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One of my dearest college professors, a trim man with a gentle face, elegant attire and the enviable posture of a gentleman — or a soldier — once said, “The only people who understand poetry are poets.”

I filed away his words and, for some time, returned to them like doctrine. Convinced of poetry’s enigma, I rarely gave verse a chance.

Then I came across Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish poet (but if you want to split hairs, he was born in Lithuania) and his piece inspired by the death of Christopher Robin Milne. Name sound familiar? Christopher Robin was the child of A. A. Milne, author of the Winnie the Pooh stories; those tales were based on his son’s toys. Milosz’s poem is written from the perspective of that famous bear. The first lines:

“I must think suddenly of matters too difficult for a bear of little brain. I have never asked myself what lies beyond the place where we live, I and Rabbit, Piglet and Eeyore, with our friend Christopher Robin. That is, we continued to live here, and nothing changed, and I just ate my little something. Only Christopher Robin left for a moment.”

It’s a sweet, short meditation on life, death and time through the eyes of an old bear. I read all the Milosz I could find, and then my mind wandered back to childhood. I remembered my mother’s poetry collections — by Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks — neatly tucked into bookshelves in the basement. I’d slide them out on summer afternoons, glide my eyes across the pages, understanding some words, though not all. Still, I was entranced.

After the Milosz and the memories, I realized: I had poetry all wrong, as did my professor. It isn’t unintelligible. But it isn’t always easy, either. Poetry requires something of us. Often, it insists on patience; it pushes us toward a second or third reading. Poems are distilled stories — they’re full of potent imagery with little context, ideas without an excess of explanation.

There is a rigor to poetry. Put in the work, and you’ll reap the reward.

April is National Poetry Month. We asked four poets to write pieces inspired by spring. As you enjoy the beauty of the season’s blooms, we hope you’ll take a moment to savor a few poems, too.

Onslaught of cars. Rain-stained

roads. Red and bright lights.

Those silly eyes twinkle

in the twilight. Soft slickness

of an April day! So much unseals—

So what? So what!

Dogs are pissing in the park!

Men are smiling in the dark!

Someone turns to me

in the coffee line,

I blush. Carnivorous pigeons:

I overhear that a-personal-catastrophe-


Strangers giddy with hope! The kind

that mornings bring. For now,

the birds are singing their wants

out loud from the deep bells

of their chests. Good morning

symphony of sex! Good morning!

Good morning! I can’t stop myself.

Nothing is broken.

Lies, but lovely ones. I live

in an exceptional loneliness,

but I really do smell the flowers.

I do not know where you are.

I know where I am.

For heaven’s sakes, I take a breath.

I take another. I know.

I promise to think of you

all night, your hand snaking

through my hair. I know,

this couldn’t be. Still, I wish

you were here. The squirrels

are exasperatingly merry.

And I miss you, so much.

S. Yarberry is a trans poet and writer. Their poetry has appeared in, or is forthcoming in, Tin House, Indiana Review, the Offing, Berkeley Poetry Review, jubilat, Nat Brut and miscellaneous zines. Their other writings can be found in Bomb Magazine and Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly. S. is an MFA candidate in poetry at Washington University in St. Louis and the poetry editor of the Spectacle.

Artist’s statement: “I wrote this poem just as the seasons turned — that first day where the thrill of spring is palpable, where the world is waking up. It’s kind of funny, to feel melancholy and dreary when the world around you is so unabashedly beautiful — flowers in bloom, birds singing. I wanted to consider the imagery, the movement, the hum of excitement on a spring morning and how this external landscape interacts with the internal landscape: the simultaneity of the world ripening with desire, while the speaker is living with exceptional loneliness.”

Forgetting is the only country

I come from. In Yilan

my grandmother mates her mouth

to a kumquat, its gold nipple

nicked from the first girl

I bride. We passed for sisters

& the rain didn’t care whose blood

it was. Spring passes

for a mother, but its rain

mans the city we’re evicted from.

For a year my mother lived

in her car, frying crickets

on the sunboiled hood, clotting a moon

from sugar & selling it to my blood.

The year my grandmother died

diabetic, it was spring & the canefields

grew my fingers. I ringed each stalk, married myself off

to the rain, the sky spitting its birds

into my mouth. I swallow & the field

grows a throat, a tree the width of its thirst.

In Yilan, my grandmother sold cane-butts

to soldiers, scoured their mouths so sweet

all the flagpoles came loose like teeth. Once

when a soldier put his gun in her mouth, she suckled away

its sight, dissolved bullets on her tongue. Dormant

for a century, the bullets were birthed

in another country: my mother, then me, then

a crop of daughters with missing teeth.

In this country, my mother mythed

our car into a city: the steering wheel

a Ferris wheel I could ride to meet

the sky, seat cushions

pregnant with the feathers of every species

extinct. When it was night

we slept with our seats reclined & the stereo

stealing our silence. She said the stereo scared away

thieves, but we kept it on to sing

our voices dislocating the dark, our bones

still broke. My mother retells the story of her

mother: all the sugar in her blood condensed into bullets

& bullied out of her skin: or: all the sugar in her blood behaved

like snow & felled the sky: we pyred the sugarcane & burned it alive:

smoke the color of tongues. My grandmother reins the sky

with her wind-length hair. She rides

the rain down my throat & into my belly

birthing herself

clean as a bullet through my body.

K Ming Chang lives in New York. Her poetry has been anthologized in Ink Knows No Borders, Best New Poets 2018, Bettering American Poetry Vol. 3 and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. She is a Lambda Literary Award finalist in lesbian poetry. Her debut novel, “Bestiary,” is forthcoming from One World/Random House.

Artist’s statement: “I thought a lot about spring as a season of renewal and regrowth and how regrowth is made possible by death and circularity. The poem is inspired by spring in Yilan, Taiwan (an island of rain and decay and renewal).”

I placed it by a window that faces south. There is sun enough, the man I loved said. He taught me to feel for the graft union, where the plant chosen for its flowers was cut and fused to the rootstock. He said, water deeply and not often. Of course, I did not listen. The leaves turned gold and let go like nothing held them in the first place. I used an X-acto knife to split the plastic container, release stagnant water from roots. I kissed another man, and while he climbed atop my body he kicked my six-year cactus from the windowsill. Later, I found broken ceramic rising from the soil like milky mountains. That night, I dreamed I opened my shoulder blades with an oyster knife and removed a pearl from beneath them. In the morning, a white shard lodged in my palm. I threaded my skin with a needle until I pushed it free. Some days, I think of putting the tree out in the too cold, too wet air. I imagine the scent of root rot, how no one will count the new leaves. These days, though, I want the tree to live, I check it for growths beneath the raised scar on its trunk, pinch the green tendrils, always more vigorous than they seem. When I throw them away and think, What a waste, I can almost hear the man I loved reply, They steal vitality from the fruiting part of the tree. My mother calls, she is trying to coax grass to grow on her mother’s grave. She brings seed, native soil, and fertilizer to the cemetery. She plants crocus bulbs too deeply. We are both trying to prove some sort of kindness. Want fills me the way the room fills with sweetness when the tree’s buds uncurl and then fall. It wakes me up at night, draws back the memory of years ago walking and walking to forget someone in a whirling of cherry blossom petals, how they coated my bare feet, then bruised to a rusted slick on the sidewalk. Maybe, inevitably, we will all know this kind of pleading. The silence of the man I loved hums like wind in the tallgrass. I will never live where this tree could grow in the land. We cannot release each other. A few weeks ago, I learned what I was never told— how three-year trees will grow thorns; you can prune them if you wish. How the first green fruit will not be edible, but as small and bright as jewels.

Christine G. Adams is the recipient of two Academy of American Poets Prizes, the winner of the 2018 Prairie Schooner Summer Nonfiction Prize and the runner-up for the 2018 Gulf Coast Prize in nonfiction. She is currently a PhD student in creative nonfiction at Ohio University. She holds an MFA in poetry from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she served as the Fred Chappell fellow and poetry editor of the Greensboro Review. Her poetry and essays can be found in Prairie Schooner, Grist, Best New Poets and Passages North, among others.

Artist’s statement: “I really do have a potted lemon tree that was given to me by someone I loved, which is currently doing all the things that it does in this poem. My mother really is trying to grow grass on her mother’s grave. The natural world often bears the marks of our human desires, cruelties and kindnesses. I think watching the struggles and cycles of growth gave me a way to contextualize the larger questions the poem is asking: How do we cope with losing someone we love; what do we owe to one another in life, in love and in death; how do we come to terms with the fact that loving invites pain into our lives in variable ways? I hope the poem, for all the sadness it contains, also offers a reader some small solace, just as the lemon tree does in the ending.”

somewhere beneath our bones,

a dead black girl’s eyes roll back

into a memory of skull.

rekia, miles of earthworms away,

smacks her lips.

the rest of us,

black as grave.

black, repetitious as burial.

the bones’ memorization of soil.

hands memorizing shovel.

what a cliché way to die.

still not eulogy enough.

still stuck in the same homegoing

service from a hundred protests ago.

a body repeated, eventually loses

its meaning. I was 4 months away

from 22 and a few feet too close to

ancestor. one accidental alley away

from my last birthday.

an explosion of yellow behind my skull

but I am still

here. in this summertime of barrettes

making hopscotch of chalk outline.

still sipping sour pickle through

a peppermint stick with my pinky up.

still got roll in my neck, blade in my tongue,

my mama in my blood, and blood in my drawls.

still laughing my way off the bus.

still laughing in the holding cell.

and my girls in the ground

are laughing, too.

think we won’t doubledutch

between bars and tootsie roll to cuba.

think these bullets don’t click against

our teeth like a tongue ring.

think our joy ain’t as unrelenting as our blk.

think our legacy don’t survive sterilization.

still got the nerve to make love every morning

and birth dozens of blk possibilities.

think our bodies disappear into jail cells

and come out dead days later.

think we don’t resurrect every sunday.

somewhere beneath our bones,

rekia tambourines a praise dance of her own

glory, laughing the dandelions awake.

there is a meadow of gold between today

and the next afternoon an officer in texas

kneels into the back of a black girl at a pool party.

an anniversary between viral video

and a pink fistful of my someday daughter’s hair.

in this pastime of burial,

they dig themselves a blk girl garden

and think we don’t wake when spring

thaws our throats and we get to laughing.

a rise of yellow exploding

beneath their feet.

Kush Thompson is the author of “A Church Beneath the Bulldozer,” a womanist, painter, avid “As Told By Ginger” watcher, Native Foods regular and former chapter co-chair of Black Youth Project 100 Chicago. She is a 2018 first-year Cave Canem fellow, 2017 Luminarts Creative Writing Fellow, one of the Root’s 2015 Young Futurists and was voted runner-up best local poet of 2014 by the Chicago Reader.

Artist’s statement: “In 2012, Rekia Boyd was 22 when she was killed by off-duty Chicago police officer Dante Servin, as she stood in an alley with a group of friends. Her name is among the endless spoken into immortality by the #SayHerName movement. The campaign, born in the wake and growth of Black Lives Matter, centers the range of violence against black women and femmes. When we say her name, we remind ourselves to celebrate the fight in us, and we keep the country from forgetting what victims of police violence look like. Rekia’s favorite color was yellow.”

Editor’s note: In this piece, the writer uses “blk” when speaking specifically to the spirit of blackness and “black” to communicate external blackness.

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