Selected Poems

Selected Poems

Each of these poems is discussed by Wallace in an article included on this website. To access the article, use the link provided.


This morning I eat an orange.
It is sour and juicy.  My mouth
will tingle all day.
Outside, it is cold.  The trees
do not anticipate their leaves.
When I breathe into my hand I smell

I walk across the lake.
Ice fishermen twitch their poles until
perch flicker the surface, quick
and bright as orange slices.
The sun ripens in the sky.
The wind turns thin and citrus,
the day precise, fragile.

My mustache and eyelashes freeze.
When I arrive at your house
you are friendly as a fruit seller.
We peel off our clothes, slice through
that wordy rind.
When I lift my fingers to your lips:

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The Facts of Life

She wonders how people get babies.
Suddenly vague and distracted,
we talk about “making love.”
She’s six and unsatisfied, finds
our limp answers unpersuasive.
Embarrassed, we stiffen, and try again,
this time exposing the stark naked words:
penis, vagina, sperm, womb, and egg.
She thinks we’re pulling her leg.
We decide that it’s time
to get passionate and insist.
But she’s angry, disgusted.
Why do we always make fun of her?
Why do we lie?
We sigh, try cabbages, storks.
She smiles.  That’s more like it.
We talk on into the night, trying
magic seeds, good fairies, God . . .

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At Chet’s Feed & Seed

The man who is telling me about the chicken
stationery he makes in his backyard trailer
leaves with his beaky wife.
Their voices clabber and scratch.
In the corner, guinea hens, $1.50 each,
scutter and strut in jerky grandeur.
Clyde is pleased to meet me.  He
shakes my hand, a 200 lb. feed bag
perched on his left shoulder, his big
arm, glistening in its sleeveless T-shirt,
a mixture of roast corn, oats, molasses, wheat.
The bald woman tied up to her chihuahua,
her son still in Vietnam with the marines,
adjusts her rheumy teeth.
She says he’ll be coming back.
Chet says he will, pulls a pencil out of his ear
and takes a dollar off her bill.
She grunts. Chet bleats at Clyde
who whinnies under the weight of the feed sack.
The chicken man and his wife come back.
They’re looking at me.
The smell of feed and goodwill is sweet.
I feel so stupid I could almost moo
with approval.  So I do.

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The Hell Mural: Panel I

Iri and Toshi Maruki are “painting the bomb.”
Their painting, they say, will comfort the souls of the dead.
“It’s a dreadful cruel scene of great beauty,”
Toshi says.  “The face may be deformed but there’s kindness
in a finger or a breast, even in hell.”
The Hell Mural spreads over the floor.

Iri stretches naked on the floor,
painting.  He remembers Hiroshima after the bomb–
the bodies stacked up, arms outstretched toward hell,
nothing he could see that was not dead,
nothing that cared at all for human kindness,
nothing that wept at such terror, such beauty.

Now a brush stroke here, a thick wash there, and beauty
writhes and stretches from the canvas floor.
He wants his art to “collaborate with kindness,”
he wants his art to “uncover the bomb.”
But no lifetime’s enough to paint all the dead
or put all those who belong there in hell.

“Hitler and Truman,” he says, “of course are in hell.”
But even those of us who live for beauty
are in hell, no less so than the dead.”
(He paints himself and Toshi on the floor.)
“All of us who cannot stop the bomb
are now in hell.  It’s no kindness

to say different.  It’s no kindness
to insist on heaven; there’s only hell.”
Toshi adds bees and maggots to the bomb,
and birds, cats, her pregnant niece, the beauty
of severed breast and torn limb on the killing floor.
“In Hiroshima,” she says, “we crossed a river on the dead

bodies stacked up like a bridge.  Now the dead
souls must be comforted with kindness.
Come walk in your socks across our floor,
walk on the canvas. (A little dirt in hell
almost improves it.)  Can you see the beauty
of this torso, that ear lobe, this hip bone of the bomb?”

Iri and Toshi Maruki, in “Hell,” are painting the bomb,
the mural on their floor alive with the thriving dead.
Come walk on their kindness, walk on their troublesome beauty.

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In the Amish Bakery

I don’t know why what comes to mind
when I imagine my wife and daughters,
off on a separate vacation
in the family car,
crashing–no survivors–
in one of those Godless snowstorms
of Northern Illinois,
is that Amish bakery
in Sauk County, Wisconsin, where
on Saturday mornings in summer,
we used to go–
all powdered sugar and honey in
the glazed caramel air.  And O
the browned loaves rising,
the donuts, buns, and pies, the ripe
strawberry stain of an oven burn
on the cheek of one of the wives.
And outside in the yard
that goddamned trampoline
where we’d imagine them–
the whole blessed family in
their black topcoats and frocks,
their severe hair and beards,
their foolish half-baked grins,
so much flour dust and leaven–
leaping all together on
their stiff sweet legs toward heaven.

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My father always knew the secret
name of everything–
stove bolt and wing nut,
set screw and rasp, ratchet
wrench, band saw, and ball
peen hammer.  He was my
tour guide and translator
through that foreign country
with its short-tempered natives
in their crew cuts and tattoos,
who suffered my incompetence
with gruffness and disgust.
Pay attention, he would say,
and you’ll learn a thing or two.

Now it’s forty years later,
and I’m packing up his tools
(If you know the proper
names of things you’re never
at a loss) tongue-tied, incompetent,
my hands and heart full
of doohickeys and widgets,
watchamacallits, thingamabobs.

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The Friday Night Fights

Every Friday night we watched the fights.
Me, ten years old and stretched out on the couch;
my father, in his wheelchair, looking on
as Rocky Marciano, Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson
fought and won the battles we could not.
Him, twenty-nine, and beat up with disease;
me, counting God among my enemies
for what he’d done to us.  We never touched.

But in between the rounds we’d sing how we’d
Look sharp!  Feel sharp! & Be sharp! with Gillette
and Howard Cosell, the Bela Lugosi of boxing.
Out in the kitchen, my mother never understood
our need for blood, how this was as close as we’d get
to love–bobbing and weaving, feinting and sparring.

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I like to see him out in center field
fifty years ago, at twenty-two,
waiting for that towering fly ball–
August, Williamsburg, a lazy afternoon–
dreaming how he’d one day be a pro
and how he’d have a wide-eyed son to throw
a few fat pitches to.  An easy catch.
He drifts back deeper into a small patch

of weeds at the fence and waits.  In a second or two
the ball is going to stagger in the air,
the future take him to his knees:  wheelchair,
MS, paralysis, grief.  But for now
he’s camped out under happiness.  Life is good.
For at least one second more he owns the world.

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The McPoem

I must confess that I, too, like it:
the poem that’s fried up flat and fast with condiments
on a sesame seed bun.  Steamy, grease-spattered,
and juicy, fluent with salt, piping hot
from the grill, glazed with bubbling oil.
A poem you can count on always to be
the same–small, domestic, fun for the whole
family.  Economical.  American.  Free

of culinary pretension.  I used to have to ride
ten miles or so out to the suburbs to find
one back in 1956 when poems were
more expensive, reserved for connoisseurs.
Now everyone is welcome to the griddle.
(I also like toads, and all this fiddle.)

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Some days I find myself
putting my foot in
the same stream twice;
leading a horse to water
and making him drink.
I have a clue.
I can see the forest
for the trees.

All around me people
are making silk purses
out of sows’ ears,
getting blood from turnips,
building Rome in a day.
There’s a business
like show business.
There’s something new
under the sun.

Some days misery
no longer loves company;
it puts itself out of its.
There’s rest for the weary.
There’s turning back.
There are guarantees.
I can be serious.
I can mean that.
You can quite
put your finger on it.

Some days I know
I am long for this world.
I can go home again.
And when I go
I can
take it with me.

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