Poem texts referenced by The Exercise:

Clam Man

He shuffles, and his face is white and lazy.
Some say he’s crazy.
He sells clams

Door to door through town.
Once I was sound asleep but he banged at the glass
And woke me. “Want to buy

Some clams?” he shouted, staring
Not at me but into the house beyond.
“No,” I said, ashamed
But frightened, and wished him away.

And he disappeared,
Banging the pail as he went
To scare the little breathers in their shells.

Mary Oliver


Afternoon sun on her back,
calm irregular slap
of water against a dock.

Thin pines clamber
over the hill’s top –
nothing to remember,

only the same lake
that keeps making the same
sounds under her cheek

and flashing the same color.
No one to say her name,
no need, no one to praise her,

only the lake’s voice — over
and over, to keep it before her.

Robert Pinsky


It’s horrible, being run over by a bus
when all you are is a little box turtle.
You burst. Your head blasts out like a cork and soars miles
to where the boy sprawls on the grass strip
beside the sidewalk. In mid-air
you are him. Your face touches his face,
you stutter, and you will go all your life
holding your breath,
wondering what you meant.

He forgets now
but he knew it in his cheek scorched
by the sweet blades and in his wild groin.
In his mother’s arms, screaming,
he knew it: that he was crossing
under the laughter and there was the other voice
sobbing, It’s not far, It’s not far.

C. K. Williams

No Speech from the Scaffold

There will be no speech from
the scaffold, the scene must
be its own commentary.

The glossy chipped
surface of the block is like
something for kitchen use.

And the masked man with his
chopper: we know him: he
works in a warehouse nearby.

Last, the prisoner, he
is pale, he walks through
the dewy grass, nodding

a goodbye to acquaintances.
There will be no speech. And we
have forgotten hi offense.

What he did is, now,
immaterial. It is the
execution that matters, or,

rather, it is his conduct
as he rests there, while
he is still a human.

Thom Gunn


The black ibis
tilts his slender head
toward the pan of sacrificial mice.
His eye shifts
slightly with anticipation.
He lifts his wing, black
in sunlight, blacker
in shadow.

The mice in their pan
are strangely flat, as if each fine bone
had been carefully slipped from its casing
leaving pink noses, pink tails, white fur,
a costume for a child’s pet.

The ibis’ yellow eye shifts,
his wing folds down.
No urgency.
The point is not the hunt.
There is nothing here but time.

Gillian Wegener

Sixteen Flowers

Hsu Wei came to painting late in life,
stunned by the sound of brush on paper.

The ink could hold a line or become a cloud,
could etch the begonia or shade the leaves around it.

After his time as a bureaucrat, he craved only
the unmarked scroll, clean brushes, fresh ink.

Bamboo in the background, rocks in the foreground,
calligraphy falling and falling like rain.

Winter blossoms alongside summer blossoms,
the blessing of everything at once.

Nothing in the scroll speaks of suicide –
his attempt, his failure, his continuing on.

Imagine the joy of the narcissus –
eternal beauty for the beloved image.

The dance life of the peony:
dip, brush, another sweep of delicate ink.

Seven years in jail for the murder of his wife.
Which is she in this spill of flowers?

The camellia’s fragility — if the scroll wavered
in any breeze, the petals would fall and scatter.

First a playwright, Hsu Wei knew the staging
for each flower, each leaf, each stem.

The thick petals of the lotus would turn palest pink
without the slightest hesitation.

How did the light fall through the doorway as he worked?
What slant? What color? What shadows?

He loved the calligraphy, its look on the paper,
footprints in new snow.

Spring blossoms alongside autumn blossoms,
the curse of everything at once.

Hsu Wei never meant for the flowers to last.
Beauty fades, he mourned, and went on painting.

Gillian Wegener

What Was Left Behind

The water line after the pool was drained,
the brown stain in the coffee cup below the rim,
pink marks above the thigh, the panty line,
the place on the forehead where the hat was too tight,
where his thumbs had stroked her brow,
the suntan line, dark rose against marble,
the frosting just before it melted into the cake,
the residue, red crystals, left by the wine,
his hands on her hips, resting,
the palm prints on the glass table,
the calluses on his feet before she rubbed them with pumice,
wet lines on the pavement, how far the water sprayed,
strokes of the eraser on the page, red crumbles,
soft voices in the night after the lights went off,
the rattle of the motor, dying, after the key was turned,
the throat of the cello, string still humming,
drops of sweat on her temples, the cool breeze,
her breath gasping in, in,
the long summer, its light dimming

Sharon Olson

The Truth

The truth never arrives in flaming red streams
like the ends of God’s hair.
It is the poor gritty dust that comes
from a little box of ammunition,
crusting in the season of rain.
The truth is sediment, rust,
not the shifting logs of dialectics.
It is the end of reason, of all endurance
when one no longer struggles against limitations.
It’s funny how scholars know how everything moves:
how first one thing happens, and then another,
how water breaks up into all its parts.
Across the waves we hail one another, inept
who cannot sail. Perhaps if the stars were clearer,
if there weren’t any blackbirds,
if the stars were anchors, pegs.
But then the wind would not blow so far.

Terry Ehret

We Dance The Blue Right Out

We dance in shoes, in socks, in bare feet
We dance at weddings under Champagne corks
We dance below reunion moons
We dance in the dark

We dance the black footprints on the floor
We dance the box step our mothers taught us
We dance out the door and down the street

We dance Fred and Ginger
We dance Gene and the umbrella
We dance the face of Leslie Caron
We dance the rumba, the samba, the tarantella

We dance the clouds
We dance the rainbow in seven parts
We dance the snowflakes one at a time
We dance the stars

We dance touching bodies, hands
We dance without touching
We dance and you take off your coat
We dance and I take off my clothes

We dance sweating salt
We dance in skin
We dance all the flowers in the garden
We dance the peas, potatoes, broccoli, squash

We dance forever under the ground
We dance our coffins down
We dance the dirt clod’s bounce, the rain
We dance the blue
right out of the

Susan Sibbet

To Dr. Williams

This is just to say
I never understood
why the plums were in

the icebox. Although
I like to think
of biting into chilled

plum pulp
before the shining door,
I keep my plums

on the kitchen table
in a bowl, where their dense
dark glossiness

grows as warm
as my own skin
and where

like small bombs
of ripeness
heavy with sun

and summer, slowly
their taut skin
slackens, splits,

and a thick, sweet
fermenting juice oozes
down each curving surface.

Carolyn Miller

Tuesday, 9 A.M.

A cold morning, gray skies
and winter coming, and I’m running
down the sidewalk to my rusted Honda,
its faded paint job streaked
with rivulets of rain and urban grit,
in a quavery city of wooden houses
begrimed with pollution and astral dust
and scarred with human failure,
me with someplace to go
and not running late, my car
not yet leaking from the winter rains,
the Gypsy Kings on the tape deck and a poem
coming into my head, I think:
I love my life.

Carolyn Miller