21st Century Poets

Facing It


My black face fades,

hiding inside the black granite.

I said I wouldn’t,

dammit: No tears.

I’m stone. I’m flesh.

My clouded reflection eyes me

like a bird of prey, the profile of night

slanted against morning. I turn

this way–the stone lets me go.

I turn that way–I’m inside

the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

again, depending on the light

to make a difference.

I go down the 58,022 names,

half-expecting to find

my own in letters like smoke.

I touch the name Andrew Johnson;

I see the booby trap’s white flash.

Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse

but when she walks away

the names stay on the wall.

Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s

wings cutting across my stare.

The sky. A plane in the sky.

A white vet’s image floats

closer to me, then his pale eyes

look through mine. I’m a window.

He’s lost his right arm

inside the stone. In the black mirror

a woman’s trying to erase names:

No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.


by Yusef Komunyakaa


Physician Rafael Campo reads his poetry:

Natasha Trethewey reads a poem about having a cross burned on her family’s lawn:

Rachel Hadas reads her poem “The Red Hat”:

Thylias Moss reads her poetry:



First Family Portrait


Here is a close-up of the moment after

your body slithered in a sudden rush from mine,

white frog on my chest. Giddy laughter

illuminates the room, release from nine

long hours of labor. Sweaty and sunken-eyed,

I look delighted–a surprise, since at the time

I just felt stunned. Your mouth is open wide,

your father’s face alight; we three a pantomime

of the Nativity–but look how many nameless arms

are twined around this mortal scrap, look how

you landed in this woven limb-nest, caught by luck

in the one safety net the human race can offer,

the net you leapt into at birth, far stronger

than your parents, stumbling numb toward love.


by Catherine Jagoe


Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?




After dark, stars glisten like ice, and the distance they span

Hides something elemental. Not God, exactly. More like

Some thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being—a Starman

Or cosmic ace hovering, swaying, aching to make us see.

And what would we do, you and I, if we could know for sure


That someone was there squinting through the dust,

Saying nothing is lost, that everything lives on waiting only

To be wanted back badly enough? Would you go then,

Even for a few nights, into that other life where you

And that first she loved, blind to the future once, and happy?


Would I put on my coat and return to the kitchen where my

Mother and father sit waiting, dinner keeping warm on the stove?

Bowie will never die. Nothing will come for him in his sleep

Or charging through his veins. And he’ll never grow old,

Just like the woman you lost, who will always be dark-haired


And flush-faced, running toward an electronic screen

That clocks the minutes, the miles left to go. Just like the life

In which I’m forever a child looking out my window at the night sky

Thinking one day I’ll touch the world with bare hands

Even if it burns.





He leaves no tracks. Slips past, quick as a cat. That’s Bowie

For you: the Pope of Pop, coy as Christ. Like a play

Within a play, he’s trademarked twice. The hours


Plink past like water from a window A/C. We sweat it out,

Teach ourselves to wait. Silently, lazily, collapse happens.

But not for Bowie. He cocks his head, grins that wicked grin.


Time never stops, but does it end? And how many lives

Before take-off, before we find ourselves

Beyond ourselves, all glam-glow, all twinkle and gold?


The future isn’t what it used to be. Even Bowie thirsts

For something good and cold. Jets blink across the sky

Like migratory souls.





Bowie is among us. Right here

In New York City. In a baseball cap

And expensive jeans. Ducking into

A deli. Flashing all those teeth

At the doorman on his way back up.

Or he’s hailing a taxi on Lafayette

As the sky clouds over at dusk.

He’s in no rush. Doesn’t feel

The way you’d think he feels.

Doesn’t strut or gloat. Tells jokes.


I’ve lived here all these years

And never seen him. Like not knowing

A comet from a shooting star.

But I’ll bet he burns bright,

Dragging a tail of white-hot matter

The way some of us track tissue

Back from the toilet stall. He’s got

The whole world under his foot,

And we are small alongside,

Though there are occasions


When a man his size can meet

Your eyes for just a blip of time

And send a thought like SHINE


Straight to your mind. Bowie,

I want to believe you. Want to feel

Your will like the wind before rain.

The kind everything simply obeys,

Swept up in that hypnotic dance

As if something with the power to do so

Had looked its way and said:

Go ahead.


by Tracy K. Smith


Four Sandwiches


     —Washington, D.C.


JC was called the Rack

at the work farm,

aluminum milk pails

dangling from his hands.

Once a sudden fist

crushed the cartilage of nose

across his face,

but JC only grinned,

and the man with the fist

stumbled away.


JC sings his work farm songs on the street,

swaying with black overcoat and guitar,

cigarettes cheaper than food.

But today he promises

four sandwiches, two for each of us.


The landlady, a Rumanian widow,

has nailed a death mask

over JC’s bed,

sleeping plaster face

of a drowned girl

peaceful in the dark.


As the girl contemplates water

and pigeons batter the window,

JC spreads the last deviled ham

on two slices of bread,

presses them together,

then slowly tears four pieces.


“Here,” he almost sings,

“four sandwiches.”


by Martín Espada