Word Poetry

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Sample Poems by Richard Hague


The Price

You can’t get a thing anymore that don’t cost you outlandish.
—woman overheard on the street, Madisonville

For the morning,
it costs you all night,
bad dreams maybe,
kid crying in his fever,
smash of car wrecks on the street,
gunshots down the block,
reruns on TV,
heartburn like a hot wire in the ribs,
when it used to cost you
nothing but sleep.

For supper,
it costs you a day and overtime,
two quarts of sweat,
madness of parking lots,
crash of cash register,
bitter tin taste of dimes on your hands,
moanings in line,
when it used to cost you
nothing but a garden.

For the place to live,
it costs you thirty years
of interest,
or a month and half’s pay each month,
seven city bureaus,
rats and termites,
landlords with suntans and Jaguars,
leaks in the roof,
sudden waters in the basement,
when it used to cost you
nothing but wood, and nails, and work.

For peace,
it costs you taxes,
calling the cops,
voting for weirdos and crazies,
talking thirteen languages,
reading thirty papers,
maintaining surveillance,
knowing when some sorry bastard lies,
cell phones and stamps for the CIA,
telling the generals No,
when it used to cost you
nothing but getting to know your neighbor.

For happiness,
it costs more than you’ll ever have—
good health continually,
faith, beautiful children,
a government that makes sense,
all your wages,
prayers answered,
enough wood and nails for a house,
enough yard for a garden,
enough sleep at night.


The Lapsed African Enters New York Society

How soft and deep
this talking to you
among cocktails and
possible contracts:
your violet dilation smile,
your green Congo
of voices.

But your Bergdorf-Goodman hat.
Your expensive
springbok musk,
your copper and cowrie mask.

High over Manhattan,
your groomed long entrance
into the wrong place,
the wrong time,
and your cape,
a season of vanishing egrets.


In the Black Parishes

After wind and flood, the President
visits the black parishes, dead snakes and
trashed waters swirling the foul underfoot.

He is sensitive to the needs of the poor.
His advisors assure him victims will be better off,
accustomed as they already are

to hunger and desperation.
At the same time the president
spends the national treasure

on war. He comforts the mother
of three drowned 9th Ward children
even as his soldier

launches a missile into the house of three children
In Baghdad, even as his soldier
tortures the father of three children

In Abu Ghraib, even as his soldier
holds in Guantanamo without charges
several fathers of three children.

How can the sky remain standing—
surely it will fall to its knees
and crush us with its light.

Why is it that the rivers
are not running backwards
during this administration?

Why is it that our sister cities
are not unmaking themselves,
casting their citizens silently out,

bursting into flames of sympathy?
How is it that the Halliburton dollars
do not give off poisonous spores

in our wallets? Can it be that horns of fire
do not break out from the President’s forehead
every time he speaks?


What She Has to Do

after excusing to the lunch room a student who said,
“I have to do pretzels.”

I knew what she meant:
the rented oven, metal change box,
income for school projects.
But for a moment,
something else spoke in her words:

I imagined a twist in her life,
some terrible bending or turning,
some posturing obscure and painful:
the acrobatics of sorrow. Today,
she has to do pretzels.

And what of tomorrow,
that blank map on the blank wall?
Would she have to do mandrakes,
sharks, a dozen vanishing species?

Pity this girl
the tortures of her life,
her groaning becoming of things.
How would she return to us whole
from her duty to do mountains,
caves, explosions, the bellies
of whales and pythons?

How would she remember herself,
having done the mothers of gods,
the victims of fire,
the wives of famous generals?
Or should we, I thought,
pity ourselves,
who might, in noon’s common light,
learn nothing
of her pain and adventure
when she returned,
hands blood-salty and warm,
to our class?

Would we see the remnants
of sea-changes upon her:

the snake’s scale on her wrist,
the holy glow of the dead in her eyes,
the bloods of birth or destruction on her cheeks,
the hounds of some momentary heaven
stretched, still sleeping, at her feet?