July 24, 2022

Abby E. Murray


When some Americans hear
about a man-made calamity
unfolding in Britain, it takes
a hot minute to remember
there is no such thing as
a country that is simultaneously
one sovereign nation
and your sophic mother:
older than you and, at one time,
so powerful you didn’t realize
she was human. For example,
on the morning after
Boris Johnson’s hair
became Prime Minister,
you opened the newspaper
like it was your front door
and you’d just heard
shave & a haircut
knocked into it at 3 AM
only to find your mom there,
drunk, puking violently
into the potted fern.
Had it been anyone else—
a neighbor, a friend,
even a stranger—
you would have known
how to act right away,
but because it was who it was,
you stood and stared,
It took a full year of following
British government proceedings
to recognize the same
carousel music that plays
in the U.S. Capitol, a tune
we’ve egotistically grown to think
originated in the States,
another invention
of our founding fathers,
our long dead brothers
whose courage compelled us
to test whether farts are flammable,
whose bravery urged us
to rollerblade off the roof
of the garage as soon as
we were allowed to play
unsupervised. Even now,
on our shared and ferociously
warming planet,
a heat we continue to kindle
while knowing it will consume us all
surprises me by turning up
in London, where it is unanticipated,
brutal, and the seeming fault
of a belligerent sun,
as if the disappointed parent
of my country as I know it
was still somehow above
climate change until now,
until my child mind
perceived her here
on the front page of the Times,
unable to work or get out of bed
for anything other than water.
The first time I saw
my own mother sweat,
I marveled at how she still
smelled only of lotion
and Calvin Klein Eternity,
as usual, her glow unlike
the pubescent body odor
I seemed to carry just by waking up
and living. It wasn’t until
my thirties that I began to tell
myself—sometimes out loud—
that my mother was capable
of the same recklessness I was
because I needed to believe it
in order to know independence,
needed to say it
to that part of me who,
no matter how old she gets,
still just rolls her eyes,
slams the door in my face.

from Poets Respond
July 24, 2022


Abby E. Murray: “I was talking to a friend the other night about how, whenever anything painful or sad happens on a national scale in Britain, there’s a part of me that is, for a fraction of a second, surprised—like I’ve grown to expect ineptitude and blatant disregard for humanity in the U.S., and seeing it in Britain is about as unsettling as seeing my mother drunk (which is, for the record, about as likely as me seeing the Queen herself show up at my house in the wee hours, blitzed). Even heat waves brought about by man-made climate change, which affect us all, are being spoken about as wholly unanticipated in Britain. So I’m kind of making fun of my sense of problematic surprise, even as I move to correct it.” (web)

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January 29, 2023

Kenneth Tanemura


My wife and I are visiting her hometown, Hanoi, to celebrate the Lunar New Year with her parents, sisters, and extended family. The first day of the new year feels anticlimactic after last night’s fireworks, cigars, Italian wine, sweet rice. A few minutes after waking I hear the incessant subtle slow ticking of the clock that depresses me with the feeling of seconds as a unit of time, how limiting that is, cutting out the past, constricting the present, turning the future into oblivion. I saw thousands of peach blossoms being sold by vendors yesterday. They set up their trees and blossoms at West Lake and beyond, and throngs of cars and motorbikes crammed those narrow streets to get a glimpse, to bring something festive home, to brighten a house and the people who live there. People tied the little trees to their motorbikes and sped away, hoping the blossoms would bring them growth, prosperity, love. I think of a haiku with a peach blossom in it:
The peach blossoms know nothing
of the language barrier
between mother-and-son-in-law
Looking out the window I see that only the part of the building across the street that faces the street is painted. The sides of the building are shorn of façade, of all aspiration towards beauty.
First day of the year—
the neighbour’s blue house
has become royal blue
I go downstairs to ask my mother-in-law if she needs any help. She always says no, though this time her expression seems to say, “But why didn’t you come down earlier? Don’t lie in bed with your Kindle for heaven’s sake. Don’t you see your wife is tending to the baby on her own?” She doesn’t speak English, only Vietnamese. I accept the validity of her perceptions. Books, art, and music, yes, but what about helping people? I’ve always been better with things. Words on paper are things like the bronze bust of an ancestor with eyes that look past you or within. Not the eyes of a man. For my infant son, the notebook I write on is just another thing to grab, grip, lunge for, maybe eat. But books provide clarity, language for experiences we have no words for, and new experiences we could not have had in any other way. I go out to the garden to see what’s happening there.
First day of the year—
how the small grapefruit
bends the branch to water
First day of the year—
pond too murky
to see the carp
I whistle at the caged guard dog
to calm him, he sniffs the air
in a calming way
Used to be I went out with other poets to write haiku, a poetic genre I first learned about from my Japanese mother. Tea garden San Jose. Belonged to haiku clubs. Knew moments, not the bigger picture. Most moments are so-what moments, significant only to the perceiver, but irrelevant to the reader. There are a few that stand out, come rarely, like finding the snowy owl in the park in midwinter. My youth was still as rose bushes, I think. On the outside. Chaos inside, mood swings, dark days. Didn’t know what to do with a life. Am I still immobile, fixed? My mother-in-law is constantly in flux, at the kitchen sink, jumping on the motorbike to peruse flowers at the market, all the way out to West Lake and back. Frenetic pace. She does advanced yoga, and she’s agile as a 30-year-old in her 60s. Everything she does benefits others. The only indulgence she gives herself is an early Sunday morning bowl of pho at a restaurant overlooking Turtle Lake. Before the others wake up and their stomachs grumble for breakfast. Before she cooks, boils, chops, slices, fries, washes, all while catching up with her daughters.
Talking gossip. She’s so invested in life and what is life if not the lives of people? Makes me think I got it wrong. Too much literature on the mind. Her husband has wandered out to his writing room, detached from the house, to drink tea, smoke a cigarette, consider if he should write a New Year couplet. He contemplates here in the little snatches of time he can steal from the day’s busywork. He’s formally educated. She didn’t go to college, but she comes from a literary family, a long line of poets and writers in Hanoi. They aren’t opposites and they aren’t conjoined. They are cosmologically interconnected. I want to write a couplet too, but I’m not feeling it—lack of sleep, grey morning, the water run dry.
The hens
their necks straight
look in different directions
The path around the garden is blocked by low-hanging branches that bear no fruit or flowers. Is that it? Waste of time. Too sullen this morning for anything to open.
The flower buds
even on the first day of the year
remain buds
Big floppy leaves of a tree I don’t know the name of brushes my head as I walk back to the house. Starfruit dangle enticingly in the cool morning air. My mother-in-law and I are looking for different things: she wants the pure vibrancy of colour to colour over everything. I want the apricot tree that blooms only three weeks at a time, only three times a year, the ones that grace the house for Lunar New Year and are cast off into the corner of the garden later, as if they no longer symbolize gentlemanly purity and elegance unspoiled by greed or cruelty after the first week of the new year is gone. Pure vibrancy of colour. Maybe that’s the right way. To colour over everything. Past that is dissatisfaction. Past that is not life anymore.
The Phoenix flowers’
red petals upright on the first
day of a new year
Leaving the garden, I go to my father-in-law’s office. My wife encouraged me to visit him there to learn the meaning of the poem he has composed. He has written a one-line poem shorter than haiku, in calligraphy, using Chinese characters. The poem is written on parchment paper with a little string at the top to hang on a hook. The poem reads: “Spring knocks at the gate.” The double meaning is that both spring and family visitors knock at the gate since it’s customary for people to spend the first day of spring visiting relatives. Spring knocks at the gate of a new year and enters. I don’t think it’s right to say that spring is symbolic of family members; neither are the family members emblematic of spring. Spring is tangible and felt: flowers bloom, birds sing, the air grows balmy and a renewed hope, a fresh resolve to give it another go bolsters us in the company of family and friends. Spring is spring, and family visitors are family visitors, yet they are the same thing. The moment you try to turn them into symbols, you lose their meaning. My father-in-law tapes his poem to the front gate, a wide, tall block of metal strong enough to protect a fortress. Yet the public display of a poem calligraphed on fragile paper reflects the true spirit of the people who reside there. When the visitors come, will they see themselves as spring knocking at the gate, or the first day of spring as a version of themselves, waiting to be let in?
The first day of spring—
everyone in their best clothes,
their best faces
The first day of spring—
in-laws become father and son
writing at the same table
The first day of spring—
everyone granted a fresh start
looks beautiful
The first day of spring—
we hand our work stress
to the departed year of the tiger
We write at the same table, his writing table. He shares his New Year thoughts on social media, and I write haiku on my iPhone. This is the table where he wrote essays about his daughter, my wife. This is the table where he wrote when he was a formidable figure I never met, whose form was fleshed out by my not-yet-wife’s anecdotes, her eyes brightening less from the pleasure of telling a tale than for her love and admiration for her father. The anecdotes were about her father the kung fu teacher, doctor of Chinese medicine, author of bestselling books, poet, calligrapher, son of an important anti-colonialist revolutionary, manager of factories, a guy’s guy, the list went on. “Do you think you can handle the pressure?” she said.
“Yes,” I said, not knowing what I was able to handle.
Thanks to the miracle of taxidermy and a former student who hunted wolves, he sits on a chair directly in front of a wolf, its head hovering over my father-in-law, which makes him look like a wolf-man, spurred on by the spirit of freedom and instincts. This is his chair alone. “You have to sit facing the wolf if you want to write here,” he said.
I face the wolf: those fangs, those enraged eyes, the mouth gaping open as if to snap shut like a guillotine onto a poor elk’s throat, don’t necessarily inspire numinous moments. Still, I focus on the wolf as a symbol of intelligence, communication, and understanding. “We all share a life together,” my father-in-law says, gesturing with a broad sweep of his hand. He grounds my isolate, individualist bearing, and brings me back to the communal, the common ground we all have, and share even more with our families.
Going back to the kitchen, I ask my mother-in-law if she needs me to help her with anything. She is the heart and soul of the family. She placed the daffodils that bloom once a year on the table, because they are pretty and symbolize new beginnings. She flung open the big acacia double doors this morning and filled the entrance to the house with violets so they may bring a moment of peace and beauty to the visitors. She feeds the visitors, gives them tea, cleans up the mess they leave and sees them off with a vibrant smile and wishes for good health and success.
First day of the new year—
the faces of people
are the faces of peonies

from Poets Respond
January 29, 2023


Kenneth Tanemura: “I’m in Hanoi, Vietnam, for the Tet holiday to celebrate with my in-laws. There has been a lot of news coverage about the Lunar New Year holiday celebrations around the world, but somehow I found a lack of coverage in the major American newspapers. Most Americans seem to have a shallow understanding of this very rich and complex experience, which is far more layered and significant than the way Americans celebrate Christmas, for example. I wanted to write something that would illuminate the meaning of this holiday in greater depth.”

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December 3, 2022

Doug Ramspeck


The deer this time of year are gray. I see them
near the railroad tracks. What I like about them
is how they flee at the first sign they are observed.
But the one today is full-sized, on its side in the bar
ditch, with a white belly, its neck bent, smudges
of red in the snow like dropped handkerchiefs.
I have been thinking about how often my students
arrive at my office to show me poems they have written.
How often they tell the background story, how they
dressed up experience in the skin of a dead deer,
how they splayed themselves in a bar ditch for everyone
to see. Occasionally they weep, wiping their noses
with their fingers, their insides spilling raw at
the roadside, their necks lolling. Sometimes a single
salty drop falls to the handwritten page and stains it,
leaving a blue ink splotch, as though all sorrow
is a smudge. They want to be that poor deer
where the snow is coming down, dropping out
of the sky, making of the body a mound to be buried
in white, the smooth belly the same white as the snow,
as though a deer might enter the landscape, become
the landscape. To be that one true poem, the one
where you bleed a little on the snow. But tomorrow
I will remind my students that there is a weak sun
in this January sky, an old woman with b.o. they stood
behind once while taking the Sacrament, these Ohio
factories with their broken windows and the grass
in summer spilling through the cracks in the cement.
Please, I will say, there is more to write about than dying
grandmothers, a boyfriend who left you, a winning shot
in the state finals, a first sexual experience, an alcoholic
father who made your mother jump once from
a rowboat into Grand Lake St. Mary’s because she’d
forgotten the buns for the hotdogs. Just once let
your poems run wild into the night, like deer rushing
across the road, to feel the aloneness of the body, the way
the legs move and carry us. One last true poem, the one
where the deer is forever by the roadside, the cars
speeding past, how cold and hard the ground feels,
the snow covering us until the rains arrive come spring
and the body transforms gradually to mud. Together,
I will tell them, we will lift that deer from the bar ditch
and tumble it over the edge into the river, like in that
Stafford poem I assigned last week, though my
students all asked the same thing, over and over,
the same thing they always ask: is the story true?

from Rattle #34, Winter 2010


Doug Ramspeck: “Given the content of ‘One True Poem,’ I feel strangely obliged to confess which parts of my poem are ‘true.’ I did not come across a dead deer before composing the work. My students do tear up sometimes and want everything they write to be confessional. I do plead with them to try something else. One student did write about her mother being forced from a rowboat because she forgot the hotdog buns. I did not assign Stafford to my students. Okay? Okay?” (web)

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August 1, 2022

Alexis V. Jackson


after Wang Ping’s “Things We Carry on the Sea”

It was Sesame Street,
Ernie particularly,
who taught me how to covet
the company of a floating vessel–
his, duckling shaped and filled with air;
mine, always a ship-like boat;
both always smiling and squeaking.
Splish splash I was taking a bath,
Ernie and I would sing—
Bing-bang, Elmo saw the whole gang
a song about embarrassment,
a song about being stuck in the water
after invasion, while the unwelcome
party while we are too naked and too
surprised and too out-armed and then
we join them.
A-splishin’ and a-splashin’
On wash days, when
I was allowed to soap soak my body and hair,
you could catch me trying to float in the tub—
trying to be a life raft for the Barbies
lying in a row on my tummy. Tug
Boat would watch from the soap dish
and the pink- and green-haired trolls would take
audience next to the spigot as I sank
to the bottom—nappy and knotted—a splash,
small-bodied and black.
How long can a child at sea,
hold her breath? or float? or try
to float? Without a bright rubber boat,
without the company of others
co-hoping to reach a friendly shore,
how long does she splish and splash
before she acquiesces?
We was a-movin’ and a-grovin’
We was a-rollin’ and a-strollin’
Why, even here, must all the dolls be Black?
And the language be Black?
It is 1995. Do any still have to jump
and sink?
A-splishin’ and a-splashin’
How long does a body
hold memory of a body?
How often does a body reenact
someone else’s memory?
How many songs and sounds tangle
us in something like home
where we have reason
to greet the sated water with nothing
to covet.

from Rattle #76, Summer 2022


Alexis V. Jackson: “Song and scent, for me, are the strongest connections to memory. My mother taught me how to remember things with song and verse; so, I’m conditioned to connect hymns and rap verses to blood memory and lived experiences. This poem is about what we see M. NourbeSe Philip ‘exaqua[s]’ in Zong, what Philip and Ping invited me to do with language and memory, what my mother has conditioned me to do, what conversations with water about their memory looks like.” (web)

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September 1, 2022

Andre D. Underwood


She told me that she loved me.
I was only 8 years old.
She spoke of getting married
After we were grown.
We were both living at the shelter.
The year was 2000.
She was 14—
Damn near a grown woman.
She told me I was kind.
She said that I was sweet.
She told me those were the things
That she loved most about me.
I was so young;
I was naive. 
Blinded through affection,
I could not see.
She only loved the feelings—
Kalifornia never did love me.

from Rattle #76, Summer 2022
Tribute to Prisoner Express


Andre D. Underwood: “I started writing poems back in 2005, because I needed a positive way to express my emotions. So I started channeling how I feel about everything. I channeled the pain, the happiness, the love, the disgust, the fear, and the joy. I wrote about girlfriends, my mom, my brother, my father, my sister, my baby mothers, my enemies, my friends … I even wrote about nature. Poetry is my outlet for my emotions, my freedom of expression—a place where I’m not bound by anything but free to spill my thoughts without consequences.”

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June 29, 2022

Nicelle Davis


The article in Happy was:
“Feast your eyes on the world’s top 8 sexiest
plants.” More words to form the headline than
plants listed. Too bad for the two Blooms
that shortened the 10 count, or weren’t there enough
sex pots at all? I’m in a Zoom writing workshop again.
Nearly a year since I’ve checked these boxes; those
faces were my friends. Are my friends? Tense times.
We should have muted our mics for the thirty-minute
free write, but one never does. I can hear her starting
the engine, speaking her poem, seeing how she runs.
We are all women in here. There? I never learned how
to spell minute, have to look it up every time, always
keeping track of the dancing. That’s the difference
a few letters make. The poet is coughing. I wonder if
it is rude to see if she is dying, or rude to not see?
Funny the things we look at. Readers have every right
to be frustrated—I mean, where did this pronoun
come from? Why wait until the middle of the poem
to announce You? You, the you I’m talking to. Who’s
to say this is the middle? This poem might die next
or go on another four pages. This is how I write
these days. In Zoom, with women and an unforeseeable
number of pages. The Zoom poet is speaking again,
the word bone is all that really sticks. Her voice is revving.
Who says “how she runs?” Why is it always a her? First
thing my mother ever taught me was how to run in heels
with my keys between my fingers. I told you about that
when we were out for drunken pie in Chicago. AWP.
Who will remember that? Who will remember bookfairs
and celebrity? The other female interns, young, lurched
through the streets like skinny t-rexes. How do you
pluralize Rex? You would have made a better editor
than a publicist. Your advice about a career in poetry,
find a honey pot. I’d just turned down my city judge
who offered me a house back and full custody of my
son. I remind the judge of his mother who committed
suicide. The judge still checks on me to see if I’ve done
the same. I never sold myself. Perhaps that’s why in
the thick of quarantine, I feel more than lonely—I am
worthless. Or worth less. I’m getting older. 42 this
October. I had a dream about you last night. You
hugged me and when I pulled back you hugged
me again. It’s been five years since I met you in New
York, gave you a handkerchief cross-stitched with my
blood—a stranger’s tooth bought in a second-hand
store. Here is how Chicago went down. You knew
brushing turned me on, so invited me to your room.
We lathered and spit together. You’re a bleeder. You
should floss more and go to the dentist often. It’s ok
to be clean. It’s taken me years to learn that. I thought
I’d marry you, but I slept with one of the catalogue authors
instead. Same night as the brushing. You thought I was
making a choice. A bad one. I thought you should take
your pollen advice and stick it up your ass. Who thinks
of shit like that? Words that seem to go on forever. Idioms.
They’re just too easy. Did you know, unlike animals or
humans, plants self-replicate, that is, under the right
circumstances they live forever. I was always too dirty
for you but that didn’t make a dream of forgiveness any
less sweet, Honey Pot. I just gave you that nickname.
In this poem. Yes, this is a poem. If anyone were to read
this, I’d want them to know I love you. Maybe one day
they’ll tell you about it? A good story is rooted in gossip.
A good poem is just a mask. How might you edit Happy’s
title? In case you forgot, it goes, “Feast your eyes on
the world’s top 8 sexiest plants.” The other two. Well.
They never happened.

from Rattle #76, Summer 2022


Nicelle Davis: “During quarantine, I discovered YouTube and the world of plant influencers. At first, I watched with morbid curiosity. People spend more on a house plant than my car-home-salary combined. Eventually, I found myself lulled by the motions of things getting watered. Now I’m the proud owner of over 200 common house plants. They filled the emptiness of 200+ in-person students, family, friends, poets, strangers. My plants helped me recognize an impulse to care and gave me an outlet to verb love. I once was a girl who just let things die—but no more. I’m a convert to fertilizers, aerated soil mixes, and watering schedules. My creative team has made its own YouTube channel called Plants, Painting, and Poetry.” (web)

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November 17, 2022

Courtney Kampa


Gregory had a mole below his left eye
and sometimes kids in our 5th grade class 
would tease him, saying he had chocolate 
on his face. I was the girl who knew it 
was his left eye and not his right. Who listened 
in secret to Oldies 100—music like Baby Love by the Supremes 
and knew every Patsy Cline song by heart. Gregory 
didn’t backpack pocket blades to school like Richard 
or look up girls’ skirts beneath the monkey bars 
the way Kenny did, whose mom let him watch 
all the Late Night TV he wanted. He was nothing 
like Vinny who’d steal the grape juice box 
off your desk when you weren’t looking.
And he didn’t mock William, whose dad worked hard
for a gasoline company—gasoline has the word gas
in it, which all the cool kids thought 
was pretty funny; really classic. Gregory had immaculate 
Ticonderoga erasers and he made my knee-socks droop 
and he made my weak bony ankles 
weaker. At recess before summer a soft piece of sidewalk 
tar was thrown at my feet and I looked up 
and there he was, skipping backwards, a rocket wanting 
me to chase him. Mrs. Rivers led him off to suggest 
alternative ways of procuring
female attention and in those awful green uniform pants
he looked back at me and winked—which is not 
something the average 5th grader does
to another 5th grader. Three weeks later his winking face was fed
into the teeth of a triple car wreck. Eleven years 
and I’m still mouthing the triple syllables 
of his name. Not because he needs me to
but because I have no alternative way of procuring 
his attention. At school I quit talking, Colin inches 
from my face taunting SAY-SOME-THING
but I didn’t, so now I will say something, I will say 
that I cried at our class talent show, watching Gregory’s mom 
out in the audience, shirt mis-buttoned, camera readied,
looking for him, and seeing him
nowhere. I will say that with Gregory gone there was no one 
to stop the boys from snapping 
Stephen’s stutter like a twig across their knees. I’ll say ours 
was a misfit purity. That after art he gave me 
his scissors and I swapped 
him mine, both blades aimed forward, looking at each other 
like we’d just done something 
dangerous. Handles inked with initials 
in handwriting not his, marked the way mothers mark us carefully
when we walk into the world. I’ll say that I still 
have them. Gregory, ask me to name a thing 
as indestructibly beautiful as you, and I cannot. Time disfigures 
those who breathe and those of us who no longer can
but none of that has touched you. Not the cruelty 
of children. Not the gravel and glass
that pushed their way into your green 
restless legs. Not the ugliness of an ambulance
come too late. Not the small grass square 
that mothers and quilts you. Not even the skid marks 
below your brother’s eyes, tire treads 
red across his chest. Love is nothing
if not what takes its time. It takes sweet 
time and it took tar but was taken 
by tar and it’s taken eleven years of not trusting 
the pitch of my voice or the shamed 
insufficiency of what I have 
to say—that at your service I got no further 
than taking a holy card from the altar boy; picture 
of an angel as dark-haired as you: an angel I’d soon shred 
to ribbons, my hand around those handles for the first
and only time. Gregory, think of me 
in St. Joe’s parking lot in July in a sweaty cotton skirt. 
Think of my confession to that angel, in his headband 
of light, how much I liked 
him too. Hoping you had stopped a moment 
in the beatific beating of your wings; in the now-familiar strumming 
of that strange, beseeching harp.

from Rattle #42, Winter 2013
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist


Courtney Kampa: “I wrote ‘Baby Love’ four years ago while attending the University of Virginia.” (web)

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