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American Life in Poetry: ‘Old Country Portraits’

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

There are so many fine poems in Richard Robbins’ new and selected poems, “Body Turn to Rain,” published by LynxHouse Press, that I had a difficult time choosing one to show you. This one, though, with its tablecloth trick, is one of my favorites. Robbins lives in Mankato, Minnesota, and teaches at Minnesota State.

Old Country Portraits

My lost sister used to try the trick

with the tablecloth, waiting until

the wine had been poured, the gravy boat filled,

before snapping the linen her way

smug as a matador, staring down

silver and crystal that would dare move,

paying no mind to the ancestor gloom

gliding across the wallpaper like clouds

of a disapproving front—no hutch

or bureau spared, no lost sister sure

the trick would work this time, all those she loved

in another room, nibbling saltines,

or in the kitchen, plating the last

of the roast beef. How amazed they would be

to be called to the mahogany room

for supper, to find something missing,

something beautiful, finally, they could

never explain, the wine twittering

in its half-globes, candles aflutter, each

thing in its place, or so it seemed then,

even though their lives had changed for good.

Poem copyright 2017 by Richard Robbins, “Old Country Portraits,” from “Body Turn to Rain,” (LynxHouse Press, 2017). Poem reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher. American Life in Poetry is made possible by the Poetry Foundation and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We do not accept unsolicited submissions.

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