June 16, 2019

Dante Di Stefano


I spent far too many years learning him
without learning,
trying to gauge the man

in the language of clenched fist
and midnight prayer; my father
was a broken man,

who went to sleep most nights
before the sun went down
and sometimes he woke

to curse my mother and kick her
out of bed, to call her fat—slut,
cow, bitch—and punch her places

where the bruises wouldn’t show.
I never escaped the angers
of that house or the strange

deep sadness of my father,
who only showed his true face
in our home. I never write

about this because what’s
the point. There was goodness
in him too, but as I aged

I inherited his angers
and channeled them back
at him and at myself

until the cancer came
and his frail body brooked me
back to some brief repose.

Now that he’s gone,
I still struggle to see the best
in him. Today, my girl,

I took you to a gazebo
where an old church bell
has been mounted

on a stand. It no longer rings
unless you slap it
with the flat of your palm.

I hold you up to it
and let you loose its song,
which you do with both hands

flapping like two beautiful
lily little swanlings
about to take flight,

the way my hands took flight
when my father
used to lift me up

to punch the speedbag
in our basement,
back before I knew

the world as anything
but sunlight on gravel
and a wagon pulled

by sparrows. Dear girl,
may I shield you
from as many aches

as I am able, may you
know me as the hands
that held you up

to set the bronze
to singing along
the avenues.

from Poets Respond
June 16, 2019


Dante Di Stefano: “Today is Father’s Day. This poem attempts to sort through some of my feelings about my father, who suffered from mental illness and was prone to violence. For years, I feared I would become like him. After he died, I wrote many poems focusing on the good aspects of the man. Now that I am a father, I’m seeking to let go of some of the anger I feel towards him still by trying to write a more complete picture of the man. I hope that some of these words will be meaningful for my daughter when she grows up. The greatest thing that ever happened to me in life was becoming a father, and, despite everything, I know that my father felt the same way.” (web)

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September 25, 2018

Dante Di Stefano


some teenage girl is always being fucked
in a barn or whipped
during a sermon

while some stewardess is always losing her clothes
as she falls through space
and it’s not the atmosphere’s fault

she’s disrobing
it’s just a conspiracy of aerodynamics
and we shouldn’t think

too deeply about it because maybe
after all the barn’s on fire
and the stewardess wanted this

particular type of plummeting
and this is only poetry for god’s sake
it’s not a constitutional amendment

or a confirmation hearing
that’s just to say, nothing’s at stake
except maybe beauty

and my allegiance to it
what does it say if we canonize
such fallings

and today I was reading my daughter
a poem
no that’s a lie

I was reading her a children’s book
about a pigeon
who didn’t want to take a bath

it was silly
but she cooed at the bright pages
and I was still thinking

about James Dickey
and how complicity is a freak beast
like a sheep-child in formaldehyde

and I want a world
where my little girl grows up
to rebuke the wind inside of poems

and testimonies and scriptures and laws
and newsfeeds and subcommittees
and will fashion a parachute

from the air inside her own bright lungs
and where she will not be fodder for any poem
but will be a poem herself in every atom of her intellect

from Poets Respond
September 25, 2018


Dante Di Stefano: “I wrote this poem while thinking about some troubling aspects of poets like James Dickey who I have admired for years, but I guess it’s really about the developments in Christine Blasey Ford’s story and the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation process, and the misogyny that is so much a part of American culture.”

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February 18, 2018

Dante Di Stefano


for my wife, one month after the birth of our daughter

You look like the world in your rocking chair,
the nightlight a butterfly flowering
the moon of your breast beaconing against
the thought that what we are living through might
destroy us. We are safe in suburb
and side street and at work I now only
think of you and our little girl, except
today when my student, Angel Cruz (not
his name), smiled and told me how he’d paid off
his debt to the men who had smuggled him
across the border and now he could save
one hundred dollars from the three hundred
a week he earned washing dishes to send
to his mother back in Guatemala,
unless ICE raids the diner where he works;
he worries, but he doesn’t stop smiling,
and I am grateful that our girl will grow
into the small axe of the self without
such worries. She will have other worries,
the sad strange knowledge that our comfort comes
at a cost. Always. It is true, before
she was born I didn’t really know love
or fear, but now both are braiding rivers
inside my chest and a new chamber thumps
wifely inside each chamber of my heart.
Meanwhile, the football coaches arm themselves
with dirty jokes as the president tweets,
the EPA pins Silver Stars to dead
polar bears, and somewhere in the Midwest
someone’s making a confederate flag
out of melted red plastic army men.
To our newborn child I say: sweet cluster
of cells containing a cosmos, this world
you have entered now would terrify me,
if I did not understand the body
as writ for flying, as juke, hew, and cleave,
as among the ruin and breakage, this shine,
if I did not know your birthright is fire,
your mother’s real name, Illumination.

from Poets Respond
February 18, 2018


Dante Di Stefano: “This is a Valentine’s Day poem for my wife, written while thinking about the many immigrant students I have taught over the past decade in my job as a high school English teacher. The conversation with the student in the poem is based on a real conversation I had with a student last week. With the continued debate over DACA in the news yet again this week, and the perpetual virulent rhetoric about a wall on our southern border, the commercial holiday seems crasser than usual this year. However, I am an optimist. I believe in my newborn daughter’s ability to change the world. I believe in my wife and in our family. I believe in Love.” (web)

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April 13, 2017

Dante Di Stefano


I’ll spend it sequestered in my classroom
in upstate New York, watching the rain sheet
the asphalt on the street below, holding
the little ladder inside the apple

of a poem my students are climbing,
holding steady whatever equipment
they can carry to trim the branches back
in there. We teachers are supposed to say

keep climbing, rocket higher, clamber up,
knock loose the shale of your misconceptions,
but some days it is hard not to dwell in
the knuckles’ ache of whatever bad news

unfolds and flits and flits from screen to screen.
Some days the smell of chalk dust betrays us.
Some days the scent of lilac spells despair.
Some days, children, I want to build with you

a world less rickety, spinning slower,
jagged and pinkish at the horizon,
ricocheted with uncompromised shining,
an orchard inside a seed the wind clips out

into the heart of the heart of a field,
which is the endless golden field inside
your own wild, shrewd, dubious, strange, greening,
teenage hearts and lungs exhaling amen,

and blessing me now in my middle age.
As gorgeously unseen as the new moon,
we’ll sing from the apple’s interior;
together, children, we will choir these bones.

Poets Respond
April 13, 2017

[download audio]


Dante Di Stefano: “I teach 10th and 12th Grade English. This poem is for my students during National Poetry Month.” (website)

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February 22, 2015

Dante Di Stefano


If you’re old enough to read this you know
what work isn’t; it isn’t in poems
or in the screed a screen door delivers
when it opens and bangs shut on your thoughts
of childhood. You might even agree that
the opening salvo of “West End Blues”
matters more than anything you could write
in seven lifetimes, but so what, my friend.
Out of burlap sacks, out of kiss my ass,
we say goodbye as the factories close,
and our amber waves of grain have become
yellow lines in a Wal-Mart parking lot.
However your life unfolded, it was
an enormous yes, gathering milkweed,
sweet will, winter words, dust, and red carnations
to scatter on the graves of dictators
as an imprecation and a warning.
Now America shackles amendments
to tailpipes and all the bluebirds’ windpipes
are cut to whistling so long or “Dixie.”
Our love, your rose’s many thorns, the dew
that won’t wait long enough to stand your wren
a drink, the no one who listened to wind
speak its new truth to the moon—all are gone,
jacketed in a guttural moan off
the coast of a distant Ellis Island.
What actually took place is now lost
in the mythologies of families,
yoking stories to the dinner table,
aproning them there into immense sails,
beat in time to the pulse felt at the wrist.
We’ll never waken on a world again
where your Detroit of ’48 will be
carried and transmuted—those oily floors,
those fathers departed in fifth autumns,
those torn into light and underbellied
in stone, those cartwheels into early dusk
now become a poem with no ending.

Poets Respond
February 22, 2015

[download audio]


Dante Di Stefano: “I hope that there will be many poems that honor the memory of Philip Levine, who died on February 14th. This is my one.”

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