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March 1999

Old photographs can be powerful triggers for our memory. In Sharon Olds' poem "I Go Back to May 1937", a photograph of her parents at the start of their relationship, viewed through the eyes of the poet - omniscient through the passage of time - feels a desire to go back and tell them to reconsider their love. The thought is interesting, but Olds' resolution is even more so.

Select a photograph - your parents, relatives, a historic figure, old boyfriend or girlfriend, even yourself - and use it as a starting point. The photograph should appear, in some form, in the poem.

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


when I was a child there was a thing we did
every year at Christmas
and one year there was a picture of
us laughing, me in the stocking
and Grandpa smiling at his present...
me in an oversized stocking
and Grandma, looking off,
looking impatient, looking gone
it's eerie to see it now...
he and I looking so amused
in velvet and flannel
and she looking like she knew,
like she knew she was leaving,
like a cool wind across my life
and it was too sad to see
her looking like she knew we were blind
and that we were wasting her time
and I guess she was right but...
we were only children
laughing in velvet and flannel
I guess I'll hold on to that
and hope I don't lose sleep tonight
I guess I'll hold on to that
because I couldn't hold on to her

Brandi Semler


A square of sunlight now,
the high window
through which I watch
framed clouds traverse
my sky, individualized
by that focus, that frame
which isolates them
from the wide confusion.

Beside my desk, your photo -
eye caught in a wink,
smile playing with the left
corner of lips, dimple
in cheek almost there.

A rectangle of sun,
black and white,
glistens on my wall.

Mikal Lofgren


Those two rather longish front windows
to the left of the beveled glass doors
belonged to our flat on Grove Street.

Eight years old and dragging home
from 3rd grade drudgery
I would catch sight of her there -
the pulled-back curtain making
a veil for her forlorn face
which just cleared the sill.
Forgetting for a moment what
a miserable, trouble-making pest she was
my heart would leap up to hug her
before my feet even hit the vestibule.

Carole Reed


The old photos of yours from when you were married.
The wedding. Parties, Groups of friends and relatives.
Some with me and my sister.
They almost all have cutouts.
He is cut out.
Gone. Clipped with a blade.
It leaves a hole in the story
as it left a hole in our lives.
I always wanted to fill them in
if only with white paper
or maybe finding the negatives
and making them anew.
Not that it brings either of you back
or repairs the damages that were done.
As a boy, seeing these, I imagined
little paper dolls of him on the table
as you cut away looking up and wondering
where he could go now.

Chaz Michaels


Photographs don’t lie
but they don’t tell the truth either.
There are photographs of me as a child
that are of a time
that for me does not exist.
They could be photographs of some other boy
or the twin my mother thought she was having.

There are photographs of us together
that are from a time
that for us no longer exists.
They could be photographs of some other woman,
but they are not.
They don’t lie.
They don’t tell the truth.

Ken Ronkowitz


I see
A woman
in her twenties.
She stands on a rise
they call hogbacks
in that part of Colorado.
The image flickers
in shaky 8 millimeter.

I see
the pleated
red bandanna print
skirt circle her slim legs.
In the fashion of the fifties
the black bodice is fitted,
sleeveless, scoop necked,
waist cinched in
patent leather.

Pale arms cross
and she looks,
at what,
her round face framed
by  a mane of wavy hair
dark as the belt.
She has blue eyes.
I can’t see the color

but I know,
as I know her name
and where she was born.
The moment remains hers,
caught in that loop
of obsolete celluloid,
stored in its cardboard box.

Joan Reilly DeRosa