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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In a poem called a “Song,” Linda Hogan crafts a song for turtles and other creatures killed through oil spills in the gulf. At once a praise song for the beauty of the sea, the earth, and its animals, this song also functions as a lament: for the history erased by industrial practices; for the lack of respect and love for living breathing other-than-human lives; for plastic and the plastic containers used to hold the body of a dead sea turtle. The poem veers towards a prayer, too, begging forgiveness for being “thrown off true.”

The exile’s return to the motherland is the theme around which Lory Bedikian’s poem “On the Way to Oshagan” circles. She, a proud Armenian, stops by a roadside stall on a trip to her home country; and is immediately understood as an Amerigatzi, even though she’s speaking Armenian, not English. The poem could end with this awkward exchange, but instead pushes through, and a connection occurs between the returned-departed and the never-departed: there’s a gift, an invitation, and a bridge across exile.

Telling some of the story of the Flower Wars of the Aztec era, Nico Amador’s poem pits wars against creation. In a poem that begins by recalling creation myths from multiple cultures, he then poses questions about why: Why would people sacrifice their own people to keep a god happy? Why would any god benefit from people’s deaths? Evoking how the Flower Wars contributed to the Aztec downfall, this poem also wonders about wars today: Who benefits from a war? Who decides who should die? Why?

In a poem that directly addresses Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” Darrel Alejandro Holnes asks questions: who gets to build walls, or guard borders? Do good fences really make good neighbors? Taking a poem that’s been part of an American imagination both of poetry and of citizenship, Darrel offers a critique that places contemporary migrant experiences at the center, challenging contemporary ideas of territory, conquest, and expansion.

This sestina poem considers a scene from Elizabeth Bishop’s own childhood through the sounds of six repeating words: house, grandmother, child, stove, almanac, tears. These six words repeat — in different order — as the final words of the poem’s lines, creating a kind of contemplation on how those repeated words informed her childhood: a childhood marked by loss, displacement, and a kind grandmother. “Time to plant tears” the poem states, in one of its most famous lines, as if the scene recalled has information about the future.

Some friends gather and smoke at a doorway in a city. There’s Malik, and Johnny Cash, and Lefty, and Jësus. And the poet, Major Jackson. They’ve known each other their whole lives, and they wonder who they’ll turn out to be. In a moment of disclosure, Major tells his friends he wants to be a poet, astonishing them, and himself too it seems. In friendship and ribbing, in desire and teasing, this poem wonders who a person is, and what it means to hope.

Andrés Cerpa recollects how his father’s early dementia was an increasing influence on his early years. As he grew, his father diminished. The burden of this was heavy on him — he stayed awake listening for information, and fell asleep at school. Older now, he looks at his younger self with tenderness and sadness. This poem gives attention to the experience of the growing presence of absence, and the ways that affects memory, family, and perspective.

A narrative prose poem about two brothers — one on a visit home from college — who are turning to face east in their small shared room. With seven years between them, one is a young man and the other, the poet, is nearing his teens. Their prayer is interrupted by a sudden surprising noise, and the sound of this makes them fall over each other in laughing. Their bodies, their joy, their uncontrollable delight is the prayer of their own lives.

In a poem that addresses a worm directly as “you,” Gail McConnell considers how these tube-shaped beings live: ingesting the earth, aerating it, digesting it, making its nourishment accessible for all kinds of growth. The worm burrows, knows dead things, and knows underground ways. Tiny and segmented though a worm is, nonetheless it senses that “all there is // can be gone through.” The poem’s close attention to the worm’s tactics of survival seems to indicate that much could be learned from its underground ways.

A club is a place for dancing, for abandon, for music, and for meeting strangers. Romeo Oriogun recalls a gay club that was for all those things, but also for escape. Living in a place where queer lives were under threat, he offers a praise song for this cathedral of safety and movement. Outside the world is silent, but inside the bar, people carry stories of their own desire, of their families, of their hopes; both for the future and the present.

In a poem of extraordinary poise, Kathleen Flenniken recounts her parents’ lively parties, their rich social life, their summer trips, and their friendships: friendships that were not always straightforward. The poem closes with an observation of a moment of sexual tension between her mother and another man. Kathleen’s right there, but feels like she’s barely noticed. Everyone goes to bed alone, and we are left with the poet and her awareness of what lay underneath the surface.

A love poem with a playful title that sounds like an ad from a travel agent unfolds into a poem about choosing to stay at home. Imtiaz Dharker’s husband died in the years between this poem’s setting and its publishing. The poem, too, moves from long lines across the page into shorter and shorter lines. In sensuality, locality, intimacy, and simplicity, this poem is all about the man she loved, and moves from noise to focus: “You Are / Here” its final lines assert.

The life of a sugar worker is the center of this poem: a worker whose body and person bear the imprint of that industry, with its demands and smoke and exhaustion. The worker in question is the poet’s father, and No’u Revilla brings us into a consideration of how he takes pride in work that depleted him, how he needed to find ways to recover from work that exhausted him, how in his body he carries the story of Hawai’i and its indigenous people.

In a slight change to the normal format, host Pádraig Ó Tuama speaks with the poet Jake Skeets who reads his poem “Daybreak,” a poem combining Diné language with English, a poem rich with observation: of land, of growth, of memory, of place. Land is not just a tool to use for food, nor is it a blank space for human projection. In this poem, Jake Skeets reflects on an ethical engagement with land: an engagement that sees land as itself, not just for its uses.

In a fantastical poem about the future, Tishani Doshi explores the present. She imagines a future where agriculture, forestry, and cultivation are things of the past, distant memories learned by humans existing on other planets, or on intergalactic spaceships. That distant future is reflecting on how it should have learned from the grass, abundant, generous, sustainable. This poem of dystopian magic-realism is more real than magic, offering advice on thriving, while noting the knife-edge of self-destruction so familiar to human behavior.

In a poem considering trees, Jason Allen-Paisant opens up many associations with trees: in a woodland, there’s a dead tree, from which new forms of life are finding sustenance. He, a Black man in the woods, is aware of people looking suspiciously at him. The poem reflects on how trees were used for building the ships of enslavers, who considered countries and people their property. In light of this, he shares a nature poem about all the things that nature holds.

In a short poem recalling a childhood response to grief, Jacob Shores-Argüello brings us into the fantasy world of a child: leaving an ill adult in a hospital bed, he and his cousin take to the mountains, turn magically into bears, and begin tearing holes in the earth for rest while the world continues below. Are they escaping? Or playing with rage? This extraordinary poem is a thing of wonder and survival.

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