Unrealized Potential

After L’Arlesienne by Van Gogh


The crumpled pages of the open book seem

ready to take flight from the mossy table

like a paper kite from a meadow,

but the brown-skinned woman,

not old, but old enough to know,

whose tired but sensitive hands

have thumbed them into perpetual

memory, does not look down

at the familiar pages, but off

into mustard-lit space, not

at the kite skipping along the ground,

but at the sky it’s aimed for,

not at the inadequate words

but at the ideas they might

have expressed, were such

things possible at all. Her

other book, the red one,

lies there closed; of it,

she’s had enough already,

its story ignoring hers.


Note: My result from a workshop session on ekphrastic poetry led by Mark Wagenaar and Mary Moore.

Copyright 2017

T. Allen Culpepper

The Scholars’ Dive

After Emily Dickinson


Traffic disperses a dusting of Snow

as Students just awoken

trickle in for Coffee now,

necks in red scarves bound.


The Books from their rucksacks spread

out on varnished tables,

they dive into a Pool of Words

as deep as they are able.


Copyright 2017

T. Allen Culpepper

A Shelf of My Grandmother’s Books

She had collected the Harvard Classics too,

in their dark green faux-leather covers, but I

have chosen the other set, from a publisher called Black’s,

bound in red cloth embossed with black and gold,

Smythe-sewn spine, small print, and rough-cut pages,

because the editors’ quirky choices–

they sometimes get it right, as with Shakespeare,

Hawthorne and Ibsen, Byron, Dostoevsky–

but Bret Harte?  And who the hell is Haggard?

But the randomness reminds me of her,

who without discrimination read

voraciously–romances, mysteries,

biographies, how-to books, the Bible–

often three books, or four, simultaneously.

Intelligent but from hard times, she’d never

been to college, though she dreamed of it,

wanted to write, took a correspondence

course in writing children’s stories, assignments

picked out on a little Olivetti,

sent in by mail,  and then her anxious wait

for the reader’s letters, her certificate.

She and I sometimes got on, sometimes

not so much; she made the move “back home”

when I was an independent teen,

not wanting all the attention she longed to give me.

Only later did I want to hear

her stories, and by then, it was hard–

her hearing had been badly damaged when she

worked on radios during the war, and a plane

took off unexpectedly when she

had forgotten her ear protection,

and her deafness grew worse and worse with age;

much later, an accident injured her eyes, and then

she become displaced in time, unsure

if she was speaking to me or to my father.

And then I felt remorse for my behavior,

regretful about what I might have learned.

Often I suspect that my love of books

comes from her, so upon her death,

the remembrance that I wanted was

a set of books reflective of the desire

for education that she always harbored.

Despite our conflicts and her flaws, despite

how she become impossible near the end,

I loved her, and I know she helped shape

the career path that I would take.

Perhaps her influence primed me to be a poet.


Copyright 2013

T. Allen Culpepper