1.
Don’t our lives unfold in proportion to our courage, I wrote to someone a few days ago, my heart in my throat, wondering why I’m writing a letter at all.

2.
Every day is an effort to be better at this. Living, I mean. Trying it on like a dress, this being human, which you must be tired of by now, my having talked about it for years and years, I mean.

3.
Why do you keep your struggles out in the open? Why do you wear your heart on your sleeve? What is to be gained in making a fool out of yourself? These are questions I’ve been asked, for which I don’t necessarily have the answers.

4.
I think I promised myself some sort of transformation. A metamorphosis of some kind. Growing into a person that I needed, perhaps. A bird learning to be better at flight.

5.
A wet sparrow, perhaps, as I stand out on the street yesterday, big, fat drops of water on my hair, my face, my shoulders, my back. What is a fool if not someone who forgets umbrellas, knowing full well it’s the season for rain. What is a fool, who laughs and shivers and runs for cover and laughs again, shoes squeaking after having stepped into a puddle.

6.
It’s November now. It’s not too late to be here again, is it?

The Meaning of Birds
Charles Smith

Of the genesis of birds we know nothing,
save the legend they are descended
from reptiles: flying, snap-jawed lizards
that have somehow taken to air. Better the story
that they were crab-apple blossoms
or such, blown along by the wind; time after time
finding themselves tossed from perhaps a seaside tree,
floated or lifted over the thin blue lazarine waves
until something in the snatch of color
began to flutter and rise. But what does it matter
anyway how they got up high
in the trees or over the rusty shoulders
of some mountain? There they are,
little figments,
animated—soaring. And if occasionally a tern washes up
greased and stiff, and sometimes a cardinal
or a mockingbird slams against the windshield
and your soul goes oh God and shivers
at the quick and unexpected end
to beauty, it is not news that we live in a world
where beauty is unexplainable
and suddenly ruined
and has its own routines. We are often far
from home in a dark town, and our griefs
are difficult to translate into a language
understood by others. We sense the downswing of time
and learn, having come of age, that the reluctant
concessions made in youth
are not sufficient to heat the cold drawn breath
of age. Perhaps temperance
was not enough, foresight or even wisdom
fallacious, not only in conception
but in the thin acts
themselves. So our lives are difficult,
and perhaps unpardonable, and the fey gauds
of youth have, as the old men told us they would,
faded. But still, it is morning again, this day.
In the flowering trees
the birds take up their indifferent, elegant cries.
Look around. Perhaps it isn’t too late
to make a fool of yourself again. Perhaps it isn’t too late
to flap your arms and cry out, to give
one more cracked rendition of your singular, aspirant song.

This is from Indistinguishable from the Darkness by Charlie Smith, published by W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

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Good night, Derek Walcott, sir. Thank you for your poems. Rest easy now.

Endings
Derek Walcott

Things do not explode,
they fail, they fade,

as sunlight fades from the flesh,
as the foam drains quick in the sand,

even love’s lightning flash
has no thunderous end,

it dies with the sound
of flowers fading like the flesh

from sweating pumice stone,
everything shapes this

till we are left
with the silence that surrounds Beethoven’s head.

This is from Collected Poems 1948-1984 by Derek Walcott, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986.

Dear T.,

1.
Dear self: today you turn thirty-one. Do you feel that? Do you feel your bones adjusting to the weight around your body, to the soul you carry? And have you found out what it meant, to want to be here?

2.
Another year older. I’m not very sure we’re wiser for it, but we definitely have made some choices, haven’t we. Yes we did. Perhaps that’s the thing—to continue making decisions that spur your life inch by inch towards some direction. It doesn’t even have to mean forward or backward, because didn’t we say we’ll try to live spherically, in many directions? Didn’t we say: moving without leaving, and didn’t we do exactly that this past year?

3.
Where are we going, self? Where will our feet take us, where will our mind lead us, where will our body agree to go? What are we willing to embrace this year? And do you feel that, the apprehension that murmurs in your chest like a fluttering bird, the uncertainty that makes you weak in the knees? And will you go anyway?

4.
Have you forgiven yourself for it, the fuck-ups, the constant undoing and redoing? Have you accepted that you will always lose something, and when that happens, the question to ask is: and what have I gained?

5.
Last year you said: Be good, forgive, exist. The year before that: I think maybe it’s time to be found. The year before that: You’re not alone. The year before that: It takes courage to live.

Do you hear it, all the echoes of your past selves trying to tell you that you are loved? The unknown yawns before us, and yes, maybe we’ll fuck it up. And maybe we won’t.

6.
Happy birthday, old fool.

Encounter
Czeslaw Milosz
Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

This is from The Collected Poems of Czeslaw Milosz, published by Ecco Press, 1988.

1.
Listen: haven’t you always been alone, and haven’t you always been okay with that? Because it is what it is: people are together alone, or are they alone together?

2.
But listen: poetry offers you a space to be, and a space to be here, and maybe right now that’s what matters.

3.
Listen: these poems are where everything started — the creation of your languaged self! And how astonishing. How right. How true.

Autobiographia Literaria
Frank O’Hara

When I was a child
I played by myself in a
corner of the schoolyard
all alone.

I hated dolls and I
hated games, animals were
not friendly and birds
flew away.

If anyone was looking
for me I hid behind a
tree and cried out “I am
an orphan.”

And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!
Imagine!

This is from The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara, edited by Donald Allen, published by Vintage Books, 1974.

My dear friend,

1.
I found myself saying every now and then: “What a terrible year.” I repeat it often, and loudly, as if I couldn’t say it enough. What a terrible year this has been, and now there are only a few more hours left until it is over. I am gripped with suspended relief, if that makes sense somehow. I am anxiously waiting for the worst of it all to seize me in the last few moments but also crossing all my fingers and toes that I have passed through the last of it.

2.
Truth be told there have been some good things, too, and haven’t I talked about that? It’s just—there had been tremendous and awful things in our lives, and we have suffered huge losses. It became impossible to see the light sometimes. The emptiness was a weight we carried with us.

3.
What is holy, I ask myself. Questions visit me nightly before bed. What is here and what is yours and will I make it. Questions upon questions, trying to sift through the day to find the blessing from the rubble.

I am alive, I answer back. I am living and I am choosing to live and I am working on being alive. My life is here and this is the life I have and a thousand yeses.

4.
Sometimes I no longer know if I’m making up answers as I go farther along in life, but it’s the best I can do. Isn’t that what any one of us ever really does?

5.
When I said in your presence, “What a terrible year,” I hope you can forgive me. Because we are alive, you see, and your life has meaning and your presence in mine surpasses the embrace of the deep dark. You have had joys, too, and you are loved. Our love for one another is what kept the world going, truly—and I am saying it because it’s my one anchor this year while I struggle not to drown: you are loved.

6.
Listen: the year is ending. Let us be done with it. Tomorrow we begin again.

The Round
Stanley Kunitz

Light splashed this morning
on the shell-pink anemones
swaying on their tall stems;
down blue-spiked veronica
light flowed in rivulets
over the humps of the honeybees;
this morning I saw light kiss
the silk of the roses
in their second flowering,
my late bloomers
flushed with their brandy.
A curious gladness shook me.

So I have shut the doors of my house,
so I have trudged downstairs to my cell,
so I am sitting in semi-dark
hunched over my desk
with nothing for a view
to tempt me
but a bloated compost heap,
steamy old stinkpile,
under my window;
and I pick my notebook up
and I start to read aloud
the still-wet words I scribbled
on the blotted page:
“Light splashed . . .”

I can scarcely wait till tomorrow
when a new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day.

This is from Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected by Stanley Kunitz, published by W.W. Norton, 1995.

1.
My dear friend, you who are here right now reading this, carving a tiny pocket of time for yourself, a small space where you and I and this poem will reside for a moment: I am hugging you.

2.
My dear friend, it has been such a tremendously terrible year. I know it. You know it. And yet here we are. We are reading poetry and we are discovering that we still have a little bit more to give. That life, somehow, refuses to give up, so why should we?

3.
My dear friend, I am holding you and your pain, as you are holding mine. I promise that this place will always be here to embrace you. I am here to enfold you in my arms and let my love reach the corners where your hurts reside. You are not alone.

4.
My dear friend, if it is at all possible to love you, I do.

5.
My dear friend: it is midnight, and it is now Christmas on my side of the world. I am hugging you.

The Hug
Tess Gallagher

A woman is reading a poem on the street
and another woman stops to listen. We stop too.
with our arms around each other.

Suddenly a hug comes over me and I’m
giving it to you, like a variable star shooting light
off to make itself comfortable, then
subsiding. I finish but keep on holding
you. A man walks up to us and we know he hasn’t
come out of nowhere, but if he could, he
would have. He looks homeless because of how
he needs. “Can I have one of those?” he asks you,
and I feel you nod. I’m surprised,
surprised you don’t tell him how
it is – that I’m yours, only
yours, etc., exclusive as a nose to
its face. Love – that’s what we’re talking about, love
that nabs you with “for me
only” and holds on.

So I walk over to him and put my
arms around him and try to
hug him like I mean it. He’s got an overcoat on
so thick I can’t feel
him past it. I’m starting the hug
and thinking, “How big a hug is this supposed to be?
How long shall I hold this hug?” Already
we could be eternal, his arms falling over my
shoulders, my hands not
meeting behind his back, he is so big!

I put my head into his chest and snuggle
in. I lean into him. I lean my blood and my wishes
into him. He stands for it. This is his
and he’s starting to give it back so well I know he’s
getting it. This hug. So truly, so tenderly
we stop having arms and I don’t know if
my lover has walked away or what, or
whether the woman is still reading the poem…

Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing.
But when you hug someone you want it
to be a masterpiece of connection, the way the button
on his coat will leave the imprint of
a planet in my cheek
when I walk away. When I try to find some place
to go back to.

1.
I guess that’s really how it is to love, yeah? I said, just now to a friend. You let go again and again.

2.
I extend my arms, my fingers tapping an invisible thread, a bit unresponsive some days. This day. And maybe more days in the future. I hope not. I’m hoping not.

3.
I am told I am the kind of person who sets herself up for disappointment. I feel I have been told this before, and I’ve forgotten.

4.
Why do I set myself up for that, it’s fucking cruel, I said.

5.
Maybe I am always told this, and maybe I always choose to forget. Maybe the thing I should remember is that my self is also someone I should love.

A Letter in October
Ted Kooser

Dawn comes later and later now,
and I, who only a month ago
could sit with coffee every morning
watching the light walk down the hill
to the edge of the pond and place
a doe there, shyly drinking,

then see the light step out upon
the water, sowing reflections
to either side—a garden
of trees that grew as if by magic—
now see no more than my face,
mirrored by darkness, pale and odd,

startled by time. While I slept,
night in its thick winter jacket
bridled the doe with a twist
of wet leaves and led her away,
then brought its black horse with harness
that creaked like a cricket, and turned

the water garden under. I woke,
and at the waiting window found
the curtains open to my open face;
beyond me, darkness. And I,
who only wished to keep looking out,
must now keep looking in.



(from Poetry Foundation)