Selected Poems

Selected Poems

by Mona Van Duyn


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This generous selection of Mona Van Duyn’s distinguished, award-winning work spans four decades. Beginning with her classic Valentines to the Wide World (1959), encompassing the intimate voice of Bedtime Stories (1972) and the moving Letters from a Father (1982), crowned by the life-spanning Firefall (1993), Selected Poems reacquaints us with a poet whose ear is keenly tuned to the music of nature and human conversation. In lively and varied forms, from her minimalist sonnets to her magisterial longer pieces, Van Duyn captures a multiplicity of worlds within her world, in a tone inflected by both Midwestern pragmatism and a deep metaphysical intelligence. As she contemplates the act of reading in bed, a Rhenish sculpture in the Cloisters, or the loss of her mother, the poet goes beyond context to discover consciousness: an expression of the larger ideas and emotions—finally, the art—in the smallest details of our lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375709807
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/18/2003
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 755,207
Product dimensions: 6.11(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.59(d)

About the Author

Mona Van Duyn was born in Waterloo, Iowa, in 1921 and currently lives in St. Louis. She has taught widely, both in the United States and abroad, and has received many awards for her poetry, including the National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters as well as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was for fifteen years a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She was Poet Laureate of the United States for 1992–1993.

Read an Excerpt

Three Valentines to the Wide World


The child disturbs our view. Tow-head bent, she stands on one leg and folds up the other. She is listening to the sound of her fingernail on a scab on her knee.
If I were her mother I would think right now of the chastening that ridiculous arrangement of bones and bumps must go through,
and that big ear too, till they learn what to do and hear.
People don't perch like something seen in a zoo or in tropical sections of Florida. They'll have to buy her a cheap violin if she wants to make scraping noises.
She is eight years old. What in the world could she wear that would cover her hinges and disproportions? Her face is pointed and blank, the brows as light as the hair.

"Mother, is love God's hobby?" At eight you don't even look up from your scab when you ask it. A kid's squeak,
is that a fit instrument for such a question?
Eight times the seasons turned and cold snow tricked the earth to death, and still she hasn't noticed.
Her friend has a mean Dad, a milkman always kicks at the dog, but by some childish hocus-pocus she blinks them away. She counts ten and sucks in her cheeks and the globe moves under the green thumb of an Amateur,
the morning yelp, the crying at recess are gone.
In the freeness of time He gardens, and to His leisure old stems entrust new leaves all winter long.

Hating is hard work, and the uncaring thought is hard;
but loving is easy, love is that lovely play that makes us and keeps us? No one answers you. Such absurd charity of the imagination has shamed us, Emily.
I remember now. Legs shoved you up, you couldn't tell where the next tooth would fall out or grow in, or what your own nose would look like next year. Anything was possible.
Then it slowed down, and you had to keep what you got.
When this child's body stretches to the grace of her notion,
and she's tamed and curled, may she be free enough to bring mind and heart to that serious recreation where anything is still possible—or almost anything.


I have never enjoyed those roadside overlooks from which you can see the mountains of two states. The view keeps generating a kind of pure, meaningless exaltation that I can't find a use for. It drifts away from things.

And it seems to me also that the truckdriver's waste of the world is sobering. When he rolls round it on a callus of macadam,
think how all those limping puppydogs, girls thumbing rides under the hot sun, or under the white moon

how all those couples kissing at the side of the road,
bad hills, cat eyes, and horses asleep on their feet must run together into a statement so abstract that it's tiresome. Nothing in particular holds still in it.

Perhaps he does learn that the planet can still support life,
though with some difficulty. Or even that there is injustice,
since he rolls round and round and may be able to feel the slight but measurable wobble of the earth on its axis.

But what I find most useful is the poem. To find some spot on the surface and then bear down until the skin can't stand the tension and breaks under it, breaks under that half-demented
"pressure of speech" the psychiatrists saw in Pound,

is a discreetness of consumption that I value. Only the poem is strong enough to make the initial rupture,
at least for me. Its view is simultaneous discovery and reminiscence. It starts with the creature

and stays there, assuming creation is worth the time it takes, from the first day down to the last line on the last page.
And I've never seen anything like it for making you think that to spend your life on such old premises is a privilege.


Your yen two wol slee me sodenly;
I may the beautee of hem not sustene.

-Merciles Beaute

When, in the middle of my life, the earth stalks me with sticks and stones, I fear its merciless beauty.
This morning a bird woke me with a four-note outcry,
and cried out eighteen times. With the shades down, sleepy as I was, I recognized his agony.
It resembles ours. With one more heave, the day sends us a generous orb and lets us see all sights lost when we lie down finally.

And if, in the middle of her life, some beauty falls on a girl, who turns under its swarm to astonished woman,
then, into that miraculous buzzing, stung in the lips and eyes without mercy, strangers may run.
An untended power—I pity her and them.
It is late, late; haste! says the falling moon,
as blinded they stand and smart till the fever's done and blindly she moves, wearing her furious weapon.

Beauty is merciless and intemperate.
Who, turning this way and that, by day, by night,
still stands in the heart-felt storm of its benefit,
will plead in vain for mercy, or cry, "Put out the lovely eyes of the world, whose rise and set move us to death!" And never will temper it,
but against that rage slowly may learn to pit love and art, which are compassionate.

The Gentle Snorer

When summer came, we locked up our lives and fled to the woods in Maine, and pulled up over our heads a comforter filled with batts of piney dark,
tied with crickets' chirretings and the bork of frogs; we hid in a sleep of strangeness from the human humdrum.

A pleasant noise the unordered world makes wove around us. Burrowed, we heard the scud of waves,
wrack of bending branch, or plop of a fish on his heavy home; the little beasts rummaged the brush.
We dimmed to silence, slipped from the angry pull of wishes and will.

And then we had a three-week cabin guest who snored; he broke the wilderness of our rest.
As all night long he sipped the succulent air,
that rhythm we shared made visible to the ear a rich refreshment of the blood. We fed in unison with him.

A sound we dreamed and woke to, over the snuff of wind, not loud enough to scare off the roof the early morning chipmunks. Under our skins we heard, as after disease, the bright, thin tick of our time. Sleeping, he mentioned death and celebrated breath.

He went back home. The water flapped the shore.
A thousand bugs drilled at the darkness. Over the lake a loon howled. Nothing spoke up for us,
salvagers always of what we have always lost;
and we thought what the night needed was more of man,
he left us so partisan.

Woman Waiting

Over the gray, massed blunder of her face light hung crudely and apologetic sight crossed in a hurry. Asking very little,
her eyes were patiently placed there.
Dress loved nothing and wandered away wherever possible, needing its own character.

Used to the stories, we wise children made pleasant pictures of her when alive, till someone who knew told us it was never so.

Next, wisely waited to see the hidden dancer,
the expected flare leaping through that fog of flesh, but no one ever did.
In a last wisdom, conceived of a moment love lit her like a star and the star burned out.
Interested friends said this had never happened.

Death by Aesthetics

Here is the doctor, an abstracted lover,
dressed as a virgin, coming to keep the tryst.
The patient was early; she is lovely; but yet she is sick, his instruments will agree on this.

Is this the place, she wonders, and is he the one?
Yes, love is the healer, he will strip her bare,
and all his machinery of definition tells her experience is costly here,

so she is reassured. The doctor approaches and bends to her heart. But she sees him sprout like a tree with metallic twigs on his fingers and blooms of chrome at his eye and ear for the sterile ceremony.

Oh tight and tighter his rubber squeeze of her arm.
"Ahhh" she sighs at a chilly touch on her tongue.
Up the tubes her breath comes crying, as over her,
back and breast, he moves his silver thumb.

His fluoroscope hugs her. Soft the intemperate girl,
disordered. Willing she lies while he unfolds her disease, but a stem of glass protects his fingertips from her heat, nor will he catch her cold.

He peels her. Under the swaddling epiderm her body is the same blue bush. Beautiful canals course like a postcard scene that's sent him often.
He counts the tiptup, tiptup of her dutiful valves.

Pain hides like a sinner in her mesh of nerves.
But her symptoms constellate! Quickly he warms to his consummation, while her fever flares in its wick of vein, her wicked blood burns.

He hands her a paper. "Goodbye. Live quietly,
make some new friends. I've seen these stubborn cases cured with time. My bill will arrive. Dear lady,
it's been a most enjoyable diagnosis."

She clings, but her fingers slip on his starchy dress.
"Don't leave me! Learn me! If this is all, you've swindled my whole booty of meaning, where is my dearness?
Pore against pore, the delicate hairs commingled,

with cells and ligaments, tissue lapped on bone,
meet me, feel the way my body feels,
and in my bounty of dews, fluxes and seasons,
orifices, in my wastes and smells

see self. Self in the secret stones I chafed to shape in my bladder. Out of a dream I fished the ache that feeds in my stomach's weedy slough.
This tender swelling's the bud of my frosted wish.

Search out my mind's embroidery of scars.
My ichor runs to death so speedily,
spit up your text and taste my living texture.
Sweat to hunt me with love, and burn with me."

But he is gone. "Don't touch me" was all he answered.
"Separateness," says the paper. The world, we beg,
will keep her though she's caught its throbbing senses,
its bugs still swim in her breath, she's bright with its plague.

A Relative and an Absolute

It has been cool so far for December, but of course the cold doesn't last long down here. The Bible is being fulfilled so rapidly that it looks like it won't be long until Jesus will come in the air, with a shout, and all those who have accepted Jesus as their own personal Saviour will be caught up to meet him and then that terrible war will be on earth. The battle of
Armageddon. And all the unsaved people will have to go through the great tribulation. Hope you are both well. Bye.

An aunt, my down-to-earth father's sibling, went to stay in Texas, and had to continue by mail, still thanklessly,
her spiritual supervision of the family.

Texas orchards are fruitful. A card that would portray this fact in green and orange, and even more colorfully say on its back that Doom is nearly upon us, came regularly

at birthday, Easter and Christmas—and sometimes between the three.
That the days passed, and the years, never bothered her prophecy;
she restressed, renewed and remailed its imminence faithfully.

Most preaching was wrong, she felt, but found for her kin on Sunday,
in one voice on one radio station, one truth for all to obey.
Salvation being thus limited, it seemed to me

there was something unpleasant about that calm tenacity of belief that so many others would suffer catastrophe at any moment. She seemed too smug a protegee.

Otherwise, I rather liked her. Exchanging a recipe or comparing winters with neighbors, she took life quietly in a stuffy bungalow, among doilies of tatting and crochet.

She had married late, and enjoyed the chance to baby a husband, to simmer the wholesome vegetables and see that vitamins squeezed from his fruit were drunk without delay.

Though she warned of cities and churches and germs, some modesty or decorum, when face to face with us, wouldn't let her convey her vision of Armageddon. But the postcards set it free.

It was hovering over the orange groves, she need only lay her sewing aside, and the grandeur and rhythm of its poetry came down and poured in her ear, her pencil moved eloquently.

She wrote it and wrote it. She will be "caught up," set free from her clay as Christ comes "with a shout in the air" and trumpeting angels play,
and "the terrible war will be on earth" on that Judgment Day,

expecting all those years her extinction of body would be attended by every creature, wrapped round in the tragedy of the world, in its pandemonium and ecstasy.

When she died last winter, several relatives wrote to say a kidney stone "as big as a peach pit" took her away.
Reading the letters, I thought, first of all, of the irony,

then, that I myself, though prepared to a certain degree,
will undoubtedly feel, when I lie there, as lonesome in death as she and just as surprised at its trivial, domestic imagery.

A Kind of Music

When consciousness begins to add diversity to its intensity,
its value is no longer absolute and inexpressible. The felt variations in its tone are attached to the observed movement of its objects; in these objects its values are embedded. A world loaded with dramatic values may thus arise in imagination;
terrible and delightful presences may chase one another across the void; life will be a kind of music made by all the senses together. Many animals probably have this kind of experience.


Irrelevance characterizes the behavior of our puppy.
In the middle of the night he decides that he wants to play,
runs off when he's called, when petted is liable to pee,
cowers at a twig and barks at his shadow or a tree,
grins at intruders and bites us in the leg suddenly.

No justification we humans have been able to see applies to his actions. While we go by the time of day,
or the rules, or the notion of purpose or consistency,
he follows from moment to moment a sensuous medley that keeps him both totally subject and totally free.

I'll have to admit, though, we've never been tempted to say that he jumps up to greet us or puts his head on our knee or licks us or lies at our feet irrelevantly.
When it comes to loving, we find ourselves forced to agree all responses are reasons and no reason is necessary.

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