Last week, I had the honor of being one of the poets giving tribute to Denise Low, the past Kansas Poet Laureate and dear friend of 35 years. She was celebrated at the Spencer Library as a new part of its New American Poetry collection at a special event that also happened to occur on her 70th birthday. While one poem, even while full of references to Denise’s splendid writing, doesn’t do her justice, I wanted to share the poem I wrote for Denise. You can see much more about her at her website, on her blog, on the Map of Kansas Literature site, at Poets.org, and at the Poetry Foundation.
You As a Poem
The poem would rise from fossils and columbarium
time-traveled from your memory or the continent’s,
through two ancient gates, rusting in the sun after hard rain.
You would watch the poem from behind a window,
your grandfather’s calm breathing behind you,
as you sipped a mocha from a chipped porcelain cup
painted with twining white clematis and one ruddy robin.
The poem would feed you a small butter cookie, shaped
like a shell to remind you of the inland ocean we once were,
while you listen as you often do for what the snow
or heat or first explosion of lilac sings now.
Later, the poem would take you and Tom to Wisconsin,
in January, in a near-blizzard of course, telling you stories
about the taste of bear or what dreams lived in ice.
There would be a woolly mammoth, but because Kansans
excel at elegant understatement, it wouldn’t be obvious,
but a silhouette of the great beast on the western horizon,
only visible when lightning strikes.
Like the sky, the poem would spin torrents of fish,
speed, and spirits breaking the drought tides into rivers,
many underground that your walking feet would trace
while you sip wine and regard the sky for what matters,
which once was a dog named Burroughs, low to the ground
but functional, and lately encompasses Jackalopes
and your granddaughter’s face turning toward you.
Maybe a martini would mosey into the poem, and certainly
trains at 3 a.m., leaving their whistles echoes as evidence.
There would be wind-leaning switchgrass, and a circular
silence below a solo cottonwood on a ridge of your childhood.
Mostly, though, there would be birds: stanzas of the quick
blue fire of Indigo Bunting, an exodus of wild geese,
a charm of goldfinch, and at dusk, a tunnel of chimney swifts
spiraling down to to a single word on each rooftop —
all the birds, you too, from so far away and so near,
coming home all the time, line by line by line.
~ Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg
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