21
September

Poem of the Day: The Meaning of the Shovel

This was the dictator's land
before the revolution.
Now the dictator is exiled to necropolis,
his army brooding in camps on the border,
and the congregation of the landless
stipples the earth with a thousand shacks,
every weatherbeaten carpenter
planting a fistful of nails.

Here I dig latrines. I dig because last week
I saw a funeral in the streets of Managua,
the coffin swaddled in a red and black flag,
hoisted by a procession so silent
that even their feet seemed
to leave no sound on the gravel.
He was eighteen, with the border patrol,
when a sharpshooter from the dictator's army
took aim at the back of his head.

I dig because yesterday
I saw four walls of photographs:
the faces of volunteers
in high school uniforms
who taught campesinos to read,
bringing an alphabet
sandwiched in notebooks
to places where the mist never rises
from the trees. All dead,
by malaria or the greedy river
or the dictator's army
swarming the illiterate villages
like a sky full of corn-plundering birds.

I dig because today, in this barrio
without plumbing, I saw a woman
wearing a yellow dress
climb into a barrel of water
to wash herself and the dress
at the same time,
her cupped hands spilling.

I dig because today I stopped digging
to drink an orange soda. In a country
with no glass, the boy kept the treasured bottle
and poured the liquid into a plastic bag
full of ice, then poked a hole with a straw.

I dig because today my shovel
struck a clay bowl centuries old,
the art of ancient fingers
moist with this same earth,
perfect but for one crack in the lip.

I dig because I have hauled garbage
and pumped gas and cut paper
and sold encyclopedias door to door.
I dig, digging until the passport
in my back pocket saturates with dirt,
because here I work for nothing
and for everything.

Martin Espada, "The Meaning of the Shovel" from Imagine the Angels of Bread. Copyright © 1996 by Martin Espada. Reprinted with the permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Source: Imagine the Angels of Bread (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1996)

Martín Espada

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20
September

Poem of the Day: To the Light of September

When you are already here
you appear to be only
a name that tells of you
whether you are present or not

and for now it seems as though
you are still summer
still the high familiar
endless summer
yet with a glint
of bronze in the chill mornings
and the late yellow petals
of the mullein fluttering
on the stalks that lean
over their broken
shadows across the cracked ground

but they all know
that you have come
the seed heads of the sage
the whispering birds
with nowhere to hide you
to keep you for later

you
who fly with them

you who are neither
before nor after
you who arrive
with blue plums
that have fallen through the night

perfect in the dew

Source: Poetry (September 2003).

W. S. Merwin

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19
September

Poem of the Day: Lychees

Terrace deep as the sky.
Stone bench where I sit and read,

I wandered by myself
Into the heart of the mountains of Yoshino.

In one hand a book, in the other, a bag made of newsprint—
No weather-beaten bones here

Just lychees bought in the market,
Thirty rupees per kilogram.

Stalks mottled red tied up with string,
Flesh the color of pigeon wings—

Sweet simmering.
Sunlight bruises air

Pine trees blacken.
Where shall I go?

The Dhauladhar peaks
Are covered in snow.

Meena Alexander, "Lychees" from Birthplace with Buried Stones. Copyright © 2013 by Meena Alexander.  Reprinted by permission of Northwestern University Press.

Source: Birthplace with Buried Stones (Northwestern University Press, 2013)

Meena Alexander

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18
September

Poem of the Day: Filling Station

Oh, but it is dirty!
—this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it's a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide
the only note of color—
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
esso—so—so—so
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

"Filling Station" from The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop. © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. www.fsgbooks.com

Source: The Complete Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1983)

Elizabeth Bishop

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17
September

Textual criticism

A branch of literary criticism concerned with analyzing and determining the accuracy of texts. By examining the documents themselves in print and manuscript form—as well as any associated documentation such as letters, journals, or notebooks—textual critics attempt to identify and remove. . .

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17
September

Poem of the Day: From My Window

Spring: the first morning when that one true block of sweet, laminar,
               complex scent arrives
from somewhere west and I keep coming to lean on the sill, glorying in
               the end of the wretched winter.
The scabby-barked sycamores ringing the empty lot across the way are
               budded —I hadn't noticed —
and the thick spikes of the unlikely urban crocuses have already broken
              the gritty soil.
Up the street, some surveyors with tripods are waving each other left and
              right the way they do.
A girl in a gym suit jogged by a while ago, some kids passed, playing
              hooky, I imagine,
and now the paraplegic Vietnam vet who lives in a half-converted ware-
              house down the block
and the friend who stays with him and seems to help him out come
              weaving towards me,
their battered wheelchair lurching uncertainly from one edge of the
              sidewalk to the other.
I know where they're going—to the "Legion": once, when I was putting
              something out, they stopped,
both drunk that time, too, both reeking—it wasn't ten o'clock—and we
              chatted for a bit.
I don't know how they stay alive—on benefits most likely. I wonder if
              they're lovers?
They don't look it. Right now, in fact, they look a wreck, careening hap-
              hazardly along,
contriving, as they reach beneath me, to dip a wheel from the curb so
              that the chair skewers, teeters,
tips, and they both tumble, the one slowly, almost gracefully sliding in
              stages from his seat,
his expression hardly marking it, the other staggering over him, spinning
              heavily down,
to lie on the asphalt, his mouth working, his feet shoving weakly and
              fruitlessly against the curb.
In the storefront office on the corner, Reed and Son, Real Estate, have
              come to see the show.
Gazing through the golden letters of their name, they're not, at least,
              thank god, laughing.
Now the buddy, grabbing at a hydrant, gets himself erect and stands
              there for a moment, panting.
Now he has to lift the other, who lies utterly still, a forearm shielding his
              eyes from the sun.
He hauls him partly upright, then hefts him almost all the way into the
              chair, but a dangling foot
catches a support-plate, jerking everything around so that he has to put
              him down,
set the chair to rights, and hoist him again and as he does he jerks the
              grimy jeans right off him.
No drawers, shrunken, blotchy thighs: under the thick, white coils of
              belly blubber,
the poor, blunt pud, tiny, terrified, retracted, is almost invisible in the
              sparse genital hair,
then his friend pulls his pants up, he slumps wholly back as though he
              were, at last, to be let be,
and the friend leans against the cyclone fence, suddenly staring up at me
              as though he'd known,
all along, that I was watching and I can't help wondering if he knows that
              in the winter, too,
I watched, the night he went out to the lot and walked, paced rather, 
              almost ran, for how many hours.
It was snowing, the city in that holy silence, the last we have, when the
              storm takes hold,
and he was making patterns that I thought at first were circles, then real-
              ized made a figure eight,
what must have been to him a perfect symmetry but which, from where
              I was, shivered, bent,
and lay on its side: a warped, unclear infinity, slowly, as the snow came
              faster, going out.
Over and over again, his head lowered to the task, he slogged the path
              he'd blazed,
but the race was lost, his prints were filling faster than he made them
              now and I looked away,
up across the skeletal trees to the tall center city buildings, some, though
              it was midnight,
with all their offices still gleaming, their scarlet warning beacons signal-
              ing erratically
against the thickening flakes, their smoldering auras softening portions of
              the dim, milky sky.
In the morning, nothing: every trace of him effaced, all the field pure
              white,
its surface glittering, the dawn, glancing from its glaze, oblique, relent-
              less, unadorned.

C. K. Williams, "From My Window" from Collected Poems. Copyright © 2006 by C. K. Williams. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, www.fsgbooks.com. All rights reserved.

Caution: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Source: Collected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)

C. K. Williams

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16
September

Poem of the Day: Date Palm Trinity

Today the date palms were pruned,
the branches taken before the fruit ripened,
before sweetness littered the sidewalks.
The man who sawed them worked alone,
a crane lifting him to the yellowed fronds.
Beside his truck, he stood tall, American,
a pensive pioneer. The top of each palm
looked like the back of a man's head
after a close-crop haircut, the neck
cooled to a stubbly remembrance of hair,
or was like a cat after being spayed,
startled by a strange newness, pacing
familiar rooms, darting, confused, and you
(had you wished to console) are greeted
with a barren gaze. The rubble of bark
and fronds reminded me of Iraq,
not the ruined bridges, or the surrendering
soldiers' hands begging food, but the 16 million
date palms, one per capita, lining
the seams of the Tigris and Euphrates,
a reminder of my own Libya
and its 10 million date palms and the years
of easy wealth that brought them neglect
except in Huun, a magical city where
they stuffed dates with almonds and sent them
as far as Tanta and Oum Dourman.
From Huun this story: a boy stands by a palm
imploring his uncle to toss him a fistful of dates.
Flustered by the boy's monotonous cries
the uncle loses his feet, and as he falls
to his death, cries down "Here nephew,
I'm coming down with the dates!"
So that's what we got from Huun, almond
stuffed wonders and proverbial last words.
There was another reminder, a tale
of the prophet Muhammad living for months
on water and coarse wheat bread, his wives
protesting the austere measures of his faith.
Muhammad, who praised honey and had
a professed love for cantaloupes, and who once
declared "the best meat is that which lines the bones,"
found in dates the solution he required.
To his Arab followers, and to his wives,
the fruit was "three skies above luxury,"
and as indispensable as water and air.

I once had this dream of Whitman:
I found him under one of the palms
on Sherman Way gazing admiring.
Though he had seen palms by the Gulf of Mexico,
he had never tasted a date. So we drove
to a supermarket, and he who had been
thoughtful, even dignified, until then, began
to sign and moan at the taste of "Araby's
sugared dust clouds." When we walked
the aisles he insisted on pushing the cart.
The frozen foods did not surprise him since
his Granny buried potatoes in the cold dirt
of her homestead. Still I had to explain
tofu, plastic, tacos, and the foods labeled free.
He ran his hands caressing the waxed floor;
"Smooth as a girl's wrist," he exclaimed.
The bright fluorescent lights reminded hirn
of the opera, and Walt sang a gravelly tune.
The children sitting in carts reached for him,
their hands were Lorca's butterflies on his beard.
At the cashier he filled pockets with candy,
and was shocked by the headlines of our news.
Honda, Toyota, Saturn, Oldsmobile—
in the parking lot the names waltzed
on his tongue. At the fast food stand he ate
heartily, the burger's slipperiness amused him,
and at his clumsiness we both had a laugh.
Then the talk grew quiet, the table stretching
like the expanse of time dividing us; I felt
he no longer wanted company, having begun
to understand our world. Despite his old resentment
of Blacks, and now my neighbors, the foreign-born
Hispanics and their engines roaring through
Balboa and Saticoy, and the Koreans' karoake—
the baseline's muffled thuds, voices doused
in Canadian Mist, and the off-key pleadings
to the lover who never comes—, America
remained to him luminous-industrial-fuming-
sublime, and as he wished, beyond others'
adjectives, beyond what anyone could have conceived.
Mumbling a farewell, Whitman stood to leave.
And with this my dream ended, Whitman wishing
to depart and I holding on to his wrists.
All day I wanted to hold his wide wrists.

If you drive west of Alexandria
your path will run through Alamain,
Barani, and Matrouh. Then Egypt will end
with a town on a steep hill called Sallum.
If you go through the two checkpoints,
Libya will unfold its dry pastures for you.
On the Sallum hill there is a hotel
where people stay to await relatives
crossing the border or to hear word
if it is safe to return. Across the road
a tired bluegreen tea house sits
like a bruise permanently on the verge
of fading from the prairies' skin.
You will also see the money changers—
all teenage boys. With their right hands
they will wave thick wads of money
at your windshield, and with their left
they will jostle to give you the best rate.
The last time I stayed in Sallum
few cars came from either direction,
and among the boys fights flared
with curses and stones hurled at brows.
When the boys' rabble grew loud
a man lazily stepped out of the tea house
to call them bastards and sons of whores.
This went on for hours until
the sun settled in the middle of the sky,
the boys taking shelter under
a torn canvas shed, and the man
to the tea house's dusty cool.
Then just when all movement
and noise seemed to surrender
to the September wind and heat,
four of the boys broke for a run
racing—money still clutched in their hands—
to a young date palm in the distance.
Pressing shoulders and backs against it,
they shook the palm until the season's
first fruit began to rain. The other boys
joined them, and soon the tea house
emptied of the men slouching inside.
Those were my brothers who cowered beneath
the date palm to gather handfuls of fruit,
rubbing each date clean on their sleeves,
chewing softly to savor the taste
as though it were a good omen, and rising
to resume their lives, on their faces
the smiles of those who once were blessed.

Khaled Mattawa, "Date Palm Trinity" from Ismailia Eclipse. Copyright © 1995 by Khaled Mattawa.  Reprinted by permission of The Sheep Meadow Press.

Source: Ismailia Eclipse (The Sheep Meadow Press, 1995)

Khaled Mattawa

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15
September

Envoi (or Envoy)

The brief stanza that ends French poetic forms such as the ballade or sestina. It usually serves as a summation or a dedication to a particular person. See Hilaire Belloc’s satirical “Ballade of Modest Confession.”

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15
September

Poem of the Day: The Hug

It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
    Half of the night with our old friend
        Who'd showed us in the end
    To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
        Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.

I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
        Suddenly, from behind,
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
         Your instep to my heel,
     My shoulder-blades against your chest.
     It was not sex, but I could feel
     The whole strength of your body set,
             Or braced, to mine,
         And locking me to you
     As if we were still twenty-two
     When our grand passion had not yet
         Become familial.
     My quick sleep had deleted all
     Of intervening time and place.
         I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.

Thom Gunn, "The Hug" from The Man with Night Sweats. Copyright © 1992 by Thom Gunn. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, www.fsgbooks.com. All rights reserved.

Caution: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Source: Collected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994)

Thom Gunn

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14
September

Poem of the Day: Defence of Fort M’Henry

O! say can you see, by the dawn's early light,
    What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
    O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming?
        And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
        Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there —
            O! say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
            O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
    Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze o'er the towering steep,
    As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
        Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
        In full glory reflected now shines on the stream —
            'Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
            O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
    That the havock of war and the battle's confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
    Their blood has wash'd out their foul foot-steps' pollution,
        No refuge could save the hireling and slave,
        From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave;
            And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
            O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

O! thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
    Between their lov'd home, and the war's desolation,
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the heav'n-rescued land
    Praise the power that hath made and preserv'd us a nation!
        Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
        And this be our motto — "In God is our trust!"
            And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
            O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.


Francis Scott Key

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