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American Life in Poetry: ‘My Cousin, Milton’

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

In one of my recent columns, I wrote about the importance to the overall effect of a poem of having a strong ending, and here’s a fine example of that. It’s by Terri Kirby Erickson, a North Carolinian, from her book, “Becoming the Blue Heron,” published by Press 53. Others of Erickson’s poems are available in the column’s archives at

My Cousin, Milton

My cousin, Milton, worked for a cable company.

The boy I knew when we were children

had fists that were often clenched, his face set like

an old man whose life had been so hard,

it hardened him. But the man’s hands opened to let

more of the world in. He sent the funniest

cards to family and friends at Christmas, laid down

cable so others could connect. Yet, he lived

alone, kept to himself much of the time, so when

his sister found his body, he’d been gone

a good while. He died young at fifty-seven, without

fuss or bother. No sitting by the bedside

or feeding him soup. He just laid himself down like

a trunk line and let the signal pass through.

Poem copyright 2017 by Terri Kirby Erickson from “Becoming the Blue Heron,” (Press 53, 2017). Poem reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher. American Life in Poetry is made possible by the Poetry Foundation and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We do not accept unsolicited submissions.

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