Ursula Le Guin’s Challenge to Writers

Ursula K. Le Guin passed away January 22, 2018. She was one of my favorite authors, writing science fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy and poetry.

I devoured the Earthsea series. I admired her incredible story of gender-shifting people in The Left Hand of Darkness.

I’ve read The Lathe of Heaven half a dozen times at least. In that novel, a man has “effective dreams” that change reality retroactively. It’s a story about the limits of meddling with the world, built on the ideas of Taoism.

“I think hard times are coming,” she predicted, “when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now.”

Those times are here.


A Community Chorus

Snowy Pine

Each of the men
wore a white shirt
with a silver tie
and a black sport jacket.

Fresh wet snow mounded
the evergreens and stair-
railings outside the hall. 
Walking single file into

the auditorium, the chorus
—thirty novice volunteers,
assembled themselves 
on a three-tiered riser.

With almost flawless harmony
the singers began by wondering
whether old acquaintance
be forgot and never brought

to mind. A soloist
came forward from
the front row, and
—well, he had trouble

staying on the intended
pitch path. But
how could we be harsh
when he so cheerfully

suggested we drink
a cup of kindness?
When he stepped back
the group-voice

returned to smooth out
individual flaws.
Thus, for an hour or so
in the bleak midwinter

of snow on snow,
snow on snow,
the whole
outshone its parts.

Copyright 2016 by Brian Dean Powers

Can You Say It in Just Two Lines?

Blake Manuscript
When I first started writing poetry seriously, it took years to learn how to make longer poems with fully developed ideas. Lately I’ve been interested in the opposite challenge: how much can a poet pack into a couplet?

Here are some examples, some of which you will probably recognize. I’m also posting one of my own.

Richard Wilbur included this work in his collection, Mayflies. Although the poem was published in the 21st century, it’s written in rhyming iambic pentameter.

     A Short History

     Corn planted us; tamed cattle made us tame.
     Thence hut and citadel and kingdom came.

This example by Mark Doty is from his book, School of the Arts.

     Shahid’s Couplet

     Your old kitchen, dear, on Bleeker: sugar, dates, black tea.
     Your house, then ours. Anyone’s now. Memory’s furious land.

Walt Whitman put this little poem in the 1871 edition of Leaves of Grass.

     The Untold Want

     The untold want by life and land ne’er granted,
     Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find.

This famous poem by Ezra Pound was written in 1912.

     In a Station of the Metro

     The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
     Petals on a wet, black bough.

This tiny poem with the enormous title appears in Mary Oliver’s Redbird.

     Watching a Documentary about Polar Bears Trying to 
     Survive on the Melting Ice Floes

     That God had a plan, I do not doubt.
     But what if His plan was, that we would do better?

This is my first attempt at a two-liner.

     [Broken] [Shine]

     I don’t know who broke my bedroom window.
     Sunlight blazes the long edge of cracked glass.

So what do you think? Do these poems feel satisfying, or do you want more? Is it fair to say this brief form sometimes requires a good title in order to succeed?

Van Gogh’s Bedroom


The artist returned to the Yellow House in Arles
after painting all day in the fields. Nature
stuck to him like a burr as he walked into his bedroom.
Pale-blue sky seeped into his walls, and the outstretched
wings of crows slipped into the window’s
dark sash-bars. Sunflowers settled
into the center-woven seats of the ocher chairs,
blossoming over the worn path of earth-hued floorboards.
A field of poppies managed to inhabit his red blanket,
but not even nature could make the room contain
the artist’s seismic swirls of moon and stars. 

Copyright 2016 by Brian Dean Powers
Published in the Spring/Summer 2017 edition of Word Fountain

“Adam’s House”

Edward Hopper lightly sketched an ordinary white house,
the one on the hill above Gloucester, the one
with the ornamental overhang. Then the artist

brushed on watercolors to enliven the sky and shadows,
the street and fences, the shutters at every window.
The building’s light-washed gaze shuttles your eye

to a high wooden pole with its crossarms and insulators.
Let’s not speculate why there are no birds on the wires
and no people in the street: the picture’s not meaning—

it’s moment. At Gloucester, he said, when everyone else
would be painting ships at the waterfront
I’d just go around looking at houses—

structures that became radiant matter-of-fact
like the one on the hill with the sun’s weightless palm
shining on its face.

Copyright 2005 by Brian Dean Powers

I Keep a Wooden Buddha

Buddha Carving
I keep a wooden Buddha by my bed.
I don't know who carefully carved
the folds of his robe, the curve of his
lips, the eyes soft-closed. I don’t know
whose face is actually displayed.
I do know the woodworker sanded
the surface smoother than any life
could ever be. And I know the carver
is an artist: this cross-legged figure
has been transformed into a small, steady
flame. Sometimes its quiet calm
seeps into my skin.

Copyright 2007 by Brian Dean Powers
Published in the 2010 Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar

“First Men in the Moon”

First Men
The book's original cover had been replaced
by a plain gray cloth binding. I remember

finding it in the school library on the last-
part-of-the-alphabet shelf. I remember

devouring the adventures of two Earthmen exploring
tunnels and caves beneath another world.

I was ten, and that was the first novel
I didn't want to put down. 

Nowadays I own a paperback edition with yellowed
pages found in a second-hand bookstore. I still

imagine a journey through "that enormous
void in which all light and life and being

is but the thin and vanishing splendour
of a falling star," a journey

with The First Men in the Moon
as told by the man who made the Morlocks.

Copyright 2014 by Brian Dean Powers