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Poets Online Archive


February 2023 - Issue #305

Space is location, physical space, and physical geography. But "place" is what gives a space meaning, a “personality” and a connection to a cultural or personal identity. It is the culturally ascribed meaning given to a space

I have participated in several workshops that focused on the poetry of place. Usually, we were writing about a particular place and focused on the details and sensory descriptions. The three components of place are location, locale, and a sense of place. In writing about a place this month, a sense of place is our primary concern. That is the emotions someone attaches to an area based on their experiences. 

For this call for submissions, I thought of Exit 13 poetry magazine which is a small publication focused on travel, geography and places where we live, work, and explore. 

This theme is one of the oldest in poetry. Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s poems about farms and farming, Dante’s Inferno, Wordsworth's poems of the English Lake District, T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, Elizabeth’s Bishop’s Nova Scotia, Robert Hass’s California, and the southern New Jersey poems of Stephen Dunn of some of the many examples of poets who brought place into their poetry. I found a poetry atlas online that puts poems on the map, literally. 

What makes this writing prompt different is that we want you to write about a place where what makes it that place is removed from it. It is a process of subtraction that can make us reexamine how the place is defined.

This month we are using a poem by Margaret R. Sáraco from her new collection If There Is No Wind. In fact, the book's title itself suggests that kind of subtraction. In her poem, "Autumnal Stroll," we know immediately that this space lacks what makes it a place.

the playground, austere
in darkness, out of
place without children,

A playground without children still has all of the equipment but is not a playground in the way that we connect to it emotionally.

A school without students is just a building. The process of the subtraction can be removing people or objects. Take all the plants from a greenhouse. Remove all the food from the kitchen. Enter a library without books. A bedroom without a bed.  

Does this mean that the place is empty and lonely? A beach in the off-season or covered with snow and without beachgoers can be ideal for some people. In Sáraco's poem, the empty playground is ultimately enjoyable. 

The time of day or the season can literally subtract people from places. In "February Evening in New York" by Denise Levertov, it is the usually busy city emptied. 

As the stores close, a winter light
opens air to iris blue,
glint of frost through the smoke
grains of mica, salt of the sidewalk.

As the buildings close, released autonomous 
feet pattern the streets
in hurry and stroll; balloon heads
drift and dive above them; the bodies   
aren't really there.

Place can be applied at any scale - a small room or a landscape that stretches to the horizon.

Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar” creates a new place by placing an object to a space where it doesn't quite belong.

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.

For our January issue, we asked for poems about places where what gives them an emotional sense has been removed. Though the place might become only a space, it can also become a new place.

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


The empty train car moving through Time.
An Einstein thought experiment -

train without passengers
Time without moving
my face in the window
isn't really there

- no one in the dark stations
to observe me moving into the past
or is it the future?

Lily Hayashi

(East Newton Street, Boston)

I pass it every day on my walk from Back Bay
to the medical center--this tiny city park the size
of a brownstone at the end of a row of brownstones,
like a missing tooth at the end of a row of teeth,
filled with topiary, a crushed-rock pathway, a stone bench,
in this neighborhood with a large gay community.

And the name, emblazoned on a wrought iron gate–
Hiscock–gets me thinking: Could this be an anonymous
memorial to a lover who died young, perhaps of AIDS,
a sort of ode to his youth and beauty and the fullness
of his maleness? I imagine an older, grieving, dapper
gay man of means deciding to buy this plot, lovingly

planting it, tending it, then naming the park after
the thing itself--the younger man’s perfectly torqued
tumescence, risen, swollen, exquisite and alive--
a shrine to the memory of it, to the shape of his lost
happiness, the warm pulsing place which he had loved
to worship, watch grow, take in, drinking in the love

of his ravishing lost-forever young lover. I imagine
all this, then I Goggle “Hiscock Park” just to see what
comes up. Not surprisingly, no such story. But the name
Hiscock, I read on my iPhone, was brought to England
after the Norman conquest in 1066. It’s a diminutive form
of the name Richard, a pet name, -cock being a medieval term of
endearment. Which is, I like to think, a not unrelated story.

Paul Hostovsky


When the parish collapsed, the church remained empty for 3 years.
It was purchased for a song - not even a hymn- a bargain sale.
The archdiocese was glad to be rid of it and the buyers intended

to remake it as a restaurant and bar that offered entertainment.
It's more of a coffee and tea cafe with a small food menu
and some local bands, open mics and a monthly poetry reading.

Stephen is the patron saint of bricklayers and stonemasons
and the humble church was built by Italian masons after WWII.
It is solid, and cool in summer and cold in winter.

Charged with blasphemy, Stephen denounced Jewish authorities
who were sitting in judgment and he was stoned to death
and was martyred and made a saint. When I tell this to 3 men

at the poetry reading, they joke that they have almost been
stoned to death themselves a few times. The image of the saint
looks down on us from the wall. It was not removed because

it would have damaged irreparably the image and the wall itself.
It shows him with martyr's crown, 3 stones, palm frond, and censer.
He is young, beardless man who, but for his tonsure and vestments,

might be reading tonight a poem with "A brief glimpse of bloodied hair."
Or an unintelligible prayer or singing a song that a band once played:
"Saint Stephen will remain, all he's lost he shall regain" laying claim

to this building - though I suppose not since Stephen said that God
does not live in a dwelling "made by human hands," and so this place,
without God, without Stephen, holds a joy it never knew before.

Pamela Milne
(The poem referenced is "The Feast of Stephen" by Anthony Hecht and the song is "Saint Stephen" by The Grateful Dead.)


Without the clickety-clack of the Wild Mouse
plunging us kids into free fall mayhem,
candy apples awaiting our mother’s opening bite,
or BB guns chained to the counter,
empty of shot, no longer bruising targets

lifeguards gone other places for the evening,
barkers, accepting the emptiness of stalls, silenced,
circle their fingers over Old Fashioned rims,
bumper car wranglers having wiped down seats
leave their charging brutes in a line

I dream of waiting by locked gate,
inhaling, succumbing to the Sound’s salt air
rooting tickets out of my jeans pockets,
grasping these talismans, absorbing their potential and
wishing closer the next sunrise, joyful again.

Rob Friedman


is another temporary space
not home as in youth
a passing room
like a college apartment
like her little studio we shared
employee housing for two years
the RV that never had a home
but wandered as I wandered
the radio playing here,
there and everywhere
and the nowhere that is now.
I look out the window -
there isn't even a sky.

Charles Michaels


This intense fear of empty spaces,
situations that do not pose any actual threat.
“Keno” is Greek for empty - the blank that lives in me.
Avoiding empty rooms, vast landscapes,
shortness of breath, sweating, shaking, dizziness
that might send me over a cliff into the void.
I am reaching out my hand to you.
Join me here and fill the space.

Katie Milburn


Before the Sun, Honolulu behind me, passing the monument,
alone on the beach, calm swells, empty waves,
I paddle out unobserved, diamonds before me, at peace,
I own the wave, the wave owns me, we are one.
You will never understand this moment.

Lianna Wright


The children’s park is empty—
the merry-go-round idle, swings mute,
a climbing tree at attention in deep
shade, a plastic slide breathless,
its tongue out, wood chips motionless,
unruffled by dusty shoes.

There’s a sign, bright and new,
proclaims the rules to all in
unambiguous prose: “No loitering.
Children under six must be accompanied.
No litter or glass of any kind allowed.
No running or boisterous behavior.
Closed at dusk. Park courtesy of the
Progressive Playground Association.”

A rogue breeze rustles pine needles,
squirrels chase one another up a trunk,
oak leaves flutter in the late fall sun,
a Chickadee perches, fleetingly, on
the ladder up the slide, and the merry-
go-round maintains its somber peace.

Rob Miller


I drove by the house the other day
The one we lived in 30 years
Raised our daughter
Built a life together

The house we found after
We had all but given up
On finding one we could afford —
Bogged down by student debt

A house that would become a home —
To one small cat, two dogs
A favored stop for migrant birds
Attracted by our garden

I couldn’t help but think about
The memories we made there:
Holidays and birthdays, graduations and retirements
Ordinary Sundays, filled with friends and neighbors

That Christmas we spent
Nailing decorations to bare studs
After I’d removed old lathe and plaster, but
Not yet installed new drywall

The Halloween you brought home a human skull
From the university — to place upon
The antique ice chest in the foyer,
The year my brother lived with us after his stroke

The new owner chopped down the silver maple
Ripped out the perennials you planted
Between the front porch and the sidewalk
Cluttered the place with foreign furniture

What remains, is nothing but a house
No different from the ones on either side
Our once special place … to us
Now, nothing more than ordinary space

Frank Kelly


One degree above zero
with a wind chill
of minus thirty-eight.

Swathed in layers
of down and wool,
we are mummies
in the tomb of our house,

so cozy
only yesterday
with its glowing tree
and toasty kitchen
where Christmas treats
baked in an oven
on overdrive.

Our cell phones beg
in vain for their chargers,
unable to answer
our frantic questions
about the outage.

My mom reads a novel
by candlelight. My father
cheats at Solitaire
with guidance
from a flashlight beam.
My little brother
throws the remote,
furious that the new TV
is comatose.

I wonder if the scrape
of the plows
will wake the people
who'll spend tonight
asleep on the street.

Susan Spaeth Cherry


I find the side gate wide open,
no one manning the kiosk.
No need to collect parking fees
or event tickets today,
with rain bouncing off pavement
and wind echoing off empty
angles of the concrete pit –
that rumble isn’t skateboards
but thunder.
No one else in sight; no one
throwing frisbees on the lawn.
No bleat of lambs from the sheep
pavilion pooled with rainwater.
My dog tugs on her leash,
leads me to a drift of dead leaves,
inspects it with her nose –
it must hold scent of dogs
who passed here before the storm.
At last she satisfies her curiosity
for what isn’t here anymore.
We keep on going – no fair-
weather walkers we. I tighten
my hood against windblown rain
as my dog lifts her nose
higher to catch news the wind
brings from miles away.

Taylor Graham


We left in mid-June
The furniture was gone
Just the window coverings remained
Those and an old Tiffany-style dining room light
that had been my mother-in-law’s – the same one
I’d eaten under when her son and I had first
begun dating
The attic was shed of our daughter’s
crib, changing table and rocking horse-
All locked away and disintegrated
over time, darkness and humidity
The floors were swept and polished
The sun streaming in
highlighting their glossy beauty
I looked around once more
saying goodbye to a house
that saw us grow and diminish
A child added on,
a beloved dad and grandpa
passing away
I opened the side door
and looked at the small grassy yard
where our first two beagles
patrolled the fenced perimeter
noses down, tails up
The moments I recalled
Did not cause me pain
because they were with me
still there- no wrapping
or unpacking needed
I guess it’s true
what they say about houses
I closed the door
and headed home

Terri J. Guttilla


That thing that makes
a place special never fades
as long as memory serves

But when time and tide
wash away all witnesses,
that place neutralizes. It is then

historians needn’t intervene,
for they only disrupt the process
of ashes and dust renewing once again.

Matt J. McGee


No bar staff.
No music.
No base-beat vibrations through the polished wooden floors.
No dancers.
No DJs.
No jostling for space at the deserted lit bar.

Empty plush sofas,
Tables all bare.
The mood-lighting's on
But there's nobody here.
Yet there are notes in the walls,
Silent beats in the floor
From the dancing and partying
That rolls on until dawn.

The mirrors on the wall
Reflect only me;
Vast empty spaces
Where dancers should be.
The air feels impatient,
Drink wants to be drunk,
To the rock and the roll,
To the trance and the funk.

The silence feels fragile,
In this calm before storm;
In hours, the doors open,
And in they will swarm,
Amped up and ready, with
Music in their veins
And I, all alone here,
Never knew all their names.

Robert Best


Far from the City centre ruckus
An unkillable chapel
grounded and half dead.
Quarried honey-colored
sandstone; marked by a mason
Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.
Chewable cobblestone crypt
chapel with brown broken wings
cuts cold wind
cusped arches violet
incised into stone

When winter comes,
a wounded candle wick.
Sweetest hymns burn hungry,

Not alone
earnest religious disappointment
I’ll sing a tired golden croon
Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.
Altars nod
to naught noses
underneath bagpipe
ribs that rise from the angel who
forgets the tune to find
an old woman closing her eyes
last prayer blink lies
like before a car crash
a recoil

In silver symposium hall
a boat full of believers
Five domes
stained lovers in a window
Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.
Like a revolver firing
in a storm
thinking with dry lips
drinking with talk too loud.
Rosslyn, wisdom catching
in her throat
Could crash
onto her side and still intact
we rehash

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

Sammi Dickson


The stillness
of the air
hanging over
the sad, overstuffed
reflects the
vibrating echoes
of overhead
fluorescent lights
recently darkened

while a wilted leaf
drops to the
faded carpet,
another potted plant
treated with neglect

reminds me
of the hours
of grief and
trauma and
fear and sadness

filling this room with
memories of
heartbreak and
desperation, another
therapy session ended

Roger Lawson


Grandma says they had a rainy winter,
And even last night, my first night home in a long, long time,
There was the sharp sound of water on the metal awnings
Above the sleeping porch windows
As I lay looking out at the big elm
Against the cloudy night sky. Lightning flashed,
And the little red bud tree came out of darkness.
Then the thunder. The neighbors’ puppy howled and hid
Under the back porch steps, over across the alley.

Today, we’re out in the country looking for the old cemetery
Where some of our people are buried.
Grandma thinks she knows. “Is it Oak Hill or Quaker Valley?
No, that’s not right. They put your uncle Jimmy over there.
Maybe it was over to Joplin or out to Lowell.”
Grandpa’s ninety and he’s driving, but he shouldn’t be.
He’s veered into a lot of ditches lately, so I’ve been told.
Grandma said, “You might as well shoot him
As tell him he cain’t drive.”

A bob-white quail skitters across the road;
Grandma points out a scissor-tail flycatcher, then a cardinal.
Grandpa’s elderly Oldsmobile wanders over to the left,
Across the faint center line. No one is coming from the other way,
So I stay silent and focus on the wild roses, jumbled like weeds
Along the old fences as we lurch over toward Shoal Creek.
It’s higher than usual, and the mad tangle of vegetation
Grows right down to the water’s edge,
And some of the trumpet vines dangle in.
Tiger lilies are everywhere, and a few white-faced cattle
Graze right up to the dense thickets of sumac and oak.

The road sort of peters out, and they forget about the graveyard.
Grandpa tells me they used to drive his Model T
Over to Black Jack Springs, somewhere around here,
And fill up their barrels with spring water.
Grandma tries to tell me
Just how good that spring water tasted.

Rose Anna Higashi


The ceiling, the floor,
The walls and
The sliding glass door,
The function of the framework
Immobile and strong
Stand blank, blind, and lifeless ...
The Without

The I,
The guts and the reason,
The soul
That brings life to the inside
If removed,
Reveals an empty shell ...
A Without without a within

Carl Kline