He Is Six and She Is Three

Danny Earl Simmons provides a devastating child’s perspective on family in this poem.  I follow Dan’s blog so I don’t miss any of his poems when they are published.  (I’m a fan!)  His new chapbook is The Allness of Everything.  You can learn more about him and his poetry here.

He is six and she is three
when they’re sent to spend what’s left
of their innocence with their aunt,
the older sister of their now-dead mother –

beaten to death with the fists
of their now-imprisoned father
who loved them both with a rage

so red his bare knuckles bled
into their screaming mother’s face
until there were no screams left

while the six-year-old brother held
his three-year-old sister curled
all the way under the bottom bunk

as she sobbed until there was breath enough
to ask why their mommy just won’t be good
and why isn’t he crying, too.

– Danny Earl Simmons
First published in Eunoia Review


what i did in the war

“. . .keeping the company of ghosts. . .”

Matt Borczon says he didn’t fight during the war in Afghanistan, but he’s fighting in its aftermath.  You can read more about this fine poet and his chapbook A Clock of Human Bones here.

it’s hard
to explain
to civilians
that my
gun was
locked up
in an iso
for the
whole time
I was
in Afghanistan
that I
did not
fight this
war I
worked in
a hospital
at the
point of
the war
but no
I did not
fight the
I watched
it from
the distance
of a
severed arm
watched through
the holes in
marines chests
and stomachs
through the
eye sockets
of children
shredded by
hellfire helicopters
but I
did not
fight the
I prepared
gauze for
wounds and
vacuums to
suction blood
I cleaned
dead bodies
for coffins
for planes
for home
for broken
I bleached
between patients
and served
meals to
soldiers with
no hands
to eat with
but I
did not
fight the
I searched
for missing
limbs and
spoke with
angry village
elders and
was hit
by an
Afghan prisoner
for trying
to help
him stand
but I
did not
fight the
and it
wasn’t until
I was in
Kuwait at
a stress
that I
ever heard
the words
compassion fatigue
or secondary PTSD
so I came home
unaware of
how it
would feel
to hear
at night
or how
could make
me soak my
sheets with
sweat and
how panic
would make
me ruin
my children
or how I
could lose
days upon
days in
the company
of ghosts
about my
own death
in order
to feel
like an
end was
in sight
but I
did not
fight the
I inhabited
the war
was forced
by blood
to adapt
by death
to adapt
by shock
and awe
to adapt
until the
day they
sent me
home with
no gauze
no bleach
no morphine
pump no
tool or
to readjust
to turn
it off
to forgive
or forget
so no
I did
not fight
the war
but I
am still
every single

– Matt Borczon
First published in Fried Chicken and Coffee

The Wake Up Call

Jimmy Pappas was instrumental in introducing me to a cadre of wonderful poets through Goodreads who commiserate, critique one another’s work, and share common goals in our writing.  Jimmy is a Vietnam vet who will publish two books of poetry this year about his time in Vietnam.  Jimmy told me the poem I chose to share is one of the first ones he published.  You can learn more about Jimmy Pappas and his poetry here.


When it was time
to wake me up
to go fishing,

he stood at the end
of the bed and held
my foot in his hands

as if it were a piece
of crystal, the way
he must have done

when I was a baby,
but I was too tired
to wake up and

too young to understand
how much he needed
me to be his son.

– Jimmy Pappas
First published in Poetry Breakfast

Faux Pas (false step)

“. . .no two people had ever been farther apart. ‘

Mark Shirey grapples with both unrequited love and cultural norms in this sensitive, introspective poem.  Mark is a member of my poetry workshop group which has met every other Saturday morning for 3 1/2 years.


I bought her a graduation gift at the Art Museum store –
a long, gold necklace that would glow on her brown skin
and follow her neck in graceful twirling arcs.
I wished the nights in the computer lab would never end,
spent with my beautiful Indian dancing friend.
When she went to India on a semester break, I looked at the moon
and thought no two people had ever been farther apart.
When she and her lily-white beau took a break, she was mine for a week.
When they got back together, she’d return to my mind forever.
I put the wrapped box on the table with other gifts.
Among the guests, saris and bindis, I danced and mingled.
I asked, “How do you tell which ones are single?”
“The married ones wear long, gold chains given to them by their husbands.”

– Mark Shirey

Someone else’s mother speaks to me for the first time

“. . .asteroid children fizzed about the hall. . .”

Few of us can capture a child’s reticence and awe like Robert Ford has in this poem about a kindergarten encounter.  You can find more great poems and learn more about this poet who lives in Scotland on his blog, Weezlehead.


It wasn’t quite my first day there, and while I sat at the safety

of a long wooden table, a mile-wide belt of asteroid children

fizzed about the hall, high on screams and random collisions,

pounding its feet on a sprung floor all glassy with new varnish.

Her long-fingered hands were working the grown-up scissors,

the chafing of the blades against each other making that noise

I still don’t know the word for. You’re very patient, she told me,

freeing me from my cosmic reveries like one of the starfish

she was busily fashioning from a stack of coloured card.

 – Robert Ford
First published in Red Eft Review

Back Porch, 1862

“. . .she knew this was not magic. . .”

This poem by Katie Bickham is a testament to sisterhood.  Katie’s chapbook The Belle Mar, from which this poem is taken, traces the history of a Louisiana plantation from 1811 to present day with unflinching honesty.  Read more about Katie and The Belle Mar here.


“You here, Missus? I cain’t see not a thing.”
The woman tugged her soft robe around herself
and watched Liza limp up to the porch in the darkness.
“I’m here, Liza,” she said, holding out her pale hand.

“You boil that water and get you a cup like I asked?”
The woman, who shook even in the summer evening,
nearly said “Yes ma’am,” but caught herself.

Old Liza, clacking her lantern down on the wood,
reminded the woman of a crumbling, ancient goddess,
a dusty sibyl with a spell for everything.

But she knew this was not magic, knew all the magic
had dried up from the earth like the streams
in drought. This was the dust left behind.

“Missus, you know now, you know your husband
cain’t know about this. You tell him — I’ll get strung up
like a windchime. Give me that hot water, now, and your word.”

The woman handed Liza the cup of scalding water,
said her promises, pressed her forearms
into her own stomach. Inside, her husband

lay sprawled in the bed, exhausted, no doubt,
from his nightly war on her body. Liza produced
purple flowers (“Pennyroyal, Missus”) from her pocket,

shredded the leaves, dropped them in the water to steep.
The woman lifted the cup to her mouth, but Liza,
brown skin shining in the lantern light, grabbed her arm.

“You drink that, ain’t no coming back from it. Thing’ll be gone
like it never was.” The woman’s stomach turned,
but she parted her lips and swallowed the tea all at once.

Liza pressed her own lips together and nodded her head.
“I think you a good woman, Missus,” she said.
The woman thought the tea might come back up.

“Go on back to your bed, Liza,” the woman whispered,
wiping her mouth with her sleeve like a savage.
“He’ll never know. You always tell me what you need,

and you’ll have it.” Liza patted her arm, scooped up
her lantern, and made her way off. The light grew smaller
through the minutes, like a soul with no body

steering the long dry road out of the world.

– Katie Bickham
From The Belle Mar


I love Teresa Stouffer’s compassion for the older folks who sometimes inhabit her poems.  Teresa is a member of my poetry workshop group in State College.

Wheelchairs circle
the worker
pills on plastic spoons.
I step over a man’s legs,
drool-soiled napkin on his thigh,
kiss Dot hello on her whiskery face,
a woman’s sticky hand tugs me.
Perfume and bowel odors
mingle, cloud the hallway.
I breathe through my mouth.
Meds swallowed,
Dot spits out,
“Are you in a hurry?”
In her room,
I snip the hairs on her chin.
Dot says,
“All I do is sit
and eat.
And I don’t feel much like eating anymore.
When will you be back? ”

– Teresa Stouffer

P.S.  New prompts are up on the Prompts page.

The Swan

“. . .an armful of white blossoms…”

On this Earth Day, a day of marching to support science and the environment, I thought of Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver and the legacy of nature she is leaving for us.  Here is one of my favorites with Mary’s gentle call to action.  There are many sites to learn more about Mary Oliver’s body of work.  You can start here.


Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air –
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees – like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds –
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

– Mary Oliver
  First published in The Paris Review


Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem

“. . .why our marriage might work.”

Poets have to be careful when writing about love, lest it become an eye-rolling exercise for their readers.  I think Matthew Olzmann succeeds in this “list poem” about the attributes of the woman he loves.  You can read more about Olzmann’s work here.


Here’s what I’ve got, the reasons why our marriage
might work: Because you wear pink but write poems
about bullets and gravestones. Because you yell
at your keys when you lose them, and laugh,
loudly, at your own jokes. Because you can hold a pistol,
gut a pig. Because you memorize songs, even commercials
from thirty years back and sing them when vacuuming.
You have soft hands. Because when we moved, the contents
of what you packed were written inside the boxes.
Because you think swans are overrated.
Because you drove me to the train station. You drove me
to Minneapolis. You drove me to Providence.
Because you underline everything you read, and circle
the things you think are important, and put stars next
to the things you think I should think are important,
and write notes in the margins about all the people
you’re mad at and my name almost never appears there.
Because you make that pork recipe you found
in the Frida Kahlo Cookbook. Because when you read
that essay about Rilke, you underlined the whole thing
except the part where Rilke says love means to deny the self
and to be consumed in flames. Because when the lights
are off, the curtains drawn, and an additional sheet is nailed
over the windows, you still believe someone outside
can see you. And one day five summers ago,
when you couldn’t put gas in your car, when your fridge
was so empty—not even leftovers or condiments—
there was a single twenty-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew,
which you paid for with your last damn dime
because you once overheard me say that I liked it.

– Matthew Olzmann
First published in Rattle

P.S. If you don’t subscribe to Rattle or at least to the poems that appear every day on their blog, you’re missing some of the best contemporary poetry available today.  Check it out.

Susquehanna Baptism, 1954

“. . . Tugged coal barges skim its shivering skin.”

Marian Dornell has written a superb chapbook called Unicorn in Captivity exploring the legacy of race in America.  This poem spoke to me when she gave a reading recently.  You can learn more about Marian and her writing here.


Tucked in a troublesome valley a brown-skinned girl
sits on her front steps. Above her the cross from St. Patrick’s blots
out the sun. To the east, the Capitol dome frustrates
her vision. She walks a few streets over to the river,
which flows toward a larger thing, resigned.
It surrenders to the demands of business as usual. Tugged
coal barges skim its shivering skin.
On river’s bank, this brown-skinned girl
faces the western shore that bars
her kind, where men with anthracite hearts
guard their women and children
from the dark. The brown-skinned girl
scribbles wishes she tosses
into the water, scraps of dreams
drowned like unwanted puppies.
At dusk debutantes drift
by on a flotilla of party boats, skipping jeweled
stones of light to taunt
the brown-skinned girl.
And river flows to a larger thing, resigned.
The girl dives into the water and swims
to an island for a closer look at life
on the far shore. Bridges span
the river, portals that could carry her over,
but she sees even then
a better life than those prisons
of industry with grinning jockeys on their lawns.
So she weaves herself a raft
of new dreams and floats
to her own distant shore
moving toward a larger thing.

– Marian Dornell
From Unicorn in Captivity
  published by Finishing Line Press