8 Shelves of Poetry

Eight 23-inch shelves of poetry.

With enough perspective, the social importance of objects is diminished.

I’ve been inside the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, and saw it up close. It’s name, “Liberty Enlightening the World,” by sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, simply states what it represents. Since installation it has come to mean more.

At the reopening after restoration of the statue, on July 3, 1986, President Ronald Reagan said, “…we celebrate this mother of exiles who lifts her light beside the golden door.” The golden door is a political addition, and not needed. It is a corruption. It permeates everything. It was only when I viewed the Statue of Liberty from Windows on the World atop the World Trade Center did I realize how imbued with cultural attachments it is. From my seat overlooking New York harbor, the statue seemed minuscule, less significant than the movement of boats under a clear night sky.

My belief about culture-imbued words used in poetry came from epiphanies like this. The best poets stay away from that kind of cultural insertion, instead using language to create meaning. My reading of poetry is a search for such verse, without culture bombs dropped into the text. It is hard to find.

The first books I bought after earning money delivering newspapers were collections of the poetry of Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg. I later added the poetry collection of W.B. Yeats. The books lay on a shelf at the M.L. Parker department store and spoke to me. I purchased them. Poetry did not become a key organizing principle for my home library, yet volumes were often available at a discount or given to me. The number of poetry books grew. Today, I have eight 23-inch shelves of poetry in my library.

In the late 1970s and ’80s I wrote poetry as a form of creative expression. Some of it was good, most wasn’t. A few have been posted here. It was a way to be a writer. There is a project of going through those pages, editing them and re-writing the poetry from today’s perspective. When I previously did that, results improved. There may be a book of poetry in me, yet I am a prose writer. I don’t often write it, yet do read poetry often.

Like everyone, I have favorites. I will go on reading Charles Bukowski until I’ve read every available verse. I only recently discovered Mary Oliver. Can you believe it? She’s among the best. Eventually I will get to Sven Armens’ two books purchased at a used bookstore in the county seat. Armens was my undergraduate Shakespeare teacher, a figure more suitable to being a character in Othello than poet or Shakespearean scholar. A reader needs to expand beyond favorites. That is the purpose of my eight shelves of poetry: be there when I need to consider language.

If I were a poet I would emulate characteristics of Vachel Lindsay, particularly his Rhymes to be Traded for Bread. Poetry as literal currency. I remember visiting the Vachel Lindsay house in Springfield, Illinois, and thinking how dull it must have been for Lindsay to be planted in a single location for any length of time. I see Lindsay walking into Kansas and other Midwestern places more than being planted in Springfield. I should return to reading Lindsay.

Having a wide selection of unread verse creates a go-to place when I’m stuck for what to read next. These going to poetry moments are unlikely to deliver me to re-reading Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, yet maybe I should. The use of inventories in his writing has been influential in mine. Better to list the cultural attributes one seeks to invoke rather than assume readers will understand all the references in a single, culturally well-known object as an author hopes.

A writer has to use nouns, dammit! Better that verse explores the meaning of nouns. I would rather poetry be all verbs, suggesting action and an ever-evolving thought process. One can’t escape the nouns, though. I’m not hopeful I’ll find such verse in my eight shelves of poetry. I plan to continue the search, a couple of volumes each month.



Set my skepticism regarding doctors
     aside for now,
     while considering
     the pediatrician and poet.

Set it on that basket,
     where it's shine might
     illuminate this moment.

Would we have him as our physician?
Would we travel into the city with him?
Would we seek his company?
Would he have sought ours?

To have his eyes, his struggles...
     his medical practice,
     his practice of poetry...
     It was all one.

I took the basket to the garden,
     to dig potatoes,
     and struggle to get out
     from where I rooted with singular purpose.

~ Written in the Calumet, circa 1990.

On Retreat

I said a prayer,
then meditated.

Tea brewed with
Orange Pekoe teabags
is hot, dark, and ready.

While out for a walk,
I bought chewing gum
from a vending machine
near the main railway station.

I chewed gum all the way home.

Through the window,
children are playing.
I realize something
is bothering me.

I do not share the joy
of playing children.

Instead, I'm on retreat,

as ice cubes crack
with the heat of the tea,
before I sit at the typewriter.

~ Mainz, Germany, May 30, 1977


Something Is Missing

What is life?
But then who am I to ask?
I am a grown person, not married.
I mastered the art of survival.
I lead a good life,
or so they tell me.
Yet am I really living?
I am not sure.

The plans I make are hollow,
lacking companionship.
At least I am planning...
My mind is active,
yet something is missing.
Something is missing...

~ Mainz, Germany, Jan. 14, 1979

Paul VI has Passed

The Pontiff passed to the other side.
I saw him in the Vatican and smiled,
Grace and power of the Word flowing,
Energizing all of us in an audience.

The Vicar of Christ, they proclaimed!
Such a thought to modern man
In a world of skepticism and doubt,
The Vicar of Christ!

Today begins the ritual,
With closed doors and smoke from the tower.
People will look on and wonder,
What is the relevance of this?

I long ceased attempts
To understand the mystery
And now live in its light.
Would have it no other way.

The Pontiff passed to the other side.
Again I am smiling.
Grace and power of the Word flowing,
Energizing all of us in audience.

~ Mainz Germany, August 7, 1978

Where Today’s Road Might Take Us

I walk with confidence.
Hand outstretched,
I greet you.
Let us shake hands
And speak,
For who knows
Where today's road might take us?

I came with purpose.
Mind intent,
I know why I came.
Let us bargain
And deal,
For who knows
Where today's road might take us?

~ Mainz, Germany, March 18, 1979

Bix Festival

Jazz flows across the Mississippi.

A polite and encouraging announcer presents:
   a businessman from Davenport,
   a chiropractor with
   his brother from Sacramento,
   a lawyer from Moline,
   a Catholic priest from Argentina,
   and a band leader from Orlando.

They will play jazz.
"The way it is supposed to be played," he said.
"The way Bix would have liked it."

I wander the levee toward the roller dam
   where water churns.

A collector, steeped in passion,
   and at home,
   makes piles of Beiderbecke 78s...

He might say,
to the gathered musicians, 
"These songs sound mighty good,"
yet prefer the dust and scratches
of his collected disks.

Water churns through the dam.

I consider when there was no jazz to remember,
   before the grid of streets and buildings,
   and return to a native place.

In a heartbeat of clarity and intuition I see...
   famous forebears surveying the plats...
   and wonder what happened 
   to Black Hawk's bones.

While jazz flows across the river.

~ Undated from some summer in the 1970s

Red Sky at Dusk

Red Sky at Dusk

A redness fills the room
   where I spent hours practicing guitar.

It is the setting sun
   refracting its rays.

Securing my thermal blanket,
   I rest in bed.

With or without a red presence,
   I'll close my eyes and ears,
      leaving me with memories...

To dream... of musical notes infused with red sunsets.

~ Undated from the mid-1970s

Untitled: To Paul

This morning you bumped
your own dresser.
Knocking a pack of Certs,
wintergreen flavor,
onto the floor.

One cert flew loose and
landed in your mouth.

Then you awoke
and I had
a fresh mint taste in my mouth.

I had another.

~ Iowa City, 1973-1974.

I Want to Tell You

I don't want that old thing
that you had before.

I just want to tell you
one thing:

I want to play baseball


at the park

because there's no baseball space here.

No baseball space at all.

~ Spring/Summer 1989