National Young Writers Festival: Events

Hey all,

If you weren’t aware already, I’ll be at the National Young Writers Festival in Newcastle this year. I have a few events I’ll be speaking at, so rather than harp on social media about them, I figured I’d just put them here in a nice handy place.

Late night Reading: The Minotaur Under My Bed
Thursday 29 September, 10:30pm – 12am
The Royal Exchange Hotel

with Chloe Reeson, Vince Ruston, Sommer Tothill

Go West Panel: Finding Voice
Friday 30 September, 5:30 – 6:30pm
Vinyl Cafe

with Eiman AlUbudy, Alia Gabres

Australian Poetry Presents: Poetically Pushing Against Dominant Narratives
Saturday, 1 October, 1.30-2.30pm
Vinyl Cafe

with Ellen van Neerven, Adolfo Aranjuez, Mikaila Hanman-Siegersma, Jonno Revanche, Chi Tran

Where You From? Where You Goin?
Saturday, 1 October, 4.30pm-6pm
The Gun Club

with Eiman AlUbudy, Magan Magan, Omar Musa, Admas Tewodros

And that’s it! Come say hi if you’re around.


Hey y’all,

I realise I’ve said this on most other social media platforms now, but I haven’t announced it here yet, and announcements like this never get old (for me), so here it is: I’m incredibly happy to report that my debut poetry collection, these wild houses, will be published next year by Cordite Publishing.

Cordite, while a small press here in Australia, is well known for putting out beautiful books of poetry and I can personally attest to the brilliance of managing editor, Kent MacCarter, so I couldn’t be more pleased to be working with him on my collection.

All of which is to say, sorry if I’ve been a little quiet on the blogging front, but you can rejoice at least that I haven’t been wasting my time. I can’t wait to put this book out into the world, and hear your reactions to it.

I hope, too, that you’ll continue to follow me on the strange meandering path that is poetry.

~ Omar

Poetry & Performance

Here’s how it went down.

I’m sitting at a table, drink in hand. You, young white guy, sit down next to me to talk to a mutual friend. You tell us you’re going to read tonight at the open mic. I think back to the last open mic I attended, when an old, old white woman (mid 70s at least) got up to read a long erotic poem about her clit. I think about the old, old white man (60s I’d say), who got up after her, zeroed in on where she sat, and read a long erotic poem about his throbbing cock. I tell the others this is why I don’t go to open mic nights anymore. Writing this now, I remember a different young white guy who got up after the elderly duo (a private school kid still in his uniform, tie askew, accompanied by his dad) and gave a frenzied performance remarkable for its incoherence and the repetition of the word rape. His thrusting motions.

I read that night too.

You, young white guy, laugh good-naturedly at this, tell us you’ve been doing this for a while. You have a notebook but you haven’t looked at it, and you seem remarkably calm. You tell me this is just a hobby, not something you’re invested in. You tell me you got addicted to the adrenaline rush, but you don’t feel it anymore. You want to be a journalist. Still, you put your name down on the list, to read for two minutes. Something bothered me about this, but I couldn’t put my finger on what. I’ve never heard anyone say that before, and it seems almost magical to me. You mean you don’t have to claw your way through a thorn-field of fear to get to the stage? You mean you don’t have chains around your mouth you need to unwind, link by clanking link, before you can speak?

I leave after the featured poets end, say goodbye to my friends, before the open mic begins.

At home I see poet Danez Smith post a link to a podcast, I click on it, listen in. I’m about to give up when I hear Paul Tran begin to speak. Here’s what he had to say, verbatim, from around the 22.5 minute mark.

…I think often times when I’ve seen people perform poems, there is an embodiment and vulnerability, a space that closes between the writer and the speaker of the poem. But I also feel like, some folks, for different ability reasons, or different relationships to audiences and being seen, like – I know folks who can’t go to poetry because if they were to write their stories and the people of their lives found them, they would die, right? And so, to never do an actual reading, actually keeps these poets alive. To write under a pseudonym keeps these poets alive, right.

And I think of war refugees who flee political conflicts, to see their face in a space, would endanger them, so they don’t actually have the opportunity for performance, right, and they have to find ways of expressing that same embodiment, that same vulnerability on the page, or on Tumblr, you know, wherever, that still protects them, right.

I’m including this in its entirety because a) I transcribe for a living and it’s ingrained habit and b) shortly after hearing this, I went to bed. Then I got up the next day, went about my business, and ended up spitting out a mangled version of it on Twitter. Which, let’s be real, is what Twitter was designed to do. I spat it out because you, young cocky white guy, were still under my skin. I think about how difficult it is for me to speak in public about my sexuality and my faith–recurring subjects of my poems, my prayers–how, even now, I still hear my mother’s words, ‘I’d break your legs if you turned out gay’ and my aunty, who went further and said she’d hang me. I can never unhear them.

And I still remember the day my older brother shouted ‘fuck you’ at my mum, how he turned and ran out the house, screen door banging behind him. How my mum turned to my older cousin and ordered him to bring him back. How my older cousin, with sad resignation, loped after my brother. How my brother came slouching back, shadowed by my cousin, a haunted look in his eyes. How my mother closed the space between them in a second, screaming, and beat at my brother. How he screamed, my aunty screamed, we all screamed, bodies colliding in the living room as if made of metal and magnetised to violence. I remember too, the sirens chasing the screams. The cop cars, the ambulance, the white neighbours watching from their fresh cut lawns, mouths agape.

Every act of violence, every bruise, every threat & scream echoes my present.

That was a long ass time ago, though, and it’s rare for those echoes to take on the fullness of the current. But even as faded memories, they still pack a punch, and I still don’t go out to gay bars & clubs, for fear of being seen. I still only perform my queerness in my writing, or online. Removed from my body, but still so important for it to stay functioning, these small recorded breaths. I realise I’ve gotten sidetracked, but listen, young guy, you’re not to blame for my pain or my shackles, my struggle to speak, or all the many times I refuse to get up. But you are occupying a limited space and limited time where so many who struggle to be seen and heard on a daily basis might have a chance to do so. And you’re telling me you don’t even care? That this is meaningless to you, or just a rush at best?

Meanwhile, what I said on Twitter is that, as a baseline, that’s messed up. You should give a shit about what you’re saying. Not that it needs to be an emotional rollercoaster, but that you need to at least care about what you’re delivering. And if you care, you’re going to be a bit nervous. Now I’m going to give way to Paul again, because, once more, he said it better:

I think what I am more interested in is these myths about the detached poet from their work, which creates the environment for these boring readings, or unemotional readings, as if sentimentalism is a bad thing or magic is a bad thing. So I think it’s both a training issue and a sensibility issue, where it’s like–one of my mentors, Laura Brown (*), always told me, it is a gift when you share your poem to strangers or even to people you love, and each time it’s a different gift. It’s a gift because you’re asking yourself to access that place where the poem is born, not the words, but like the magic of the poem is born, and to give that to someone who may not have wanted to hear your poem today, expected to hear your poem today, whatever, and so I think if, if that was in the tool kit for poets, if that was in the job description for poets, I would be so much more hyped for poetry. And like different kinds of poetry, but right now, it’s not the thing, so.

(*Not sure if I heard that name right)

To be clear, young man, I don’t care that you’re white or that this is a hobby for you. You could be the most privileged man on the planet, but so long as you cared about what you were going to share with me, I’d listen to it. Now I’m not going to tell y’all that only poets of colour, or broken poets with broken pasts like mine should be able to talk in these spaces, or that when you do speak, it needs to be meaningful and heavy–I’m saying when you speak at all, it is meaningful. It’s meaningful whether you want it to be or not because a room full of people are listening. And if you’re going to get up there just for the sake of being there and not give a shit about that, I’m going to walk away. And for the rest of you, if you deliver some wack words you care about, but which are racist, homophobic, or misogynistic, I’m going to walk too.

I am certain there are people who will disagree with me about aspects or perhaps all of this, and that’s cool too. I’m not telling y’all to read different things, I’m not telling organisers to change how they’re running these events, I’m just telling you what I value, and why it is, more often than not, you’re only going to see my back as I turn and leave.

Not So Wild

So, a few weeks ago I found out my poem ‘Not So Wild’ was awarded runner-up place in the prestigious Judith Wright Poetry Prize, as hosted by Overland Journal. I thought I’d mentioned it here already, but it turns out I haven’t. Happily, it’s just come online, so I can link you to it now.

From the judges’ report, Toby Fitch has this to say about it:

Easily the best narrative realist poem in the competition (a category that dominated the prize entries), Omar Sakr’sNot So Wild’ is a nostalgic narrative ‘crackling with storming boyhood’. When the narrator and his wilder childhood friend become ‘lost’, it conjures pictures of lichen-etched sandstone boulders, of gums and brambles clogging a slope, young boys flitting between dappled shadows, jumping from rock to rock. But the poem offers deeper observations still, and, in breathtaking fashion, on families and small-town/suburban relations.

My heartfelt thanks go to the judges, Toby Fitch and Peter Minter, for their consideration, and to the Malcolm Robertson Foundation for funding this initiative which so generously supports emerging poets.

You can read my poem here.

TP: Upon Reading That Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even The Calls of Certain Birds, by John Murillo

I know it’s not Thursday, but the wonderful thing about shortening ‘Thursday Poem’ to TP is that I can get away with posting this on Tuesday. Also, this is my blog. Also, time is meaningless and so are the days of the week. So let’s get straight into this week’s extraordinary poem, with its extra-long title, ‘Upon Reading That Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Bird‘ by John Murillo.

Take a few minutes now to check it out, because I don’t want to ruin it for you. Go on, I’ll wait. I read it myself a couple weeks ago and I’ve been reading it every other day since, not just because I love it, but because to read poetry of this quality is to dowse yourself in the sweet rushing of a spring river. Is to feel the accumulated muck of the day slough off, and god, how I’ve needed that recently.

It begins:

I think first of two sparrows I met when walking home,
late night years ago, in another city, not unlike this — the one

Hardly the most auspicious opening lines ever, but I love the tone of it, the way it sets up this casual, meandering reminiscence – an informality which does nothing to diminish the eloquence of the lines, and everything to elevate it.

If these past few months editing a poetry journal have taught me anything, it’s that people too often place emphasis on lone extravagant words and not enough on the feel, the voice, the rhythm of the thing. All of you need to read Murillo’s poem, study it, truly, to understand that anything woven seamlessly of the same cloth will always outshine and outlast a weave studded erratically with diamond words, as if in the hope their supposed value would somehow rub off on the rest of it.

It’s more than just rhythm and voice here, though Murillo has enough music in this poem to set a barroom to dancing, it’s the efficiency of the lines. Not a word wasted, the pacing impeccable, the sounds building & bouncing off one another–for a poem so melancholic, the effect is positively ecstatic. Or at least, it is in me.

So, we have a set up with sparrows, one bird attacking/alerting the narrator as its mate is trapped nearby in a car door:

They called to me — something between squawk and chirp,
something between song and prayer — to do something,

anything. And, like any good god, I disappeared. Not
indifferent, exactly. But with things to do. And, most likely,

on my way home from another heartbreak. Call it 1997,

Forgive me for only making broad notes, but if I linger over every single magnificent line, I’ll be here forever. I love the narrative flow of the piece, the easy collapse into another time, another scene; it unfolds as a natural thought would, with all the corrections and interjections and digressions that comes with that, and yet despite this, somehow isn’t irritating and isn’t confusing. It’s just that smoothly done.

his widow said he drowned one morning on a fishing trip.

Anyway, I’m digressing. But if you asked that night —
did I mention it was night? — why I didn’t even try

to jimmy the lock to spring the sparrow, I couldn’t say,

‘to jimmy the lock to spring the sparrow’ – pack it up and go home, folks, that’s fucking perfection right there. It straight up dances on the tongue. I bring up this passage not to highlight that line, but because the digressions so frequently mentioned aren’t in fact digressions. This poem endlessly folds in upon itself – some might argue too much, but it’s so well executed I can’t complain – calling back again and again to earlier moments, earlier phrases, sometimes in the same breath, and in so doing, recasting the scene in a different light, recasting the meaning of the line.

As we come to a “random” scene where two shirtless men, lovers or enemies or both, are fighting on the floor–the meaning fluctuating in situ–we learn their tangential relevance to the original moment.

I left/the men where I’d leave the sparrows and their song.
And as I walked away, I heard one of the men call to me,

please or help or brother or some such. And I didn’t break
stride, not one bit. It’s how I’ve learned to save myself.

From here, we drift still further back in time to the original trauma, the moment the poem was waiting for, where the narrator watches his father beat his mother in the street. And here, even without the direct reference to sparrows, you cannot help but think of the scene the poem started with, cannot help but think of trapped wings fluttering against a car door, the desperate futility of it, and his own refusal to help. Such is the power of that moment, it exists in every ripple it casts back in his timeline, or perhaps it’s the other way around.

I think his name was Sonny, runs out from his duplex
to pull my father off. You see where I’m going with this?
My mother crying out, fragile as a sparrow. Sonny
fighting my father, fragile as a sparrow.

There are two callbacks here I want to highlight. One is the obvious sparrow metaphor which I mentioned earlier, and the lovely repetition which, to my mind, removed any gendered reading of its first instance. We are all so fragile, it seems to say, just breakable bones. The second callback is to the line I quoted earlier ‘I didn’t break my stride, not one bit. It’s how I’ve learned to save myself.’

Sonny did the right thing, see. Sonny got beat for it, just like the narrator’s mother. One of the things I admire so much about this poem, as I’ve said before, is its efficacy – it doesn’t linger, preferring instead to echo as it goes. If this is a dance, it’s a fast-stepping one, short sharp words busting the meaning out. From bloodied wrangling in the street, the scene collapses again into an idyllic picnic:

And in this park was a pond, and in this pond were birds.
Not sparrows, but swans. And my father spread a blanket

and brought from a basket some apples and a paring knife.
Summertime. My mother wore sunglasses. And long sleeves.

Sunglasses and long sleeves. Remember when I said not a word was wasted in the poem? He’s not commenting on her fashion choices here, but the wounds she’s learned to cover. Read that goddamn line again. Eight words is all it took to brutally echo the domestic violence mentioned earlier, how the participants learn to live with it, and just one word ‘summertime’ is all that’s needed to disguise it, so that at first glance, you might just think he’s describing what she’s wearing simply to paint a picture.

but did you know the collective noun
for swans is a lamentation? And is a lamentation not

its own species of song? What a woman wails, punch drunk
in the street? Or what a widow might sing, learning her man

was drowned by swans? A lamentation of them? Imagine
the capsized boat, the panicked man, struck about the eyes,

nose, and mouth each time he comes up for air.

Remember when I said the digressions in this poem are not digressions? ‘His widow said he drowned one morning on a fishing trip.’ Moments presented as meaningless, or if not that, then irrelevant certainly, keep winding their way back into the poem, into the narrative, just as with life.

And so the poem folds back in on itself, again and again, the whole of it a lamentation, yes, but not for the widow, not for the dead man, not even for his mother and not for Sonny and not for Eric Dolphy, but for the city itself–for the place he left behind, and of course for himself. That he has learned not to break his stride to save himself, that he – no, we – do not let anything intrude on our path, no matter the desperation of it, no matter the pain, the screaming. And we shrug and convince ourselves it was for other reasons. We’re ‘not indifferent, exactly.’ We just have things to do.

Either trumpet swans or mutes. The dead man’s wife
running for help, crying to any who’d listen. A lamentation.
And a city busy saving itself.

Something else I want to talk about for a moment is metaphor. Too many poets think of and use metaphors the same way they do unusual words, like a clown determined to show how many different strips of coloured cloth he can pull out of his sleeve. It’s not about how many you use, or how unusual they are, but how right they are for the poem, and much meaning you can wring from them. Murillo shifted from sparrows to swans mid-poem, and he doubles down on that imagery and its associated meanings to exquisite, heartbreaking affect. In the hands of a lesser poet, it would be suffocating and stilted, but in the hands of a master, a river can be wrung from a single stone.

So we come to the last beautiful stanzas, packed again with callbacks, much like, you might even say, the liquid language of birds:

When I left my parents’ house, I never looked back. By which
I mean I made like a god and disappeared. As when I left

the sparrows. And the copulating swans. As when someday
I’ll leave this city. Its every flailing, its every animal song.

While I didn’t exactly sing the praises of the first line of the poem, allow me to do so now. You see how the ending recasts the beginning? He lives in another city already, which is not unlike the city he writes about here. The one he knows he’ll leave, and lament all the while.


Friends, I know it’s been a little while since I did a Thursday Poem post, and I’m sorry for that–there’ll be one coming up very soon, I assure you. Until that time, I just wanted to share a little interview I recently did with someone I knew in my university days. He has a series of interviews on his blog with a bunch of interesting people I urge you to check out. I certainly enjoyed answering his questions, talking about poetry, writing, and life.

You can check it out here.

Here’s a little snippet for the click-averse:

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

A friend of mine, Najwan Darwish—an incredible Palestinian poet and all-round wonderful man—was apologising for not responding to an email I’d sent, and I was trying to brush it aside. I said something like, “don’t worry about it, it was a minor query.”

Without missing a beat, he replied, “there’s nothing minor in life.” Words which resonated then and still do now. Every so often, I turn them over and find some new meaning there.


I Was Thinking Of Alan Rickman

One of my favourite actors, Alan Rickman, recently passed away.

This poem is a summary of the day I’ve spent trying to process this.

I Was Thinking Of Alan Rickman

when the clouds swept in, a fleet of blue bellies, a swelling
stain across the sky

when you bent over my body, heavy with need, words
lost in the shadow of rain

when grief circled my heart in frantic laps
like a mad dog

when i discovered my chest is the perfect amphitheater
for loss

when the sodden cotton sky eventually tore into
wounds of light and sun

when the cat curled into a black half-moon, his purr
a soft song of remembrance

when I lay in bed, pain pressing its thumbs
into the back of my head

when my work took a walk into the woods

when i realised every sorrow burrows beneath the skin
and echoes the others already living there

when the trees opened every palm to wave goodbye

when I realised poetry wasn’t enough

when you said: I can’t stop reading this in his voice
when you said: I can’t stop reading this in his voice
when you said: I can’t stop reading this in his voice


Thursday Poem: The Layers by Stanley Kunitz

How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?

Today’s poem is ‘The Layers’ by Stanley Kunitz and as you may have guessed from the above quote, it is about grief, about pain and coping with hardships.

It begins:

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.

Straight away, we have an intriguing opening. The metaphor of life as a road-cum-journey is so boring today that I could barely get myself to compose this sentence, but Kunitz makes it interesting with the simple use of plurality. Lives, not life, he says–imagine that first line again as ‘I have walked through life’ and it is dead on arrival. He doubles down on his plural and even widens the scope of its meaning by following it up with ‘some of them my own,’ which I love.

Of course, he’s saying that none of us walk alone, but in fact in a tangle – I would say it’s inescapable, walking through lives, but he doesn’t present it as such. It’s strong and active, as if by choice. I love this idea of multiple lives for one body, one person; it encompasses all the changes that occur to us, both physical and not. Change is the strong theme of the poem, the transformative power of our experiences–of loss. All grief is change, disguised. All change is a kind of grief.  Given how much we go through over a lifetime, how many selves we leave behind, how many deaths we die, it’s a rich and evocative conceit he sets out to explore: who wouldn’t love to take a walk through the lost snippets of our lives?

He goes on to say that despite no longer being who he was, ‘some principle of being/abides’, a kind of core self, and yet, though he posits it as such, he once again brings into play active choice: ‘from which I struggle/not to stray.’ Meaning that there is no unchanging undisputed self, and that though he recognises it as what remains despite all the change, he could stray from it if he so desired, he could be different. He chooses, and struggles in the choosing, to stay true to his perception of himself.

Let me tell you: if you’re struggling with grief or depression, this poem is an excellent read for you. It encourages you not just to put things into perspective, but to take an active role in perception itself–when it comes to depression, in particular, passively accepting the bleakness is enormously dangerous. Nothing is fixed, nothing is certain, and that is to our great advantage.

Having said all that, I have to say there are some lines in here that are a bit much for me, a bit too dramatic–but given what I’ve recently gone through, it happened to be just what I needed to read. This next line, in particular, has been ringing on repeat in my skull all week:

Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.

The emphasis here is mine. Having suffered losses as he goes, and struggling mightily with them, he turns, exulting in his ability to do so–in the constancy of change–he can go anywhere, and no matter how long or difficult the road, every stone on it is precious to him. I love that line so very much. It is one of those grand acts of poetry, loving the hurt. It doesn’t matter how much the stones have taken from you, doesn’t matter the toll, the way they might dig into the soles of your feet, each and every experience–in helping to form the ever emerging self–is precious.

That kind of grandiloquence will, as I mentioned earlier, be too much for some people. For me, I took it as a reminder to keep things in perspective, to be grateful for what I have, no matter what I perceive as lacking, and to try, always, to love–not simply people and not simply what’s easy, but also the pain, also the loss, also the grit and the dust and the stones.

A Hiatus

Dear friends,

I’m sitting at my desk, staring out over the houses, backyards and trees that creep their way toward the horizon, a domestic clutter pricked by a few solitary lights. The sun is a fading gradient of mango smeared across the blue, the hot humid stink of day finally giving way to a coolness. I love this view; it is perhaps the only thing I love about this house, the vantage it offers from its perch atop this hill. I am not playing any music, nor reading anything, and until a few moments ago, I wasn’t writing anything either. I just sat here enjoying the breeze, the diminishing gold light, my own plunging temperature, the silence finally allowing me to think.

Ah, I should stop stalling and just state the obvious: I’ve neglected this blog these past few weeks, and for that I apologise. My life has ruptured in this brief span of time, in too many ways to stop the gushing–worse, it did so in a horrifyingly public way. A way I could not hide or spin, for many reasons, not least of which is that I simply had no capacity to do so. As a writer, I’m used to controlling the narrative, see. Not being able to do so in a satisfactory manner made me realise how insecure we writers are, where the need to tell stories (at least in part) really stems from. It is an ugly place, and I am only just now emerging from it, battered and bandaged and leaking, but still here.

This–my recovery from the upending–is the main reason I have stopped updating the blog regularly. Aside from that, however, it’s also true that I am becoming increasingly critical, increasingly harder to please and so finding poems I love unreservedly is rarer and rarer every day. I can’t let that deter me, however, I think I’ll just to have to be brave enough to share work that I enjoy despite the flaws, as well as those in which I can find none. All of which is to say, quite simply, that I haven’t forgotten this tiny little corner of the internet, or you, the regular readers, and I hope you’ll stick around for the next post.

With love,

Thursday Poems: Brown’s Odd Jobs & Carver’s Happiness

I’ve spent the last little while reading two poems over and over again, and ultimately, I couldn’t decide which to share–or rather, which I had the most to say about, so I’m going to talk about both of them. Let’s begin with Raymond Carver’s poem Happiness, in full:

So early it’s still almost dark out.
I’m near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.
When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.
They have on caps and sweaters,
and the one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren’t saying anything, these boys.
I think if they could, they would take
each other’s arm.
It’s early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.
They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs palely over the water.
Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love
doesn’t enter into this.
Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.


It’s such a simple, lovely poem. Just two kids out delivering the paper, and in that moment–not thinking about anything beyond it, purely ensconced in the endless present of childhood–they are as happy as they’ll ever be, even if they don’t know it. It is the deep nostalgia of the narrator, of the man by his window, that makes this poem so deeply affecting. I’m typically against the overt naming of an emotion in poetry, I don’t want to be told so cheaply what is being felt, I want only to feel it, but Carver does it twice in this poem and I don’t care. For this poem, I could forgive just about anything–though I’ll admit I’d love to remove ‘palely’ from its line. It’s the one ugly mark on an otherwise gorgeous work, one which, as he says, goes beyond any talk about it really. It’s all there in the moment, the scene, the poem.

Now to Jericho Brown’s brilliant poem, Odd Jobs, which given its brevity, and how much I want to quote all of it, I’ll just put here too:

I spent what light Saturday sent sweating
And learned to cuss cutting grass for women
Kind enough to say they couldn’t tell the damned
Difference between their mowed lawns
And their vacuumed carpets just before
Handing over a five-dollar bill rolled tighter
Than a joint and asking me in to change
A few light bulbs. I called those women old
Because they wouldn’t move out of a chair
Without my help or walk without a hand
At the base of their backs. I called them
Old, and they must have been; they’re all dead
Now, dead and in the earth I once tended.
The loneliest people have the earth to love
And not one friend their own age—only
Mothers to baby them and big sisters to boss
Them around, women they want to please
And pray for the chance to say please to.
I don’t do that kind of work anymore. My job
Is to look at the childhood I hated and say
I once had something to do with my hands.


I love that first line so fucking much, y’all. Why? Because fuck commas, that’s why, it does all the work it needs to do just by placement alone. The muscular economy of it, the way it resists you on first reading, is so damn good. You should study that opening line and look again at your own to see whether you accomplish even half so much with just seven words. The second line is equally good, and the rhythm is so damn tight, especially running off the alliteration-heavy ending of the first line, ‘cuss cutting grass’ is just ace. After that, Brown moves briskly to the heart of it: ‘the loneliest people have the earth to love/ and not one friend their own age.’

But here’s the thing, even with those excellent three lines I just mentioned, this might just have been an okay poem if not for the ending. I’ve said before and I’ll say it again: poems are grenades and by the time they end, there ought to be an explosion. You ought to feel the blast. That doesn’t mean it has to be dramatic or violent, far from it–in fact, I’d say most often it involves an unexpected turn inward, which bursts open the poem and in so doing, sets off a similar impact within us. Brown absolutely nails it, again with breathtaking economy, undoing the earlier bitterness he evoked with his ugly sweating hard work, by adding a quiet touch of longing: I once had something to do with my hands.

In this, actually, there is a commonality between the two poems. Both Brown and Carver look to their childhoods, and both are talking about odd jobs, albeit one from a distance, with the other in the present before shifting forward. Both, I think, are also getting at the same point: our inability to enjoy our present circumstances. We bitch and we moan and we’re hateful and we’re struggling, as if there’s ever going to be a point where we’re not struggling–which simply isn’t true. The nature of the struggle simple changes, it adapts as you adapt, so it may be money now but if it ain’t that later, it’ll be something else. And something else. Until you might wind up one day thinking about something you used to hate, and say damn, I once had something to do with my hands. Then realise hell, happiness, it comes on unexpectedly.