Are you finding yourself unwilling to love? You could be protecting yourself from inevitable loss. But, can you ultimately protect yourself from the unexpected renegade designed perfectly for your defenses?


Brilliance                    Mark Doty

Maggie’s taking care of a man
who’s dying; he’s attended to everything,
said goodbye to his parents,

paid off his credit card.
She says Why don’t you just
run it up to the limit? 

but he wants everything
squared away, no balance owed,
though he misses the pets

he’s already found a home for
— he can’t be around dogs or cats,
too much risk. He says,

I can’t have anything.
She says, A bowl of goldfish?
He says he doesn’t want to start

with anything and then describes
the kind he’d maybe like,
how their tails would fan

to a gold flaring. They talk
about hot jewel tones,
gold lacquer, say maybe

they’ll go pick some out
though he can’t go much of anywhere and then
abruptly he says I can’t love

anything I can’t finish.
He says it like he’s had enough
of the whole scintillant world,

though what he means is
he’ll never be satisfied and therefore
has established this discipline,

a kind of severe rehearsal.
That’s where they leave it,
him looking out the window,

her knitting as she does because
she needs to do something.
Later he leaves a message:

Yes to the bowl of goldfish. 
Meaning: let me go, if I have to,
in brilliance. In a story I read,

a Zen master who’d perfected
his detachment from the things of the world
remembered, at the moment of dying,

a deer he used to feed in the park,
and wondered who might care for it,
and at that instant was reborn

in the stunned flesh of a fawn.
So, Maggie’s friend —
Is he going out

into the last loved object
of his attention?
Fanning the veined translucence

of an opulent tail,
undulant in some uncapturable curve,
is he bronze chrysanthemums,

copper leaf, hurried darting,
doubloons, icon-colored fins
troubling the water?



The Obligation to Be Happy

Sometimes we carry the emotional expectations of others without even realizing it. Sometimes we think a certain behavior is expected and so we try to fulfill a norm that may not truly exist. From the point of view of the narrator of this poem, there is nothing unconscious or unspoken in the expectation put upon them. The point of view is strongly stated and vividly searing.

The Obligation to Be Happy                                                            Linda Pastan

It is more onerous

than the rites of beauty

or housework, harder than love.

But you expect it of me casually,

the way you expect the sun

to come up, not in spite of rain

or clouds but because of them.


And so I smile, as if my own fidelity

to sadness were a hidden vice—

that downward tug on my mouth,

my old suspicion that health

and love are brief irrelevancies,

no more than laughter in the warm dark

strangled at dawn.


Happiness. I try to hoist it

on my narrow shoulders again—

a knapsack heavy with gold coins.

I stumble around the house,

bump into things.

Only Midas himself

would understand.

Living Apart

Last semester I apologized for all the poems I had been presenting with loss in them. In choosing poems, I look for story, dualities, feeling, images, truth and relevant subject to the world we live in. If you’ve ever been in a book group you know the best discussions result when there isn’t full agreement about how delightful the book was. I don’t look for disagreement, but I do like to stir the pot, especially when making a hearty stew.

The following short poem beautifully offers a big story. The layers help pull good writing forth.

Living Apart                                                                                             Lynne Knight


My mother is not a person I can ask about sex.

Her body is like a building she has driven past

on the way to somewhere else, not paying

much heed. She knows the major stories,

but that’s about it. Until she fractured it last year,

she had no idea where her pelvis was.

She speaks of her insides, her plumbing.

But she is not a stupid woman,


so I can talk to her about need.

She knows about the spirit, having lived apart

from the body for so long. She says I mustn’t be

too greedy. She loves me, but then there is the world.

The cold place, she calls it. If I could talk to her

about sex, I could ask her if she thinks I crave

the spirit like a lover who just uses you,

takes and takes and then leaves—


if that’s what she means by my greed.

We all need something, she said the other day

when I visited. She was looking out at the woman

who walks up and down the street all day long

like someone who’s lost her door.

The poor soul, my mother says, and waves,

though the woman can’t see her.

I want to know if the hollow my mother feels then


is the same as I feel after sex, like watching

someone lose the body altogether in the distance.

But when I talk about my love, simple things

like how he fixes salmon, a little lime and butter,

cilantro, my mother looks away, as if I’m talking

of sex in disguise. So, instead I sit quiet, like spirit,

thinking if I practice living apart from the body,

my greed for hers won’t break when she’s gone.

Fast Gas

When I was about 14, I worked for a gas station doing their accounting! It’s clear looking back, that it was work they definitely didn’t want to do and it’s doubtful I was any good at it. I have had work that is traditionally defined as women’s work and jobs traditionally defined as men’s work. Both are freeing in their own ways.

On a different thread, I have also responded unusually to a situation, but have never expressed that as exquisitely as this poem does.

Fast Gas                                                                                 Dorianne Laux

 for Richard

Before the days of self service,

when you never had to pump your own gas,

I was the one who did it for you, the girl

who stepped out at the sound of a bell

with a blue rag in my hand, my hair pulled back

in a straight, unlovely ponytail.

This was before automatic shut-offs

and vapor seals, and once, while filling a tank,

I hit a bubble of trapped air and the gas

backed up, came arcing out of the hole

in a bright gold wave and soaked me — face, breasts,

belly and legs. And I had to hurry

back to the booth, the small employee bathroom

with the broken lock, to change my uniform,

peel the gas-soaked cloth from my skin

and wash myself in the sink.

Light-headed, scrubbed raw, I felt

pure and amazed — the way the amber gas

glazed my flesh, the searing,

subterranean pain of it, how my skin

shimmered and ached, glowed

like rainbowed oil on the pavement.

I was twenty. In a few weeks I would fall,

for the first time, in love, that man waiting

patiently in my future like a red leaf

on the sidewalk, the kind of beauty

that asks to be noticed. How was I to know

it would begin this way: every cell of my body

burning with a dangerous beauty, the air around me

a nimbus of light that would carry me

through the days, how when he found me,

weeks later, he would find me like that,

an ordinary woman who could rise

in flame, all he would have to do

is come close and touch me.


To The Young Man Who Cried Out “What Were You Thinking?” When I Backed Into His Car  

We all have such a lot on our minds these days.

“Reality is made up of circles but we see straight lines.”                                       Peter Senge

TO THE YOUNG MAN WHO CRIED OUT “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?” WHEN I BACKED INTO HIS CAR                                                                            

Lynne Knight

I was thinking No. No, oh no. Not one more thing.

I was thinking my mother, who sat rigid

in the passenger seat crying, How terrible!

as if we had hit a child not your front bumper,

would drive me mad, and then there would be

two of us mad, mother and daughter, and things

would be easier, they said things would be easier

once she went to the other side, into complete total

madness. I was thinking how young you looked,

how impossibly young, and trying to remember

myself young, my body, my voice, almost another

person, and I wanted to weep for all I had let

come and go so casually, lovers, cities, flowers,

and then I was thinking You little shit for the way

you stood outside my window with your superior air

as if I were a stupid old woman with a stupid old woman

beside her, stood shouting What were you thinking?

as if I were incapable of thought, as I nearly was,

exhausted as I’d become tending my mother,

whom I had just taken to the third doctor in so many

days, and you shouting your rhetorical question

then asking to see my license, your li-cense, slowly,

as if I would not understand the word, and the lover

who made me feel as if I never knew anything

appeared then, stepped right into your body saying

What were you thinking? after I had told him, sobbed

to him, that I thought he was, I thought he was,

I thought we would—and then my mother began

to cry, as if she had stepped into my body, only years

before, or was it after, and suddenly I saw the whole

human drama writ plain, a phrase I felt I had never

understood until then, an October afternoon in Berkeley,

California, warm, warm, two vehicles stopped in

heavy traffic on campus, a woman deciding to make way

for a car trying to cross Gayley, act of random kindness

she thought might bring her luck then immediately—

right before impact—knew would be bad luck,

if it came, being so impure in its motive,

and then the unraveling of the beautiful afternoon

into anger and distress that would pass unnoticed

by most of the world, would soon be forgotten by those

witnessing the event, and eventually those experiencing it

while the sun went on lowering itself toward the bay

and ginkgo trees shook their gold leaves loose

until a coed on the way home from class, unaware

a car had backed into another car, unaware of traffic,

stopped to watch the shower of gingko, thought of Zeus

descending on the sleeping Danaë in a shower of gold,

and smiled over all her own lover would do

in the bright timeless stasis before traffic resumed.

Frederico’s Ghost

The past will haunt you. We must treat every individual as if they were as important as everyone else. Don’t let rumors or what you think your reputation may suffer in the eyes of those who speak without knowledge. Gather more than one viewpoint, gather many. Don’t hold anyone or anything hostage to serve yourself or your pocket. Don’t withhold another’s paycheck or what is needed to prosper and live free.

Federico’s Ghost                                      Martín Espada

The story is
that whole families of fruitpickers
still crept between the furrows
of the field at dusk,
when for reasons of whiskey or whatever

the cropduster plane sprayed anyway,

floating a pesticide drizzle
over the pickers
who thrashed like dark birds
in a glistening white net,
except for Federico,
a skinny boy who stood apart
in his own green row,
and, knowing the pilot
would not understand in Spanish
that he was the son of a whore,
instead jerked his arm
and thrust an obscene finger.


The pilot understood.
He circled the plane and sprayed again,

watching a fine gauze of poison
drift over the brown bodies
that cowered and scurried on the ground,

and aiming for Federico,
leaving the skin beneath his shirt
wet and blistered,
but still pumping his finger at the sky.


After Federico died,
rumors at the labor camp
told of tomatoes picked and smashed at night,

growers muttering of vandal children
or communists in camp,
first threatening to call Immigration,

then promising every Sunday off
if only the smashing of tomatoes would stop.


Still tomatoes were picked and squashed

in the dark,
and the old women in camp
said it was Federico,

laboring after sundown
to cool the burns on his arms,

flinging tomatoes
at the cropduster
that hummed like a mosquito

lost in his ear,
and kept his soul awake.

The Common Women Poems 

These are vivid and inspiring portraits of women, gritty and short. I wondered how well the poet knew these women and/or if they were largely brief observations. I think they are a unique window in how to present characters in poetry or prose form. And then, who is the common woman? (There are more poems than these three and yes, I pulled them from different internet sources.)


The Common Women Poems              Judy Grahn

I. Ella, in a square apron, along highway 80                             

She’s a copperheaded waitress,
tired and sharp-worded, she hides
her bad brown tooth behind a wicked
smile, and flicks her ass
out of habit, to fend off the pass
that passes for affection.
She keeps her mind the way men
keep a knife—keen to strip the game
down to her size. She has a thin spine,
swallows her eggs cold, and tells lies.
She slaps a wet rag at the truck drivers
if they should complain. She understands
the necessity for pain, turns away
the smaller tips, out of pride, and
keeps a flask under the counter. Once,
she shot a lover who misused her child.
Before she got out of jail, the courts had pounced
and given the child away. Like some isolated lake,
her flat blue eyes take care of their own stark
bottoms. Her hands are nervous, curled, ready to scrape.
The common woman is as common
as a rattlesnake.

III. Nadine, resting on her neighbor’s stoop                     

She holds things together, collects bail,

makes the landlord patch the largest holes.

At the Sunday social she would spike

every drink, and offer you half of what she knows,

which is plenty. She pokes at the ruins of the city

like an armored tank; but she thinks

of herself as a ripsaw cutting through

knots in wood. Her sentences come out

like thick pine shanks

and her big hands fill the air like smoke.

She’s a mud-chinked cabin in the slums,

sitting on the doorstep counting

rats and raising 15 children,

half of them her own. The neighborhood

would burn itself out without her;

one of these days she’ll strike the spark herself.

She’s made of grease

and metal, with a hard head

that makes the men around her seem frail.

The common woman is as common as

a nail.


She has taken a woman lover
whatever shall we do
she has taken a woman lover
how lucky it wasn’t you
And all the day through she smiles and lies
and grits her teeth and pretends to be shy,
or weak, or busy. Then she goes home
and pounds her own nails, makes her own
bets, and fixes her own car, with her friend.
She goes as far
as women can go without protection
from men.
On weekends, she dreams of becoming a tree;
a tree that dreams it is ground up
and sent to the paper factory, where it
lies helpless in sheets, until it dreams
of becoming a paper airplane, and rises
on its own current; where it turns into a
bird, a great coasting bird that dreams of becoming
more free, even, than that — a feather, finally, or
a piece of air with lightning in it.
she has taken a woman lover
whatever can we say
She walks around all day
quietly, but underneath it
she’s electric;
angry energy inside a passive form.
The common woman is as common
as a thunderstorm.

Judy Rae Grahn was born in 1940 in Chicago, Illinois. Her father was a cook and her mother was a photographer’s assistant. Grahn described her childhood as taking place in “an economically poor and spiritually depressed late 1950s New Mexico desert town near the hellish border of West Texas.” When she was eighteen, she eloped with a student named Yvonne at a nearby college. Grahn credits Yvonne with opening her eyes to gay culture. Soon thereafter she would join the United States Air Force. At twenty-one she was discharged (in a “less than honorable,” manner, she stated) for being a lesbian.

At the age of 25, Grahn suffered from Inoculation lymphoreticulosis, or Cat Scratch Fever, which led to her being in a coma. After overcoming her illness, she realized that she wanted to become a poet. This realization was partially due to the abuse and mistreatment Grahn faced for being an open lesbian. Of the incident, Grahn stated “I realized that if I was going to do what I had set out to do in my life, I would have to go all the way with it and take every single risk you could take…. I decided I would not do anything I didn’t want to do that would keep me from my art.”

My Little Prayer

From DISCO a prayer and a blessing. Disco works with local students in Birmingham, AL. This is so honest it breaks my heart and and inspires me at the same time. We need prayers right now and we need our youth. What a beautiful opening line, such a gift.

My Little Prayer                  Tamiya H.  (Putnam Middle School)

Let the ruining end here.

Let the world’s worries wash away.

Let there be relief and allow peace to shine its beautiful face again.

I pray that my auntie recovers from her leg injury and that my mom is able to sustain her job so we will spend no night hungry.

I pray we will get accepted for our dream house.

It’s merely a wish but I wish for it every night.

I pray for my mom and auntie’s anger.

Everyday I feel stuck under their cloud of frustration and fear they will strike each other.

God, bless this house and anger among it.

I Loved the Black Cat

I’m not one who likes to complain about the rain, but when my raincoats don’t dry over night (yes, raincoats) and it’s cold and dark, I can’t help but wish for fairer skies. And sometimes when people let us down our beloved animals sustain us. Note the quote I included and I hope you enjoy the poem.

“I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.”               Louisa May Alcott 

I Loved the Black Cat                                                                      Deborah Slicer

Who stayed in the woodshed with me

During sudden summer thunderstorms late at night.


I miss the man who stayed in our house

Afraid, but I think I did not love him


So much as I loved that cat.

Darkness came undone at seams of lightning.

Black cat sat. Still.


You know how wind leaps on top a bull pine’s back, rides it nearly to the



Well, cat just flared his leather nose a little,

Paws Buddha-tucked.

Watched on.


When thunder cracked its thirty knuckles, helved its three free fists, when

rain spat sideways at us—


Cat snuffed—Pfuss—

So what?


Some storms were so sudden and spectacularly

Terrible, I’d run half-dressed to the woodshed from our house,


Where I’d find my black cat

staring down my terrible,

When the man inside the house could not.


Little Red

Does the prettification of our oldest stories ever frustrate you? This is not an example of that, this Little Red is making her own choices. That is not to say being awake and fully conscious makes life easy.

Little Red                                                 Terry Blackhawk

Imagine her not hooded or coy.

No inadvertent blush

to stamp her victim forever.

But let us take her

as she was in the story

having chosen the path of needles

over the path of pins.

Not a child, no father ahead

or mother behind

to frame her journey with admonition

or reward. None of this

prettification, simpering

rose petal baskets or little feet,

but a child-woman on the verge

of learning her own utility,

how to resist, be strong.

Needles, not pins.

Wit will be her weapon,

and flesh—so when she lies

naked next to the wolf, even there

bawdiness will save her

and she will tell him

she needs to dump a load.

How can he argue with the body’s truth?

What to do but wait and say go?

Imagine the darkness, the orchard

outside Grandmother’s cabin

fruit trees clouding above her

as she slips free of his bonds,

escapes into the apple-cool night,

and leaves him lying there, slathering,

stupid and confused, pulling

the rope he tied her to finding it limp

in his hands.