Issue 17: Stephen Burt


Why twin wings?

Why fronts or hoods like such

bent spatulas, uneasy

to be magnified, then seconded from their usual

jobs making pancakes and shoved outdoors?

They represent brute force

in the service of later subtlety,

the gentler butter knife

that comes before the real knife and follows the flour

and water of commuters’ daily bread—

the salt being actual salt,

both precipitate and solution, the very hinge

at the top of the daily challenge

of making maintenance beautiful,

without which more bridges collapse and the whole

economy skids and slips to one more halt.

Or else their elevated

cabs and carriages hold the stubby diagonal

levers with which, first

philosophers, then middle school

math and science teachers, failed to move the world.


public servants, devotees

of heavy metal, givers of C’s

to stubborn, unteachable surfaces, they leave

main roads as clear as can be,

residential lanes still beveled and grooved.

Some of the louder vehicles

have jaws, and seem to talk.

Others appear to point backwards at what they

uncover: crushed plastic cups, slush, bare asphalt.

If I can help

assiduously enough

with the clean-up, then whatever was once

neglected must

never have been my fault.


Not to make anyone suffer

Not to come

between grain and gleaners

a child and another child

Do something every day that might not matter

but could

bring your mite to the dusk

Do better than the best of all possible


in the worst of all likely worlds

Consider the sun as it rises


slightly over the moon’s lip

turning the lifeless craters

from rose

to rose-gold

not caring


or whether

anything grows

Palinode with Company

Let the record—if

there is a record—show

how much of it, after a certain age, was delight:

the virgin daiquiris on New Year’s Eve

and staying up till two, and other convivialities

around paintbrush, scrim, plywood, tacks and drills

behind the scenes behind the scenes,

the hour on the telephone attempting to decode

“Ask” and “Panic” and (hardest of all by far) “Golden Lights”

and then the hour trying to decide

whether we spent too much time on the phone,

and the pushbutton desk-set answers for which we received

a sport’s immediate rewards

that quickened us all in turn, and the sprawl

on Fridays when we occupied the whole

of the carpeted first floor hall,  and the heroic

or picaresque car,

nicknamed the Green Hornet,

whose fearless owner gave us rides to school…

such parts of an early life

that do not require new frames—

that were almost just

fine as they were, or at least as they are.

Stephen (also Steph or Stephanie) Burt is Professor of English at Harvard and the author of several books of poetry and literary criticism, most recently The Poem is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them (Harvard UP, 2016). A new book of Steph's own poems will appear from Graywolf in late 2017.


Copyright © 2016 by Stephen Burt, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.