Saved by Form

I set the timer for fifteen minutes, pushed start,
then sat, waiting for Inspiration. First I tried
this, then that. Then “the other thing,” but
eight minutes later, still, I had no poem!

Then, with six minutes to spare, huzzah! I was saved!
By Form! Two stanzas! Four lines each! No rhymes!
Less than a minute left now, but nothing to fear.
I knew I would be done by the end of this line.



Saturday morning in Espoo.
Puddles in the gravel driveway
My wife has driven away in the rain
with our first daughter to
gather mushrooms in the forest.

These days, I barely recall my American routines
Five years abroad, I am practically European.
Our second daughter naps. I prepare for
my brother-in-law’s birthday party.
Voilepäkakku, coffee early on, and

later, for some, drinking in the city.
The stillness of this house in rain
is something I have come to love.
Rubber boots and coats by the door, through
which my wife and daughter will soon return.

June 21st, 1977

Elvis stopped, twice; grinning sidelong
That toothy, twinkling, contagious smile,
Then continued on. “Unchained Melody.”

That night he held the world in his arms and squeezed.
“I need your love, I need your love.”
Six Tuesdays later he was still squeezing,

But on Wednesday I got up, and Elvis did not.
We should remember our mothers.
We should sing for them while we can.

(Note: This poem is a loose imitation of “The Mower” by Phillip Larkin.)

Kirk’s Original Hardwater Soap


The smell of Kirk’s Hardwater Soap is how I best remember my grandfather.

There are a few other memories of him as well,
like once when he got mad after hitting his thumb with a hammer.
And him not getting mad when I spilled red paint
all over the basement workbench and floor.
Then there was his long open back gown when I visited
him in the hospital before he died of cancer when I was seven.

There is a memory too of him washing himself
in Kelly Lake, after swimming out to the sandbar,
but mostly it is the smell of that soap.

Photo taken in Times Square, 2010

It’s been on my desk since I started this job, that framed
print of the selfie we took in Times Square –
September, 2010, our first date – the Golden Arches,
and the red stripes of TGI Fridays behind us,
me in a light-yellow shirt, you in a turquoise scarf and a
necklace you still have. Glasses we’ve both since replaced.

I don’t notice it always, but today I do, recalling
the different time and country in which it was taken.
Then, we did not know our future – my moving, our children,
the unending mettle required of us all – but clearly, we knew
something, my arm around your neck, hand on your shoulder,
my thumb pressing your upper arm, holding on.

Elizabeth Gathoni Koinange (Photo from the Daily Nation)

The World’s Oldest Person

Just think that among
the billions of souls
on earth, there really is
only one (often a woman),
born before all of us.
Take, for example,
Emma Martina Luigia Morano of Italy,
dead yesterday at 117,
the last living human born in
the 1800s.
She ate 3 eggs a day
and kicked her husband out
in 1938.
Today, Elizabeth Gathoni Koinange,
the only surviving widow
of colonial-era chief Koinange wa Mbiyu
of Kenya, assumes
the role of “World’s Oldest Person.”
She has seen six generations but
can’t recall the last time
she saw a doctor.
R.I.P., Emma (at long last)!
And I raise my coffee cup to you, Elizabeth!
as I read the morning news
and live a while longer.

(Based on a news article in the Daily Nation.)

Image from

One Way to Write a Poem

Start with an abstract idea,
June, 1944 perhaps.
Discuss it a moment, tease it –
in Normandy, the allies prevailed,
yet the war dragged on –
then switch
without warning to a wholly different subject,
the night wind blew so hard
it knocked down the mountain shack
that cloudless night the old man died alone.
Write two short lines
of quick, clipped words
then slowly and yawningly stretch the syllables all the way to the rightmost margin of the page.
Write one simple line of Anglo-Saxon prose
And one of meticulous and ornate Latinate verbiage.
bring the poem back to that windy night,
the color of the sky beyond the silhouette of the shack.
Ask a question: Was there a moon?
And answer,
What, come morning, was totally, irrevocably changed?

Norma Jean

10 minutes after I turn out her bedside lamp
my 3-year-old is still fighting sleep,
fidgeting, asking for water, to use the toilet,
to go say ‘night to mama one last time.

I lie back on the floor and think of Norma Jean,
the 6,500-pound elephant who was the star of the Clark and Walters
circus, struck and killed by lightning in Oquawka,
Illinois in 1972. I went there with my parents once

and saw the tombstone. They buried her where she fell,
right in the town square. My daughter finally starts to snore.
I lie in the darkness a few more minutes, glad of the first
quiet moments of the day. “Bummer,” I think to myself.
The circus went out of business the following year. I get up
from the floor and leave my daughter’s room squinting into the light.