Poems You Have Questions About

August 29, 2022

  I’m thinking about poems I have questions about.  Many of them are poems I love for their music and mystery–something draws me back to them over and over, but I have trouble describing them to myself or others.  Some are poems other poets value–people I respect–but that feel impenetrable, opaque to me.  They make me feel stupid, and that makes me angry, so I keep asking why they like them.  When I’m that passionate, it almost always means I’m working up to really engaging with them–if I didn’t care, I just wouldn’t bother with them.  And of course there are well known poems that include something that  baffles me, but I’m too embarrassed to ask about it.  I’d like this to be a space where we can ask those questions, from large to small–anything from an image that puzzles you, or a line you’re not sure how to read, to What’s a way into this poet?

This is definitely audience participation.  I’d like you to add a poem in the comments section here, along with your question or questions about it. Please do that as early as possible so that people have time to read and think about them before we discuss them during this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time).

I’m priming the pump here with some poems I have questions about.  I am really drawn to Laura Kasischke’s work, and read her poems with a lot of pleasure.  At the same time, I’m not always sure what exactly is happening in them or how to talk about them to someone else.  I think the best way to learn to read anyone’s poems is to read a lot of them, whole books, but since we can’t do that here I’m including three.

In “Mushrooms,” my questions are about the last two lines: Is the mother saying it?  The daughter?  Has the mother been lost in thought?  The child lost?  Why is the child crying?  In “In this Order,” my question is about “Watery.  Irony.  Memory.”  I love the word play of it, these words with similar endings that aren’t really parallel.  I know what watery means–does irony here mean “like iron”?  But then what to make of memory in that trio?  What’s the tone of “You’ve Come Back to Me,” the emotion?  Is the speaker happy about the return?  Angry?

Now let’s see the poems you have questions about.


three poems by Laura Kasischke, from her book The Infinitesimals:



Laura Kasischke

Like silent naked monks huddled
around an old tree stump, having
spun themselves in the night
out of thought and nothingness—

And God so pleased with their silence
He grants them teeth and tongues.

Like us.

How long have you been gone?
A child’s hot tears on my bare arms.



A tail, a torso, a tiny face.
A longing, a journey, a deep belief.
A spawning, a fissioning, a bit of tissue
anchored to a psyche,
stitched to a wish.
Watery. Irony. Memory. My
mother, my face, and then

the last thing
she’d ever see, and then
the last words
I’d hear her say: You’re
killing me.



A small thing crawling toward me
across this dark lawn. Bright
eyes the only thing I’m sure I see.

You’ve come back to me,
haven’t you, my sweet? From
long ago, and very far. Through

crawling dark, my sweet, you’ve
come back to me, have you? Even
smaller this time than the stars.
–for G.



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  • Reply Laura Jensen August 31, 2022 at 12:30 pm

    Shopped yesterday at two well-known thrift stores, my question about a poem came up, “Should I buy this book?” And although I have to admit that is not exactly like the question category for the discussion, I did buy The Lunatic by Charles Simic. Off to shop again this morning. There is a building van. Maybe I can post the poem, however I can, or cannot? post a photo of the cover here. Photo of the cover to Facebook.

    • Reply Sharon August 31, 2022 at 12:38 pm

      Not quite the kind of question I was thinking of, but it’s funny, and it’s one I often debate. You can post the poem here, as a comment.

  • Reply martha zweig August 31, 2022 at 2:32 pm

    A Prayer for my Daughter
    W. B. Yeats – 1865-1939

    Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
    Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
    My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
    But Gregory’s wood and one bare hill
    Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind,
    Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
    And for an hour I have walked and prayed
    Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.

    I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
    And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
    And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
    In the elms above the flooded stream;
    Imagining in excited reverie
    That the future years had come,
    Dancing to a frenzied drum,
    Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.

    May she be granted beauty and yet not
    Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught,
    Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
    Being made beautiful overmuch,
    Consider beauty a sufficient end,
    Lose natural kindness and maybe
    The heart-revealing intimacy
    That chooses right, and never find a friend.

    Helen being chosen found life flat and dull
    And later had much trouble from a fool,
    While that great Queen, that rose out of the spray,
    Being fatherless could have her way
    Yet chose a bandy-leggèd smith for man.
    It’s certain that fine women eat
    A crazy salad with their meat
    Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.

    In courtesy I’d have her chiefly learned;
    Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned
    By those that are not entirely beautiful;
    Yet many, that have played the fool
    For beauty’s very self, has charm made wise,
    And many a poor man that has roved,
    Loved and thought himself beloved,
    From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.

    May she become a flourishing hidden tree
    That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
    And have no business but dispensing round
    Their magnanimities of sound,
    Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
    Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
    O may she live like some green laurel
    Rooted in one dear perpetual place.

    My mind, because the minds that I have loved,
    The sort of beauty that I have approved,
    Prosper but little, has dried up of late,
    Yet knows that to be choked with hate
    May well be of all evil chances chief.
    If there’s no hatred in a mind
    Assault and battery of the wind
    Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

    An intellectual hatred is the worst,
    So let her think opinions are accursed.
    Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
    Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
    Because of her opinionated mind
    Barter that horn and every good
    By quiet natures understood
    For an old bellows full of angry wind?

    Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
    The soul recovers radical innocence
    And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
    Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
    And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will;
    She can, though every face should scowl
    And every windy quarter howl
    Or every bellows burst, be happy still.

    And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
    Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious;
    For arrogance and hatred are the wares
    Peddled in the thoroughfares.
    How but in custom and in ceremony
    Are innocence and beauty born?
    Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
    And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

    I continue in 50 years’ dismay at this poem’s hold over my living soul– toxic concentrate of how my loving parents reared me, despite my hard-won & satisfying alternative lifestyle. Today I zero in on the (effing!) linnet on the leaf concluding stanza 7 in perfect iambic pentameter. Something else is going on in that meter. As soon as you/I step out of the iambic sing-song into ordinary speech, you/I hear/voice only 3 stresses: NEVer, LINnet and LEAF. I’m thinking about triggering disturbances built-in in the music of poetry.

  • Reply Sharon August 31, 2022 at 2:46 pm

    I love how specific this is, and that it’s about meter, Thanks!

  • Reply Laura Jensen September 2, 2022 at 2:07 am

    WITH ONE GLANCE by Charles Simic

    That mirror understood everything about me
    As I raised the razor to my face.
    Oh, dear God!
    What a pair of eyes it had!
    The eyes that said to me:
    Everything outside this moment is a lie.

    As I looked out of the window today
    At some trees in the yard,
    A voice in my head whistpered:
    Aren’t they something?
    Not one leaf among them stitting
    In the heat of the afternoon.
    Not one bird daring to peep
    And make the hand of the clock move again.

    Or how about the time when the storm
    Tore down the power lines on our street
    And I lit a match and caught a glimpse
    Of my face in the dark windowpane
    With my mouth fallen open in surprise
    At the sight of one tooth in front
    Waiting like a butcher in his white apron
    For a customer ato walk through his door.

    It made me think of the way a hand
    About to fall alseep reaches out blindly
    And suddenly closes over a fly.
    And remains tightly closed,
    Listening for a buzz in the room,
    Then to the silence inside the fist
    As if it held in it an undertaker
    Taking a nap inside a new coffin.

  • Reply Hermine September 2, 2022 at 5:33 pm

    Here is the poem by Jean Valentine that I spoke about today.

    Mare and Newborn Foal

    When you die
    there are bales of hay
    heaped high in space
    mean while
    with my tongue
    I draw the black straw
    out of you
    mean while
    with your tongue
    you draw the black straw out of me.

    Jean Valentine
    from The Cradle of the Real Life

    • Reply Sharon September 13, 2022 at 6:07 pm

      Thank you! I couldn’t remember who brought it.

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