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January 2014

You might have noticed, if you are a reader of poetry anthologies, that poems are often indexed by author, title and first lines, and that little groups of titles and first lines appear.

In the "W" section you find "When You are Old" by William Butler Yeats and "When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be" by John Keats and another poem from the period - a poem sometimes titled "Song" or just known for its first line "When I am dead, my dearest" by Christina Rossetti.

Sometimes, the simplest prompt can set you to writing. I attended a poetry retreat this month and the two poets leading us, Maria Gillan and Laura Boss, hit you with a shotgun blast of prompts. They might give a half dozen suggestions or opening lines and people write for twenty minutes and return with some unbelievably good first drafts that use one or a combination of those prompts or start with one and drift unexpectedly in another direction.

And that's all we should expect from a prompt - a little push to set our boat into the water.

This month, as an opening line, begin with "When you" or "When I" and start paddling. You might also choose to use use both openings for different lines or stanzas, or blend the two into "When you and I."

There are plenty of modern poems that use that opening too. Listen to "When You're Lost in Juarez in the Rain and It's Easter Time Too" by Charles Wright which starts with that title that is tangled up in some lines by Bob Dylan.

In "When I Am in the Kitchen" by Jeanne Marie Beaumont, she uses the line as her title and moves on like this:

I think about the past. I empty the ice-cube trays
crack crack cracking like bones, and I think
of decades of ice cubes and of John Cheerer,
of Anne Sexton making cocktails, of decades
of cocktail parties, and it feels suddenly far
too lonely at my counter...

As always, there is more about this prompt and others and things poetic on the Poets Online blog.


When you and I wave
I wonder if for you
the stranger across

three gray rooftops
over the blackbirds
pecking the softening

skylight rim of morning
through the shapes
of blackened branches

on the other side
of the ice-paned
lane window

I wonder if for you
our wave is the first
poem of the morning

Ann Nadge


When I am missing you, which is a good deal of the time,
I remember the Jim Things--
Your Compactor Dance to its chugga-chugga beat,
Your insistence on everyone taste-testing your myriad varieties of home-grown tomatoes,
The concentration on your face as you worked to create yet another culinary delight
And, of course, your adventures into beer-making!

The Jim Things--
Your cheery morning whistle,
The way you worked that tuft of hair between your thumb and forefinger till it felt like steel wool,
Emotions rippling across your face as you watched a favorite, old movie,
And the way you opened your jacket to invite me in for a hug.

When I am missing you, I ask, again, Those Questions:
Where are you?
What are you doing?
When (if ever!) will I see you again?
Who in hell am I without you?
Why, oh why won't you answer me?

Of course, you can't answer me.
You're dead.
But then, even when you were alive,
You didn't always answer me either.

Barbara Caldwell


When I was a kid, I once saw a rainbow,
But since we lived in coal country, it had soot on it;
And, on those scattered days when the sun came out,
I swore it limped over us on crutches of light,
Like my uncle who had been injured in a mine blast.

Still, my family had its faith.
They believed the bishop when he said that since our parish church had only slumped,
Not collapsed into the tunnels beneath it,
It should be proclaimed a basilica, a major site for pilgrims,
Because it would be un-Christian to keep our miracle to ourselves.

And I remember the crowds that came during our novena,
And sang and prayed with us among the shadows that settled
Beneath the grimy windows of St Ann and her daughter Mary,
And how it took a second for my eyes to adjust to find
The water font near the church door,
Where I dipped my fingers
And smeared the oily sign of the cross on my forehead and chest;

And I remember my mother clutching my arm
As we shuffled down the sloping floor to a front pew,
Where, as a family, we fell to our knees in the cold, damp air.
There, before us was our famous altar,
Carved by a black man named Patience, who had made a name among us
By fashioning lumps of coal into the saints who looked down on us;
But this was his masterpiece, a squared block of anthracite,
In the center of which, he had chiseled the Sacred Heart
Emitting rays of black light.
It proved to be his last work,
As he, like nearly everyone else who worked with coal,
Succumbed to black lung disease,
The reason outsiders called us “The Town without Grandfathers.”

And I remember that while my parents and brothers closed their eyes,
Lost in prayer and thanksgiving,
I studied the shimmer of candles upon the polished black stone,
And imagined the light that would blind me if it ever caught fire.

Ron Yazinski


When I combed my hair
back in those sixth grade days
it never seemed to come out right.
What could I do
to make me better and cooler?
My hair was too thin, too stringy
to impress the girls.
I felt if I could just get it right
Mary A would swoon before me
Debbie D would be all mine
and even our sultry and sexy
teacher, Miss Vanderbilt,
would take notice and forget
how I turned beet red in her
French class when she smiled at me.
Should I comb one shaft
over my right eye?
Let me part it down the middle.
Would that be hipper?
It did look pretty hip,
but made my eyes tear and blink.
No, I guess I am stuck
with lousy hair, hair that betrays me
when I need it most.
I suppose I’ll just have to
come up with some other way
to make my mark
in this world.

R. Bremner


When I lament how I have spent my time
In endless roundings and in petty tasks,
In teaching faces that were pretty masks
Behind which lay much stolid mental crime
And grasping selves oblique to the sublime;
When I fall to thinking of my final cask,
Bought in advance to spare those sure to ask
If I’d been saved, or prayed to ought divine—
I think of those who passed to me their light,
They who quietly lived the mental life,
Like Drs. S. H. Blakely and Leonard Wright,
In quiet duty beyond the covetous strife.
Then I cease to think my life ill spent,
And think, instead, of all that it has meant.

Robert Carroll Miller


When you gave me song, I gave you song.
Yours were always complex
and difficult. That was why
you gave them to me.

"No sleep in the night.
The sound of the train
slowing for a curve
is like the sound of a flute
played not by lips
but by the wind."

When I see you
walking in the garden
of sleeplessness,
singing a song.
I can only pick out
a few lyrics, so
I lean towards you,
but that doesn't make them easier to hear or understand.

Lianna Wright


When I stopped
finally; bent down to retie my laces,
Gordon grabbed my end of the goat-rope.
From the rope’s live-end, Loki
looked back. “What’s up?” she might have
asked, if she possessed English. The same
dépaysment I felt, standing up again.
Here was our quarry, Akitla, laughing to be
found. But where were we? How did we
get here? My dog on-scent had just
pulled me – my partner Gordon lagging
behind, puffing – clear across campus from
flagpole down the art-deco-tiled handicap
ramp past Technology Arts, past World ‘
Languages, through three gates of
tennis courts, at last onto grass, where Loki
dog-paused to check how Akitla’s scent
translated, reinvigorated into green;
re-caught her stride, winded us past stadium;
quick switch west and north down land-
escaped right-of-way to find Akitla – corpse-
pose behind a bush. Loki leaped
on her chest, she jerked to life, way
beyond iktsuarpok in her native tongue.
“Have you come so soon?” Gordon gasping
for breath, Loki ready to explore the rest
of the world. “She ran you out of your boots!”
I stopped to retie my laces, Gordon
gripped the rope attaching dog-dynamo to
human. “Yes! I can feel it. Pure energy.
Source untapped by man. Tactile knowledge
beats simulation any day.” This is
how Loki transported him all the way
back to our cars.

Taylor Graham


when you sense
the possibility of light
the way a shark
can sense a drop of blood
in the endless ocean

it won't matter any longer
that the night is cold
and you have no shoes

the pavement feels as if it
was made for you to rest
the cracks say yes

tear away the drapes
concealing the man submerged
in a chamber full of water
wrapped in chains
and see that he is gone

believe that it is
if you wish

life tilts upon
an axis that reveals
an extraordinary plane
that you can run your fingers
and they become real

you can wonder if you
are the first to discover this
or the last
it makes no difference
to the discovery

when you understand
the balm for your greatest fear
can be created
from your own twisted guts

you may reach in
and pull them out
with your
real hands

it's there
it's in there
it's always been
all right

Anita Sanz


When you're in pain
you take
pleasure in nothing
but pain's
if pleasure
you can call it,
the thinness of it,
down into the kitchen
where a few dirty dishes
that aren't yours
wait in the sink,
and you begin
washing them
the warm
water on your wrists,
the sweet-
smelling soap, the clean
dishes stacking
in the dish rack,

Paul Hostovsky


When I look around my rooms, I see my adult life.
Trips to Europe, Asia, Mexico, and South America reside in paintings,
      dishes, rugs, and sculpture.
Seeing them, my mind is crowded with pictures of places that did not make it to a
I know I can buy similar objects at the fair on 74th street, but they would not provide the
It is the memories of travel that extend the walls of my home.

But that doesn't always work.
When I am housebound for five days by cold, by ice,
I need a way to keep the walls from closing in.
Radio and tv provide commentary.
My computer provides action, bringing me to the outside world--shopping--clothes, books,
Best of all, at midnight, the night doorman and I often spend an hour in pleasant conversation.

Ellen Kaplan


When I visit my parents
in their house it’s not really mine anymore
the only one I have known
it’s easier to see and again live through
the many, many cosmetic changes.

Yet the backyard, still with it’s pool and it’s deck
and it’s grill and it’s patch of lawn
still has mesas of cracked concrete once danced on by hot, bare feet
and odd corners where fence, house and lot meet that
are unusable despite many different arrangements of patio furniture
and still lacking any shade
are all still there
worse really.

There isn’t but maybe there is
a correlation between the current state of the backyard
it’s significance to our family
to my childhood our childhoods
and perhaps patching the concrete
or “fixin' up the backyard” would formalize
the end, permanently
of that time.

I now understand
despite the appearance
the backyard is a frozen moment
the best moment
and now that we have all moved away
I can see my dad staring out the sliding glass door
at the lonely pool and
assortment of patio furniture and
be proud of what has lasted.

Eric Steggall


When you want no one to come near you.
On those darkest of days,
when you want to be left all alone,
she comes to you,
and you welcome her
amongst all others.
She jumps into your lap,
curls into a furry ball.
She asks nothing of you,
yet your hand reaches
out to her.
You feel her soft coat.
Your fingers uncurl
to caress the length of her silky back,
to rub her soft ears.
There on your lap,
wisdom and compassion,
a purring bodhisattva
in a fur coat.

Bobbie Townsend


And then.,
We were always amused, perplexed by
The answer to the question we put to addicts,
What did you want to be when young?
When did you start being high or nodding out?
When did you start to borrowed (others) piss
To have the right temperature when tested.
So that your urine might pass a drug screen

You wanted to be in those rough days,
Policemen, to control yourself, control others
The term was to cop a fix
The change from cop as noun to cop as verb
Your life dropping a dime on yourself,
Which does not sound right
When happiness came out of a nickel bag.

There goes Martin K, the shrink on the ward
We would laugh at him with his pork pie hat,
Like the dick in the French Connection
But he’s really a good guy,
You can shoot the breeze with him,
Even get a little elixir of Benadryl to sleep
While watching him pour it into a paper cup,
Such attention to our likes and wishes.
He understands how we crave magic
And give a show of the white powders.
Now ladies and gentlemen for the big one
That’s all you think you want of life.
This gig of sleep.

Edward N. Halperin