Twelve Poems

(Selected by Wendy Barker)

The Story We Know

The way to begin is always the same. Hello,
Hello. Your hand, your name. So glad, Just fine,
and Good-bye at the end. That’s every story we know,

and why pretend? But lunch tomorrow? No?
Yes? An omelette, salad, chilled white wine?
The way to begin is simple, sane, Hello,

and then it’s Sunday, coffee, the Times, a slow
day by the fire, dinner at eight or nine
and Good-bye. In the end, this is a story we know

so well we don’t turn the page, or look below
the picture, or follow the words to the next line:
The way to begin is always the same Hello.

But one night, through the latticed window, snow
begins to whiten the air, and the tall white pine,
Good-bye is the end of every story we know

that night, and when we close the curtains, oh,
we hold each other against that cold white sign
of the way we all begin and end. Hello,
Good-bye is the only story. We know, we know.


He had no rights, they beat him up, you’ve got
no right, he said, and he was right, we thought,
we saw them beat him up, right? it happened right
over there, but it was proper form, the jury
said, and they were right, if you could judge
the beating by what happened next, our driver
said, right off they up and burn the place,
this rights stuff goes too far, next thing it’s an-
imal rights, vegetable rights, mow ’em down
I say, he said and turned, he had the right
of way, license to get where he needed to go,
but what if they stopped him anyway, they’re
the law and that’s their right, the right side
of the body’s on the other side of the heart.

The Border

Hasta luego and over you go and it’s not
serapes, the big sombreros, not even coyotes,
rivers and hills, though that’s more like it, towers
with guards, Stop! or we shoot and they do but you don’t
need a border for that, a fence will do, a black
boy stuck to its wire like a leaf, a happy gun
in the thick pink hand that wags from the sleeve, even
a street, the other side, a door, a skin, give
me a hand, and she gives him a hand, she gives him both
her hands, the bones of her back are cracking, the string
has snapped, she’s falling, she’s pleated paper, paper
is spreading and there you are again, over
the edge, you open your hands and what have you got
but confetti and what can you do with confetti, our
side won, a celebration, shaken hands, it matters
now, whatever it is, but how close
you are, your street, the fence behind your house
is the zero border where minus begins, roots
turn branches, cellar is house, you close your busy
mouth to speak, an anti-lamp darkens
the day, and you love that street, its crazy traffic,
you climb that fence, you wave across, there’s a rock
in your hand but it’s not your fault, you like to travel,
the colorful people, but what if you fell, your house,
your children, the work that gets you up in the morning,
the language gone, the grammar, the rules, the family
talent, those searching eyes, but think of the absence
of eye, a higher tower, a little more wire—
Border? You crossed the border hours ago.

Before the Planes

Epiphany 1991

We will/we won’t they will/they won’t
shoot to kill to free to keep

the oil to drive the cars the women
cannot drive across the fields

of sand the fields of grain across
the sea a camel lumbers up

an aisle behind a king a star
of night before the planes the bombs

begin to save the oil to drive you
cannot talk to monsters even angels

have to draw the line the good-
will stuff’s for God’s guys so God

says so Allah says and the President
bangs his spoon and the President also

bangs his spoon the President says I will
not talk to you I do not like this soup

and the President aims and the President
aims to please to kill to please bang bang

Remember the Trains?

The friendly caboose. The whistle
at night, the light across the field.

Not a field: her yard,
its little fountain. Not

a fountain: cattle cars crammed
with people. Cattle grazed in the field

of the friendly farmer across the road.
The farmer remembers everything.

She remembers counting the cars,
they were filled with cattle, coal,

it would fall on the tracks. The cattle
cars were crammed, he could see the faces

through the cracks, he could hear them cry
for the water he wasn’t supposed to give.

She remembers waving, the engineer
who waved, the tracks behind her house.

He remembers the bodies, he saw them leap
from the windows, he heard the shots,

and the cars returning, empty,
not a whistle, the single light.

The cries she heard were children
at play, friendly children, except the boys

who turned the hose in her face, they said
Come look! she’d almost forgotten.

And the trains kept coming, full,
empty, full again, while the fountain

rose like a flower in the yard that was not
a field and the farmer worked

in the field while they wept,
they waited, they asked for water—

[Untitled, from Blue Front]

couldn’t look out the same
window couldn’t read
the same books laundry
couldn’t be washed
in the same machines

I believe the institution
noble I believe it God’s

water came from the same
source but couldn’t be drunk
from the same fountains

couldn’t be flushed

a town where people lived
together black and white

even there, where they changed
cars when they saw the invisible
line on that river saw it as clear
as the line between the two rivers

the failure of civil authorities
to maintain law and order makes

couldn’t be washed

even sixty years later when a man
was found the same story hanged
the same town hanged  but this
time hanged in the city jail but this

fountain filled with blood
that washes white


There were trees on those streets that were named
for trees: Sycamore, Cedar, Poplar, Pine,
Elm, where the woman’s body was found,
where the man’s body was taken and burned—

There must have been trees, there were trees
on Seventh Street, in front of the house that stands
in the picture behind the carriage that holds
the boy’s mother, the boy’s cousin, the boy—

And of course there were trees on Washington
Avenue, wide boulevard lined with exotic
ginkgoes, stately magnolias, there were trees
on that street that are still on that street,

trees that shaded the fenced-in yards of the large
Victorian houses, the mansion built by the man
who sold flour to Grant for the Union troops,
trees that were known to the crowd that saw

the victim hanged, though not on a tree, this
was not the country, they used a steel arch
with electric lights, and later a lamppost, this
was a modern event, the trees were not involved.


Often they cut off parts for souvenirs.

This time they cut out the heart they sliced it up.

Sometimes they cut off  fingers they cut off toes.

They cut off other parts to cut them off.

Once they made the victim eat those parts.

Made him take them eat them made him chew.

Tell us you like it they said as they watched him eat.

Once they used giant corkscrews to bore the flesh.

Thus they raped the belly the chest the thigh.

Thus they made the infamous parts their own.

Thus like an X-rated movie they enjoyed.

And why this X-rated writing should it be read.

Children were often there they were being taught.

The Bombs

We hit the train we are sorry it was a mistake.

We hit those refugees sorry another mistake.

We hit the bridge there were people we couldn’t see.

We hit the water supply not a mistake but we are sorry.

We hit the embassy sorry another mistake.

We hit the wrong country it wasn’t planned.

In the past we have also hit the wrong things a passenger plane a school.

This time the reasons for hitting what we were trying to hit were good.

We were trying to stop the terrible things being done to innocent people.

Things got worse for those people after we started which proves we were right.

But of course we cannot think about what is right or what is wrong.

They call us smart but bombs are not made to think.

We are sorry there were mistakes but we ourselves make no mistakes.

We only follow orders. We do what we’re told.

[Untitled, from White Papers]

[ 1 ]

Because my father said Yes
but not in our lifetimes Because
my mother said I know my daughter
would never want to marry

But mostly because they rarely spoke
of or noticed or even whispered
about and did not of course…

Because magazines rarely TV
rarely textbooks rarely or not
at all except for figures like
George Washington Carver
who’d lived in our state

Because among the crayons
there was one called Flesh

Because paintings rarely or never
until because books from the library
never until because college literature
not at all the American lit anthology
had only Gwendolyn Brooks
who was not assigned

Because a few years after Brown
v. Board of Education I wrote a paper
that took the position Yes but not yet

[ 14 ]

black keys from trees white keys locked

on black shoulders locked together above

skeleton ribs keys to 45 keyboards from one

tusk the word ivory rang through the air

one tusk + one slave to carry it bought

together if slave survived the long march

sold for spice or sugar plantations if not

replaced by other slaves five Africans died

for each tusk a million for 400,000 American

pianos including the one my grandmother

played not to mention grieving villages

burned women children left to die the dead

elephants whose tusks went to Connecticut

where they were cut bleached and polished

while my grandmother played in Illinois

my mother played and I – there were many old

pianos and slaves were used till the 20th Century:

an African slave could have carried a tusk

that was cut into white keys I played, starting

with middle C and going up and down

[45 ]

although my father although
my mother although we rarely
although we whispered

although the silence although
the absence although even now
some TV books not to mention

radio websites new militias hate
groups raging against our socialist-
communist-fascist although but still:

our textbooks now our museums
mostly our college literature
courses even our crayons not

to mention our young president
who could scarcely have been
imagined when we when I –

and although I’ve gone back
and filled in some blanks
I’m still learning this un-

learning untying
the knot of Yes but re-
writing this   Yes  Yes

“The Story We Know” is reprinted from The Catastrophe of Rainbows, Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1985, rept. 1998.”Rights” is reprinted from Some Things Words Can Do, The Sheep Meadow Press, 1998.”The Border,” “Before the Planes” and “Remember the Trains” are reprinted from A History of Small Life on a Windy Planet, University of Georgia Press, 1993.”couldn’t look out the same,” “There were trees on those streets that were named,” and “Often they cut off parts for souvenirs” are reprinted from Blue Front, Graywolf Press, 2006. Used with permission of the publisher,

“The Bombs” is reprinted from Sheer, The Barnwood Press, 2008.

[1], [14], and [45] are reprinted from White Papers, by Martha Collins, 2012. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of Pittsburgh Press.