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American Life in Poetry: ‘Doing the Bills’

Kwame Dawes

By Kwame Dawes

The humble meal of bread, sugar and milk is an iconic expression of the seemingly “unpoetic” quotidian rituals of life – paying bills, worrying about the bills, surviving the bills. In the poem, “Doing the Bills”, Lee Upton is reminded of her father, even as she, with a partner, does the bills. She captures such deep sentiment in the image of the head being held in the hands. The moment of beauty arrives in the meal that she describes. It is a spot of sweetness in a world of everyday hardship.

Doing the Bills

My father impaling bills

on a nail on a block of wood

then putting his head in his hands

and you with your head in your hands

and my head in my hands

hands over my eyes

and I see again what I forgot for decades

my father

after doing the bills

crumbling bread in a bowl

and pouring milk over the bread

and spooning in sugar.

Poem copyright 2021 by Lee Upton, “Doing the Bills” from the Southern Review, Vol. 37:3, Summer 2021. 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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