poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

About this poet

Ralph Burns was born in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1949, and received an MFA from the University of Montana. He has published six books of poems: Ghost Notes (Oberlin College Press, 2001), winner of the Field Poetry Prize; Swamp Candles (1996); Mozart's Starling (1990); Any Given Day (1985); Windy Tuesday Nights (1984); and US (1983).

About his work, the poet Mark Jarman has said, "If Albert Camus wanted to know what was American in our poetry right now, what showed the breadth of our language and the honesty of its utterance, what was the best of American langue et parole, I'd show him Ralph Burns's poems."

Burns has published in many magazines including The Atlantic, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, and Field. He has won a number of awards including the Iowa Poetry Prize, the Great Lakes Colleges Award for the Best First Book in Poetry, and received two fellowships in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts.

He edited Crazyhorse and was a professor of creative writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He currently resides in Fair Lawn, New Jersey.



Flap, flap went the mind of the bird
Who flew out of my grandmother's attic
Like heat in the creases
Where air used to be.  One week
Of summer was all that house
Could take of my brother and me.

			Years later,
After she died, someone, my aunt I
Think, arranged for her to be driven
Back to Kingfisher, Oklahoma for the
Funeral.  It was raining, the mortician
Hadn't arrived yet, so the driver
Left her there --

My grandmother, unembalmed, in darkness,

In the month of the Green Corn Ceremony.
But she wasn't Cherokee, she hated Indians.
Her story was only deep, irregular
Wing-beats of the heart.

Down dropped a huge bright-colored
Night-bird with large crested head,
Which, when raised, gave
The appearance of being startled.

It skimmed a few puddles gorging
On insects and a lizard or two.
Then banked south for my
Grandmother's house, bright star.


Out out,
The bumblebee caught in the Pepsi
Bottle, one of twelve
In the wood crate cooking
In the shed

And Arthur Van Horn drawing
Bow and resin across
Catgut, sour linen under the fiddle, rosewood

Under the chin -- his new baby
Cries her first cry 
Of a thousand,
For she is Stella,
After the guitar,  

Because rain and tears
Are separate.


Those cuff links, that blowfish,
That stuff in the Hefty bag
Are trash of my people -- whose
Bonds are movable like my

Mobile grandmother idling
In the parking lot of La Quinta.
Whosoever speaks her name
Fast in the window brings forth



The ballpark all lit up
Did not exist until we turned
Her transistor on and some kid
Whacked a rock back, back . . .

It knocked three feathers
Off the mercury vapor, landed on corrugated
Tin so that the interdigitated
Interrupted their sleep but will

Not be entering this poem.
They can just go back to pressing
On the chest like sorrow and letting
The game sink in its yellow

Case with seventy-two holes
For the speaker and a carrying
Strap.  When the radio broke
I could not sling it like David

Because the strap broke too.
But that was long after sound
Commingling with a high brief whistle
Amid chatter and crack of the bat.

You wouldn't have known her,
I can hear my cousin say.
Her hair was all gray.
It used to be red

But gray is something I heard
Like the water-sucking clay.
But red is what she was
Who like a star revolved

Between three holes of light
Or hung like an eye-droop
In water-cooled air and a dark
Wind takes the summer.


There is the sound
	Brando makes under
		The wrought iron balcony

In New Orleans in summer
	And Stella sweats
		In her nightgown

And Desire runs
	Along its length
		But all you hear

Is Stanley -- everybody
	Knows -- one word, two
		Syllables, and even the space

Between the stars is awestruck
	That a man can feel such
		Stubborn, stupid language

Crawl out of his brain,
	Into his mouth, and scrape
		The ceiling of heaven --

Stella -- you are beyond,
	Stella -- knock, knock.
		I tap the limousine glass

Like an ape, like Stanley
	Kowalski interdicting silence.
		Stella -- the lights come on

In rooms 3 and 12, a hot
	Humid air turns to pink smoke
		Against the cool adobe wall.

From Swamp Candles, by Ralph Burns, published by University of Iowa Press. Copyright © 1996 by Ralph Burns. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

From Swamp Candles, by Ralph Burns, published by University of Iowa Press. Copyright © 1996 by Ralph Burns. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Ralph Burns

Ralph Burns

Ralph Burns was born in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1949.

by this poet

He continues to ponder
	And his wife moves next to him.
She looks.  They look at themselves 
	Looking through the fog.
She has a meeting she says in about
	Thirty minutes, he has
Something too.  But still she has
	Just stepped out of the bath
And a single drop of water
	Has curved along her breast
Down her
Two or more strands twisted together,
Oxides and baser salts, admixture
Of carbon, metal of lash and scourge,
Strung like a virus, barbed intervals,

Stapled by hand to bois d'arc poles,
Woven by machine, "devil's rope"
Of vast interior plains,
Of meadows bruised by their own

Amplitude, barbed wire of a
A man staring at a small lake sees
His father cast light line out over
The willows.  He's forgotten his 
Father has been dead for two years
And the lake is where a blue fog
Rolls, and the sky could be, if it
Were black or blue or white,
The backdrop of all attention.

He wades out to join the father,