American Life in Poetry: Column 714


Clemens Starck of Oregon has fifty years' experience working with his hands, as a merchant seaman and then a carpenter, and he knows work and working people. Here's a typical poem, from his collected poetry, Cathedrals & Parking Lots, from Empty Bowl Press.

The Girl from Panama

I'm talking with Mike over coffee.
His wife recently left him. He's lonely.
We're both carpenters, a couple of old guys in baseball caps
plying the trade.
We can frame a wall and hang a door, we can
read a set of blueprints.
But when it comes to women . . .
I'm thinking about my mother, who is 91
and very frail. I'm thinking
about my wife, my daughters, my granddaughter,
my sister, old girlfriends, my ex-wife,
and the girl from Panama
in the reading room of the New Orleans public library
forty-five years ago
who slipped a note to me across the table, asking:
"Are you a philosophy?"
Rain splatters against the storefront
of the coffee shop. Mike and I are silent
for a long time
before going back to work.

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 ©2019 by Clemens Starck, "The Girl from Panama," from Cathedrals & Parking Lots: Collected Poems, (Empty Bowl Press, 2019). Poem reprinted by permission of Clemens Starck and the publisher. 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.