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American Life in Poetry: ‘Lip’

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

Karla Huston, Wisconsin’s poet laureate in 2017 and 2018, lives in Appleton. She’s published several books and chapbooks and does the good work of reviewing poetry for various journals.

“Lip,” this lively portrait of her father, is previously unpublished, and our column was lucky to get first dibs on it.


When my father tuned his sousaphone,

he fiddled with tubes and oil

like when he restored the Model T, his hands

working the pipes and joints. And all around him, it’s polka polka, big oom-pas, little dancing girls

on the tips of the valves while he worked his embouchure

into the proper purse of lips. Somewhere

bar lights glinted off the big bell, the name “Bob”

engraved inside the swale, hill and valley

little dancehall at the end of a corn maze,

small towns in Wisconsin, a fireman’s dance

in a cavernous hall, a wedding gig or two.

He said nothing while he adjusted the weight

on knees already bruised and aching. When

cancer took a wedge out of his lip,

he had to give them up–The Beer Barrel,

the She’s-Too-Fat, the Blue-Eyes-Cryin’-in-the-Rain

Polka, the Liechtensteiner, a schottische or two.

The music lived in his head, the tip of his tongue,

the records stacked and dusty on the floor.

Poem copyright 2020 by Karla Huston, “Lip.” Poem reprinted by permission of Karla Huston. 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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