State Poets Laureate:
The World Keeps Turning To Light
(The America: Now and Here cross-country tour is both a geographic journey as well as a journey through creative partnerships with artists across the country.)
Inspired by America: Now and Here’s Crossing State Lines: An American Renga (curated by Carol Muske-Dukes and Bob Holman), I was moved to curate this renga with 36 state poets laureate, spanning Alabama to Alaska. Our process involved a shared document, a short time line, and magic within and between the lines. Our theme was simply to write about the state of America as experienced in the states we represent, so it’s no surprise that our poetry encompasses the specific and universal, shining a light on the communities, rivers, skies and birds that surround us. Throughout each poet laureate’s writing, we see yet another way the world, even at its darkest, turns toward and into some kind of light. Even the number of us participating — 36 — speaks to this turning: in Judaism, 36 is “double chai,” representing double luck for goodness in life (in Hebrew, the number 18 is the letter chai and the symbol for life). We 36 poets laureate bring you double wishes for living with meaning, beauty and poetry.
— Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Poet Laureate of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas * March 15, 2012
The World Keeps Turning To Light
1. Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Poet Laureate of Kansas
Winter moon hidden
all afternoon in the gray-skied prairie
where grasses redden, lift, then
fall toward the year’s end and wind’s
beginning, a song of this place stitched through time.
Listen, and we’ll find each other
in the clearing mid-day or midnight
where we step back into life always
or at last to say, Goodbye, I love you or Come back
before the solstice tips the light back over.
2. Walter Bargen, First Poet Laureate of Missouri
A pearled moon out the car window.
The ragged suture of barbed wire sewn
Across the wounds of overgrazed gullies
And fields. Hills with lonely trees,
black and white, smeared blue by speed.
Huddled cattle hunched against the ground.
Silos scarfed with Sistine stars.
Congregations of mice shiver in barns.
Owls preach from pulpits of airy rafters.
Late geese stitch their chevrons high and south.
3. Kevin Stein, Poet Laureate of Illinois
No stitch in time saved the union jobs migrating
south like right-to-work geese, winging across
the moon’s astonished face, above the empty parking
lots of dyspeptic American dreams no one buys
when the price of guns discounts butter.
If it plays in Peoria it’s Grandview Country Club
or foreclosure. When bosses save a penny, the laid-off
stash government cheese. Here where lines assemble faces,
where backs bend to labor the goodnight kiss
we give and take with eyes closed yet open.
4. Bruce Dethlefsen, Poet Laureate of Wisconsin
no snow in late december
the troubled moon hangs over
brown wisconsin cornfields
deer paw the frozen dirt
around the shocks and stubble
for a kernel here and there
proud men and women stand in line
another letter from the bank
the baby won’t stop crying
this christmas card no one wants to send
5. Karen Kovacik, Poet Laureate of Indiana
Though a blizzard of December rain drowns
veterans’ late homecomings, assembly lines of aunts
still pinch the half-moon rims of pierogies,
wrap tamales by the hundred in corn-shuck jackets,
or ladle cheesy macaroni into waiting pans.
Lit up with jewels, the night city ignores
these invisible kitchens, their common miracles
of squeezing banquets from scant larders:
how the women’s fingers fly over kettles’ steaming lakes,
here salting, there stirring, by the light of aluminum spoons.
6. Kelly Cherry, Poet Laureate of Virginia
In Virginia, the area known as Southside, near
the North Carolina state line (and a town
named Virgilina), has been losing jobs
for decades, from long before the recession began.
The textile mills, tobacco farms, Burlington
Industries—gone. Recession doesn’t help,
of course: staffs and hours “trimmed,” as if
decapitations were the same as haircuts.
We stay because we love the view: the fields
and woods; the sun stitching sky’s blue hem.
7. Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda, Poet Laureate Emerita of Virginia
Fireworks flare over Old Dominion’s coast,
the peninsula cleansed by seasonal winds.
As resolutions lift into a marine sky,
the well-heeled click glasses of wine
in River Rooms of waterfront estates.
No recession blues for the retirees,
their yachts polished and hoisted onto lifts.
On the Bay, a deadrise slices the currents,
watermen aboard the Miss Ginny longing
for a better year, teeming with oysters and crabs.
8. Claudia Emerson, Poet Laureate Emerita of Virginia
The time that should have been
winter has not come, spring’s
sleep light, uneasy. Something
keeps it close to waking.
Here, the bodies of women
seem owned again, like plots
of land, or these houses
men built dangerously close
to each other—doors locked,
blinds drawn, keys in the deepest pockets.
9. Maureen Morehead, Poet Laureate of Kentucky
In the field opposite Willow Lake,
soy beans have been harvested.
Deer forage in the cornfield.
A man collects cans,
for we’ve left the gate open.
Daniel and Rebecca sleep
on a hill in Frankfort: the Kentucky
below, a dusting of snow
unanticipated. At computers in town,
our homeless sit still in the library.
10. Maggi Britton Vaughn, Poet Laureate of Tennessee
From fields of dust and screen-door rust
They came to Music Row
With homegrown songs of done-me-wrongs
And rhymed words all in tow.
In dim-lit bars with fretted guitars
They told the world the truth
About their past and empty glass
That once held ninety proof.
Beans mixed with strings and ballad
Became Nashville’s country salad.
11. Marjory Wentworth, Poet Laureate of South Carolina
Winter feels like a stranger, sleeping
in a darkened closet at the back
of an old house where faucets drip all night.
And the wind, furious and gray, whirls
through the night sky, disrupting
the possibility of dreams. In fields
at daybreak, rows of migrant workers
standing on ladders, break open
the iced peach buds; their breath,
rising and resting above the fields like clouds.
12. Sue Brannan Walker, Poet Laureate of Alabama
From the open mouth,
breath and wind, the miracle
of voice—five rivers:
Apalachee and Blakeley,
the Spanish, Mobile, Tensaw,
a commingling, flux
and flow, history saying
damn tornadoes, hurricanes;
honor courage and the strength to survive.
The wor[l]d is water etched in Helen Keller’s hand.
13. Julie Kane, Poet Laureate of Louisiana
Sunday night’s wolf moon
named for the bitter weather
when lean wolves gather
at the edges of our towns
drowned in mist & heat lightning
Monday night’s tigers
fallen in a crimson tide
one more guttered flare
Images shared—we wake to
stale French bread & circuses
14. JoAnn Balingit, Poet Laureate of Delaware
Please not circus music at 6:30.
“Weird diner!” blurts my boy and hoists a pancake
whole above his head. “Your clothes–” Dress shirt
and black pants today: Grade 7 Strings will
serenade a duPont heiress, the one
percent our school hopes will fund his or-
chestra. Private referendum. “This is called
‘Entrance of the Gladiators,’ actually.”
His face glows in the wee hours of his life.
Our aging server leans in, smiles and pours.
15. Lisa Starr, Poet Laureate of Rhode Island
I am the aging server, even my smile lines gone tired.
I pour the coffee, pour the wine, put the chairs up
at the end of the shift and brace myself for the January night.
My feet stop aching when I pass my crazy street guy
who always tries to read my mind. He whispers parallelogram,
I shake my head, and he hollers after me “Stay warm!”
In winter the ocean out-bellows itself and the wind
rips through Tent City, Benefit Street, the prison yard
and the Newport Mansions without discrimination. We live
by weather, with weather, until we begin to look like it.
16. Marie Harris, Poet Laureate Emerita of New Hampshire
Sunset red & granite blue
Clouds hang like bunting
Over stern geometries
Of village meeting places
To disagree with neighbors
On crucial matters
17. Dick Allen, Poet Laureate of Connecticut
at the start of this new century!
Sing, Woody Guthrie,
“This land was made for you and me”
as my refugee student whispers fervently,
“Here, I’m free,”
and we’re sipping Zen tea,
three blackbirds in the apple tree,
snow falling quietly. . . .
18. Maxine Kumin, Poet Laureate Emerita of New Hampshire, Poet Laureate Emerita of the United States
Audubon asked me so I counted:
ninety to a hundred finches on
their way to turning gold crowding
the feeders full of blackoil sun-
flower seeds; both kinds of nuthatches;
a few titmice; clots of chickadees;
woodpeckers: one hairy male;
one female downy; two sparrows
dipped in raspberry juice
all dispersed by a blue jay bombardier.
19. Walter Butts, Poet Laureate of New Hampshire
What then of snow and ice, the troubled
wind? Wrens perch on bare branches
or swoop for suet. We all have needs.
The politicians gone, again we’re back
in a state of grace. Our nominated differences
and collective selves reside in places lit
by what we’ve come to believe:
Something certain as granite
must hold us. Weather reminds us
we too will settle.
20. Betsy Sholl, Poet Laureate Emerita of Maine
No Primary debates at soup kitchen.
Alan says he sleeps outside with just this—
thumping his chest, brags he’s an alcoholic,
knows how to mix it right.
Snaps his fingers
as if to light the smoke he’s just pulled out
from behind his ear, says he’ll bed down
in snow tonight, lift his bottle to the moon—
so lovely he can’t resist a little howl
that ends in a cough here at the door,
just open to the unelected moon.
21. Joyce Brinkman, Poet Laureate Emerita of Indiana
Untold traces of rabbit’s tracks remain
though the dragon breathes fresh life
on winter’s waiting path.
Eyes look to the skies. Debate the weather,
wonder whether bets will pay off.
Will Patriots stitch together a win, or
suffer a Giant thumping? The drum beat
heats up, quickens its tempo, our pulse.
The temperature and new moon rise.
Still in its heart, Indy bleeds blue.
22. Norbert Krapf, Poet Laureate Emeritus of Indiana
The homeless drift on capital streets
in a city that should have been
named Tecumseh, Indiana.
Politicians fill the statehouse
copper dome with hot air.
Jazz solos lift up toward
a full moon, circle around it,
and land in Lucas Oil Stadium.
Wes Montgomery and Etheridge Knight
busk as a duo on Indiana Avenue.
23. Marilyn L. Taylor, Poet Laureate Emerita of Wisconsin
Come next winter, then,
we’ll live outdoors—find ourselves
a soft spot on the
splintered, mold-stained tarpaulin
of autumn. We will let fall
those unfallen seeds
still wrinkling in blackened pods;
hear the skeletons
of weeds clacking their
indignation to the gods.
24. David Clewell, Poet Laureate of Missouri
That’s if next winter comes. The back-booth-at-White-Castle regulars
invoke the Mayan Calendar over coffee, insisting also that aliens somehow
will figure in this year’s end of the world. It seems they’ve established
secret bases on the dark side of the moon.
In the next booth over
I’m thinking maybe that why NASA’s left the moon mostly alone.
The regulars would pity me for believing we were ever actually there.
I really hope these guys are wrong about the Mayan doom-and-gloom.
Clearly they could use a calendar with cheery outdoor scenes
or national monuments or any kind of women at all.
I need them inexplicably
here a year from now: their own secret base on the bright side at last.
25. David Mason, Poet Laureate Emeritus of Colorado
Sun at altitude
desiccates what it touches
even in winter.
Sea-blue eyes fade to powder,
on the lookout for water,
while dormant aspen
fill burn and avalanche scars—
in dry resolution, tough
with knowing the rain will come.
26. David Romtvedt, Poet Laureate Emeritus of Wyoming
The master said change
so I reached in my pocket
but found only dust.
They say renga is not fit
to be used as modern lit.
In the book of memories
there’s a lot of empty space.
I might grow flowers
or take photos of the moon.
Either way, it’s good.
27. Samuel Green, Poet Laureate Emeritus of Washington
Or not change, so much
as remembrance, old words,
darkness behind them:
mend, make-do, patch & portion
out; put off, save up, pass on.
At dusk crows return
from the day’s unconcern, flakes
of pepper spilled on
grey sky. They know nothing we
don’t know: Go out. Come back.
28. Peggy Shumaker, Writer Laureate of Alaska
Blue light has slipped back
between paper birches, bold
Long days of dark, long season
without scent. Nearly over.
Moose scoop thigh-deep snow
off bent-flat willows. So still
this river of ice
creaky and stiff, soon to break.
Liquid again, river song.
29. Kathleen Flenniken, Poet Laureate of Washington
Our mountain, too,
is out. Or it’s not but we
feel it hovering.
Children in floppy coats prepare
to be scooped up and lugged home.
The plane lowers its landing gear.
A map of brown
suddenly doused in green.
All day I’ve been thirsty
and confusing it for hunger.
30. Tom Sexton, Poet Laureate Emeritus of Alaska
To the north, it’s already dark,
the moon rising pale
as a moth’s wing
over the Tanana Valley, over
Denali’s blue shadow,
over the snow-blind rivers: Chena,
How sad it
must be to not love the moon,
its river of flowing light.
31. Katharine Coles, Poet Laureate of Utah
What moon high in the day—
Bright sky? Good penny, wide eye
Its own circus, our fancy flight
Dreaming spring though blizzard still
Breathes down from the north.
At least you live in a free country
My German friend says over beer.
Free-for-all? I ask. Loving the view
Is still a luxury. The moon rises.
The world keeps turning into light.
32. Larry Woiwode, Poet Laureate of North Dakota
The great green-blue wheel revolves and in its turn
to here reveals not truly fate nor recompense
on scoured ground but quiet talks at the gate.
The lanes of far-east pastureland listen in on winter light
as haunted as I feel haunted by the chaotic national night,
and then come snowy hoof creaks, horses drawing
near, my scent on barnyard clothes a swamp of inland wetland
fear as coy-dogs, closing in, expostulate
on Wagner’s themes and jackrabbits dodge away in zigzag leaps
past antelope who pause, winter wary: stand firm—earned peace.
33. karla k. morton, Poet Laureate Emerita of Texas
How could this zigzag weather not charm?
Confused buds yawn and stretch;
purple phlox dazzles barren ditches.
God walks without sandals in this early Texas Spring—
long toes in winter rye. Our hibernation is yet to come
in dog’s breath August days; heat without mercy.
But now, in these nights, these clear, brilliant nights,
hope breaks the dark like white stars; a generation
sliding woven worries from their shoulders;
lifting each face to the sky.
34. Dave Parsons, Poet Laureate of Texas
Outside Abilene under huge sky-filled fields of a family-owned cotton farm, a son
has come back home from a life lived in the now burn-dotted rolling verdant hill country
and drought drudged lakes and streams of an inexorable bustling eclectic Austin metropolis
and he is kicking the inherited dusty furrows like the tires of some old familiar used car
with comforting boots that still fit after thirty-some-odd years away, while on the very edge
of the Big Thicket, over 400 miles southeast, an artist is perched cozy in her small town tree
house of a studio, painting with joyful wonder a black capped chickadee, a bird she had never
noticed before, both living cloaked for years in the deep green shadows of pine and live oaks–
Texas flora, fauna, and people so prodigiously diverse that one may never live long enough
to truly know them all; this month we buried a Marine come home with only 22 years of knowing
35. Alan Birkelbach, Poet Laureate Emeritus of Texas
It’s all bones and green here.
There’s a grace in everything.
Even the cactus fleshes out to lace.
The fossils under our feet
curl up fetal like they’re something new.
It’s all hidden then it isn’t.
Light comes to everything.
A great translucency holds it.
There are stones beneath the alluvium
who have counted stars our fathers could barely dream.
36. Denise Low, Poet Laureate Emerita of Kansas
Starlight captured in stones awaits
mothers’ dreams to ignite new flesh.
Women count winter bones
trapped in bedrock fossil forests of ferns.
They choose some to breathe again.
Moon thaws the distant snow.
A redbird shrieks alarm through white fields
as lovers grapple under quilts.
Far away, a ladle of ocean breaks against a rock,
frigid, a soft mirror to ancient dazzle.