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Ruth Ellen Kocher
Ruth Ellen Kocher

We May No Longer Consider the End

Recorded for Poem-a-Day, October 19, 2018.
About this Poem 

“I’m working on a prose book called Notes on Whiteness that recalls my experiences growing up as a black girl in a working-class white family. I’ve been trying to articulate how my white father understood my anger and helped me to weaponize it as a way to survive a world he knew was cruel to me. He knew what I’d be up against. He wanted to raise ‘a young lady’ but also wanted to make sure I could fight and win.”
—Ruth Ellen Kocher

We May No Longer Consider the End

The time of birds died sometime between
When Robert Kennedy, Jr. disappeared and the Berlin
Wall came down. Hope was pro forma then.
We’d begun to talk about shelf-life. Parents
Thought they’d gotten somewhere. I can’t tell you
What to make of this now without also saying that when
I was 19 and read in a poem that the pure products of America go crazy
I felt betrayed. My father told me not to whistle because I
Was a girl. He gave me my first knife and said to keep it in my right
Hand and to keep my right hand in my right pocket when I walked at night.
He showed me the proper kind of fist and the sweet spot on the jaw
To leverage my shorter height and upper-cut someone down.
There were probably birds on the long walk home but I don’t
Remember them because pastoral is not meant for someone
With a fist in each pocket waiting for a reason. 

Copyright © 2018 by Ruth Ellen Kocher. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 19, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

Copyright © 2018 by Ruth Ellen Kocher. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 19, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

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collection

Classic Books of American Poetry

This collection of books showcases the masterpieces of American poetry that have influenced—or promise to influence—generations of poets. Take a look.

poem

The Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door—
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door—
               Only this and nothing more."

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
               Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
"'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
               This it is and nothing more."

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you"—here I opened wide the door;—
               Darkness there and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore?"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!"—
               Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
               'Tis the wind and nothing more!"

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
                Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
               Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blest with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
               With such name as "Nevermore."

But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered "Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before."
               Then the bird said "Nevermore."

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
"Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
               Of 'Never—nevermore.'"

But the Raven still beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
               Meant in croaking "Nevermore."

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er,
               She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!"
               Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!"
               Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
                Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."

"Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend!" I shrieked, upstarting—
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!"
               Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
               Shall be lifted—nevermore!
Edgar Allan Poe
1849
poem

Ghosts

                      After Anne Sexton
 
 
Some ghosts are my mothers
neither angry nor kind
their hair blooming from silk kerchiefs.
Not queens, but ghosts
who hum down the hall on their curved fins
sad as seahorses.
 
Not all ghosts are mothers.
I’ve counted them as I walk the beach.
Some are herons wearing the moonrise like lace.
Not lonely, but ghostly.
They stalk the low tide pools, flexing
their brassy beaks, their eyes.
 
But that isn’t all.
Some of my ghosts are planets.
Not bright. Not young.
Spiraling deep in the dusk of my body
as saucers or moons
pleased with their belts of colored dust
& hailing no others.
 
Kiki Petrosino
2017
Vicksburg National Military Park. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service
poem

Black Cat

A ghost, though invisible, still is like a place
your sight can knock on, echoing; but here
within this thick black pelt, your strongest gaze
will be absorbed and utterly disappear:

just as a raving madman, when nothing else
can ease him, charges into his dark night
howling, pounds on the padded wall, and feels
the rage being taken in and pacified.

She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once

as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.
 

Rainer Maria Rilke
2014
poem

The House of Ghosts

The House of Ghosts was bright within,
     Aglow and warm and gay,
A place my own once loved me in,
     That is not there by day:

My hound lay drowsing on the floor:
     From sunken graves returned
My folk that I was lonely for
     Sat where the hearth-fire burned.

There was no lightest echo lost
     When I undid the door,
There was no shadow where I crossed
     The well-remembered floor.

I bent to whisper to my hound
     (So long he had been dead!)
He slept no lighter nor more sound,
     He did not lift his head.

I brushed my father as I came;
     He did not move or see—
I cried upon my mother’s name;
     She did not look at me.

Their faces in the firelight bent,
     They smiled in speaking slow
Of some old gracious merriment
     Forgotten years ago.

I was so changed since they had died!
     How could they know or guess
A voice that plead for love, and cried
     Of grief and loneliness?

Out from the House of Ghosts I fled
     Lest I should turn and see
The child I had been lift her head
     And stare aghast at me!

Margaret Widdemer
2018
collection

A Poet's Glossary

Read about poetic terms and forms from Edward Hirsch's A Poet's Glossary (Harcourt, 2014), a book ten years in the making that defines the art form of poetry.  

poem

Omens

The dead bird, color of a bruise,
and smaller than an eye
swollen shut,
is king among omens.

Who can blame the ants for feasting?

Let him cast the first crumb.

~

We once tended the oracles.

Now we rely on a photograph

a fingerprint
a hand we never saw

coming.

~

A man draws a chalk outline
first in his mind

around nothing

then around the body
of another man.

He does this without thinking.

~

What can I do about the white room I left
behind? What can I do about the great stones

I walk among now? What can I do

but sing.

Even a small cut can sing all day.

~

There are entire nights

                                I would take back.

Nostalgia is a thin moon,
                                                              disappearing

into a sky like cold,
                                          unfeeling iron.

~

I dreamed

you were a drowned man, crown
of phosphorescent, seaweed in your hair,

water in your shoes. I woke up desperate

for air.

~

In another dream, I was a field

and you combed through me
searching for something

you only thought you had lost.

~

What have we left at the altar of sorrow?

What blessed thing will we leave tomorrow?

Cecilia Llompart
2016
collection

We the Poets

To celebrate American Archives Month in October we collaborated with the National Archives on We the Poets, a project for which we commissioned poets to write original works based on the archives’ holdings. The National Archives filmed the poets reading their poems at the headquarters in Washington, D.C. To read more about the project and to view related photographs and documents from the National Archives, visit the Prologue: Pieces of History blog.

Fall-Winter 2018 issue of American Poets