Poets Online Archive
What You Can Not Be
March 2008

This month we look at two poems that are similarly titled, and, on first reading, probably seem very similar in theme.

In  Molly Peacock's poem, "Why I Am Not A Buddhist" and Billy Collins' poem "Why I Could Never Be A Buddhist, we have poets trying to convince us that they couldn't be a Buddhist by telling us all their "flaws." For Peacock, her problem is desire. For Collins, it's being unable to empty himself.

For Peacock, the things that get in the way are houses, clothing, food, and she questions the basic Buddhist teaching that desire naturally leads to suffering.

The distractions for Collins are less "material" - a squirrel, the mirror, his feet, Catholic teachings from childhood - and he feels he cannot "empty the bowl" of his busy mind.

For our prompt, we looked at what we can not be. Can you be a teacher, soldier, politician, swinger of birches, or a husband?
Why can you not be satisfied, finished with a poem, yourself or faithful?

As many-faceted as you are, there are certainly more things you are not. A poem that starts in this approach of negation will often be one that tells, less overtly, what the person in the poem is.

Molly Peacock is the author of five books of poetry, including Cornucopia: New & Selected Poems. Among her other works are How To Read A Poem and Start A Poetry Circle and a memoir, Paradise, Piece By Piece.

Billy Collins is the author of many books of poetry, including She Was Just Seventeen (2006), The Trouble with Poetry (2005)and Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001). He was named U.S. Poet Laureate in 2001.

There's more information about this prompt and previous ones, and the opportunity to post your own comments about the prompts and poetry on the Poets Online Blog.


You keep telling me that we can
not be a couple, can
not be married, can
not stay together,so
I am moving forward with what I
can do now, do
my work well, make my own money
for my home where my children will come
and laugh again. On nights when they are away
I will cook dinner for myself until the nights when I
will have someone else to cook for. I will.
I will not enter the same gate, look for the old path,
hold the ties that have come undone,
try to stop the flow of the river. I can
not be that person.

Charles Michaels


My smooth-skinned daughter charms the postal guy.
He snaps her smile and they stand, heads together,
admiring the result. While I stand mute,
he trims it carefully and chats with her,
staples it to her passport application. To me, it’s
$75, made out to US State Department.

I remember how I studied in the mirror,
planned my smile – no frivolous grin, no teeth,
it wasn’t meant to charm,
just a pleasant stretching of the lips
to pull those downward sloping lines up into dimples,
not enough to hide my eyes among the crinkled lines
but just enough to smooth that furrowed forehead.
That was my plan. But my guy was efficient
and very clear: You’re not allowed to smile.
I didn’t; the photo in my passport
could be the mug shot of a serial killer.

I want to tell her time is short.
You think it’s who you are; you’re wrong.
I hold my tongue.

Kathy Nelson


I cannot be boxed
Symmetrical and planed sides
Berlin Walls are cruel

If I were the sky
I would be a cloud

If I were the earth
I would be a rock
Bathing in
The rush of
A waterfall

If I were a tree
I would be a willow
Soft lacy wanderings
Dreaming quietly
In whispering breezes
By water

If I were a place
I would be Sheffield
In Tasmania
Vibrant with murals
Of old lifetime

If I were a shop
I would be Berkelouw's
Berrima homestead
Alone in serene farmland
Graced with an
Intimate cafe
And a wonderful log fire
By an old armchair

If I were a garden
I would be
Mount Annan Botanic Garden
A healing place
Where forested boardwalks
Gently lead to sanctuaries
Of old songlines
And a sundial
On a hill
Waits for
Human shadows
To cast time

If I were a bread of life
I would wink
From the exotic worlds
Of chocolate

If I were to be a season
I would be Autumn
Mystical limbo
Raining in colour

If I were to be an element
I would be Water
Paradox of
A variable constant
Sometimes plains of blue
Leading to
Silken road horizons
Sometimes lapping charms
By those coastal sands
Of decision
Sometimes cleansing
Healing hands

But, I am none of those things
For now
For now
I am just
Some eerie etchings
On a white slate
Trying to drift
In a tiny bark
Through tai chi skies.

I cannot be tagged
Sticky, cramped in clawing words
Ink blots are magic

Gemma Wiseman


I am the square knot a boy scout has just learned to tie.
I am the knot tied by a thousand scouts
and cut by Alexander’s sword.
I am the knot in the Tibetan’s red prayer string
that represents the departed.
I am the knot that holds the broken shoe lace together
in Walt Whitman’s boot.
I am the knot in the tie pulled a little too tight
by the mother, dressing her child for the funeral.
I am among the small knot of people
who shade their eyes from the sun
to watch the circling hawk.
I am the knot in my father’s green Army Air Corps duffle bag,
full of presents from Japan.
I am the knotted handle of a child size cat-of-nine-tails
that my father picks up when he thinks I’ve been bad.
I am the knot in the whip that showed Christ’s blood
to the world.
I am the knot in the pouch of silver given to Judas.
I am the knot in the umbilical cord
wrapped around the neck of my baby brother.
I am the knot in my father’s throat
when the doctor comes through the waiting room door.
Fifty years later
I am still the knot of my unnamed brother
that so hardened our family tree.

Rocky Wilson


I play acted stage center from outside
the white wooden altar rail backed by red
velvet curtain.  Tightly pinching the thumb
and forefinger of each hand, I slowly
raised my arms, as unconsecrated hands
held aloft an invisible wafer.
"This is my Body,"  I whispered.  "Body."
"Body."  "Body."  echoed, circling clockwise
along the chapel's painted lapis walls,
feathered into imitation marble,
shouldered past the gouged and bleeding Stations
finally coming to rest at the feet
of the Virgin with the cobalt glass stare.

Lois Staas


Things were never the same after my parents told me they wanted me to become a sword swallower.  There we were, the entire family gathered around the aluminum pizza tray after graduation, sucking down anchovies, when my father made the announcement.  You have done nothing with your life, he said.  Your friend Lee is living on a farm and contributing to agriculture.  Your best friend Debby has mastered the trombone and moved to Syracuse. My enameled black daisy earrings glittered their glittery eyes.  It’s true.  All I had wanted to do for the rest of my life was to lie in bed, reading.  My parents had bought me a book – Sword Swallowing for Girls. It’s easy, my father said.  All you have to do is learn to relax your epiglottis.  Then we can buy you a sword.  Soon you will no longer notice the tang. The tomato red text glistened, promising blood.  Having no sword, I began to practice with what lay at hand – a potato peeler, an egg.  The parakeet stormed like a crazy thing as I kissed his turquoise beak and sent him caterwauling into the Amazon of my throat.  He returned shorn of his feathers and speaking Greek, the language of my ancestors.  I learned it is an easy thing to take what others give you into your mouth and return it to them, untasted.  Each night I open my throat to the night, and the night enters like a river.  On the river, a boat.  On the boat, a boy hammering gold and steel.

Mary Florio


On the road to Jericho,
a blind man asked for sight.

In New Jersey in mid-November,
I sit in an empty house,
echoes and whispers of children,
echoes and whispers of her body.
I sit in the kitchen,
and watch the snow fall.
In the background,
traffic and weather,
reports and predictions.

In the woods
the snowflakes blanket the evergreens,
some flow into the brook,
some float to the ground,
and mingle with forgotten leaves.

Inside, tears trickle
down the windowpane.

"What do you want of me?" Jesus asked.
"I want to see," the blind man replied.
"Receive your sight. Your faith has healed you."

Outside, I blink.
The snow touches my lashes,
and pools in my eyes.

Lee A.


"To be
the meditation teacher had said:
"One must be
some body
to be
no body
to gain
to know
the no self
that self
no self
There must have been
“What was she?”
the meditation student hesitated:  A
some body
striving to be
no body
or a
no body
looking for a way out
of the work of coming
to be
some body?
Once she had thought she was
in continuous possession of continuous
had been the same
from each instant
to the next through time,
but now
and here
she could not
recollect, remember
what it felt to feel
of self
She had lost
that feeling of security that each
was her
that it was she who
and that the lungs
which drew in the air,
the ever changing air, were always her
and always the same
even though from
the molecules and atoms that encompassed
the collision
of air and
and blood
were never
moving always.
She grabbed onto
her self
to be 
a cellular cohesion
of cells
flowing into
into cells.
It seemed to gather,
to hang,
to work.
Out of it, she  fashioned
a front,
a face
presentable to others as being
a body,
some body
more than merely
Still, she was haunted
by the fraud of it.
Always in fear of
to be
no body.
And the more she feared
being no body,
the more she became
no body
the more she became
no body,
all the while all the other
near her
becoming more and more
of some body-ness, of
bodies having
identifiable personhoods who did,
who were, who acted, who occupied
space and time
and who won
deference and respect by virtue
of positions that defined
but did not encompass and cage
within defined boundaries.
But all she could do
was be
no body
rattling at the bars
of her cage.

Lisbeth Jardine

["Look From Afar," Vladimir Vitkovsky]

I couldn’t be that lady sitting immobile
under the weight of a memorized score,
stretching out her arms as if to grasp hope
or faith. Her fingers fail, they’re stiff
in a death-grip, playing the same
somber keys between the ivory. Is she
imprisoned in her skirt? All that social
fabric. In the background, faceless
windows look down on a black-suited man –
is he her suitor? I couldn’t be that lady.
But perhaps her alter-sister-ego, palms
pressed to the upward surface of sounding-
board, who rises in love with the piano’s
possibility of song, its dream. See
how her feet no longer touch the ground.

Taylor Graham


I can’t be a shadow of my former self.
No one will recognize me.
A shadow made in the nuclear medicine department
Of a major hospital by injection of a radioactive dye
Reveals only outlines, not details.
A pair of Balinese puppets cast a shadow.
Good and evil fight.
No one wins.

My life is not that fight.
Friends/lovers know me for enjoying the space between battles,
The sunshine, the rain.
My heart remains, not a shadow.

Ellen Kaplan


"You are not your thoughts."    Meditation Class 

Out of the blue he said the words. The words that changed the way I think.
"You are not your thoughts." Simple enough, it seemed. He had been meditating for 30 years. He knew. He sat there in front of the class, humble, alert, white beard stark against the blue shirt. We sat in the circle that evening, the autumn sky already dark. "You are not your thoughts." (Silence) No one raised a hand. Did they all grasp his meaning, while my mind splashed furiously in a ripcurrent of thought? No. "You are not your thoughts." (Silence) If I am not my thoughts, then what am I? If I am not my thoughts, who could I be? I have spent a lifetime letting thoughts define me, coerce me, and restrain me. If I let them go, will I no longer be? If I give them up, where would they go? Would they drift to the breeze that washes into this room and out through the propped open door? From there, would they take on a life beyond me--my thoughts--riding the wind wherever it went? And then, when the wind dropped suddenly, would they fall? Would they slip back down to earth waiting for another mind? Were they, in fact, my thoughts to begin with? The class was now in silent meditation. I sat there, eyes closed, focused on the breath. We create our thoughts--by experience, memory, imagination, hope, fear, dream, response. Some are simply random. Meandering thoughts. The danger lies there, letting the thoughts define oneself. Those amazing stories we contrive, those thoughts confining us to this place. The place we create. Our world. Thoughts slip past. One by one, I let them go. The sea is calm now. In becoming our thoughts, we avoid this very moment, this self that is here. Now. This sweet self.  This self washed up on the shore. 

Mary Kendall


To, to be must be added
Those could and should and would,
What one would be.

When a guest at a Sunday dinner
The sullen adolescent smiled,
"A pun not a bun.
If I passed you a roll
Will you pass me a role;
A could that would be
What should be
If I accepted the roll."

My impossible role
Would be to unfold a bed roll
In my role as an abstract painter.
How sad for the walls of sleep
To be black on black
Or the points of light
The flashes
Of a detaching retina.

One says one could not
or should not
or long ago spoke I would not
Be one of those slaves of duty
But those olden phrases
Are minimalist slight lines.

No one asked me the question
Or gave me the time to think
When young
What would I, or should I or could I

Edward Halperin



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