once I used to know the shapes of wheatstalks

Dear readers,

Thank you for following me on this month’s journey in verse. I hope you encountered at least one poem that delighted or moved you, bewildered or emboldened you. It has truly been a pleasure sharing this range of works with you–and I hope to continue posting beyond National Poetry Month, though not quite as often!

The last words of April will come from one of the most revered contemporary Arab poets, the Syrian writer Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998). He was known for his stirring love poetry that gave expression to women’s freedom–and also for his poems of exile and elegy. He passed away 15 years today and was buried in his hometown of Damascus, which he described in his will as “the womb that taught me poetry, taught me creativity, and granted me the alphabet of Jasmine.”


“A Lesson in Drawing”

My son places his paint box in front of me
and asks me to draw a bird for him.
Into the color gray I dip the brush
and draw a square with locks and bars.
Astonishment fills his eyes:
“… But this is a prison, Father,
Don’t you know, how to draw a bird?”
And I tell him: “Son, forgive me.
I’ve forgotten the shapes of birds.”


My son puts the drawing book in front of me
and asks me to draw a wheatstalk.
I hold the pen
and draw a gun.
My son mocks my ignorance,
“Don’t you know, Father, the difference between a
wheatstalk and a gun?”
I tell him, “Son,
once I used to know the shapes of wheatstalks
the shape of the loaf
the shape of the rose
But in this hardened time
the trees of the forest have joined
the militia men
and the rose wears dull fatigues
In this time of armed wheatstalks
armed birds
armed culture
and armed religion
you can’t buy a loaf
without finding a gun inside
you can’t pluck a rose in the field
without its raising its thorns in your face
you can’t buy a book
that doesn’t explode between your fingers.”


My son sits at the edge of my bed
and asks me to recite a poem,
A tear falls from my eyes onto the pillow.
My son licks it up, astonished, saying:
“But this is a tear, father, not a poem!”
And I tell him:
“When you grow up, my son,
and read the diwan of Arabic poetry
you’ll discover that the word and the tear are twins
and the Arabic poem
is no more than a tear wept by writing fingers.”

My son lays down his pens, his crayon box in
front of me
and asks me to draw a homeland for him.
The brush trembles in my hands
and I sink, weeping.


you lived around the edge of everything we did

This month would not be complete if I did not post something from Naomi Shihab Nye (1952- ), who has always been one of my absolute favorite poets. Today’s piece comes from her newest collection, Transfer, a beautiful, book-length elegy for her father.


We are looking for your laugh.
Trying to find the path back to it
between drooping trees.
Listening for your rustle
under bamboo,
brush of fig leaves,
feeling your step
on the porch,
natty lantana blossom
poked into your buttonhole.
We see your raised face
at both sides of a day.
How was it, you lived around
the edge of everything we did,
seasons of ailing & growing,
mountains of laundry & mail?
I am looking for you first & last
in the dark places,
when I turn my face away
from headlines at dawn,
dropping the rolled news to the floor.
Your rumble of calm
poured into me.
There was the saving grace
of care, from day one, the watching
and being watched
from every corner of the yard.

I love you more than the flame that limits the world

Oh, Rilke, how I adore you.

from Book of Hours

You, darkness, of whom I am born —

I love you more than the flame
that limits the world
to the circle it illumines
and excludes all the rest.

But the darkness embraces everything:
shapes and shadows, creatures and me,
people, nations — just as they are.

It lets me imagine
a great presence stirring beside me.

I believe in the night.

translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows 

Say you’d still want this


“The Conditional”


by Ada Limón (1976- )

Say tomorrow doesn’t come.
Say the moon becomes an icy pit.
Say the sweet-gum tree is petrified.
Say the sun’s a foul black tire fire.
Say the owl’s eyes are pinpricks.
Say the raccoon’s a hot tar stain.
Say the shirt’s plastic ditch-litter.
Say the kitchen’s a cow’s corpse.
Say we never get to see it: bright
future, stuck like a bum star, never
coming close, never dazzling.
Say we never meet her. Never him.
Say we spend our last moments staring
at each other, hands knotted together,
clutching the dog, watching the sky burn.
Say, It doesn’t matter. Say, That would be
enough. Say you’d still want this: us alive,
right here, feeling lucky.

till it started to taste of something new and strange and far away

I find this Mark Irwin poem quite peculiar and yet so lovely and unexpected.

“A vanilla cake,”

with vanilla frosting, he’d made himself, he took
to his mother who lived alone on the mountain, where he walked
up the snowy steps under the masked pines. “Happy Birthday,” he said,
as crouched, she walked and set it on the empty table surrounded
by chairs and dozens of photographs. Where are they? she wondered,
making coffee, lighting a candle as her son made a fire, his hair the color of ice,
she thought as they both sat down, the cake between them, into which
they buried their hands, touching. “It’s still warm,” she said. “Yes,” he said,
as the wax dripped from the tall candle, and they talked. “How are things
in the valley?” she asked. “Still green,” he said, “Good, good,” she said,
as they began to feed each other with their fingers, closing their eyes,
making wishes as the stars blazed through the big window, snow blowing
from the eaves as they ate, telling of the past, then moments of the present–
the weather and the heart–continuing to eat bigger handfuls, their faces white,
       smeared, till
it started to taste of something new and strange and far away.

this past was waiting for me when I came

“i am accused of tending to the past”

by Lucille Clifton ( 1936-2010)

i am accused of tending to the past
as if i made it,
as if i sculpted it
with my own hands. i did not.
this past was waiting for me
when i came,
a monstrous unnamed baby,
and i with my mother’s itch
took it to breast
and named it
she is more human now,
learning languages everyday,
remembering faces, names and dates.
when she is strong enough to travel
on her own, beware, she will.

Who are you, walking in this worried crowd.

“Night is a Cistern”

by Adam Zagajewski (1945- )

Night is a cistern. Owls sing. Refugees tread meadow roads
with the loud rustling of endless grief.
Who are you, walking in this worried crowd.
And who will you become, who will you be
when day returns, and ordinary greetings circle round.

Night is a cistern. The last pair dances at a country ball.
High waves cry from the sea, the wind rocks pines.
An unknown hand draws the dawn’s first stroke.
Lamps fade, a motor chokes.
Before us, life’s path, and instants of astronomy.