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Poets' Letters

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. Langston Hughes and Bessie Head. These poets shared meaningful correspondence at times spanning decades. Check out Poets.org’s expanding collection of poets’ letters—and how they drew from the epistolary form in their poetry.

poem

The Letter


Beloved, men in thick green coats came crunching
through the snow, the insignia on their shoulders
of uncertain origin, a country I could not be sure of,
a salute so terrifying I heard myself lying to avoid
arrest, and was arrested along with Jocko, whose tear
had snapped off, a tiny icicle he put in his mouth.
We were taken to the ice prison, a palace encrusted
with hoarfrost, its dome lit from within, Jocko admired
the wiring, he kicked the walls to test the strength
of his new boots. A television stood in a block of ice,
its blue image still moving like a liquid center.
You asked for my innermost thoughts. I wonder will I
ever see a grape again? When I think of the vineyard
where we met in October-- when you dropped a cluster
custom insisted you be kissed by a stranger-- how after
the harvest we plunged into a stream so icy our palms
turned pink. It seemed our future was sealed. Everyone
said so. It is quiet here. Not closing our ranks
weakens us hugely. The snowflakes fall in a featureless
bath. I am the stranger who kissed you. On sunny days
each tree is a glittering chandelier. The power of
mindless beauty! Jocko told a joke and has been dead
since May. A bullethole in his forehead the officers
call a third eye. For a month I milked a barnful of
cows. It is a lot like cleansing a chandelier. Wipe
and polish, wipe and polish, round and round you go.
I have lost my spectacles. Is the book I was reading
still open by the side of our bed? Treat it as a bookmark
saving my place in our story.

(here the letter breaks off)
Mary Ruefle
2000
poem

Letter Home

I can’t write you because everything’s
wrong. Before dawn, crows swim
from the cedars: black coffee calls them down, 
its bitter taste in my throat as they circle,
raucous, huge. Questions with no
place to land, they cruise yellow air
above crickets snapping 
like struck matches. My house on fire, crows

are the smoke. You’ve never left me.  
When you crossed the river you did not 
call my name. I stood in tall grass
a long time, listening to birds 
hidden in reeds, their intricate songs.

The grass will burn, the wrens,  
the river and the rain that falls on it.  
I can go nowhere else: everything 
I cannot bear is here.

I must listen deeper. Sharpen my knife.  
Something has changed the angles
of trees, their color. Do not wait to hear
from me. I cannot write to you
because this is what I will say.
Pamela Alexander
2007
poem

Dear Lonely Animal,

I'm writing to you from the loneliest, most
secluded island in the world. I mean, 
the farthest away place from anything else.

There are so many fruits here growing on trees
or on vines that wrap and wrap. Fruits
like I've never seen except the bananas.

All night the abandoned dogs howled.
I wonder if one dog gives the first howl, and if 
they take turns who's first like carrying 

the flag in school. Carrying the flag 
way out in front and the others 
following along behind in two long lines, 

pairs holding hands. Also the roosters here crow 
from 4am onward. They're still crowing right now 
and it's almost noon here on the island.

Noon stares back no matter where you are.  
Today I'm going to hike to the extinct volcano 
and balance on the rim of the crater. Yesterday 

a gust almost blew me inside. I heard 
that the black widows live inside the volcano 
far down below in the high grasses that you can't 

see from the rim. Well, I was going to tell you 
that this morning the bells rang and I 
followed them and at the source of the bells, 

there I found so many animals 
all gathered together in a room 
with carved wooden statues

and wooden benches and low wooden slats 
for kneeling. And the animals were there 
singing together, all their voices singing, 

with big strong voices rising from even 
the filthiest animals. I mean, I've seen animals 
come together and sing before, except in 

high fancy vaults where bits of colored glass 
are pieced together into stories. Some days 
I want to sing with them.

I wish more animals sang together all the time.
But then I can't sing sometimes
because I think of the news that happens

when the animals stop singing.  
And then I think of all the medications 
and their side effects that are advertised 

between the pieces of news. And then I think 
of all the money the drug companies spent
to videotape their photogenic, well-groomed animals,

and all the money they spent to buy 
a prime-time spot, and I think, what money 
buys the news, and what news 

creates the drugs, and what
drugs control the animals, and I get so
choked I can't sing anymore, Lonely Animal.  

I can't sing with the other animals. Because it's 
hard to know what an animal will do when it 
stops singing. It's complicated, you know, it's just 

complicated—
Oni Buchanan
2008
poem

Letter Home

--New Orleans, November 1910

Four weeks have passed since I left, and still 
I must write to you of no work. I've worn down 
the soles and walked through the tightness 
of my new shoes calling upon the merchants, 
their offices bustling. All the while I kept thinking 
my plain English and good writing would secure 
for me some modest position Though I dress each day 
in my best, hands covered with the lace gloves 
you crocheted--no one needs a girl. How flat 
the word sounds, and heavy. My purse thins. 
I spend foolishly to make an appearance of quiet 
industry, to mask the desperation that tightens 
my throat. I sit watching-- 

though I pretend not to notice--the dark maids
ambling by with their white charges. Do I deceive 
anyone? Were they to see my hands, brown 
as your dear face, they'd know I'm not quite 
what I pretend to be. I walk these streets 
a white woman, or so I think, until I catch the eyes 
of some stranger upon me, and I must lower mine, 
a negress again. There are enough things here 
to remind me who I am. Mules lumbering through 
the crowded streets send me into reverie, their footfall 
the sound of a pointer and chalk hitting the blackboard 
at school, only louder. Then there are women, clicking 
their tongues in conversation, carrying their loads 
on their heads. Their husky voices, the wash pots 
and irons of the laundresses call to me.

I thought not to do the work I once did, back bending 
and domestic; my schooling a gift--even those half days
at picking time, listening to Miss J--. How 
I'd come to know words, the recitations I practiced 
to sound like her, lilting, my sentences curling up
or trailing off at the ends. I read my books until
I nearly broke their spines, and in the cotton field,
I repeated whole sections I'd learned by heart,
spelling each word in my head to make a picture
I could see, as well as a weight I could feel
in my mouth. So now, even as I write this
and think of you at home, Goodbye

is the waving map of your palm, is 
a stone on my tongue.
Natasha Trethewey
2002