Tag Archives: poems from prompts

Not My Fault

I found a burned dog leg in our hearth.
How it got there, you and I both know;
I am sick with that fact. In fact

I’m sick with you and your whole
thirst for blood games. It does not
mean a thing that we did not know

that dog. It does not mean a thing
that I did not help you with your 
need and how you met it. All I know

is that here I am with a bit of bone
and hair fused to it and last night
this was in my arms with a squirm

and a tongue and you did not even cry
as I did when you took it from me
and took my knife and went out

to the yard to the flames. I stayed here
and sobbed. I had no part in this.
I am sick with your part in it. I am

sick that it may not be the last time
I will cry as you use my knife
on one more stray as if it were

your own. Now take this bone from me:
I have to go put the edge back on my blade,
the edge you took from me last night.

The Shapeless Dark Of Joy

— From a prompt by Thea Mann.

Whenever we reach for
peace in the night
and find it, 
whether in the reassurance
of the child still breathing
in the crib
or in the feel of a lover’s skin
still warm to our touch, even
if only when we place one foot
firmly on the floor
to prove to ourselves
that the horror of the dream
has ended, we understand
the shapeless dark of joy —
how it has no form, no
visible face, but instead
settles upon us like warmth
rekindled after a cold wind
has stopped blowing; how
it moves us from fear to comfort
without any apparent effort of its own. 

The Day I Was Born

— From a prompt from Barby Jane Lumb.

The world on the day I was born?

Oh, I can’t recall.

was president. I know that much.
Nixon was looking for his seat,
I know that.  Kennedy wanted it
bad enough to steal it, not knowing
he’d die after getting it. 

Elvis Presley
was in another part of the hospital
I was born in that day, getting some kind
of physical before mustering out
of the service, leaving the building
as I was coming in, haha,
I’ve told that joke forever but
it’s the truth though it’s another thing
I don’t recall.

All this
was coming down — how things
were going to change was in the air —
Elvis about to lose his edge, Kennedy
about to lose his life, Nixon
about to lose — all that was going on

and there I was
squalling like a storm,
like I knew what was coming.

The Heir

— From a prompt by Jeff Stumpo.

in an anteroom the size of
a fairy tale palace

the prince of the moment
eldest son of the king

schemes in stage whispers
to burst out of the door

and tell a little white lie
the size of a gingerbread house

full up with cannibals
and unsuspecting victims

a fatal little story
about the trickle down effects

of shed blood
on dry skin

in hope that he will be
believed just long enough

to get his in the form of
a treasure the size of a dragon’s hoard

and all around
the people fall for it

and fail to notice how
he is as lizard-dry as any dragon

already and sweats not at all
neither water nor blood

as he lies and pontificates
and schemes and swindles

the way he learned to do it
from his father the king

whose wary, puffy eyes
are turned in suspicion upon his son

just as the son’s eyes are turned
upon his father with equal caution

though neither can see the other
through the greed that fills his view

while the world dies
before them in service to a hunger

the size of a mountain perched
on a larger mountain — 

two blind men defending
their precious darknesses


A clerk at a butcher shop stands five feet ten inches tall and wears size 13 sneakers.
What does he weigh?

The riddle says

He weighs meat  

Ha ha
good one

we’re supposed to say and
it’s true as far as it goes but

it doesn’t take into account 
the possibility
that the butcher might also sell
various deli items and the clerk
might weigh out piles of slices
of provolone into
white waxed paper
sealed with brown tape labels
with name and price handwritten
in black grease pencil

or that the clerk might also weigh
heaps of
potato salad
into plastic tubs
from a white enamel case
with huge sliding doors

(the way Michael Morelli did
when I was a kid
on my family’s Saturday morning trips
to his dad’s market in Milford

handing me slices of cheese
over the counter
with a wink
when my mom
and his dad weren’t looking)

It doesn’t take into account
that the same clerk might also
at some point
have to weigh
the decision set before him
about whether to maintain
this family business
or go on and do other things
and sell the building to a barber
upon his father’s death

It skips entirely
the possibility
that the clerk might also
continue to weigh
the consequences of that decision
every time he passes
the now empty and decrepit
storefront that long ago
went from being
a butcher shop
to a barber shop
to an antique shop
to a computer repair shop
to an empty shop
to a broken hole
on a broken block
in a broken downtown

The clerk goes home
Weighs himself and sighs
Stares into his bathroom mirror
Goes and sits in the dark
in his clean modern kitchen
at the butcher block island

Ha ha
Good one
he says

the riddle is endlessly retold
for new audiences
more and more of whom
have never seen
a butcher shop
white paper
brown tape
grease pencil
have never smelled
the mingling of sawdust and blood
or felt the cold blast of air
from the walk-in
with the full quarters of beef
hanging behind glass
behind the counter

A writer on a couch with a laptop
stands five foot eight (when he’s standing)
and wears a size ten shoe
At 56 he is shocked to realize
he can still remember
the name of the butcher’s assistant
from a market
that’s been gone
for most of his lifetime

Is shocked to realize
how much that still weighs

Collaborative poem

The good folks at the online journal Radius, seeking to address in some way this deeply disrupting historical moment, asked a number of past contributors to contribute to a collaborative poem addressing the theme of “Violence And Heartbreak.”  

From editor Victor Infante’s post on the journal’s Facebook page:

“When the air radiates heartbreak, as it does now, there is no one effective way to speak to it as an artist. It’s too big, and too multilayered to be captured succinctly. We asked several of our favorite poets to try anyway. The result is a composite poem by Marvin Bell, Eirean Bradley, Tony Brown, Jenith Charpentier, Lea C. Deschenes Richard Fox, Suzanne Lummis, Heather Mac, Ellyn Maybe, Jaimes Palacio, Sholeh Wolpe and myself.”

This was the result.  

Thanks for the opportunity. Proud to be a part of it.

Collard Greens, Hummingbirds, And Spider Silk

With my eyes lightly closed I see
a river of red circles flowing on black
from lower left to upper right. 

I clamp down harder;
that river stops its purposeful flow,
begins to swirl.

I try to see detail of those circles,
or of the black behind the river,
but there’s nothing more.

Press a finger to a lid
and the river lights up
as if I was viewing

a campfire’s light
from around a bend
before coming directly upon it.

What’s the point, you ask,
of trying to see
with your eyes closed,

but also of trying
to describe it well enough
so others can see it too?

I respond, one of these days
I may come around that bend
and see that fire.

Maybe it will be a cooking fire.
Maybe there will be roasted meat,
collard greens, people 

at rest around it, songs
like hummingbirds, skin
like spider silk. It would be

a good place to be,
a good place to end up,
but I’d hate to end up all alone there

so this is my way of leaving a trail
to that place you see
when your eyes are closed,

when a final finger
presses them

Career Retrospective

he gladly roared
in London

that the British
punctured everything
before their empire was done

as he said it
hammered that home 

A battery banging 
amplified the wonder
of such bold speech

Shame indeed but no real surprise
when he tired of saying and playing 
such things

As his voice became
half-brother to money
he gave up the roar for the croon

Trembling not shaking
Trickling not draining
Brokering not storming

Choosing to grip
a softer weapon and sing
softer songs

on a worldwide tour
of the former British colonies
he referred to as a “career retrospective” 

Lying awake each night
nightmaring Joe Strummer and a gaggle of nuns
standing silent by the hotel door

Staring at him
while mouthing and mocking
his old-time roar

The Authority Cultivator

the authority cultivator
is possessed
by its almanac fictions

it cannot help you
by design

it will be a reach
to lift your own yoke

to march is not enough

you must stare
all cracker 
including your own

toss it a grenade’s worth
of humor then 
as it fumes

snatch away what you are owed

hurry into risk
rock it till it kneels

spoil it as best you can



Selling you the dream car
that all the kids love,
that makes you big and potent,
that opens all the warm garage doors,
that sniffs out the best parking spots,
that finds the unexpired and broken meters,
that speeds without consequence,
that stops with each front wheel centered on a bison-headed nickel,
that eats nothing but air and good intentions;

selling you the best house
in the best neighborhood,
in the right zip code,
in a grove of window-shading trees,
in a street of charm and comfort,
in a color mixed from eagle’s tears,
in a weather pattern best described as personalized,
in a storm of good and distant thunder,
in a rainbow promise of yours forever;

selling you the joyous reincarnation
of your grandparents’ hard and fast belief in a just world, 
of their stubborn faces bent over task and faith,
of their bank-backed presence as good citizens,
of their trust in the handshake,
of their unshakable duty to the flag-donning boys of summer,
of their simple vision of resting under a willow at the close of day;

selling you on it 
as a mythology, a set of stories
that gives shaded meaning
though a different one is glaring;

as a cover up for the human-selling
that made it all happen;
as a screen before the bloody grounds
of human villages burned;
as a way to sate a gnawing truth
before it wakes you up starving
in the night: 

that what’s being sold 
is stolen property and labor

from the back of a rickety truck
in the dark, 

and the whole thing’s
built on a slim prayer
that we will never stop buying.

Tom Sawyer On The Fence

You ask me
what I would write in a message
to be placed in a bottle
and sent to sea: what would I say,
to whom would I want it said?

I say to you:
content here
will be governed by
process.  To answer that
I must know

the bottle’s color, heft,
its material,
its origin.
I must know how it will be
stoppered against filling

and sinking,
its message
dissolving into the ocean
long before reaching 
its addressee.  I must know

on what kind of paper
I am to write,
with what I am to write —
and where am I to be
when I toss the bottle to sea

in an act
of desperation
or hope or pure
ridiculous artistry, which 
can be all of the above

if need be.  Tell me enough
to go on if you can’t say it all
or if you don’t know it all and I
will write it all down, every word of it

for as long as it takes to tell.
I’ll sit here with the pen and the paper.
I’ll fold and roll the pages when done.
I’ll answer your question then, hand you the 
pages, hold the bottle

as it dawns on you what has just happened.
Will you laugh or will you cry? I don’t care.
Content is determined by process,
after all, and process is my job, my only job.  
I think sometimes it is the only job there is.

The Plywood Poem

Originally posted 10/20/2008, titled “Of Plywood And Poetry.”  For Bill Macmillan.

The other day
I ripped a plywood plank in half
with a jigsaw to make a shelf
to hold books, and that was good.

To deny that there was a pleasure
in the vibration from the tool,
to deny that
there was suffering when the splinters
flew into me 
from the cut,
to deny that the books on the shelf are better
and more present for me because
I can tell you of the work I put into
keeping them safe?  This would be lying.

Smug judges tell me to keep
the poems about writing poetry
to myself. I say
kill the judging and dig
that I can’t speak of God
without speaking now and then
of church

and everything
is an act of poetry,

the writing of a poem,
even the building 
of a shelf to hold
the poem.

The Chicken Speaks

Originally posted 12/19/2009.

I crossed the road,
because it was there.

You bought that rationale
when someone said it
in reference to Everest

and you bought it when
Philippe Petit 
walked between the Towers

so I can only conclude
that it’s because I’m a chicken
and you’re prejudiced

that you keep
cracking wise
about why I did it. 

Lemme tell you something:
enjoy risk
as much as the next bird.

I wasn’t waiting around
to become soup
or Sunday dinner.

I’ll go on my own terms,
and that road held as good a chance
as anything did of killing me.

I made it across, but the attempt
is what counts.
I took a chance.  I will again.

Think of that
next time 
you gnaw
on a drumstick:

you are what you eat.
You can laugh all you want at that.
You’ll still never eat me.

H. P. In Love

Providence, his dark bayside muse,
lent itself well to his humors.
He saw potential lovers everywhere,
in the same dank nooks and holes
where potential horrors would be found.

He did not in real life love much or well.
In the long run he did not scare
much either, or trust the devotion
of his monsters to their creator;
in the long run, he only kept the city

as full companion and partner. He was born
here, left and returned, eventually died
muttering about the pain in his gut and
the Elder Race in his dreams, settling at last
on one phrase to capture all his attention:

“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”
In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.
Think of it: a man so in love with darkness he had to create
new words to chant it free of the depths it occupied
within him, the depths he sensed were present in traces

in the alleys behind the grand homes
of Angell Street, Waterman Street, Benefit Street;
in the drowned eyes that sought him out when he stared into
the rivers that emptied black here from the New England hills.
New words for something at once terrible and inescapable —

something like love, at least to him.


(From a prompt in the GotPoetry Live reading series Facebook group)

My favorite loving 
to watch
is that of damselflies,

him arcing abdomen back
to clutch her, her looping 
abdomen forward to seize him;

lighting for hours
on the edge of marsh grass,
then breaking free of the spell

to fly off separately,
not to meet again,
everything fulfilled there.

I could look up formal
names, describe this in 
minute words, kill it as biology lesson,

treatise on the aerodynamics
of mating, essay on metaphorical
images to be used in romantic poems,

but honestly? Would much rather
lie here in sunlight with you, practicing 
such poses, delighting in the sensation of flight.