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American Life in Poetry: ‘A Small Story’ Peter Everwine

By Ted Kooser U.S. poet laureate, 2004-06

The workings of memory are something that every writer thinks a lot about, and in this poem Peter Everwine, a California poet we’ve featured before, looks very closely into those workings. His most recent book is “Listening Long and Late,” from the University of Pittsburgh Press. This poem is from” Five Points, a distinguished quarterly journal.

A Small Story

When Mrs. McCausland comes to mind

she slips through a small gap in oblivion

and walks down her front steps, in her hand

a small red velvet pillow she tucks

under the head of Old Jim Schreiber,

who is lying dead-drunk against the curb

of busy Market Street. Then she turns,

labors up the steps and is gone …

A small story. Or rather, the memory

of a story I heard as a boy. The witnesses

are not to be found, the steps lead nowhere,

the pillow has collapsed into a thread of dust …

Do the dead come back only to remind us

they, too, were once among the living,

and that the story we make of our lives

is a mystery of luminous, but uncertain moments,

a shuffle of images we carry toward sleep –

Mrs. McCausland with her velvet pillow,

Old Jim at peace – a story, like a small

clearing in the woods at night, seen

from the windows of a passing train.

Poem copyright 2015 by Peter Everwine, from Five Points (Vol. 17, no. 1, 2015) and reprinted by permission of the author and publisher. Introduction copyright 2016 by The Poetry Foundation. American Life in Poetry is supported by the Poetry Foundation and the English department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We do not accept unsolicited submissions.

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