Poem of the Week, by Philip Larkin

My poems podcast, Words by Wintercan be found here.

Hey Driz. Drizzle. Z’Drazzle. Drazzle. Draz. It’s been just over a week since we held hands in your living room and talked and laughed and cried. We both knew it would be our last conversation.

Daisy the dog kept watch from the porch. I don’t know who has her now, but I know it’s someone wonderful, because you would have made sure of that.

Last night I lay awake thinking about Grandpa, that past, ancient dog of yours, the one you cared for with such devotion that you spent hours every night —hours–wandering your backyard with him as he stumbled around the perimeter, looking for something that never appeared.

You had so much more patience than I ever will, Z’drizzle.

To your students, you were that teacher, the teacher they’ll remember their entire lives, the teacher who saw them, who knew them, who understood them in a way no one else did. I may as well have been one of your students.

Remember our greasy breakfasts and love of diners? Remember how you introduced me to Al’s? Remember our mutual adoration of the State Fair?

How about the day you brought a few of your favorite students all the way to Minneapolis to meet me? You taught them to love my first novel. Remember her, you said, pretending I couldn’t hear you. She’s going to be famous. Then you took them all out for pizza in the big city.

Remember that time we sailed around the streets of Elbow Lake in that giant old convertible of yours, when I was the author for the author event you yourself had organized and we were already fifteen minutes late? You were always late. This didn’t seem to bother you or anyone else either. Maybe because everyone loved you so much.

Did it surprise me that the Go Fund Me organized by your students surpassed its $100 goal by over $12,000? It did not. Did it surprise me that you never mentioned a word of it to me? It did not.

Remember when you went surfing for the first time, on that trip to southern California? I never heard you talk like that. Never saw that look in your eyes. You loved surfing in a way that changed you. I remember trying to figure out how you, on a rural teacher’s salary, could somehow afford to go surfing in California more often.

The only novel of mine you didn’t know practically by heart is the last one, the one I dedicated to you, Z’draz, long before we knew you were sick. You never read that one because Dammit, you always make me cry, Alison McGhee, and I have to save my tears until I’m through this and can handle another Alison McGhee book.

Z’driz, you always called me by my full name. In every single conversation we ever had, including the last one, you would at some point pause, shake your head, and say Alison McGhee, with this look in your eyes. As if I was some kind of wonder. Which I’m not, but guess what? You were.

Zdrazil loved my writing, I wept to a friend the other night. He loved me. It was like I couldn’t do anything wrong in his eyes.

Oh my beautiful friend. I will miss you forever.

You told me that last day you were scared to die and I told you I didn’t trust people who weren’t. We laughed about that, a little. Four days later you crossed through that door.

I’m going to write about you, John Zdrazil, I said, when you couldn’t keep your eyes open anymore and I knew it was time to go. And you know I mean it because I’m using your full and proper name.

Ordinarily that would’ve made you laugh, but you just looked me in the eye and nodded slowly. Then your eyes filled.

Write me a poem, you said.

John Zdrazil, that is the one and only request you ever made of me. Write me a poem. I drove the three hours home and wrote you a series of haiku then and there, so I could text them to you before it was too late. We were out of time and we both knew it. We’re all out of time, which is why we should be careful of each other, and kind, the way you always were, John.

The Mower, by Philip Larkin

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found   
a hedgehog jammed up against the blades,   
killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.   
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world   
unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence   
is always the same; we should be careful

of each other, we should be kind   
while there is still time.

For more information about Philip Larkin, please click here.

Words by Winter: my new podcast

Poem of the Week, by William Butler Yeats

IMG_5657This was back in the days of dial-up modems with their squealy screechy sounds. The first line of the first review of my first novel came shimmering up on that clunky old computer screen: “First time novelist tries but fails to move or matter.” 

Or matter.”

I sat staring at the screen, my little kids looking at me silent and troubled, knowing something was wrong. I turned to them and smiled. I laughed about the review, pretended I didn’t care. But the photo above is what I typed into my journal that night.

This is not a story about a writer who got a bad review – all writers get bad reviews. Nor is it a story about a plucky young woman whose novel went on to win a bunch of awards so haha. It’s a tiny story that stands in for a much larger story of casual, ongoing cruelty in a world in which those two words –or matter–should never be written by a human being about another human being. 

Those two words broke something in me a long time ago that can’t be fixed. That’s what cruelty does. When judgment rears its ugly head inside me, as it does way too often, I recite the last two lines of this poem to myself.


He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, by William Butler Yeats

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
enwrought with golden and silver light,
the blue and the dim and the dark cloths
of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

For more information on Yeats, please click here.

Twitter and Instagram: @alisonmcgheewriter 


Poem of the Week, by Danusha Lameris


Hundreds of miles into a long drive after a sleepless night, I pulled over to get a cup of coffee at a convenience store with exhaustingly computerized coffee machines. A leathery man watching me try to program a cup of half-decaf laughed, then showed me how to do it.

Pretty good for a guy who doesn’t own a computer, a cell phone, or a credit card, right? he said. We stood talking about how the internet has changed everything. Like this right here, he said, this conversation. Everyone walks along staring down at their phones. Can’t we talk with each other anymore? 

I’ll never see that man again. I don’t know how he voted in the last election or how he will vote next year. When I drove away I thought of this poem.


Small Kindnesses, by Danusha Lameris

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover

from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.

We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.

We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”



​For more information on Danusha Lameris, please check out her website.​



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Poem of the Week, by Catherine Pierce

IMG_0531We were classmates. He was a country kid, like me, and like me, he was condemned to ride the bus for miles and miles. I dreaded that bus every day of my life –it was a place of fear and intimidation and endless cruelty.

On this particular day, he sat down next to me and everyone began teasing us. They were loud and relentless. I was desperate to make them stop, make it stop, make it all stop just stop just stop, and at some point I picked up my empty lunch box and bashed it over his head. 

Did the teasing end? I don’t remember. What I do remember is how he held his hands up to protect himself. The poem below brought me back to those years of fear and that day on the bus. Kindness is in part an act of self-preservation. Had I just sat still and endured the ride I could have spared myself the lifelong memory of having hurt a kid like me, another kid who was only trying to get home. 



Poem for the Woods, by Catherine Pierce 

Not as I would dream them now, not with growls
and twig snaps, not with dark birds and thorned vines

I’ve invented (keening blackwing, violencia). Not late-dayblood-
sun-dappled, not refuge of men equipped

with knives and lust, not a mouth into which you might
venture and not return, no, nothing like that.

This is a poem for the woods as I knew them,
shaded and cool behind the Novaks’ house.

They seemed endless, but there was a shortcut
to Fairblue Swim Club. They held no growls,

no spikes. Only squirrels skittering, plunking acorns
down the canopy. We’d been warned of poison ivy,

but never found it. We’d been warned of rotten limbs,
but none fell. One muddy, sun-laced afternoon, we took salt

from the pantry and ventured out to where the rocks
teemed with slugs. I’d like to say our cruelty

had to do with power—human girls versus torpidity—
but really it was our curiosity, pure and unnuanced.

We wanted to see mineral against membrane.
We wanted to see something living melt. If I could,

I’d find my younger self in those woods and stop her.
I’d say, Someday you’ll carry your cruelties with you

and you’ll never be able to set them down. Keep walking now.
Keep pretending you know of nothing but kindness





For more information on Catherine Pierce, please check out her website.

Poem of the Week, by David Hernandez

img_3441“Hi, this is Alison McGhee, patriotic citizen, calling from 55408.” Ever since the atrocity, which is my term for what went down last November, I make calls or send emails every day. I march if there’s a march. Taking action is the one thing that keeps me from sinking into a kind of paralyzed despair at both the crumbling of democracy I see all around me and the cruelty that is being encouraged and applauded. 

But taking action doesn’t just mean protesting. It means doubling down on kindness, on friendliness, on generosity. These are my vows, which I frequently break but keep re-upping: Smile and say hi to everyone you pass. Be your kindest self. Focus all your energy on the students in this room. Make life better for everyone you can, every time you can.  

The world gives back to you the energy you put into it, as David Hernandez –a poet new to me but whose work I’m now tracking down wherever I can find it– says so beautifully in this poem below.


Anyone Who Is Still Trying, by David Hernandez

Any person, any human, any someone who breaks
          up the fight, who spackles holes or FedExes
ice shelves to the Arctic to keep the polar bears
          afloat, who talks the wind-rippled woman
down from the bridge. Any individual, any citizen
          who skims muck from the coughing ocean,
who pickets across the street from antigay picketers
          with a sign that reads, GOD HATES MAGGOTS,
          LESS THAN 27. Any civilian who kisses
a forehead heated by fever or despair, who reads
          the X ray, pins the severed bone. Any biped
who volunteers at soup kitchens, who chokes
          a Washington lobbyist with his own silk necktie—
I take that back, who gives him mouth-to-mouth
          until his startled heart resumes its kabooms.
Sorry, I get cynical sometimes, there is so much
          broken in the system, the districts, the crooked
thinking, I’m working on whittling away at this
          pessimism, harvesting light where I can find it.
Any countryman or countrywoman who is still
          trying, who still pushes against entropy,
who stanches or donates blood, who douses fires
          real or metaphorical, who rakes the earth
where tires once zeroed the ground, plants something
          green, say spinach or kale, say a modest forest
for restless breezes to play with. Any anyone
          from anywhere who considers and repairs,
who builds a prosthetic beak for an eagle—
          I saw the video, the majestic bird disfigured
by a bullet, the visionary with a 3-D printer,
          with polymer and fidelity, with hours
and hours and hours, I keep thinking about it,
          thinking we need more of that commitment,
those thoughtful gestures, the flight afterward. 


For more information on David Hernandez, please click here.


Poem of the Week, by Philip Larkin

Never done before, Mary OliverOnce, at the end of a book club discussion held in the library of a women’s prison, the women (who are addressed as “offenders” on the prison P.A. system, as in, “Offenders, cell check in fifteen minutes”) took turns asking me personal questions from a list they had prepared. I remember only one of them: “If you had to choose one word to complete the sentence ‘She was ____’ on your tombstone, what would you want it to be?” “Kind,” I said. “That I was kind.”

The Mower, by Philip Larkin

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found   
a hedgehog jammed up against the blades,   
killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.   
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world   
unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence   
is always the same; we should be careful

of each other, we should be kind   
while there is still time.

For more information about Philip Larkin, please click here.

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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

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