Children of Grass is an ongoing project, to make conceptual portraits of America's most notable living poets- its poets laureate, its Pulitzer Prize winners, its best literary artists.  The images are visual riffs on pieces by the poets themselves.


As a close relative of the poet Walt Whitman and a professional photojournalist, I am acting as a literal heir to take a census of Whitman's cultural heirs, two hundred years after his birth.

Anis Mojgani, national slam poetry champion.

--------------------------

[we were horses]

I was in a dream country. You were there.
And all those little blonde hairs that run up your legs
and over your shoulders.

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Nikki Giovanni.

------------------------

I killed a spider
Not a murderous brown recluse
Nor even a black widow
And if the truth were told this
Was only a small
Sort of papery spider
Who should have run
When I picked up the book
But she didn't
And she scared me
And I smashed her

I don't think
I'm allowed

To kill something

Because I am

Frightened

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Rita Dove, U.S. Poet Laureate, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Medal of the Arts, and the National Humanities Medal.

-----------------------

DEMETER'S PRAYER TO HADES


This alone is what I wish for you: knowledge.

To understand each desire has an edge,

to know we are responsible for the lives

we change. No faith comes without cost,

no one believes without dying.

Now for the first time

I see clearly the trail you planted,

what ground opened to waste,

though you dreamed a wealth

of flowers.


There are no curses⸺only mirrors

held up to the souls of gods and mortals.

And so I give up this fate, too.

Believe in yourself,

go ahead⸺ see where it gets you.

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Gregory Pardlo, Pulitzer Prize-winner.

-------------------

Sam Cooke reminds you how Ol' Man River just keeps rolling
and you begin to wonder what makes a river tick so you go sit
on Union Street Bridge to study the unruffled Gowanus Canal
with its tempting reflections and perfect your knack for reading
water's Om through the clockwork of the air and you think it's like
you which is not much of a river but wise enough water to hush your
regrets for the bloated casualties of your myriad indiscretions since
the first African was made to scoop the marsh to irrigate Dutch arms
until this moment when you see you are that African and you are
the Gowanus just as you are the baby whale lost and barging so far
along the canal you are blessed now and breaking and love this
one the Daily News will name Sludgy whom you will birth still
upon your bay at Red Hook after the sewer spills a glum baptismal
across his fontanel and children will stand around and amen
the Coast Guard atop the fly-flecked carcass preaching that wisdom
bends light into the eye of the whale where if you look close children
you'll find the water bears a flower, and the flower bears your name.

(Gregory Pardlo)

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X.J. Kennedy.
--------------------

PAYING FOR THE GROCERIES

In shoddy flicks that hotels charge
A fee to see (the profit's large),
Women with faces cold and mean,
All legally at least eighteen,
Squeal in fake rapture, writhe and squirm
And feign delight when spurts of sperm
Spatter their faces. What grim sex.
What solemn joy. What hard-earned checks.

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Robert Hass, Poet Laureate of the United States and Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry.
-------------------------

The woman I love is greedy,
but she refuses greed.
She walks so straightly.
When I ask her what she wants,
she says, “A yellow bicycle.”

Sun, sunflower,
coltsfoot on the roadside,
a goldfinch, the sign
that says Yield, her hair,
cat's eyes, his hunger,
and a yellow bicycle.

Once, when they had made love in the middle of the night and it was very sweet, they decided they were hungry, so they got up, got dressed, and drove downtown to an all-night donut shop.
Chicano kids lounged outside, a few drunks, and one black man, selling dope. Just at the entrance there was an old woman in a thin floral print dress. She was barefoot. Her face was covered with sores and dry peeling skin. The sores looked like raisins and her skin was the dry yellow of a parchment lampshade ravaged by light and tossed away. They thought she must have been hungry and, coming out with a white paper bag full of hot rolls, they stopped to offer her one. She looked at them out of her small eyes, bewildered, and shook her head for a little while and said, very kindly, "no."

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Dorianne Laux.

-----------------

The man I love hates technology, hates
that he’s forced to use it: telephones
and microfilm, air conditioning,
car radios and the occasional fax.

He wishes he lived in the old world,
sitting on a stump carving a clothespin
or a spoon. He wants to go back, slip
like lint into his great-great-grandfather’s
pocket, reborn as a pilgrim, a peasant,
a dirt farmer hoeing his uneven rows.

He walks when he can, through the hills
behind his house, his dogs panting beside him
like small steam engines. He’s delighted
by the sun’s slow and simple
descent, the complicated machinery
of his own body. I would have loved him
in any era, in any dark age; I would take him
into the twilight and unwind him, slide
my fingers through his hair and pull him
to his knees. As it is, this afternoon, late
in the twentieth century, I sit on a chair
in the kitchen with my keys in my lap, pressing
the black button on the answering machine
over and over, listening to his message,
his voice strung along the wires outside my window
where the birds balance themselves
and stare off into the trees, thinking
even in the farthest future, in the most
distant universe, I would have recognized
this voice, refracted, as it would be, like light
from some small, uncharted star.

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Mark Doty, National Book Award winner and chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

---------------

BRIAN AGE SEVEN
(Mark Doty)

Grateful for their tour
of the pharmacy,
the first-grade class
has drawn these pictures,
each self-portrait taped
to the window-glass,
faces wide to the street,
round and available,
with parallel lines for hair.

I like this one best: Brian,
whose attenuated name
fills a quarter of the frame,
stretched beside impossible
legs descending from the ball
of his torso, two long arms
springing from that same
central sphere. He breathes here,

on his page. It isn’t craft
that makes this figure come alive;
Brian draws just balls and lines,
in wobbly crayon strokes.
Why do some marks
seem to thrill with life,
possess a portion
of the nervous energy
in their maker’s hand?

That big curve of a smile
reaches nearly to the rim
of his face; he holds
a towering ice cream,
brown spheres teetering
on their cone,
a soda fountain gift
half the length of him
—as if it were the flag

of his own country held high
by the unadorned black line
of his arm. Such naked support
for so much delight! Artless boy,
he’s found a system of beauty:
he shows us pleasure
and what pleasure resists.
The ice cream is delicious.
He’s frail beside his relentless standard.

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Kim Addonizio.

---------------------

I like to touch your tattoos in complete
darkness, when I can’t see them. I’m sure of
where they are, know by heart the neat
lines of lightning pulsing just above
your nipple, can find, as if by instinct, the blue
swirls of water on your shoulder where a serpent
twists, facing a dragon. When I pull you
to me, taking you until we’re spent
and quiet on the sheets, I love to kiss
the pictures in your skin. They’ll last until
you’re seared to ashes; whatever persists
or turns to pain between us, they will still
be there. Such permanence is terrifying.
So I touch them in the dark; but touch them, trying.

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Robert Pinsky, three time U.S. Poet Laureate.

---------------------------

I drowned in the fire of having you, I burned
in the river of not having you, we lived
together for hours in a house of a thousand rooms
and we were parted for a thousand years.
Ten minutes ago we raised our children who cover
the earth and have forgotten that we existed

It was not maya, it was not a ladder to perfection,
it was this cold sunlight falling on this warm earth.

When I turned, you went to Hell. When your ship
fled the battle I followed you and lost the world
without regret but with stormy recriminations.
Someday far down that corridor of horror the future
someone who buys this picture of you for the frame
at a stall in a dwindled city will study your face
and decide to harbor it for a little while longer
from the waters of anonymity, the acids of breath.

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Kaveh Akbar.

---------------------

some boys aren't born they bubble
up from earth's crust land safely around
kitchen tables green globes of fruit already

in their mouths when they find themselves crying
they stop crying these boys moan
more than other boys they do as desire

demands when they dance their bodies plunge
into space and recover the music stays
in their breastbones they sing songs

about storms they dry their shoes on porches
these boys are so cold their pilot lights never light
they buy the best heat money can buy blue flames

swamp smoke they are desperate
to lick and be licked sometimes one will eat
all the food in a house or break every bone

in his jaw sometimes one will disappear into himself
like a ram charging a mirror when this happens
they all feel it afterwards the others dream

of rain their pupils boil they light black candles
and pray the only prayer they know 'oh lord
spare this body set fire to another'

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Dana Gioia, poet laureate of California and former head of the National Endowment for the Arts.

-------------------------------

Becoming a Redwood

Stand in a field long enough, and the sounds
start up again. The crickets, the invisible
toad who claims that change is possible,

And all the other life too small to name.
First one, then another, until innumerable
they merge into the single voice of a summer hill.

Yes, it’s hard to stand still, hour after hour,
fixed as a fencepost, hearing the steers
snort in the dark pasture, smelling the manure.

And paralyzed by the mystery of how a stone
can bear to be a stone, the pain
the grass endures breaking through the earth’s crust.

Unimaginable the redwoods on the far hill,
rooted for centuries, the living wood grown tall
and thickened with a hundred thousand days of light.

The old windmill creaks in perfect time
to the wind shaking the miles of pasture grass,
and the last farmhouse light goes off.

Something moves nearby. Coyotes hunt
these hills and packs of feral dogs.
But standing here at night accepts all that.

You are your own pale shadow in the quarter moon,
moving more slowly than the crippled stars,
part of the moonlight as the moonlight falls,

Part of the grass that answers the wind,
part of the midnight’s watchfulness that knows
there is no silence but when danger comes.

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Daphne Gottlieb.

-----------------------

Revolution
is not pretty

but I don’t care
about looks.
Set the dumpster

on fire. Break
the windows.
Don’t kiss me

like they do
in the movies.
Kiss me

like they do
on the emergency
broadcast system.

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Rae Armantrout, Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry.
----------------------------

Quick, before you die,
describe

the exact shade
of this hotel carpet.

What is the meaning
of the irregular, yellow

spheres, some
hollow,

gathered in patches
on this bedspread?

If you love me,
worship

the objects
I have caused

to represent me
in my absence.

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Sam Sax.

----------------------

WHEN RESEARCHING PUBLIC SEX THEATRES FOR A POEM

you know you have to pay, right?
the marquee does its neon work to draw you
but your wallet will be punished.

the big man sits in his tiny booth with his big hands
you wonder if he finds you disgusting, or sees you
place the bill right in his palm. feel meat

through the currency. fantasize he might follow you in,
leave your eyes in his mouth. what is a poem worth, anyway?
ten dollars at the door? the long staircase? the soiled

cloth seats? who uses cloth seats anymore, anyway?
you read they hold disease better than mosquitoes.
you feel the swarm beneath as you sit.

each tiny needle sucking you down. it is dark
as you imagined. but you do not do what you imagined
you would do. your body does not transform

into something with more limbs. prehensile and guttural.
you sit. hands decorative silk napkins folded in pockets.
the whole of your skin shrinking away from its lineage.

that accordion history opening all its doors into the dark.
imagine the actors dead now, forever blazing in celluloid
before the swarms of us, forced into the same positions

over and over, the desperate cocaine buzzing through
the screen. the same angry hives, the overdubbed screams.
in the pause between films, you wonder again,

the cost of a poem. is it the man wearing a dark suit
beside you? his face a candle of legs? his wet and demanding
skin? the next film begins … and you reach out for him.

the mosquito’s feeding the blood forward into your hands.
your hands, outstretched as though you’d expect him to save
you. but he pulls away. he fades into the dark. then

when you open your mouth one strange voice stumbles out
after another. pandemic of hair yawns down your back, a thin
tail gasps out from between your hind legs. so you walk

down the long staircase. your body transforming into something
so much smaller. the big man’s hands now are five stories wide.
in the cab ride home, you laugh at how you tried to speak

a dying language. how naive and brave you were.
how ludicrous you believed you might find something holy
in sweat, a new way to talk about perversion or release

or the genealogy of desire. you do not tell anyone you went.
so tiny you could climb inside a stranger’s pocket. and you want to.
and you paid to. ugly swarm of cloth still folded in the blood.

isn’t it funny how you once believed nothing
in this whole world could disgust you?

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Jeffrey McDaniel.

---------------

THE QUIET WORLD

In an effort to get people to look
into each other’s eyes more,
and also to appease the mutes,
the government has decided
to allot each person exactly one hundred
and sixty-seven words, per day.

When the phone rings, I put it to my ear
without saying hello. In the restaurant
I point at chicken noodle soup.
I am adjusting well to the new way.

Late at night, I call my long distance lover,
proudly say I only used fifty-nine today.
I saved the rest for you.

When she doesn’t respond,
I know she’s used up all her words,
so I slowly whisper I love you
thirty-two and a third times.
After that, we just sit on the line
and listen to each other breathe.

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Luis Alberto Ambroggio.

-------------------------

Veo en tu cuerpo
el universo de una historia,
la geografía tallada
de muchas conquistas y derrotas;
en la gloria de tus ojos,
las arrugas con su siembra,
las sonrisas y lágrimas,
veo el horizonte cotidiano
del amor y de las pérdidas,
la dulzura amarga del éxito,
la dolorosa esperanza del fracaso.

Veo en tu cuerpo
-que camina la naturaleza,
la ciudad, la montaña,
el campo de la vida-
el paso de la muerte
y el aliento de tu pupila,
hombre y mujer, joven y viejo,
esencia de multitudes,
gris anónimo y con el grito
de un nombre cierto.

Te veo en un cuerpo que abarca
simultáneo tiempo y eternidad,
al amanecer, al crepúsculo, sol, lunas llenas
y sus extensiones de luz, oscuridad
en una sangre inquieta y suave,
corazon liquido sin fronteras.

Veo en tu cuerpo
la raza y la ausencia de razas
exhalando sin indulgencia
la blasfemia de la discriminación
y su bienaventurada condena.

Eres todo, toda, en uno,
el mundo asombroso del Yo,
unido y disperso,
en la misma invitación:
conjuro de opuestos
que te definen,
como de definen a mí,
y a cada uno de los otros
existendo en mí y fuera de mí,
en la incesante alma compartida
de la calle abarrotada y sola.

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Cornelius Eady.

--------------------

We have all caught the itch:
The neon artist
Wiring up his legs,
The tourist couple
Recording the twist on their
Instamatic camera,
And in a factory,
A janitor asks his broom
For a waltz,
And he grasps it like a woman
He’d have to live another
Life to meet,
And he spins around the dust bin
And machines and thinks:
Is everybody happy?
And he spins out the side door,
Avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk,
Grinning as if he’d just received
The deepest kiss in the world.

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Adrienne Su.

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ESCAPE FROM THE OLD COUNTRY

I never had to make one,
no sickening weeks by ocean,

no waiting for the aerogrammes
that gradually ceased to come.

Spent the babysitting money
on novels, shoes, and movies,

yet the neighborhood stayed empty.
It had nothing to do with a journey

not undertaken, not with dialect,
nor with a land that waited

to be rediscovered, then rejected.
As acid rain collected

above the suburban hills, I tried
to imagine being nothing, tried

to be able to claim, “I have
no culture,” and be believed.

Yet the land occupies the person
even as the semblance of freedom

invites a kind of recklessness.
Tradition, unobserved, unasked,

hangs on tight; ancestors roam
into reverie, interfering at the most

awkward moments, first flirtations,
in doorways and dressing rooms—

But of course. Here in America,
no one escapes. In the end, each traveler

returns to the town where, everyone
knew, she hadn’t even been born.

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Stephanie Berger and Nicholas Adamski of the alternative performance group The Poetry Brothel.

--------------------

What is the point of a memory
palace if I hang your portrait in every
room? As one might stuff a man
made of paper with more paper
so that he can burn
longer. I posit that.
It helps me remember. The desert
room, where I hung
a candelabra from the sky
and the weight of it was nothing
to a man like that. In every room
I kept the tape for measuring
mercilessly his shortcomings
& with luxurious scorn, wondered how
I had ensnared him there. In a glass
jar filled with knowledge, I keep
my children & they bond me
to the mountain palace where
I can never live. I am so tall.

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Martin Espada.

----------------------

At night,
with my wife
sitting on the bed,
I turn from her
to unbuckle
my belt
so she won't see
her father
unbuckling
his belt

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CAConrad.

----------------

"this is your
captain" Frank says from the cockpit

"all passengers wishing to bail out
any time during our flight

it
is
too
late

I have shredded the parachutes to confetti
in celebration of our arrival"

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Marilyn Hacker, winner of the National Book Award for poetry.
-------------------------
from 'CANCER WINTER'

I woke up, and the surgeon said, 'You're cured.'
Strapped to the gurney, in the cotton gown
and pants I was wearing when they slid me down
onto the table, made new straps secure
while I stared at the hydra-headed O.R.
lamp, I took in the tall, confident, brown-
skinned man, and the ache I couldn't quite call pain
from where my right breast wasn't anymore
to my armpit. A not-yet-talking head,
I bit dry my lips. What else could he have said?
And then my love was there in a hospital coat;
then my old love, still young and very scared.
Then I, alone, graphed clock hands' asymptote
to noon, when I would be wheeled back upstairs.

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Anonymous 'Instagram poet' Atticus, author of "Love Her Wild.'

-------------------------

We are ghosts of ourselves
until they come along.
Love fills us in,
in all our thin places.
Love gives us skin.

(Atticus)

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Kazim Ali.

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(from 'Ocean Street')

in case of warmth the oceans will rise
strange cup to move through
after the continents came together

after you swam crazy through the storm to shore
after you asked for it
after you drove yourself relentlessly into the sea

we listen to one gust after the other
a gorgeous scale in the most ordinary range
drumming the time of the sea into a signature of leaves

twenty minutes of ecstasy
blue and after the blue, blue-white
a buoy, a sandpiper, a wholesale slaughter of blue

either way the harp’s plucked chords
like the fog or the answer of water
dissolved into the shore’s copious footnotes

transcribing the music onto ebbing surface
a missing word where continents rub together
disappear or dispel the notion
there is any such word worth knowing

a bridge collapsing along unquelled cadences of sound
when you whisper yourself to eternity
whose name did you whisper and into whose ear

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Danez Smith.

--------------------

I hear music rise off your skin. Each hair on your arm a tiny viola.
A wind full of bows blows & all I hear is the brown

hum of your flesh, a symphony of pigment too often drowned out
by the gun songs & sirens. Don’t listen to that music.

You are the first light in the morning, the dark edge of the sun.
You are too beautiful for bullets. You, long the poster child for metal

wrecked bodies, are too precious for the dirt’s greedy teeth.
You are what was left when the hot, bright stars danced

with the black endlessness around them. You are the scraps
of the beginning, you are not meant to end so soon.

I want to kiss you. Not on your mouth, but on your most
secret scars, your ashy black & journeyed knees,

your ring finger, the trigger finger, those hands
the world fears so much. I am not your enemy,

not poison, not deadly sin, not ocean hungry for blood,
nor trying to trick you. I came from the same red clay,

same ship as you. You are my brother first, my lover
second & never a God. I am sick of people always

calling us Gods. What God do you know that dies this easy?
If I believed in fire, I would think you a thing scorched

& dangerous & glowing. But I no longer believe in embers,
we know you can burn down with no flame for miles.

So thank you. Thank you for not fading to ash & memory.
Your existence is so kind.

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Jane Hirshfield, chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim, and first female graduate of Princeton University.
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THE WOODPECKER KEEPS RETURNING
(Jane Hirshfield)


The woodpecker keeps returning
to drill the house wall.
Put a pie plate over one place, he chooses another.

There is nothing good to eat there:
he has found in the house
a resonant billboard to post his intentions,
his voluble strength as provider.

But where is the female he drums for? Where?

I ask this, who am myself the ruined siding,
the handsome red-capped bird, the missing mate.

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