Poetry Unbound

Delve into an immersive exploration of a single poem. Short and unhurried; contemplative and energizing — with a podcast, a book, a vibrant conversation on Substack, and occasional gatherings.

Pádraig Ó Tuama greets you at these doorways to brilliant poems, and invites you to meet them with stories of your world. The poems are eager to meet you, too.

Discover it all below.

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How do you speak with your mother when she’s forgotten who you are? By turning to myth, it seems, and by holding gentleness with bewilderment, love with patience. Rita Dove lets us overhear a phone call, and in this listening, we hear lifetimes unfold.


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While preparing for the next season of Poetry Unbound, host Pádraig Ó Tuama sat down with Krista Tippett for a conversation about the power of poetry to find us at the exact moment we need it. Pádraig and Krista also invite listeners to share their experience of Poetry Unbound through our survey.

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In a poem brimming with love and nostalgia for winter, a poet leaves California to return to their Minnesotan homeplace, a place where winter makes sense, where sadness makes sense, where the isolation that’s at the heart of humanity can be met with a landscape that can contain it. Here, solitude is looked at with wisdom and necessity. A season can deepen the human experience. Joy finds new expressions.

What if the planet were as loved as a child? Taking the story of his daughter’s fever when she was one, Craig Santos Perez reflects on everything he did — and would have done — for his daughter’s health. Her temperature rose and his love and response did, too. The temperature of the world rises, and he wonders who loves the earth enough to respond, and who doesn’t.

Standing at the edge of a desert, surveying the stars on a December morning, the speaker in this poem observes the everything of everything. He is so small; the universe is so loud and so silent. Thinking about the enormity of all this, he thinks of the smallness of the hearts of birds, wasps, moths, bats, and dragonflies — all flying things around him, suspended in space, like the earth is suspended in space. His own heart, too, echoes the universe’s noise.

Yeshiva students stand around in the middle of the night while firemen find the cause of the alarm. It’s a student — distressed by distressing news at home. The teachers cancel classes for the morning after. A poem can describe one thing, but point to another, and beyond the drama of this 2 a.m. scene is a question about whether the presence of God can dwell among those plagued by sadness, or whether God only dwells there.

In a taxi, a poet speaks to the driver. It’s the only taxi in town. He mentions travel, mentions Afghanistan, that he was there with the forces. She’s from Afghanistan and the conversation continues — awkward; complicated; him trying to say good things, but failing; her feeling like she should rescue him, but deciding not to. War is upended by the point of view of a person in whose country the war was fought. Underneath the action of the poem is a question about whether conversation is possible, and an appreciation for silence.

Why do empty places sometimes lend themselves to reflection or contemplation? In this poem, a poet — describing herself as a nonbeliever — goes into a chapel to sit. In the corner there are some girls talking, there are stained glass windows, and the poet is at once at home in herself and far from the woman she loves. The high emptiness of the church seems to give a resting place for the emptiness she’s feeling. While there’s no resolution, the larger empty space offers a holding place for the poet.

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.

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