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American Life in Poetry: ‘Strict Diet’

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

James Crews, who lives in Vermont, was for two years our assistant at American Life in Poetry. A fine poet in his own right, he has just published a new book, “Telling My Father,” the winner of the 2017 Cowles Poetry Prize from Southeast Missouri State University Press.

Strict Diet

Though the doctors said no salt,

salt was all my father craved.

His body bloated, skin water-logged

and gray, still he wanted potato chips,

honey-baked ham, greasy slabs

of Polish sausage from Piekutowski’s.

He begged for pepperoni pizza,

garlic butter, ribs slathered in sauce.

But when I did the shopping,

I searched only for labels that said

low sodium and no preservatives, instead

bringing home heads of broccoli,

turkey burgers, shredded wheat.

And when he died anyway,

guilt gnawed me like an ulcer—

how could I have denied him

his few final pleasures?—

until I found Big Mac wrappers

stuffed under the car seat,

jars of pickles in the hall closet,

and hidden among wads of tissues

near the night stand, his stash—

a half-used canister of salt.

I sat down on his sagging mattress

now stripped of stained sheets

and studied that blue label

with the girl in the yellow dress

holding her umbrella against a rain

of salt still falling from the sky.

Poem copyright 2017 by James Crews, “Strict Diet,” from “Telling My Father” (Southeast Missouri State Univ. Press, 2017). Poem reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher. American Life in Poetry is made possible by the Poetry Foundation and Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We do not accept unsolicited submissions.

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