Poetry We Admire: Curios & Mementos



“We will eventually be archaeology, but now in America

I tell my daughter the new headlights are a bluish-white instead
of the murky yellow of my upbringing.”

–Jaswinder Bolina, “Make Believe

“Lucky are you who find me in the wilderness.

–Josh Ritter, “Bone of Song


Surrounded by them, I suppose, I write. The photograph, my father and I some twenty-four years ago. A painting of saint catherine and the dove fished off some sidewalk. Pieces of chalcostibite and mookaite, pocketed out of some barrels on a farm of precious stones and peacocks in Oregon half a decade ago. My copy of Ways of Seeing, my copy of Blackacre. Of course, the cows.

It’s less these things carry a meaning I cannot place than it is that they have, in the time we’ve spent together, come to displace whatever it was I understood as my casual relationship to objects. 

There’s a companionship between us now, a feeling of home their presence inspires in me, and which in my absence they might not inspire in anyone at all. How the years we’ve shared entwine us.

Carson: Much is misnomer in our present way of grasping the world. 

Hass: Those stairs: there were five of them. I took three in a leap, coming home from school, and then four, and one day five, and have complicated feelings about the fact that it was one of the vivid pleasures of my life.

I hope you enjoy these poems as much as I have.


Life, my husband tells me, an orb
of waning geranium plucked and balled in his hand,

from "Memento Vivere"

by Jane Zwart in The Worcester Review

I love this poem — what’s not to love? — in which I see reflected so much of my own current thoughts about writing practice. “Memento Vivere” is a poem that finds magic in mere description, in the identifying of the world as it is: “the celosia topped with felted flames”, “the chenille / full of muppets’ pink fingers.” To pay attention to anything enough to make it come alive in language is a radical act, a kind of truth-telling. Even without its final line, this is the kind of poem a person might carry with them a long time, but something in that ending, the quiet questions it raises, sears it in my memory. Some days I agree with Robert Hayden and others I’m being convinced by someone else, but this morning I read him, and as he writes, “the truly revolutionary poets are always those who are committed to some integrative vision of art and life. Theirs is an essentially spiritual vision which leads to the creation of new forms and techniques, to a new awareness.” As in Hayden’s work, I find that integrative vision here.


the gallery says all, and all at once.

from "Memento Mori"

by Maya C. Popa in The Yale Review

Coming across this poem the same day as Zwart’s in The Worcester Review, I knew I had to feature both in this month’s PWA. Both poems are composed of three brief stanzas, and while Zwart’s lines stretch on, replete with imagery and punctuation, Popa’s piece is spare, restrained. Even in its most extraneous moments, the poem’s ideas burrow inward: “I watch you disappear / into the next room knowing,”. When I first looked at these pieces alongside one another, I mistakenly read both as being nine lines long — “Memento Mori,” in fact, is not. Its second stanza is only a couplet, disrupting this exchange otherwise composed of tercets alone, somehow succeeding in troubling not only its own structure, but the structure of the conversation between the two pieces as well. If there are answers here, maybe they’re to be found in the purposiveness of the poem’s rhyme scheme: “How much pain / should we knowingly invite –” … “Otherwise, why paint or write / if not for ends hidden in plain sight?” … “one day, this room will be my life.”

He looked for his voice at an underground rooster fight. Nothing.

from "Voice"

by Jose Hernandez Diaz in Conduit

“A man in a Carlos Santana shirt looked for his voice beneath a pile of crisp autumn leaves.” It took me a long time to come around to the prose poem, but when I remember those months of my steady conversion to and budding love for the form, Jose Hernandez Diaz’s The Fire Eater always comes to mind. As a longtime admirer of Diaz’s work, it’s a joy to finally be able to include a poem of his in PWA. “Voice” was a natural fit this month, a poem that gets at the essence of what I think it is I’m trying to say of curios — better put, a poem that helped me identify just what it is I find so special about certain objects in my life. How deep and tender our relationship with things can be, how they can bring us back to parts of ourselves we’d otherwise forget, or take us where we may never otherwise have known we were capable of getting: “His voice was there, as it turns out, inside of the guitar soundhole. It had been there all along.”

He lifted it
to the lamp, said, This will do.

from "First Caddis"

by Richard Jordan in Rust and Moth

Sometimes I read a poem that makes me sad my days of teaching high school english are behind me. There’s a prompt in here, a moment in that first stanza I think the kids would have loved to emulate in their own words: When Jordan moves from concentrating on the Caddis, to slipping almost imperceptibly back in time. Watch him do it — “Musty fur and rusted hook, this is / my oldest elk hair caddis, the first fly / my father let me tie myself. He lifted it / to the lamp, said This will do.” And just like that, we’re in memory, ferried so gently across a life we could be forgiven for thinking we weren’t always there to begin with. Surely that’s just what it is to be a person; who we were always within us, even when we aren’t there anymore. Permit me draw on Hayden one more time: “Poetry [is] the illumination of experience through language…Could we think of it as a species of Primal Scream? Did it not grow out of primitive mysteries? And does it not remain, despite all we know about it, rather mysterious?”

Benjamin Bartu