poem index

Identity

Identity
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Eyes Fastened With Pins
Charles Simic, 1938
How much death works,
No one knows what a long
Day he puts in. The little
Wife always alone
Ironing death's laundry.
The beautiful daughters
Setting death's supper table.
The neighbors playing
Pinochle in the backyard
Or just sitting on the steps
Drinking beer. Death,
Meanwhile, in a strange
Part of town looking for
Someone with a bad cough,
But the address somehow wrong,
Even death can't figure it out
Among all the locked doors... 
And the rain beginning to fall.
Long windy night ahead.
Death with not even a newspaper
To cover his head, not even
A dime to call the one pining away,
Undressing slowly, sleepily,
And stretching naked
On death's side of the bed.
Identity
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Dangerous for Girls
Connie Voisine
It was the summer of Chandra Levy, disappearing
       from Washington D.C., her lover a Congressman, evasive
              and blow-dried from Modesto, the TV wondering

in every room in America to an image of her tight jeans and piles
       of curls frozen in a studio pose. It was the summer the only 
              woman known as a serial killer, a ten-dollar whore trolling

the plains of central Florida, said she knew she would
       kill again, murder filled her dreams
              and if she walked in the world, it would crack

her open with its awful wings. It was the summer that in Texas, another
       young woman killed her five children, left with too many
              little boys, always pregnant. One Thanksgiving, she tried

to slash her own throat. That summer the Congressman
       lied again about the nature of his relations, or,
              as he said, he couldn't remember if they had sex that last

night he saw her, but there were many anonymous girls that summer,
       there always are, who lower their necks to the stone
              and pray, not to God but to the Virgin, herself once

a young girl, chosen in her room by an archangel.
       Instead of praying, that summer I watched television, reruns of
              a UFO series featuring a melancholic woman detective

who had gotten cancer and was made sterile by aliens. I watched
       infomercials: exercise machines, pasta makers,
              and a product called Nails Again With Henna,

ladies, make your nails steely strong, naturally,
       and then the photograph of Chandra Levy
              would appear again, below a bright red number,

such as 81, to indicate the days she was missing.
       Her mother said, please understand how we're feeling
              when told that the police don't believe she will be found alive,

though they searched the parks and forests
       of the Capitol for the remains and I remembered
              being caught in Tennessee, my tent filled with wind

lifting around me, tornado honey, said the operator when I called
       in fear. The highway barren, I drove to a truck stop where
              maybe a hundred trucks hummed in pale, even rows

like eggs in a carton. Truckers paced in the dining room,
       fatigue in their beards, in their bottomless
              cups of coffee. The store sold handcuffs, dirty

magazines, t-shirts that read, Ass, gas or grass.
       Nobody rides for free, and a bulletin board bore a 
              public notice: Jane Doe, found in a refrigerator box

outside Johnson, TN, her slight measurements and weight.
       The photographs were of her face, not peaceful in death,
              and of her tattoos Born to Run, and J.T. caught in

scrollworks of roses. One winter in Harvard Square, I wandered 
       drunk, my arms full of still warm, stolen laundry, and
              a man said come to my studio and of course I went—

for some girls, our bodies are not immortal so much as
       expendable, we have punished them or wearied
              from dragging them around for so long and so we go

wearing the brilliant plumage of the possibly freed
       by death. Quick on the icy sidewalks, I felt thin and
              fleet, and the night made me feel unique in the eyes

of the stranger. He told me he made sculptures
       of figure skaters, not of the women's bodies,
              but of the air that whipped around them,

a study of negative space,
       which he said was the where-we-were-not
              that made us. Dizzy from beer,

I thought why not step into
       that space? He locked the door behind me.
Identity
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Beauty Secrets, Revealed by the Queen in Snow White
Natasha Sajé
Do for your neck what you do for your face.
Face your neck whatever the case. Pace yourself 
for 35-55, a quick
and bumpy ride, gone in a sneeze. Avoid 
petroleum; replace with olive oil.
Check bitterness at the door; be happy!
Do for yourself what you do for others,
the money guru says to sisters. Embrace
a stash and a place, Virginia wrote, 80
years ago. Don't be dopey or sleepy,
and don't buy all that's offered. Wake up! 
Do for your future what you should have done 
for your past. Don't be bashful:  it's one thing 
to have a neck, another to stick it out. 
Go ahead and eat fruit fallen to the ground;
be wary of apples in other hands.
Know the party's over when the hostess  
yawns, her jaw like folds of lace. Brace yourself 
for 55-85, a long 
and grumpy slide. Help, Doc! Imagine lots  
of green and see it when your eyes 
are closed. Don't see red, as in done for,
as in broke, as in give up the chase.
Do for your head what you do for your face.
Avoid asking questions of mirrors.
To check your own sad countenance each day
is a disgrace. If you hang on, cash can help. 
Despite it, the Iron Lady's now just a trace
of the woman who said, There's no such thing 
as society! It's our duty to look after ourselves.
A head of state. Debased.
Identity
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The Red Poppy
Louise Glück, 1943
The great thing
is not having 
a mind. Feelings:
oh, I have those; they 
govern me. I have 
a lord in heaven 
called the sun, and open 
for him, showing him
the fire of my own heart, fire 
like his presence.
What could such glory be
if not a heart? Oh my brothers and sisters, 
were you like me once, long ago, 
before you were human? Did you 
permit yourselves
to open once, who would never 
open again? Because in truth 
I am speaking now 
the way you do. I speak 
because I am shattered.
Identity
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What Things Want
Robert Bly, 1926
You have to let things
Occupy their own space.
This room is small,
But the green settee

Likes to be here.
The big marsh reeds,
Crowding out the slough,
Find the world good.

You have to let things
Be as they are.
Who knows which of us
Deserves the world more?
Identity
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I'm Nobody! Who are you? (260)
Emily Dickinson, 1830 - 1886
I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –  
To tell one's name – the livelong June –  
To an admiring Bog!
Identity
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This Is a Photograph of Me
Margaret Atwood, 1939

It was taken some time ago. 
At first it seems to be 
a smeared
print: blurred lines and grey flecks 
blended with the paper;

then, as you scan
it, you see in the left-hand corner 
a thing that is like a branch: part of a tree 
(balsam or spruce) emerging 
and, to the right, halfway up 
what ought to be a gentle 
slope, a small frame house.

In the background there is a lake, 
and beyond that, some low hills.

(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.

I am in the lake, in the center 
of the picture, just under the surface.

It is difficult to say where 
precisely, or to say 
how large or small I am:
the effect of water 
on light is a distortion

but if you look long enough, 
eventually
you will be able to see me.)
Identity
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First Gestures
Julia Spicher Kasdorf, 1962
Among the first we learn is good-bye, 
your tiny wrist between Dad's forefinger 
and thumb forced to wave bye-bye to Mom, 
whose hand sails brightly behind a windshield. 
Then it's done to make us follow:
in a crowded mall, a woman waves, "Bye, 
we're leaving," and her son stands firm 
sobbing, until at last he runs after her, 
among shoppers drifting like sharks 
who must drag their great hulks 
underwater, even in sleep, or drown.

Living, we cover vast territories; 
imagine your life drawn on a map-- 
a scribble on the town where you grew up, 
each bus trip traced between school 
and home, or a clean line across the sea 
to a place you flew once. Think of the time 
and things we accumulate, all the while growing 
more conscious of losing and leaving. Aging, 
our bodies collect wrinkles and scars 
for each place the world would not give 
under our weight. Our thoughts get laced 
with strange aches, sweet as the final chord 
that hangs in a guitar's blond torso.

Think how a particular ridge of hills 
from a summer of your childhood grows
in significance, or one hour of light-- 
late afternoon, say, when thick sun flings 
the shadow of Virginia creeper vines 
across the wall of a tiny, white room 
where a girl makes love for the first time. 
Its leaves tremble like small hands 
against the screen while she weeps 
in the arms of her bewildered lover. 
She's too young to see that as we gather 
losses, we may also grow in love; 
as in passion, the body shudders 
and clutches what it must release.
Identity
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Praise Song for the Day
Elizabeth Alexander, 1962

A Poem for Barack Obama's Presidential Inauguration

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other's
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues. 

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum, 
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what's on the other side.

I know there's something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.
 
Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, 

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign, 
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.