NPM Curated Poem 3: “ANWR,” by Sherwin Bitsui

When people ask me which contemporary poets I’m most excited about, my first answer is usually Sherwin Bitsui, a Diné poet from Arizona.  His images are surreal and lyrical, which I usually respond to in poetry (see my post on Carrie Bennett), and today’s poem gives the lie to the argument that political poetry and lyrical poetry are mutually exclusive (poem from


By Sherwin Bitsui


When we are out of gas,

a headache haloes the roof,

darkening the skin of everyone who has a full tank.


I was told that the nectar of shoelaces,

if squeezed hard enough,

turns to water and trickles from the caribou’s snout.


A glacier nibbled from its center

spiders a story of the Southern Cross,

twin brothers

dancing in the back room lit with cigarettes

break through the drum’s soft skin—

There bone faces atlas

            a grieving century.



Here, I respond to “spider” and “atlas” being used as verbs—the glacier, “nibbled” so it might look diffuse as a spider’s legs, tells “a story,” and on “the drum’s soft skin,” “bone faces” provide a map to “a grieving century,” which I take to mean the century of unprecedented industrial growth that asked for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to be drilled for oil—the twentieth (this poem was published in Bitsui’s book Shapeshift, which appeared in 2003).


YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Write a political poem, but, in the tradition of Bitsui’s “ANWR,” don’t tell your audience what to think about the issue—don’t write your politics in a didactic way.  Instead, approach the political subject from a lyrical place—the kind of place that would provide what I take to be a mocking image for recycling, the “nectar of shoelaces” that “turns to water and trickles from the caribou’s snout.”  And you could do a lot worse than buying Bitsui’s other collection, too—Flood Song (Copper Canyon Press, 2009).


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