without definitive answers, but it comforts me to know others wonder the same big questions. Makes me feel like I’m part of a long line, something so much bigger than myself. I picture the poet-astronomer Rebecca Elson, who died young, lying under the stars and feeding herself with their light.

Antidotes to Fear of Death, by Rebecca Elson

Sometimes as an antidote
to fear of death,
I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
til they are all, all inside me,
pepper hot and sharp.

Sometimes, instead, I stir myself
into a universe still young,
still warm as blood:

No outer space, just space,
the light of all the not yet stars
drifting like a bright mist,
and all of us, and everything
already there
but unconstrained by form.

And sometime it’s enough
to lie down here on earth
beside our long ancestral bones:

to walk across the cobble fields
of our discarded skulls,
each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
thinking: whatever left these husks
flew off on bright wings.

For more information on Rebecca Elson, please read her fascinating obituary.
Words by Winter: my new podcast

Poem of the Week, by Stephanie Niu

My poems podcast, Words by Wintercan be found here.

My dad once told me that his school music teacher told him not to sing. Mouth the words, pretend to sing, but don’t. Every time I think about this, it hurts. Last February I was visiting my parents when they called my brother to sing him Happy Birthday. I secretly took a video of my big dad, phone clutched to his mostly-deaf ear, leaning forward in the lamplight and straining out the words.

How many songs are locked up inside each of us? When I read this beautiful poem below I wished I could go back in time and tell that little boy to sing as loud as he wanted.


A Lao Jia Song Is a Song of Home, by Stephanie Niu

There were two times I heard my father sing.
Once from behind the camera, panning to my brother’s
birthday cake, his happy birthday a key off,
so bad it is valiant, my brother blushing before the table.

The second was at a feast—a mountain village
south of Kunming where, my father pointed out,
people readied for winter like animals,
mixing butter into their tea.

There was something there, his eyes watching
the long-haired buffalo graze the cold hills
as our little bus wound up and up. His favorite American books
were the Little House series, with their descriptions

of simple tasks, how they churned butter from cream.
At the dinner, roast lamb, dark pickled flowers,
a strong tea, and before long his song:
the haunting rise of an attempt at melody,

his voice breaking before it can carry.
Somehow they recognize it, the mountain family,
and they lean over and whisper “This is a lao jia song,”
because we have never heard it

in all these years, we are sitting with strangers
trying to imagine what he is mourning.

This poem was first published in Southeast Review. For more information about Stephanie Niu, please check out her website.
Words by Winter: my new podcast

Poem of the Week, by Stephen Cushman

My poems podcast, Words by Wintercan be found here.

Paco! Our new little guy, elegant, lively and full of curiosity and affection. An athlete too — no matter how fast we run the leash never slackens, and every dash through the living room involves catlike leaps on and off the couch. Everything interests him, but when I’m working, he turns into a quiet little comma and burrows close to me and the laptop. He’s supposedly about a year old but seems younger to me, a funny little puppy who rarely barks and reminds me of the dog in the poem below, a poem I loved years ago at first reading, just like we loved Paco at first sight.

Smaller Dog, by Stephen Cushman

We can’t all be
brightest in the sky

or the biggest guy
in outer space.

But I don’t envy
anybody’s place

or need to feel
I have no worth

because I’m far
from Orion’s heel.

My yellow-white
double star

delivers its light
to nearby Earth

in eleven years flat,
which is pretty fast,

but my other boast
is Helen: she

loved me most
of all her hounds,

and you can’t beat that.
So I, unsurpassed

in her esteem,
made no sounds

when secretly
they left for Troy.

He was the dream
igniting the dark

scarcity of joy.
How could I bark?

For more information about Stephen Cushman, please check out his website.