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Dark Places

February 2016

The past two months, I have lost four people from my life. Two were old enough that people would say they had a good, long life. Two were old but still young enough that everyone felt their,lives had been cut short.

Friends tell me that I am never without something to say. Choose your adjective depending on how that talkative person feels in your world - chatty, loquacious, garrulous, voluble, conversational, communicative. But often when someone I know dies, words fail me, and the closer I feel to that person, the greater the failure of words to come.

As poets or readers of poetry, we often turn to other poets' words for consolation.

A few years ago, Edward Hirsch published a book of poems called Gabriel: A Poem  about his adopted son who died at age 22 in 2011.

This was his “reckless boy” who had a troubled life. Hirsch said  “There’s something really unnatural about losing a child, and there’s something unnatural about having to write an elegy for your child, but I felt that I wanted people to know what he was like.”

I bought the book two years ago and have never been able to read more than a few pages at a time. The opening lines - "The funeral director opened the coffin / And there he was alone / From the waist up” - stopped me on first reading.

The poem consists of more than 700 three-line stanzas. It has a rushing feel without punctuation of momentum sometimes out of control. That is an odd form for an elegy which I generally think of as being as slow as some heavy organ music in a cathedral.

His poem is roughly chronological and begins with the happiness of the adoption and the energy of youth.

"With so much energy he was like a wound top,
He could almost fly a kite when there was no wind.
And then comes multiple diagnoses and the various/ Specialists who plagued us with help” and the ineffective drugs.

The population of his feelings
Could not be governed
By the authorities.
And finally, the looking back, the what-ifs and doubts.

Maybe we were too hard on him/ Maybe we were too soft. 

That God, which ever lives and loves,
One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves. 

I will not forgive you
Indifferent God
Until you give me back my son.

Hirsch's poem is too long - and probably too difficult - to use for this prompt, but we have no shortage of poems of lamentation and other topics that go into dark places to consider.

February is our coldest month in much of the Northern Hemisphere​ and no doubt the season is also driving this prompt for me.

"Darkness" by Lord Byron (George Gordon) opens with lines that have always seemed to explain that feeling of waking up in a dark place, even if the sun was shining. Whether that darkness comes from a loss or a darkness in ourselves. 

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,

Byron’s poem was literally inspired in part by a “year without a summer,” 1816, that was caused by the clouds of ash from the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. Many people interpreted it as the end of the world. Byron took this sense of apocalypse to express a pessimism about nature.

Turning the pages in a thick anthology, I also reread TS Eliot’s "East Coker." This meditation on mortality is the third section of his Four Quartets.

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur, and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

The Londoners of the poem seem to live in his Waste Land, a place landscaped by war.  They are forced to enter the darkness of the unlit underground stations to escape the nightly air raids.

A more modern poem by Stanley Kunitz that I have always been affected by is "The Portrait" which begins:

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.

For this February prompt, we go to dark places. Those places can be real and quite  literally dark, or imagined and dark in the many figurative ways we use that word. The darkness of night, of death, depression, lamentation and loss is different and the same. We don't want to go to these dark places, but, especially as writers, we do go there. Going there might not be a choice, but sometimes we put ourselves there.

Keep a light nearby and a hand on the wall for support and walk carefully.

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


I have become expert with boxes.
One with unopened shampoo and hand cream to the shelter.
Another with still good sweaters and coats, folded carefully,
for Goodwill.
The one with a pitcher and glasses
wrapped and packed with crumpled newspaper
to a cousin who might use them.
A nicked and scratched kitchen table
taken apart, crated up and shipped to a brother.
Some necklaces, rings and bracelets to be parceled out
to the family women.
Pictures divided and mailed to grandchildren.
A box of dishes to sit on a shelf,
too heavy with memories to be taken down and used.
Each move yields more boxes,
until there is just a reclining chair,
a small table with a wedding picture and clock radio
in a narrow room with a single bed.
And I begin to fold flat and put aside
more cardboard boxes.

Marvin Lurie


full moon hangs high
in a blue black sky
this cold february night

she endures an insatiable
thirst, a hunger
nothing can quell

she nods
struggles to stay awake
yearns for the light

slivers of sun slip
through thin slats in
the blinds, like tunnels

it's a silent dawn
only the sound of
shadows dancing

her cat sits nearby
their eyes lock
he knows it's her time

she knows it's one of his
he weeps as he watches
her turn to stone

Marie A. Mennuto-Rovello


You look like someone just squished your kitten
on purpose. Come sit down, what's wrong
with the world has always been wrong. It's you
who are changed now. The world is the same
as yesterday when it retired to a quiet corner
of its cage with your kitten, in love and immensely
shy, sighing low as it lipped a reticulate leaf
and gazed with a rapt and dumb tenderness. Now
you gaze off into space in sorrow and despair
at something no longer there, because something
that was always there and will always be there
is picking its teeth with the same leaf in a different
corner now. You used to say there is no evil, only
lack of love. You will say it's just semantics now
that nothing anyone can say means anything at all.

Paul Hostovsky


I showed D. the short video of G.
incoherently mumbling in his hospice bed
I watch it from time to time
and he wanted to know why.

From my throat: Because it reminds me of how much he suffered.
Echoing in my heart:..and how much I loved him.

It still catches me by surprise.

The love, I found in reserve,
drilled deep down
in that well, poets often speak of.

How much care and time
I could extend to a man
I had fallen out of love with
years before
and because of that
found a new definition of value
in me, in him, in us
more precious than two coins
needing each other to make fire.

Never knowing (do we ever?)
I believe G. mumbling:
the only thing that could save {him} was a miracle.

Tracy Tong


I used to be an amorous crow
climbing steps on my stairway to heaven,
nothing sacred but the path before me.
I used to be a dissonant crow
flying by just to run from authority-
maybe then I could escape to my solitude.
I used to be a perilous crow
writing words that don't mean anything at all,
but the words didn't promise to hold to that.
I used to be a tormented crow
with a word, a thought, a bite on my back,
flying anywhere but to the ending.
I used to be a melancholy crow
collecting tears for a rapturous requiem,
so at least I'd have something to cry about.
I used to be a silent crow
perfectly perched on a ruinous consequence,
looking down at the soul that I love the most.
I used to be a murder of crows, and
as time keeps killing possibilities
I dine on them, one by one by one,
this surprising feast, this trick of night-
I am, after all, still a crow.

Brian Cochran


You can never find the end of the rainbow.
Literally, scientifically,
you need to appreciate it
from where you are now.
The darkness is lifting,
as I go ‘round the mulberry bush,
so early in the morning.
Unlike the hospital that I am leaving,
the cemetery nearby escapes death.
No one dies there.
Despite what you have heard,
love does not have its reasons.
Perhaps today, like when I’m reading a poem,
I can willingly suspend disbelief,
my judgment lifting as a theater curtain,
the day playing out in three acts,
the third, once again, in darkness.

Kenneth Ronkowitz


A few key moments
Reside in my memory
Differently from the others.

Permanently preserved—
Perfectly preserved—
By the intensity of emotion
Of a single, tragic moment.
Chemicals, I suppose.
The same stuff that makes you fall down
And faint
When they knock on your door
At 2 a.m.
And a uniformed voice asks you if you're you.

Others reside deeply,
But vaguely...a hazy blur of emotional swirl
Of memory
And feeling.

I feel them in my gut, yes, but softly.
A strange blend of nausea and euphoria
That eats at me in a delicious way.

I savor these moments,
The beautiful ones.
I call them up into my mind
and feast on them sometimes.
Just "hang out" there,

Like the first time your hands cupped my face
And your lips touched mine.
Urgent and tender.
Long-awaited connection.
Like the look on your face
when you saw me hiding on that bunk bed.
Like the night after you said, "I will" and "I do."
I still feel the golden rope being carefully fastened
by trembling hands,
The hair swept aside from my longing neck.
Your lips finding me from behind
As I gulped and sighed and burned with longing.

A little hand reached up to that same face
(Only older. Always getting older.)
And touched me.
And he whispered,
In the bedtime darkness of
once upon a time,
"Mama, you're my best lady."
I could live in that moment
Like the bass line of that one William Ackerman song.
Breathing, touching, living—
just barely—
And praise.
And worship.

But life isn't all good moments
And they're not all clothed in hazy mist
and smiles.
Some haunt me by stubbornly refusing to be hazy.
By being sharp and clear and focused and terrible.
That pink beach ball of a baby
Floating face down in sparkling blue.
The cry of our sweet Dog Mom,
Bursting through the door,
Screaming that Little had been struck by a car.

And now, your face.
That look on your face.
Disbelief and grief.
("Oh God, what's wrong?")
First-morning news that there was a message
(Has any middle-of-the-night message
Ever been good
In the history of the world?)

Grief and disbelief.
Your eyes meet mine.
Your face is scaring me.
(And those damned chemicals have
Burned it into my brain

"There's a message from Rico
(You are shaking and visibly shaken.)
That there's been an accident
(Your voice is strange. Weak. Halting.)
And apparently Mark Rodriguez has been killed."

Hands on my face again,
This time my own.

I place my trembling hands over my mouth
As the guttural cries of "What?" and "No!"
Burst out anyway.
I've lost control of my body.
If I weren't on my bed I know I'd be falling.
The pain in my chest has climbed to my throat
And I think I may throw up.
The pit in my stomach grows
And I try to make sense of the words
But I can't hear you
And I can't breathe
And these damned tears blur the texts
That were sent my way as I slumbered.

Yes, some moments are burned into my memory
Like scars on nail-pierced hands.
How do we do this, Lord?
You, who lost a son,
Who gave a Son,
How do we unclench the fist
And let him go?

Laurie Sitterding


Resilience is not returning
to the same shape you were
before the bomb went off.

It's dragging your lifeless legs
across the road by your elbows.
When your hands won't work
and you cannot even reach for help
if there were any, but there isn't
so you're spared that indignity.

Healing is not the same as reparation.
Some parts may remain missing.

To return again and again to the scene
of dismemberment to remember your self
the way you were or might have been

If the bomb had not gone off.
If you'd taken a different route.
If you'd never been born.
If you'd died dragging your broken body
across the road leaving parts of yourself behind.
If there had only been an angel to carry you.

To return and see the road and your hands
on the steering wheel
and the color of the sky and the way it was
before it all went white and silent.

To let the tears run unimpressed by scars,
not because you're letting anything out
or anything in or anything go, but because
they belong here now forever like the sky
and your hands and your scars.

Because you remain in whatever way
you have found to exist.

That is resilience.

Anita Sanz


All I see is a door into dark, or what was
once a door, now jammed tight-shut
by the weight of floors ceilings windows
plumbing smashed apart mashed
together. The door between waking
and nightmare.
On the other side, the quake-dead.
Maybe also the quick,
buried under rubble, mouths stuffed
with words of prayer: Open
the door.
We can’t hear them, can’t reach
them. This door, jammed between lintel and
frame, blocks the way. If we pull
it loose, what’s left of building falls down
on top of us.
My dog sniffs a chink
where splintered wood lets scent
through. By flashlight we’re searching
into deeper dark, the secrets
earth buried as it shifted on its bed
cleaving daylight asunder.

Taylor Graham

(CIDP is a painful autoimmune disease that attacks the coating of nerve endings. It is treated by monthly infusions of replacement myelin sheath.)

Today would be a good day to keep my eyes closed.
Instead, I watch a nurse, as if she’s forging stigmata,
Stick a needle nineteen times in my adult daughter’s wrists,
Searching for a usable vein;
And my daughter,
Directing the prodding needle to a vessel
That might remain unscarred after years of treatments;
When at last there’s success,
I watch the nurse hang the IV from one of the crosses
That decorate my daughter’s back wall,
Funneling Christ’s mercy.

But after a few hours, the vein collapses,
Which necessitates further futile attempts;
Before a drive to the emergency room
Where the nurses call my daughter by her first name.
On the way home, with a new line intact in her wrist,
We pass a Catholic Church that has a statue of the Risen Christ in front of it,
His wounded palms raised in the air
As if he were a gymnast who had just vaulted off his cross and stuck a perfect landing.
And my daughter looks at Jesus and then at her bandaged hand and softly says,
“Maybe if I turn up the radio, I won’t hear myself cry.”

Ron Yazinski

I rise to make breakfast in the morning
My husband stirs; I leave him to his dreams.
Again I could not sleep; the coffee steams,
whistling to me of the beastly warning

When he’s off to work I can sit alone
and feel my insides scat and skate:
My little one, does he know his fate?
He cannot: yet he seems to groan

My day is weighted down with the fear
I will not test, what good will that do?
To know the horror has come true?
I’d rather have this doubt that tears

My child, for you I would be so tough
I’d gladly give my life for you
But luck’s tricks leave no binding clue
No more can I do, and it’s not enough

R. Bremner

I seem to have been born with a thought that has lodged in the bowels of my being compelled me like that wide-eyed mariner to repeat until I die the plea that no third party – however supposedly transcendent – is invoked rightly in matters of atonement. I can pardon you and you can pardon me and to hell with the Holy See, and all pretentious intervention. Books and records can never tell or feel or know what a living body has felt or had to undergo. It is patently wicked, furthermore, to pretend that one man’s death pays for the sum of men’s offenses. History wobbles in fine like a newborn duck over the pebbles of time. There can be no latter-day expiations for presumed crime – the presumed guilty are as dead as the presumed innocent; they lie together in eternity’s long night of dust. No peoples unto whatever generation might or must be held to account, nor should the children of the martyred attempt to hold to account – for we have no unbiased accounts, and were born clean as new fallen snow da capo al fine
Tomàs Deinhardt

For Tom and Henry

“I didn’t know that once around was all we had,”
I wrote in youth, but now I know it matters not
If late or soon we stop the wheel and crawl to bed.

“I don’t understand,” I hear you say, “he had a lot—
Children who cared, a job he loved, and me—
Why he took his life this way? We hardly fought.”

I cannot answer your grief or sore perplexity,
Nor speak the winter field, the blackened branch, the cool
That stalks my days and nights. To be, or not to be

Is always and forever there, a smirking fool.
Beauty beckons out of reach, beyond the bend:
The song of nightingale, the master’s dancing school.

Since knowledge of the time and place of our sure end
Is kept in secret, why then wait until the shrew
Takes us? Life is ours, is it not, to save or spend?

Why linger here, a drudge, a wisp, a bit of dew
On a late morning branch? I cannot link to some
Fantasy of ease, or sense of duty for the few.

I’m tired of waiting for an end, for the time to come
When all the petty interactions have a close—
When glances, nods, and onerous smiles are mum.

Is that so wrong? And the pretense that behind the rose
Of life lies a halo, a burning lake, a golden hall?
Fairy tales for those whose minds are in repose.

Life is here. Life is now. We breathe and die. That’s all.
Death’s life’s angel; without her no evolving road,
No change, no adaptation, no one to hear the call

Of mourning dove on dappled evenings, witness the clouds
Streaming the pale air of winter, sending their allure
To draw us upward to dream in their abode.

And you? I no longer know you, am not sure
If what we once had still exists: your beauty lined,
Your fancy drowned by all you hold dear and pure.

I know. You keep all together. “I’ve done no crime
To warrant such desertion!” Is life just duty and form?
Holding on, passing weeks, years, marking time?

“What of the children? Our grandchildren’s warm
Embrace? Love uncounted to fill our empty days?
We still much watch them, keep them still from harm!”

No, they live apart, long past our narrow ways.
We must not steal their fire to light our aging bark.
Silence. Silence. And the sunset’s fading rays.

I’ve put the wash away, scrubbed out the mark
On the rug made by the cat; nothing else to do
But stop this endless talk, and slip into the dark

Robert Miller