Ten Bedrock Poems
I return to some poems again and again. I need to share them with friends. I need to read them aloud or recite them to myself in mind. Not a complete list, but here I share ten poems that provide me reference points through my days; foundational poems, "bedrock", if you will. I have carried some with me for a few years, most for decades. In some, one striking image elevates the whole poem to unforgettable for me. From some, I gather lessons. I think them all powerful. They make me grateful for words and art, poets and humanity. I hope you find inspiration, solace, and beauty in these lines.
by Carl Sandburg
I Asked the professors who teach the meaning of life to tell
me what is happiness.
And I went to famous executives who boss the work of
thousands of men.
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile as though
I was trying to fool with them
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along
the Desplaines river
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with
their women and children and a keg of beer and an
by Li-Young Lee
To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.
I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.
Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.
Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingernails and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.
In the Desert
by Stephen Crane
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”
Resolutions in a Parked Car
by Olena Lalytiak Davis
After I’m done pleading with the steering wheel,
after I’m done screaming at the white doors
of the Friendship Inn, no, even while I’m spitting
and howling, I know, yes, this is the way
we find out about ourselves: crying in rental cars
in parking lots in strange cities that are already
too familiar. The huge ship in front of you,
don’t you hope it will soon disembark? Don’t you
hate hotels? Don’t you hate to travel
just to see the same old pockmarks and limps,
the weight carried below the waist
and above? Just look at what we have done
to ourselves, and topped it off with a club sandwich,
a scribble of neon. I’m wailing
like some foreigner in a foreign country
we don’t give a shit about because how could we
understand something as subtle as the mutilation
of ears and lips? Please, I beg you,
perform some crazy rite over me so things can either
finally dissolve or finally become solid.
Please, I need something primitive and complex
to relieve me of this world subdivided into better
and better ways to avoid life. Sicker
and sicker ways. Someone is brewing
their own beer. Someone knows why he is
the best candidate for the job. Death cruising
down 90. Laughing. Sweetheart, Death is the least of it.
I’m in a parking lot in Spokane reintroducing myself
to myself. I’m feeling like throwing up.
In a parking lot in Spokane I am resolving
to read Nietzsche, to pierce and tattoo myself,
in a parking lot I’m determining things
about my labia and nose and heart.
The Summer Day
by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Interview with Cotton (Part 1/Dreams)
by Le Hinton
You asked about the early days, the disappointments
and desires. Sometimes I’d dream of being a beautiful
bouquet delivered into the arms of a young wife. Or I’d imagine
having my petals scattered across silk sheets,
waiting for a true love to come home. A surprise.
An anniversary. A prelude to romance.
I never wanted to be picked for the money,
damned like tobacco. I never wanted my white bolls
to be turned into green money, to be the reason
for blood in the fields. The men whipped
for being slow. The women beaten for crying out.
Brown bodies without their own names.
Black children who just wanted to play.
I didn’t ask for any of it. I should have been the flower
in Lady Day’s hair. The blanket on Martin’s casket.
The floral array at Beyonce’s wedding.
No one gave me that chance. I wanted to be like Rose.
But they ignored my bloom and waited for the fluff,
the cash crop, the motive for someone’s greed.
Maybe I should apologize, but this legacy isn’t my choice.
When the sun goes down, I still dream of bouquets.
In my dreams, I am beautiful.
In my dreams, I am still innocent.
by David Berman
She woke me up at dawn,
her suitcase like a little brown dog at her heels.
I sat up and looked out the window
at the snow falling in the stand of blackjack trees.
A bus ticket in her hand.
Then she brought something black up to her mouth,
a plum I thought but it was an asthma inhaler.
I reached under the bed for my menthols
and she asked if I ever thought of cancer.
Yes, I said, but always as a tree way up ahead
in the distance where it doesn’t matter
And I suppose a dead soul must look back at that tree,
so far behind his wagon where it also doesn’t matter.
except as a memory of rest or water.
Though to believe any of that, I thought,
you have to accept the premise
that she woke me up at all.
forgiving our fathers
by Dick Lourie
maybe in a dream: he’s in your power
you twist his arm but you’re not sure it was
he that stole your money you feel calmer
and you decide to let him go free
or he’s the one (as in a dream of mine)
I must pull from the water but I never
knew it or wouldn’t have done it until
I saw the street-theater play so close up
I was moved to actions I’d never before taken
maybe for leaving us too often or
forever when we were little maybe
for scaring us with unexpected rage
or making us nervous because there seemed
never to be any rage there at all
for marrying or not marrying our mothers
for divorcing or not divorcing our mothers
and shall we forgive them for their excesses
of warmth or coldness shall we forgive them
for pushing or leaning for shutting doors
for speaking only through layers of cloth
or never speaking or never being silent
in our age or in theirs or in their deaths
saying it to them or not saying it -
if we forgive our fathers what is left
How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
The Shooting of Dan McGrew
by Robert W. Service
A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known as Lou.
When out of the night, which was fifty below, and into the din and the glare,
There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear.
He looked like a man with a foot in the grave and scarcely the strength of a louse,
Yet he tilted a poke of dust on the bar, and he called for drinks for the house.
There was none could place the stranger's face, though we searched ourselves for a clue;
But we drank his health, and the last to drink was Dangerous Dan McGrew.
There's men that somehow just grip your eyes, and hold them hard like a spell;
And such was he, and he looked to me like a man who had lived in hell;
With a face most hair, and the dreary stare of a dog whose day is done,
As he watered the green stuff in his glass, and the drops fell one by one.
Then I got to figgering who he was, and wondering what he'd do,
And I turned my head — and there watching him was the lady that's known as Lou.
His eyes went rubbering round the room, and he seemed in a kind of daze,
Till at last that old piano fell in the way of his wandering gaze.
The rag-time kid was having a drink; there was no one else on the stool,
So the stranger stumbles across the room, and flops down there like a fool.
In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway;
Then he clutched the keys with his talon hands — my God! but that man could play.
Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;
With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold,
A half-dead thing in a stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold;
While high overhead, green, yellow and red, the North Lights swept in bars? —
Then you've a hunch what the music meant. . . hunger and night and the stars.
And hunger not of the belly kind, that's banished with bacon and beans,
But the gnawing hunger of lonely men for a home and all that it means;
For a fireside far from the cares that are, four walls and a roof above;
But oh! so cramful of cosy joy, and crowned with a woman's love —
A woman dearer than all the world, and true as Heaven is true —
(God! how ghastly she looks through her rouge, — the lady that's known as Lou.)
Then on a sudden the music changed, so soft that you scarce could hear;
But you felt that your life had been looted clean of all that it once held dear;
That someone had stolen the woman you loved; that her love was a devil's lie;
That your guts were gone, and the best for you was to crawl away and die.
'Twas the crowning cry of a heart's despair, and it thrilled you through and through —
"I guess I'll make it a spread misere", said Dangerous Dan McGrew.
The music almost died away ... then it burst like a pent-up flood;
And it seemed to say, "Repay, repay," and my eyes were blind with blood.
The thought came back of an ancient wrong, and it stung like a frozen lash,
And the lust awoke to kill, to kill ... then the music stopped with a crash,
And the stranger turned, and his eyes they burned in a most peculiar way;
In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway;
Then his lips went in in a kind of grin, and he spoke, and his voice was calm,
And "Boys," says he, "you don't know me, and none of you care a damn;
But I want to state, and my words are straight, and I'll bet my poke they're true,
That one of you is a hound of hell. . .and that one is Dan McGrew."
Then I ducked my head, and the lights went out, and two guns blazed in the dark,
And a woman screamed, and the lights went up, and two men lay stiff and stark.
Pitched on his head, and pumped full of lead, was Dangerous Dan McGrew,
While the man from the creeks lay clutched to the breast of the lady that's known as Lou.
These are the simple facts of the case, and I guess I ought to know.
They say that the stranger was crazed with "hooch," and I'm not denying it's so.
I'm not so wise as the lawyer guys, but strictly between us two —
The woman that kissed him and — pinched his poke — was the lady that's known as Lou.