Today's poetry for today's world

Maxine Scates


Maxine Scates is the author of three books of poetry, Undone (forthcoming from New Issues in Spring 2011), Black Loam (Cherry Grove Collections) which received the Lyre Prize and was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award, and Toluca Street (University of Pittsburgh Press) which received the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press, and the Oregon Book Award for Poetry.  Her poetry has also received a 2010 Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Literary Arts and the Oregon Arts Commission.  She is coeditor, with David Trinidad, of Holding Our Own: The Selected Poems of Ann Stanford published by Copper Canyon Press.  Originally from Los Angeles, she has lived in Eugene, Oregon, since 1973. 




Photo by Bill Cadbury  

Click on any book cover to buy Maxine Scates's books. 


For additonal information about Maxine Scates's new book Undone,

click this link: http://www.wmich.edu/newissues/titles/scates-undone.html.








Out here, all darkness, stars overhead,

I can finally see the giants.  After all the years

weighing dream’s fragments, I can see

how each small thing, dead bees, a girl touching

her ear, rose petals in a pool of molasses, leads

to something larger than a life, the way the eye

follows a trail of stars then sees first one

and then another constellation against the dome

of night.  My giants, I can almost love them now,

their hunger, like a piece of oak in the fire

eating every piece of wood around it,

they ate everything.  They left the bones scattered

on the old brown sofa, the rabbit headless

in the yard.  They lumbered, light full

on their shoulders, their hair backlit and flaming,

birds and small animals fleeing as whole families

left uneaten meals behind.  I know

they can’t eat me.  I know them as I know

that to a child I might be as large as they were,

and when they fell, the distance of their falling

was so great the blood flowed, the earth

smoldered, and when they cried their crying

filled every room with their tears, and worst of all,

when they left they always came back,

the jostling, the trestles quaking

in those days of the giants sowing their bitter gifts,

their curses, their sour blessings, their hurled

and their spilled and their shattered.  What was it

that ate them, the dream they couldn’t see burning

inside them, the questions they never asked,

the tree whose shadow they did not lie down under?

I can see them, all that broke them, their shirts

creased with sweat and rank oil when they climbed

into the truck’s cab at dusk clutching the brown bag

and the lottery ticket.  Their feet rang out,

their doors slammed, they trudged, they cried,

they gave me these stars on a dark road, the rose book

on a winter afternoon, the hooked thorns

of the climbers, the ramblers blooming over walls

and outbuildings, blooming over their graves.  They

gave me everything I wouldn’t have known to love

without their whine, their roar, their terrible noise.




From Undone, New Issues Poetry and Prose (forthcoming Spring 2011).

"The Giants" originally appeared in The American Poetry Review.











The cut office hours, kids sitting

outside in sunlight, spring, concrete


and cigarette butts, the grass still sodden

with winter, all the wisdom they don’t have


and what little they know about themselves,

their own godliness, their own greed,


all falling away as the man at the lectern

tried to say something about the woman


he’d loved those afternoons, voice quavering,

birds tumbling in flight, seats creaking, students


settling.  He was old, the pause seemed                                                             

almost holy, the late strings of Beethoven


hovering then answering, as if he would give

that long ago lover a gift, offer again


the moments before consequence, like those summer

mornings when having dreamt you so long


it seemed I had not yet awakened when you came

to me in the room under the eaves.  Afterwards


we’d sit on the porch looking out at the garden,

the apple tree just past blossoming, the grape


arbor where the cat slept.  I knew

you were married, but good or bad wasn’t part of it,


not yet, maybe that’s what the man meant,

the time between where we belonged to nothing,


still innocent, no one bruised, nothing broken.

Not until late in the summer when you left her,


when you asked if I’d thought what it meant for us–

not until then the scrim of dirty edges


I didn’t want, unready, but when you thought

of returning I knew what I wanted.  On August


nights like this one, the ballgame on low,

the dog asleep on the floor, I remember 


how the light hung then, heavy, burnished,

the unpicked apples falling into gutters all over  town.




From Black Loam, Cherry Grove Collections.

"Adultery" originally appeared in The North American Review.











In Nick Ray's "Bigger Than Life"

a poor schoolteacher's life is saved

by the miracle drug cortisone,

but still untested it gives him

delusions of grandeur: he buys

his wife expensive clothes

she won't ever wear in their

small house, hurls a football

at his chubby son for hours on end.

Finally he wants, like Abraham,

to sacrifice the boy for the sake

of discipline.  He wakes

in a hospital bed, the diagnosis:

he took too much and wanted more.


A dose of too much hope, then

things got out of hand, or something

catches up with you.  On weekends

father plants the perfect rose garden.

In a rainstorm he joins the neighbor men,

straining like the famous photograph

of raising the flag on Iwo Jima,

they push a Chinese elm

against the wind.


One afternoon he rescues

his old treasure, the Bataan knife,

and seeing no flag of surrender

tries to corner mother

between counter and sink.

The police leave him alone,

part of the conspiracy his family

can't understand.  Now gifts:

the blue velvet rhinestone bathrobe,

the genuine handtooled leather purse.

But it's too late, nothing saves him.


As a child I stood next to my father

watching a lumberyard fire

and caught Eisenhower's eyes

on a campaign billboard hovering

above the flames.  Nick Ray asks the question

of what it was--them, or something

in each of us waiting to go wild?

We were the little people,

those were our lives.




From Toluca Street, University of Pittsburgh Press.

"1956" originally published in The American Poetry Review.




Writer's Comment: As you write your many drafts, listen to the questions that the poem asks–and answer those questions even if you fear answering them.




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