American Life in Poetry: Column 289

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

There’s only so much we can do to better ourselves, and once we’ve done what we can, it still may not have been enough. Here’s a poem by Michelle Y. Burke, who lives in N.Y., in which a man who does everything right doesn’t quite do everything right.

Nocturne

A man can give up so much,
can limit himself to handwritten correspondence,
to foods made of whole grains,
to heat from a woodstove, logs
hewn by his own hand and stacked neatly
like corpses by the backdoor.

He can play nocturnes by heart.
They will not make the beloved appear.
He can learn the names of all the birds
in the valley. Not one
will be enticed to learn his.


We do not accept unsolicited submissions. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Michelle Y. Burke and reprinted from Lake Effect, Vol. 13, Spring 2009, by permission of Michelle Y. Burke and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2017 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.