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A Garden of Verse from Oklahoma Poets

Montmartre: Windmills and Allotments, Vincent van Gogh, 1887. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Our call for poetry for the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Oklahoma Humanities magazine yielded a bumper crop of outstanding verse—too many poems to fit our print pages. Following are poems judged equally deserving of publication.

If you didn't get our print issue, click here to download and read more works, which include five state poets laureate. See the column at far left for poet bios and links to find more of their work.

Untitled Tanka

the slate sky deepens
edged in spring’s thick honey light
the forecast: twisters
but for the moment, stillness
shadowed possibility

—Britton Gildersleeve
First publication

Tanka is a Japanese poetry form containing 31 syllables of unrhymed verse, traditionally written in one unbroken line. In English translation and composition, Tanka have five lines, opening with the familiar haiku form (three lines with a 5/7/5 syllable pattern) followed by two closing lines (7/7 syllable pattern).

Before a Reading

Sunset’s long fingers
spread shadows upon March
lawns that wait awakening
surely whispering to their cover
of dead leaves  Spring
will be coming soon now
while here I sit patient
faithful pen in hand
waiting to write love letters
I’ve no one to send them to
but before long an audience
will come one night to hear poems
I’ve written to those who
will not be there to hear

—Carl Sennhenn
First publication

Almond Blossom, Vincent van Gogh, 1890, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Kitchen Zen

The doors of spring are wide open,
a breeze flows over our faces
as pleasant as a dip of ice cream
on a mound of currant cobbler.

My granny sits on a cane bottom chair
her aproned lap full of early spring peas,
her fingers shelling at the speed of light

while the rest of her
serene as Buddha
slips into a state of grace.

—Dorothy Alexander
First publication

Bradford Pears in Spring

She said she did not like
them, too symmetrical
and copycat, perfectly lined up
along the streets, so planned-
looking, like a politician's face,
and I said, "But they make
such good public trees!"
Yet year by year they are
losing their discipline,
and yesterday, all over town,
they filled the landscape
like a bushy head in the seat
in front of you at a musical.
White blossoms lathered
the edges of everything.
Ah, Joy! when the orderly
drill team is overcome
with exuberance, escapes to cover
the whole field with ecstatic dance.

—Carol Hamilton
Oklahoma Poet Laureate (1995 - 1997)
First publication

How We Remember

It's Decoration Day in my hometown.
The graves pop with color.
Walmart has been raided of all wreaths.
Men are firing up the mega smokers.
Here, we are in the heart
of a green jello salad universe.

In the park, enjoy an all-day talent show
        broken up with speeches
                and runs to the snow cone truck.

At two, the new pool will open.
I'll be there in the white bathing suit
my mother made for winning contests.
I won't win but I'll be the first
to belly-buster into aqua blue,
to be young and brave
in the deep end.

—Jane Vincent Taylor
First publication

Winter Solstice

I'm up at dawn
on this shortest day
and am greeted with the songs
of Carolina Wrens
and the chink-chink
of a cardinal and then
a barely visible
gleam of crimson
at the feeder. The sun
brightens the horizon
and will continue
to ascend, only to set
too soon, ushering in
the longest night of the year.
The naked branches
of hackberry and pecan trees
form hidden images puzzles
where I search for faces
and animal shapes.
Like my ancestors
I'm afraid of the dark,
but I know that stream
of light flowing
between the stones
does not denote
the onset of winter
but the glimmering brink
of spring. Even the trees
and the birds bear
this lore within them.

—Jennifer Kidney
First publication

Garden with courting Couples, Vincent van Gogh, 1887, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Sunday Morning in April

Wind roars through gullies
and gulches. It is Sunday morning
in April. You can hardly hear

the voices of birds slicing
this furious, darkening day –
a day that recalls other

April Sundays in Oklahoma
when wind and dust vented
their stormy marriage

on those standing by helplessly
watching, waiting for sky
to lighten, for clouds to pass.

We bow our heads. Though prayer
seems futile, it feels natural,
so impulsively necessary – but my,

listen to the persistent birds
singing through venomous air,
chirping up to the moment

of devastation. They will not be
outdone by wind. They will be here
when everything else blows away.

—Ken Hada
From Persimmon Sunday
(Purple Flag, 2015)


you in your jacket, a small blur
of red among trees, light
zooming down
the forest path –

your brother a dot,
black and green ball cap,
reflecting off the mirror
of grey river –

my little Gemini,
my ringers-in of summer,
my balancers
of spring and sky

—Jessica Isaacs
First publication

March 10th

We were planting potatoes, I
dropping crisp seed chunks
into the furrow my father had plowed,
my mother mounding the soil with her hoe,
sister tamping the mound with bare feet.
My nose tingled with the scent of turned earth
so that springs ever after made me dizzy
with want of the soil.
The roan cow's bellow echoed across a kite wind.
I looked up – my father strode toward us, grinning,
there where my mother and sister and I
formed our assembly line.
"Queenie had twins," he shouted.

The barn smelled hotly of manure and afterbirth.
Two stilt-legged calves blinked at us
with oil-colored eyes even larger than mine.
Queenie hummed low, combed them
damp and curly with sandpaper tongue.
That year my father said
we dug spuds the size of punkins.

Today I smell a March wind
and gather my knife and pail. My hands
are starch-white and stiff of knuckle
as I cut chunks from seed potatoes
to plant in the earth
of a different garden –
secure in the promise.

—Marcia Preston
(Capper's Weekly, 1986)

Owl on the Side of the Road

It is nearly noon and the sky is clear.
Like a vampire,
You are not to be out in the daylight
So I suspect the worst.
I wish that you were just sleeping
But your perfectly round head is facing me
As I drive toward the horizon.
Patterned feathers do not scatter
But defiantly remain attached
To your lifeless body on the roadside.
Your right wing and the delicate down underneath it
Rise up and gently float like a gauze veil
    toward your breast
With each passing vehicle.
It appears as if someone gently blows air from behind you.
Each illusory breath seems to fill your chest
    only to have it fall again,
Over and over.
As steady as the winter traffic
On this Cherokee County two-lane.

—Pamela Chew
Tulsa Review (Spring 2015)

In a Leathered Web

I've been chasing summer
since sometime last September,
but today
I snared it in a leathered web;
just reached out and caught it
as it came flickering through shade
and sunlight,
released with the whip of my son's
strong right arm
beneath the constant trees.

—Ron Wallace
From Hanging the Curveball
(TJMF Publishing, 2013)

Daubigny's Garden, Vincent van Gogh, 1887, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam


When my parents were alive,
I teased them about their appendages.
Mom's feet twitched. Dad's hands
trembled. Today, I twitch and tremble
on the rungs of descent.

When my pencil pecks a table,
I picture Grandma's absent tapping
over a crossword puzzle. I wear
my father's ears and play the flute
like the great-grandpa I never knew.

Their DNA has migrated into the land
of my body, knitted my behavior
with thick and thin strands of history.

Like my mother, one sip of hot tea
with milk and sugar lifts the blue
from my mood until the fear
that I am alone drains from the cup.

—T.L. Cummings


Today I will reinvent myself, best done
on a sliding scale. There is no clear path
to the land of dreams. If I had come as a
fish or a tree, I wouldn't have to evolve so

I've gathered these talismans over
the years, and now that my future
has become lenticular, things once
meant for sale I will now fashion
into my own environment,

a personal space, the last stand of a
constant traveler, and I will carve them
into symbols, like a keystone, or a yellowed
page of memories in a boarded-up room.

—W.L. Winter
First publication

Images courtesy of Van Gogh Museum:

Avian Concerto in the Key of April (for the birds)

Window opens to whole notes ─ 
dotted quarter notes
In the treble clef of elm and oak
oboe envelops flute ─
viola chords with tuba
harpsichord and kazoo collaborate

While the wind composes and decomposes
I hum along try to tap my toes
to a trio of piccolos
until my ear detaches chirp from caw
warble from trill and squawk
all on the wing

leaving one piped whistle
dirge turns to lilt ─ con brio and solo

—Carol Davis Koss
First publication

Savor This

Coyotes sang this morning. A haunting
spring song echoed from their rock
cave back of our property.

Barefoot, I moved outside. Light pried
a wedge through pine branches, chill
and dawn-colored. Tentative chirps
from chickadees called greetings;
some already flocked at feeders.

Light fog lifted from damp grass. My
bare foot slipped as I stepped on the deck.
Yet instead of ducking inside for coffee,
I relaxed into a deck chair and listened.

Caught in this moment – I couldn't move.
I'd never live through another miniature
gathering and joy time like this again.

Sun crept toward wet feet. Scores
of yesterdays, todays, tomorrows swirled
together like cake batter
in Mom's old green bowl,

and I was only licking the spoon.

—Gail Denham
First publication

Small Pear Tree in Blossom, Vincent van Gogh, 1888, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Trans(continental)migration of Souls

A trickle of Monarchs flows
down the road to the river
as I take my morning walk.
They seem oblivious
to the south wind
that threathens to blow
my hat off.
Seeing movement in the trees
I expect to find birds
but it's all butterflies
dangling from clusters of leaves.
At home, they're in the yard
as well, seeking out
anything still in bloom,
a pink penta in a pot,
the blossoms of their namesake bush,
the spires of the misnamed
obedient plant
that obeys no gardener,
scribbling unruly paths
through the flowerbeds.
The Monarchs' flight seems
leisurely and meandering.
Every few seconds
one will stop
to sample a sticky leaf
or circle back for a taste
of a tantalizing weed,
yet the rippling movement
of their copper stream
is always southward.
By month's end
they'll have reached
a mountain in Mexico,
souls returning in time
for the Day of the Dead.
There they'll huddle
in hive-like heaps
against the winter cold
until spring sunlight
stirs them to create
another generation,
tangible, visible
symbols of Psyche
to travel northward again.

—Jennifer Kidney
First publication

On Top of Winding Stair Mountain

Half done with this mountain
I stuff wild berries into my mouth
like a hungry bird flown to the bone.
As far as I can see is blue.
I swallow the space of valleys
and grow drunk with the vision
that blues my eyes. I feel
my lips, my tongue, my throat
assuming the color of air.
Shadows nest in my ears.

High on this mountain, my hands
are scarred from feathers or fear
I would give lives to remember.
I reach for the sun, crazy with
the moment, and somewhere there
is an echo of a crash, a sound
of broken water, a far cry
through silence. My legs are stone
as bedrock. I turn back, hand
and mouth, to berries as a lone
hawk plummets into the world.

—Jim Barnes
Oklahoma Poet Laureate (2009-2010)
From The American Book of the Dead
(University of Illinois Press, 1982)


On Monday, Francine thought about her finances.
Not thought—worried.
Not worried—obsessed.
On Tuesday morning, Francine said to herself,
"You will never be loved."
On Tuesday afternoon, Francine said to herself,
"You will never be loved."
On Tuesday evening, Francine said to herself,
"You will never be loved."
On Wednesday, Francine stubbed her toe,
And she thought:
Pain . . . pain . . . pain . . . pain . . . pain . . .
On Thursday, Francine thought about
How she used to have a mother who was alive.
She smelled her grapefruit hair and she tasted
    the butter of her chocolate
chip cookies.
And Francine felt an ice cream scooper enter her and
Hollow out her chest.
She thought about her mother.
    She thought about her mother.
On Friday, Francine fell.
She cracked her head against
    the corner of her bedroom dresser.
She split open, wide open.
Wide enough for the wind to blow through.
A cassette tape was on the right side of the spool,
Like it had been playing for a long time.
On Saturday, Francine wound duct tape around her head.
She did not put the cassette back in.
On Saturday, Francine noticed
That the crepe myrtle
Outside her living room window
Was blooming.

—Kerri Shadid
First mass publication

Field with Irises near Arles, Vincent van Gogh, 1888, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

The Ides of March Are Upon Us

The Ides of March are upon us,
so the live oak leaves have finally
started to fall here in South Texas.
They hang on to their dried up ideas

long and hard, as any good Texan.
Then, when new life and growth
leave them absolutely no choice,
they let go in a grumpy resentment

and drop to the ground like hailstones.
The world needs Texans like theater
needs it critics—or like any decent
construction site needs jackhammers.

They're the Sound and the Chevy, the Ford
and the Fury, of the world's great stage.

—Nathan Brown
First publication

After the Storm

Once the ice storm has passed
there remains the task
of gathering the glazed broken limbs.

Some are too large to drag to the brush pile,
So with chainsaw, and in full sight of the ice-shocked
Trees, the elephantine limbs are cut into
Cow and sheep length ulnas, then gurneyed
By awkward wheelbarrow to the growing charnel chaos.

From there, rabbits will emerge, slim and muscled,
In spring.

—Paul Bowers
From The Lone, Cautious, Animal Life
(Purple Flag, 2016)

Spring: A Fishing Lesson
For Tim

Rods and reels zippered into cases,
tackle boxes stacked in our garage,
his frog collection alone would astound
any casual weekend angler. Overlooking
my amazement, he cheerfully shares a chapter
from open water pedagogy, the short course.

Walleye, as their name suggests, are sensitive
to light, feeding at twilight or later. More likely
found here than in California, they lay eggs
four-to-eight days after first new moon
in March. You'll know it's time
when you see redbuds in bloom.

Ladybugs bring on catfish. Ladybugs in a bunch
are called a loveliness, isn't that something.
How did such lyrical wings come to converge
with dolorous, whiskered bottom feeders,
who make at best a gritty supper?

He's stern now: No bananas aboard the boat!
I nod, learning the way of luck. His grin's the one
I remember, but he does not browse the fridge,
leave laundry on floors, ask for gas money
or bring home a string of crappie. It's the rule:
catch and release.

—Sandra Soli
First publication


We are the
who dwell in a land
with four seasons.
As we rotate
around the sun,
we are ever changing.
Though the
variations are necessary
and often predictable,
there is no way to forecast
the impact of
our entrances
(be they grand or casual),
our exits
(be they reluctant or in haste),
or what we will
leave behind
when each season
brings opportunity
to begin anew.

—Teresa Wood
From In Her Own Native Tongue
(Hear My Heart, 2016)


Deep in the attic I found my first poem
written when I was four
on the back of a Methodist church bulletin.
Mother saved it, a decision
based on sentiment not merit.
There is no extended metaphor in this work
no complex symbology
no epiphanic flicker
but the meter is good
and the lines do rhyme, imperfectly.
This juvenile Petrarch had something pure
the old craftsman has lost.
My daughter's poetry doesn't rhyme
doesn't scan, brims with sentiment, and is
I see my soul echoed
in her arched eyebrow
wry observation
ego-flattening riposte
stony silence
The world-weary eleven-year old.
She has carried my torch since the day
she took her first step
no matter how determinedly
she toddled down the sidewalk
away from me.

—William Bernhardt
First publication