Best Poems I’ve Read While Living Abroad This Year

Photo of the northern Taiwan coast taken in Jiu Fen.

Apropos reading things to nourish the soul and feel the sweet sounds and rhythms of the English language circulating through my veins to pump me up for my summer of writing (Cf. previous post about Expat Reading Lists), I’ve been reading poetry. You know, like, for fun.

And lately I’ve been in email correspondence with a poet friend, who has been instrumental in introducing me to some great contemporary (and older) poems. Other friends in Taiwan have followed suit, and still other friends from Emerson are getting published, so I have a wealth of different poems, for different moods, to munch on.

Here are some of my favorites from the past few months, as well as links to their original publications, and/or where to buy the collections from which they spring:

From Beauport, by Kate Colby

History is spreading.  It once stacked neatly into boxes,
but now it’s cast all over the floor, everybody’s business.
Both everywhere and inaccessible, a slick surface on
which to fight for a grip.  The grip is the end game: I am
here.  Or, why won’t you see me?

I rewrite or replace, as needed, to get in on it — to
feel its dimensions, or those of something like it.  The
feeling of an event.  Having happened.

I am nesting in others’ events or under my own wing.
Pushing the dust around, receiving.  Here’s the thing:
I tend to throw drop-cloths over my own actualities,
then make a mess of everything else.  I hoard
information and putter around in it, a rat in a nest of
shredded newspaper.

There are hackneyed prints of things that never
happened on my walls.  Maybe the most that I can
expect.  But each image has been colored by hand
on an assembly line of me and a band of Old world
immigrants.  We are making history, our beds, or
sweeping the beach with a broken metal detector.

What’s left in the corner of my eye is closing in:

Self-Portrait as Seen by Myself Between Closing Elevator Doors

(I’m on the inside, going up.)

All the good art is now ugly.



How to Be Happy: Another Memo to Myself

by Stephen Dunn

Here’s an awesome and fairly comprehensive article about Dunn:

You start with your own body

then move outward, but not too far.

Never try to please a city, for example.

Nor will the easy intimacy

in small towns ever satisfy that need

you have only whispered in the dark.

A woman is a beginning.

She need not be pretty, but must know

how to make her own ceilings

out of all that’s beautiful in her.

Together you must love to exchange

gifts in the night, and agree

on the superfluity of ribbons,

the fine violence of breaking out

of yourselves. No matter,

it’s doubtful she will be enough for you,

or you for her. You must have friends

of both sexes. When you get together

you must feel everyone has brought

his fierce privacy with him

and is ready to share it. Prepare

yourself though to keep something back;

there’s a center in you

you are simply a comedian

without. Beyond this, it’s advisable

to have a skill. Learn how to make something:

food, a shoe box, a good day.

Remember, finally, there are few pleasures

that aren’t as local as your fingertips.

Never go to Europe for a cathedral.

In large groups, create a corner

in the middle of the room.

Faint Music
By Robert Hass

Maybe you need to write a poem about grace.

When everything broken is broken,
and everything dead is dead,
and the hero has looked into the mirror with complete contempt,
and the heroine has studied her face and its defects
remorselessly, and the pain they thought might,
as a token of their earnestness, release them from themselves
has lost its novelty and not released them,
and they have begun to think, kindly and distantly,
watching the others go about their days—
likes and dislikes, reasons, habits, fears—
that self-love is the one weedy stalk
of every human blossoming, and understood,
therefore, why they had been, all their lives,
in such a fury to defend it, and that no one—
except some almost inconceivable saint in his pool
of poverty and silence—can escape this violent, automatic
life’s companion ever, maybe then, ordinary light,
faint music under things, a hovering like grace appears.

As in the story a friend told once about the time
he tried to kill himself. His girl had left him.
Bees in the heart, then scorpions, maggots, and then ash.
He climbed onto the jumping girder of the bridge,
the bay side, a blue, lucid afternoon.
And in the salt air he thought about the word “seafood,”
that there was something faintly ridiculous about it.
No one said “landfood.” He thought it was degrading to the rainbow perch
he’d reeled in gleaming from the cliffs, the black rockbass,
scales like polished carbon, in beds of kelp
along the coast—and he realized that the reason for the word
was crabs, or mussels, clams. Otherwise
the restaurants could just put “fish” up on their signs,
and when he woke—he’d slept for hours, curled up
on the girder like a child—the sun was going down
and he felt a little better, and afraid. He put on the jacket
he’d used for a pillow, climbed over the railing
carefully, and drove home to an empty house.

There was a pair of her lemon yellow panties
hanging on a doorknob. He studied them. Much-washed.
A faint russet in the crotch that made him sick
with rage and grief. He knew more or less
where she was. A flat somewhere on Russian Hill.
They’d have just finished making love. She’d have tears
in her eyes and touch his jawbone gratefully. “God,”
she’d say, “you are so good for me.” Winking lights,
a foggy view downhill toward the harbor and the bay.
“You’re sad,” he’d say. “Yes.” “Thinking about Nick?”
“Yes,” she’d say and cry. “I tried so hard,” sobbing now,
“I really tried so hard.” And then he’d hold her for a while—
Guatemalan weavings from his fieldwork on the wall—
and then they’d fuck again, and she would cry some more,
and go to sleep.
And he, he would play that scene
once only, once and a half, and tell himself
that he was going to carry it for a very long time
and that there was nothing he could do
but carry it. He went out onto the porch, and listened
to the forest in the summer dark, madrone bark
cracking and curling as the cold came up.

It’s not the story though, not the friend
leaning toward you, saying “And then I realized—,”
which is the part of stories one never quite believes.
I had the idea that the world’s so full of pain
it must sometimes make a kind of singing.
And that the sequence helps, as much as order helps—
First an ego, and then pain, and then the singing.

Source: Sun Under Wood (Ecco Press, 1996)

Invisible Men
by Kent Leatham

(published in Softblow:

“Substance,” wrote British physicist Arthur Eddington in 1927,
“is one of our greatest illusions.” The natural world, he claimed,
is actually composed of billions of tiny particles buzzing around
like swarms of gnats, so that, for example, if he timed it right
he could pass his hand through a table or chair with no greater
difficulty than if it were a flowing stream. The fact that he never
succeeded in such a test made no difference. “Reality,” he concluded,
“is simply a child which cannot survive without its nurse illusion.”


Every morning, the sun with an erection,
the bashful moon with her back turned.
Nothing ever works.


In May, 1983, a man entered the bathroom of a doctor’s office in Monterey, California,
where he removed his pants and masturbated into a small, sterile, plastic cup.
Afterwards, he placed the cup on a shelf over the toilet, buttoned his pants, and, exiting
the bathroom, was handed a check for one hundred dollars by the receptionist.
Nine months later, I was born to a single working mother who sang me, as a lullaby,
a tune from The Music Man: “Good night, my someone, good night, my love.”


Each line of this poem contains at least one word consisting of seven letters.


According to Soviet propaganda, the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin
declared, upon leaving Earth’s atmosphere and witnessing
the eternal blackness of outer space for the first time,
“I don’t see any God up here.” Gagarin, a baptized Christian,
never uttered these words.


The man was tall, 6’1″, blonde-haired and blue-eyed, a musician with no history
of illness or insanity, and had fathered other children before. This is all we know.


“He that hath seen me hath seen the Father,” spake Jesus, the one called Messiah.


The invisible ideal. Someone who loves you enough
to give you everything, but on one condition: anonymity. The mystery
of knowing through not knowing. A relationship without relationship.
The proof always given: no test to deny it, no mistake to undo it.
It does not even request reciprocity, cannot. The purest commitment,
and the coldest.


In his later life, Gagarin was banned from the Soviet space program
out of fear the hero would die in a crash. Instead, the cosmonaut began
training as a MiG fighter pilot. He and his flight instructor were killed
on March 27, 1968, when their plane crashed during a routine training mission.
Gagarin had just turned thirty-four.


“Be comforted,” said Pascal’s god.
“You would not be seeking me if you had not found me.”


Sometimes I catch him watching me, on the train heading home
or in a crowded restaurant. His face keeps changing, of course,
each day older and more alone. Sometimes I make a small gesture
of recognition, a nod or smile. Most times, however, I pretend he was never there.


Immensely popular during the 1920s and ’30s for his accessible and entertaining
descriptions of Einstein’s theory of relativity and the infinite monkey theorem,
Arthur Eddington lost credibility in the scientific community when he began turning
to numerology to defend his fundamental theory of a unified cosmic field.
The mystical relationship between numbers, it seemed, was as impassible
to the public’s mind as the wood of the table had once been to his hand.
Eddington died as an object of mockery at the age of sixty-one.


“And looking where she pointed, everyone saw, faint and transparent as though it was made of glass, so that veins and arteries and bones and nerves could be distinguished, the outline of a hand, a hand limp and prone…”


Beloved, the world will not
be less without me. The space
I am leaving is an opportunity
that never existed before. Fill it
quickly. Become what is gone.



Johnny,/ In truth there is
by Angela Veronica Wong

(Published in Drunken Boat:

In truth there is so much to write about, so much to forget. I am still leaving my jewelry behind—earrings on nightstands, rings on pianos. Each calendar has one more day on it or is it one less day on it or is it that we have stopped using calendars altogether. I go through your body like a train. I trim my hair over the bathroom sink. I have sex and watch in mirrors. We are combining words, or creating letters, or talking in phrases. Don’t bother brushing your hair; it won’t help. At some point, I stopped counting days, and moved to full moons. One yellow light bulb turns the room pink. I explore timing. I cross my legs in a waiting room. The clock. I’d like to forgive everything; everyone is a cactus with deliberate needles, so eager for friendship and quick to punish. I flip ahead in notebooks to be reminded of a blank page. I am dilated and the world is different. Apology is easy, like slipping my hand in yours. Each day can go in so many different ways. Surprise! A mirror. The fact is your body changed and so did mine. The house sounds like crying. I am always thinking about what is being worn underneath. Let’s measure this closely. I am ready to mark up my body. If not your mouth then. If not your nails then. Literally my lips licking. My lips liking. Literally my lips lipped. Take my body apart. This. Are you thinking of me. Being the verb of it. The city is a geography of where we made out or highways we drove in silence. Subway tracks are the opposite of silence. Arbiters of false hope. Let’s first list each thing we’ve ever done. I love. How many others are out there thinking of me. I would have. I would have loved. I would have loved you. Like a darling pomegranate. Wreckage, a present. The carelessness with which I perform. The glass rim. Waking is difficult. To awaken. To forge ahead and create. Feeling is easy. Not easy to remember. What if we are the same people meeting over and over. What if I am meeting the same person over and over. How to keep secrets. Away. No coffee in four days. It sounds amazing but is also the truth. Everything here is the truth. Moments of your pale skin. In the museum, three sisters sitting on a chaise. In the morning, there isn’t. In the park, benches. A tiny orange spider. Movements of privacy. I adore large sounds like the tuba. Rename this ache. I adore large instruments like babies. Corporeal dissipation. In a qualitative manner we try. I think you would like me if you watched me in the mirror while I cut my hair. Hush. I might be. My legs. Where can there be this moment of how the moment can be. Fall, a season. If alone, then alone. Everything is happening and nothing the same has changed. Here beneath my skirt.

Blank Villanelle
By Ron Spalletta

(Published in Slate:

for Patricia

As long as you want

almost never is

as long as you want,

or it is much longer.

He will not live

as long as you want,

but his forgetfulness

will last as long as memory,

as long as you. Want,
at once desire and privation,

is the work of his disease.

As long as you want

him, you return to watch hours

unravel. Are they hard as yours,

as long? As you want

to let go of the ghost,

you say “but I’ll stay

as long as you want,

as long as you want.”


by Richard Hoffman

(Published on Interpoezia:

The house itself, if it had a voice
Would speak out clearly. As for me,
I speak to those who understand;
if they fail, memories are nothing.

— Aeschylus, Agamemnon

We say what we know because we must.
You can cheer us or run us out of town.
It’s nothing at first, like rain on dust,

a hairline crack in the faultline’s crust,
a tentative first-person plural pronoun.
We say what we know because we must

recall, recount, redeem, and readjust
all that we’ve known, not for renown.
It’s nothing at first, like rain on dust,

or the first few tiny flecks of rust
on barrels buried underground.
We say what we know because we must

talk back to histories we do not trust,
relearn our own, and set them down.
It’s nothing at first, like rain on dust.

What does it mean to fear what’s just?
You can cheer us or run us out of town.
We say what we know because we must.
It’s nothing at first, like rain on dust.



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5 responses to “Best Poems I’ve Read While Living Abroad This Year

  1. Kent

    Hey dudester, thanks for the shout-out! I think this is the first time I’ve been lumped in the same list as Robert Hass– I’m all tingly with flatteredness!

    Word for representing Mr. Ron as well. He’s a patient-but-potent rockstar in the poetry world.

  2. You’re very welcome, and thanks for introducing me to some of these names and poetic “faces,” as it were. You’ve also received some off-the-record compliments from Taipei (and roommate) blog readers.

    And now I wonder if there are any poems and poets out there writing specifically about an “expat”-like experience– being jarred by foreign places, tossed out of one’s comfort zone, but ultimately finding great freedom to explore one’s own identity. Just some food for thought…
    ~ The “dudester”

  3. Pingback: Google Search Terms that Led You Here: A Collage Poem | Girl Meets Formosa

  4. avw

    nerds, how fun! yes, lots of poets who write of the expat experience, depending on what you’re looking for. exile poetry (as is exile literature), in particular, is of interest to me (nation/identity/choice/determination/etc. etc. etc.) – and then there are those who write in several languages, who speak of exile or difference within that. joseph brodsky, former us poet laureate, is someone to look at – re: writing within soviet russia, then exile to america, then his attempts to write in english v. russian. there’s also a new bio of him out, i think. and he was a fan of auden, who is a different sort of expat/exile writer. and of course there are tons for americans that lived in paris (pound, stein, henry james, and african american writers like wright and baldwin). blah blah, those are the big names to start, and i could go on, but i won’t. it’s almost your birthday!!!!

  5. Awesome poems. I will collect.

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