American Life in Poetry: Column 566

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

When grief is so heavy that we need to set it down, poetry is a good place to set it. Here's a fine poem by Minnesota poet Sharon Chmielarz from her book with photographer Ken Smith, Visibility: Ten Miles, published by North Star Press of St. Cloud.

Playing His Heart Out

That day we were trapped
between chartreuse living
room walls and the godly
cleanliness of afghans
saving sofas and chairs.

We were talking about
anything except Uncle Carl—
gone, how we'd miss him—
when Uncle Gus came down
the hall and stood in

the archway, his wiry
body strapped under a black
accordion. "Haven't played,"
he said, "for a long time."
So he played a waltz and I

squirmed in my chair under
the slow flow of grief. He
played a polka and I heard
my sister clapping lightly
for the mourner bending over

the keys. His cheek-bones,
red as Helgoland's
cliffs on the North Sea. Gulls
whirled and screamed around
the black load on his heart.


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 ©2015 by Sharon Chmielarz , “Playing His Heart Out,” from Visibility: Ten Miles, (North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc., 2015). Poem reprinted by permission of Sharon Chmielarz and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2018 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.