In this time of pandemic—as we practice social distancing for the greater good—poetry remains abundant and available.
The following texts were gathered by our staff, from various home offices, in response to the question: “What can we offer our community in this time of crisis?” We can’t offer healthcare, rent payments, a cure, or even a hand to hold. Some of us can’t even find the stillness of mind to read much, let alone distill our own chaotic thoughts into wisdom. But we can share poems for people who want them, whether for balm, fuel, or a sense of connection, and we will continue to add to this collection in the weeks to come.
May you and your loved ones be safe and healthy. For as long as this crisis lasts and beyond, may these poems and others keep you company. Remember, as Ocean Vuong writes, “loneliness is still time spent with the world.”
Yours in Poetry,
The team at Copper Canyon Press
All of Us All of Us
by Marianne Boruch
Anyone could stand in a kitchen, tiny
barbs of arrow sinking
in again. Whoever shot it good
missed the heart.
That’s the problem, isn’t it? The only partly.
Brave and pathetic the way we
walk away okay enough, and think things.
Something fated to be given, but not gotten.
Something dreamt never coming with, on waking.
No longer no longer no longer something.
It’s the repeat—how a car
can drive the same road home, years
the ruts, the standing water every spring.
It can make you sick because
you wanted to love it.
To keep the already said going,
to sit then rise again. And to
leave in the sink: the cup with a little coffee,
lettuce on a plate from lunch.
All of us, all of us.
Even anguish in such small things is
by W.S Merwin
All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning
The Current Isolationism
by Camille Rankine
In the half-light, I am most
at home, my shadow
When I feel hot, I push a button
to make it stop. I mean this stain on my mind
I can’t get out. How human
I seem. Like modern man,
I traffic in extinction. I have a gift.
Like an animal, I sustain.
A flock of birds
when touched, I scatter. I won’t approach
until the back is turned.
My heart betrays. I confess: I am afraid.
How selfish of me.
When there’s no one here, I halve
the distance between
our bodies infinitesimally.
In this long passageway, I pose
against the wallpaper, dig
my heels in, catch the light.
In my vision, the back door opens
on a garden that is always
in bloom. The dogs
are chained so they can’t attack like I know
they want to. In the next yard
over, honeybees swarm
and their sound is huge.
by Olav Hauge
There’s nervous energy in everything now: anxiety in
anxiety in the stars, anxiety in the earth, anxiety
in the grass, the hornets’ nest, tension
in both men and women, friction
in cars, planes, and wires,
a charge in the stove,
the coffee pot,
jolt, jolt, jolt,
in everything one touches,
That’s why he stands in rubber boots,
digging himself down
to the blue clay, the cold water.
What Issa Heard
by David Budbill
Two hundred years ago Issa heard the morning birds
singing sutras to this suffering world.
I heard them too, this morning, which must mean,
since we will always have a suffering world,
we must also always have a song.
won’t you celebrate with me
by Lucille Clifton
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
letter from my heart to my brain
by Rachel McKibbins
It’s okay to hang upside down
like a bat, to swim
into the deep end of silence,
to swallow every key
so you can’t get out.
It’s okay to hear the ocean
calling your fevered name,
to say your sorrow is an opera
of snakes, to flirt with sharp
& heartless things.
It’s okay to write,
I deserve everything!
To bow down
to this rotten thing
that understands you,
to adore the red
& ugly queen of it, admire
her calm & steady rowing.
It’s okay to lock yourself
in the medicine cabinet,
to drink all the wine,
to do what it takes
to stay without staying.
It’s okay to hate
God today, to change
his name to yours,
to want to ruin all
that ruined you.
It’s okay to feel
like only a photograph
of yourself, to need
a stranger to pull
your hair & pin you down,
it’s okay to want
as you lie alone
It’s okay to brick
to fuck to flame
to church to crush
to knife to rock
& rock & rock
& rock & rock
It’s okay to wave
goodbye to yourself
in the mirror.
To write, I don’t want anything.
It’s okay to despise
what you have inherited,
to feel dead
in a city of pulses.
It’s okay to be the whale
that never comes up
for air, to love best
the taste of your
from 13th Balloon
by Mark Bibbins
What was that trick
How did you do it
It was as if you’d unfolded a map
you’d secretly been drawing
for us all along a map
of a new and radiant country
across which together we would
carry you as you died
In truth I don’t have that many
memories of you left
that were they spliced together
the result would be the length of a movie trailer
or if weighed
would weigh as much as an eggshell
I can remember some things you said
if not verbatim the tone the inflection
and whether they arrived through a phone line
or through the air
or whether you thought something
you were saying was funny
like the time near the end
when you told your favorite nurse
who was trying a new diet
that if she really wanted to lose
weight she should have sex with you
C’mere lemme stick it in you
you’ll lose thirty pounds real quick
We lived on a planet of disaster
We lived in a country of misery
We lived in a state of horror
We lived in a city of scandal
We lived in a house of daily dying
from which to distract ourselves
we sometimes embroidered
the filthiest jokes we could think up
on every available towel pillowcase sheet
I shouldn’t say it saved us
but in many ways it did
There is a Light in Me
by Anna Swir
Whether in daytime or in nighttime
I always carry inside
In the middle of noise and turmoil
I carry silence.
I carry light and silence.
8, from Lao-Tzu’s Taoteching
by Lao-Tzu; Red Pine (Bill Porter), trans.
The best are like water
bringing help to all
choosing what others avoid
they thus approach the Tao
dwelling with earth
thinking with depth
helping with kindness
speaking with honesty
governing with peace
working with skill
and moving with time
and because they don’t compete
they aren’t maligned
A Physics of Sudden Light
by Alberto Ríos
This is just about light, how suddenly
One comes upon it sometimes and is surprised.
In light, something is lifted.
That is the property of light,
And in it one weighs less.
A broad and wide leap of light
Encountered suddenly, for a moment–
You are not where you were
But you have not moved. It’s the moment
That startles you up out of dream,
But the other way around: It’s the moment, instead,
That startles you into dream, makes you
Close your eyes–that kind of light, the moment
For which, in our language, we have only
The word surprise, maybe a few others,
But not enough. The moment is regular
As with all the things regular
At the closing of the twentieth century:
A knowledge that electricity exists
Somewhere inside the walls;
That tonight the moon in some fashion will come out;
That cold water is good to drink.
The way taste slows a thing
On its way into the body.
Light, widened and slowed, so much of it: It
Cannot be swallowed into the mouth of the eye,
Into the throat of the pupil, there is
So much of it. But we let it in anyway,
Something in us knowing
The appropriate mechanism, the moment’s lever.
Light, the slow moment of everything fast.
Like hills, those slowest waves, light,
That slowest fire, all
Confusion, confusion here
One more part of clarity: In this light
You are not where you were but you have not moved.
Petition for Replenishment
by C.D. Wright
We do not mean to complain. We know how it is.
In older, even sadder cultures the worst possible sorts
have been playing hot and cold with people’s lives
for much longer. Like Perrow says,
We’ll all have baboon hearts one of these days.
We wintered with ample fuel and real tomatoes.
We were allowed to roam, sniffing and chewing
at the tufted crust. We were let to breathe.
That is, we respirated. Now the soft clocks
have gorged themselves on our time. Yet
as our hair blanches and comes out
in hanks, we can tell it is nearly spring—
the students shed their black coats
on the green; we begin to see shade.
Lo, this is the breastbone’s embraceable light.
We are here. Still breathing and constellated.
Poema 18, from Then Come Back
by Pablo Neruda; Forrest Gander, trans.
Comes back from his blaze, the fireman,
from his star the astronomer,
from his disastrous passion the obsessive,
from one million whatever the ambitious,
from the naval night the sailor,
the poet returns from his slabber,
the soldier from fear,
the fisherman from his wet heart,
the mother from Juanito’s fever,
the thief from his nighttime high,
the engineer from his frosted rose,
the native from his hunger,
the judge from fatigue and unsureness,
the jealous from his torment,
the dancer from her exhausted feet,
the architect from the three thousandth floor,
the pharaoh from his tenth life,
the hooker from her Lycra and falsies,
the hero comes back from oblivion,
the poor from another day gone,
the surgeon from staring down death,
the fighter from his pathetic contract,
someone returns from geometry,
stepping back from his infinity, the explorer,
the cook from her dirty dishes,
the novelist from a web of lies,
the hunter stamps out the fire and returns,
the adulterer from rapture and despair,
the professor from a glass of wine,
the schemer from his backstabbing,
the gardener has shuttered his rose,
the bartender stoppers his liquor,
the convict takes up his plea again,
the butcher washed his hands,
the nun quit her prayers,
the miner his slick tunnel,
and like the rest I take off my clothes,
inside the night of all men, I make
a smaller night for myself,
my woman joins me, silence bears down
and the dream spins the world again.
from Soft Targets
by Deborah Landau
Don’t blame the wisteria for setting off a feeling like freedom a feeling like joy.
We watched the people walking in the open square—
one of them was a specialist in killing, fear was the way of others.
I’ve seen the most extraordinary thing about people, their faces.
Remember the trees in springtime, we ate candy beneath them,
shouts from the playground, static of yellowjackets, your fresh new haircut.
Here’s a tweeted canto, some words for the end of the world—
for when I am forever nothing, and you are
(and you and you).
What we were for such a brief.
(M with the laundry, the dog at his bowl, the boys going at it out back.)
O you who want to slaughter us, we’ll be dead soon enough what’s the rush
and this our only world.
Now bring me a souvenir from the desecrated city,
something tender, something that might bloom.
Often I Imagine the Earth
by Dan Gerber
Often I imagine the earth
through the eyes of the atoms we’re made of—
no me, no you, no opinions,
no beginning, no middle, no end,
soaring together like those
ancient Chinese birds
hatched miraculously with only one wing,
helping each other fly home.
by Brenda Shaughnessy
I am dreaming of a house just like this one
but larger and opener to the trees, nighter
than day and higher than noon, and you,
visiting, knocking to get in, hoping for icy
milk or hot tea or whatever it is you like.
For each night is a long drink in a short glass.
A drink of blacksound water, such a rush
and fall of lonesome no form can contain it.
And if it isn’t night yet, though I seem to
recall that it is, then it is not for everyone.
Did you receive my invitation? It is not
for everyone. Please come to my house
lit by leaf light. It’s like a book with bright
pages filled with flocks and glens and groves
and overlooked by Pan, that seductive satyr
in whom the fish is also cooked. A book that
took too long to read but minutes to unread—
that is—to forget. Strange are the pages
thus. Nothing but the hope of company.
I made too much pie in expectation. I was
hoping to sit with you in a treehouse in a
nightgown in a real way. Did you receive
my invitation? Written in haste, before
leaf blinked out, before the idea fully formed.
An idea like a stormcloud that does not spill
or arrive but moves silently in a direction.
Like a dark book in a long life with a vague
hope in a wood house with an open door.
Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong
by Ocean Vuong
Ocean, don’t be afraid.
The end of the road is so far ahead
it is already behind us.
Don’t worry. Your father is only your father
until one of you forgets. Like how the spine
won’t remember its wings
no matter how many times our knees
kiss the pavement. Ocean,
are you listening? The most beautiful part
of your body is wherever
your mother’s shadow falls.
Here’s the house with childhood
whittled down to a single red trip wire.
Don’t worry. Just call it horizon
& you’ll never reach it.
Here’s today. Jump. I promise it’s not
a lifeboat. Here’s the man
whose arms are wide enough to gather
your leaving. & here the moment,
just after the lights go out, when you can still see
the faint torch between his legs.
How you use it again & again
to find your own hands.
You asked for a second chance
& are given a mouth to empty out of.
Don’t be afraid, the gunfire
is only the sound of people
trying to live a little longer
& failing. Ocean. Ocean—
get up. The most beautiful part of your body
is where it’s headed. & remember,
loneliness is still time spent
with the world. Here’s
the room with everyone in it.
Your dead friends passing
through you like wind
through a wind chime. Here’s a desk
with the gimp leg & a brick
to make it last. Yes, here’s a room
so warm & blood-close,
I swear, you will wake—
& mistake these walls
“Not many of them, it’s true”
by Gregory Orr
Not many of them, it’s true,
But certain poems
In an uncertain world—
The ones we cling to:
They bring us back
Always to the beloved
Whom we thought we’d lost.
As surely as if the words
Led her by the hand,
Brought him before us.
In an uncertain world.
The World Has Need of You
by Ellen Bass
seems to need us
—Rainer Maria Rilke
I can hardly imagine it
as I walk to the lighthouse, feeling the ancient
prayer of my arms swinging
in counterpoint to my feet.
Here I am, suspended
between the sidewalk and twilight,
the sky dimming so fast it seems alive.
What if you felt the invisible
tug between you and everything?
A boy on a bicycle rides by,
his white shirt open, flaring
behind him like wings.
It’s a hard time to be human. We know too much
and too little. Does the breeze need us?
The cliffs? The gulls?
If you’ve managed to do one good thing,
the ocean doesn’t care.
But when Newton’s apple fell toward the earth,
the earth, ever so slightly, fell
toward the apple.
Meditation on Transmission
by Dean Rader
This poem appeared originally in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 8, 2020.
The map on my
tv reddens the
way a wound
here, the earth’s
blue body brutally
infected, its slim
like a child waiting
to be picked up,
held, carried to its
bed and sung to sleep,
in its dreams, death
comes dressed as a
doorknob, a handle
on a bus, a button,
a bowl of nuts,
sky, a whisper, a kiss,
and it says breath
of my breath, and it
says take me inside
you, and it says,
teach me to multiply,
and the earth
says, Look, I am
living, and the
earth says, holocene
and the earth
says, if something
isn’t burning, it is
the waters do
not part, and
the sun does
not slide into
its black box,
and the stars
do not switch
off their light,
the rain does
not ask the
water and yet
with birds about
the air destroys.
Nobody Riding the Roads Today
by June Jordan
Nobody riding the roads today
But I hear the living rush
far away from my heart
Nobody meeting on the streets
But I rage from the crowded
overtones of emptiness
Nobody sleeping in my bed
But I breathe like windows
broken by emergencies
Nobody laughing anymore
But I see the world split
and twisted up like open stone
Nobody riding the roads today
But I hear the living rush
far away from my heart