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History Personal

September 2020

In a poetry workshop I had with Thomas Lux, he said "All poems are ars poetica." I know Lux didn't mean that literally, but many poems are about poetry in some way. Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky said, "All of my poems are about history." I wonder how literally he meant us to take that statement.

History can mean the whole series of past events but those events are always connected with someone or something. We also had an issue about history that isn't directly personal, but it is difficult to separate our lives from the larger history around us.

Stanley Kunitz at age 95 became our tenth poet laureate in 2000. I have heard him read his poem " Halley's Comet," with the energy of that young boy who is thrilled and frightened on the rooftop. The poem takes us from the ground, up the stairs, onto the roof and as he calls his father, the reader rises into that starry sky. (Kunitz's father committed suicide before Stanley had the chance to know him.)

What I like about Kunitz's poem is that it mixes that historical appearance of the comet in 1910 with his personal history and also some of his family history. (Halley's comet will next appear in the night sky in the year 2062.)

For this month's prompt, select a historic event as the starting point for a poem. Do not write only about the event, but also on your personal history and your connection to it. Is there an event that triggers a personal history because of when it occurred? The history lesson here is personal.

Watch and listen to this video where Kunitz talks about history and his poetry. This Bill Moyers video was recorded at one of the Dodge Poetry Festivals in New Jersey where I heard him read several times.

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


Mexico City Earthquake 1985
If my dog must sleep in the basement, so do I.
Not hotel policy but she stays with me –
fresh cracks in ceiling, another aftershock
all night sirens on the street.
Drivers license US dollars dog leash
under my pillow. / 3 days masking cement dust
& stench of rot. / Engineer says
walk this wall, dog can search under hanging
chicken-wire & broken concrete –
how many collapsed floors on top. /
Workers sawing rebar with hacksaw blades
in bare hands. Someone calls ¡Silencio!
everyone stops, listens for a whisper,
a tap from under rubble.
Earth rides the waves a ship at sea.
Nothing’s safe. Rescuers died in aftershock. /
They’ll tear this hanging building down
if my dog doesn’t smell somebody alive –
garment factory 75 seamstresses
on every floor. The 1st dog drooped ears, almost
collapsed of dog grief – my dog
keeps searching. / Next site: a pancaked bank,
tunnel hacked thru parking garage,
in the back car-window over seats & out
the windshield – following my dog by flashlight
beam, colored scraps of fabric paper plastic
compressed in concrete.
My dog stops. A man. Dog’s breath
lifts the hair on his forehead. So many distant,
invisible dead, at last my dog
makes contact – tail-wag low and slow – Taps.

Taylor Graham


It was July 16, 1969. Millions hovered
in late evening around televisions, silent.
And then a voice. The Eagle has landed.
The nation breathed a collective sigh
that could have brewed a tsunami
and then erupted into smiles, murmurs,
shouts and tears. Some viewers broke
into dance, others prayed, and the president
declared the heavens a part of man’s world

as a sixteen-year-old flipped channels on her transistor
radio. This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.
Amidst celebration and static, she dreams of another
world, one where her hero would land, the planets would exhale
and love would steer moons, galaxies, and stars.

Jo Taylor


There is nothing so special about working in an office
on the 5th floor of the Chanin building in midtown
Manhattan, though the art deco structure, when you
can look at it without seeing the familiar, and it is not
easy to recognize beauty when it blends into your every
day, poses an exception to the other blank-faced towers.
There is nothing so special about your work: you are
an assistant, an editorial assistant, which translates
your good college degree into an opportunity to Xerox
and show small articles to the editor who will never
publish them. The magazine focuses on personal
finance, and you have little to none of that.
Your 8 percent raise causes your kind father to mutter,
“8 percent of nothing is still nothing,” and you know
he doesn’t mean it meanly, because truth is the best
defense for mean. There is nothing special about
the room you rent in the 92nd Street Y, where great
literary events happen in an auditorium, but you have
no more access to them than any other aspiring
writer in the place your friends call, the center of
the universe. At this moment, that assessment seems
true, though the universe will change on the day you
gather by a radio – yes, a radio – at work and listen
to the broadcast of the Space Shuttle Challenger enter
the firmament, only to break apart 73 seconds into
the flight. Later you and everyone else would learn
about O-rings and pre-flight conditions and mourn
the astronauts, including the first teacher in space,
a “payload specialist” and you thought about your math
teacher, Mrs. Eklund, who taught you algebra, geometry
and how to work hard. You remember the small, white
room where you and the other assistants gathered.
You would think about Christa McAuliffe’s students
watching and not understanding and then
understanding. It is not easy to recognize beauty
when it blends into your every day, the beauty of
courage, of exploration, of willing yourself into
the stars, all of those Greek and Roman goddesses
and heroines catasterized, rewarded, made immortal.
It was your father’s 69th birthday and precisely six
months later he would die just after midnight of
a heart attack, and you remember the phone call from
home and the small garden apartment you shared with
a small family of mice, and the world, which had seemed
to be expanding, now seemed to be contracting –
the universe, at some moments, clearly not our friend.

Patty Seyburn


Each generation has its War
Or so they say
My father was in uniform
In 1943, when I was born

Somewhere in the attic
I still have his sergeant stripes
His Army Air Corps patch
His M.P.'s black armband

He and Mom survived that war
Without a scratch
Unless you count the marriage,
Which had died, before
The Japanese surrendered

When it came my turn
We were sending troops to Vietnam
I chose the war on poverty, instead
Became a VISTA Volunteer
With my new wife

Like my parents,
We survived our tour
Without a scratch ... except,
Two years later, we divorced

Frank Kelly


It was late summer, early morning
Students were back at school
People commuting or already at their desks
It was still warm but not too warm
Clear, beautiful blue skies overhead

I was wearing a black top and sandals
and a leopard print skirt
I remember the skirt because
I never wore it again

We drove in together
Parked on Houston
You would walk up to Broadway
And I’d hop a train headed uptown

but not before
We heard the sound
of a plane overhead

You heard it first of course
and you noticed
How low the plane was flying
You notice everything

We were looking up
Holding hands
We began walking quickly
Almost running
Following the plane

You were insistent
that something wasn’t right
I chalked it up to your glass half empty nature
I plodded along in my heels
We tracked it until we could not

It disappeared behind some buildings
And then it disappeared

Then came the smoke
And we knew
the plane had crashed

Only I thought it was an accident
a terrible, horrible accident
But you didn’t
you thought it was something else
And you were right

We parted ways
Each heading in our own direction
You running to your office
and I to mine

I recall sitting on the train
Wanting to tell someone
What we’d just witnessed
But what would I say?
I think I just saw a plane hit the Trade Towers

Perhaps I should have
But I didn’t

They say seeing is believing
but even that isn't always enough
Not when the mind and heart say it can't be

Later that day we’d meet up again
It was a long day
and a longer, almost silent ride home

I don’t recall working that day
but I recall seeing the smoke from my office
Smoke like a nuclear plume
Dark, thick and bulbous

Looking from Park downtown
the buildings always stood
Two incredible constants clear and visible
Within a few hours both were gone

Your view was even closer
Horribly closer
People were in those buildings
People who did the unthinkable
Choosing to perish one way
And not another

You saw them
You still see them
And so do I
because spouses share things
Good and bad

But we went home that day
Both of us
Home to our family
And that too
is what I’ll always remember

That is the good
The good we share
From that very
Baddest of days

Terri J. Guttilla


“The President’s been shot!”
The pot-bellied old man who owned
the washateria walked into the room,
a dazed expression on his face; I was
the only one there that Friday afternoon,
having hauled my clothes, tied up in a bag,
down the hill from my room in an
off-campus basement shared with three others.
He went into a small office, turned on a radio,
and we listened to reports from Dallas while
the washer thumped and groaned.

I had awakened from the dream of youth
a few years before, had pondered my fate
when Khrushchev pointed from the cover of
Time magazine, a nuclear cloud behind him:
“We Will Bury You!” Had thought of my future
before he blinked and withdrew the missiles.

Yet things always returned to normal,
summers buzzing hot in fields, winter snows
piling up on roofs, boots, ear-muffs, keeping me
warm trudging back-and forth to work and
junior college, Christmases with brothers, sisters,
children, Sunday meals: a bubble on a moving wave.

But the president was dead. Time as an ever-present
now fell apart, its shards flying outward to slice the
future into tortured fragments, cutting the ligaments
that held us all together, careening forward year after
year, filling the facets of life with lethal fallout.

The broadcast over, I sat in front of the dryer watching
as the clothes went round, and round, and round.

Robert Miller


I had just put my civics book back in my desk,
When the principal came over the intercom
To announce that Kennedy had been shot.
She then called for the whole school to join her in silent prayer.

Our own nun in front of the classroom started crying,
Reaching up her sleeve for her hanky.
Around me, kids gasped and moaned,
A few girls even cried,
Because, as our teacher sobbed,
Not only was the young President dead,
The young Catholic President was dead.

I guess I had a failure of imagination,
As I do when bad things happen to other people,
Because I don’t remember any particular feeling coming over me.
Even on the bus ride home,
While kids sat in their seats whimpering and whispering,
I stared out the window at our cold grey town.

It was only when I walked into my house,
And saw my mother lying in the dark on our couch,
Did I feel anything.
She was exhausted from the weekly radiation treatment
That was part of her mastectomy protocol.
What I remember most about the day Kennedy died,

Is the smell of burning flesh.

Ron Yazinski


Step right this way!
See with your own eyes where most men shy away!
Your future is now!
Called the raconteur, his barker’s baritone glowing
as Thomas Edison, the djinn of direct current, declared,
"...alternating currents kill!"
which is how he made those corpses of horses
that he stacked against Nikola Tesla,
who was more concerned with the making than the marketing.  

Their mutual rancor denied them both the Nobel Peace Prize. 
While Edison surged on to harness electricity
and enough investors to keep him both rich and relevant,
Tesla, impoverished in the grind 
between potentials and paydays,
died alone, with pigeons as partners.

I struggle to find much worth weaving
into my own life from Edison’s example,
aside from his acumen for parting men from their money
and his ability to recognize the gift of failing well.
Tesla draws me in with ease,
even in his rigidities and judgements he kept growing,
reshaping, refining and resubmitting himself
to the truths that electrify each pulsing heartbeat.

"Our virtues and our failings are inseparable,
like force and matter. When they separate,
man is no more..."
I hear Nikola whispering in his wireless waves,
urging me to be a receptor when lightning strikes,
to dare to flourish in the flux of the moon,
to defy the urge to pin identity in a calcified moment,
that dropped rock whose ripples are already fading from the water
I’m walking on into a deeper doing through dreaming out loud.  

Jason Imanuel


In 1969 the TV news was
head counts and body bags.
I was twelve when I made the connection:
shots plus falling bodies plus body bags lined up
equals death- no John Wayne movie.
Horrified at my stupidity and the truth,
I didn't watch the news anymore.
I had heard the warrior scream.

In 1996 I walked the beach,
hundreds of lady bugs hatched too soon
lay dead and dying strewn in the sand.
An accident of nature and tiny Seurat points
of black and red ground under my feet
no matter how careful my step.

In 1994 I became my husband's enemy.
Jungle survival and that piece of his soul
he left in Vietnam returned. His pain
always clear, always unspoken except in senseless rages.
No enemy
Enemy on every face
My face
Intimacy always a battle, sometimes
speaking to me like a wartime whore.
It wasn't far from there.
To save myself from senseless slaughter,
from the accident of our natures,
I let go of what I thought we had
but my hands were empty
and the warrior screamed.

Cheryl Soback


"The people are not satisfied
with the resulting government response
men died as a consequence of misplaced pride.."
i heard on the radio
i thought of Russian sailors
trying to protect what we call a backward country
of there preparedness though not in war
and i looked to my father,
a child of the cold war era,
and wondered if he was still caught up
in an anti-Communist mindset
wondered if my mother still sought shelter
when she heard sirens
i remembered doing the same
as a child, in a half way point
only i dived for shelter in concrete halls,
running from storms
and not men.

Brandi Semler


u.s. paratroopers enter war
read the headlines.
words written a lifetime ago
it seemed.
i watched the sun dance along
the huge silver wings that
was sailing high above the rice paddies
and jungle below.
wings of mercy, that would carry me home,
the war was over for me.
pinned to my chest, beneath a row of ribbons,
were the small silver wings
paratroopers so proudly wear. fightin'
wings, blood wings we called them.
a nurse with blue eyes puts a pillow
under my head, she's air force
i see the wings on her uniform, angel wings.
i drift off to sleep as the medication
takes effect. dreaming of wings.
butterflies, bluebirds, baby chickens
on the farm. suddenly i awake to
a sober truth. what do i tell the little boy
whose daddy saved my life
when i hand him his father's wings?

Ray Cutshaw