American Life in Poetry: Column 345


Somebody tells somebody else about something that happened. It comes naturally. We’ve been doing that for as long as our species has been around. But to elevate an anecdote into art requires more than just relating an incident. It requires a talent for pacing, for detail, for persuasion, and more. Here David Black, of Virginia, tells a good story in an artful manner.


A sleeper, they used to call it—
four passes with the giant round saw
and you had a crosstie, 7 inches by 9 of white oak—
at two hundred pounds nearly twice my weight
and ready to break finger or toe—

like coffin lids, those leftover slabs,
their new-sawn faces turning gold and brown
as my own in the hot Virginia sun,
drying toward the winter and the woodsaw

and on the day of that chore
I turned over a good, thick one
looking for the balance point

and roused a three-foot copperhead,
gold and brown like the wood,
disdaining the shoe it muscled across,

each rib distinct as a needle stitching leather,
heavy on my foot as a crosstie.

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 ©2000 by David Black, whose most recent book of poetry is The Clown in the Tent, Persimmon Tree Press, 2010. Reprinted by permission of David Black.  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.