Poem of the Week, by Mike White

IMG_0696A few years ago, from my front porch, I watched an enormous, dark turtle labor its way across Emerson Avenue. It was winter. Snow and ice and slush. A giant turtle? Then the scene resolved itself; the turtle was not a turtle but an old man who had fallen and was trying to crawl to the curb.

I ran out and helped him up and got his walker securely situated. He refused my offer of a ride and carried on down the sidewalk. Sometimes the world turns itself inside out for a few seconds and you stand there entirely confounded. All you can do is wait, and wonder, and let yourself be amazed.


Wind, by Mike White

Not a remarkable wind. 
So when the bistro’s patio umbrella 
blew suddenly free and pitched 
into the middle of the road, 
it put a stop to the afternoon. 

Something white and amazing 
was blocking the way. 

A waiter in a clean apron 
appeared, not quite 
certain, shielding his eyes, wary 
of our rumbling engines. 

He knelt in the hot road, 
making two figures in white, one 
leaning over the sprawled, 
broken shape of the other, 
creaturely, great-winged, 
and now so carefully gathered in.




For more information about Mike White, please check out his website.

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Poem of the Week, by Dana Gioia

Granny and Grampa, McGhee HillSix saggy old cardboard boxes full of hundreds, maybe thousands, of handwritten or typed letters sit behind closed cupboard doors in my bedroom. These letters date back to high school. They’re from my mother, my grandmothers, my sisters, my brother, boys and men I loved, my best friend, other dear friends, and friends I barely remember but who were important to me at one point in my life. The envelopes, with those wavy lines across the canceled stamps, bear testament to all the places I’ve lived in my life. Unlike almost anything else in my life, I can’t throw them out. Sometimes they have lived in the dark trunk of my car until once again they are hauled into a different cupboard in a new house or apartment, where they rest in darkness next to their neighbors. The other day I opened a box at random and pulled out a letter from my grandmother. She had been to a movie with my parents and what an interesting, if confusing, movie it had been. Afterward they had gone to a Chinese buffet and my parents had treated her, how lovely of them. She was having trouble with that darned knee of hers. And then came this ending line, reminiscing about my grandfather, dead many years at this point: What a beautiful life we had together, but it wasn’t long enough. My grandmother, and that single, uncharacteristic sentence from her, written in the shaky Palmer script of her very old age, is why I love this poem so much.


Finding a Box of Family Letters, by Dana Gioa

The dead say little in their letters
they haven’t said before.
We find no secrets, and yet
how different every sentence sounds
heard across the years.
My father breaks my heart
simply by being so young and handsome.
He’s half my age, with jet-black hair.
Look at him in his navy uniform
grinning beside his dive-bomber.

Come back, Dad! 
I want to shout.

He says he misses all of us
(though I haven’t yet been born).
He writes from places I never knew he saw,
and everyone he mentions now is dead.

There is a large, long photograph
curled like a diploma—a banquet sixty years ago.
My parents sit uncomfortably
among tables of dark-suited strangers.
The mildewed paper reeks of regret.

I wonder what song the band was playing,
just out of frame, as the photographer
arranged your smiles. A waltz? A foxtrot?
Get out there on the floor and dance!
You don’t have forever.

What does it cost to send a postcard
to the underworld? I’ll buy
a penny stamp from World War II
and mail it downtown at the old post office
just as the courthouse clock strikes twelve.

Surely the ghost of some postal worker
still makes his nightly rounds, his routine
too tedious for him to notice when it ended.
He works so slowly he moves back in time
carrying our dead letters to their lost addresses.

It’s silly to get sentimental.
The dead have moved on. So should we.
But isn’t it equally simple-minded to miss
the special expertise of the departed
in clarifying our long-term plans?

They never let us forget that the line
between them and us is only temporary.
Get out there and dance! the letters shout,
adding, Love always. Can’t wait to get home!
And soon we will be. See you there.

For more information on Dana Gioia, please click here.

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Poem of the Week, by Kathy Fagan

img_6107This poem haunts me. Not because it’s sad –or maybe it is; I don’t really know what this poem is about– but because when I read it, it brings back times of internal struggle. Like when I was young and trying desperately to work my solo way out of a secret, six-year eating disorder. Partway through this struggle, for reasons I no longer remember, I sat down and made a list of all the people dearest to me. One way to translate “eating disorder,” maybe, is “self-hatred,” but I clearly remember that when I finished the list, all their faces came swimming up in my mind, and every face was smiling at me with love. It came to me in that moment that clothes, size, money, age, looks, where a person went to college– none of it mattered. The one thing that would matter about me to the world, if only I could remember it, was my own spirit. That moment was a turning point in my struggle. And somehow it relates to this beautiful, mysterious poem, because when I read How we looked / didn’t matter for once / because we were flying, I feel as if I’m flying.


How We Looked, by Kathy Fagan

          didn’t matter for once 
because we were flying. 

          The crows we were 
clothed in took a running 

          start for the gothic 
and that was all: 

          tooled doors opened 
and waxy air 

          lifted us on its current. 
And though the jeweled 

          light was dim we could tell 
the faces we were 

          seeing were beautiful, 
each with a mouth 

          and voice, and there was 
no doubt then, 

          as our chins and our rib cages, 
our wrists and our knees 

          rose, that what mattered 
was that we obey 

          for once, and when 
the voices said, 

          Look up, Look up, 
though rain fell 

in our eyes, we did.     


Click here for more information about Kathy Fagan.

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Poem of the Week, by Michael Lee

img_61071) When I was young and had just lost someone I loved, I prayed one night for him to give me a sign from wherever, if anywhere, he was. The next morning I dreamed that his arms were the blanket over me and the bed under me. The sense of comfort disappeared the minute I woke up, but I’ve remembered it all these years. 2) Once, in a CVS, years after she had died, I smelled my grandmother, the powder she always wore. I followed my nose from aisle to aisle until I found her, a small old woman looking at birthday cards. She was not my grandmother, and yet she was my grandmother. 3) Last spring, my friend Kathi and I were on a television show that was being taped outdoors. As Kathi was talking, my friend John Brett, husband of my friend Gail, appeared at the edge of the set. He was smiling, of course, and a giant surge of happiness went through me at the sight of him and I waved at him and thought, I have to tell Gail I saw John! Then I remembered, again, that John had died. But I told Gail anyway. 4) I love this poem below for so many reasons, but most of all for these lines: The theory of six degrees of separation/ was never meant to show how many people we can find,/ it was a set of directions for how to find the people we have lost.


Pass On, by Michael Lee

When searching for the lost remember 8 things.

We are vessels. We are circuit boards
swallowing the electricity of life upon birth.
It wheels through us creating every moment,
the pulse of a story, the soft hums of labor and love.
In our last moment it will come rushing
from our chests and be given back to the wind.
When we die. We go everywhere.

Newton said energy is neither created nor destroyed.
In the halls of my middle school I can still hear
my friend Stephen singing his favorite song.
In the gymnasium I can still hear
the way he dribbled that basketball like it was a mallet
and the earth was a xylophone.
With an ear to the Atlantic I can hear
the Titanic’s band playing her to sleep,
Music. Wind. Music. Wind.

The day my grandfather passed away there was the strongest wind,
I could feel his gentle hands blowing away from me.
I knew then they were off to find someone
who needed them more than I did.
On average 1.8 people on earth die every second.
There is always a gust of wind somewhere.

The day Stephen was murdered
everything that made us love him rushed from his knife wounds
as though his chest were an auditorium
his life an audience leaving single file.
Every ounce of him has been
wrapping around this world in a windstorm
I have been looking for him for 9 years.

Our bodies are nothing more than hosts to a collection of brilliant things.
When someone dies I do not weep over polaroids or belongings,
I begin to look for the lightning that has left them,
I feel out the strongest breeze and take off running.

After 9 years I found Stephen.
I passed a basketball court in Boston
the point guard dribbled like he had a stadium roaring in his palms
Wilt Chamberlain pumping in his feet,
his hands flashing like x-rays,
a cross-over, a wrap-around
rewinding, turn-tables cracking open,
camera-men turn flash bulbs to fireworks.
Seven games and he never missed a shot,
his hands were luminous.
Pulsing. Pulsing.
I asked him how long he’d been playing,
he said nine 9 years

The theory of six degrees of separation
was never meant to show how many people we can find,
it was a set of directions for how to find the people we have lost.
I found your voice Stephen,
found it in a young boy in Michigan who was always singing,
his lungs flapping like sails
I found your smile in Australia,
a young girl’s teeth shining like the opera house in your neck,
I saw your one true love come to life on the asphalt of Boston.

We are not created or destroyed,
we are constantly transferred, shifted and renewed.
Everything we are is given to us.
Death does not come when a body is too exhausted to live
Death comes, because the brilliance inside us can only be contained for so long.
We do not die. We pass on, pass on the lightning burning through our throats.
when you leave me I will not cry for you
I will run into the strongest wind I can find
and welcome you home.


For more information about Michael Lee, please click here.


"I am a sky where spirits live"

You and your older daughter are nearing the end of a sojourn in an unfamiliar land, a land that is neither Europe nor Asia but the meeting point of both; that has long been its reputation, and it has proven to be true. Never have you been in a place that feels like such a crossroads – a land where an Eastern emperor succeeded a Western one, where one religion superimposed itself upon another, where the traditions of thousands of years exist side by side with cell phones and free wi-fi.

The two of you began your trip by getting on separate airplanes and meeting in a huge airport outside a huge city in the middle of your own huge country. It was night and you took the train into that city, trundling your carry-ons behind you, and met her older brother at a Moroccan restaurant.

The three of you drank hot, sweet mint tea, ordered an appetizer decreed by the brother to be a “chicken doughnut,” sampled each other’s tagines, and ended the meal with a coconut-mango dacquoise, a word none of you knew the meaning of but which you all enjoyed pronouncing.

The three of you sat around a table in a room draped ceiling-to-floor with billowy swoops of bright cotton. An hour in from one end of the blue line for you and your girl, an hour out from the other end of the blue line for your boy. A meeting in the middle.

Then you hugged him goodbye and watched as he walked off into the dark night to board the train back to the house where he lives now. You fought back the sensation you always feel when you watch him walk away, which is bewilderment and disorientation: How did this happen?

How did he grow up and move away from the house where he used to live, with you, the house where you used to butter his toast and set it before him in the quiet morning?

Don’t start, you told yourself, because there was no way to understand how this had happened. It was too big and too dizzying, and it had to do with the passage of time, which is something that despite your hyperawareness of it you have never been able to understand.

You and your girl trundled your carry-ons back to an airport motel and next day boarded a plane which took you to that unfamiliar, enormous city sprawled on either side of the Bosphorus Strait in a land that borders Syria and Iraq and Armenia and Georgia.

This land had always shimmered in your mind as a mythical place –site of two magnificent empires, fulcrum point of warring factions. You and your girl take photos of each other standing by the Bosphorus, in the Grand Bazaar, in the Spice Market, on a bluff looking north toward the mouth of the Black Sea.

The two of you wander the neighborhood streets and try to figure out the ingredients for the sweets displayed in windows. You try all manner of mezes, little plates of food that you share: fried mussels, eggplant salad, sauteed greens, shish kebap, pumpkin stewed long and slow in honey and sprinkled with figs and pistachios. You drink tea that comes in the same potbellied glasses no matter where you order it, a small spoon standing in each glass to absorb the heat.

You try Turkish coffee, swirling the muddy grounds and feeling the caffeine charge instantly through your bloodstream.

Before you enter a mosque so huge and so beautiful that you can hardly comprehend that it was built in only a few years, the two of you cover your heads with scarves and remove your boots and then crane your necks skyward.

In a roped-off section, men on their knees pray. In a basin meant for washing before prayer, a tiny boy pretends to take a bath while his parents laugh and take photos of him. You and your girl pick up pamphlets titled “Understanding Islam” and take them outside, where you sit on a bench in the sun and read them.

You both admit to each other that this little booklet is so well-written, clear, and easy to understand that you both feel far more informed about Islam than you ever have before.

Wherever you go you practice the five words you memorized, which are the same words you try to memorize in all languages: Hello. Please. No. Yes. Thank you.

At an outdoor cafe you see a sign for Turkish Hot Milky Drink with Orchid Roots and order a cup out of curiosity. You expect it to taste nasty, but when the waiter brings it over –two cups instead of the one you ordered– you can’t believe how delicious it was.

Sahlep is the name of this drink, sprinkled with cinnamon and served only in winter, and you buy some sahlep powder in the Spice Market to bring back home with you.

One day, you get up early and take a ferry up the river to a little fishing village on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. You climb a steep hill to the ruins of an old castle, where you stand on a bluff and gaze out at the mouth of the Black Sea. The knowledge of the ancient history that has taken place there, that is taking place now, makes you shiver the same way that beholding the underground cisterns, supported with Roman columns, makes you shiver.

You think of Syria, the country on the southern border of the land where you are standing, and what is happening there right now. That familiar feeling of disorientation and bewilderment –how do these things happen? How did we get here from there?– is dizzying.

A few days into the sojourn, you wake at dawn in the dark and quiet of your hotel room. Your daughter sleeps silently in the bed next to yours and you listen as the muezzin wails the morning call to prayers from a nearby minaret. You get up and push back the curtain, see the world coming slowly into light. The Bosphorus tumbles by below the window, gray and opaque, and pigeons gather on the square.

This call to prayers comes five times a day, drifting over the entire city. Over the entire land. In a country where ninety-nine people out of one hundred are Muslim, the call to prayers is a constant reminder to pause. To take note. To breathe.

You witness restaurant owners turn off their music and stand silent in the doorway, listening. You witness others raise their voices to carry on their laughter and conversation over the song. Observant or not, the ritual is part of everyone’s daily life. You think, I will hear this call for the rest of my life.

Women in full burka walk on the arms of their husbands next to women in tights and spike heels. In the Hagia Sophia, Arabic inscriptions from the prophets hang next to ancient mosaics depicting Jesus and Mary and Joseph. In this city, east meets west, Christianity meets Islam, and if you don’t have enough Turkish lira, euros will work.

You and your daughter are here, just the two of you, in this mythical land. One foot east, one foot west. One of you just turned twenty, the other is in the middle of her life. You forced yourself not to have expectations of this trip, because you have learned that it’s always better just to live the days as they happen.

She is your middle child. The two of you have never had a long stretch of time together, years together alone, the way her older brother and younger sister did. This knowledge has always, for some reason, cracked your heart.

There comes an evening when the two of you are returning to your hotel after a long day of wandering. The bus is crowded and you hang onto the overhead strap, tired and thirsty. All around you the other riders chat quietly in Turkish, stare into space, smile down at their cell phones.

You turn, seeking out your girl, and there she is, looking out the window toward the Bosphorus, her arm wrapped around a pole. Her eyes have that same faraway, peaceful look as that day when she was a kindergartner, her forehead pressed against the window of the schoolbus, and her teacher turned to you and said, “Look, Alison. Just look at that beautiful child.”

Seeing her now, like that long-ago day when she didn’t know you were watching her, your heart clenches. This is one of those moments that come sometimes in life, when everything is in place, when it feels as if everything has led you to this moment. The crowded bus, the water splashing onto the cobblestones below the bluff, your daughter dreaming of something you’ll never know. Your life has arrowed itself toward this single perfect moment.

The world outside will come roaring in again. You will return to your life and its many obligations and responsibilities, to that familiar world where east clashes with west and people keep dying and dying at each other’s hands.

But not now. Not right now.

I am a sky where spirits live.
Stare into this deepening blue,
while the breeze says a secret.
      Like this.

When someone asks what there is to do,
light the candle in his hand.
      Like this.