American Life in Poetry: Column 144


I’d guess you’ve heard it said that the reason we laugh when somebody slips on a banana peel is that we’re happy that it didn’t happen to us. That kind of happiness may be shameful, but many of us have known it. In the following poem, the California poet, Jackson Wheeler, tells us of a similar experience.

How Good Fortune Surprises Us

I was hauling freight
out of the Carolinas
up to the Cumberland Plateau
when, in Tennessee, I saw
from the freeway, at 2 am
a house ablaze.

Water from the firehoses arced
into luminescent rainbows.

The only sound, the dull roar of my truck
passing.  I found myself strangely happy.
It was misfortune on that cold night
falling on someone’s house,
but not mine
not mine.

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 Jackson Wheeler, whose most recent book of poetry is A Near Country, Solo Press, 1999. Reprinted from Rivendell, Issue Four, Native Genius, Spring 2007 by permission of the author. Introduction copyright © 2020 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.