From Chester Jones Foundation,
National Poetry Competition Anthology

After My Father’s Illness

I sit in the prow
to watch
for rocks and snags.
The canoe seems
lighter than the leaves
curled up like hulls
on the unclear stream.
We pass them
with no noise.

Here in red September
the river seems
a lid of ice,
our blue canoe
some skater stretching
out to glide.

My father guides
with long strokes.
His breath is even.
Beneath the surface
I hear the deep machinery
of water on rock
and see a field
unfold with rolls
of millet and rye.
The varnish smell
of mold rises
in shafts of light
to meet the sky.

I must not turn
and look behind.
It’s just death
he says.

From The American Voice

Disturbing A Nest

In a patch of woods
between my house and street
the ground squirms.
Two-inch quail
dart away
on quick feet,
the hen hidden, still
as a leaf.

In my hurry
I had forgotten
the woodpecker’s code,
did not hear
the thrush
in the shadbush tree
beating like
a speckled heart.

I stop all that I do
to let them pass,
nine small quail moving
through the morning grass.
Collected in Abraham Lincoln of Kentucky

The Doctrine of Necessity

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.


Six year old Lincoln,
stirred by words
on Cumberland Road,
climbs up the big
white oak stump
on Knob Creek.
The others gather
to hear the tales
as he re-tells them.

The ripe corn,
not yet cut down
by the knife,
stands at attention
row after row,
pumpkin vines
girdling its feet.
The words feel good
in his mouth,
like smooth, sweet
stones plucked from
the heart of the creek.

Yet his mother’s death
is still to come,
and he must
watch it unwind
from the luxurious leaves
of the snake root plant
that the cows love
on Little Pigeon Creek,
must hear the squeals
of hogs devoured
by bears in the great
dark Indiana woods.

He still must see
the twelve slaves chained
like fish upon a trot-line,
and see the horrific
traffic of New Orleans.
He has not yet watched
from the raft
garfish herding frantic
shad that shine
like silver coins
against the Mississippi’s
muddy bank.

He has not yet entered
the life he must
where he will
speak to the living
and the dead
on the fields
of Gettysburg,
or yet imagined a
second inaugural address
where Booth will wait
in the crowd, filled
with righteous hate.

600,000 men and boys
still must die
in the divided house,
lost like late corn
in a storm
of silent frost,
and he still must
watch Willie
fail with fever
and see Mary’s grief
drag her down
like a stone.

His eyes still
must fill slowly
with the smoke
of melancholy,
and finally, on
the balcony at Ford’s,
he must hear the last
split second of sound
that follows
the .44 ball
Booth will fire
into his brain.

But now,
beside the clear waters
of the creek,
in the low, lovely land
between the hills,
he tells his story
from the stump.
It is a funny one,
and all the children laugh.
From The Louisville Review


for Jeannie
October 6, 2010

This fall comes early and hard.
Ears of uncut corn
drop in the dry fields
and redbuds wither
silently in the yard.
Already, in the heart
of our hackberry tree
five chosen leaves
turn red as blood,
and light takes
on a fearful intensity.
In the evening
I walk through dry grass
down to where I hear
the ripened walnuts
fall upon the ground.

She is
wherever I look,
in the yard
in the house
and on my eyes
like a light-fed image
that will not fade.
What does nature know
of those who’ve entered her,
or of us who still work
and walk about the world?
Perhaps those who die
do not drop out of the world.
They remain.
The world takes them,
and they are changed.

From The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review

The Angel

Here is the time that can be uttered, here is its home. Speak and confirm. More than ever things are falling away…
Rilke, The Ninth Elegy

The angel floats
like a maple seed
above the ground.
She drifts over
dense thickets bright
with the flowers
of blackberries
and over
orderly regiments
of grass, gathering
lawn by lawn.

She even sees
the common yarrow
as it spreads along the road,
how slender its wand,
how finely divided its leaves.
Yet she will not touch them.
Neither will she walk
on the freckled ground,
even as lightly as the
parachutes of dandelions
drifting behind enemy lines.

We must not believe
in her who passes
through our bodies and
through the earth
disturbing no particle of atom.
She will not teach us
the knotted language of thistle,
which we must know.
She will not take us
under the hill,
where we must go.
From Prairie Schooner

Upon the Water’s Face

Alma Lee Medley

My mother’s last sister
sits in a worn, green rowboat
folding and refolding her hands.
They signal as
the boat moves out.
Our few words scatter
like little herds of waves.

She is drifting away,
her husband
thirty years ahead.
Remember the picnics
on your big screen porch?
Even Uncle Tommy…,
I begin.
Who are you ? She asks.

She is moving further out,
the wind is eating all our words.
Then I see it, a long brown
rope trailing the boat.
I reach out to draw her back,
but it is only a strand of moss
dissolving in my hands.

From Rhino

In the Snake Temple

Until the joss stick moved
I had thought snake temple
was metaphor,
like the temple of God.
But before me
a Wagler’s viper
translated itself
from stone to flesh.
Monks moved carelessly
among the miracles,
still figures of speech
to their bare heels,
while all about
the hieroglyphs
of stone scripture
undid themselves.

Then I heard the secret
epiphanies of snakes
whispered in the room,
and like my brothers
those exegetes of Mark
in the hills
of East Tennessee,
was wracked
by the rhythm
of tongues.

© Joe Survant