We have them, and live and think about them,
But then, what are they? Some seem like
Bigger deals than the rest, like those of big enchiladas
Or the CEOs of banks too big to fail, but why? Some seem
Meaningful for their commitments and accomplishments,
As no doubt they are, though most are unexceptional
And ordinary, and just fine for that. They’re all equal
In value, but what that means is difficult to say:
That each one matters more than anything
To whoever’s life it is, though each is barely real
To anyone else? The world exists before and after it,
Yet while it breathes it is the world, its world.
Whenever I attempt to gesture at it, all I find are words
For where I am: this room, this place I live. Stay with me
I want to say, yet it can’t, not because it’s unreal,
But because I am. Is what I want to say instead
That everything comes down to lives? The thought
Is true enough, but it’s a way of feeling, not explaining,
Of poetry rather than a paper. They’re real enough I guess,
Just “metaphysically thin.” But each of them is everything.

John Koethe

What Was Poetry?

I hate Christmas, but I hate people who hate Christmas even more.
–James Schuyler

No one really knew, though everyone knew what it should be;
And now it’s just a way of being famous on a small scale.
It was supposed to be significant for its own sake,
Though that was never entirely true: human feelings
Got in the way, for while it was possible to remain unmoved
In the face of all that language, no one really wanted to:
They wanted to talk about it, to explain what it had let them see,
As though the world were incomplete before poetry filled it in.
And now there’s nothing left to see: oh, poems come and go
And everyone complains about them, but where there used to be
Arguments there’s just appreciation and indifference,
Measured praise that’s followed by forgetting. I’m as bad
As anyone: instead of reading I reread, instead of seeing
I remember, and instead of letting silence have its say
I fill it up with talk, as if the last word might be anything else.

And yet despite all this it matters. Sometimes in the midst
Of this long preparation for death that initial solitude returns
And the world seems actual and alive, as it assumes its opposite.
I think the truest thoughts are always second thoughts,
But who am I kidding, other than myself? I hope there’s
Someone, that it casts its spell beyond the small cone of light
Hovering over my desk, and that what started out one night
So long ago in silence doesn’t end that way. I fantasize
I can hear it somewhere in the realm of possibility,
But only now and then, in intervals between breaths.

John Koethe

On the Sorrow God Pours into the Little Boat of Life

And God was there like an island I had not rowed to.

—Anne Sexton, The Awful Rowing Toward God

I stand in the Punk Rock aisle of Rhino Records
mindlessly watching an old video of a Supremes
concert, trying not to think of anything, really,
giving myself to sounds from fifty years ago
that celebrate nothing now except my own youth,
my own Sixties when the world was ending
and beginning all over again, and it would be
all about love and the absence of war forever
once Nam was over, and the lies would stop,
and the boys would come back home, and Nixon
and McNamara and Westmoreland would pay
the price, and that’s of course when it happens
and I can’t stop it, my son died last week,
until the young woman standing next to me
bends down quickly, reaching to help pull me up,
and I try to make a joke of it, saying Thank you.
You know, fifty years ago I would have asked you
to dance
, and she says, Sir, I would be happy
to dance with you
, and so we do for a few seconds
there in the middle of the Punk Rock aisle, she is
so very sweet, I am terribly sorry for your loss,
and I thank her, and once again I know as if by
physical touch alone the innocence and kindness
of the hopeful before the world disappoints them
and it all seems like some awful rowing toward God
in a hard rain, one wave, one lie, after another, and
they are so tired, the oars so heavy, that they slowly
open their hands and pray and lean into the dark.

B.H. Fairchild

Benny Goodman

…stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.

—“Preface,” The Stories of John Cheever

My father was wearing a double-breasted suit
and green Homburg hat, and had just emerged
from the war in the Pacific, bearing in his arms
the chaos and nightmares of a thousand days
and evenings on Guam, Saipan, Tinian for deposit
in the First Methodist Church in Houston, Texas
where he would fall asleep in sermons preached
to aid his resurrection from a foxhole’s grave.
But the stone would not budge, and he stood
with my mother for photos outside the church
and apologized for breaking up the Eucharist,
that Homburg resting in the sunlight like
a helmet or perhaps a halo starched and ironed
for Sunday service and lunch afterwards at
Gaidoux’s. And, as I recall, one Ezra Brooks
or two or five too many. And my mother’s pleas,
and then the sound of Benny Goodman’s clarinet
all sweet and mellow rising from a nearby store
so that we all stopped on the sidewalk, tilting
our heads and just listening to Benny Goodman,
and then turning to begin the long walk home,
to begin forgetting, to begin, again, an ordinary life.

B.H. Fairchild


One day my father said, Get in the goddamned car,
and so I did, and he drove us about five miles
out of town, where he parked on an empty shoulder,
shut the Ford’s engine off, and then turned to me
and said, You have a weak personality. I said,
What the hell does that mean? And he said, You know,
when you speak, the way you talk, laughing and using
all that fancy-assed, flowery language, you do not
impress other men, serious men, for whom life
is a serious business
. I said, after a long silence,
weighing my fate for what I was about to say,
I don’t give a flying fuck about impressing
other men. I can tell you, though, that I care
about impressing Patricia Lea Gillespie,
if that’s the sort of thing you’re worried about.

You read poetry, he said. Yes, I do. I even
memorize it.
His eyes widened. Why would you do
a thing like that? So that I can recite it
, I said.
Here’s one that I recited to Patricia Lea
quite late just the other night.
And so I began.
His car at that time was a two-tone rusted-out
Ford Falcon with a sluggish, nervous ignition, so
when he quickly reached for the key and turned it,
wrenched it furiously, swinging that small tragedy
of a car back onto Hiway 83, and headed for home,
I began, as I say, not just for the moment
but for all time and for all young men caught
in the rush of passion and sudden confusion
when the heart cannot speak but the man—oh yes,
the man-absolutely must, she’s so beautiful,
the moon in platinum waves rippling down
her raven-black hair, and I rolled down my window
of that piece-of-shit car and I sang it out, far out
beyond the stalks of uncut wheat, beyond the corn
and soybeans, oh ever beyond the soybeans, and even
the beef cattle standing mute behind barbed wire
in a boredom so gigantic, so heavy it should
put God to shame, beyond Bryan’s Corner where I once
saw Kerouac and Ginsberg and William Burroughs
stopping for a cheeseburger and fries on their way
to south Texas and future literary fame and
an almost endless supply of what native Texans
called Marihoona. My poem, I swore, spoken loudly
and very well as my father stomped the floorboard
with every burning word, would never end,
even after we hit the gravel in the driveway
at home and I finally leaped out and took a bow
for Dylan Thomas, and all of Kansas rose up
in the dry fields and applauded the art of poetry,
and Patricia Lea Gillespie later that night
gave herself to a boy who loved to read poetry,
a language so sweetly powerful and burdened
with the mysteries of the human heart that it became
my language:

In my craft or sullen art,
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms…

And I remember the grim, tight mask of his face
inflamed now by the porch light as he lurched
for the front door and I sang to Kansas poems
I so loved that they became a kind of revenge.

B.H. Fairchild


My heart is completely simple, of one
substance like a mole, a dark heap

of pigment mired in a bland
it doesn’t mind. My mouth

is a promise in a driver’s-side mirror
and adjusts with a button that gives

with a pinkie flick. My feet demurely
callused because I will work and work.

I may as well have had just one organ,
so simple am I, one tube, like a sea sponge

with brine washing my osculum,
crumbing up my fibrous pores. There is nothing

scary, amiss, or unrelatable about me,
who am comme il faut. You’d think

I was a plant, you’d think, No problem!,
getting closer. Nothing to see at all, folks,

though no impediment to lingering
should you choose. What the bleached coral

don’t say: how they drank today’s hot chalice
all themselves. No one put me up to sipping

risk and sitting pretty. What the reefs
don’t tell twirls deep in their two-dozen

thousand fevered genes, similar in number
to the human, though sickened by the sunblocks,

the way you like your skin to take the light
without absorbing one thing. The things

you hear down here. Even the lowing whales
replicating every sunken liner’s final strut,

I let them go on, I am after bigger psychic fish,
I stand before Sancta Simplicitas and let her twitch

my veil and burn my books. I love an idol
who permits a dish of meat at each foot,

the dark flesh and the light, the spectrum
of the hunt. I love a good Doppler effect, am game

to the sluicing vowels and half-heard yodels
moving beyond my sessile place. But you who take

redshift to excess, always eluding, evading,
evaporating, why so wary? You, rounding

a corner like a double-glassed bodega when I
would have settled for heartfelt credit.

I have tried labor and I have tried play. I looked
into a tiny compact and saw the big face

and the tiny sponge. I, prey for dregs
of attention, four drags on a light that’s good,

I know, for a dozen. When I take up your day
and suck it down like a bag tight with helium,

daffy and lung-light, I am not sustained.
I am dying from taking. My gullet

capers like a piccolo. If I could have the whole
of you, the denser thing, pie weight

and plumb line, the vital pith, I think it would
enough me for beyond. You’d hardly notice.

I’d give you back, I promise, to yourself.

Laura Kolbe


I wanted to write a poem about delay
The white space between word and music
One night in Ohio a decade ago
Under a thunderstorm’s bad blank verse

As I counted aloud between lightning and clap
A friend tackled me to the ground
To shut me up so he could hear it, the faint
Percussion I could just call thunder

If I wanted to be clear
I’ve tried to write this poem for years
But can’t and won’t, as every line
Falls faster than I can chase it, acid raindrop

Seeping into clover, garbage lyrics
Rising through its stem, poetry almost
As toxic as the city
Spraying my neighborhood down

A pesticide to x the little messengers
So megafauna can continue
Planting real estate
Some sad poet named this chemical Duet

The friend who tackled me got sick
I visited as he received a drip of what I called
Quicksilver in an early draft, but it was just
Poison, I mean chemo, which saved his life

Duet on the apple blossom, duet in the core
Nights drift by to be surveilled
For words, as thunder splits the poem again
Half of it standing up and counting

Half of it tackled into clover
Pollen painted with our syntax
Pulses once then meets a cell
The rain is light years away

Daniel Poppick

The Symmetry of Fish

The head of the fish thuds
into the kitchen sink

with a splash of lettuced water.
She says, Not this. Don’t

marry the head or anyone
too cunning.
She saws the knife

through the tail. The muscle
springs. Not a man

who doesn’t have a brain.
There’s no meat there.

As I walk through fish markets
lined with skinned goats,

their heads on the tables,
the finned bellies glisten under

the dusty sun, jutting
proudly blue and silver.

My mother’s voice asks me
if I understand, if I’ll resist

the smooth talk from the fish’s
mouth, his fanned tail swaying,

gifting a breeze on the back
of my neck. I prod the slick,

elastic skin, pierce him with two
fingers, and eat around the bones.

Su Cho

Remember This When You’re Hungry

for my grandma, whose Korean name I still can’t remember

Even a ghost that eats and dies again will have better color.

How hungry we must have been to die in the ocean just to pull at its weeds, dry them, soak the leaves in sesame oil.

Bleed our hands for not even a tongueful of meat from an ungiving shell.

A bird that cries at night cries because it mourns a lover.

A bird that cries in the morning cries because it is hungry.

How do you eat like a king?

Hang the remains of last week’s fish so it sways above the table.

Have a bite of rice. Chew ten times. Look at the fish. Chew ten times. Repeat.

Give thanks for anything you can put in your mouth.

Su Cho



I say blue when morning begins
And indigo when the night sky
Hardens over us, pinned with stars.

I say moon when its shape appears
In the disappearing light. And I say
Hollow when I look into my hand.

So much taken for granted now
That I am chased by shadows
When once I noticed only

What was solid and complete.
I dream of Adam’s voice.
Was that a panting sound or a sigh?


At first it was head to toe
Until I wanted his breath on mine.
We examined each other,

Like a folded-out map of ourselves,
Fingering, puzzled by
The differences between us.

We tried it this way and that,
I was the impatient one, I have to say.
Strange, we both had a bright idea

At the same time. After that, it seemed
As though we were created to couple
In this sweet new way. It was hard

To do anything else sometimes,
So the trees suffered, burdened
Down with fruit, and the fields,

And some pale animals that emerged
Now and then, and the snakes
Hanging corkscrew from low branches.


I saw God watching Adam. I saw
The eyes popping out of God’s head
At the sight of him

As he fucked with what we later learned
Was wild abandon. I sympathized
With God’s jealousy, his pain,

But wished he had not
Displayed such obvious self-pity.
You see, he loved Adam.

Once I watched as
They fondled each other’s hair.
From my vantage-point in the tree

I then saw the two of them
Wondering how they might
Do what we had done. I have to say

It was obvious to me.
Odd how they couldn’t work it out.
Nothing bothered Adam, but God

Was not pleased, to put it mildly.
I learned that he would have been
Happy to be with either of us. Or

Even with both. He hated being left out.
That was the thing. I liked it
When he licked my neck.


But, in the end, I bewildered God
More than all creation. We spoke,
But he was never a good listener,

Preferring the sound
Of his own voice
Even when he whispered.

Since he wanted us so much
The decision he made
That we should leave

And that he would be happier
Alone made no sense.
But try telling him that.


I laughed later
When I found out the etymology
Of the word ‘paradise’. In all reality,

Paradise was nowhere much; we were
Baked by the sun. Days were long
And there was nothing to do at night.


Mornings here are lovely, on the other hand,
And the world’s words, I never tire of them –
Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit

Would I like to return, you ask,
Just once for a short visit
To re-live old memories?

No, but I would like yesterday to come
Again, wash itself over us,
Fondle us with its shredded beauty.


In his temper that day, when God told
Us what time would mean, I understood.
I saw the days longing for each other

In a future ready to forget. I alone,
I saw, would register each one,
Like something to be forgiven

And then held up, a bright example,
As we were, when we came into the world,
And lived our disappearing days.


Adam died two years ago, a night
When the moon was sickle-shaped
And thunder-clouds had cleared.

I was glad of that. I wanted
Adam’s fading eyes to see the sky,
Linger on the thought of what we tasted,

A beyond-place that had no end, that might
Have bored others, but we tolerated it
Because what else did we know?

What else do I know now?
I know that God learned to repeat
The word regret ad infinitum

Until silence fell. Then he changed.
I wish I could comfort him,
As the world wears out.

Colm Tóibín