The Poem Project is a long distance monthly collaboration between myself, Nini Ayach and Melissa Godoy Nieto. You can follow our progress on our blog.

On Death, without Exaggeration

By Wislawa Szymborska

It can’t take a joke,
find a star, make a bridge.
It knows nothing about weaving, mining, farming,
building ships, or baking cakes.

In our planning for tomorrow,
it has the final word,
which is always beside the point.

It can’t even get the things done
that are part of its trade:
dig a grave,
make a coffin,
clean up after itself.

Preoccupied with killing,
it does the job awkwardly,
without system or skill.
As though each of us were its first kill.

Oh, it has its triumphs,
but look at its countless defeats,
missed blows,
and repeat attempts!

Sometimes it isn’t strong enough
to swat a fly from the air.
Many are the caterpillars
that have outcrawled it.

All those bulbs, pods,
tentacles, fins, tracheae,
nuptial plumage, and winter fur
show that it has fallen behind
with its halfhearted work.

Ill will won’t help
and even our lending a hand with wars and coups d'etat
is so far not enough.

Hearts beat inside eggs.
Babies’ skeletons grow.
Seeds, hard at work, sprout their first tiny pair of leaves
and sometimes even tall trees fall away.

Whoever claims that it’s omnipotent
is himself living proof
that it’s not.

There’s no life
that couldn’t be immortal
if only for a moment.

always arrives by that very moment too late.

In vain it tugs at the knob
of the invisible door.
As far as you’ve come
can’t be undone.

To Start Again 

by Jean Paul Pecqueur

Before tackling the actual infinite
etherized into some cliché of blue,
you should practice with the difficult moment,
the heirloomed crystal serving platter
shattered in a baroque fit,
the celebration abruptly ended.
You should reflect upon why you sent the letter
filled with precision machine buzz and thorns.
Maybe it was because of an absent mother?
Decorative shadow on the dining room wall?
At first the invisible is tangible
only when it’s rotten with technique,
so daily you should exercise your technique
as though the great guest house were on fire,
which it is, the house of upper-cased Being
being consumed while you sit here reading
thinking fretting planning and Big River
follows its clumsy course to the sea.
Stupid lugubrious, stupid myopic river,
who asked for its prehistoric opinion anyway.
The heart is made of sturdier stuff
than that neo-platonic sweetness and light.
Admit it. On hundreds of occasions
you’ve tried to piece it all back together
only to discover some hissing swan
or vaguely swan-shaped piece missing,
and still you feel you’ll be made whole again.

The Smile
by Frieda Hughes

The holes that filtered you before,
Like swamp dogs, open mouthed, are sleeping.
Their mud has sunk between your fault lines
And their bed
Rocks at the end of your corridor.
Meat eaten, the bones have dried.
Blood dust has settled like powder
With plaster from the ceiling,
And the tools are silent.
Your blunt end tries to find
A home in my face,
And your sun shines.


by Elizabeth Holden 

Why did I dream I was digging her bones
my grandmother Lucretia
beneath the flag pole
in the lawn beside the family home

Didn’t she tell me about that valley
and how dry those bones were
how He breathed them right back alive

What do they tell me those old bones of hers
what lives on
a code of sorts
a likeness passed
to the ones who would follow

that they might flare up in fire

Oh bones my bones
I lean into you listening

Love After Love
by Derek Walcott

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.


The Savant of Sunflowers, The Apprentice of Roses

by Diane Ackerman

Something in a rose
knows to spread its roots
into a stable base,
how to shimmy up a trellis,
graft onto reliable stock,
open up rich with scent,
and slowly unfold another
flush of tawny bloom.

While you’re away,
I miss the parts of me
that regrow with you:

the mischief elf, the sensual self,
the sonneteering ghost
who rides the flanks of night,
breathing time, sweating stars,
while memories swim
like constellations overhead.
I miss the serpentine Eve
who rarely dozes, the attaché
that sometimes imposes,
all the sprites who sprint
through the high supposes,
the patient saint who aspires
to a heaven which encloses,
and, especially, the touched one
committed to the asylum
and penitentiary of roses.


But This Is Ambiguous

By Sandy Florian

But this is ambiguous and so I will clarify. Last night I dreamt of a lake on fire. A lovely woman tapered off into a fish. I wore an owl mask with the desire to avoid use of his sacred name, and then I came to those minced pronunciations, like gad and gar and ged and gog and goles and golly and gom and gosh jolly and gud and gum and adad and adod and bedad and begad and ecod and egad and gadzooks and garzoon. Because gar is only used by playwrights who put it chiefly in the mouths of foreigners.

You said, Oh god, my god, good god, followed by a good wish, to that god of my ever-closing gaps, for I receive god only ghostly, that goodly god that guides the globe, that god of love, that god of war, that god that blesses the god-blessed and the god-forsaken and the god-damned.

My god, my shame is on me, I said to the painterly painter, My god, my shame’s inside me and must go forth my body, this beastbody, this dogsbody, this stony and bony bodykins that my god has plunged my soul into.

Last night I hung from the vine, from the branch, from the noose, until the sun stopped and the moon stood still, until my nation took vengeance upon my enemies.

Last night a piece of cake tumbled into our city and struck our walls until they fell. Then it rolled around and around until the entire city turned upside down. Meanwhile back at the lake, I lapped silver water until dirt came out of my wounds, until dirt came out of my mouth. Then I killed my lover, Montgomery, in a new scatological satire.

Last night nature ran hastily into its din, enthusiastically into its prison, wallowing in the flood of its patterning and randomness. Bedlam elected himself umpire and stood quickly in the midst of it, arranging and disarranging the very laws of nature. The earth vessel itself he plunged into the green and uneven horizon, and all at once, we entered a whole new world. In the beginning, the heavens and earth rose. In the beginning, we gave birth to the tiniest of errors. In the beginning, we watch for the rest of eternity as it blossoms and it blooms.

The Savant of Sunflowers, The Apprentice of Roses
by Diane Ackerman

Something in a rose
knows to spread its roots
into a stable base,
how to shimmy up a trellis,
graft onto reliable stock,
open up rich with scent,
and slowl



by Margaret Atwood

Winter. Time to eat fat
and watch hockey. In the pewter mornings, the cat,
a black fur sausage with yellow
Houdini eyes, jumps up on the bed and tries
to get onto my head. It’s his
way of telling whether or not I’m dead.
If I’m not, he wants to be scratched; if I am
He’ll think of something. He settles
on my chest, breathing his breath
of burped-up meat and musty sofas,
purring like a washboard. Some other tomcat,
not yet a capon, has been spraying our front door,
declaring war. It’s all about sex and territory,
which are what will finish us off
in the long run. Some cat owners around here
should snip a few testicles. If we wise
hominids were sensible, we’d do that too,
or eat our young, like sharks.
But it’s love that does us in. Over and over
again, He shoots, he scores! and famine
crouches in the bedsheets, ambushing the pulsing
eiderdown, and the windchill factor hits
thirty below, and pollution pours
out of our chimneys to keep us warm.
February, month of despair,
with a skewered heart in the centre.
I think dire thoughts, and lust for French fries
with a splash of vinegar.
Cat, enough of your greedy whining
and your small pink bumhole.
Off my face! You’re the life principle,
more or less, so get going
on a little optimism around here.
Get rid of death. Celebrate increase. Make it be spring.


Black Maps

by Mark Strand

Not the attendance of stones,
nor the applauding wind,
shall let you know
you have arrived,

nor the sea that celebrates
only departures,
nor the mountains,
nor the dying cities.

Nothing will tell you
where you are.
Each moment is a place
you’ve never been.

You can walk
believing you cast
a light around you.
But how will you know?

The present is always dark.
Its maps are black,
rising from nothing,

in their slow ascent
into themselves,
their own voyage,
its emptiness,
the bleak temperate
necessity of its completion.
As they rise into being
they are like breath.

And if they are studied at all
it is only to find,
too late, what you thought
were concerns of yours

do not exist.
Your house is not marked
on any of them,
nor are your friends,

waiting for you to appear,
nor are your enemies,
listing your faults.
Only you are there,

saying hello
to what you will be,
and the black grass
is holding up the black stars



by Jason Stoneking

one night walking in the cold,
we passed by a window ledge
on which sat one, single,
fingerless, left-hand red glove.

I asked my friends if they’d
seen it there. they hadn’t,
so I went on to describe
the scene to them and how I saw it.

my first reaction had been that
a left-handed homeless man
must have been having a wank,
on the spot, sometime earlier.

my companions decided that I
was a weirdo, which made me self-conscious.
Still, I really couldn't
think of any other way the glove
could’ve wound up there.


The Meaning of Zero: A Love Poem

by Amy Uyematsu

A mere eyelid’s distance between you and me.

It took us a long time to discover the number zero.

John’s brother is afraid to go outside.
He claims he knows
the meaning of zero.

I want to kiss you.

A mathematician once told me you can add infinity
to infinity.

There is a zero vector, which starts and ends
at the same place, its force
and movement impossible
to record with
rays or maps or words.
It intersects yet runs parallel
with all others.

A young man I know
wants me to prove
the zero vector exists.
I tell him I can’t,
but nothing in my world
makes sense without it.

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