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Negative Wishes

August 2014

Having read poems by Carl Sandburg in my elementary school English classes, I was not a fan. "Fog" was a cute little thing. I still recall a teacher using it to teach us personification.

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

His poem "Chicago" was in at least two anthologies in school and we read that too.
It begins:

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your
painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys...

Other than those painted women, it didn't interest me very much.

Then, in high school, I read "Mag" without knowing it was by Sandburg. It was bitter. It kind of shocked me. No curse words, but so cutting.

It was first published in his collection Chicago Poems (1916). This volume, along with Cornhuskers (1918) and Smoke and Steel (1920), established Sandburg's reputation as a talented free verse poet, known for portraying industrial America.

I suppose the obvious prompt from the poem is about marriage. Too obvious.

What struck me about the poem initially is the negative wishing. I was more used to reading poems where the wishes were for things in the future. Good things. Better things. But Sandburg is wishing to change the past. To undo what was done.

The prompt this time out was to write a poem about a negative wish (or wishes) - a wish to undo, wishes that change the past. Those are the wishes that pull you right back to the present and have you thinking about the future

For more on this prompt and others, visit the Poets Online blog.


All the time
I wasted waiting for life to happen,
As if there would be a perfect moment
When the stars aligned just so,
Or my sails swiftly caught the wind,
And the ivory moon was full.

I thought it would just happen.

All the time
I wasted loathing who I am:
Never good enough, smart enough,
Thin enough, clever enough,
And if that weren’t already enough,
I somehow felt that if I said it enough,
I really might be transformed,
Emerging a butterfly and not a moth.

I would be smarter, beautiful, wittier,
And I’d dance with agile grace.
At last it became quite apparent:
I would never be ‘enough’ for me.

All that time
I wasted wishing myself away.
If only I could undo all of that,
And take back time…and use it well.
I’d whisper a simple incantation
To my younger self:

You were enough, more than enough
In your very own way.

Mary Kendall


Woulda, coulda, shoulda.
They keep telling me not to think about those.
That's pretty easy for them to say.

("Who the hell is 'they' anyway?" you always asked me
When you didn't agree with what I was saying
But knew I was probably right.
I remember that about you,
Back before Shoulda came to visit
And stole you away.)

They is the people who knew better than me.
I wish to God I'd listened to them.
I wish to God that I'd listened to that white-coat man--
The first one--
When he told me to give you the medicine.

"Time is of the essence," he said
(Yeah, when is it not? Ever?)
And then he pushed me to say goodbye too soon.
I wasn't ready to say goodbye
So I got that second opinion.

Damn the second opinion.
That's what we get when we don't agree with what they are saying
But know that they are probably right.

Well, Second Opinion served his purpose,
And I got the answer I thought I wanted.
At the time.
Before Shoulda came to visit.

What he didn't tell me--
That second white-coat man--
Was that either way you die too soon
And either way I have to say goodbye.

I wish to God I'd just been brave and said,
"Yes sir, you give her that shot right away.
Don't waste any time now.
We need her to walk again.
We need her to talk again.
She won't want to live in a bed the rest of her days."

But I didn't.
And so I got my wish.
The one I wish to God I hadn't wished.

I didn't have to say goodbye too quick.

Now I have to say goodbye too slow.
Every damn day.
While you lie there and look at me with wild eyes
In sunken sockets
And wait for Shoulda to come calling.

Every damn day.

Laurie Sitterding


You arrived with papers.
But no puppy tail-wag or tongue-lick – you
were a pistol, cartridge in the chamber. No teeth
on skin! Four months old, not even
housebroken, you little wench. Barking
at anything within range of vision; you missed
nothing. On lead, a Mack truck to drag me
along wherever you wanted to go.
Don't I wish I'd sent you back? Or taken you
to the shelter, handed your leash off to a stranger?
Already you could decipher whole sentences,
infiltrate my mind. Negate my wishes.
For Valentine’s Day,
a biscuit in shape of a bone. Pirate
bones. However gently you took that biscuit,
afterwards you were grinning
those snappy love-bites. And that siren-
look in your eye: Take me with you, I’ll show
you the world! Already
you were becoming my world. How could I
ever get rid of you?

Taylor Graham

How I wish that you never grew up,
that you were still my darling five year old boy
who walked hand in hand down the path with me
and knew beyond doubt that his Dada was perfect.
Now you’re a college man, and it’s Dad not Dada,
with a fistful of flaws you pretend not to see
as you make your way in this world on your own
walking without me down paths I won’t know.
How I wish that you’d never grown up.

R. Bremner

(In memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman)

I am not your anesthesiologist.
I am not here to tell you
you won't remember a thing.
I am here to say:
While you are gone
you must be the one who
stands with an honest fist
and punches through the dry wall
to the space beyond.
Go in.
Past roots and bones
protruding from damp earth.
Ignore them.
Ignore anything that is not
reaching for light and go.
There is no time for unearthing
and you have no pockets.
Steal only wisps of air
that imitate your evolution.
Breathe in fair fortuity
and do not linger in the dark.
Any actor knows not to rest for long
in a channel promised for transfiguration.
Dear soul, you cannot sleep,
though rest is all you crave in your veins.
Kneeling, I would whisper to you:
wake up
wake up
wake up

Anita Sanz


I’m wishing now I’d read that book on adversity,
the one the blind mountain climber wrote
about climbing mountains and not looking back,
but looking straight ahead, or inward, or maybe
upward—I forget now where he said to look
in the face of adversity, because I only read the review
and the excerpt, and I don’t think that was enough
to see me through. Which is why I’m wishing now
I’d read that book on adversity when I had
the chance, now that I have no chance, no net, barely
a toehold and the ropes have gotten twisted
round my neck. I could use that book right about
now. And yet I wonder, even if I’d read the book
on adversity, would I have the wherewithal to look
where it said to look? Would I remember to do
what it said to do, to clinch salvation in a pinch? I think
not. I think there is no way to prepare for this. This is not
a test. Though some will pass with flying colors.
And for others falling will be a kind of flying.

Paul Hostovsky


Do not put out the welcome mat—
     don’t call and leave a word.

Don’t sit alone at home at night
     or mope in dungeon with the cat.

What’s done is done; all regret
     is but as gauze to fire.

Lust is what it was, just that,
     and soon we’ll heal, forget.

We made our bed in Chaucer’s May,
     delved at summer’s noon;

Raised a child in October's rain,
     Parted on a winter’s day.

Now the bitter years have blown,
     Browned and yellowed leaves,

Onward through a tattered world
     We seek our peace, alone.

Do not put out the welcome mat—
     don’t call and leave a word.

Don’t sit alone at home at night
     or mope in dungeon with the cat.

Robert Carroll Miller


I wish you were dead
I said to the somebody that once was You,
a man with passion and purpose.
Not the you, crumpled and transparent
as the candy wrappers
covering the sweets you offer to young children
to lure them to your beat up red Ford.
I know the shape of the back of your shaved head,
the back on your rough hands.
Your pimpled ass.
I hate you.
Why did the good and funny man kill himself I keep asking myself.
Nothing makes sense.
You still alive.
I wish you dead so many times.
You come back licking your lips
as I bite my own.
You smell of sugar and scotch,
scorn and sin. You, so dead.

Patty Joslyn


Tonight we had a staring contest with the moon
We stayed strong eyes wide and minds
Focused not distracted at all by
The extravagant costume changes or the silly faces we perceived
Eventually we watched as he cowered behind clouds and
Wept silently in defeat

We gazed at ubiquitous stars and talked about
Things that don't matter things we'll
Not be able to recall next week you were
Explaining the science of dying stars and
I wanted so badly to ask
If you thought very many stars had died since
The last time we were here
I didn't ask because I didn't want you to tell me they had
Or that things have changed this is
Not the same sky as last time we are
Not the same people as last time
Even the trees are slightly different
The leaves on the ground confirm it we can
Assume that some of them were devoted to branches
The last time we were here

Sad songs and their newly significant lyrics now regularly Dwell in my mind but
Tonight only four words from one song are playing on repeat
I'm not your star
I'm not your star
I'm not your star I'm
Not your star I'm
Star I've
Never felt so connected to any combination of words never felt so Disconnected from you
And from everything else
You told me how the universe made you feel
A calming sense of insignificance
I agreed that it's calming to feel insignificant
In relation to the universe but it was not calming
To feel insignificant to you

I saw a shooting star tonight and in that moment
I was not prepared to want anything that did not involve you but I
Couldn't stand to waste a wish for which you were so obviously unworthy so
I decided not to wish for anything at all
I saw a second shooting star tonight this one
Fell entirely too fast and I think I
Fell for it entirely too fast because
I missed it immediately
And immensely
I saw two shooting stars tonight that's
Two more than I'd previously seen
And likely
Two more than I'll ever see again

I think I should start saving wishes for the off chance
I ever do witness another shooting star which
Means I am forced to think about
What I want
I think maybe I would wish to not know you anymore
Maybe it will happen suddenly and bitterly or maybe we could Gradually drift apart I would never make the conscious decision to Abstain from your company
Losing you will feel more like breathing than breaking
You could be a leaf and I a September tree when you
Finally leap from my branches and
Descend imperceptibly into your new life when I get to
Let you down in ways that are far more beautiful far more
Kind than the ways in which you have let me down
When *you* understand what it's like to fall when I finally
Let you go
I will not notice your absence
And come December when I am
And bare
I will not specifically think of you I will
Not specifically blame you miss you long for you when it
Feels like something is missing

I would like to run into you at Sauced on Paseo in 10 years
We can notice one another at the end of the night
When we are both on our way to our cars you can
Say how good it is to see me and I can lie
Say I was just thinking of you
Only a few days prior
We can laugh awkwardly and
Say it's funny how life works out
We'd likely leave the conversation with
The unauthentic suggestion that we
Catch up soon but
I will never hear from you again never write about you cry for you be manipulated or
Disappointed by you never
Think of you again
And if I ever get to see another shooting star
I will be prepared with wishes that do not revolve around you

Ani Divine