American Life in Poetry: Column 183


Perhaps you made paper leaves when you were in grade school. I did. But are our memories as richly detailed as these by Washington, D.C. poet, Judith Harris?

Gathering Leaves in Grade School

They were smooth ovals,   
and some the shade of potatoes—   
some had been moth-eaten   
or spotted, the maples   
were starched, and crackled   
like campfire.   

We put them under tracing paper   
and rubbed our crayons   
over them, X-raying   
the spread of their bones   
and black, veined catacombs.   

We colored them green and brown   
and orange, and   
cut them out along the edges,   
labeling them deciduous   
or evergreen.   

All day, in the stuffy air of the classroom,   
with its cockeyed globe,   
and nautical maps of ocean floors,   
I watched those leaves   

lost in their own worlds   
flap on the pins of the bulletin boards:   
without branches or roots,   
or even a sky to hold on to.

We do not accept unsolicited submissions. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright © 2007 by Judith Harris, whose most recent collection of poems is The Bad Secret from Louisiana State University Press (2006). Appeared in the Literary Review, Spring 2009. Reprinted by permission of Judith Harris. Introduction copyright © 2016 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.