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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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.

Who are the friends that, despite different paths chosen, have remained steadfast in your life?

In this poem Christian Wiman recalls the changing beliefs of his friends: this one has a new diet, this one has a new relationship, this one is slipping away, this one is verdant. While doing so, he holds the love for his “beautiful, credible friends” as the thing to hold on to while the planet turns faster.

How has becoming a parent — or being a caregiver — changed you?

This is a poem of two halves. In the first half, a man questions God — how could a loving Father allow suffering to happen? And in the second half, the man becomes a father himself, filled with fear and love. His questions about fatherhood change; he’s no longer wondering about the beyond, he’s wondering about the right now.

What pet names have you been called? What are the circumstances and stories behind these pet names?

In this poem, a woman considers the pet names to give her female partner; “My beloved” isn’t very convenient when you’re dropping off dry cleaning. And what word to use when speaking of how she annoys you? Written in the time before same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S., the humor of this poem highlights how policy can steal language from the everyday.

Who do you trust with your body?

In this poem, a man writes about his wife’s life-drawing class. She’s been sketching a naked male model for weeks, and the poet worries, comparing himself, trying to figure out how he feels. This poem moves from anxiety to request to consent to reciprocality. His self-consciousness about sharing his body with someone is transformed into trust and vulnerability.

Have you ever projected your own awkwardness onto someone else? How did you do it? And how would you address them now?

This poem recalls how, as a young adult, Zaffar Kunial judged his immigrant father’s way of speaking English. A poem that’s filled with adolescence as with awkward parental relationships, it also speaks of his yearning to fit in, to enjoy his own life. Shame features in this poem — the younger poet had been ashamed of his father’s grammar, but now, with time, he seems ashamed to have been that son.

What do you find hard to forgive in yourself? What might help?

In this poem, the poet makes a list of all the things she holds against herself: opening fridge doors, fantasies, wilted seedlings, unkempt plants, lost bags, feeling awkward, treating someone poorly. Dilruba Ahmed repeats the line “I forgive you” over and over, like a litany, in a hope to deepen what it means to be in the world, and be a person of love.

When you feel like crying, do you cry? Or do you stifle it? Why?

The U.S. Congress 2009 “Joint resolution to acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes” stated “Whereas the arrival of Europeans in North America opened a new chapter in the history of Native Peoples.” Layli Long Soldier wrote poems in response to this resolution and its non-consultative process. In this poem, she speaks of the need to let griefs and laments be heard and acknowledged.

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