A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
“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.
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
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.