Today's poetry for today's world

Vern Rutsala


Vern Rutsala's The Moment's Equation was a finalist for the National Book Award.  Other recent books include, A Handbook for Writers: New and Selected Prose Poems and How We Spent Our Time which was given the Akron Poetry Prize.  Earlier books include, The Window, Laments, The Journey Begins, Paragraphs, Walking Home from the Icehouse, Ruined Cities, Selected Poems (Oregon Book Award), and Little-Known Sports (Juniper Prize).  Other awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, two NEA grants, a Masters Fellowship from the Oregon Arts Commission, two Carolyn Kizer Poetry Prizes, the Kenneth O. Hanson Award, the Mississippi Review Poetry Prize, the Duncan Lawrie Prize from the Arvon Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, the Northwest Poets Prize, and the Richard Snyder Prize. 






To buy Vern Rutsala's books,

click any book cover on this page.








On those last records her voice

sounds almost gone—

cracking, breaking—but hitting

notes wasn't the point.

She was after the bones of beauty

not the flesh.  It was far

too late for anything else.

She sang what must happen,

what has, the death of gardenias,

the abyss that the abyss

falls into.  It all scraped along

her phrases, extracting the horrible

meat hiding inside simple words,

in the space between each

word, between each note.

And she broke our hearts until

they could break no more,

then broke them one more time

just to make sure we got the point.

Art isn't on the surface,

not some decoration like frosting,

like a flower in your hair—

it's like a silk bag of pulverized

crystal, glinting, sharp,

able to cut in any direction.

Her voice filled every room

in our minds and showed how empty

each was, how desolate

the wind blowing through them

and yet with sticks and stones,

castoffs, garage sale losers

she furnished each one

with a shattered gritty beauty

just before she took it all away.




"Billie Holliday" was published in Calapooya Collage

and later appeared in The Moment's Equation.











This is the shame of the woman whose hand hides

her smile because her teeth are bad, not the grand

self-hate that leads some to razors or pills

or swan dives off beautiful bridges however

tragic that is.  This is the shame of being yourself,

of being ashamed of where you live and what

your father's paycheck lets you eat and wear.

This is the shame of the fat and the old,

the unbearable blush of acne, the shame of having

no lunch money and pretending you're not hungry.

This is the shame of concealed sickness—diseases

too expensive to afford that offer only their cold

one-way tickets out.  This is the shame of being ashamed,

the self-disgust of the cheap wine-drunk, the lassitude

that makes junk accumulate, the shame that tells

you there is another way to live but you are

too dumb to find it.  This is the real shame, the damned

shame, the crying shame, the shame that's criminal,

the shame of knowing words like 'glory' are not

in your vocabulary though they litter the Bibles

you're still paying for.  This is the shame of not

knowing how to read and pretending you do.  This is

the shame that makes you afraid to leave your house,

the shame of food stamps at the supermarket when

the clerk shows impatience when you fumble with the change.

This is the shame of dirty underwear, the shame

of pretending your father works in an office

as God intended all men to do.  This is the shame

of asking friends to let you off in front of the one

nice house in the neighborhood and waiting

in shadows until they drive away before walking

to the gloom of your house.  This is the shame

at the end of the mania for owning things, the shame

of no heat in winter, the shame of eating cat food,

the unholy shame of dreaming of a new house and car

and the shame of knowing how cheap such dreams are.




“Shame” was first published in The American Scholar

and appeared in The Moment’s Equation.











This morning there was another one

Looking used but not worn out

Beside the road

What do they mean?

Do people just abandon them at sixty

On the freeway

Suddenly tired of a single shoe?

Are they some secret sign?

Are they just the shoes

Of careless drivers

Dangling one foot out the window?

Do they belong to insomniac passengers

Who can only sleep

With their feet in the open air

One shoe falling off in a dream?

What do they mean?

What are they trying to say?

And this afternoon that pair

(Pairs are unnatural)

Of high heels thirty feet apart

But one was red the other brown

Imagine what you want—

Are they all that's left of walkers

Single vacant tokens?

Are they obscure milestones?

Hex signs?

But how are they lost?

What carelessness prevails

Allows single shoes to fall from sealed cars?

Do they contain desperate messages

Like bottles?

Was each filled with wine and passion

And thrown away

To seal deep intimacies?

Are they placed there

By itinerant princes

Looking for the right fit?

What do they mean?

They come in all sizes

Their tongues loll

They look helpless

What do they mean?

So desolate so empty

So hungry without their feet.




"The Mysteries of Lost Shoes" was published in The Paris Review

and later appeared in Ruined Cities and Selected Poems.           




Writer's Tip: Object Lesson: Tolstoy wrote seven drafts of War and Peace.