Wednesday, June 19, 2013


I heard about Terry Spohn and his poetry long before I had a chance to read any of his poems.  Mutual friends in a longstanding and ongoing poetry workshop in California kept raving about this poet, new to the workshop, and his high-energy poems.  When I finally read a poem or two of Terry’s, I understood about all the buzz.

Terry’s had a career as a book editor and, for several years now, he’s been one of the regional editor of San Diego Poetry Annual.  He’s a baseball enthusiast who not only listens to major-league baseball on his car radio but also plays competitive ball on a community (and regional) team.  In person, Terry always is ready to contribute his quick wit and thoughtful kindness. 

Terry Spohn holds a Master of Fine Arts from the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa and lives in Escondido, California.  His short fiction, prose poems and poetry have appeared in Rattle, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Mobius: the Magazine of Social Change, Ascent, Mississippi Review, North American Review, Oyster Boy Review, numerous anthologies, and other places.

Here are two of his published poems:

                                      SHELF LIFE

               And I asked myself about the present:
how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to              keep.
                            —Kurt Vonnegut

I was making a movie in a suburb
in a grocery store in a housewife’s dream
I was holding a cardboard megaphone and a clipboard
somewhere an empty chair was waiting
the housewife had known me once
long ago, better than I had known myself
she pushed her cart down the condiment aisle
one front wheel fidgeting
like an idiot prince at his birthday party
on the tasting table Barwell’s Pickled Beets
the color of Grandfather’s lung
sat untouched in their delicate paper cups
the housewife kept a list
clenched tightly in her fist
if it fell and unrolled
it could reach all the way into her next marriage
the canned vegetable aisle was veined
with cables and heavy plugs wrapped in black tape
like the ground at church carnivals
this was as close as the woman
had been to me in years
she moved up and down the narrowing aisles
while the cart filled up with children
I could almost touch her in her sleep
could almost wake her
I had memorized the script
that could almost free her
but I was busy changing it
the movie would run backwards, all right
all the children disappearing
creamed corn bursting from cans
and flowing back through factories
and into the sun, and we would all soon begin
to forget, as we came out of the theater
squinting in the startling daylight
who, exactly, we had come here with
and which of these bright, new cars was ours

Terry Spohn –from Rattle #35, Summer 2011

                             Leaving Hugo

her hair a nest built by mourning doves
Grandma took the coat money from the humidor
I don't know why it is
there's always a problem in families

in a cinder-block building in Hugo, Minnesota
a single mother in a purple sweatshirt
coils springs for cluster bombs
children fall like leaves behind the water tower

it's time to forgive ourselves
we can't sleep through the night anymore
time to pluck that taut wire beside the heart
beneath the smokestacks of silence

our unbeautiful dead keep mum in the trees
eyes like cold lanterns adrift on a vast black river
while our fancies ply their dismal trade
on the far side of the mountain

none of us will return from anywhere
none of us has set down the glass and thought
this is what I have to do right now
smoke's been rising from the peat bog

another war bangs away just out of sight
young girls in their pleated skirts
learn to kiss beside the bike path
practicing on one another

Terry Spohn
-from Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Vol. 23, #1

And here are two unpublished poems by Terry Spohn

 (Because of the long lines, and to keep the line breaks, "Goodbye, Ohio, Illinois" is printed in smaller type):

                                 Goodbye, Ohio, Illinois

               Can let you down
               Quicker than a
               Strapless gown
--Burma Shave, Highway 30, east of Dixon, Illinois

Those strange men like me in rental cars with out-of-state plates
come back for a funeral and one last look, they're here for you. 
You know how it is, Ohio. Either your children go down 
the Cherry mine and never come home, or they come back from college 
with funny ideas, or from Mendota with a bad marriage and a black eye, 
and you wonder why they left in the first place. Then the Burlington Dinky 
disappears, tracks and all, the way a dead skunk does--bit by bit, 
but the grandfather clocks keep ticking, keep ticking, ticking, 
and the grandfathers with their gold-rimmed front teeth 
and White Owl cigars rock on the porches, spitting, 
listening to the White Sox on their two-knob Crosley radios,
and Doc O'Malley's oxygen tent makes the rounds up so many
flights of creaky stairs, while Grandmother sits in the parlor
watching Queen For a Day and all that self-cleaning country 
light in your rippled windows spills onto the doilies. 

Or, it's 1929 and your streets are oiled to keep down the dust clouds
when here comes the Graf Zeppelin with its 12-cylinder Maybach pushers 
yawing high above you on its way around the world, and while everyone
is looking up at the future with their hands shading their eyes
Marilyn stops cleaving and Elvis leaves the house 
and Pete Maravich--Pete Maravich for Chrissake!--drops 
dead in a gym in Pasadena, but Keith Richards lives 
and keeps on living, and plays his Fender Telecasters in open G 
until few of us can listen any more to that hawkish tweedle 
that says this is how it is at the end of things.
And when the big German gasbag is out of sight and hands come down 
from foreheads, the screens sag and rust and paint bubbles off fascia. 
Van Buren Street crumbles like peanut brittle. Even the boards 
in the boarded-up windows rot, and Spohn Grocery slumps on Main Street 
in full view of nobody, the name etched above the broken windows 
like a tombstone for the whole family, and wind shushes the library next door. 

Your job's done Ohio, done with Christmas snow clumped in the black oaks,
done with ankle-deep mud beneath the yellowjacket-ridden pear trees, 
and the suffering out there in your canning cellars, the belt-whippings 
in your summer kitchens, while dust motes nest on the mute piano.
How much more could you do for us than you already have?
All those sturdy Republicans gone down the road to glory,
those children of yours who climbed a tree that led right to us--
young grandchildren from the big city lying on our backs
in the yard to watch the northern lights or the Milky Way.

Just forget the Gugartys, Ohio, and the Friels, and Doc O'Malley.
Leave the dress patterns and Clabber Girl and Big Lee overalls
and while you're at it, the curtains don't matter any more, either. 
It's okay to let the front door stand open. 
It's okay to let the chickens run off to the fields 
between Maytown and the Green River bridge, 
where rain drums its jaded fingers on the mud. 
The car doors down in the cemetery, they're slamming for you.
You're having every good mother's nightmare--children gone to the city 
for money or California for love or Sulawesi to find themselves. 
They rise like Zeppelins on their uncertain journeys. 
You can still see them if you're lucky, 
if you shade your eyes and the wind's right, 
if you're lying in a backyard against the ground 
with its hidden bones swimming away from one another, 
and far beneath that, the fire that wants to break every last thing apart 
because it's a hot July afternoon in the middle of a summer 
that seems like it'll never end.

by Terry Spohn

midnight radio

when you drive past the moon
Earth's rotation changes stations 
radio clear as the Mingun bell 
Tokyo trance to throat-sung 
punk from Tuva, twisting away 
because things that turn 
envy those that rise

emptiness is your highway 
there's no speed limit now
open up the Acura to see 
what it'll really do 
don't check the blind spots 
know the way a tree knows soil
you're alone in spite 
of the stars' steady gaze
and those drifty Tuareg anzads 
that whisper through the radio 
straight into your ears 
as if you were really here

by Terry Spohn

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


Happy Father’s Day: June 16!

Here are three poems on the ordinary/extraordinary care fathers, often without a word, bestow:

by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze.  No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices? 
(from Collected Poems of Robert Hayden, Liveright Publishing Corp., 1966)

by Li-Young Lee

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when given something to keep.
I kissed my father.
(from Rose by Li-Young Lee, published by BOA Editions, Ltd., 1986)

by Bruce Weigl

My father did not read to me,
he would not quote anything or anyone,
he never alluded
as we are wont to say in my world
to poems or stories
to make a point or to teach me
some lesson about the life
beyond the slag heaps of our steel city
dying upon our dying lake.

And what you teach someone
with a belt across his back
is belts,
or I missed the point of those beatings
which were not so bad—
the loud voice in the hallway, then the belt
then the kisses on his lap.
If I could bring the words to you
as though from him,
clear as the air off this bay
you would see—

he is home from the foundry,
younger than I am now, the black
dust from the mill like a mask
and he is bending down to me
in the dusk where I waited
on the steps of the bar
for his bus
and the cathedral
he makes with his fingers
opens to a silver dime
he twists before me
and lays down into my hands
for being good he says.
(from What Saves Us by Bruce Weigl, published by TriQuaterly Books/Northwestern University, 1992)