20th Century Poets-8




Indian Boarding School: The Runaways

Home’s the place we head for in our sleep.
Boxcars stumbling north in dreams
don’t wait for us. We catch them on the run.
The rails, old lacerations that we love,
shoot parallel across the face and break
just under Turtle Mountains. Riding scars
you can’t get lost. Home is the place they cross.

The lame guard strikes a match and makes the dark
less tolerant. We watch through cracks in boards
as the land starts rolling, rolling till it hurts
to be here, cold in regulation clothes.
We know the sheriff’s waiting at midrun
to take us back. His car is dumb and warm.
The highway doesn’t rock, it only hums
like a wing of long insults. The worn-down welts
of ancient punishments lead back and forth.

All runaways wear dresses, long green ones,
the color you would think shame was. We scrub
the sidewalks down because it's shameful work.
Our brushes cut the stone in watered arcs
and in the soak frail outlines shiver clear
a moment, things us kids pressed on the dark
face before it hardened, pale, remembering
delicate old injuries, the spines of names and leaves.

by Louise Erdrich

From Original Fire: Selected and New Poems. Copyright © 2003 by Louise Erdrich. Reprinted with the permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Family Reunion

Ray’s third new car in half as many years.
Full cooler in the trunk, Ray sogging the beer
as I solemnly chauffeur us through the bush
and up the backroads, hardly cowpaths and hub-deep in mud.   
All day the sky lowers, clears, lowers again.
Somewhere in the bush near Saint John
there are uncles, a family, one mysterious brother
who stayed on the land when Ray left for the cities.
One week Ray is crocked. We’ve been through this before.   
Even, as a little girl, hands in my dress,
Ah punka, you’s my Debby, come and ki me. 

Then the road ends in a yard full of dogs.
Them’s Indian dogs, Ray says, lookit how they know me. 
And they do seem to know him, like I do. His odor—
rank beef of fierce turtle pulled dripping from Metagoshe,   
and the inflammable mansmell: hair tonic, ashes, alcohol.   
Ray dances an old woman up in his arms.
Fiddles reel in the phonograph and I sink apart
in a corner, start knocking the Blue Ribbons down.   
Four generations of people live here.
No one remembers Raymond Twobears.

So what. The walls shiver, the old house caulked with mud   
sails back into the middle of Metagoshe.
A three-foot-long snapper is hooked on a fishline,   
so mean that we do not dare wrestle him in
but tow him to shore, heavy as an old engine.
Then somehow Ray pries the beak open and shoves   
down a cherry bomb. Lights the string tongue.

Headless and clenched in its armor, the snapper
is lugged home in the trunk for tomorrow’s soup.
Ray rolls it beneath a bush in the backyard and goes in   
to sleep his own head off. Tomorrow I find
that the animal has dragged itself off.
I follow torn tracks up a slight hill and over
into a small stream that deepens and widens into a marsh.

Ray finds his way back through the room into his arms.   
When the phonograph stops, he slumps hard in his hands   
and the boys and their old man fold him into the car
where he curls around his bad heart, hearing how it knocks   
and rattles at the bars of his ribs to break out.

Somehow we find our way back. Uncle Ray   
sings an old song to the body that pulls him
toward home. The gray fins that his hands have become   
screw their bones in the dashboard. His face   
has the odd, calm patience of a child who has always
let bad wounds alone, or a creature that has lived   
for a long time underwater. And the angels come   
lowering their slings and litters.

by Louise Erdrich

from Original Fire: Selected and New Poems. HarperCollins Publishers Inc, Copyright © 2003 by Louise Erdrich.


For Angela

The Windigo is a flesh-eating, wintry demon with a man buried deep inside of it. In some Chippewa stories, a young girl vanquishes this monster by forcing boiling lard down its throat, thereby releasing the human at the core of ice.

You knew I was coming for you, little one,
when the kettle jumped into the fire.
Towels flapped on the hooks,
and the dog crept off, groaning,
to the deepest part of the woods.

In the hackles of dry brush a thin laughter started up.
Mother scolded the food warm and smooth in the pot
and called you to eat.
But I spoke in the cold trees:
New one, I have come for you, child hide and lie still. 

The sumac pushed sour red cones through the air.
Copper burned in the raw wood.
You saw me drag toward you.
Oh touch me, I murmured, and licked the soles of your feet.
You dug your hands into my pale, melting fur.

I stole you off, a huge thing in my bristling armor.
Steam rolled from my wintry arms, each leaf shivered
from the bushes we passed
until they stood, naked, spread like the cleaned spines of fish.

Then your warm hands hummed over and shoveled themselves full
of the ice and the snow. I would darken and spill
all night running, until at last morning broke the cold earth
and I carried you home,
a river shaking in the sun.

by Louise Erdrich

from Jacklight (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1984). Copyright © 1984 by Louise Erdrich.


The Birth of John Henry

The night John Henry is born an ax
     of lightning splits the sky,
and a hammer of thunder pounds the earth,
     and the eagles and panthers cry!

John Henry—he says to his Ma and Pa:
     “Get a gallon of barleycorn.
I want to start right, like a he-man child,
     the night that I am born!”

Says: “I want some ham hocks, ribs, and jowls,
     a pot of cabbage and greens;
some hoecakes, jam, and buttermilk,
     a platter of pork and beans!”

John Henry’s Ma—she wrings her hands,
     and his Pa—he scratches his head.
John Henry—he curses in giraffe-tall words,
     flops over, and kicks down the bed.

He’s burning mad, like a bear on fire—
     so he tears to the riverside.
As he stoops to drink, Old Man River gets scared
     and runs upstream to hide!

Some say he was born in Georgia—O Lord!
     Some say in Alabam.
But it’s writ on the rock at the Big Bend Tunnel:
     “Lousyana was my home. So scram!

by Melvin B. Tolson

from Harlem Gallery & Other Poems. Copyright © 1999 by Melvin B. Tolson.  Reprinted by permission of The Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, on behalf of The University of Virginia Press.


King Oliver of New Orleans
has kicked the bucket, but he left behind
old Satchmo with his red-hot horn
to syncopate the heart and mind.
The honky-tonks in Storyville
have turned to ashes, have turned to dust,
but old Satchmo is still around
like Uncle Sam's IN GOD WE TRUST.

Where, oh, where is Bessie Smith,
with her heart as big as the blues of truth?
Where, oh, where is Mister Jelly Roll,
with his Cadillac and diamond tooth?
Where, oh, where is Papa Handy
With his blue notes a-dragging from bar to bar?
Where, oh where is bulletproof Leadbelly
with his tall tales and 12-string guitar?

Old Hip Cats,
when you sang and played the blues
the night Satchmo was born,
did you know hypodermic needles in Rome
couldn't hoodoo him away from his horn?
Wyatt Earp's legend, John Henry's, too,
is a dare and a bet to old Satchmo
when his groovy blues put headlines in the news
from the Gold Coast to cold Moscow.

Old Satchmo's
gravelly voice and tapping foot and crazy notes
set my soul on fire.
If I climbed
the seventy-seven steps of the Seventh
Heaven, Satchmo's high C would carry me higher!
Are you hip to this, Harlem? Are you hip?
On Judgment Day, Gabriel will say
after he blows his horn:
"I'd be the greatest trumpeter in the Universe
if old Satchmo had never been born!"

by Melvin B. Tolson


It doesn't speak and it isn't schooled, 
like a small foetal animal with wettened fur. 
It is the blind instinct for life unruled, 
visceral frankincense and animal myrrh.
It is what babies bring to kings, 
an eyes-shut, ears-shut medicine of the heart 
that smells and touches endings and beginnings 
without the details of time's experienced part-
fit-into-part-fit-into-part. Like a paw, 
it is blunt; like a pet who knows you 
and nudges your knee with its snout—but more raw 
and blinder and younger and more divine, too, 
than the tamed wild—it's the drive for what is real, 
deeper than the brain's detail: the drive to feel.

by Molly Peacock, 1947 –

Good Girl

Hold up the universe, good girl. Hold up
the tent that is the sky of your world at which
you are the narrow center pole, good girl. Rup-
ture is the enemy. Keep all whole. The itch
to be yourself, plump and bending, below a sky
unending, held up by God forever
is denied by you as Central Control. Sever
yourself, poor false Atlas, poor "Atlesse," lie*
recumbent below the sky. Nothing falls down,
except you, luscious and limited on the ground.
Holding everything up, always on your own,
creates a loneliness so profound
you are nothing but a column, good girl,
a temple ruin against a sky held up
by forces beyond you. Let yourself curl
up: a fleshy foetal figure cupped
about its own vibrant soul. You are
the universe about its pole. God's not far.

by Peacock, Molly, 1947 –

From Cornucopia: New and Selected Poems 1975-2002 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002)

*Atlas: “one of the older family of gods, who was supposed to hold up the pillars of the universe, and also of the mountain in Libya that was regarded as supporting the heavens” (OED). “Atlesse”: supposed feminine and diminutive form of “Atlas.”


All winter your brute shoulders strained against collars, padding 
and steerhide over the ash hames, to haul sledges of cordwood 
sledges of cordwood for drying through spring and summer,
for the Glenwood stove next winter, and for the simmering range.

In April you pulled cartloads of manure to spread on the fields,
dark manure of Holsteins, and knobs of your own clustered with oats.
All summer you mowed the grass in meadow and hayfield, the mowing machine
clacketing beside you, while the sun walked high in the morning;

and after noon's heat, you pulled a clawed rake through the same acres,
gathering stacks, and dragged the wagon from stack to stack,
and the built hayrack back, uphill to the chaffy barn,
three loads of hay a day from standing grass in the morning.

Sundays you trotted the two miles to church with the light load
a leather quartertop buggy, and grazed in the sound of hymns.
Generation on generation, your neck rubbed the windowsill
of the stall, smoothing the wood as the sea smooths glass.

When you were old and lame, when your shoulders hurt bending to graze,
one October the man, who fed you and kept you, and harnessed you every morning,
led you through corn stubble to sandy ground above Eagle Pond,
and dug a hole beside you where you stood shuddering in your skin,

and lay the shotgun's muzzle in the boneless hollow behind your ear,
and fired the slug into your brain, and felled you into your grave,
shoveling sand to cover you, setting goldenrod upright above you,
where by next summer a dent in the ground made your monument.

For a hundred and fifty years, in the Pasture of dead horses,
roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs,
yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter
frost heaved your bones in the ground - old toilers, soil makers:

O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost.

by Donald Hall, 1928–2018



I will strike down wooden houses; I will burn aluminum
clapboard skin; I will strike down garages
where crimson Toyotas sleep side by side; I will explode
palaces of gold, silver, and alabaster: the summer
greathouse and its folly together. Where shopping malls
spread plywood and plaster out, and roadhouses
serve steak and potato skins beside Alaska King Crab;
where triangular flags proclaim tribes of identical campers;
where airplanes nose to tail exhale kerosene,
weeds and ashes will drowse in continual twilight.

I reject the old house and the new car; I reject
Tory and Whig together; I reject the argument
that modesty of ambition is sensible because the bigger
they are the harder they fall; I reject Waterford;
I reject the five and dime; I reject Romulus and Remus;
I reject Martha’s Vineyard and the slam dunk contest;
I reject leaded panes; I reject the appointment
made at the tennis net or on the seventeenth green;
I reject the Professional Bowling Tour;
I reject purple bathrooms with purple soap in them.

Men who lie awake worrying about taxes, vomiting
at dawn, whose hands shake as they administer Valium,
skin will peel from the meat of their thighs.
Armies that march all day with elephants past pyramids
and roll pulling missiles past Generals weary of saluting
and past President-Emperors splendid in cloth-of-gold,
rain will dissipate soft rumps of armies. Where square miles
of corn waver above Minnesota plains, where tobacco ripens
in Carolina and apples in New Hampshire, where soybeans
turn Kansas green, where pulp mills stink in Oregon,

dust will blow in the darkness and cactus die
before it flowers. Where skiers wait for chairlifts
wearing money, low raspberries will part rib-bones.
Where the drive-in church raises a chromium cross,
dandelions and milkweed will straggle through blacktop.
I will strike from the ocean with waves afire;
I will strike from the hill with rainclouds of lava;
I will strike from darkened air
with melanoma in the shape of decorative hexagonals.
I will strike down embezzlers and eaters of snails.

I reject Japanese smoked oysters, potted chrysanthemums
allowed to die, Tupperware parties, Ronald McDonald,
Kaposi’s sarcoma, the Taj Mahal, Holsteins wearing
electronic necklaces, the Algonquin, Tunisian aqueducts,
Phi Beta Kappa keys, the Hyatt Embarcadero, carpenters
jogging on the median, and betrayal that engorges
the corrupt heart longing for criminal surrender:
I reject shadows in the corner of the atrium
where Phyllis or Phoebe speaks with Billy or Marc
who says that afternoons are best although not reliable.

Your children will wander looting the shopping malls
for forty years, suffering for your idleness,
until the last dwarf body rots in a parking lot.
I will strike down lobbies and restaurants in motels
carpeted with shaggy petrochemicals
from Maine to Hilton Head, from the Scagit to Tucson.
I will strike down hang gliders, wiry adventurous boys;
their thighbones will snap, their brains
slide from their skulls. I will strike down
families cooking wild boar in New Mexico backyards.

The landscape will clutter with incapable machinery,
acres of vacant airplanes, schoolbuses, and ploughs
with seedlings sprouting through discs and turning brown.
Unlettered dwarves will burrow for warmth and shelter
in the caves of dynamos and Plymouths, dying
of old age at seventeen. Tribes wandering
in the wilderness of their ignorant desolation,
who suffer from your idleness, will burn your illuminated
missals to warm their rickety bodies.
Terrorists assemble plutonium because you are idle

and industrious. The whippoorwill shrivels and the pickerel
chokes under the government of self-love. Vacancy burns
the air so that you strangle without oxygen like the rat
in the biologist’s belljar. The living god sharpens
the scythe of my prophecy to strike down the red
poppies and the blue cornflowers. When priests and policemen
strike my body’s match, Jehovah will flame out;
Jehovah will suck air from the vents of bombshelters.
Therefore let the Buick swell until it explodes;
therefore let anorexia starve and bulimia engorge.

When Elzira leaves the house wearing her tennis dress
and drives her black Porsche to meet Abraham,
quarrels, returns to husband and children, and sobs
asleep, drunk, unable to choose among them,
lawns and carpets will turn into tar together
with lovers, husbands, and children.
Fat will boil in the sacs of children’s clear skin.
I will strike down the nations, astronauts and judges;
I will strike down Babylon, I will strike acrobats,
I will strike algae and the white birches.

Because Professors of Law teach ethics in Esperanto,
let the Colonel become President; because Chief Executive
Officers and Commissars collect down for pillows,
let the injustice of cities burn city and suburb;
let the countryside burn; let the pineforests of Maine
explode like a kitchen match and the Book of Kells
become ash in a microsecond; let oxen and athletes
flash into grease: I return to Appalachian rocks;
I shall eat bread and prophesy through hours or millennia
of Jehovah’s day as the sky reddens above cities.

Then houses will burn, even houses of alabaster;
the sky will disappear like a scroll rolled up
and hidden in a cave from the generation of idleness.
Mountains will erupt and vanish becoming deserts
and the sea wash over the sea’s lost islands
and the earth split like a corpse’s gassy
stomach and the sun turn as black as a widow’s skirt
and the full moon grow red with blood swollen inside it
and stars fall from the sky like wind-blown apples,
while Babylon’s managers burn in the rage of the Lamb.

by Donald Hall, 1928–2018

When the Young Husband

When the young husband picked up his friend's pretty wife
in the taxi one block from her townhouse for their
first lunch together, in a hotel dining room
with a room key in his pocket,
midtown traffic gridlocked and was abruptly still.
For one moment before Klaxons started honking,
a prophetic voice spoke in his mind's ear despite
his pulse's erotic thudding:
"The misery you undertake this afternoon
will accompany you to the ends of your lives.
She knew what she did, when she agreed to this lunch,
although she will not admit it;
and you've constructed your playlet a thousand times:
cocktails, an omelet, wine; the revelation
of a room key; the elevator rising as
the penis elevates; the skin
flushed, the door fumbled at, the handbag dropped;
the first kiss with open mouths, nakedness, swoon, thrust-and-catch;
endorphins followed by endearments; a brief nap;
another fit, restoration
of clothes, arrangements for another encounter,
the taxi back, and the furtive kiss of good-bye.
Then, by turn: tears, treachery, anger, betrayal;
marriages and houses destroyed;
small children abandoned and inconsolable,
their foursquare estates disestablished forever;
the unreadable advocates; the wretchedness
of passion outworn; anguished nights
sleepless in a bare room; whiskey, meth, cocaine; new
love, essayed in loneliness with miserable
strangers, that comforts nothing but skin; hours with
sons and daughters studious always
to maintain distrust; the daily desire to die
and the daily agony of the requirement
to survive, until only the quarrel endures."
Prophecy stopped; traffic started.

by Donald Hall, 1928–2018


I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

by Jane Kenyon, 19471995

from Collected Poems. Copyright © 2005 by the Estate of Jane Kenyon. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Graywolf Press.

Let Evening Come

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

by Jane Kenyon, 19471995

from Collected Poems. Copyright © 2005 by the Estate of Jane Kenyon.

To see the text of “Open the Gates” (read in above video) [click here]


I dreamed that I was old: in stale declension   
Fallen from my prime, when company
Was mine, cat-nimbleness, and green invention,   
Before time took my leafy hours away.

My wisdom, ripe with body’s ruin, found   
Itself tart recompense for what was lost
In false exchange: since wisdom in the ground   
Has no apocalypse or pentecost.

I wept for my youth, sweet passionate young thought,
And cozy women dead that by my side   
Once lay: I wept with bitter longing, not   
Remembering how in my youth I cried.

by Stanley Kunitz

From The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928-1978. Copyright © 1930, 1944, 1958, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1978, 1979 by Stanley Kunitz. Reprinted with the permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.


God banish from your house
The fly, the roach, the mouse

That riots in the walls
Until the plaster falls;

Admonish from your door
The hypocrite and liar;

No shy, soft, tigrish fear
Permit upon your stair,

Nor agents of your doubt.
God drive them whistling out.

Let nothing touched with evil,
Let nothing that can shrivel

Heart's tenderest frond, intrude
Upon your still, deep blood.

Against the drip of night
God keep all windows tight,

Protect your mirrors from
Surprise, delirium,

Admit no trailing wind
Into your shuttered mind

To plume the lake of sleep
With dreams. If you must weep

God give you tears, but leave
You secrecy to grieve,

And islands for your pride,
And love to nest in your side.

by Stanley Kunitz

From The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz. Copyright © 2002 by Stanley Kunitz. Reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.


My hands are murder-red. Many a plump head
drops on the heap in the basket. Or, ripe
to bursting, they might be hearts, matching
the blackbird’s wing-fleck. Gripped to a reed
he shrieks his ko-ka-ree in the next field.
He’s left his peck in some juicy cheeks, when
at first blush and mostly white, they showed
streaks of sweetness to the marauder.

We’re picking near the shore, the morning
sunny, a slight wind moving rough-veined leaves
our hands rumple among. Fingers find by feel
the ready fruit in clusters. Here and there,
their squishy wounds. . . . Flesh was perfect
yesterday. . . . June was for gorging. . . .
sweet hearts young and firm before decay.

“Take only the biggest, and not too ripe,”
a mother calls to her girl and boy, barefoot
in the furrows. “Don’t step on any. Don’t
change rows. Don’t eat too many.” Mesmerized
by the largesse, the children squat and pull
and pick handfuls of rich scarlets, half
for the baskets, half for avid mouths.
Soon, whole faces are stained.

A crop this thick begs for plunder. Ripeness
wants to be ravished, as udders of cows when hard,
the blue-veined bags distended, ache to be stripped.
Hunkered in mud between the rows, sun burning
the backs of our necks, we grope for, and rip loose
soft nippled heads. If they bleed—too soft—
let them stay. Let them rot in the heat.

When, hidden away in a damp hollow under moldy
leaves, I come upon a clump of heart-shapes
once red, now spiderspit-gray, intact but empty,
still attached to their dead stems—
families smothered as at Pompeii—I rise
and stretch. I eat one more big ripe lopped
head. Red-handed, I leave the field.

 by May Swenson, 1913-1989

From The Complete Love Poems of May Swenson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, ©1991.


Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know 
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead

How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye

With cloud for shift
how will I hide?

by May Swenson, 1913-1989

From New & Selected Things Taking Place by May Swenson. Copyright © 1978 by the estate of May Swenson.

Borderline Mambo

As if the lid stayed put on the marmalade.
As if you could get the last sip of champagne
out of the bottom of the fluted glass.
As if we weren’t all dying, as if we all weren’t
going to die some time, as if we knew for certain
when, or how. As if the baseball scores made sense
to the toddler. As if the dance steps mattered, or there’s a point
where they don’t. For instance wheelchair. Heart flutter.
Oxygen bottle mounted on the septuagenarian’s back
at the state ballroom competitions—that’s Manny,
still pumping the mambo with his delicious slip
of an instructor, hip hip hooray. Mambo, for instance,
if done right, gives you a chance to rest: one beat in four.
One chance in four, one chance in ten, a hundred, as if
we could understand what that means. Hooray. Keep
pumping. As if you could keep the lid on a secret
once the symptoms start to make sense. A second
instance, a respite. A third. Always that hope.
If we could just scrape that last little bit
out, if only it wouldn’t bottom out
before they can decode the message
sent to the cells. Of course it matters when, even though
(because?) we live in mystery. For instance
Beauty. Love. Honor. As if we didn’t like
secrets. Point where it hurts. Of course we’ll tell.

by Rita Dove

Sonnet in Primary Colors

This is for the woman with one black wing
perched over her eyes: lovely Frida, erect
among parrots, in the stern petticoats of the peasant,
who painted herself a present--
wildflowers entwining the plaster corset
her spine resides in the romance of mirrors.

Each night she lay down in pain and rose
to her celluloid butterflies of her Beloved Dead,
Lenin and Marx and Stalin arrayed at the footstead.
And rose to her easel, the hundred dogs panting
like children along the graveled walks of the garden, Diego's
love a skull in the circular window
of the thumbprint searing her immutable brow.

by Rita Dove


1. The Cane Fields


There is a parrot imitating spring
in the palace, its feathers parsley green.   
Out of the swamp the cane appears

to haunt us, and we cut it down. El General   
searches for a word; he is all the world   
there is. Like a parrot imitating spring,

we lie down screaming as rain punches through   
and we come up green. We cannot speak an R—
out of the swamp, the cane appears

and then the mountain we call in whispers Katalina.
The children gnaw their teeth to arrowheads.   
There is a parrot imitating spring.

El General has found his word: perejil.
Who says it, lives. He laughs, teeth shining   
out of the swamp. The cane appears

in our dreams, lashed by wind and streaming.   
And we lie down. For every drop of blood   
there is a parrot imitating spring.
Out of the swamp the cane appears.


 2. The Palace

The word the general’s chosen is parsley.   
It is fall, when thoughts turn
to love and death; the general thinks
of his mother, how she died in the fall
and he planted her walking cane at the grave   
and it flowered, each spring stolidly forming   
four-star blossoms. The general

pulls on his boots, he stomps to
her room in the palace, the one without   
curtains, the one with a parrot
in a brass ring. As he paces he wonders   
Who can I kill today. And for a moment   
the little knot of screams
is still. The parrot, who has traveled

all the way from Australia in an ivory   
cage, is, coy as a widow, practising   
spring. Ever since the morning   
his mother collapsed in the kitchen   
while baking skull-shaped candies   
for the Day of the Dead, the general   
has hated sweets. He orders pastries   
brought up for the bird; they arrive

dusted with sugar on a bed of lace.   
The knot in his throat starts to twitch;   
he sees his boots the first day in battle   
splashed with mud and urine
as a soldier falls at his feet amazed—
how stupid he looked!— at the sound
of artillery. I never thought it would sing   
the soldier said, and died. Now

the general sees the fields of sugar   
cane, lashed by rain and streaming.   
He sees his mother’s smile, the teeth   
gnawed to arrowheads. He hears   
the Haitians sing without R’s
as they swing the great machetes:   
Katalina, they sing, Katalina,

mi madle, mi amol en muelte. God knows   
his mother was no stupid woman; she   
could roll an R like a queen. Even   
a parrot can roll an R! In the bare room   
the bright feathers arch in a parody   
of greenery, as the last pale crumbs
disappear under the blackened tongue. Someone

calls out his name in a voice
so like his mother’s, a startled tear
splashes the tip of his right boot.
My mother, my love in death. 
The general remembers the tiny green sprigs   
men of his village wore in their capes   
to honor the birth of a son. He will
order many, this time, to be killed

for a single, beautiful word.

 by Rita Dove



On October 2, 1937, Rafael Trujillo (1891-1961), dictator of the Dominican Republic, ordered 20,000 blacks killed because they could not pronounce the letter “r” in perejil, the Spanish word for parsley.

Rita Dove, “Parsley” from Museum (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1983). Copyright © 1983 by Rita Dove. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: Museum (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1983)

Tune: “Mist Covered Mountains of Home”, trad. Irish. Read by Jane Leigh:

The Highwayman




The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.   
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.   
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,   
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,   
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin.
They fitted with never a wrinkle. His boots were up to the thigh.   
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
         His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.

Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard.
He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and 
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there   
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
         Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
Where Tim the ostler listened. His face was white and peaked.   
His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,   
But he loved the landlord’s daughter,
         The landlord’s red-lipped daughter.
Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say—

“One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I’m after a prize to-night,
But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;
Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,   
Then look for me by moonlight,
         Watch for me by moonlight,
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.”

He rose upright in the stirrups. He scarce could reach her hand,
But she loosened her hair in the casement. His face burnt like a 
As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;   
And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,
         (O, sweet black waves in the moonlight!)
Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to 
     the west.


He did not come in the dawning. He did not come at noon;   
And out of the tawny sunset, before the rise of the moon,   
When the road was a gypsy’s ribbon, looping the purple moor,   
A red-coat troop came marching—
King George’s men came marching, up to the old inn-door.

They said no word to the landlord. They drank his ale instead.   
But they gagged his daughter, and bound her, to the foot of her 
     narrow bed.
Two of them knelt at her casement, with muskets at their side!   
There was death at every window;
         And hell at one dark window;
For Bess could see, through her casement, the road that he would ride.

They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest.
They had bound a musket beside her, with the muzzle beneath her 
“Now, keep good watch!” and they kissed her. She heard the doomed 
     man say—
Look for me by moonlight;
         Watch for me by moonlight;
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way!

She twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held good!
She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat or blood!   
They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like years
Till, now, on the stroke of midnight,
         Cold, on the stroke of midnight,
The tip of one finger touched it! The trigger at least was hers!

The tip of one finger touched it. She strove no more for the rest.   
Up, she stood up to attention, with the muzzle beneath her breast.   
She would not risk their hearing; she would not strive again;   
For the road lay bare in the moonlight;
         Blank and bare in the moonlight;
And the blood of her veins, in the moonlight, throbbed to her love’s 

Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horsehoofs ringing 
Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot, in the distance? Were they deaf that they did 
     not hear?
Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill,
The highwayman came riding—
The red coats looked to their priming! She stood up, straight and 

Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence! Tlot-tlot, in the echoing night!   
Nearer he came and nearer. Her face was like a light.
Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,   
Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
         Her musket shattered the moonlight,
Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him—with her death.

He turned. He spurred to the west; he did not know who stood   
Bowed, with her head o’er the musket, drenched with her own blood!   
Not till the dawn he heard it, and his face grew grey to hear   
How Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
         The landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness 

Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high.
Blood red were his spurs in the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet 
When they shot him down on the highway,
         Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with a bunch of lace at his 
.       .       .

 And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the 
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,   
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,   
A highwayman comes riding—
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard.
He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred.   
He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there   
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
         Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

 by Alfred Noyes

from Collected Poems (1947)

The Legend


In Chicago, it is snowing softly
and a man has just done his wash for the week.   
He steps into the twilight of early evening,   
carrying a wrinkled shopping bag   
full of neatly folded clothes,
and, for a moment, enjoys
the feel of warm laundry and crinkled paper,
flannellike against his gloveless hands.   
There’s a Rembrandt glow on his face,
a triangle of orange in the hollow of his cheek   
as a last flash of sunset
blazes the storefronts and lit windows of the street.

He is Asian, Thai or Vietnamese,
and very skinny, dressed as one of the poor   
in rumpled suit pants and a plaid mackinaw,   
dingy and too large.
He negotiates the slick of ice
on the sidewalk by his car,
opens the Fairlane’s back door,
leans to place the laundry in,
and turns, for an instant,
toward the flurry of footsteps
and cries of pedestrians
as a boy—that’s all he was—
backs from the corner package store
shooting a pistol, firing it,
once, at the dumbfounded man
who falls forward,
grabbing at his chest.

A few sounds escape from his mouth,   
a babbling no one understands
as people surround him
bewildered at his speech.
The noises he makes are nothing to them.   
The boy has gone, lost
in the light array of foot traffic
dappling the snow with fresh prints.
Tonight, I read about Descartes’
grand courage to doubt everything
except his own miraculous existence
and I feel so distinct
from the wounded man lying on the concrete   
I am ashamed.

Let the night sky cover him as he dies.
Let the weaver girl cross the bridge of heaven   
and take up his cold hands.


by Garrett Hongo

Kubota to Zbigniew Herbert in Lvov, 1941

In December 1941, after Lvov had already been seized by Nazis while 
     you labored
diligently by day as a quiet feeder of lice in a virus lab
and joined your heart to the resistance that would rise in Warsaw,
my own country’s agents took me from my home in Lā‘ie,
placed me in a jail cell in Honolulu and interrogated me for many 
Neither of us had thought of our poetry then, Zbigniew,
not of the caustic sarcasm of your strophes stripped of pious words,
not of the praises of the life I would lose like a lavish field of 
once bending with weight but blighted overnight by the black cowls of
I told them I was just a storekeeper who liked night fishing — no 
was I signaling offshore, nothing but schooling fish did I hope would
to the sputtering lights of my torches that I stuck in the sand like 
for growing beans in my family garden. The ocean knew of my 
lapping softly at my knees, curling in kind, foaming waters
around the bones of my bare feet. And the winds knew of my 
sending me a cloudless night sky, stippling the lagoon with stalks of
     red flames.
But my government questioners cited my language was the enemy’s,
my academy in Hiroshima a military school, my citizen’s heart black as

They sent me to a barracks on an island in Pearl Harbor
where I could see the burnt wreckage of scores of ships,
hear their moaning steel like drowned sailors who still cry out,
throats choked with oil, from their watery graves,
feel nothing but panic and regret as though a child had died,
my hope wrapped in old newspapers and thrown away like offal
cleaned from a fish the size of a man.

                                                               Then to
     a ship bound for Oakland,
and by train and truck with men like me, Japanese all, to Fort 
and a cold wind like a dull razor scraping across my stubbled face.
What was my crime except to belong to an enemy race?
Why can they not see that I love, like them, the promise
that is this land like a wife to whom we have sworn
only faith and practiced devotion? I would wash her feet with water
gathered in a canvas bucket, carry her burdens across canefields
and over the shallows of our bay, ruffled with wind, if she would,

yet once more as on her bridal evening, speak her vows and turn the 
     soft bundles
of her body, heaving like a warm tide in my arms, back to mine.

by Garrett Hongo

Wild Peaches


When the world turns completely upside down
You say we’ll emigrate to the Eastern Shore
Aboard a river-boat from Baltimore;
We’ll live among wild peach trees, miles from town,
You’ll wear a coonskin cap, and I a gown
Homespun, dyed butternut’s dark gold color.
Lost, like your lotus-eating ancestor,
We’ll swim in milk and honey till we drown.

The winter will be short, the summer long,
The autumn amber-hued, sunny and hot,
Tasting of cider and of scuppernong;
All seasons sweet, but autumn best of all.
The squirrels in their silver fur will fall
Like falling leaves, like fruit, before your shot.


The autumn frosts will lie upon the grass
Like bloom on grapes of purple-brown and gold.
The misted early mornings will be cold;
The little puddles will be roofed with glass.
The sun, which burns from copper into brass,
Melts these at noon, and makes the boys unfold
Their knitted mufflers; full as they can hold
Fat pockets dribble chestnuts as they pass.

Peaches grow wild, and pigs can live in clover;
A barrel of salted herrings lasts a year;
The spring begins before the winter’s over.
By February you may find the skins
Of garter snakes and water moccasins
Dwindled and harsh, dead-white and cloudy-clear.


When April pours the colors of a shell
Upon the hills, when every little creek
Is shot with silver from the Chesapeake
In shoals new-minted by the ocean swell,
When strawberries go begging, and the sleek
Blue plums lie open to the blackbird’s beak,
We shall live well — we shall live very well.

The months between the cherries and the peaches
Are brimming cornucopias which spill
Fruits red and purple, sombre-bloomed and black;
Then, down rich fields and frosty river beaches
We’ll trample bright persimmons, while you kill
Bronze partridge, speckled quail, and canvasback.


Down to the Puritan marrow of my bones
There’s something in this richness that I hate.
I love the look, austere, immaculate,
Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones.
There’s something in my very blood that owns
Bare hills, cold silver on a sky of slate,
A thread of water, churned to milky spate
Streaming through slanted pastures fenced with stones.

I love those skies, thin blue or snowy gray,
Those fields sparse-planted, rendering meagre sheaves;
That spring, briefer than apple-blossom’s breath,
Summer, so much too beautiful to stay,
Swift autumn, like a bonfire of leaves,
And sleepy winter, like the sleep of death.

by Elinor Wylie, 1885-1928