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American Life in Poetry: ‘The Girl from Panama’ by Clemens Starck

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

Clemens Starck of Oregon has 50 years’ experience working with his hands, as a merchant seaman and then a carpenter, and he knows work and working people. Here’s a typical poem, from his collected poetry, “Cathedrals & Parking Lots,” from Empty Bowl Press.

The Girl from Panama

I’m talking with Mike over coffee.

His wife recently left him. He’s lonely.

We’re both carpenters, a couple of old guys in baseball caps

plying the trade.

We can frame a wall and hang a door, we can

read a set of blueprints.

But when it comes to women …

I’m thinking about my mother, who is 91

and very frail. I’m thinking

about my wife, my daughters, my granddaughter,

my sister, old girlfriends, my ex-wife,

and the girl from Panama

in the reading room of the New Orleans public library

forty-five years ago

who slipped a note to me across the table, asking:

“Are you a philosophy?”

Rain splatters against the storefront

of the coffee shop. Mike and I are silent

for a long time

before going back to work.

Poem copyright 2019 by Clemens Starck, from “Cathedrals & Parking Lots: Collected Poems,” (Empty Bowl Press, 2019), and reprinted by permission of the author and publisher. 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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