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Poem for Mother’s Day “That Saturday Without a Car” by Stephen Dunn

For Mother’s Day, I thought I’d share one of my favorite Stephen Dunn poems.


That Saturday Without a Car

for Ellen Dunn (1910-1969)

Five miles to my mother’s house,
a distance I’d never run.
“I think she’s dead”
my brother said, and hung up

as if with death
language should be mercifully approximate,
should keep the fact
that would forever be fact

at bay. I understood,
and as I ran wondered what words
I might say, and to whom.
I saw myself opening the door—

my brother, both of us, embarrassed
by the sudden intimacy we’d feel.
We had expected it
but we’d expected it every year

for ten: her heart was the best
and worst of her—every kindness
fought its way through damage,
her breasts disappeared

as if the heart itself, for comfort,
had sucked them in.
And I was running better
than I ever had. How different it was

from driving, the way I’d gone
to other deaths—
my body fighting it all off, my heart,
this adequate heart, getting me there.

The Future Is Brilliant in the Way It Rations Suffering

This poem previously appeared in Blue Mesa Review back in 2012.  The link’s no longer active, so I’m re-posting the poem here to make it available.



To a sky as big as the day
we were orphaned, to the emptiness
in the capitol’s dome,
to immigrants building walls

that keep their families out.
To the denied insurance claim,
and how it guilts. To the oceans,
which seem to be forever

inviting us to spill and shatter.
To vandalized clocks and birthdays
spent counting candles.
To the grace of whip and tilt.

To the way the sky swallows us
into its quilt of planets and
spits us out each morning
with that confused look in our eyes.

To repetition, and what it’s done
to the meaning of fair & balanced.
To blue, and how it ought to be
the international color for surrender.

Carver Cuts: Part Three

The site has been live for over a year now!  Thanks to all the visitors and people who’ve shared.

Today I’m releasing the third installment of the Carver Cuts.  The first two can be found here: [1][2].

Today’s poem is called “The Dance,” and borrows everything from Raymond Carver’s story, “Why Don’t You Dance?

The Dance

after Raymond Carver

He poured another drink and looked
at the bedroom suite in his front yard.
That morning he’d cleared all the stuff
out of the house, run an extension cord,
so everything was connected.  Things
worked, no different.

This girl and boy were furnishing a little
apartment.  It must be a yard sale, she
said.  He pulled into the driveway and
stopped in front of the kitchen table.
They began to examine things; he sat
on the sofa, lit a cigarette, and she sat
on the bed, pushed off her shoes.  She
thought she could see a star.  Come here,
she said.  I feel funny, he said.  I’ll see
if anybody’s home.   Whatever they ask,
she said.  Offer ten dollars less.  They
must be desperate or something.

He came down the sidewalk with a sack
of sandwiches, beer, and whiskey.  He
saw the car and the girl on the bed,
the TV going.  You found the bed, he said
to the girl.  I was just trying it out, she said,
patting the bed.  How much do you want
for it?  I was thinking fifty, he said.  Would
you take forty? she asked.  He put down
the sack and took out the beer and whiskey.
The girl looked at the boy.  You kids, you’ll
want a drink, he said.  Glasses in that box,
he said, then sat on the sofa, leaned back
and stared at them.

The boy found two glasses and poured.
I want water in mine, she said.  The boy
came back from the spigot.  The man
gazed at the television, finished his drink,
started another, and looked at them as
they sat at the table, something nice,
something nasty in their faces, he couldn’t
tell.  He poured another.  Everything goes,
he said.  She held out her glass, and he
poured.  The boy was writing a check.
He put on a record.  Why don’t you
dance? he said.  I don’t think so, the boy
said.  Go ahead, he said.  It’s my yard.

Their bodies pressed together, the boy
and girl moved up and down the driveway,
dancing.  And when the record ended, they
did it again.  He turned the record over.
Dance with me, the girl said, and when he
stood up, she came to him.

They’re watching over there, she said.
It’s okay, he said.  It’s my place.  Let them
watch, she said.  That’s right, he said.
He felt her breath on his neck.  She closed
her eyes and pushed her face into his
shoulder.  You must be desperate
or something, she said.  There was more
to it; she was trying to get it talked out.

What I love most about this story is probably the occasion.  The  main character’s obviously going through some sort of crisis, having pulled all his furniture out on the lawn.  Some of you may be thinking: hey, wasn’t there a movie like this? And yes, yes there was.  Everything Must Go, starring Will Ferrell is based on this Carver story.  But there’s something almost magical about this man, at the end of his relationship with his wife, running into these two kids who seem to be newly in love.  He’s at the end of one cycle, and they’re just at the beginning, and so it makes sense for him so practically give away all his stuff (hell, he’s got it out on the lawn anyway) to these kids.  But the girl, there’s something both conniving and sweet about the way she wants to talk the guy down on all the prices but ultimately tries to understand his plight.

Plus the story ends with the image of this divorcee dancing on his front lawn with this total stranger while the neighbors all gawk and look on.  The design of the story unfolds so that this moment’s charged with sincerity, sexual tension, and perhaps most important: it simultaneously suggests the main character’s acceptance of his lot/position in life, while zooming in on him in a moment of defiance–or at least acting out of line with the suburbanite sense of propriety.  It’s got that undeniable magic of despair and hope all knotted up like a ball of rubber bands.  It’s sweet and desperate and somehow both steeped in sorrow yet hopeful.  It’s the kind of story the reveals human resilience and sweetness in the face of personal, financial, and familial collapse.  Astounding.

Thanks for reading!

Duluth, Minnesota & The College of St. Scholastica’s Rose Warner Reading Series

In November, the College of St. Scholastica was generous enough to fly me to Duluth to teach poetry breakout sessions to the local high school students.  Ryan Vine, who’s been organizing the event for the past thirteen years, was the kindest, most generous host I’ve ever had.  It’s almost impossible not to recognize Ryan’s work as a professor, but also as an active poet in a thriving community of poets.  His introductions at both the afternoon event and the evening event sent chills through the crowd about poetry’s growing importance in our current political climate.  His passion and loyalty to the art stand as a testament to poetry’s power not only to encourage us to be human, but to demand it.  In addition to being such a wonderful host (he drove me all over Duluth showing me the lake, the childhood home of Bob Dylan, and a number of other amazing sites…he even fed me homemade pancakes at his family dinner table the morning I flew back), his poems (which I have written about here: Ryan Vine’s Ward Poems), continue to impress and inspire me.  The generosity of spirit I find in his work coincides with who Ryan is, which isn’t always the case with poets I’ve met after admiring their work for years.  This trip reaffirmed my belief in poets as a larger community.  Largely because Ryan introduced me to wonderfully talented and dedicated poets: Dore Kiesselbach, John T.  McCormick, Kathleen Roberts, Ellie Schoenfeld (the current P.L. of Duluth!), and the 2016 Rose Warner Series keynote speaker, Danez Smith.


Because I was too lazy (read: too stupid) and missed Danez Smith’s reading at Florida A&M University last year, I was totally unprepared for the relentless nature of what my former teacher Brooks Haxton would refer to as a “tour de force.”  Danez often recited poems from memory, but unlike most reading I’ve seen, even ones where the poet rattles off their poems from memory (I saw Chad Davidson do this at Texas Tech in the early 2000s), Danez’s poems are often most powerful directly from the spirit of their creator.  To say Danez’s a master of tone and speed and pitch is an understatement.  Danez’s poems offer a variation of subject matter, simultaneously deadly serious and funny approaches, an array of emotional vulnerabilities, and brilliantly elaborate rhetorical swings that highlight the complexity of racial and sexual tension in 21st-century American life.

I would normally just link to his poems, but I’m including a link to a youtube video because, as I mentioned earlier, his poems are best (for me) when I experience them.  Otherwise I’ll just filter them through my reader-brain and can’t pick up on some of the tonal shifts, etc.  Here’s Danez Smith performing, “Dinosaurs in the Hood“:

After Danez’s early performance (for local high school students), I met with two different groups of students, who were all floored by the power of Danez’s work and inspired to create their own.  I had each group of students pair off, ran them through a short exquisite corpse exercise, and then we shared our poems at the end of each sessions.  As always the students proved remarkably talented (way more talented than they initially expected, or declared), and fortunately the magic of the exquisite corpse appeared (as it usually does), and the students retraced the process of the poem to see how they responded both indirectly and directly to the lines/images/phrases that they couldn’t see in the process of the poem’s creation.  I loved the chance to work with the students, to be in a space where we could explore the power and importance of poetry together.


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