Poems Online

Featured image: detail from “The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus Discovered by Alexander the Great”; folio from a Falnama (Book of Omens): ca. 1550s, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Featured Poem, December 2019-January 2020

His Father’s Words

                                              Matthew 1:18-1:24; Luke 2:41-2:52

Did I believe the dream? No, not at first.

My wife-to-be was pregnant—not by me

but by the Holy Spirit, so the Angel,

lost in light, assured me in my sleep.

And yet, I’d been deceived by dreams before—

They’d showed me what I wished for, what I feared,

or nonsense of no use to anyone—

Why, then, was this one different? In my workshop,

hammer and saw lay on the bench, untouched,

a maze of nails on rough wood that I gathered,

one by one, as if each were a prayer,

What now? What should I do? I thought of Mary,

who was, after all, a child of God

with child herself: an unborn innocent,

and God’s son, if I did believe the dream—

not in the sense we all belong to God

but in a deeper sense both grave and joyous.

And so, I did believe. I made that choice.

What worlds opened then! I was the father

that our Savior knew, our distant Lord

palpable everywhere, yet here on Earth,

in Nazareth, I was the only father,

Mary’s husband, and I shared her joy.


Later, when we searched all Jerusalem,

our son lost in the crowd (I blamed myself),

his mother frantic, strangers baffled, kind,

or just indifferent, I felt something else—

the tug of grief some say is premonition

of the worst we dread—in Mary’s look

the struggle both to blame and not to blame

in transit, orbiting…

                                           When he was found,

I knew the tools I’d given him to use

would lie untouched—that was my punishment—

as Mary wept, and we turned from the temple

where he’d gone, drawn by his Father’s words,

but what of me? I was his father, too.

It was to me he’d turned when lumber split

or tools betrayed him with some minor wound;

when gold-eyed bitterns, driven from the reeds,

strayed near after a storm; or when he ventured

questions any son will ask his father

when the world seems false or threatening

—What words meant spat in anger by a stranger,

what animal’s skull he’d kicked across the sand.


We sons renounce our fathers. I know that.

But, once, I thought I might escape that fate

since I knew from the first I’d give him up

and told myself I’d do so joyfully,

the Angel’s voice grown fainter every year,

the gold leaf on his garments an invention

I believe in less each passing day…


One night, after the temple incident,

I sat outside our workshop, listening

to everything and nothing: rush of wind

in leaves, the distant knock of someone’s cart

dragging through dust, a donkey’s sudden bray,

quail-song cut short, and voices—human voices,

neighbors’ and strangers’—not so far away

or different from our own. And laughter, too—

Mary’s that night, and for a few years more.

Still absent was the voice my son could hear—

my son, not His—in language limitless

because it had been formed from perfect silence,

a higher calling, Lordly lineage

its promise in such words withheld from me

(in spite or mercy I could not be sure),

shared at some distance with the son He’d sent

to suffer, as no real Father could.


(From The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots and originally published in Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry, 2017.)

A Selection

A Spell for Lamentation and Renewal  New York Encounter Poetry Contest, 2019

From Desire: a Bestiary [Magnificent Frigate-Bird]  Verse Daily & Lives of the Sleepers (U of Notre Dame Press)

The Underground Tour  New Criterion

A Word the Romans Used  First Things

The Sugar Thief  Poetry Foundation & The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems (Story Line Press)

Stella’s Children Look Out from a Photo Faded Gold  The Common

East of Tin Pan Alley  String Poet

Musicology  Delaware Poetry Review (Prince issue)

The Afterlife of Beatles  Poet of the Month & Cimarron Review

Live from the Dakota,  Major Tom and David Bowman,  Glory-of-the-Seas,  On Trial for an Imaginary Murder  Alabama Literary Review

Fire Victim  American Life in Poetry & Lives of the Sleepers (U of Notre Dame Press)

Holy Wars for Us  Verse Daily & Upcycling Paumanok (Measure Press)

Text and Flame  Scoundrel Time

The Lunar Deniers   Light

On Goodbyes  Valparaiso Poetry Review & Upcycling Paumanok (Measure Press)

Near Halloween  American Arts Quarterly

Remembrances of Yours  Per Contra

Dark Horse  Baltimore Review & Upcycling Paumanok (Measure Press)

Sea Star  Ecotone

Miraculous Spirals    Literary Matters

Poems of Resistance

Predictions for the President-Elect  Poets Reading the News

Crybully  Rattle: Poets Respond

Trump in Triumph  The New Verse News

Dream Songs for the Governor of Michigan  The New Verse News

Cell Phones Lifted in a Public Square  Poets Reading the News

Post-Truth Villanelle  The New Verse News

The Dark  What Rough Beast/Indolent Books

For a Mother Born During the Great War, A New Moon for Neptune, Wren (Italian Americana feature with brief autobiographical essay)

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