American Life in Poetry: Column 704


In September of 2017 we had hundreds of thousands of Painted Lady butterflies passing through Nebraska, and at times the air was so full of them it looked as if all the leaves were falling at once. Samuel Green is the former Washington State Poet Laureate, and a very fine writer whose most recent collection of poems is All That Might Be Done, (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2014). He and his wife live on Waldron Island and pay close attention to the life around them. This poem is a wealth of butterflies.


Some days her main job seems to be
to welcome back the Red Admiral
as it lights on a leaf of the yellow
forsythia. It is her duty to stop & lean
over to take in how it folds & opens
its wings. Then, too, there is the common
Tiger Swallowtail, which seems to her
entirely uncommon in how it moves
about the boundaries of this clearing
we made so many years ago. If she leaves
the compost bucket unwashed to rescue
a single tattered wing from under the winter
jasmine or the blue flowers of the periwinkle
& then spends a whole afternoon at our round
oak table surrounded by field guides
& tea until she is sure—yes—that it belongs to
a Lorquin's Admiral, or that singular
mark is one of the great cat's eyes
of a Milbert's Tortoiseshell, then she is
simply practicing her true vocation
learning the story behind the blue beads
of the Mourning Cloak, the silver commas
of the Satyr Anglewing, the complex shades
of the Spring Azure, moving through this life
letting her sweet, light attention land
on one luminous thing after another.

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 ©2017 by Samuel Green, "Butterflies."  Poem reprinted by permission of Samuel Green. Introduction copyright © 2019 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.