NPM Curated Poem 4: Natalie Diaz’s “My Brother at 3am”

Today’s poem is a pantoum by Natalie Diaz, who was once a professional basketball player in Europe and a successful NCAA basketball player in her college days.  She’s a great poet, obviously, too.

A pantoum is a Malayan form that’s been brought into French and English—you’ll see the form emerge as you read the poem, which I got from


My Brother at 3 A.M.

By Natalie Diaz

He sat cross-legged, weeping on the steps

when Mom unlocked and opened the front door.

        O God, he said. O God.

                He wants to kill me, Mom.


When Mom unlocked and opened the front door

at 3 a.m., she was in her nightgown, Dad was asleep.

        He wants to kill me, he told her,

                looking over his shoulder.


3 a.m. and in her nightgown, Dad asleep,

What’s going on? she asked. Who wants to kill you?

        He looked over his shoulder.

                The devil does. Look at him, over there.


She asked, What are you on? Who wants to kill you?

The sky wasn’t black or blue but the green of a dying night.

        The devil, look at him, over there.

                He pointed to the corner house.


The sky wasn’t black or blue but the dying green of night.

Stars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives.

        My brother pointed to the corner house.

                His lips flickered with sores.


Stars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives.

O God, I can see the tail, he said. O God, look.

        Mom winced at the sores on his lips.

                It’s sticking out from behind the house.


O God, see the tail, he said. Look at the goddamned tail.

He sat cross-legged, weeping on the front steps.

        Mom finally saw it, a hellish vision, my brother.

                O God, O God, she said.


I love the personification in “[s]tars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives,” which lends them a danger that underscores what her brother has been going through in the middle of the night as he battles his addiction and the attendant hallucinations.  I also love the apposition in “Mom finally saw it, a hellish vision, my brother,” meaning that she both sees the brother for what he really is—that is, recognizes his addiction and its severity—and also as the “hellish vision” himself.  I also love that the brother’s “O God” becomes the mother’s “O God,” a movement made possible by the pantoum form.  It’s a great way to create content using form.

This poem is from Diaz’s great debut collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon, 2012), a favorite of my students for many good reasons (humor, “accessibility,” relatability, lyricism–I could go on).

YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Write a pantoum.  You can find the instructions here.  Take the second and fourth lines of your first stanza, and make them the first and third lines of the second stanza.  Then, take the second and fourth lines of that stanza, and make them the first and third lines of the third stanza, and so on.  The repetitions should allow for variation of meaning as they appear in new contexts, as Diaz’s “O God” shifts from the brother’s to the mother’s mouth in the moment of the mother’s recognition of the brother’s situation.

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).


NPM Curated Poem 2: “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

If you’re a poet, or a close friend of mine, or a student or former student, you’re probably unimpressed by my inclusion of the quintessential “poet’s poet” and Duffey personal icon Elizabeth Bishop.  But her poem “One Art” is really, truly, one of the best poems ever written in the English language.  Here’s the text, which I took from

One Art

Elizabeth Bishop, 19111979

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant 
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied.  It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

I love the way the severity of the losses increases as the poem goes on, and, of course, that wonderful interjection, “Write it!”  The poet could be forcing herself to admit that the loss does indeed “look like…disaster,” but also continues the denial, forces herself to WRITE the denial, that it is “like disaster,” not actually a disaster.  The repetition of “like” mimics the speaker’s thought process in that she might have forgotten her construction after the interjection to herself, but it also reemphasizes the importance of denying that it’s a disaster by asserting it’s only LIKE one, and to be LIKE LIKE one is even one more step removed.  The loss of the “you,” however, inches closer to disaster with every beat.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  This poem is a villanelle, a poetic form derived from Italian and Spanish Renaissance dance-songs and fixed as we know it in the nineteenth century (  A villanelle consists of five tercets (three-line stanzas) and a quatrain (a four-line stanza) in which the first and third lines alternate as the last line of each tercet until they finally appear as the final two lines of the poem.  The middle lines of the tercets must rhyme with each other and with the second line of the quatrain, and first lines of the tercets and quatrain must rhyme with the repeated lines.  Clearer directions can be found at

Write a villanelle!  Good luck.  I’ve never done it.  We’ll see if I can today!

National Poetry Month: 20 Days of Curated Poems

Last year, I tried (unsuccessfully) to write a review a day for National Poetry Month.  That same month, I shared several poems I loved, and many of my non-poet friends and family were much more interested in “being told what poems to read,” in the words of my brother-in-law, than they were in reading reviews of whole poetry books that they didn’t plan to ever buy.  Thus, my goal for this year is to tell you what poems to read (though I hope kindly!), talk a little bit about why I enjoyed each poem, and include a short writing assignment based on the poem.  I’m hoping to get you to then buy these books, particularly those of contemporary writers who are still alive to appreciate the sales, but I realize we don’t all have the money to do that, and I’d definitely rather you read my poems for free than that you didn’t read them because you couldn’t buy them. I assume other writers often feel the same.  I’m going to try to write a blog post every work day of April–thus, 20 curated poems.

The last book of poetry I read is Carrie Bennett’s The Land Is a Painted Thing (The Word Works, 2016), and it’s INCREDIBLE.  The images are surreal and lyrical, and many of my favorites appeared in this poem originally published in the magazine The Destroyer:




I love “[d]ear little song under my wrist”–to me, it’s a perfect kenning for the pulse.  I also love “I tell myself my hands are peppermint leaves I stuff in my mouth,” both for the olfactory and gustatory resonances of peppermint and the emotional implications of the speaker stuffing its/his/her hands in its/his/her mouth.  And, of course, “the pulse [the speaker] was looking for” is “there,” as “[t]he lost throb has fallen from [its/his/her] throat.”  What a surprising verb, to fall, to use for the pulse in the throat, but it feels appropriate to the motion of the pulse, or even to its ceasing.  The assonance of “lost throb” pulses appropriately, too.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Pick a bodily process, such as the pulse, or the breath, or hearing, or anything your body does repeatedly, and write a kenning for it.  A kenning is a poetic circumlocution–a way of naming a process that talks around it, doesn’t name it directly, but does so in a poetic way (  I will admit that they’re usually two-word phrases, often compound words made with hyphens, and this phrase from Bennett’s poem is much longer–if you know of a more appropriate poetic term to use to talk about that sentence, let me know.

Then, write a poem that includes your circumlocution.