American Life in Poetry: Column 683

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

In thirteen years of publishing this column we've never selected a poem about mental illness, but neither have I come upon one that feels so true. I am especially taken by the third stanza, which remarks upon how differently each of us imagines the world. Leland James lives in Michigan and this poem appeared in Rattle, a very good literary journal.

The Sanitarium Window

A small stand of trees, unremarkable.
I don't know their names.
They're like a knot of folks waiting
for a train, or for a store to open
—a gathering, that's all. They don't
seem to know each other. They didn't
plan to be together there in a field of weeds.
 
Yet, on second look, they are remarkable,
having stood the invisible winds of winter,
stood the bitter season that comes
to each alone, that separateness of sickness
—mind and soul—there in the bent of trees.
The trees seem to know all about winter.
Seem to have winter in their bones.
 
Perhaps someone else would see them
differently, a different reflection,
a family gathering, not just a knot.
Some might see them that way.
Some might see them differently.
And I too, perhaps, on a different day.
 
The others around me, others
by the window, silently looking out
—I can see us reflected in the window
when the light is just right. Another
stand of trees, a knot, not planning
to be together here in a field of weeds.


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 ©2017 by Leland James, "The Sanitarium Window," from Rattle, (Vol. 23, No. 2, Summer 2017). Poem reprinted by permission of Leland James 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.