Learning America

Sample Poems from Learning American (1998)

THE OLD PLACE

They live with a decay he never notices
behind their trailer the old two-story house,
paint shaggy, windows gone, in the thick nest of trees.

She wants it torn down. He doesn’t see the use
of that work. It isn’t hurting anyone, he says
when she brings it up. She can’t tell him how

it hurts, cracks etching down the walls, the crazed
linoleum, its grit of glass, and—worse than that—
the people she is sure live there, who gather food

out of the vacant earth with rusted tools,
collect themselves at night in the single glare
of the kitchen light around the table, counting

their money on the oilcloth, setting it aside,
who ask each other what they remember,
reminding themselves in long, loud stories,

who plan—and this is the worst of all—who plan
again and again. It is this harsh joy burning
in the village of the dead she can’t bear

(by permission of Passager)

QUARTET

In cafes like this for a thousand miles
there are these four people: an old husband,
a wife, and two close widows, a ring
of broken circles, what they expected
if they had been asked to expect anything.
Levels of loss expand around the table.
These two feel empty chairs at their elbows
and the wife, in sharing, feels each day
something missing which has not yet happened.

The last husband left grows more a widow too,
each year his voice getting gentler and sadder
and, right now, a woman wonders something.
He searches for his opinion in the old way.

He must have an answer, it seems, some fact
he can recount. He pauses, trying to find
enough certainty for three men. The women wait.
In Miles City, Cheyenne, Morning Springs,
the service slows in the café, the silence widens.

 (by permission Midwest Quarterly)