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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.

poem

Mango Poem

Mother fetches the fruit from the mango grove 
       behind closed bamboo. 
       Rips its paper-leather cover during midday recess, 
before English class, describes their dance 
peaches plums cantaloupes before my first-world 
       eyes. When the sun blazed on the dust,

she let the mellifluous fluids 
       fall on her assignment books. 
Where the mangos were first planted, mother, 
an infant, hid under gravel 
swaddled by Lola, my grandmother, 
after my mother’s aunt and uncle 
were tied to the trunk 
       and stabbed 
by the Japanese. Mother and daughter living off 
       fallen mangos, the pits planted in darkness, 
       before I was born.

We left the Philippines 
       for California dodging 
U.S. Customs with the forbidden fruit, 
       thinking who’d deprive mother of her mangos. 
Head down, my father denies that we have perishable 
       foods, waving passports in the still air, 
motioning for us 
       to proceed towards the terminal. 
Behind a long line of travelers, 

my sisters surround mother 
like shoji screens as she hides the newspaper-covered 
       fruit between her legs. Mangos sleeping
in the hammock of her skirt, a brilliant batik 
       billowing from the motion 
of airline caddies pushing suitcases 
       on metal carts. 

We walk around mother 
       forming a crucifix where she was center. 
On the plane as we cross time zones, mom unwraps 
her ripe mangos, the ones from the tree Lola planted 
before she gave birth to my mother, 

the daughter that left home to be a nurse 
in the States, 
       who’d marry a Filipino navy man 
       and have three children of her own. Mother eating 
the fruit whose juices rain 
      over deserts and cornfields.

Regie Cabico
2014
poem

In a Legendary Light

I walk with simple people 
who wish me to believe that I am not an instant...

I lock the door and hear a knock. An angel peeks 
from the corner of a mirage... 
says my mother is the gardenia 

a nurse planted in her breast pocket 

My father's a secret gauze,  crinkling,  
the day I breathed...

I don't thank Fate, nor count my muses 
but give thanks to mathematics,
the number 7's breathless proportions.

When I was a model, I spoke as a model. 

When I was an actress, I spoke as a girl 
enamored by sunless rooms and yellow bars of spotlights.

(If the camera won't love you, who will?)

My nose was crooked like a long bridal veil
plink, plink, plink, I got married.

I knelt at the tabernacle of chaos.

plink plink, plink, I got married 
and mistook vodka for water. 
A gallon of sleeping pills and I dream of Neptune. 

Playboy parts scattered like bones on glassy paper. 
A centerfold, the portable trap of my vulgar self.

I pretended to be a baby chick locked to what its eye first seizes.
a quiet blonde shell without a libretto

whose skirt flutters in wild pentameters&emdash;
a GI's obscene flag.

I consider myself a missionary to the suburbs, 
like McDonald's or a really long rope.

A dimestore magic trick in legendary light.

"May Day May Day" cries the tabloids,
the lack-luster pages of my weekly planner.

Housewives want to be me 
but I'm only a glass bottle poised in a publicity still.

I'm just a woman. Bewildering June.  
Norma Jean. Lightheaded and I have strange dreams.

Regie Cabico
2014
poem

The Conversation

Fireflies, Col. Glenn calls them—
banging the capsule’s wall to prove
their movement. This
will be the gesture Hollywood

claims as history—how space
dazzles even the seasoned airman,
maddens like Titania’s touch.
The movie version sees

what he sees: Florida yawn, Delta yawp,
a sunrise inside every hour,
lightning over the Indian Ocean.
Yet the operatic soundtrack, paced

in gilded silence, is not what he hears.
Wonder-ese is not the language
he speaks. For this,
we turn to the transcript. Pilot

to Cap Com; Cap Com to Pilot.
This is Friendship 7, going to manual.
Ah, Roger, Friendship 7.
Pilot, Texas Cap Com, Cape Canaveral.

Cap Coms chiming in from Canary,
Canton, Hawaii, Zanzibar, India,
Woomera: every visual check
on the gyros, inverter temp,

every correction to pitch and yaw,
fuel, oxygen, Ah, Roger, Ah, Over.
Say again your instructions please.
Over. Do you read? Standby.

You can be honest. This
is Godspeed-less, workaday chatter.
This is not what you’d save if
the National Archives were in flames.

You’d grab those proclamations.
You would cart the Magna.
You’d roll up the Constitution
like a favorite dorm-room Van Gogh,

and run. But I’ve got this one.
Because in these pages
my grandfather lives forever—
a Navy captain charged

with Glenn’s vitals, stretching
his stethoscope across 162 miles
and 18 tracking stations.
I hear him in each pressure check.

I see him biting his lip,
leaning toward a bank of dials
while the retropackage breaks, burns.
No one knows if the heat shield

will hold. Captain Pruett
goes unnamed. This
is how history claims us: 
not in the gesture of one but

in the conversation of many,
the talk that gets the job done.
We climb into the syrup-can capsule
to circle the Earth three times.

The miraculous swarm, we realize,
is condensation. The light 
will wink at us,
flake and ice of our own breath. 

Sandra Beasley
2014
poem

Catawba Cotton Mill, 1908

Propping his tripod, Hine remembers
     Childhood snowfall in Wisconsin,
            Flakes careening in prairie wind,

A red sleigh skimming a frozen lake,
     Curlicued breath-mist of two dappled drays.
            But this is a blizzard of cotton dust

From the looms & thirty thousand spindles,
     Gauze-air, whirlwind of innumerable floaters.
            The thermometer reads one hundred & three.

& for these seven ten-year-olds, childhood
     Is six ten-hour shifts & on the seventh day
            They rest, heads nodding over hymnbooks,

The drone of temperance & hellfire.
     But this is din, not drone, the spindles’
            Manic prayer wheels, the doffers

& the “little piecers,” skittering on hand & knee
     Beneath the clatter of the looms,
            Patrolling for clumps of cotton waste.

This is weaver’s cough and “mattress maker’s fever,”
     The mad percussive shivaree & glossolalia.
            But then, for this moment, it ceases.

The foremen have gathered their doffers
     & stilled the looms & spindles—
            Six boys, a lone girl. The foreman

Adjusts his derby, pointing them toward
     the cyclop-eye: Hine’s 5 x 7. They are ordered
            To look solemn, as if they could look

otherwise. Pulled slide, the flash pan
     Dusted with power, the sizzle as the room
            Erupts in light. Where the punctum?

Where the studium? To end your life
     At twenty-five or thirty. Missing fingers,
            Mangled hands, to walk somnambulant

To a sullen dormitory bunk, picking
     Cotton shavings from your hair,
          Mattress ticking spat onto a rude pine floor.

But Hine has set his flashpan in its case,
     Broken down his tripod. Fiat Lux.
            Hine gathers his work & faintly smiles

Adjusting his bowler & making a fist, as if
     To attest that in this foul rag & sweatshop,
            In this charnel house of ceaseless

Motion, his lens might render
     One fugitive instant of dignity. Light
            Is required, wrote Hine, light in floods.

David Wojahn
2014
poem

The Documents

The Documents are weeping, fading,
fearing the worst.

They are the messages
that keep coming.
They are promises, dreams, hymns,
i.o.u.’s. Proclamations.
Declarations.

They are word-flags.
Language
security blankets.

You could wrap yourself
in their giant pages.

They want to tell us who we are
or who we should want to be.

They are sails made of speech.

You could navigate
the vessel of your inner life
with their words propelling you along to the horizon.

The Documents tell their stories
over and over, even when you’re asleep,
even when the dark government temple
where they are entombed has shut
down for the night. The Documents never
tire, never shut down. They never expire.

They keep up their endless arguments,
hoping to be heard. Take heart, they insist.
Resist your worst impulses. Fight on,
even against invincible power. Listen
to what we have to tell you, they say, ancient,
faint, yet stronger than a wall ten miles thick.

Terence Winch
2014
poem

The Buttonhook

President Roosevelt, touring Ellis Island
in 1906, watched the people from steerage
line up for their six-second physical.

Might not, he wondered aloud, the ungloved handling 
of aliens who were ill infect the healthy?
Yet for years more it was done. I imagine

my grandmother, a girl in that Great Hall’s
polyglot, reverberating vault
more terrible than church, dazed by the stars

and stripes in the vast banner up in front
where the blessed ones had passed through. Then she did too,
to a room like a little chapel, where her mother 

might take Communion. A man in a blue cap
and a blue uniform—a doctor? a policeman?
(Papa would have known, but he had sailed

all alone before them and was waiting 
now in New York; yet wasn’t this New York?)—
a man in a blue cap reached for her mother. 

Without a word (didn’t he speak Italian?)  
he stuck one finger into her mother’s eye,
then turned its lid up with a buttonhook,

the long, curved thing for doing up your boots
when buttons were too many or too small.
You couldn’t be American if you were blind

or going to be blind. That much she understood.
She’d go to school, she’d learn to read and write
and teach her parents. The eye man reached to touch

her own face next; she figured she was ready.
She felt big, like that woman in the sea
holding up not a buttonhook but a torch.
Mary Jo Salter
2014
poem

Three Mathew Brady Photographs

1. Confederate Dead behind a Stone Wall at Fredericksburg, Virginia

Where the glass negative broke:
A silky, liquid black,
Like spilled scrivener’s ink,
Pools in the print’s margin.

                        : :

Mouth gone slack, eyes upward,
            Face glazed with blood, the man—
Lifeless, slumped, and tangled
            In a tarp—looks for God.

                        : :

Two leafless trees hold up
            A scratched sky’s leaden weight.
Autumn? Winter? No wind
            To sway the upright trees.

                        : :

Such a long exposure
To affix the fallen,
(Staged or happened upon,)
Abandoned to this ditch.

 

2. Wilderness, near Chancellorsville, Virginia

It is a slow process:
                               fallen and standing trees,
Propped, bent, a clutter of intersections—

All moss- and lichen-ridden,
                                             woodpecker pecked,
Bored by grubs, antler-scraped, bark rubbed free—

Hard to tell from the decay
                                           the living from the dead,
The dead from the almost dead—

A tree—
               horizontal across the creek,
Uprooted when a flash flood cut the cut-bank—

Still leaves, blossoms, bears fruit.
                                                    Without a buttress,
A long dead sycamore remains upright.

 

3. Burying the Confederate Dead at Fredericksburg, Virginia

Jesus said, Let the dead bury the dead.

Two caskets and five or six canvas-
Covered bodies wait beside a trench
Three black men have spent all day digging.

Given their druthers, they’d obey scripture.                       

Eric Pankey
2014
poem

In the Event

If you are sitting in an exit row please identify yourself to a crew member to allow for reseating if you lack the ability to read, speak, or understand the language, or the graphic form, or the ability to understand oral crew commands in the language specified.

You maybe understand this but will you understand how to comply with these instructions, the instructions of our crew, who are fully authorized, and all the illuminated signs posted throughout the cabin?  Please locate them now.

If you are sitting in an exit row and unlikely if needed to perform one or more of the applicable functions then you must de-select yourself because only you know, finally, if you lack sufficient mobility, strength, dexterity to reach, grasp, push, pull, turn, shove, lift out, hold, deposit nearby, maneuver over the seatbacks to the next row objects the size and weight of over-wing window door exits, remove, reach, maintain, balance, stabilize, exit, and assist others.

You may lack capacities, have conditions, or be otherwise compromised, for example if you are traveling with a pet container that contains a service animal or emotional support animal.

You may feel yourself supportive, and of course that’s good, super, if you can perform the functions: locate, recognize, comprehend, operate, assess, follow, stow, secure, pass expeditiously, deploy, select, but most of all you need to want to, and if you do not no reason need be given, because what reason is there to not want to help on this long flight should something go wrong, terribly, obviously, or subtly, as when you ask for water and no water arrives then you haven’t been heard, Wilbur is lost to the frise aileron, the flight cannot in your mind continue, I mean you cannot adjust the airflow, temperature, cargo storage space is limited to what it is, there’s no room for more.

But why isn’t there? says Orville. Space is infinite, the limits of the plane are inside us as we are inside nowhere luggage shifting around the bags inside bags making, in fact, more room: ‘clarification through expansion’ writes the soul in paraphrase, and even as you make a very short turn, you never feel the sensation of being thrown but find yourself facing where you started from. The objects on the ground seem to be moving faster though you perceive no change in the force of the wind on your face. You know then you are traveling with the wind, the capacity of the ordinary opening beyond belief.

If you put your hand to the window now you feel the deep cold out there where no one is no one wants to be or can be even and this we know before experience and the expertise of those who learn from manuals you’ve never held, never located, recognized, assessed, or followed.

You may think that to help anyone you must be with no one that requires your care you must be willing to do all of these things by yourself and without harming yourself to be able to reach up, sideways, and down.

But your condition is not the event of an evacuation, but rather the capacities you lack to be an emotional animal going somewhere a great distance, past every echelon, to a place without command; an elevation, a knowledge, a knack tuning the instrument to its final pitch & yaw. 

When you look out the window what do you see?  The plane is probably flying level. But should the pilot find himself unable, or you do, you can take control by reaching over and holding the yoke in such a manner that miniature wings in the indicator stay parallel with the artificial horizon. 

Pulling back will send you higher where feeling becomes pronounced. That’s okay, lift should be equal, the door won’t open even if you yank on it due to the pressure.

Soon enough however, but not too soon; dream flowers drawn by moving veils is power (though naught be fairer than a dying nebula).

With time you understand, there are stars in the universe cold enough to be touched by the human hand.

Joshua Weiner
2014
poem

Much Tattooed Sailor Aboard USS New Jersey

Squint a little, and that’s my husband
           in the photograph, the sailor on the left—
the one wearing a rose composed of ink
           and the Little Bo Peep who stands
before a tiny setting sun and the blur
           on his forearm which might be a boat—
while the sailor on the right is leaning in,
           his fingers touching the other man’s skin,
tracing what looks like the top of an anchor
           or the intricate hilt of a sword, perhaps
wiping blood from the artful laceration,
           in his other hand something crumpled,
his cap I think or a cloth to shine brass,
           lights on a bulkhead, fittings and fixtures,
because let’s not forget this picture
           must be posed, the men interrupted—
mops laid down, ropes left uncoiled, or else
           on a smoke break, Zippo and Lucky Strikes
put aside—the men shirtless on a deck,
           legs bent at beautiful angles,
a classical composition this contrast
           of bodies and dungarees, denim gone black
and their shoulders full of shadow—
           although on second thought how effortless
this scene, both of them gazing toward
           a half-seen tattoo so that we too lean in
trying to make out the design on the bicep,
           close enough we can almost smell the salt
of them and the oil of machinery,
           which is of course the point, as when in a poem
I call the cruiser’s engine a pulse inside my palm
           or describe my husband’s uniform,
ask him to repeat the litany of ships and billets,
           how one deployment he sliced himself
on a piece of pipe and how the cut refused
           to shut for months—Hold still, I tell him,
I need to get the exquisite outline of your scar.

Jehanne Dubrow
2014
poem

A Carpapalooza: An American Anthem

I can write about colonialism, Disney, riots 
& inoculations. Centuries of American history 
before me: Pocahontas' bust, Rosa Parks 
arrest records, Elvis Presley meeting Nixon 
but with only an hour to go before recording 
a poem at The National Archives, I'm in 
Starbucks obsessed and struggling 
with the queerest piece of literature 
in the Archives- Eat The Carp. The Bureau 
of Fisheries urges Americans to Eat The Carp. 
This resilient variety of fish that lolled the tea 
gardens of Japan & became the staple 
for gefilte to Jews is 43 million pounds strong 
at the turn of the 20th century. We were coaxed 
to eat carp croquettes, jelly and caviar. Before 
there were Mcnuggets, there was the Carp.
These over-sized gold fish that multiplied 
from Carolina to California with the force 
of horseless carriages pounding through 
our streams. How do I pay homage to this 
tenacious piece of protein that has fortified 
our American bellies. For weeks, I have labored 
over composing haikus to the Carp, Neruda-like 
odes to the Carp. Howl Allen Ginsberg-style 
to the Carp. Sketch a Jackson Pollock splatter 
of concrete poetry all over our marbled 
Carp-ital City to the Carp. I even wanted to write 
something personally ethnic like a Filipino riddle 
to the Carp. Ultimately, this is a Carpe Diem poem 
to the Carp. So I say to you live and roam free 
as the Carp. Seize the Carp! Roast the Carp 
till our appetites are lit into star spangled flames 
leading us into a new dawn of Omega 3's 
& prosperity. Oh Lord, give me Carp & the power 
to forge and be prolific as Carp. Though I can't pay 
my student loans & while I haven't found a husband 
on Plenty of Fish, Scruff, Tinder & OK Cupid. I am 
Ok Carp, Gung Ho Carp, Play The Carp, Watch me 
star in Les Carpelables, the musical: "Carp On High, 
Hear My Prayer..." Carplohoma:  "Carplohoma 
where the carp come sweeping through the plains..."   
Give me Carp crispy-fried in Crisco & well done! 
Oh Lord, serve me a sweltering sausage of Carp 
smeared with a smack of sriracha, a kiss of mayo 
& mustard on a whole wheat bun.

Regie Cabico
2014