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October 2010

I heard Garrison Keillor read "Clara: In the Post Office" by Linda Hasselstromx recently on his Writer's Almanac program and I knew that I had read it myself once. It was from a book I bought back in 1987.

The poem surprised me then and it still surprises me.  That's always a compliment for a poem. In the poem, she redefines the word "feminist." Hasselstrom doesn't define with a definition, but, as we often do in life, she defines by example.

I think about all the words that might be used to define me - teacher, poet, writer, father, son, husband and others. For most, if not all of them, I would want to redefine the usual definition of those words because I don't think they quite fit me.

We asked for this prompt that you write a poem that redefines a word. You might choose a word that describes you but doesn't quite define you. You can also redefine a word that you'd assume a reader knows by now.

"Clara: In the Post Office" is from her book Roadkillx which appears to be out of print right now. That's too bad. So, I'm happy to give it another chance to be read this month.

There is more about this prompt and other prompts, poems and poets on the Poets Online blog.


We call it retirement.
The British call it redundant.

They define it as a state
where you, and your work,
are no longer considered necessary.

With three days left
at the end of what seems
an almost endless career,
I sit here,
looking blankly at the screen
of my office computer,
emptying my hard drive.

I’ve become unseen,

In the preparations for leaving,
it seems to me
that I‘d barely arrived –
only a brief few hours ago,
A brief twenty-five years.
Now, lo, to my surprise
It’s almost at an end.

And I sit here,
my boxes filled to leave,
becoming what I most feared –
what the British call

Christopher Bogart

The Panopticon

At Monticello, a dome room.
Octagonal walls, each with a circular window,
and the oculus at top, a window made of thick, blown glass.
To observe all.
Like a panopticon at a prison
built to observe without being observed.
Invisible omniscience,
over the slaves working the gardens,
walking to their beds on Mulberry Row.

Charles Michaels


How that word rushes into you: glittering verb
   meaning to fall, the down-beat

movement of release as if in a single
   breath, the without-letting-go—

So when you remember the tension still inside you
   when Koyoko Tabe at the piano

took the cadence inside of her, when her fingers
   became all impulse of towards,

and her body was not body but chord of nature,
   and you who sat between them,

the man and the woman in the audience
the two you knew so little of—

their breath became you, did it not,
   for that brief hour when the sonata

carried you, the flesh-thing was not about being male
or female, the nibbling mouse

of sex had no gender, her calf or his backside
   could soften with pleasure,

had the peril of happiness, you could slip
   into either one of them

like parting a fusuma, it was as if you were clay
   and somebody was fashioning you,

the spatulate fingers unraveling your brightness,
   ah, she and he consummating,

fallen darkness and diffused and fascinating,
   egg cell and spermatozoa, corpus

luteum pooling Rimbaud-like, synthesis
   of mad poet and drunken boat

unlocked and disconnected, of anti-matter
   and matter flagellating, palpitating;

little prisoner, how you suffered there,
   engorged, dumbstruck, and spluttering of God.

Leonore Wilson


Not some rare and beautiful gemstone
Even to the oyster,
a reminder of pain
that has been layered
in concentric circles
of pearlescent iridescence.
A refection of its shell home
changing color with the view.
A butterfly wing, a bubble,
a string of pain that he ripped
from your neck that night
and it all came apart.

Pamela Milne


Cracked, they whisper, cracked,
but she knows what she is. Cracked

is crispy goose skin ripped apart by hungry relatives.
Cracked is Ming thrown furious at a doorjamb.
Cracked is cobwebbed peerless windows, dirty little secrets
cottage-safe from trespassers, tearstained by years of rain

and star-shattered by evil little boys with rocks.
Cracked is Grade A. Small spoiled on the ground.
Cracked is pistachio, tender inside, blood-red out.
Cracked is baby Jesus with no arms under the tree gazing up at Mary
whose space is empty because she was too cracked

and had to be thrown out.
Cracked, they whisper, cracked,
but she know what she is -- torn,

Raggedy Ann torn, stuffing missing, tossed aside,
I-have-a-new-dolly torn, but oh no, no no,

not cracked,
not cracked,
not cracked.



The second coming has been and gone.
It was in the middle of the last century, over Japan,
That Jesus descended in a mushroom cloud
Of searing light and rushing wind,
And, three days later, in another cloud,
Gathered the holy chosen to him.

Those who wait for the rapture that has already been,
Are like the little boy lying in bed on an October morning,
Playing a video game of American soldiers
Storming a Pacific island,
When he could be with his great-grandpa
In the forest, picking mushrooms,
Learning which are safe, and which can kill.

Ron Yazinski

for Elihu Burritt, The Learned Blacksmith

Ten children in a poor New Britain family. You all
grew up hoeing weeds, darning socks, doing what needed
to be done. When the schoolmaster was set to punish
your classmate unjustly, you took the blame --
and 39 blows with the ferule. When your father
went into a decline; you stayed home to nurse him;
he died, you took a trade to feed your family,
and memorized Greek verbs while you worked the bellows
at the forge. Without a spare penny, you walked 120 miles
to Boston, then on to Worcester; between blacksmith-
hours, you studied Ethiopic, Swedish, Arabic, Sanskrit --
so many languages in the family of man. Still poor,
you sailed to England; in your cheap room in London,
you found a slave escaped from Baltimore -- cold, rheumy,
drenched to the bone. You gave him your good
overcoat and your other hat. You toured Skibereen
in famine, took ill yourself, sent word to Boston
begging food for the starving Irish. Abraham Lincoln
named you consular agent to Birmingham, but your pay
went to the hospital fund, so the seaman with a festering
ankle might survive to sail back home to New York.
You traveled two continents, trying to make peace.
Schleswig-Holstein; South against the North, a family
feud; the Crimea. What money you had went
for pamphlets and petitions. What profit in peace?
Now you’re dead, they call you philanthropist.
Philanthropy? You were just being a brother.

Taylor Graham