Aretha Drops Her Fur Coat To The Stage

as if it is the whole fallen world sliding
from her shoulders of grace

as if she has known this world
as broken and holy and shown us so

as if she has been coated
in golden promises but refuses

to let them keep her from praising
to the rafters with her joyful arms

as if she decided to sprout wings
from the gilt cap-sleeves of her gown

as if she decided to sprout wings
from the rich glory of her vibrato

as if she’s showing the ghost of James Brown
how it’s done — a simple drop, no melodrama

as if it really does make her feel
like a natural woman

as if that’s her president up there
in the balcony catching some spirit

as if the whole world is sliding
from her shoulders

puny you and me clinging to the soft scruff of it,
as we slide down together

dissolving into a pool of gold at her feet
where we belong

First Cliffhanger

First Cliffhanger

I had recently turned ten years old,
quiet and serious and still
a bit dazzled by the move
to double digits, that somber zero
a new responsibility, a stone I worried smooth.

To that general sense of worry,
to that pocket of stones I carried,
I added a new ache
as I sat in the popcorn dark
of the multiplex:

the Falcon zooming away,
Lando and Chewie off to rescue Han,
my beloved, from the Hutt’s carbonite–

and then, without hint or warning,
John Williams’ bright horn section
blazed to life with the familiar theme,
and credits started rolling,
and around me everybody clapping
and on either side, my brother and uncle
getting up from their seats, but

the movie–

the movie wasn’t over–

and I just sat there,
stunned in the clutches
of some horrible mistake,
jostled at the knees
by idiotic people scooting past me,
as if everything were still right with the world,
as if my beloved and my sense of narrative closure
hadn’t both just been yanked from me
like my very breath.

I was ten,
and it would have been enough
to leave me with the outrageous
and yet also intriguing suggestion
that Vader was Luke’s father
to chew on for the next three years.

But to end it like that,
in the middle of a sentence,
at what I would later come to understand
(but still resent) as the second act–
to cut it off so abruptly
and, to my mind, artlessly,
when I would have sat there for another two hours
if it meant seeing my scoundrel rescued–

the single-digit childhood
of stories that ended
like they were supposed to
was over. Whatever was coming–
puberty, the internet, prequels–
I was ruined. I was ready.


Redstone, Warren, NH

Today in 1953, the first Redstone rocket was launched from Cape Canaveral. It flew about 8,000 yards. In 1961, Alan Shepard, in the Mercury capsule Freedom 7, rode a Redstone rocket to be the first American in space. Shepard was from New Hampshire, which boasts the “only town with a real Redstone rocket,” Warren. No, Alan Shepard wasn’t from Warren. There’s also a really great replica of the Redstone with the Mercury capsule on top of it at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, New Hampshire. No, Alan Shepard wasn’t from Concord, either. (And Robert Frost was originally from San Francisco.) Here’s a newly revised poem inspired by Warren’s Redstone.

Redstone, Warren, NH

“Home is the place, where, when you have to go there,they have to take you in.”
–Robert Frost

Erected and dedicated
fourth of July decades ago
next to the tidy white
Methodist church,
the unexpected Redstone’s
a second steeple rising
from the town green.
Once a cold war workhorse
holding the line against
the reds, the first nuclear missile
became a rocket; the weapon
became a vehicle, nuclear payload
replaced with a human one:
Al Shepard, folded into the capsule
for the first American orbit.

Not this Redstone, mind you,
but one like it. This one,
un-used ICBM never capped
with that capsule for travel,
was brought home by another
native son, from the arsenal
in Alabama where it lay,
silent, gutted. And why not
truck the eight tons of it
north to Warren, not even
the boyhood home of Shepard?
Why not this town green
at the edge of wilderness?

Some townsfolk sweated out
the eighties, convinced
the plainly visible rocket
made their hamlet ground zero
for feared Russian attacks;
others suggest to this day
that it should be felled
to make a good feed trough.
It’s been repainted three times
over the long years, but now
in its dotage may need more care
than a small town can afford.

Dozens of sensible Yankee selectmen
have ruminated ditching it –
and yet, the Redstone still stands,
space rocket transformed
into looming souvenir. In the end
it’s theirs to keep and care for,
if not fully understand, weird
foster child from away,
grown familiar at least, at last,
and owned and known – the way
another non-native son
famously opined:
they have to take you in.

Summer Reading Challenge UPDATE

Last month I had a great visit to mid-coast Maine with a fellow writer, where I worked on getting a draft of a new poetry book shaped up. I also brought along with me six books of poetry by others from my summer reading challenge list – mostly I read them with coffee coffee first thing in the morning either on the red sofa or out on the pier that came with the house we rented. Rough life, yeah, I know.

Reading individual collections was helpful to me as I finished up this one of my own – though I do recall other times when reading individual collections while shaping my own was actually not helpful. In any case, this time I did some reading, and it was wonderful. I recommend all of these books without hesitation. All strong, all containing multiple poems worthy of dog-earing. Yes, I dog-ear. No, I don’t know why I would ever do something so unkind to something as lovely as a book of poems.

Teresa Leo, Bloom in Reverse (Forty-three poems, twelve dog-ears)

Wow, these are some great poems on classic themes of love and death and estrangement and grief and loss. Poems of unthinkable pain and miraculous beauty. Poems of survival. These are poems of powerful feeling, and reading the book through in one sitting was an intense emotional experience. These poems do not mince words, but they are so artful from the level of the line (love all those couplets so well-wrought!) to the level of the scene-shaping.

Meg Day, Last Psalm at Sea Level (Eight dog-ears)

I was swept away by the voice of this collection. Like, tidally. I am still trying to resolve what I feel is this simultaneous urgency/calm in these poems. There is also great balance between what I’d call intellectual and emotional/spiritual concerns in these poems. Love the remix of John Donne’s sonnet in “Batter My Heart, Transgender’d God,” as well as the various “when I am ________” poems which explore facets of all different kinds of identities.

Alice Friman, The View From Saturn (Fifty-one poems, nine dog-ears)

I am embarrassed to say that I only really started reading Alice Friman’s work last year when I picked up Zoo in a used bookstore and had my damn mind blown. Some poets whose work blows my mind aren’t doing work that I, myself, am doing or aspire to do (stylistically, content-wise, whatever) – but hers are poems I admire, am amazed by, wish to have written, strive to write. She’s in my pantheon, now, filling a big gaping space I didn’t even know was there. Well. Maybe I knew. This is her most recent book, which I snagged at AWP and got signed by the author herself, who is so NICE.

Erin Belieu, Slant Six (Twenty-three poems, five dog-ears)

It’s my tradition in recent years to spend the fourth of July in Western Massachusetts at an annual (been going on for over twenty years, I’m sure) round-robin reading of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” hosted by poet and editor Jan Freeman. Belieu’s book would, I believe, also make for an apt Independence Day celebration. I will be reading “When at a Certain Party in NYC” aloud to everybody I see for the rest of the summer. Into the fall, probably. It is hilarious and rings so, so true.

Ross Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (One giant, endless, dog-ear of unabashed gratitude)

A few poems into this amazing collection, my favorite of the week, I had to stop folding pages down, because folding ALL (okay ALMOST all) the pages down defeats the page-folding purpose. Read this on one of the two prettiest days of my time at the shore, and so my own good mood and gratitude were sort of underscored or amplified by Gay’s vibrant odes and earthy, sensual catalogs, and ebullient thank yous. I came to this book already a fan of Gay – his first book, Against Which, is outstanding. I didn’t think it could be bested, but maybe it has.

J. Allyn Rosser, Mimi’s Trapeze (Sixty poems, four dog-ears)

In contrast to Leo’s couplets, this book (also from the Pitt Poetry Series) contains mostly single-stanza poems, which makes the variants on that choice (such as “Housing the Id” and “Miniature Histories of the World”) stand out sharply. It’s a big book – a lot of poems, five sections – and it goes so many places, in and out of so many different voices/tones. My favorite in the collection is “Quake,” near the end, with a group of people’s “sense of precarious communion” both broken and strengthened by an earthquake: “just the grave world / catching us off guard— / grabbing each of us by the shoulders / and giving a shake, saying only / Here. Now. Take a good look.”

Summer 2015 Reading Challenge [updated]

IMG_7258Like Ron Mohring, I am responding to Oliver de la Paz’s 2015 Summer Reading Challenge. A good idea I hope will go viral. I can’t resist lists. Here’s the gist — make a list of fifteen books to read between now and the end of August. Three books from your list should be poached from the lists of others. So it will be helpful to keep linking to lists you know of, I guess. As you finish a book, post some kind of…response, commentary, review, what have you.

I aspire to read more than this over the summer, but this feels like a strong start. And I know I’ll be loving reading others’ lists, so link ’em up! I’m adding the ones I know of from time to time below my list.

Here’s my list — 2 nonfiction & 13 poetry:

No Requiem for the Space Age: The Apollo Moon Landings and American Culture (Matthew D. Tribbe)

The World Without Us (Alan Weisman)

Bluets (Maggie Nelson)

Hoodlum Birds (Eugene Gloria)

The View from Saturn (Alice Friman)

Our House Was on Fire (Laura Van Prooyen)

Talismans (Maudelle Driskell)

Twine (David Koehn)

The New Testament (Jericho Brown)

Bloom in Reverse (Teresa Leo)

Mimi’s Trapeze (J. Allyn Rosser)

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (Ross Gay)

Slant Six (Erin Belieu)

Last Psalm at Sea Level (Meg Day)

How to Be Drawn (Terrance Hayes)

Others who have made lists for this challenge — please add your link in the comments if you join the challenge:

Wendy Call

The Black Sheep Dances

Josephine Ensign

Crista Ermiya

Jeff Oaks

Making it home, April 1970

Forty-five years ago this month, the “failed” Apollo 13 mission actually became “NASA’s finest hour” because of the incredible creative and technical work done by so many folks to bring the crew back home. The story of Apollo 13, which first unfolded the week after I was born (!) was what first inspired me, years ago, to retell some Apollo space program stories via poetry. In the spirit of turning failures into successes, and in honor of the great feats of Apollo 13, here’s one of the poems.


–Apollo 13

To make it home, they had to keep
hurtling away from Earth, gathered by gravity
into lunar orbit, the dark side never
quite this dark before.

Until the final burn they wouldn’t be allowed
to hold Earth in the window, where it belonged,
to burst towards it rather than let it fade
over their shoulders, shrinking to moon-size.

They had to turn their backs on home
and trust the stripped-down physics
of momentum and return.  They had to surrender
to the old forces and attractions.

To make it home, they had to fly away
from every instinct urging them to turn
around right there, as if the crippled craft
could turn on such a thin dime.

They had to believe in the machine,
that the spindly lunar lander as lifeboat
could do everything it wasn’t designed to do —
like them, it was supposed to go to the moon.

The nature of the adventure shifted
from the journey to the return — coming home
was the new, untried frontier
as Cronkite called the play-by-play.

To make it home, they had to resurrect
the old imperatives, re-enter the race
that had already been run and won,
they had to want to make it home

like they wanted to make it to the moon.

–Liz Ahl (originally published in Salt River Review #38, 2010)