Today's poetry for today's world

Richard Robbins


Richard Robbins grew up in Southern California and Montana.  He studied with Richard Hugo and Madeline DeFrees at the University of Montana, where he earned his MFA.  He has published five books of poems, most recently Radioactive City and Other Americas.  He has received awards from The Loft, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry Society of America.  He directs the creative writing program and Good Thunder Reading Series at Minnesota State University, Mankato.





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Other Americas




The girl from the next block told him Baptists

ruled because We don’t have to do this,

she said, and danced her hands across her chest,

meaning the sign of the cross, and someone

called her Okie, which explained a lot

later, when aerospace went flat and her

father moved.  There are Americas

you never dream of.  Oscar Quiroz sat

next to him his first months in California.

The boy could hardly say his name, shy as dirt

and with no common language.  By the end

of the year, when Judy Lopez died, when

Mrs. LaLonde assigned Oscar to be

pall bearer, he knew enough to say Never

and fainted to the Mission brick.  It was

another world two years before in the gray

TV where the assassin was shot

in his white shirt and a horse drew the caisson

past federal granite.  We were different

people, new chapters of ourselves, by the time

we walked that same street with our kids.  We opened

to its color like books.


                                    And in the desert,

those towns like Boron, Tonopah, or Wells,

what did people do afternoons it wasn’t

too hot?  He saw them walking in pairs past

ocotillo and yucca toward the lowest

spot in the valley, the place the lake forms

those few weeks each winter, then evaporates.

In Montana, he knew a white man who

lived three years in a tipi inviting

Wakantanka to join him.  And Andy

jumped out the 27th floor window

on West 72nd.  And Patty moved back

and forth from Provincetown to Key West, looking

for her father.  Chicago burned again,

thanks to Daley’s thugs.  And here, frozen

in Minnesota, 100 miles up

a tributary of the Upper Mississippi,

current pulls hard as summer toward the Gulf.

On the gallows, 1862,

the Indians sang the only hymn

in their own language, not a death chant

as reported. Thirty-eight Dakota

sang to the same god as spectators,

and it was the day after Christmas at

the river’s edge, the snap of their necks

pulled toward the Gulf.  There are countries

you never dream of.


                                    In 1962,

he floated on his back in Lake Mead.

The petroglyphs could not look out at him

from their deep dark, and he could not hear them

from our boat, riding a hundred feet

of water, winding through the quiet

narrows, the drowned gorge.  We glided beside

the Arizona border, through layers of

ever-younger stone.  We trolled over

the footpaths of ghosts,

each scuff mark and splinter

Powell left passing through time.  Even when

he stands in one place, there is another

country waiting for him to discover it,

under the skin of water, under blistering

sky.  There is another America beyond

his naïve, disappearing skin.


                                                Walt Whitman,

it has come time to praise and curse the reach

of your arms across minor hills and through

barren cities, where the beautiful, godly,

even the ugly and deranged, gather

under your beard.  How narrow our life

by comparison, your flesh sent out in eddies,

an electric storm perforating these small

cosmos of cells.  How casual your call

that we kiss the face of AIDS on the lips

and wash the feet of the beaten.  In that

famous photograph where you hold

a butterfly, a fake paper prop, you

nearly bring it to life with your breath,

or so we would believe.  Walt Whitman,

you have ruined the earth for us, praising

oily lagoon and salt palace alike,

drag queen and heiress, starling and finch, all

because you will observe no difference

that ever mattered to God.  You take in

every bit of continent and breathe

it out again.  Bridge, lizard, virus,

ambulance, tornado, gold ring, false teeth,

apple orchard, factory, revolver,

gangrenous foot, opera, gallows trap door,

president, guitar, encyclopedia—


Even as you lie under snow and brown

lawns where you make your claim, we will not

find you as we look for you, we will not

hear you as we listen, we will not answer

as you ask too much.  Still, you might touch us

anyway, a wind from two directions,

little girl wondering out loud where grass

has gone, your finger on the national grief.




published first in St. Ann's Review and then in Other Americas (Blueroad Press).







How to Read a Poem




Every poem begins just before

9:00 A.M. and never ends, or the other

way around, reaching toward us

from a place we never knew, stopped

dead at our feet here and now, locked

in the day.  The hardest part


is seeing where the dark began

or begins to end.  All those men,

long or fetal, dropping from

the sky.  All those ashen women

running in the street. Each human

vowel burned, burning, or quiet,


the sun blazing through every line

and tower.  No one knows, really,

where light or evil comes from.

The moon knocks at smoke like an eye

behind the door, an eye trying

to get in.  All night, tapping


grows weaker in the direction

of caesura, or the soft turn

of the sonnet’s ninth line, the

poem that will make us love again.

It’s a sound we might have heard once,

less than a heartbeat, a leap


as in the great haiku from hope,

or the end of hope, to knowing.




published in Poetry Northwest.







Lon Chaney, Jr., at the Supermarket in Capistrano Beach




You'd see them now and then, on the fringe

of their stardom—Dick Van Dyke, for instance,

sober at last after his show dissolved.

Mostly they aged well, in chinos and golfer's tan,


not a mark out of the ordinary

except for the too-white teeth, or they carried

the torque of who they were and no longer were

in a kind of walking hammerlock—plain


Bob Denver eating steak in surgeon's garb

at the El Adobe.  You'd wonder why

that woman in a fox stole walking her hound

could look at you once, all of 12 years old,


and convince you to be her grandson forever.

Did you recognize who cast the spells?

Would they someday reveal themselves

like the gray man behind you at checkout,


shuffling forward with all of us, quiet,

eyeing his eggs for cracks and counting his milk,

heaping bananas high against the night curse

of leg cramps?  Just as the clerk turns our way,


he straightens up at the gum rack and growls,

paws half-raised and bared, and the eyes,

the terrible eyes wide and red and old

relaxing now into all our delight.




published first in Poetry Northwest and then in Famous Persons We Have Known (Eastern Washington University Press).







Writer’s Tip: Writing is never idea.  Writing is rhythm.  Writing is rhythm in your chest and in the sound it makes in air and something like the sound of words on a page but never that perfectly, never that or else you will have become a sorcerer and your writing the spell that without help of potions or swinging watches would make us lose, or find once and for all, ourselves.  Writing is not magic but the rhythm of it.



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