JULIA MEYLOR SIMPSON. I’ve been writing poems since I was able to read a Dr. Seuss book. About 10 years ago, I started a blog where I shared my poems, and my poems were published in a number of literary journals around the country. Then, for several reasons, I put the poetry on the back shelf. I’m now retired and would love to challenge myself to write poetry every day during the month of April.
She likes the sound of her sneakers biting into gravel,
the plainsongs of swollen creeks in the valley below,
the wake-up songs of orioles and chickadees.
And the longer she walks, the less she wants to turn around.
The less she worries someone will catch up to her.
The less she looks back.
She watches plumes of morning vapor slip away from hillsides.
It looks so easy, she thinks. But wherever the trail leads will be fine.
Because she’s never been anywhere but here.
“Our brother’s a-hiding right now from killin’ a fella.”
– Ruthie Joad, 1924-2017
Passing on news of Aunt Ruthie’s death
… No, she never married, as far as I know.
She lived with my folks until Pa passed four years ago.
Missed him so much she couldn’t stay here,
so she moved into a nursing home in town.
Shared a room with a woman from Texas
and died in her sleep last night.
Nope, not a peep out of her.
Would’ve been 93 next month.
Dad used to say she was as tough as a cocklebur.
Said if you found those weeds in a wheat field,
you had to yank them out by the roots
and turn them upside down
so they couldn’t grab hold again.
But Aunt Ruthie was nice to me,
especially when my girls were born.
She liked to come over and rock them,
sing little songs so I could get things
done around the house.
Made you wonder
why she never had her own.
No, not many Joads here no more.
Just my dad and Ruthie came back to Harper County.
Sometimes they talked about Noah and Al
and Rosasharn and their Ma and Pa.
One way or another, they lost them all
when they went out West back in the ’30s.
Dad said he’d be dead, too,
except Ruthie wouldn’t let him go.
Said he owed his life to her.
Yup, there was another brother.
Older, named Tom. Dad never talked about him
when Ruthie was around.
Said something happened in California
that still weighed on her.
Something about him hiding out
and a fight at some camp
and Ruthie’s bad mouth.
Once he asked me
to search for Tom on the computer.
We found a few, but not our Tom.
I can’t imagine losing touch like that
with my family, my three girls.
My Sharon is due next month. Her first.
Praying everything goes fine.
So the funeral’s tomorrow.
Ruthie never wanted nothing special.
Just a few songs. A big family dinner.
Paid for her stone in the cemetery years ago.
Said she wanted red dirt piled high on her
so she’d stay put when the wind blew.
The nursing home gave us her things:
a pair of old earrings I’d never seen before,
the tiniest baby cap,
a few clippings and recipes.
Yeah, we’ll miss her, too.
She was quiet, moody sometimes,
but she was a good woman.
Ode on a Paper Plate
Thou once stacked relative of good times,
Thou harbinger of parties and deviled eggs,
Circled receptacle, whose presence shouts
A drunken legend more clearly than kegs:
What ketchup-stained story permeates thy dregs
Amid flowers or stars or one-eyed minions?
In pink and green or red, white and blue?
What family reunions are these? What child’s birthday?
What lonely nights? What microwaved beef stew?
What early morning omelet? What wild rice roux?
Oh, joyful, joyful plate! that sturdily holds
Our lunch, or even a late Winter’s cheese wheel;
And, sings of celebrations, unhurried,
Forever sharing good times and how we feel;
More class reunions! more hymns to the real estate deal!
So unassuming, timeless, always ready on dark shelves;
Forever cheap and easy to be trashed;
Forever brimful with potato salad and Jell-O;
From cradle to grave, from peaks to lows crashed,
You attend our many loves and wishful hopes dashed.
328 Mickle Boulevard, Camden
I have driven the length of Jersey for years, but today I take the exit to a poet’s house.
It’s just me and a UPenn student visiting on this thawing, white-bearded March day.
“No photos allowed,” the tour guide warns as we enter Walt Whitman’s bedroom.
We stand next to Whitman’s narrow bed. “It’s the real one, not a replica,” he recites.
I loiter in this room where he died on a day in early spring much like this one.
I burn to snap photos of a green leather-bound copy of Leaves of Grass, his worn boots,
the paintings on his walls, a pile of handwritten pages on a writing table near the window.
The guide watches me carefully. Other fanatical visitors have tried to disobey the rules.
“Just one?” I ask. He shakes his head. We are the only visitors who stopped by today,
and it is time to close. He warns that we should not be in this part of Camden after dark.
Outside, on the fake cobblestones, I take all the photos I want as vintage street lights blink on.
I look up at his bedroom window. Whitman was a sick old man when he lived on Mickle Street.
Here, he revised his slim book of verse one last time. Yawped one final barbaric yawp.
The guide locks the Good Gray Poet’s door and runs across the boulevard to the train station.
I get in my car and drive around the block, where a few windows are filled with yellow light
scattered down a city block of burned-out row houses and cracked, grass-filled sidewalks.
I smile to myself. I assume Walt would have found someone here to celebrate, too.
in traffic on the Jersey side
of the George Washington
on a hot July afternoon.
Two daughters strapped in
The Lion King tape
has rubbed her last nerve
since Long Beach Island.
trucks and cars untangle
and traffic opens around
the last curve.
brakes flash on again.
She hears tires scream
as a car veers around her SUV
and spins to stop in front of her,
where she taps its bumper
because she didn’t
I can’t solve
but I can
feed a child.
I can’t end
but I can
I can’t tear
down a wall
but I can
I can’t stop
but I can
pick up trash.
I can’t speak
but I can
vote out hate.
We can’t quit
that we can.
I come to this empty beach
to collect rocks
worn smooth from tumbling against
each other and rolling
in and out with the tide for eons.
Today, I search for pure white marbles.
Another day, it will be heart stones
or large, flat pancakes
with flecks and sparkles.
As I wander down the beach,
my breath matches the waves
that break against the shore.
I wish to be nowhere else but here.
For I know something more about rocks
polished by the sea.
I , too, have been tumbled smooth and hard.
Breathe in. Blow out.
I carry my rocks with me.
The big questions
How do you measure a life?
Like a scant teaspoon? A brimming cup?
Will we be punished for our sins?
In a fiery pit? On the pendulum of our mind?
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?
Waiting? Hurrying? Thinking you had more hours?
Is one life enough?
Or one hundred? Can I come back as an elephant?
Do we have free will?
Will she? Won’t she? Will she? Won’t she?
Is there life after death?
Can I get back to you on this one?
Climbing into blue
Once, while sitting among dunes on a lonely stretch of unnamed sand, I fell asleep
despite the surf’s relentless roar. Atlantic winds pulled and twisted long strands of
hair, pummeled bones with metrical blows. Soon, bellows of crashing waves circled
back to a small Iowa grove bound by cordoned green fields. Here, in this isolated
belt of trees, I climbed limbs high into the blue, shouted back at the roaring wind.
Later, I awoke, surprised to be sitting on the edge of a sea, the scent of pine on my
The window poem
This is an “it’s 11:33 p.m.
and you’ve gotta write a poem about a window” sort of poem —
the poem you should’ve started working on earlier,
but you were watching a funny Ellen clip on YouTube,
catching up on The Voice, and then checking out Facebook (again).
But still, something’s egging you on to write a poem
because it’s National Poetry Month and you said you would
write every day. And no one’s coming
to your blog anymore because you don’t post regularly,
and you don’t have time to read anyone else’s posts anyway.
And you cleaned out a flower bed and walked on the beach today,
but you didn’t pay the bills or take the clothes out of the dryer.
And now your laptop is running out of juice (just ten percent),
so you’d better turn it off and plug it in.
Those are excuses for not writing a poem with a window in it,
or balancing the world’s problems in your hands
or juggling words for a while.
And if you fill your mind with enough junk,
you won’t have to think about what really hurts.
No, you won’t.
In the photo, the old woman
perches on a bench and squints behind wire rims.
Properly dressed in pumps, hose and beads,
she holds a tea towel she is embroidering.
My father said his Aunt Julia returned once a year
in summer to help butcher hogs.
He said she homesteaded in the Dakotas.
I don’t know much more about my namesake.
But I can imagine.
How she agreed to move with her young husband
to 160 acres in the middle of nowhere.
How she fought over what must fit in the shallow wagon box.
How more was left behind than she could bear.
How their land didn’t look anything like the posters.
How she lost two children to scarlet fever
and her husband in a blizzard.
How the meadowlarks sang on a spring morning.
How the neighbor woman spoke only Russian.
How she married a widower with five children.
How the wind never, ever stopped.
In the photo, the old woman
looks straight at the camera, her mouth
set in a straight line like a Dakota horizon.
Between her brows, two deep furrows
like a plowed field,
The psychology of forgetfulness
A young mom leaves her six-month-old daughter
sitting in a shopping cart in the swimsuit section
of Ann & Hope. She races through the store
to find the child singing in the carriage.
A traveler leaves her carry-on sitting on a bench
in a busy airport, drives home, does the laundry,
remembers her bag, drives back to the airport
and finds the bag still sitting were she’d left it.
A poet leaves her camera in the flower gardens
at Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, takes
the tour with other guests, writes in her journal
and finds the camera hanging from a tree limb.
Maybe, it’s not
the loss of memory we should fear,
but the moment our luck
A random sentence from Carol Shields’ novel, Swann
I puzzled for days over one scribbled passage hoping for a spill of light, but decided finally that the pen scratches must read “Door latch broken.”
And, finally, hope left,
after years of holding on to a solitary thread
that unspooled to nothing.
She takes photos of writers’ bedroom windows —
Emily, Walt, Frost, Twain and Thoreau,
Stegner, Laura, Louisa and Cather.
She imagines how they stirred awake on hot summer nights,
watched curtains lift in the breeze,
listened for what gathered in the dark,
and looked out these windows as the full moon inked shadows.
And then how that moon pulled them outside,
to fall down on a cool expanse of lawn,
to breathe in black soil and pine,
to listen to the sound of semis
on cracked cement highways miles away,
to lift and spin in a spiral of stars,
to wake and count the dark windows of the farmhouse
and wonder why
she lies here
Anticipating the end of the world
In 1964, I had just turned seven,
hardly old enough to watch
The Huntley-Brinkley Report.
But somehow, somewhere,
I got it in my head that the world
was going to end.
And this doomsday deadline held
my crystal ball gaze for days.
I remember kneeling at the center
of the double bed I shared with my sister
and pleading with God to delay
the end of the world.
I hadn’t learned to ride a two-wheeler.
I hadn’t made my First Communion.
I hadn’t read all the Dr. Seuss books in the library.
Every day for a week,
my prayers became more insistent
as I anticipated my final days on Earth.
I never shared these fears with anyone
except God. Well, maybe the Blessed Virgin, too,
who I thought was the real boss.
Then I remember sitting in class
and it was snowing. I thought, this is it.
This is the day. But it wasn’t,
and I went home on the bus.
Tonight I googled “doomsday predictions.”
and learned that celebrity psychic Jean Dixon
regularly predicted the end of the world
in the early 1960s.
And so, this is how the world goes on,
somehow, some way.
The children save us all.
That’s what you want to do.
Write till it hurts.
Write till it stops hurting.
Write till the whole world
finally says, “Okay, we get it now.”
But there’s so much that can go wrong.
Beware writing your heart out.
They’d rather you eat your heart out
than wear it on your sleeve.
Beware. Then write.
To celebrate tenuous sunshine
I walk the bluff along the Sound
and find myself in a stand of young trees
surrounded by ancient rock fences.
Here, silence, until a flick of sapphire
careens sharply in front of me,
and then another and another.
The air fills with ruffled feathers.
I look up to hear a dozen blue jays
give me hell for invading their space.
I apologize aloud for trespassing
and return to my car by a different path.
And what is it
the crickets say
each night when
the wind pushes
the curtains aside?
as we fall asleep
to their lullaby
and follow us
through our days.
I will be listening
when I die.
I used to lift high in the sky
And every night was an adventure.
I didn’t fly, I simply lifted at will,
looking down without fear
at the world below.
No one looked up
while I was suspended above
and I had no concerns
about the people below.
I didn’t see a string,
but something guided me,
softly lifting and lightly touching down.
Tonight, I will more than likely
be naked while no one notices
or running late to take a test
that I haven’t studied for.
No wonder I lie awake for hours.
Just like that
some days were better than others.
On good days he’d see Mom
walk into the bedroom with his folded clothes
or pass by the living room with a dust cloth.
He’d smell bread baking
or coffee brewing in the kitchen.
A glimpse or a whiff.
Just enough, he said.
Once, he said,
when he drove uptown for the mail,
he fell asleep, slumped behind the wheel.
He woke to rapping on his window.
“Jerry, wake up. You’re late. It’s time!”
She was right there,
and then she was gone, he said.
At Dad’s funeral,
my brother tells us his dream.
He’s sitting in a bar having a drink with Dad,
when Mom walks in. She tells Dad to get home.
And just like that, he gets up
and follows her out the door,
my brother said.
Just like that.
To the young woman in 47A from Hong Kong to Boston
We share slight smiles
when no one claims the empty seat between us.
Our bodies unloosen into this blessed space.
After the attendant passes out customs forms, you ask:
“Can you help me? I have never flown before.”
Dark hair, round face, wire rims, careful English, half my age.
Together, we fill in the boxes.
“You are brave to fly alone.”
I tell you that I’m new at this too.
You explain: “I will live in Boston for three weeks.
My boss thinks I need this experience to advance in my career.”
And once again I am humbled by a woman’s story,
how fears and desires take hold of our days.
How we taste both panic and hope.
How we choose which one to swallow.
As she sleeps in the seat beside me for hours,
I pray she will meet kind people here.
I pray she believes she is worthy.
I pray she will be the boss someday.
I pray we always close our eyes and leap.
I pray we land on our own two feet.
Years ago, as a young wife and mother,
she craved quiet more than chocolate.
Today, a terrier yapped at her
as she hauled a trash bag to the bin.
Without thinking, she said aloud
that the dog was the only one
who’d talked to her all day.
The owner gasped and hurried on.
His slight body
did not collapse in flames,
but in purple clouds
that spilled him
into two glaring headlights.
Recently, she drove up
the vacant road,
wondering how the two moved on,
regained this spring day,
made peace, shared a life
with open wounds.
My father liked to collect things.
Before he died, we emptied his house
and people came to buy
I, too, filled my suitcase
with what few things I could carry.
Among them, this Stanley No. 27 jack plane
that sits on my fireplace mantel.
The tool’s rusty cast iron frame,
worn wood handle and knob
are attached to a beechwood base
that hides the sharp blade.
When pushed across beams and planks,
the honed edge smoothed sticking places
and leveled rough spots,
leaving behind rich wood shavings
that curled and rippled
like trails through a forest.
Tonight, for the first time,
I unhinge the plate that holds the blade
on the century-old tool,
and it descends into the thin slot.
I brush the edge against my palm.
It is whetted, keen, ready.
Keeping things in perspective
On this planet
I am one of a million people
in line for the bathroom
at football games.
I am the dearth
of the earth.
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am millions of one.
When I speak
sound waves vibrate
in empty space
where no body
We all have reasons
to keep things in perspective.
In dreams this sharp-tined utensil
They say if you dream of eating with a fork,
you’re going to have a fight.
Dropping a fork signifies a falling out
with a friend.
Stabbing yourself with a fork
portends someone will deceive you.
If someone else is stabbed,
this person is using you.
If a woman dreams of a fork,
it warns of unhappy domestic relations.
And so tonight at dinner
she stabs roasted red bliss potatoes
and slices of tender pot roast.
The fork moves in and out of her mouth
at a table set for one.
“… One day when I went out to my wood-pile, or rather my pile of stumps, I observed two large ants, the one red, the other much larger, nearly half an inch long, and black, fiercely contending with one another.”
From ‘The Battle of the Ants’ in “Walden, or Life in the Woods” by Henry David Thoreau
On Pondering Thoreau’s Ants
Today, red and black ants battle
on a wood-pile near Walden Pond.
And Thoreau treads among the dead
on page ninety-four
of our American lit textbooks.
Sixty teenage eyeballs roll in their sockets.
“Why would anyone watch ants fight
for hours on end?”
“Why do we have to read this?”
you must ponder these young wanderers
who live not far from your life in the woods.
as they drown like ants in honey
in your secondhand hut.
Thoreau, you deliberate
tenacity, atrocities, total destruction
as a mindless world fiercely contends
with one another.
Help me connect your world
Then, perhaps, a sign.
From the back row
near an open window,
the top of a desk
like a cadence
out of time.
The doubter in my mind
babbles on and on.
Even now. The words on the page
are not the words in my head.
I know you both.
you urge each other on.
you both fight to be heard.
So is there a third voice
that never speaks?
One that simply sighs
or holds its breath,
until both voices
with frigid resistance,