Poets Online Archive
the way things work

Jorie Graham can be a difficult poet to read. In a review, Robert Casper says about her writing: "There is also a continued dialogue between lofty paradigms of myth, philosophy, or religion, and commonplace images and experiences. The voice of the poems contains the charge of the ecstatic and the restraint of the ruminative—and this has held constant, despite Graham’s turn to a more open and complex style."
Open AND complex... a good trick if you can pull it off. Her poem, "The Way Things Work" from The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994, is more accessible than many of her poems and we will use her title and the general approach of the poem as our prompt.

In your poem, tell the way some thing works. Be it machine, institution, force of nature, family, person, self - describe the inner workings of your subject in a way that would not be our usual eyeballed description. Focus on the process rather than the object itself.


The truth about rocks is
that once upon a time
they were people like you and me
and all your many sisters
and the truth about rocks is
they have gotten very old
and gone beyond their bodies and
the truth about rocks
is that your mother will be one
and your father and his brother will be one
and you and I if we live that long will be one
and your old Grandma Italy will be one too
sooner than she thinks

Ron Lavalette



Summer sky saying goodbye
to overpowering sunset
nudging creeping darkness
first the tip of a bright orange oval
half-sphere of phosphorescent fire
breaks the horizon
expanding glowing ball
a conspiracy with nature
ballooning into early-night sun
natural display of light fusion.
A cold-light star commands the east
holding a world in suspense
hanging without support
of mirrored sea waters
or dark undulating mountains
higher brighter splendor
an evensong surviving precious minutes
phenomenon of early evening
before mutation into smaller full moon
for nocturnal tides and late-night lovers

F. William Broome



We observe, and by observing validate:
In the beginning,
God made man and mechanical advantage.
Stone tools multiplied like dumb servants,
begetting metals forged in a fire
where stories were born
and enemies were recycled as ash
on a gray wind huddled in animal fur.

Gravity and stone
were chiseled for the pharaoh
and his concubines, the blade
of a knife unable to slip between the blocks,
though metal more than once
severed an artery, a head, a hand.

And then the furnace, the gear, the chain:
ugly profit staring from the foundry,
rails nailed to the back of the Orient
so that a black horse could mimic death
with its steam whistle on a moonless night.

We observe,
noting that the evolution of ideas
is the ultimate lever.
We write poems, hoping that words
might be fulcrums of mercy,
invisible tools which no longer seek
mechanical advantage of the nameless face
at the end of the road.

Billy H.



My office is shrunk,
Smaller than small
But with work it expands.
"Tell me about yourself.
Are you a clam shell held to lips
To catch the breathe
Or the walnut between thumb
And forefinger
Waiting to be opened?"

Work as choice between
Sea shell with restless echoes
Or walnut with a season's fullness
Tight on the tip of ones' thumb.
You come to me with tales
Or stretch your symptoms, a fragile gauze
On newspaper or Tabriz silk.
It does not matter to me
In my work, if the wrapping
Is shame or embarrassment,
Nor who is seller or buyer.

The flower of consequences
Comes like the rubber trick
As the serious work of play
Offered to you by an amateur clown;
Didn't you know from the past
That this provoking spray
Works to free the monkey on one's back
Or make one pull ones chin up
In surprise
While the beast pulls tighter on
The short hairs of the nape of one's neck.

What work!
At all times
We are Penelope
Weaving and reweaving
As a spider
Descending and ascending
Saying we know who we are
And answering, No man.

Edward N. Halperin




The periodic chorusing of males
in the canopy of trees,
on trunks and branches,
singing songs for love
or perhaps, just sex
with alternating short flights
until the female is found.

Magicicada, 17 years underground,
in a nymphal existence,
moving but a few feet
in your long fossorial life-
how you metamorphose the joy of air!

Brought up by temperature,
time and the longing days,
to the nearest object on the horizon,
just a few feet above the ground,
to wing into adulthood.

Congregating synchronously,
buzzing like gypsy tambourines,
predator satiation protects the few.
The lambs lie with the lions,
so that some will survive.

Rhythms of sleep and waking,
chemical triggers in the brain.
There is a soft golden glow
as I turn in the sweaty sheets.
Just beyond my grasp,
waiting outside the window,
at the torn edges of my dream.

Ken Ronkowitz



It's deceiving to the vision when one can thread a single thought
through a thought, silk it in and through
like an eye
through an eye
in an eye of a needle,
stitch it in the pinafore of a poem with a thimble on the thumb
that fingers one's psyche, and let it roam like a mime through the poem.
Not so much hackneyed material, and worth its weight in crystal as a cover,
for when it roams, I use a crystal thimble
and an eye threaded with thread borrowed from the Emperor's personal
and with the pattern of his pinafore,
I stitch a single thought
and over
and over,
and let you think that
you are seeing something,

something new.

It's a trick.
It's a cover,
but as crystal as my thumb print in my thimble,
it's clearly hidden in the pinafore of my poem, so hold that thought;
it's clearly in your mind.




Novas Burst
Stars explode and
People are born,
Live, and then die.
The earth moves,
gears grind
Bearings wear
Steel is forged anew
and rusts into the earth
I believe the cycle
Each movement in turn
Each space
All will be
And then not

Mark Sowers




A paramecium gently swimming in a petri dish, its cilia rhythmically moving,
Approaches its duplicate with intent to mate--grade school biology.
But there is no intent, only electronic forces urging it on--high school biology.
College biology--

What makes love work?

This Enron, Tyco, World Com, Anderson, Merrill, etc. mess
Whose purpose was to make management richer than rich;
Where illusion and fakery made the numbers look good,
To make management richer than rich;
Where writers wrote praise for pay, designed to make management…
All made possible by electronic forces that can produce a spread -sheet
Which allows anyone to generate numbers showing a company is richer than rich,
Designed to make management richer than rich.

Let’s cut to the chase.
What makes greed work?
What makes love work?

Ellen Kaplan




I sometimes resort
to the written word
to reach my son
with grave thoughts
too easily lost
in the wind of spoken words,
words chiseled with great care,
crafted in silence,
the clock ignored.

I subsequently perceive
my underlying message,
"I will not always be here."

I await a responding letter,
and wait, and wait,
in time inquiring discreetly,
"Did you receive my note?"
(now diminished to casualness)
"Oh, yes, I think so;
a couple of weeks ago."

Should I have sent an e-mail?
Would he have dashed off a reply?

Perhaps I'll pass
though the looking-glass
into his electromagnetic orb, and
his digital universe absorb -

to the extent I can.


Benj. Copito




She sat as still
as a summer night
without one whisper of breeze,
allowed the pain
to pierce bone,
and travel along a bloodless path
toward her left ear,
to invade her head
behind the eye
she kept open.

It settled up there,
aggressive and
proud of the agony
it caused her,
hadn’t she expected it?

She was able to tell the doctors
where and when it had birthed itself
inside her,
and now that it was fully grown
she was prepared
to nudge it from the nest
and let it soar,
over the roar she thanked them
for helping,
then closed the eye
she’d left open.

Susan Stewart


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