Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Begin (Root Song)

The dirt is good enough     a kiss       a hair

of earth, flecked with minerals        whose thoughts bite

with what’s almost light         hissing where each

chemical edge unlocks another door to

the long stairways to the dead          where you’ve had

your ear pressed so long waiting for a word

When You Think About It

Most of marriage is managing comfort and discomfort in such a way you can live with a person who steals half of everything you buy. You have agreed to steal half back of whatever he or she buys of course. You make each other cry occasionally, and if that’s all you’ve got, you’ve got a problem. Most of crying is embarrassment, as most of the river is other people’s dirt. Most of work is waiting. Almost nothing sold can stay. Staying around is after all mostly not having anywhere else to go. There are two minutes of terrible pain before loading or emptying the dishwasher or the washing machine, and then the rest is mostly reassembling an old kitchen you remember. Before the in-laws for the children for the strangers throwing rice into your freshly cut hair.

The God Abandons Donald Trump : a dream

Say goodbye to her, the America you thought you could take
as, suddenly, all that silence you bought long ago begins to leak.
You were never worthy, only wealthy. It’s an easy mistake,
in America, to assume all a god needs to do is to speak
and make his enemies disappear. Your own sons
hunted leopards without fear, casting off their bodies.
Your daughters fit themselves to your small hands.
Around you men calculated disasters into profits, bought
judges like baklava, turned the poor into things to bear your name.
Your gardeners’ bushhogs went silent as you stepped out
of your enormous black limousines onto your enormous lawns,
or into your enormous gardens full of things you couldn’t smell.
Now the smoke of sharpening scythes clings to your ties;
the voices of the women you thought you’d smothered in gold
are rematerializing. There never was a god after all.
Watch the processions of smiling politicians sneaking away,
their hands in their pockets at last, their tails tucked under,
their horns under their hats. Let them go. Don’t whine.
They move in a world of such belief it makes them mean.
So what if your sponsors are already forgetting your name,
if it’s all you ever had? Say goodbye to it. Like a cloud.

after Cavafy’s The God Abandons Antony

Lines for the Left Hand

Doing what, the right hand 

doesn’t always seem to know.

Having given up the work

of subtle textures, the snug

handshake, the little ways 

dominance betrays its teeth. 

Why do we put a ring on it? 

For its commitment? Its ability

to stay quiet, to maintain balance? 

Its occasional silliness? 

It remembers the name before 

your name; every so often

you need to see again what a wreck

it was before the right took over. 

It watches the margins for crumbs. 

It loves the universe you made 

on the napkin unconsciously 

dabbing the water or the too thick

colors from your delicate brush 

while you were trying to get right

some flowers, a thistle, 

what a beautiful wreck. 


I ate the coffee cake because I wanted 
to eat a sunflower. I drank the coffee

because I wanted to be a sunflower.

I chose my loose clothes, I chose these dark shoes

so I might keep my sunflower secret

from the small birds who steal things for a living. 

I choose my word carefully, tilt my face

into the solar locutions, make of myself

a field of rustling so rich a man might

never tire of saying sunflower, sunflower. 


Of the two pods left after the rain–

one empty, one still packed with feathers–

I cannot choose between. I take them both.

The one’s stalled seed silks are so delicate

I can’t feel anything when I touch them,

a series of desires, phantoms, angels,

beginning to yellow. All the dry rattle of September

lost, twisted free or matted now, 

it had its chance. It still has its chances,

I have trained myself to say over the years,

the stem stripped of everything green and beaten down. 

The open pod might after all be laughing, surprised.


Once, what I didn’t want I didn’t see. 

I might have killed myself for history.

Now there’s hardly anything I don’t want

and want can mean any touch at all,

any shift of the light toward my shadow-

making self, any little a lot of such

beauty, and all suffering, temporary.

To touch any part of the dance, until 

that wince and crack of the sudden handshake

out wandering with my quiet dog between dark 

and constellations opening overhead. 

October Letter

What’s it like to have no more

things now           no anxiety to dust

no furniture to rearrange a mood 

no doors to worry         no carpets to make

straight       vacuum again     no sleepless window

to look at the dark through        no remote

to find        no glasses        no more tv

or jigsaw puzzles or sudoku or chocolate muffins
where is memory then and how       now

we who watched you carried out and signed 

the contract to turn you into grit        we who sold

the place and killed the cat      who boxed up

what we wanted to keep         where are we among   

no bright leaves to kick        no empty thistles pick 

Eating Roots

If there is a darkness. If there has already been

a mouth, many mouths, depths reached down into.

Among the small exploratory hairs in the darkness.

Among the quiet whispering of desires sliding against one another

in the earth. In the darkness. Something pulled free.

Something good. 

Something unafraid of not being a flower. 

Other. Sweetened by roasting, by fire.

(October 1, 2016)

Against Despair: notes

Today it’s a new documentary show that promises to prove who killed JonBenet Ramsey. After which the police will find out and presumably arrest the perpetrator. After the show. After someone’s made enough money. 
(And I think about the young woman in one class who has said she wants to work on a piece about an assault she wants to write about, can’t keep from writing about, her great bravery in the face of her fear.)
Oil and gas pipelines bursting and poisoning rivers, watersheds, ecosystems. But the water protectors in ND are persecuted for protesting one that will spill and poison their water. For seeing things in stretches of hundreds of years instead of a few years of corporate profits. Dogs are set upon them. They have to argue in court for the right not to be poisoned on their own lands. 
(Remember: Creativity also leaks, from everyday people, from my writing students. They read poems that urge them to open up the hidden, the curious in them. They move toward their own complicated humanities in quiet and musical ways throughout the city even now. Resistance to despair also leaks, mysteriously sometimes, from most people.)

Flint residents still have water with lead in it. Many other places in the same situation. 

(Some city planners are rising to the challenge, even though the Republican controlled Congress refuses to take any action at all. Action to fix the infrastructure is rising from the small acts of the local. We can help by showing up, by joining them.)

Millions following a political candidate who has shown no ability to lead or even think, only shout and threaten. Who has told his virulently homophobic and xenophobic vice presidential candidate he will give enormous power to make domestic and foreign policy decisions. Millions following these candidates. Millions. 

(Think of the women staffers in the White House who figured out how to make themselves and their ideas heard: they repeated good ideas and credited the source of those ideas over and over until their male counterparts heard them. Over and over we have to repeat the good and give credit where credit is due. We have to amplify the good work being done, send it money where we can, not give up on things we love. Remember what you love. Name it. Make a list. Keep it close. Raise your voice. Pick up your brush or pen.)

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