Category Archives: Poems

A.M. Juster: ‘Cancer Prayer’

Dear Lord,
Please flood her nerves with sedatives
and keep her strong enough to crack a smile
so disbelieving friends and relatives
can temporarily sustain denial.

Please smite that intern in oncology
who craves approval from department heads.

Please ease her urge to vomit; let there be
kind but flirtatious men in nearby beds.

Given her hair, consider amnesty
for sins of vanity; make mirrors vanish.

Surround her with forgiving family
and nurses not too numb to cry. Please banish
trite consolations; take her in one swift
and gentle motion as your final gift.

*****

A.M. Juster writes: “One of my favorites.”

A.M. Juster is the Plough Quarterly poetry editor. His work has appeared in Poetry, Paris Review, Hudson Review and other journals. His tenth book is Wonder and Wrath (Paul Dry Books 2020) and his translation of Petrarch’s Canzoniere is due from W.W. Norton in early 2024.
www.amjuster.net

Photo: “A Silent Calling” by Alyssa L. Miller is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Julia Griffin: ‘A Remembered Swan’

Former Ballerina with Alzheimer’s is able to remember her old dance routine when she hears “Swan Lake” – Yahoo! News 16th November 2020

A sudden glow: the hollowed arms upswept
Above the wandering head, the starry burst
Streaking the dark. The cobwebbed feet have kept
Their knowledge, not their power: she has been cursed,

Long since, this maimed princess. A crueller stroke
Than Rothbart’s holds her caged, blots out her sky;
How can frail forelimbs beat away his smoke?
How can a grounded spirit hope to fly

Back to its Lake? – except that something strange
Still beats in her, beneath her parchy skin:
A memory.
Among art’s kindlier things,
This timelessness, created out of change:
A ballerina, spotlit from within,
Trailing her lovely, half-extended wings.

*****

Julia Griffin writes: “I feel the form works with the subject-matter. This was inspired, of course, by the news story – and the way it seemed to reverse Yeats’ great poem by making the swan a deliverer from helplessness.”

Julia Griffin lives in south-east Georgia/ south-east England. She has published in Light, LUPO, Mezzo Cammin, and some other places, though Poetry and The New Yorker indicate that they would rather publish Marcus Bales than her.
Her poem ‘Wasp Waste’ was reprinted in the Potcake Chapbook ‘Robots and Rockets‘, and much more of her poetry can be found in Light, at https://lightpoetrymagazine.com/?s=julia+g&submit=Search

Photo: “swanlake c Lotte Reiniger” by janwillemsen is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Amit Majmudar: ‘The Last Meditation of Marcus Aurelius’

Among the Quadi, on the river Gran
I hate no one, love no one, am no one,
My armor hollow, crumpled, a tumbling can
Among the Quadi, on the river Gran.
River awash with bodies, rinse my hand.
I neither love nor hate what it has done.
Among the Quadi, on the river Gran
I neither love nor hate what I’ve become.

I neither love nor hate what I’ve become
Among the Quadi, on the river Gran
Slaughtering boys with long hair spun of sun.
I neither love nor hate what I have done
Galloping after stragglers on the run.
Rinse, rinse my hand, as only a river can.
I love no one, hate no one, am no one
Among the Quadi, on the river Gran.

*****

This poem originally appeared in The Classical Outlook, Vol. 97, No. 3

Amit Majmudar writes: “I am a fan of Marcus Aurelius, and I wrote this little poem around the same time I wrote an essay about harmonics between the Meditations and the Bhagavad-Gita, which I published my translation of in 2018.
Yet the original idea—a triolet that plays with that oddly pentametric subtitle of one of the chapters of the Meditations—occurred to me years ago. I am pretty sure I wrote, or tried to write, a triolet with this refrain maybe fifteen years ago. I lost it, never sent it out, one of the literally hundreds of poems I write but never send out. (Creatively I am like a fish, laying a superabundance of eggs, expecting only a small percentage to survive.)
When I reread the Meditations recently, getting my thoughts together for the essay, I saw that subtitle and had the same idea a second time, or remembered having had the idea (and hence inadvertently had it again). These two triolets are my attempts at reconstructing a poem I wrote and forgot years ago. I could not recall if I had made “Among the Quadi, on the river Gran” the first or second line of that ur-triolet. So I blundered around and found my way into this “double triolet.”
The image of Marcus Aurelius as a reluctant Stoic warlord is irresistible to me. I think the best commentary on this poem is the essay I wrote at the same time, published over at Marginalia at the Los Angeles Review of Books. This is the link to that essay:
https://themarginaliareview.com/the-gita-according-to-marcus-aurelius/

Amit Majmudar is a poet, novelist, essayist, translator, and the former first Poet Laureate of Ohio. He works as a diagnostic and nuclear radiologist and lives in Westerville, Ohio, with his wife and three children. 
      Majmudar’s poetry collections include 0’, 0’ (Northwestern, 2009), shortlisted for the Norma Faber First Book Award, and Heaven and Earth (2011, Storyline Press), which won the Donald Justice Prize, selected by A. E. Stallings. These volumes were followed by Dothead (Knopf, 2016) and What He Did in Solitary (Knopf, 2020). His poems have won the Pushcart Prize and have appeared in the Norton Introduction to Literature, The New Yorker, and numerous Best American Poetry anthologies as well as journals and magazines across the United States, UK, India, and Australia. Majmudar also edited, at Knopf’s invitation, a political poetry anthology entitled Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now. 
      Majmudar’s essays have appeared in The Best American Essays 2018, the New York Times, and the Times of India, among several other publications. His forthcoming collection of essays, focusing on Indian religious philosophy, history, and mythology, is Black Avatar and Other Essays (Acre Books, 2023). Twin A: A Life (Slant Books, 2023) is the title of a forthcoming memoir, in prose and verse, about his son’s struggle with congenital heart disease. 
      Majmudar’s work as a novelist includes two works of historical fiction centered around the 1947 Partition of India, Partitions (Holt/Metropolitan, 2011) and The Map and the Scissors (HarperCollins India, 2022). His first children’s book also focuses on Indian history and is entitled Heroes the Colour of Dust (Puffin India, 2022). Majmudar has also penned a tragicomic, magical realist fable of Indian soldiers during World War I, Soar (Penguin India, 2020). The Abundance (Holt/Metropolitan, 2013), by contrast, is a work of contemporary realism exploring Indian-American life. Majmudar’s long-form fiction has garnered rave reviews from NPR’s All Things Considered, the Wall Street Journal, Good Housekeeping, and The Economist, as well as starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist; his short fiction won a 2017 O. Henry Prize.   
      Majmudar’s work in Hindu mythology includes a polyphonic Ramayana retelling, Sitayana (Penguin India, 2019), and The Mahabharata Trilogy (Penguin India, 2023). His work as a translator includes Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary (Knopf, 2018).

Photo: “File:0 Marcus Aurelius Exedra – Palazzo dei Conservatori – Musei Capitolini (1).jpg” by Unknown artist is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Maryann Corbett: ‘The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death’

Crime scene dioramas created as teaching tools by Frances Glessner Lee
Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Well-behaved voyeurs
bend above these exquisite
dollhouse miniatures

where the small-scale poor
die in ’40s dailiness.
Blood speckles a floor

tiled in one-to-twelve
scale. Ditto bath fixtures, beds,
plates shocked from a shelf—

Here’s a girl’s sliced neck.
Here’s another, legs jutting
from a tub, freaklike.

Is this Dresden head
brush-tipped with the purpling
livor of the dead?

To appreciate
such intently crafted pain,
one must contemplate

finger-cramping care:
quarter-inch-high postcards, penned
with a single hair.

A close eye for sin’s
rigor vitae: tiny socks
hand-knitted with pins.

Strict detail is key.
Look there for the rage of God.
Search for that and see,

sisters. As will I,
taken with the pains by which
quiet women die.

*****

Maryann Corbett writes: “In the autumn of 2018, I visited Washington, D.C. to speak at Catholic University, and while I was there, my sister-in-law took me to visit the Renwick Gallery. Its permanent displays are all lovely, but what stayed with me was a visiting exhibition: the Nutshell Studies. The quaintness of the doll-sized views and the perfection of craft in the recreated period interiors contrasted eerily with the bloody crimes laid out in them. They all stayed with me for a long time, and I did more digging about their creator and her work. The resulting poem—in haiku stanzas, because a small form seemed appropriate—was first published in Pangyrus. It’s included in the book In Code, which centers on my years in the Revisor’s Office but talks about all sorts of social evils.”

Maryann Corbett earned a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota in 1981 and expected to be teaching Beowulf and Chaucer and the history of the English language. Instead, she spent almost thirty-five years working for the Office of the Revisor of Statutes of the Minnesota Legislature, helping attorneys to write in plain English and coordinating the creating of finding aids for the law. She returned to writing poetry after thirty years away from the craft in 2005 and is now the author of two chapbooks, five full-length collections already published, and a forthcoming book. Her fifth book, In Code, contains the poems about her years with the Revisor’s Office. Her work has won the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, has appeared in many journals on both sides of the Atlantic, and is included in anthologies like Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters and The Best American Poetry 2018.

Her web page: maryanncorbett.com

Photo: “Murder is Her Hobby Exhibition” by massmatt is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Pino Coluccio: ‘Where Has All The Mayo Gone?’

Hungry late, I clank around
the kitchen for a snack.
A pickle first and then, why not,
I peel apart a pack

of luncheon meat, some Swiss, a leaf
of something limp and wan,
and now — oh no, the lid’s on tight
but look — the mayo’s gone.

It feels like only yesterday
I parked my father’s car,
peeked at other shoppers’ carts
and tootled to a jar

for slathering on hotdogs
and for dolloping on frites —
there’s loads of foods whose fatty goodness
mayonnaise completes.

My pumpernickel won’t go down —
it’s like a warning bell,
the chilly clink of stainless steel
on glass. I know it well.

And wonder under nibbles if
at bottom human lives
aren’t always scraping empty jars
with tips of pointless knives.

*****

This is another of Pino Coluccio’s favourite poems from his first collection ‘First Comes Love‘. He doesn’t choose to comment on it, but I too like it; I like the way it clanks around the kitchen for a couple of verses, and then hits you with existential despair in the last lines. Which might be a matter of personal taste: I like eating limes and lemons, and I find Coluccio’s reflections equally tasty.

Pino Coluccio won Canada’s 2018 Trillium Award for English Poetry with his second collection, ‘Class Clown’. His poem ‘City Sunsets’ is featured in the most recent Potcake Chapbook, ‘City! Oh City!He lives in Toronto.

Photo: “It’s an empty jar #signage” by Stv. is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Poem: ‘Fellow Student’

I went round to Sarah’s flat one night:
“Hi man,” she said, “Yeah, you can come in, sure,”
apologising as she shut the door –
“but not for too long, you know how it is –
I’ve got two essays still to write
and then exams start – I’m in quite a tizz.”
She yawned and laughed, said “I’ve just changed Sam’s nappy,
and now he’s fast asleep – at last!” she smiled –
“Wow, but he keeps me busy!” “Also happy,”
I put in. “Yes, but not all the while –
he’s got a weak chest, coughs, cries with the pain,
I get so uptight we both end in tears…
his dad got sentenced, over drugs, eight years…
that’s long: I guess we won’t get back again;
I’ve got my Finals coming up, and then,
after, who knows? I’ve hardly time for dreams:
with Sam and studying, sometimes, it seems
my life’s nappies and essays, nothing more.”
She changed the record, sat to roll a joint,
and said “First thing I do, even before
I take Sam to that Nursery up the road –
he’s bigger every day! He’s quite a load!
But anyway, that’s not the point –
first of all, I get stoned, and stay that way,
or else I’d never make it through the day.”

A new cloud added to her soft rich room
a further depth of blue, a silent pause.

She spoke again, her thoughts already gone
back to her work: “And then, they seem such fools,
dividing all Philosophy in schools.
You know my option is the Indian course;
I know so much of what the old books mean:
things of which lecturers can’t conceive, think guff,
I understand, they’re places where I’ve been…
I’m always trying to turn the lecturers on:
if they’d drop acid, or just smoke some stuff,
they’d see so much… but they’re not brave enough.
So Transcendental just remains
a trendy course which their students can take
if other courses can’t keep them awake.
But still they try their worst,” she said, nonplussed,
and read “The Bhaghavad Gita retains
relevance for our century. Discuss.

Christ, aren’t they boring!” she said, biro poised.
I let myself out, while she found her page,
and Briggs, her hamster, woken by the noise,
went streaming up the rat-race in his cage.

*****

This poem dates to the time after I had dropped out of the University of Dundee, but still came back to it in the years that saw most of my 25,000 miles of hitchhiking. I feel I learned more by wandering in and out of jobs, countries, languages and religions than I would have if I’d stayed on Sarah’s path. But then, I have no idea how life worked out for her, so who knows.

The poem is semi-formal – rhymed but without a rhyme scheme, in iambic pentameter with some occasional liberties taken with metre… but those liberties are comparatively acceptable, even beneficial, in a longish poem as they break up the metrical monotony. That’s my excuse anyway, and I’m sticking with it. The poem was published decades later in Snakeskin – thanks, George Simmers!

Hamster Race” by Naked Faris is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Pino Coluccio, ‘First Comes Love’

There comes a time when sitting home alone
looking at your life — I’m such a knob —
gets to be a drag. You hate your job,
your car’s a piece of crap, and what you eat
is fatty, fried and salty. But then you meet
a girl. The life you made a mess of pulses.
And not content to mess up just your own,
you settle down and mess up someone else’s.

*****

Pino Coluccio writes that this poem is one his personal faves. It’s from his first book, also titled ‘First Comes Love‘, published by Mansfield Press. His poem ‘City Sunsets’ is featured in the most recent Potcake Chapbook, ‘City! Oh City!

Pino Coluccio lives in Toronto.

Short poem: ‘North American Fall’

The red leaves in the sunshine are
So red! So red! So red!
There are no buried Caesars here – instead,
The dispossessed of all the Earth,
With native wisdoms, human worth,
Bleed through the trees like a reopened scar.

*****

Today is Canadian Thanksgiving; in the US, Columbus Day; in the Bahamas, National Heroes Day; in all of them “aka Indigenous Peoples’ Day”. Yes, we’re all here, across the Atlantic or the Pacific from where we or our ancestors came. Yes, there are things to be thankful for, and things to regret. But that’s the story of modern humans, walking out of Africa for the past 200,000 years, and of earlier versions walking out of Africa for the previous couple of million years.

Reparations for everything done to each other is impossible… will the Italians pay reparations to the British for 300 years of occupation and slavery? (Not that the reparations would be paid to the English, who didn’t show up until after the Romans left; payment would be to the people the English pushed out: the Welsh, Cornish, some Irish and maybe some Scots…) People have been invading and massacring, invading and enslaving, invading and intermarrying, in all parts of the world since forever.

What would be reasonable would be for all governments to grant all citizens good quality universal education and good quality universal health care at least for the first 20 years of life. Reparations to the dead may be impossible, but giving everyone a decent chance going forward would seem appropriate. And it would be in the interests of everyone who would like a healthy, well-educated society in which to live.

Fall Colors at Lake Sabrina in the Eatsern Sierra” by RS2Photography is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Double Dactyl: ‘Emily Dickinson’

Yellow rose, yellow rose,
Emily Dickinson
lived in seclusion, was
never a wife;
wrote of her garden most
anthropocentrically,
talking with God, Satan,
Death, all her life.

*****

There’s an old suggestion that all of Emily Dickinson’s poetry can be sung to the tune of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’.

I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.

(Brave words, but I think that waves would have surprised her with their complexity and power and sensuousness.) There’s a newer suggestion that she lived so reclusively because she suffered from epilepsy, and wanted to hide it as much as possible out of a sense of shame.

Strange woman, strange life, strange little poems… but remarkably insightful, accessible, and word-for-word memorable.

My double dactyl on her was recently published in The Asses of Parnassus – thanks, Brooke Clark!

Emily Dickinson” by Amherst College Archives is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Sonnet: ‘The Arrogance of Youth’

How fortunate the arrogance of youth—
the optimism and innumeracy,
lack of experience, perspective, truth—
giving hopes, visions that they’d never see
if they but knew the small chance of success
in major league politics, business, sports.
Most fail, adopt some wage-slave form of dress
that not dreams, but a family, supports.

Without those early dreams, with a clear view
of stats on making it in the Big Time,
they’d all give up, seeing how very few
truly succeed. Then we’d miss those sublime
insane few dreamers who can win their race,
make the discoveries, blast into space.

*****

This Shakespearean sonnet has just been published in Shot Glass Journal – thanks, Mary-Jane Grandinetti!

Photo: “Arrogance” by De kleine rode kater is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.