The poems I have gathered here have offered me spiritual companionship over the years. For me they show just enough of a glimpse of wisdom, compassion, peacefulness, and good cheer to help me over many an edge in my meditation practice. Each poem can be an example of “mindful reading,” almost like the spiritual practice of Lectio Divina in the Christian contemplative tradition.  

1- Basket of Figs

Bring me your pain, love. Spread

it out like fine rugs, silk sashes,

warm eggs, cinnamon

and cloves in burlap sacks. Show me

the detail, the intricate embroidery

on the collar, tiny shell buttons,

the hem stitched the way you were taught,

pricking just a thread, almost invisible.

Unclasp it like jewels, the gold

still hot from your body. Empty

your basket of figs. Spill your wine.

That hard nugget of pain, I would suck it,

cradling it on my tongue like the slick

seed of pomegranate. I would lift it

tenderly, as a great animal might

carry a small one in the private

cave of the mouth.

From Mules of Love by Ellen Bass.


2- Any Common Desolation

can be enough to make you look up

at the yellowed leaves of the apple tree, the few

that survived the rains and frost, shot

with late afternoon sun. They glow a deep

orange-gold against a blue so sheer, a single bird

would rip it like silk. You may have to break

your heart, but it isn’t nothing

to know even one moment alive. The sound

of an oar in an oarlock or a ruminant

animal tearing grass. The smell of grated ginger.

The ruby neon of the liquor store sign.

Warm socks. You remember your mother,

her precision a ceremony, as she gathered

the white cotton, slipped it over your toes,

drew up the heel, turned the cuff. A breath

can uncoil as you walk across your own muddy yard,

the big dipper pouring night down over you, and everything

you dread, all you can’t bear, dissolves

and, like a needle slipped into your vein—

that sudden rush of the world.


3- Waiting For Rain

Finally, morning. This loneliness

feels more ordinary in the light, more like my face

in the mirror. My daughter in the ER again.

Something she ate? Some freshener

someone spritzed in the air?

They’re trying to kill me, she says,

as though it’s a joke. Lucretius

got me through the night. He told me the world goes on

making and unmaking. Maybe it’s wrong

to think of better and worse.

There’s no one who can carry my fear

for a child who walks out the door

not knowing what will stop her breath.

The rain they say is coming

sails now over the Pacific in purplish nimbus clouds.

But it isn’t enough. Last year I watched

elephants encircle their young, shuffling

their massive legs without hurry, flaring

their great dusty ears. Once they drank

from the snowmelt of Kilimanjaro.

Now the mountain is bald. Lucretius knows

we’re just atoms combining and recombining:

star dust, flesh, grass. All night

I plastered my body to Janet,

breathing when she breathed. But her skin,

warm as it is, does, after all, keep me out.

How tenuous it all is.

My daughter’s coming home next week.

She’ll bring the pink plaid suitcase we bought at Ross.

When she points it out to the escort

pushing her wheelchair, it will be easy

to spot on the carousel. I just want to touch her.

1- I go among trees and sit still.


I go among trees and sit still.

All my stirring becomes quiet

around me like circles on water.

My tasks lie in their places

where I left them, asleep like cattle.


Then what is afraid of me comes

and lives a while in my sight.

What it fears in me leaves me,

and the fear of me leaves it.

It sings, and I hear its song.


Then what I am afraid of comes.

I live for a while in its sight.

What I fear in it leaves it,

and the fear of it leaves me.

It sings, and I hear its song.


After days of labor,

mute in my consternations,

I hear my song at last,

and I sing it. As we sing,

the day turns, the trees move.

I go among trees and sit still.

All my stirring becomes quiet

around me like circles on water.

My tasks lie in their places

where I left them, asleep like cattle.


Then what is afraid of me comes

and lives a while in my sight.

What it fears in me leaves me,

and the fear of me leaves it.

It sings, and I hear its song.


Then what I am afraid of comes.

I live for a while in its sight.

What I fear in it leaves it,

and the fear of it leaves me.

It sings, and I hear its song.


After days of labor,

mute in my consternations,

I hear my song at last,

and I sing it. As we sing,

the day turns, the trees move.


from Sabbaths, North Point Press,  1987


2- Our Real Work


It may be that when we no longer know what to do

we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go

we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.


from Standing by Words




As you set out for Ithaka

hope your road is a long one,

full of adventure, full of discovery.

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,

angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:

you’ll never find things like that on your way

as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,

as long as a rare excitement

stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,

wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them

unless you bring them along inside your soul,

unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.

May there be many summer mornings when,

with what pleasure, what joy,

you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;

may you stop at Phoenician trading stations

to buy fine things,

mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

sensual perfume of every kind—

as many sensual perfumes as you can;

and may you visit many Egyptian cities

to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you’re destined for.

But don’t hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you’re old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.

Without her you wouldn’t have set out.

She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.

Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,

you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

C. P. Cavafy, “Ithaca” from C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems (Princeton University Press, 1975). Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.

1- Sweetness


Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear

one more friend

waking with a tumor, one more maniac


with a perfect reason, often a sweetness

has come

and changed nothing in the world


except the way I stumbled through it,

for a while lost

in the ignorance of loving


someone or something, the world shrunk

to mouth-size,

hand-size, and never seeming small.


I acknowledge there is no sweetness

that doesn’t leave a stain,

no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet.


Tonight a friend called to say his lover

was killed in a car

he was driving. His voice was low


and guttural, he repeated what he needed

to repeat, and I repeated

the one or two words we have for such grief


until we were speaking only in tones.

Often a sweetness comes

as if on loan, stays just long enough


to make sense of what it means to be alive,

then returns to its dark

source. As for me, I don’t care


where it’s been, or what bitter road

it’s traveled

to come so far, to taste so good.


from New and Selected Poems.



2- Before we leave


Just so it’s clear—

no whining on the journey.

If you whine, you’ll get stuck

somewhere with people

like yourself. It’s an unwritten law.

Wear hiking boots. Pack food

and a change of clothes.

We go slowly. Endurance won’t

be enough, though without it

you can’t get to the place

where more of you is asked.

Expect there will be times

when you’ll be afraid.

Hold hands and tremble together

if you must but remember

each of you is alone.


Where are we going?

It’s not an issue of here or there.

And if you ever feel you can’t

take another step imagine

how you might feel to arrive,

if not wiser, a little more aware

how to inhabit the middle ground

between misery and joy.

Trudge on. In the higher regions,

where the footing is unsure,

to trudge is to survive.


Happiness is another journey,

almost over before it starts,

guaranteed to disappoint.

If you’ve come for it, say so,

you’ll get your money back.

I hope you all realize that anytime

is a fine time to laugh. Fake it,

however, and false laughter

will accompany you like a cowbell

for the rest of your days.

You’ll forever lack the seriousness

of a clown. At some point

the rocks will be jagged,

the precipice sheer. That won’t be

the abyss you’ll see looking down.

The abyss, you’ll discover

(if you’ve made it this far),

is usually nearer than that—

at the bottom of something

you’ve yet to resolve,

or posing as your confidante.

Follow me. Don’t follow me. I will

say such things, and mean both.


from Lines of Defense: Poems (W. W. Norton & Company).

 Blue Bowl


Like primitives we buried the cat

with his bowl. Bare-handed

we scraped sand and gravel

back into the hole. It fell with a hiss

and thud on his side,

on his long red fur, the white feathers

that grew between his toes, and his

long, not to say aquiline, nose.

We stood and brushed each other off.

There are sorrows much keener than these.

Silent the rest of the day, we worked,

ate, stared, and slept. It stormed

all night; now it clears, and a robin

burbles from a dripping bush

like the neighbor who means well

but always says the wrong thing.


 from Collected Poems. Graywolf Press.


1- Oatmeal


I eat oatmeal for breakfast.

I make it on the hot plate and put skimmed milk on it.

I eat it alone.

I am aware it is not good to eat oatmeal alone.

Its consistency is such that it is better for your mental health

if somebody eats it with you.

That is why I often think up an imaginary companion to have breakfast with.

Possibly it is even worse to eat oatmeal with an imaginary companion.

Nevertheless, yesterday morning, I ate my oatmeal porridge,

as he called it with John Keats.

Keats said I was absolutely right to invite him:

due to its glutinous texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime,

and unusual willingness to disintegrate, oatmeal should not be eaten alone.

He said that in his opinion, however, it is perfectly OK to eat

it with an imaginary companion, and that he himself had

enjoyed memorable porridges with Edmund Spenser and John Milton.

Even if eating oatmeal with an imaginary companion is not as

wholesome as Keats claims, still, you can learn something from it.

Yesterday morning, for instance, Keats told me about writing the “Ode to a Nightingale.”

He had a heck of a time finishing it those were his words “Oi ‘ad a ‘eck of a toime,” he said,

more or less, speaking through his porridge.

He wrote it quickly, on scraps of paper, which he then stuck in his pocket,

but when he got home he couldn’t figure out the order of the stanzas,

and he and a friend spread the papers on a table, and they

made some sense of them, but he isn’t sure to this day if they got it right.

An entire stanza may have slipped into the lining of his jacket through a hole in his pocket.

He still wonders about the occasional sense of drift between stanzas,

and the way here and there a line will go into the

configuration of a Moslem at prayer, then raise itself up

and peer about, and then lay itself down slightly off the mark,

causing the poem to move forward with a reckless, shining wobble.

He said someone told him that later in life Wordsworth heard about

the scraps of paper on the table, and tried shuffling some

stanzas of his own, but only made matters worse.

I would not have known any of this but for my reluctance to eat oatmeal alone.

When breakfast was over, John recited “To Autumn.”

He recited it slowly, with much feeling, and he articulated the words

lovingly, and his odd accent sounded sweet.

He didn’t offer the story of writing “To Autumn,” I doubt if there is much of one.

But he did say the sight of a just-harvested oat field got him started

on it, and two of the lines, “For Summer has o’er-brimmed their

clammy cells” and “Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours,”

came to him while eating oatmeal alone.

I can see him drawing a spoon through the stuff, gazing into the glimmering furrows,

muttering. Maybe there is no sublime; only the shining of the amnion’s tatters.

For supper tonight I am going to have a baked potato left over from lunch.

I am aware that a leftover baked potato is damp, slippery, and simultaneously

gummy and crumbly, and therefore I’m going to invite Patrick Kavanagh to join me.


from New Selected Poems (Mariner Books).



Small Kindnesses


I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk

down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs

to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”

when someone sneezes, a leftover

from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.

And sometimes, when you spill lemons

from your grocery bag, someone else will help you

pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.

We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,

and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile

at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress

to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,

and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.

We have so little of each other, now. So far

from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.

What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these

fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,

have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”


First published in Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection from Green Writers Press.

I Will Not Die an Unlived Life


I will not die an unlived life

I will not live in fear

of falling or catching fire.

I choose to inhabit my days,

to allow my living to open me,

to make me less afraid,

more accessible,

to loosen my heart

until it becomes a wing,

a torch, a promise.

I choose to risk my significance;

to live so that which came to me as seed

goes to the next as blossom

and that which came to me as blossom,

goes on as fruit.


with the night falling we are saying

thank you


we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings

we are running out of the glass rooms

with our mouths full of food to look at the sky and say

thank you


we are standing by the water

thanking it


standing by the windows looking out

in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging

after funerals we are saying

thank you


after the news of the dead

whether or not we knew them we are saying

thank you


over telephones we are saying

thank you


in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators

remembering wars and the police at the door and the beatings on stairs we are saying

thank you


in the banks we are saying

thank you


in the faces of the officials and the rich

and of all who will never change

we go on saying

thank you thank you


with the animals dying around us

taking our feelings we are saying

thank you


with the forests falling faster than the minutes of our lives we are saying

thank you.


with the words going out like cells of a brain with the cities growing over us we are saying

thank you


faster and faster

with nobody listening we are saying

thank you


thank you

we are saying and waving

dark though it is”

1- Blood


“A true Arab knows how to catch a fly in his hands,”

my father would say. And he’d prove it,

cupping the buzzer instantly

while the host with the swatter stared.


In the spring our palms peeled like snakes.

True Arabs believed watermelon could heal fifty ways.

I changed these to fit the occasion.


Years before, a girl knocked,

wanted to see the Arab.

I said we didn’t have one.

After that, my father told me who he was,

“Shihab”–“shooting star”–

a good name, borrowed from the sky.

Once I said, “When we die, we give it back?”

He said that’s what a true Arab would say.


Today the headlines clot in my blood.

A little Palestinian dangles a truck on the front page.

Homeless fig, this tragedy with a terrible root

is too big for us. What flag can we wave?

I wave the flag of stone and seed,

table mat stitched in blue.


I call my father, we talk around the news.

It is too much for him,

neither of his two languages can reach it.

I drive into the country to find sheep, cows,

to plead with the air:

Who calls anyone civilized?

Where can the crying heart graze?

What does a true Arab do now?



2- Making A fist


We forget that we are all dead men conversing wtih dead men.

—Jorge Luis Borges


For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,

I felt the life sliding out of me,

a drum in the desert, harder and harder to hear.

I was seven, I lay in the car

watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past the glass.

My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.


‘How do you know if you are going to die?’

I begged my mother.

We had been traveling for days.

With strange confidence she answered,

‘When you can no longer make a fist.’


Years later I smile to think of that journey,

the borders we must cross separately,

stamped with our unanswerable woes.

I who did not die, who am still living,

still lying in the backseat behind all my questions,

clenching and opening one small hand.



3- Streets


A man leaves the world

and the streets he lived on

grow a little shorter.


One more window dark

in this city, the figs on his branches

will soften for birds.


If we stand quietly enough evenings

there grows a whole company of us

standing quietly together.

overhead loud grackles are claiming their trees

and the sky which sews and sews, tirelessly sewing,

drops her purple hem.

Each thing in its time, in its place,

it would be nice to think the same about people.


Some people do. They sleep completely,

waking refreshed. Others live in two worlds,

the lost and remembered.

They sleep twice, once for the one who is gone,

once for themselves. They dream thickly,

dream double, they wake from a dream

into another one, they walk the short streets

calling out names, and then they answer.


4- Half and Half


You can’t be, says a Palestinian Christian

on the first feast day after Ramadan.

So, half-and-half and half-and-half.

He sells glass. He knows about broken bits,

chips. If you love Jesus you can’t love

anyone else. Says he.


At his stall of blue pitchers on the Via Dolorosa,

he’s sweeping. The rubbed stones

feel holy. Dusting of powdered sugar

across faces of date-stuffed mamool.


This morning we lit the slim white candles

which bend over at the waist by noon.

For once the priests weren’t fighting

in the church for the best spots to stand.

As a boy, my father listened to them fight.

This is partly why he prays in no language

but his own. Why I press my lips

to every exception.


A woman opens a window—here and here and here—

placing a vase of blue flowers

on an orange cloth. I follow her.

She is making a soup from what she had left

in the bowl, the shriveled garlic and bent bean.

She is leaving nothing out.



5- Famous


The river is famous to the fish.


The loud voice is famous to silence,

which knew it would inherit the earth

before anybody said so.


The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds

watching him from the birdhouse.


The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.


The idea you carry close to your bosom

is famous to your bosom.


The boot is famous to the earth,

more famous than the dress shoe,

which is famous only to floors.


The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it

and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.


I want to be famous to shuffling men

who smile while crossing streets,

sticky children in grocery lines,

famous as the one who smiled back.


I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,

or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,

but because it never forgot what it could do.

1- On The Death Of The Beloved


Though we need to weep your loss,

You dwell in that safe place in our hearts,

Where no storm or night or pain can reach you.


Your love was like the dawn

Brightening over our lives

Awakening beneath the dark

A further adventure of colour.


The sound of your voice

Found for us

A new music

That brightened everything.


Whatever you enfolded in your gaze

Quickened in the joy of its being;

You placed smiles like flowers

On the altar of the heart.

Your mind always sparkled

With wonder at things.


Though your days here were brief,

Your spirit was live, awake, complete.


We look towards each other no longer

From the old distance of our names;

Now you dwell inside the rhythm of breath,

As close to us as we are to ourselves.


Though we cannot see you with outward eyes,

We know our soul’s gaze is upon your face,

Smiling back at us from within everything

To which we bring our best refinement.


Let us not look for you only in memory,

Where we would grow lonely without you.

You would want us to find you in presence,

Beside us when beauty brightens,

When kindness glows

And music echoes eternal tones.


When orchids brighten the earth,

Darkest winter has turned to spring;

May this dark grief flower with hope

In every heart that loves you.


May you continue to inspire us:


To enter each day with a generous heart.

To serve the call of courage and love

Until we see your beautiful face again

In that land where there is no more separation,

Where all tears will be wiped from our mind,

And where we will never lose you again.



2- For The Dying


May death come gently towards you,

Leaving you time to make your way

Through the cold embrace of fear

To the place of inner tranquility.


May death arrive only after a long life

To find you at home among your own

With every comfort and care you require.


May your leave-taking be gracious,

Enabling you to hold dignity

Through awkwardness and illness.


May you see the reflection

Of your life’s kindness and beauty

In all the tears that fall for you.


As your eyes focus on each face,

May your soul take its imprint

Drawing each image within

As companions for the journey.


May you find for each one you love

A different locket of jewelled words

To be worn around the heart

To warm your absence.


May someone who knows and loves

The complex village of your heart

Be there to echo you back to yourself

And create a sure word-raft

To carry you to the further shore.


May your spirit feel

The surge of true delight

When the veil of the visible

Is raised, and you glimpse again

The living faces

Of departed family and friends.


May there be some beautiful surprise

Waiting for you inside death,

Something you never knew or felt,

Which with one simple touch

Absolves you of all loneliness and loss,

As you quicken within the embrace

For which your soul was eternally made.


May your heart be speechless

At the sight of the truth

Of all your belief had hoped,

Your heart breathless

In the light and lightness

Where each and every thing

Is at last its true self

Within that serene belonging

That dwells beside us

On the other side

Of what we see.



3- For Suffering


May you be blessed in the holy names of those

Who, without you knowing it,

Help to carry and lighten your pain.


May you know serenity

When you are called

To enter the house of suffering.


May a window of light always surprise you.


May you be granted the wisdom

To avoid false resistance;

When suffering knocks on the door of your life,

May you glimpse its eventual gifts.


May you be able to receive the fruits of suffering.


May memory bless and protect you

With the hard-earned light of past travail;

To remind you that you have survived before

And though th darkness now is deep,

You will soon see the approaching light.


May the grace of time heal your wounds.


may you know that though the storm might rage,

Not a hair of your head will be harmed.



4- For Loneliness


When the light lessens,

Causing colors to lose their courage,

And your eyes fix on the empty distance

That can open on either side

Of the surest line

To make all that is

Familiar and near

Seem suddenly foreign,

When the music of talk

Breaks apart into noise

And you hear your heart louden

While the voices around you

Slow down to leaden echos

Turning silence

Into something stony and cold,

When the old ghosts come back

To feed on everywhere you felt sure,

Do not strengthen their hunger

By choosing fear;

Rather, decide to call on your heart

That it may grow clear and free

To welcome home your emptiness

That it may cleanse you

Like the clearest air

You could ever breathe.

Allow your loneliness time

To dissolve the shell of dross

That had closed around you;

Choose in this severe silence

To hear the one true voice

Your rushed life fears;

Cradle yourself like a child

Learning to trust what emerges,

So that gradually

You may come to know

That deep in that black hole

You will find the blue flower

That holds the mystical light

Which will illuminate in you

The glimmer of springtime.



5- When you lose someone


When you lose someone you love,

Your life becomes strange,

The ground beneath you becomes fragile,

Your thoughts make your eyes unsure;

And some dead echo drags your voice down

Where words have no confidence

Your heart has grown heavy with loss;

And though this loss has wounded others too,

No one knows what has been taken from you

When the silence of absence deepens.


Flickers of guilt kindle regret

For all that was left unsaid or undone.


There are days when you wake up happy;

Again inside the fullness of life,

Until the moment breaks

And you are thrown back

Onto the black tide of loss.

Days when you have your heart back,

You are able to function well

Until in the middle of work or encounter,

Suddenly with no warning,

You are ambushed by grief.


It becomes hard to trust yourself.

All you can depend on now is that

Sorrow will remain faithful to itself.

More than you, it knows its way

And will find the right time

To pull and pull the rope of grief

Until that coiled hill of tears

Has reduced to its last drop.


Gradually, you will learn acquaintance

With the invisible form of your departed;

And when the work of grief is done,

The wound of loss will heal

And you will have learned

To wean your eyes

From that gap in the air

And be able to enter the hearth

In your soul where your loved one

Has awaited your return

All the time.




6- A Blessing


On the day when

the weight deadens

on your shoulders

and you stumble,

may the clay dance

to balance you.

And when your eyes

freeze behind

the grey window

and the ghost of loss

gets in to you,

may a flock of colours,

indigo, red, green,

and azure blue

come to awaken in you

a meadow of delight.


When the canvas frays

in the currach of thought

and a stain of ocean

blackens beneath you,

may there come across the waters

a path of yellow moonlight

to bring you safely home.


May the nourishment of the earth be yours,

may the clarity of light be yours,

may the fluency of the ocean be yours,

may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow

wind work these words

of love around you,

an invisible cloak

to mind your life.



7- For the Traveler


Every time you leave home,

Another road takes you

Into a world you were never in.


New strangers on other paths await.

New places that have never seen you

Will startle a little at your entry.

Old places that know you well

Will pretend nothing

Changed since your last visit.


When you travel, you find yourself

Alone in a different way,

More attentive now

To the self you bring along,

Your more subtle eye watching

You abroad; and how what meets you

Touches that part of the heart

That lies low at home:


How you unexpectedly attune

To the timbre in some voice,

Opening in conversation

You want to take in

To where your longing

Has pressed hard enough

Inward, on some unsaid dark,

To create a crystal of insight

You could not have known

You needed

To illuminate

Your way.


When you travel,

A new silence

Goes with you,

And if you listen,

You will hear

What your heart would

Love to say.


A journey can become a sacred thing:

Make sure, before you go,

To take the time

To bless your going forth,

To free your heart of ballast

So that the compass of your soul

Might direct you toward

The territories of spirit

Where you will discover

More of your hidden life,

And the urgencies

That deserve to claim you.


May you travel in an awakened way,

Gathered wisely into your inner ground;

That you may not waste the invitations

Which wait along the way to transform you.


May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,

And live your time away to its fullest;

Return home more enriched, and free

To balance the gift of days which call you.




After she’s gone to camp, in the early

evening I clear our girl’s breakfast dishes

from the rosewood table, and find a dinky

crystallized pool of maple syrup, the

grains standing there, round, in the night, I

rub it with my fingertip

as if I could read it, this raised dot of

amber sugar, and this time,

when I think of my father, I wonder why

I think of my father, of the Vulcan blood-red

glass in his hand, or his black hair gleaming like a

broken-open coal. I think I learned to

love the little things about him

because of all the big things

I could not love, no one could, it would be wrong to.

So when I fix on this image of resin

or sweep together with the heel of my hand a

pile of my son’s sunburn peels like

insect wings, where I peeled his back the night before camp,

I am doing something I learned early to do, I am

paying attention to small beauties,

whatever I have–as if it were our duty to

find things to love, to bind ourselves to this world.


from The Gold Cell (Alfred A. Knopf, 1987)

1- To Have Without Holding


Learning to love differently is hard,

love with the hands wide open, love

with the doors banging on their hinges,

the cupboard unlocked, the wind

roaring and whimpering in the rooms

rustling the sheets and snapping the blinds

that thwack like rubber bands

in an open palm.


It hurts to love wide open

stretching the muscles that feel

as if they are made of wet plaster,

then of blunt knives, then

of sharp knives.


It hurts to thwart the reflexes

of grab, of clutch; to love and let

go again and again. It pesters to remember

the lover who is not in the bed,

to hold back what is owed to the work

that gutters like a candle in a cave

without air, to love consciously,

conscientiously, concretely, constructively.


I can’t do it, you say it’s killing

me, but you thrive, you glow

on the street like a neon raspberry,

you float and sail, a helium balloon

bright bachelor’s button blue and bobbing

on the cold and hot winds of our breath,

as we make and unmake in passionate

diastole and systole the rhythm

of our unbound bonding, to have

and not to hold, to love

with minimized malice, hunger

and anger moment by moment balanced.



2- If They Come in the Night   


Long ago on a night of danger and vigil a friend said, why are you happy?

He explained (we lay together on a cold hard floor) what prison meant because he had done

time, and I talked of the death

of friends. Why are you happy

then, he asked, close to angry.


I said, I like my life. If I have to give it back, if they take it from me, let me not feel I wasted any, let me not feel I forgot to love anyone I meant to love, that I forgot to give what I held in my hands,

that I forgot to do some little

piece of the work that wanted

to come through.


Sun and moonshine, starshine,

the muted light off the waters

of the bay at night, the white

light of the fog stealing in,

the first spears of morning

touching a face I love. We all lose

everything. We lose ourselves. We are lost.


Only what we manage to do

lasts, what love sculpts from us;

but what I count, my rubies, my

children, are those moments

wide open when I know clearly

who I am, who you are, what we

do, a marigold, an oakleaf, a meteor, with all my senses hungry and filled at once like a pitcher with light.


To all that is chaotic

in you,

let there come silence.


Let there be

a calming

of the clamoring,

a stilling

of the voices that

have laid their claim

on you,

that have made their

home in you,


that go with you

even to the

holy places

but will not

let you rest,

will not let you

hear your life

with wholeness

or feel the grace

that fashioned you.


Let what distracts you


Let what divides you


Let there come an end

to what diminishes

and demeans,

and let depart

all that keeps you

in its cage.


Let there be

an opening

into the quiet

that lies beneath

the chaos,

where you find

the peace

you did not think


and see what shimmers

within the storm.



from her book The Cure for Sorrow


1- The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can’t get Tragedies happen; people get hurt

or die; and you suffer and get old.

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.


2- A Living

Even pain you can take, in waves:

call the interval happiness. You can  travel; whatever nags you, you can change it. You can roll this burden away.

In the pinched bend of your street you can look back, or ahead, or wait.

And there is easy talk, for throwing back like Annie-Over, or a minuet, a way to act human in these years the stars look past. And somewhere around you begins that lifted road lighted by sunset, offered again and again, placed where the sky lives:

Someday your road.


3- A Valley Like This

Sometimes you look at an empty valley like this, and suddenly the air is filled with snow.

That is the way the whole world happened—there was nothing, and then…

But maybe some time you will look out and even the mountains are gone, the world become nothing again. What can a person do to help bring back the world?

We have to watch it and then look at each other.

Together we hold it close and carefully save it, like a bubble that can disappear if we don’t watch out.

Please think about this as you go on. Breath on the world.

Hold out your hands to it. When mornings and evenings roll along, watch how they open and close, how they invite you to the long party that your life is.


4- Being a Person

Be a person here. Stand by the river, invoke the owls. Invoke winter, then spring.

Let any season that wants to come here make its own call. After that sound goes away, wait.

A slow bubble rises through the earth and begins to include sky, stars, all space, even the outracing, expanding thought.

Come back and hear the little sound again.

Suddenly this dream you are having matches everyone’s dream, and the result is the world.

If a different call came there wouldn’t be any world, or you, or the river, or the owls calling.

How you stand here is important. How you listen for the next things to happen. How you breathe.


published in Even in Quiet Places: Poems (Confluence Press, 2010).



When you see them

tell them I am still here,

that I stand on one leg while the other one dreams,

that this is the only way,


that the lies I tell them are different

from the lies I tell myself,

that by being both here and beyond

I am becoming a horizon,


that as the sun rises and sets I know my place,

that breath is what saves me,

that even the forced syllables of decline are breath,

that if the body is a coffin it is also a closet of breath,


that breath is a mirror clouded by words,

that breath is all that survives the cry for help

as it enters the stranger’s ear

and stays long after the world is gone,


that breath is the beginning again, that from it

all resistance falls away, as meaning falls

away from life, or darkness fall from light,

that breath is what I give them when I send my love.


from New Selected Poems



O my love, what gift of mine

Shall I give you this dawn?

A morning song?

But morning does not last long—

The heat of the sun

Wilts like a flower

And songs that tire

Are done.


O friend, when you come to my gate.

At dusk

What is it you ask?

What shall I bring you?

A light?


A lamp from a secret corner of my silent house?

But will you want to take it with you

Down the crowded street?


The wind will blow it out.


Whatever gifts are in my power to give you,

Be they flowers,

Be they gems for your neck

How can they please you

If in time they must surely wither,


Lose lustre?

All that my hands can place in yours

Will slip through your fingers

And fall forgotten to the dust

To turn into dust.



When you have leisure,

Wander idly through my garden in spring

And let an unknown, hidden flower’s scent startle you

Into sudden wondering—

Let that displaced moment

Be my gift.

Or if, as you peer your way down a shady avenue,

Suddenly, spilled

From the thick gathered tresses of evening

A single shivering fleck of sunset-light stops you,

Turns your daydreams to gold,

Let that light be an innocent



Truest treasure is fleeting;

It sparkles for a moment, then goes.

It does not tell its name; its tune

Stops us in our tracks, its dance disappears

At the toss of an anklet

I know no way to it—

No hand, nor word can reach it.

Friend, whatever you take of it,

On your own,

Without asking, without knowing, let that

Be yours.

Anything I can give you is trifling—

Be it a flower, or a song.


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