Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

D.W. Fenza: The Uses of Poetry

“The cheer of writing that cures no physical hurt.”

                        —Robert Lowell, a note in his journal

                                     for February 19, 1973


Mount Carmel was a small 

Pennsylvania mining town. 

A plane crashed near

the Midvalley Breaker,

& 43 people died.

Through brambles & woods,

all the boys hiked there

to see the wreckage.

But that was years ago.

The mines & breakers

still crushed, maimed, 

or killed a few men

from time to time, but

that was just the usual

workaday life. The more

days & trains the valley filled

with heaps of coal, the more

remote the town seemed—far

from history’s upheavals.

The news was elsewhere.


1958—Sputnik orbited 

the earth; Britain, France,

& Israel fought Egypt

for the Suez Canal—far

from Mount Carmel where

miners dug & criss-crossed

nether plateaus of coal, where 

Frank & Stella tended their bar, 

where their daughter Esther fell asleep

in a meadow with her back

to a stout tree, where a boy played 

with a toy horse beside her.


My mother scolded Esther for 

nodding off when Aunt Esther

should have looked after me.

Sleeping is not watching

my mother said. Hardly 

newsworthy, Esther’s nap

was one of my earliest

childhood memories. 


In 1958, Frank & Stella

turned their backs on God

& then on Mount Carmel. 

Their sleepy twelve-year-old daughter

died of leukemia that year.


The sorrow far apart from 

history & the news. The anger 

of writing that prevents no

official lie. The sighs between words 

that move no cloud to douse 

houses & trees of embers & flames. The hurt 

of writing that puts no leash on a nation’s 

pet hatreds. The sleeplessness of writing 

with impossible revisions. The inverses

& coincidences of writing that show

faces lit by TVs—too often watching is

a kind of sleeping. The Venus of writing with 

her missing arms. The prayers of writing 

that summon no reply.


Frank & Stella stopped going to church.

They sold their tavern, left Mount Carmel,

& moved to a small farm in Aston.


Stella, my grandmother, poured herself 

three fingers of whiskey—

“my medicine” she called it—

& drank as she stood by the kitchen window.

She could see her grandchildren playing 

on the lawn between the house & barn.


Frank shoveled, hoed, & raked a circle 

of soft earth in that lawn. He planted 

cannas within a border of Esther’s favorite—

zinnias. In summer, orange & magenta 

zinnias surrounded the red blossoms 

of the cannas. The flowerbed

attracted monarch butterflies, tiger 

swallowtails, green humming birds, 

& children running round

& round in games of tag. 


Upheavals unspoken by reporters.

Workaday people, displaced by leaders

& ignored by history. The long spells of novels 

with nuances, threads, semblances, & echoes 

that cannot be blown into the confetti & 

staccato of social media. The gratuitous

tropes of poetry that restore what history

& the news lack. The small sooty foyer

of a miner’s home. A stanza that places

a dying girl beside a tree. The shock 

of writing that divides you from

who you were. The puzzles of writing 

that connects you to those who use 

the same words: loss, grief, love.


The shovel that tills the earth.

A circle of zinnias & cannas.

Copyright 2020 D.W. Fenza

D.W. Fenza is the author of a book-length poem, The Interlude. He wrote “The Uses of Poetry” for the anthology There is No News. On 18 April, 1930, at 8.45pm, the BBC announced: “There is no news.” Piano music played for the rest of the 15-minute bulletin. To mark the 90th anniversary of that extraordinary utterance, Recent Work Press invited 90 poets from around the world to make a response to the theme There Is No News. The book will be published this April.

David W. Fenza

2 comments on “D.W. Fenza: The Uses of Poetry

  1. Frank Bidart
    April 19, 2020

    Genuine, real, moving poem. Thank you, David.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. loranneke
    April 19, 2020

    Thank you for that poem, David — and for posting it, Mike. So exactly right in its tone and withholding, emotion and attentive imagery. Wow.

    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on April 19, 2020 by in Environmentalism, Opinion Leaders, Poetry and tagged , , , , .

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