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Laura McCullough

Laura McCullough

Laura McCullough's most recent books are Rigger Death and Hoist Another, Shutters : Voices : Wind, Ripple & Snap and The Smashing House (ELJ Publications, 2013), and her edited anthology, The Room and the World: Essays on the Poetry of Stephen Dunn (Syracuse University Press, 2013). Her other books are Panic (winner of the Kinereth Gensler Award, Alice James Books), Speech Acts and What Men Want. Her second edited anthology, A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race is forthcoming from University of Georgia Press.

Toward Goodness Between Us

Kurt’s poem, “Secrets,” appeared first in No Other Paradise, a collection of poems that exfoliates the external cityscapes of Kurt’s life, as well as the internal one built over a lifetime of generous porosity, a word used in science—an area of Kurt’s attention and interest—but this geological idea—permeability, the way substances pass in and out of matter, seems particularly apt when considering Kurt’s poems, this collection, and this poem in particular. But the word that preceded “porosity,” with its intellectual tint, “generous,” has another trueness: anyone who knew Kurt would call him a generous soul, a good friend, a kind man. And his secrets and the way he wrote of them were different than his good friend the poet Stephen Dunn’s.

Dunn’s poem, “A Secret Life,” closes:

      Even when you speak to your best friend,
      the one who'll never betray you,
      you always leave out one thing;
      a secret life is that important.

In Kurt’s poem, also in No Other Paradise, “Address to My Mother,” he begins by asking, “All those secrets what can they matter now,” and his handling of what might be secrets is more about revelation, understanding through sympathy and empathy, then with Dunn’s protectionist individualism, something Kurt admired, but did not covet. He was a connector, a collaborator; his efforts in poetry and in life were about what happens across the borders that separate us: the mind, body, locales, class, space, time, and how we overcome those distances.

In “Secrets,” a dead animal is seen by a teacher, a business man, the poet’s mother, the mayor, a waitress—a variety of others—and Kurt’s speaker is inside them empathically to perceive death as those characters do. And the poet’s mother lifts her skirt. This echoes Dunn’s mother unbuttoning her blouse in “The Routine Things Around the House,” but rather than a private moment between son and mother, in Kurt’s poem, the mother is less the actor, and it is the son, the poet, whose emotional intelligence and tendency to see metaphor in the everyday, who understands he is not being given something, but sees the future with its beautiful fearsome limits and mortality. It is this early recognition of darkness, perhaps, that lets Kurt apprehend so much beauty in the often dark cityscapes of one’s own life, inside one’s mind, inside those we love, inside the people who populate the cities we walk in, indeed, in the cities themselves.

What other paradise than this? Kurt seems to ask us in all sincerity in this poem and this entire collection, perhaps his oeuvre. The millworkers with their fabulous and admirable skills with “hands bleached with chemicals,” as well as “the scholar the fireman the ex-con.” Kurt tells us “we all know what’s going to happen,” which is true, he tells us, an “ordinary knowledge.” But he also tells us in the close of the poem that “someday the body will lie open to the world / all its secrets revealed,” and now this is rather true about Kurt himself, but it is the poems, the books, the anthologies that reveal the porous generosity of this poet, not our memories, which are private and mutable and fade if we are not careful, so the work itself, the work of Kurt’s close observation of the world within and without is how we can continue to know him, hear his voice inside us, feel the tenderness of his forgiving nature.

Perhaps forgiveness is the paradise he leads us to in these poems? In “Address to My Mother,” of those secrets that no longer matter, he asks, “what is the body but a narrow path / a night transit between one world and the next”? The answer is slender and unanswerable, not the grave, not the earth, not even mothers one surmises, but I might aver the poet, the one who spent a life trying to see things as clearly and compassionately as he could. His work left to us now is a joy in its process over his lifetime. A record—geological, if you will—of what passed through this emotionally brilliant man, how it was transmuted, how it can, if we let it, transmute us, as well.


A dead deer by the side of the road
one leg cocked up     stiff as a broom handle

as though it died in mid-leap
halfway between this world and the next

the teacher sees it     worrying about history
and its grim progression

the businessman sees it     head full of annual reports
and the jagged lines of an EKG

my mother always said she had good legs
it was the one thing she was proud of

and I remember the hours I spent     bored
waiting for her in the car

the miles we drove without speaking

now the mayor passes     and it seems to him
like an arm raised in a final vote

the waitress sees it and feels a coldness in herself
certain that her life will be wasted

once my mother lifted her skirt to show us
a blue vein already threading its way to the surface

the heart's dark tributary     emerging

the mill workers see it     hands bleached with chemicals
heads humming like precise machines

the scholar     the fireman     the ex con

we all know what's going to happen     its so plain
and yet we rush past  

though I hate a moral     even if it's naked in a ditch

later     the minister sees it and thinks of his sermon
how Jesus might have been a deer

how the last light is beautiful     but somehow obscene
crawling down the length of that leg

a cockeyed rebuke to us all     hurrying home
in the gathering dusk

which isn't a symbol of death     or time
but the ordinary knowledge

that someday the body will be open to the world
all its secrets revealed


Charles Simic

Charles Simic


Thomas Lux

Thomas Lux
At the Blue Gates


Stephen Dunn

Stephen Dunn
On Kurt Brown...