Poetry Unbound

Your poetry ritual: An immersive reading of a single poem, guided by Pádraig Ó Tuama. Unhurried, contemplative and energizing. New episodes on Monday and Friday, about 15 minutes each. Two seasons per year, with occasional special offerings. Anchor your life with poetry.

To listen to more poems, interviews with poets, and search our ever-expanding archive, visit our new home for poetry.

Poetry Unbound Plus is a four-part series with Pádraig in conversation with poets — Mary Karr, David Kinloch, Lorna Goodison, and Diane Glancy — about how their work intersects with the literature of the bible. Explore Poetry Unbound Plus

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This poem stretches the word ‘expect’ into dozens of formulations. Proceeding alphabetically through the index of the book, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” Katie Manning creates an exhausting list of all the expectations created during pregnancy,about rejecting some pressures and embracing others; surviving some, being knocked over by others. The humor and pace of this poem places insight alongside insidiousness.

The opening poem to Ilya Kaminsky’s masterpiece, Deaf Republic, is written in the voice of someone who is confessing their complacency during a time of trial. There’s a war going on, but it doesn’t affect the person speaking, so they don’t get involved. Instead they stayed outside and caught the sun. They lived happily during the war, and are now saying (forgive us). This poem leaves us wondering what it would mean to make such a confession, to ask for forgiveness, and whether it’d do any good.

A special bilingual poem in Anishinaabemowin and English by Margaret Noodin, a linguist who writes primarily in Anishinaabemowin. This poem of eight lines is filled with location — the sweet sea, the curved shoreline — and gathers melancholy into its song. And it is a song — sung in both languages for us by Margaret Noodin herself.

Bereavement brings all kinds of pressures. This poem by Martín Espada starts off with a grief-to-do-list: a phone call, a flight, a blizzard, cremations, shipments of ashes, memorial services. After all of this — in a first stanza that builds in intensity — he needs to be reconnected with something tangible. He goes to feed birds at the park, and among the birds is a goose, like a god of the geese, who shrieks with all the emotion stored in him. This goose is like a priest of grief for Martín Espada, voicing the sounds of all that he’s feeling.

In many ways this poem can be analyzed by how it ends: by examining the contents of organic shops. Roshni Goyate looks at one such item — coconut oil for hair — and considers its long line of history in her British-Indian family. As a child, she was shamed by classmates for using coconut oil in her hair, but now it’s double the price in shops. In a cruel irony, her race and culture were both hypervisible to those who taunted her and rendered invisible by those same people who invalidated her presence and citizenship.

When looking at Andy Warhol’s painting of Geronimo — a leader and medicine man of the Bedonkohe band of the Apache tribe — b: william bearheart wonders who the Geronimo of the painting is looking back at, and who is looking at it. In many ways, this poem reflects on how this piece of art depicting an Indigenous American was painted by a White person for White people. However, the poet finds connections — of pain, occupation and experience — between himself and Geronimo; and the poem challenges the centrality of the White european gaze.

A poet considers his father, and, particularly, his father’s boots. These boots could be a hammer, a prop, a weapon. But Esteban Rodríguez also remembers how his father — a sleepwalker — would walk outside at night in his underwear, wielding his boots, slapping them against each other in a kind of protective ritual. What spirits was his father protecting them from? What was he asserting about land and place, by standing guard, even in his dreams?

Letterpress art by Myrna Keliher.

This ‘Essay on Reentry’ charts life after prison: and the way that others keep your sentence alive even when you’re wishing to just get on with your own life. It’s about secrets and choice and disclosure. And in the midst of all this, there is also love between a son and his dad, a son like a “straggling angel, / lost from his pack finding a way to fulfill his / duty.”

Letterpress art by Myrna Keliher.

A poem about blossoms that is not only about blossoms. Li-Young Lee remembers a glorious day when he and a companion bought peaches; peaches that had come from blossoms. And in the taste of peaches, the brown paper bag they came in, sold by a boy at a bend in a road, the poem tells us — again and again — that sweetness, yearning and generosity is possible, on all kinds of days.

Letterpress art by Myrna Keliher.

This poem takes place on battlegrounds. The poet — Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo — is at Gettysburg National Military Park, where she wanders around the cemetery searching for the graves of Mexican soldiers. Instead she finds KKK books on display in the park’s visitors gift shop. So much of this poem is about unearthing, and making offerings of devotion and life: the poet makes offerings to her ancestors, but she also makes offerings of water bottles to migrants at border crossings.

Letterpress art by Myrna Keliher.

In this love poem, Matthew Olzmann writes about his wife — the poet Vievee Francis, whose poem for Matthew was featured in the previous episode — and the reasons why their marriage might work: her courage, her tenacity, her quirks, her multiplicities. He recounts instances of her generosity and lands on a story of how, when she was down to her “last damn dime,” she  still bought a bottle of Mountain Dew for him, because she knew he loved it. This is a cinematic and musical poem, making exquisite use of a particular object: a bottle of soda, holding fizz in it, and symbolizing more love than it could contain.

Letterpress art by Myrna Keliher.

Building up in lists of delicious words — uvular, hibiscus, loquacious, shuttlecock, dollop, chipotles and chocolate — this poem uses sensual language to make a simple point. Vievee Francis moves past these words and all their suggestions by telling us that her favorite word is the name of her husband — the poet Matthew Olzmann — and how she loves it when he says her name. Love, like this poem, can rejoice in many things, and take its own time to unfold its own delight.

Letterpress art by Myrna Keliher.

This poem offers critique into a moment of Irish history when Ireland, through independence, was rising to the light. But Irish women were facing lives as constricted in independence as under empire. Decades later, Eavan Boland reads a newspaper of her grandmother’s near-eviction and is consumed both by rage and critique of how history concerns itself with the politics of men, not women. This poem is a corrective, turning the gaze on historians, as well as history.

Letterpress art by Myrna Keliher.

This poem starts off by describing how split the poet — Jónína Kirton — feels between two identities: having both Métis and Icelandic heritage. The poem imagines a bridge between these two places and cultures, and arrives, in the second stanza, at the image of a “living root bridge.”It is in this image that the poem anchors itself: a bridge that is part of the earth, a bridge that lives, that is not torn, but alive and growing. This metaphor speaks to what is possible in a life, and helps Jónína Kirton thrive in the tension she thought would tear her.

Letterpress art by Myrna Keliher.

In Lorna Goodison’s imagined scene, Spain’s Queen Isabella receives the ‘report’ of the discovery of Xamaica from Christopher Columbus, an Italian man who was financed by the Spanish court to ransack foreign lands. Lorna Goodison is the former Poet Laureate of Jamaica, and in this tight, terse poem, she’s the explorer: exploring practices of colonization, finance, power and administration. With pomp and ceremony she describes a scene that was as vacuous as it was dangerous.

Letterpress art by Myrna Keliher.

Music works a kind of poetry in us. This poem is like a mix-tape of Hanif Abdurraqib’s memories, complete with a soundtrack that’s as roaring as it is tender. An adult now, he remembers moments of grief and growth in the adults of his childhood, and how Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” opens up more than just those memories. In a poem that you can almost dance along with, Hanif wraps other people’s griefs — and his own — into language that uplifts.

Letterpress art by Myrna Keliher.

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