October 4: “On the Eve of a Birthday”

As my Scotch, spared the water, blondly sloshes
About its tumbler, and gay manic flame
Is snapping in the fireplace, I grow youthful:
I realize that calendars aren’t truthful
And that for all of my grand unsuccesses
External causes are to blame.

And if at present somewhat destitute,
I plan to alter, prove myself more able,
And suavely stroll into the coming years
As into rooms with thick rugs, chandeliers,
And colorfully pyramided fruit
On linened lengths of table.

At times I fear the future won’t reward
My failures with sufficient compensation,
But dump me, aging, in a garret room
Appointed with twilit, slant-ceilinged gloom
And a lone bulb depending from a cord
Suggestive of self-strangulation.

Then, too, I have bad dreams, in one of which
A cowled, scythe-bearing figure beckons me.
Dark plains glow at his back: it seems I’ve died,
And my soul, weighed and judged, has qualified
For an extended, hyper-sultry hitch
Down in eternity.

Such fears and dreams, however, always pass.
And gazing from my window at the dark,
My drink in hand, I’m jauntily unbowed.
The sky’s tiered, windy galleries stream with cloud,
And higher still, the dazed stars thickly mass
In their long Ptolemaic arc.

What constellated powers, unkind or kind,
Sway me, what far preposterous ghosts of air?
Whoever they are, whatever our connection,
I toast them (toasting also my reflection),
Not minding that the words which come to mind
Make the toast less toast than prayer:

Here’s to the next year, to the best year yet;
To mixed joys, to my harum-scarum prime;
To auguries reliable and specious;
To times to come, such times being precious,
If only for the reason that they get
Shorter all the time.

— Timothy Steele

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September 17: “Against Nostalgia”

I supposed you have food there, too, but here it is summer
and we have asparagus, avocado, and stone fruit.
I am so happy.

The yard trees of my youth yield more fruit than we can handle.

I was going to bake chicken with cherries and apricot,
but already it is too hot. I can’t turn on the oven.

Sometimes I bite straight into plums.
Other times I slice them to serve on a platter.

Sometimes I want to move away
so I must remember everything I used to love: stone fruit and asparagus,
draughts of eucalyptus carried through the window on the wind.

— Camille T. Dungy

August 16: “The Day the Tree Fell Down”

crumbling. It died of old age,
I tell you, like a man. We wept.
We had worn our time upon it, put
our arms around to touch fingertips
and we measured ourselves, our feelings
on the years. We made our calculations
pay, then. Now, the fears, age,
daily mathematics. The tree held
the green. Birds, squirrels, coons
made memory there until the day it fell.
They got out. It groaned for twenty minutes.
I tell you, it sighed as it bent,
its branches catching the dull fall,
the soft turning in wet dissolution.
The body lay exposed: a gut of grubs,
a lust of hollowness. We wept,
as I say, more than it was called for.

— Jack LaZebnik

August 8: “Subject to Change”

A reflection on my students

They are so beautiful, and so very young
they seem almost to glitter with perfection,
these creatures that I briefly move among.

I never get to stay with them for long,
but even so, I view them with affection:
they are so beautiful, and so very young.

Poised or clumsy, placid or high-strung,
they’re expert in the art of introspection,
these creatures that I briefly move among—

And if their words don’t quite trip off the tongue
consistently, with just the right inflection,
they remain beautiful. And very young.

Still, I have to tell myself it’s wrong
to think of them as anything but fiction,
these creatures that I briefly move among—

Because, like me, they’re traveling headlong
in that familiar, vertical direction
that coarsens beautiful, blackmails young
the two delusions we all move among.

— Marilyn Taylor

June 13: “Strawberrying”

My hands are murder-red. Many a plump head
drops on the heap in the basket. Or, ripe
to bursting, they might be hearts, matching
the blackbird’s wing-fleck. Gripped to a reed
he shrieks his ko-ka-ree in the next field.
He’s left his peck in some juicy cheeks, when
at first blush and mostly white, they showed
streaks of sweetness to the marauder.

We’re picking near the shore, the morning
sunny, a slight wind moving rough-veined leaves
our hands rumple among. Fingers find by feel
the ready fruit in clusters. Here and there,
their squishy wounds. . . . Flesh was perfect
yesterday. . . . June was for gorging. . . .
sweet hearts young and firm before decay.

“Take only the biggest, and not too ripe,”
a mother calls to her girl and boy, barefoot
in the furrows. “Don’t step on any. Don’t
change rows. Don’t eat too many.” Mesmerized
by the largesse, the children squat and pull
and pick handfuls of rich scarlets, half
for the baskets, half for avid mouths.
Soon, whole faces are stained.

A crop this thick begs for plunder. Ripeness
wants to be ravished, as udders of cows when hard,
the blue-veined bags distended, ache to be stripped.
Hunkered in mud between the rows, sun burning
the backs of our necks, we grope for, and rip loose
soft nippled heads. If they bleed—too soft—
let them stay. Let them rot in the heat.

When, hidden away in a damp hollow under moldy
leaves, I come upon a clump of heart-shapes
once red, now spiderspit-gray, intact but empty,
still attached to their dead stems—
families smothered as at Pompeii—I rise
and stretch. I eat one more big ripe lopped
head. Red-handed, I leave the field.

— May Swenson

May 14: “Another Poem for Mothers”

Mother, I’m trying
to write
a poem to you—

which is how most
poems to mothers must
begin—or, What I’ve wanted
to say, Mother.
..but we
as children of mothers,
even when mothers ourselves,

cannot bear our poems
to them. Poems to
mothers make us feel

little again. How to describe
that world that mothers spin
and consume and trap

and love us in, that spreads
for years and men and miles?
Those particular hands that could

smooth anything: butter on bread,
cool sheets or weather. It’s
the wonder of them, good or bad,

those mother-hands that pet
and shape and slap,
that sew you together
the pieces of a better house
or life in which you’ll try
to live. Mother,

I’ve done no better
than the others, but for now,
here is your clever failure.

— Erin Belieu