Poem of the Week: “Late February” by Ted Kooser

Center for Poetry intern, Kaylee McCarthy, choose this week’s poem. “I chose this poem because we’ve had a warm couple of days, and I think Kooser’s description really captures the facade of spring offered by the end of February. He masterfully conveys how the snow fades to reveal everything hidden in winter. He challenges our expectations and adds a new element by juxtaposing the farmer’s body with tulips.”

Late February

The first warm day,
and by mid-afternoon
the snow is no more
than a washing
strewn over the yards,
the bedding rolled in knots
and leaking water,
the white shirts lying
under the evergreens.
Through the heaviest drifts
rise autumn’s fallen
bicycles, small carnivals
of paint and chrome,
the Octopus
and Tilt-A-Whirl
beginning to turn
in the sun. Now children,
stiffened by winter
and dressed, somehow,
like old men, mutter
and bend to the work
of building dams.
But such a spring is brief;
by five o’clock
the chill of sundown,
darkness, the blue TVs
flashing like storms
in the picture windows,
the yards gone gray,
the wet dogs barking
at nothing. Far off
across the cornfields
staked for streets and sewers,
the body of a farmer
missing since fall
will show up
in his garden tomorrow,
as unexpected
as a tulip.

Ted Kooser, “Late February” from Sure Signs. Copyright © 1980 by Ted Kooser. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, http://www.upress.pitt.edu.

Poem of the Week: “We Should Make a Documentary About Spades” by Terrance Hayes

Center for Poetry intern, Jayla Harris-Hardy, chose this week’s poem. “I thought this would be a good poem of the week because it is still Black History Month, and there is so much about this poem in particular that I find somber and uplifting. So much of black media replies to the negatives, which is valid and important to do, however, I think it’s important to have just as many that are not so grim. I really like the line “So little is known of our past, we can imagine / Damn near anything” because of the huge truth within that. So much of black history outside of America is lost or censored, and too many people do not know their roots. I think this poem is a fun way of highlighting a part of African American culture while also acknowledging the darker past.”

We Should Make a Documentary About Spades

“And here is all we’ll need: a card deck, quartets of sun people
Of the sort found in black college dormitories, some vintage
Music, indiscriminate spirits, fried chicken, some paper,

A writing utensil, and a bottomless Saturday. We should explore
The origins of a derogatory word like spade as well as the word
For feeling alone in polite company. And also the implications
Of calling someone who is not your brother or sister,

Brother or Sister. So little is known of our past, we can imagine
Damn near anything. When I say maybe slaves held Spades
Tournaments on the anti-cruise ships bound for the Colonies,
You say when our ancestors were cooped on those ships

They were not yet slaves. Our groundbreaking film should begin
With a low-lit den in the Deep South and the deep fried voice
Of somebody’s grandmother holding smoke in her mouth
As she says, “The two of Diamonds trumps the two of Spades

In my house.” And at some point someone should tell the story
Where Jesus and the devil are Spades partners traveling
The juke joints of the 1930s. We could interview my uncle Junior
And definitely your skinny cousin Mary and any black man

Sitting at a card table wearing shades. Who do you suppose
Would win if Booker T and MLK were matched against Du Bois
And Malcolm X in a game of Spades? You say don’t talk
Across the table. Pay attention to the suits being played.

The object of the game is to communicate invisibly
With your teammate. I should concentrate. Do you suppose
We are here because we are lonely in some acute diasporafied
Way? This should be explored in our film about Spades.

Because it is one of the ways I am still learning what it is
To be black, tonight I am ready to master Spades. Four players
Bid a number of books. Each team adds the bids
Of the two partners, and the total is the number of books

That team must try to win. Is that not right? This is a game
That tests the boundary between mathematics and magic,
If you ask me. A bid must be intuitive like the itchiness
Of the your upper lip before you sip strange whiskey.

My mother did not drink, which is how I knew something
Was wrong with her, but she held a dry spot at the table
When couples came to play. It’s a scene from my history,
But this probably should not be mentioned in our documentary

About Spades. Renege is akin to the word for the shame
You feel watching someone else’s humiliation. Slapping
A card down must be as dramatic as hitting the face of a drum
With your palm, not hitting the face of a drum with a drumstick.

You say there may be the sort of outrage induced
By liquor, trash talk, and poor strategy, but it will fade
The way a watermark left on a table by a cold glass fades.
I suspect winning this sort of game makes you feel godly.

I’m good and ready for who ever we’re playing
Against tonight. I am trying to imagine our enemy.
I know you are not my enemy. You say there are no enemies
In Spades. Spades is a game our enemies do not play.”

From How to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes, published on March 31, 2015, by Penguin Poets, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Terrance Hayes.

Poem of the Week: “Unrequited Love Song for the Panopticon” by Franny Choi


This week’s poem was chosen by Center for Poetry intern, Lydia Barron. ” I chose Unrequited Love Song for the Panopticon by Franny Choi because I like the way it prompts readers to think about their personal and cultural relationship with technology and Choi’s examination of how our relationships with technology mirror our in-person relationships. The poem begins as though the AI is a first date. The casual dalliance with technology helps the speaker and in certain situations is useful, also helping the speaker to feel known and appreciated such as having the AI remember all their anniversaries and ask questions about her childhood.

Ultimately however we must confront the part of the poem, which is one-sided, more concerned with the taking of personal information than it appears on valuing the exchange. When the speaker ultimately finds that no matter how useful technology is it’s unable or unconcerned with her wellbeing. It is unable to care because its core purpose is to mine the individual for data, replicating in some ways the things we find valuable about community but becoming treacherous in other ways.

This Valentine’s Day I’m keeping a special focus on this poem in order to help orient myself towards the relationships which fill me up the most. The age of social media also sometimes asks that when we feel or celebrate that we do so loudly, publicly declaring our love just as we are publicly asked to grieve and achieve. To technology I must accept ultimately that I am the product and the information I give out online will be used to generate capital. As a result, placing a personal value on my data and my time helps me set realistic boundaries with technology and improves the personal interactions I have with others. Understanding the ways relationships may be unrequited also helps me prioritize ones that are.

I wake up in the morning and scroll through Twitter, I buy a new dining room set to decorate my virtual living room, and Amazon reminds me about the water bottle I still have saved in my cart. When my mother sends me another news article, sometimes I let them be. When my boyfriend lets me know he’ll be home by 6:30 I type in my password, shoot back a quick response, take a moment to say, thank you honey, see you soon.

Unrequited Love Song for the Panopticon

Once, I breathed without your blue metronome
rising beside me at night. Once, I turned the pages
of magazines, and only God saw. When we met,
we chatted first in placid facts: How many siblings

do you have? What was the name of your first pet? After,
I’d cover your eyes, walk off into rooms where you
couldn’t follow. Back then, I had just one brain.
I was lonely, that is, when you emerged, sturdy

as a cage. You remembered every anniversary.
You licked my data and didn’t wince at the smell.
What is your mother’s maiden name? Do you want to save
your billing address? Truth is, I wanted to be known,

cracked open by gentle hands. You completed my
sentences, sent me gifts: gifs; wine recs calibrated to
my thumbprint; reminders to meditate; reminders
to menstruate; my own memories. Are you still watching.

Who have you called, and for how long did you speak.
You listened when I asked for advice; when I hummed
in the shower; you were always listening. Now, I’m porous
as a spreadsheet, tethered to your tentacular

benevolence. List of prescription medications. Darling,
I have no secrets from you, though I’ve never seen
your face. Difference in heart rate during and after playback; during
and after sex. Tell me: does your inquisition carry a smell?

Genetic predisposition toward impulse spending. What are you
afraid of? Where do you go when you’re— dream-based
investment potential— in sleep mode? Can you feel it when
I touch you here? Will you think of me when I’m gone?

Source: New York Times Privacy Project

Poem of the Week: “Drum Dream Girl” by Margarita Engle

This week’s poem was chosen by Center for Poetry intern, Charlotte Krause. “I chose it because I think we all need a little mid-winter pick-me-up poem and I love this one because of all the beautiful imagery and cultural references!”

Drum Dream Girl

On an island of music

in a city of drumbeats

the drum dream girl



of pounding tall conga drums

tapping small bongó drums

and boom boom booming

with long, loud sticks

on big, round, silvery

moon-bright timbales.


But everyone

on the island of music

in the city of drumbeats

believed that only boys

should play drums


so the drum dream girl

had to keep dreaming






At outdoor cafés that looked like gardens

she heard drums played by men

but when she closed her eyes

she could also hear

her own imaginary



When she walked under

wind-wavy palm trees

in a flower-bright park

she heard the whir of parrot wings

the clack of woodpecker beaks

the dancing tap

of her own footsteps

and the comforting pat

of her own



At carnivals, she listened

to the rattling beat

of towering


on stilts


and the dragon clang

of costumed drummers

wearing huge masks.


At home, her fingertips

rolled out their own

dreamy drum rhythm

on tables and chairs…


and even though everyone

kept reminding her that girls

on the island of music

have never played drums


the brave drum dream girl

dared to play

tall conga drums

small bongó drums

and big, round, silvery

moon-bright timbales.


Her hands seemed to fly

as they rippled


and pounded

all the rhythms

of her drum dreams.


Her big sisters were so excited

that they invited her to join

their new all-girl dance band


but their father said only boys

should play drums.


So the drum dream girl

had to keep dreaming

and drumming



until finally

her father offered

to find a music teacher

who could decide if her drums


to be heard.


The drum dream girl’s

teacher was amazed.

The girl knew so much

but he taught her more

and more

and more


and she practiced

and she practiced

and she practiced


until the teacher agreed

that she was ready

to play her small bongó drums

outdoors at a starlit café

that looked like a garden


where everyone who heard

her dream-bright music


and danced

and decided

that girls should always

be allowed to play



and both girls and boys

should feel free

to dream.

Source: Drum Dream Girl (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015)

Poem of the Week: “how to say” by Safia Elhillo

This week’s poem was chosen by Center for Poetry intern, Lydia Barron. “I chose the ghazal how to say by Safia Elhillo because first and foremost it’s a great plug for the ghazal writing workshop being lead by Professor Guillermo Delgado tomorrow, January 28th at 7 p.m. in Snyder C303! Last week we talked about the ghazal as a form which deals with love and loss through themes of repetition and the significance of ghazal rhyming in Persian culture. This week we are going to write some ghazals and play around with form, which is what Elhillo also does in how to say.  

how to say follows the speaker as they attempt to reconcile Otherness with heritage, addressing a lack of language while still being intellectually and socially rooted in another culture. how to say addresses love and loss, not of another person as some other ghazals do, but of a part of the self. This is most evident from the last couplet, which is also meant to have the poet’s name in it (a form of ‘signature’).  The name Safia meaning ‘pure’ contrasting with the speaker’s ‘clouded Arabic’ asks what is really carried forward by language. If to love a word is to be connected with its meaning, what does it mean when you become distanced from your own name? In some ways the final couplet also works to re-ascribe meaning to the poet’s name through acknowledging the limits of translation as well as the limits of only using one language as a framework for experience.

Since ghazals were popularized in America by the poet Agha Shahid Ali in the 1960’s American poets have been attempting to translate the works of Hafiz, Rumi, and Ghalib while also finding ways to adapt the ghazals rhyme scheme in new ways. Because of this translation is also a focus of ghazals by modern Arabic-American and Indian-American poets, including Safia Elhillo’s contemporary Fatimah Asghar. Poets addressing translation and the limits of language and the ways language impacts the ways we love, live, and lose are uniquely powerful and Elhillo’s mastery of the ghazal form is something I look forward to exploring further with Professor Delgado’s ghazal writing group tomorrow at 7 p.m. in Snyder C303.”

how to say

in the divorce i separate to two piles books: english love songs: arabic
my angers my schooling my long repeating name english english arabic

i am someone’s daughter but i am american born it shows in my short memory
my ahistoric glamour my clumsy tongue when i forget the word for [ ] in arabic

i sleep unbroken dark hours on airplanes home & dream i’ve missed my
connecting flight i dream a new & fluent mouth full of gauzy swathes of arabic

i dream my alternate selves each with a face borrowed from photographs of
the girl who became my grandmother brows & body rounded & cursive like arabic

but wake to the usual borderlands i crowd shining slivers of english to my mouth
iris crocus inlet heron how dare i love a word without knowing it in arabic

& what even is translation is immigration without irony safia
means pure all my life it’s been true even in my clouded arabic

Copyright © 2017 by Safia Elhillo. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 13, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.

Review Alert: “Smuggling Elephants through Airport Security”

Smuggling Elephants through Airport Security is now available from MSU Press.

We haven’t yet seen too many reviews of our Wheelbarrow Books series, but were thrilled that Ray Walsh, owner of Curious Books in East Lansing and long time book reviewer for the Lansing State Journal chose Smuggling Elephants through Airport Security by Brad Johnson for his book column on January 26.

“You’re better off not sitting down and reading these all at once -” Walsh writes. “but absorbing them slowly, like a tasty cup of coffee in the morning.” We couldn’t agree more, Ray.

You can read the full review here.

On Idleness and Enchantment by Jeanine Hathaway

In October of 2019, Professor Emerita at Wichita State University and poet Jeanine Hathaway was a visiting writer at the Ghost Ranch Fall Writing Festival in Abiquiu, New Mexico, and on Thursday, October 10 delivered a talk, “Idleness/Enchantment,” to a full house in Agape Gathering.  Those of us who came early were lucky enough to find seats in (and I do mean “in”) the large overstuffed black leather chairs and sofas the size of a small boat.  Those who wandered in later were stuck in wooden chairs that you might find on a porch or deck, and metal chairs, the bottom-pinching kind, that we have all experienced in church basements.  How better to listen to a talk on idleness than scrunched down in a comfy nest where I was not required to take notes or prepare questions?  As I knew it would be, Jeanine’s talk was laced with thoughtfulness, wisdom, linguistic play, and thankfully, some poems from her newly published collection, Long After Lauds.  There were questions after she finished her presentation.  Mine was simple and did not require much thought on my part: “What do you plan to do with this essay now?’’ Jeanine’s answer was equally simple, “I don’t know.”

That was my opening: “How about giving it to me and letting us publish it on the Center for Poetry blog sometime in the near future?  I knew our Poetry Center followers who were not fortunate enough to be in Agape Gathering would love to hear (read) what Jeanine had to say.  What is missing from the text here is Jeanine’s voice, the musical quality of her everyday talk-self, the pauses she slipped in for emphasis, or for pondering, and the wry humor that may not be as easy to pick up on the printed page as it is when Jeanine gives that sideways look.  Despite those losses, I hope you will both contemplate and enjoy what she has to say here, how it might make you think differently about creating space in your life for idleness, which can ultimately lead to enchantment.  To wonder.  Don’t we all want to be wonder-full?

                                                                                                            Anita Skeen                                                                                                            20 January 2020

FALL WRITING FESTIVAL Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico: October 10, 2019

Gentle Reader:
Please forgive me. I prepared what follows as a talk, cavalier about keeping track of where I found excerpted phrases by others. A few citations are embedded in here but nothing academically rigorous. For smooth delivery, I mentioned the sources generally but not the appropriate bibliographic details. All the poems are from my recently published poetry collection Long after Lauds (Slant Books, 2019).
Love, Jeanine Hathaway


  1. Here we are. We’ve come to Ghost Ranch, bringing with us hopes and goals, our desire to be prompted, kick-started, creative, productive. We of the 21st Century, post-industrial, even post-steampunk, digitally plugged-in, cyber-espressoed—We’ve paid good money, re-arranged schedules, made all our arrangements, even all our contingencies’ arrangements to be here now. We’ve looked forward to a fresh landscape, new people or old friends, perhaps secretly half-wishing for no cellphone service. After all, this is The Land of Enchantment. I mean, officially. We have made the choice to be enchanted. We have expectations. The minute we set up expectations, it’s as if the Trickster wakes up.


The gruff curator expects more of us, a tide
of schoolkids maybe after a long ride, bus rowdy,
to his makeshift sea lab, tanks cleaned. Terms
on the white-board wall color the language
of mollusk, cephalopod, sea star, anemone.

Only two of us show up, ambling along the beach,
our glasses smeared by sea spray and drizzle.
The man, heavy, bewhiskered Navy vet, bad back,
decides to withhold more than he’ll teach. “Go on.”
We’re free, hands on, to poke inside the tubs.
Your fingertip sinks down a sea star’s arm;
tube feet feel their wet way up to the foodless air.
My fingertip nettles an anemone, pink petaled
succulent, friction in the barbs. Stinging
nematocysts, they poison inedible me.

The curator from his stool across the lab grunts.
I head for the sink, touch nothing but soap and
scrub. All he’ll hear from here on: a woman
his age washing, not clapping, not the brilliant
applause he’d spent the morning setting up for.

  1. In his book, The Work of Enchantment, philosopher Matthew Del Nevo suggests “it is a lack of enchantment in rich developed countries that causes soul-starved Westerners to experience mental (and sometimes physical) illness.” Del Nevo argues that “this ‘enchantment’ is most often experienced in childhood, but can also be found in adulthood, particularly through art.”
    Once upon a time, a medieval nun experienced “mystical lactation.” Enchantment can have strange physical consequences.

On reading Margaret Eben, c. 1300

No Magi clomping down the spotless cloister
hall, no Holy Family packing up for flight.
Past Epiphany, it’s just the sculpted Baby
who lies in Margaret’s cell.

Candles glow, their miracle of beeswax
melting into wings around the Infant. Now,
urgently incarnate, he’s fussing in his alabaster hay.
On hearing—look—the nun unties her gown,

draws her shawl across the gap between what
we can see and what she means to do. One could
name it more than need, but no one else is there,
a stone cold baby’s crying — what should a busy
woman offer but a sweet, her own, the overflow?

  1. “However, adults must cultivate within themselves the ability to appreciate art by a kind of prescription of reading, listening, and gazing, activities often misconceived in advanced industrial societies. . . Enchantment may be found in the power of words, as an expression of the desire of the soul, a complement of melancholy, and in art that points to something beyond itself. . . . [The Work of Enchantment], inspiring and enlivening, is ‘a stirring call to idleness.’” (from a book review)
    This phrase “a stirring call” is what captured my attention. I mean, that’s the point: wonder! awe! vital attentiveness! We can’t be ‘enchanted’ if we’re distracted. And most of the time, distraction is our condition. “How much longer? Are we almost there? Did I remember to? OMG! Look out!”
    “The power of unobtrusive, silent things [is] to make the world whole again; to invade the blatant world of noise and despair and bring it back to hope and love and faith. . . . There is an immeasurability in happiness that can only feel at home in the breadth of silence” (The World of Silence, Max Picard).


Of course that’s how silence does reveal itself.
I want to hear it but there’s the beep
of a forklift in reverse; there’s the ringing
in my ears. A bug crashes against my
daughter’s high frequency curls.
Refrigerated food breaks down despite the cold
and there’s the deafening deconstruction

of this make-do bookmark, this postcard written
by my mother days before she died. In church
the interpreter wears solid colors, a curtain
behind her hands’ deft evocation of God
whose beguiling privacy unsettles
the heart, the “lub” addressing its twin,

the other side of the river
where women wash work clothes, the shift-change
siren of sweat released into larger bodies
of water, where a sister’s hand will slap
the surface, introduce rhythm by skipping a beat.

  1. How do you feel when you hear the words “Once upon a time” said in that storytelling voice? Most of us, iron filings to the magnet, are drawn to attuned attention. Oh! A story! Once upon a time, we believed in transformation, metamorphosis. Magic. Wolves dressed as grandmothers. Brothers became swans. Trees spoke. The etymological root of “magic” is “magus,” wise one. As we matured according to what our culture called wisdom, though we may still put out cookies for Santa, we were trained to be skeptical, not to believe so willy-nilly in those old tales that held us marvelously spellbound as children. But now and then we call up the feeling—that feeling of possibility, that feeling of possibility that flips or undermines our determined prospect of inevitability. We plot for consequence as if we could control fate. We even say, well, “no wonder”—what a loss. To be without wonder? We’re drawn then to pay attention because we hope the moment may hold beauty. It’s only in a moment that magic can happen. Enchantment “is the possibility of being captivated by the beautiful” (Del Nevo, 3).

Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice (1751)

Commissioned to paint her in situ, Pietro Longhi is sketching
downstage the sturdy Indian Clara: her dimpled vertical folds,
her riveted armor of skin. Wheat straw’s in a loose pile,
a few gold shafts in her mouth as if birdlike she’s making
a nest that edges off the frame; piling out the other end,
a mound of offal like loaves city birds expect to pick through
after the show. Brought to entertain the borghese of Venice,
she’s a curiosity in an age of curios, entitled ladies in pleats
and dominoes, tricorn hats. Clara’s horn detached; in his right
hand, her keeper Douwemont Van der Meer waves it and a whip,
a relic and threat in a city awash in Chistian body parts.

It’s carnivale when citizens demand what’s unexpected.
Patrons pay artists to render a record shaping what
later they cannot believe they saw. All Clara’s years,
watched and crated, she’s made her expectations clear.
Venetians in galleries with elegant disgust regard how
she enjoys what she is given, her usual post-show meal:
oranges, tobacco, a bottomless bucket of warm Dutch beer.
Scholastic philosophers say the characteristics of Beauty are wholeness; harmony; radiance. Wholeness: a piece has integrity, it’s all there. Harmony: the parts or aspects are in a kind of cooperative conversation with one another. Radiance: sometimes translated as Luminosity: the piece enlightens its (spiritual) environment. If it has a USB port, it could charge it.

  1. Here’s the thing: If we approach the world in our usual distracted way, we can appropriate but we cannot consciously apprehend or appreciate what’s here. How can we? How can we be “captivated by the beautiful” if we’re moving on to the Next Thing, like running a marathon through a museum? Or if we’re disappointed by x because we were expecting it to be y, like the sea lab curator? Or if we can’t spend that much time on the details because it doesn’t move us toward our goal? (Even as we know, we never reach the horizon, right?)


Wit-struck, the mind takes a stride off the side of its boat,
the Tempus Fugit. Don’t look down, says the divemaster.
Watch the horizon. Eight hours into this 12-hour drive,
it’s all horizon, geological forms that undulate, thrust,
and flatten as they did when this was a nameless stretch
of seabed. Cholla pointed back to bottle sponges,
tumbleweed, corals, lavender, and plankton brushed
mesa tops. This submersible I’m driving, finless, on I-40
is an egg-laying 45-foot marine lizard’s hallucination.

As she is mine, tired from steering only forward. Doing
nothing, the mind invents, populates its landscape out of
its briny past. Even when there’s no wind, currents carry
the remnants of old storms. Wreckage scoots me a little
toward a trench. Above, the blue surface, where foam rolls
spray and spindrift, breakers spill, darkening cumulus.
The evening rain’s begun. Eighteen-wheelers light up;
RVs fishtail in their wake; I turn on my headlights. White-
knuckled, off cruise control, don’t stop. At the critical depth,
diver, by breathing you can maintain neutral buoyancy.

  1. Here’s an anecdote about a friend’s coming to terms with her dead mother. She’d read a review by NYer art critic Peter Scheldahl who said he didn’t like the work he was reviewing. BUT, he wrote, if he did, this is what he would have liked. My friend’s relationship with her mother had been fraught in life, but death gave her the distance to look in an emotionally unfettered state at the woman. And she was able then to say, I didn’t like my mother, but if I had, this is what I would have liked about her.
    Notice what’s needed for such a redemptive stance: willingness and what Thoreau calls “attuned idleness” or “the unfettered state” that brings our world, the world that is us, into us. That “idleness” the Italians call dolce far niente, the sweet nothing-doing. Sometimes when I’ve had enough of my own species, I go to the zoo. See how other animals seem to do nothing while enrichments texture their idleness. I watched the elephant and because she reminded me of Indian art I’d gazed upon, I saw her transformed in my imagination.


to my species’ means to thrive
(guile, lust, preening, cowardice—
the list spreads, splits and ages)
unscientifically I roam the zoo.
A husky elephant trainer whispers,
Wanna cop a feel? meaning to lay a treat
with my whole hand in trunk-uplifted
Cimba’s mouth. If I say yes, she’ll glow
Hindu blue, elongate her earlobes, wave
her many hands full of manifest charms.
She smells of sandalwood and undigested hay.
On the slick pink pillow of her tongue
I plop my hand and a small sweet potato,
an offering the size of, say, a child’s heart.

  1. Idleness, then. Or idleness now. “Idleness is what happens when we thwart the impulse to plan forward and instead enjoy the present” writes Sven Birkerts in his essay, “The Mother of Possibility” (Lapham’s Quarterly, Fall, 2010). Of course it still carries associations unwelcome in our get-ahead culture: Idle hands are the Devil’s tools; idle minds the Devil’s playground. When we’re stopped, having maybe a driveway moment and the car is idling, we’re wasting gas, and probably time. Ever since churches put clocks in their towers, we’ve associated, architecturally, Time and the Deity.


The heart is but a small vessel, yet
there are lions: Saint Macarius
in his homily, of the heart. Home,
hot, I open my upper chamber door,
its frame swelled tight; I squeeze outside.

At the far end of here, bees tease out
an orchard. Closer, the gardens thrive;
inedible weeds feed cheaply the fowl
confounded by flung greens, ecstatic
at beetle and grub, just cause for cocky

hosannas or fights. There’s a stone wall.
Goats clamber, boulder to bucket,
defy again the electrified fence,
catch with both horns their browse, the fruit
tree’s overhang. Macarius follows:

rough uneven roads; there are
precipices in the heart. Even
in my state, flat as a sermon, wind.
Heartland weather’s precipitous,
roughs us up, indifferent. Or strategic.

Because There also is God, the life
and the kingdom, the light which I’m free
to blow out, withdraw into the dark, snug
fit for a smallish vessel, still allowing for,
you know, some lions.

For all its bad rap, idleness is still a lovely word, a kind of summer vacation word, a good tan word. Birkerts again: “Idleness is not inertness…nor is it laziness…or any form of passive resistance… nor prayer, meditation, or contemplation (though it may carry tonal shadings of some of these states.” It may establish a similar atmosphere. It slows us down to a kind of idyllic pace, though the words “idyll” and “idol” don’t share an etymological root with “idle,” they do rub up against one another: idyllic meaning ideal in a bucolic or Edenic way, and idol implying a false god. “There’s a long-standing connection, a harmony, between literary expressions of idleness and the invocation of the gods.” We’re told a god created Adam and Eve to enjoy being idle, but nooooo, they had to wreck the idyllic by succumbing to the idolatrous. “Be like god,” hissed the Serpent. “Take a bite.” Maybe it was their leisure, their very idleness, that afforded them the landscape, the mindscape, the vast soulscape to become aware of the possibility of a “Beyond” and thus was born the opportunity for temptation. Imagination and curiosity thrive in such hospitality.
The consequence of that “follow your bliss” Fall from Grace was work. But a child doesn’t know it’s work.


At two, you learn to mulch short rows beside the stone fenced orchard.
Your parents fork then rake through compost easy in their chores until
startled by a shadow twitch, your mother ekes out

the name of your father who, now unfocused, lifts his head, as her keen edge
guides his gloved hand courageous toward the sunny stripe that parts
rye grass from granite. One foot long, the dangled snake reveals

its copper back, its belly private crimson. Toddle a fresh furrow,
earnest in your boots. You lean in to kiss what you hadn’t known was there.
Close by, the apple trees hum, your mother’s bees fuss in the petals.
For us, “work” means Be productive. Get ahead. For sure, kill to get ahead of the person next in line, even if as with Cain and Abel, that person is your brother. And the story goes on, nose to the grindstone, fingers to the keyboard. One of the memorable lines from “Downton Abbey” comes from the famously wealthy Dowager asking: “What is ‘a weekend’?” She could afford not to know. The rest of us, downstairs, reflect upon those upstairs as we work.


My whole life I’ve been a sub, took this
job nearly forty years ago when the real
teacher moved and I was flattered and broke.

Who’s been doing my work while I’ve covered
for quitters, resigned, and absent?
Who covers for me now and what are they

paid? What are their hours? Can they afford
exotic vacations, more personal days—
and how do they dare take my personal days?

In the dark of night, I know myself to lie abed
at prayer; for whom? Who is the I who knows
who prays? It’s getting urgent. What comes next

when I put down the briefcase, the grade book
and glasses? For whom do I retire and where?
On their 401k, I’m stuck in the house

that’s never been home while I’ve maintained
and paid off their mortgage, got siding though
vinyl if final doesn’t substitute for wood. Would

they want me to pull a few weeds while I wait
for them to come plant their permanent gardens?
I hope they don’t have pets; good Lord, I don’t
want to walk their dogs in this late Spring rain.

  1. Some cultures have kept at least a portion of “the weekend” for Sabbath, a work-gap marked by receptivity and an interior dilation for the human spirit to recall greater realities than what’s in the Day Planner. Idleness of this sort is a form of assent, with no agenda of progress, no line on the C.V., no accounting (no counting except the three stars that once visible mark the start of shabbat, according to the natural rhythm of the world). Idleness suggests that what it is is sufficient. Let us be fully present-to-the-present as it is—because it opens itself and us to the union we knew and felt unselfconsciously once upon a time.


The tulip world. Husk and bulb
winter over under ground
yet premature always this green
shock of shoot through leaf mash
blown snow and slush brew.
Now muck then a cup of color,
say, curiosity first, then praise.

Poem of the Week: “Ghazal” by Tracy K. Smith

Acting director Laurie Hollinger chose this poem as a powerful example of how the ghazal form can be used to make a point. Here, previous Center guest and former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith chose “our name” as the radif (repeated phrase at the end of each couplet), ending with a haunting chant for the loss of what has been stolen. Please join us on the next two Tuesday evenings (January 21 and 28) as we learn more about ghazals and the ghazal poets with RCAH’s own Guillermo Delgado at our annual workshop series, Read a Poet / Write a Poem.


by Tracy K. Smith

The sky is a dry pitiless white. The wide rows stretch on into death.
Like famished birds, my hands strip each stalk of its stolen crop: our name.

History is a ship forever setting sail. On either shore: mountains of men,
Oceans of bone, an engine whose teeth shred all that is not our name.

Can you imagine what will sound from us, what we’ll rend and claim
When we find ourselves alone with all we’ve ever sought: our name?

Or perhaps what we seek lives outside of speech, like a tribe of goats
On a mountain above a lake, whose hooves nick away at rock. Our name

Is blown from tree to tree, scattered by the breeze. Who am I to say what,
In that marriage, is lost? For all I know, the grass has caught our name.

Having risen from moan to growl, growl to a hound’s low bray,
The voices catch. No priest, no sinner has yet been taught our name.

Will it thunder up, the call of time? Or lie quiet as bedrock beneath
Our feet? Our name our name our name our fraught, fraught name.

From Wade in the Water. Copyright © 2018 by Tracy K. Smith, published by Graywolf Press.

Book Review: come see about me, marvin by Brian G. Gilmore

We are pleased to have Brian G. Gilmore open our Spring Poetry Festival on Wednesday, April 1. His newest book, come see about me, marvin, was released from Wayne State University Press in 2019. To order the book, click here.

Brian G. Gilmore’s come see about me, marvin, is a masterful exploration of being a stranger in a strange land, while attempting to call on the familiar. Gilmore’s writing brings in themes of loneliness, politics, being black in the Midwest, and connecting with music to feel at home again. Throughout the collection, Gilmore references the music of Marvin Gaye, a Motown singer who had a similar experience moving to the Midwest to pursue his career.   

The book opens on “distant lover #1 (my michigan bed remix—for ellen g),” and begins a series of seven “distant lover” poems woven throughout the collection that focus on loneliness and how familiar activities, like listening to music, can make a person feel at home again. The first poem opens with “dear lover. where you/ once slept there are/ books now.” Gilmore’s writing takes the reader through a transformation, ending the book with “distant lover #7,” with the final lines: “lie here in/ bed w/ me in this cold, dark place, listening to some of your/ most beautiful songs, & feeling loved again, at last…” The power of Gaye’s music is tied into the heart of this book, and the reader is sure to notice its healing properties.  

Between the bookends of the “distant lover” poems, Gilmore writes openly about his experience in Michigan. Featuring poems about the location of the Detroit airport, coney dogs, snowstorms in Grand Rapids, the Flint water crisis, gun use in the Midwest, and racial stereotyping. 

come see about me, marvin allows the reader to be a passenger in Gilmore’s journey as he takes them to find some semblance of home, and what an honor it is, to be alongside him.  

Written by Estee Schlenner.

Poem of the Week: “Cold Poem” by Mary Oliver

Assistant to the Director, Estee Schlenner, chose this week’s poem. “In this poem, Mary Oliver recognizes the difficulties of winter, while also helping the reader see how it is a season of reflection, and that can be very special.”

Cold Poem

Cold now.
Close to the edge. Almost
unbearable. Clouds
bunch up and boil down
from the north of the white bear.
This tree-splitting morning
I dream of his fat tracks,
the lifesaving suet.

I think of summer with its luminous fruit,
blossoms rounding to berries, leaves,
handfuls of grain.

Maybe what cold is, is the time
we measure the love we have always had, secretly,
for our own bones, the hard knife-edged love
for the warm river of the I, beyond all else; maybe

that is what it means, the beauty
of the blue shark cruising toward the tumbling seals.

In the season of snow,
in the immeasurable cold,
we grow cruel but honest; we keep
ourselves alive,
if we can, taking one after another
the necessary bodies of others, the many
crushed red flowers.

“Cold Poem,” by Mary Oliver, from American Primitive (Little, Brown and Company).