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.