Today's poetry for today's world

Ron Slate             


Ron Slate earned his Master’s in Creative Writing from Stanford University and did his doctoral work in American literature at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  He started The Chowder Review which was published from 1973 to 1988.  In 1978, he left academia and was hired as a corporate speechwriter, beginning his business career in communications and marketing. From 1994-2001 he was vice-president of global communications for a Fortune 500 computer technology company.  More recently he was chief operating officer of a biotech/life sciences start-up and co-founded a social network for family caregivers.  He lives in Milton, Massachusetts.


The Incentive of the Maggot was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2005 and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle poetry prize and the Lenore Marshall Prize of the Academy of American Poets.  The collection won the Bakeless Poetry Prize and the Larry Levis Reading Prize of Virginia Commonwealth University.  His second collection, The Great Wave, followed in 2009.  In 2007, he launched "On the Seawall," a popular online book reviewery at www.ronslate.com.  






Photo by George Disario

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Feather duster in a child’s grip
swished over bottles of Old Grand-Dad
in my father’s liquor store,
my hand hovering briefly
above rolls of coin in the cash drawer,

other objects stolen from local merchants –
a magnifying glass,
a hi-lo thermometer, an Indian rubber baseball,
novelties, candy, cigarettes:

If you wouldn't give me what I deserved,
what you seemed to promise,
then I would take it from you.
The splendor of scissors.
The consideration of a rubber stamp
"for your attention."

At some point, after the accumulation
of the objects of desire,
and later, after they became unforgettable,
beyond understanding and useless,

this is when I looked back and saw the boy
making a daring effort to be part
of the family’s sadness.

All of the grief that preceded me –
war, fire, the destruction of culture,
the powerlessness of parents,
the compensations of shameful inward lives –

this, I perceived, is simply what it means
to be human. So now there is nothing
to wrest into myself,
for myself.

But there is the spirit leaping with dread

and exultation, demanding everything.
And the old cunning.

When Mrs. O’Brien suggested that Joseph,
her son, and I go to see his priest
about our common venal behavior,
my mother, a Holocaust survivor,
threw her out of the house.

I returned to my favorite pastime:
a book of sleight-of-hand tricks,
small objects, all objects, vanishing.   



"Light Fingers" appeared in The New Yorker.








I predict, like the one who was sucked to sea

and returned in an Arabian container ship,

all small worlds will be dashed and drowned.


I witnessed this deliverance on a silent television,

my fingers disquieted a bowl of almonds,

a librarian called to say Constantinople is on hold.


The entire surface trembled, an oscillation

like a bell. When the seismologist said the Eurasian plate

“delivered a blow to our planet,” his words


were almost enough to renew our belief

in the earth’s roundness, the tidal sugars and salts

of our bodies, the atonement of death squads.


When I was a child, I discovered my depravity

among the other boys – but we were sanguine all the same,

with the fortitude to face what we’d found.


So now, led to abandon the world

for word of the world’s moments,

one must be cautious and deliberate.


I had a dream -- high-water marks on the side

of my house, the aftermath of a deluge

rising from a spring in the cellar.


I didn’t realize the floodwaters would recede

with the violence of their rising, fishing boats

torn from moorings, dome of the mosque collapsed.


You who savor the scent of the linden

live in a small world, and I also speak

from a cramped provisional space.


On the stacked ship they videotaped

as they passed, then circled back to pluck

a single man from floating debris –


I witnessed this alone on a glowing screen,

I couldn’t lift an almond to my mouth,

I was a fallow field ruined by brackish flood,


but I would choose the wave over the wind,

I would swamp your world with wreckage,

I would hold fast to you, and you would be saved.




"The Great Wave" appeared in The Paris Review.





This morning the peso is free-floating

above the unstable world of Borges.


He knew Buenos Aires was not a city

to die in.  Geneva was that much closer


to the other world.  When the system fails

the theory of the system becomes pure


and the housewives of Buenos Aires gather

outside Congress and bang their pots and pans,


and their husbands gather outside the courthouse

and jangle their car keys, proudly to ask


What have you done to our good life?

Brazilian joke: Why do Argentines run outdoors


when there’s lightning?  Because they think God

is taking their photograph.


Borges asked, What man has never felt

that he has lost something infinite?


When the economy falls apart, you feel that loss,

plus your pesos deflate to illustrate.


Yesterday on the Avenida Borges, we lived

in this world, but what were we like?


We took our dollars to buy leather coats

at the shop of Esteban Umansky,


who gave each of us a hat and gloves.

The president himself attended


our reception, and the ex-president,

now under house arrest for the millions


in his Swiss account.  So the Argentines

go to Switzerland to hoard and die,


and we go to Buenos Aires to shop and live.

When Borges went to Geneva to die


the Argentines thought it was some kind

of poetic conceit.  They were too cocky to see


he had given up trying to express himself.

Something great had been lost, some treasure.


He had decided all men are benighted.

This morning of the wrecked and plundered


I am all-seeing but my soul is blind.

I feel very much like myself.


In pursuit of a deal in leather,

in pursuit of one’s money in the shuttered banks,


we are forgetting how to be decently unhappy.

Learn from the global lenders, writing off


their bad Argentine debts.  Their dual wisdom:

First, understanding the loss.  Then,


understanding there’s nothing to be done.

I understand and I love my odorous coat


and Esteban made me a jacket as well

at a price not to be believed.


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