From the archives – What Breaks the Human Heart (iv) — Bebe Cook

What Breaks the Human Heart (iv)

The heart is covered by a sheath
of fine fingered threads,
a gauze of nerves. Alternating currents
which work in consort, cusps of skin
that rudder the mechanical—open and close
close and open. Valve merchants
who barter in vigor exchanging old for new.
I lost the boy (the child with arrhythmia)
at the state fair. His mother and I still taste
that metallic hour, we searched frantically,
we prayed fervently. At dusk we found him
standing on the fringe, the out-most edge
of the midway behind the tents of barkers
and carnies. He said he had been listening
to the whispered fables of tattoos. Muscled
arms of naked women, secret codes on numbered
fists and flowers adorning midriffs; natural
soothsayers that spoke Igpay Atinlay.
We did not tell him after —how fearful
we became of the circus and the voices
of inanimate things (unsure of the classification
of drawings on skin). How thankful
we were of the denizens of impulses
that kept him secure—within our gate.

by Bebe Cook

from Autumn Sky Poetry Number 15, October 2009

Artwork by Bebe Cook

Found in a Jam Jar by Robert Nisbet

Found in a Jam Jar

In a large jam jar, sealed and cast off
from the Welsh coast in 1964
and found now in Tilbury, shall we say,
or Southampton, a set of objects.
Two cinema stubs, at one-and-nine,
a Press cutting, Jazz on a Summer’s Day,
two cards for folk club membership,
a plectrum for guitar, sheet music,
Seeger, We Shall Overcome. Then
a message, a declaration really:
We are going forward. We are strumming
the bright rhythms of sex, the sounds
of brotherhood and love. Whether
our message will be heard in Cabinets
and coalfields, as yet we do not know.
But we know that tonight the street
to the folk club is busy with moonlight,
that people are arriving hand in hand.
The plectra will strum those strings,
we shall hear the songs’ clarion, and we,
moon-lit, hand-holding, a duet,
believe these things implicitly.

by Robert Nisbet, first appeared in Poetry Wales

Editor’s Note: This poem’s clear imagery and carefully chosen repetition skillfully draw the reader into the narrative. The closing lines are hopeful, and much appreciated.

Recession by Sydney Lea


A grotesquerie for so long we all ignored it:
The mammoth plastic Santa lighting up
On the Quik-Stop’s roof, presiding over pumps
That gleamed and gushed in the tarmac lot below it.

Out back, with pumps of their own, the muttering diesels.
And we, for the most part ordinary folks,
Took all for granted: the idling semis’ smoke,
The fuel that streamed into our tanks, above all

Our livelihoods. We stepped indoors to talk
With friends, shared coffee, read the local paper,
Heavy with news of hard times now. We shivered.
Our afternoons were gone. At five o’clock

—Once we gave the matter little thought—
Our Santa Claus no longer flared with light.

by Sydney Lea

Editor’s Note: This sonnet expertly describes how easy it is to feel that the present moment is the worst, but nostalgia teaches us otherwise.

Two Pawns by Irena Pasvinter

Two Pawns

Your pillowcase is white and mine is black.
Our heads are resting, pieces on a chessboard:
Two pawns, one fast asleep and one awake,
Recuperating after daily labors.

The pawns, what do they dream of? Do you know?
To fall in battle? To delay the deadly fate?
I bet they long to reach the final row
And morph into a queen — then check and mate.

And we, what do we dream about tonight?
There are no magic rows in our game.
I’m not a queen, you’re neither king nor knight.
Life has no rules it cares to explain.

Let’s just enjoy the play. Forget the ending.
I dream not to remain the last standing.

by Irena Pasvinter

Editor’s Note: Personification and metaphor drive this poem’s narrative until the closing couplet where the speaker’s vow reflects a very personal wish to cling tight to those we love while we can.

Signs by Cathleen Cohen


This year we lost an oak
to illness that withered the grasses,
leeched sap from trunks in amber drops
until the yard was bleached of green,
deep sienna and crimson

like lifeblood. Lantern flies feast,
wilt the willow our neighbors planted
when their daughter was born.
And we’ve had storms, dark,
out of season, changing

how we watch the sky
for signs. All this freedom
was given, choices
in how to live.
Is landscape enacting

old stories, old lessons
that we’ve forgotten—
plagues, storming waters,
viruses, emerald borers
in the ash trees?

Our neighbors wrap willow branches
with nets and tape
to trap swarming nymphs.
So fragile. We must rush
to help them.

by Cathleen Cohen

Instagram: @cathleencohen8
Twitter: @CathleenCohen

Editor’s Note: This poem’s clear imagery is a perfect metaphor for the world’s grim uncertainty, yet still the last few lines remind us how to be human despite our misgivings.

Timpani in the Time of Coronavirus by Jean L. Kreiling

Timpani in the Time of Coronavirus

They always bellow, they’re always commanding,
their voices drawn out by the mallets landing
precisely on the drum heads, tuned and taut
above the wells of air. But in these fraught,
infected days, the timpani’s dark boom
sounds darker, bigger. Does it signal doom,
or lead the battle? Does it frighten you,
or brace you for the fight? How you construe
its hefty, hollow rumble may depend
on which thunder you hear. I recommend
the second movement of Beethoven’s last
and bravest symphony, the ninth. It’s fast,
and full of stirring noise. The strings begin,
but timpani aggressively leap in,
and their insistent octave sets the tone;
its power vibrates in the blood and bone.
A vigorous orchestral conversation
ensues, the timpani’s determination
its measured, mighty pulse. Each copper bowl
holds only air, and for all his control,
the timpanist extracts only a sound,
no cure—but his touch lets the drum expound
on how to lead, how to be resolute.
Sometimes that means the timpani is mute:
it waits for word from one who knows the score,
patient until the time is right for more
well-crafted clamor. Though the timpani
could lead you elsewhere—gloom, anxiety,
or anger might live in its resonance—
I hear both discipline and confidence,
judicious vigor we might emulate,
undaunted mettle that might animate
our own. Beethoven often seems to know
what we require; his will from long ago
still sings to us. And in this movement’s grit
and grace lives triumph; at the heart of it—
the beating heart—the timpani exude
a strength that feeds my hope and fortitude.

by Jean L. Kreiling

Editor’s Note: The alliteration and rhyme in this poem beautifully mirror the sonics of a symphony while the words bring a glimmer of hope to the reader during these trying times.

Walls by Robert van Vliet


A locked garden but
with no walls And
carrying that grudge for
thirty years until you

have forgotten his name
and even his trespasses
But you still savor
the almond tang of

walking the schoolbus aisle
eyeing the driver’s eyes
and charging up the
sprint in your heels

which will carry you
four decades before you
realize your old fear
is your old strength

And you begin to
pity the bullies who
prepare only for victory
Who have no radar

for the lurking thug
No tingle on the
nape like a tongue
touched to a 9-volt

No harsh whisper Run
It’s a trap The
poor fools swagger right
into the rotor blades

And you are free
And they are forever
trapped by the locked
gate with no walls

by Robert van Vliet

Twitter: @_robertvanvliet

Editor’s Note: The fractured line breaks and punctuation in this poem reveal how trauma lingers even when the heart has moved on.

From the archives – Adjusting to war coming — David McAleavey

Adjusting to war coming

On the theory that if you tread enough water
the waves won’t close over you,
I did sufficient chores
to get out of the house,
its pretense of interminability –
solid bookcases, solid tables,
objects, objects.

Walked past the World Bank,
people with smudgy crosses on their foreheads,
Ash Wednesday,
past the souvenir stands, t-shirts 5 for $9, talk about cheap,
one of those days so full of signifying
even the veins in a slab of marble
look like figures, see,
that’s a tall person, slacks tight on her buns,
walking away.

Picked a route around puddles, melting snow,
noticed a stubby obelisk beside the Ellipse
put up by the DAC to name men
given the 17th century right
to own this land.

When our lives turn long enough
we realize we’ll never
have anything the way it was,
we set up stones,
asking them to speak,
pretending they will last.

Many more stones coming,
rows and rows, across the river.

We call this adjusting.

by David McAleavey

from Autumn Sky Poetry Number 20, January 2011

Photo by Christine Klocek-Lim