Selected Poems by Mary Sue Koeppel

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The Assignment

       After the glass and the gas,

       the ambulances and the bystanders,

       only a plastic, green garbage bag.

       In it someone had tossed the shoes.

They'd been driving home for Easter,

watching for white dogwood trees,

two teens in a back seat,

their mom and dad up front.

Around a curve a drunken woman

giggled, jiggled when he tickled;

she fought him off and dared him.

In court they called it playing chicken

in a car that split my brother's car in two.

My mother called. Four planes later I was home.

Easter turkey still sat in the oven dry.

Trilliums bloomed in snow along the picket fence.

Neighbors brought the garbage bag,

a crumpled Easter basket smelling of gasoline,

a broken suitcase of blood-dyed clothes.

"Wash the clothes," my mother said.

"They'll need their Easter best.

And match their shoes."

I took the plastic bag, trembled

at the leather, colors, sizes, smell -

white high heels, brown high heels,

tan suede rubber soles,

size thirteen oxfords, half a lace.

Once I'd given students an assignment:

choose shoes for Shakespeare's characters.

"Juliet--in slippers, clogs, or spikes?" I asked.

"Romeo?" "Adidas," they said.

"Lear on the heath?" "Boots by L. L. Bean."

"Rosencranz and Guildenstern?" "Wingtips

black and blue."

Now from a bag, I had to choose.

We carried six matched shoes

to the funeral home. The two shoes left

I polished, held close, tried

to reconfirm the meanings in the choice.

"No," said Carmen white on her bed,

          "these are my mother's,

          where are mine?"

"She's wearing yours," I said;

          "she's warm beneath the snow."

     From In the Library of Silences, Poems of Loss by Mary Sue Koeppel, Rhiannon Press, 2001




            Wise men do not grieve

            having discarded sorrow.



Sorrow is to be discarded,

not thrown out like garbage,

not fingered or sorted

or given to the less fortunate,

but discarded like old cells,

like flakes of skin in the shower,

discarded like long hair

wound through a pointed comb.


A part that is not a part

any more is not grieved.

Wise ones neither mourn,

nor weep, nor squint in pain,

but sit in sacred stillness.

Peace is the quiet discarding.


From In the Library of Silences, Poems of Loss by Mary Sue Koeppel, Rhiannon Press, 2001

Reprinted in American Zen: a Gathering of Poets

Translated into Spanish and published on


            No se lamentan los sabios

            descartan las penas


La pena hay que descartarla

no hay que echarla a la basura,

no hay que toquetearla ni clasificarla,

tampoco dársela a los menos afortunados,

hay que descartarla como las células viejas

como las escamas de la piel en la ducha,

descartarla como el largo cabello

prendido en un peine puntiagudo.

Una parte que no es parte

no puede apenarnos de nuevas.

No se lamentan los sabios,

no lloran, no miran con ojos dolientes,

se sientan en una quietud sagrada,

la paz es...descartar tranquilamente.

Traducción: Jose M. Prieto, Marzo 2011, Asociacion Maestro Eckhart, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria

Ode to a Zucchini

     After "Ode to an Onion" by Pablo Neruda


long tube,

inside the black loam

inside the hillock

you appeared, a tiny shoot,

like a secret spot in a mouth

worried by earth's probing tongue.


long tube,

your texture formed

inch by inch

as stem expanded from flower

and, in the hiding place of leaves,

you grew your inner seeds.

You poked out

into the sun,

like the manhood of Zeus



making fertile.

No breast of Aphrodite

in you.

You are the seed of Zeus.

You are destined to be

bread of the vegetarian,

the damp,

heavy bread


with nuts.

Diced, you enter the cooking pot

generously melding

tomato and onion and corn.

You sooth the hungry

who need strength.

Plant of the poor,

more useful

than the showy pumpkin,

your brother.

We learned to taste you

the first time

with trepidation.

We praise you now,

son of Zeus,

delicious one.

     From Kalliope, a Journal of Women's Literature and Art. 30th Anniversary Edition, Vol. XXX, No. 1, 2008


When the House Is Empty of People and Ghosts,

                                        find the holds,

the little outcroppings you can grip.   

Place your feet, one at a time, and then

push yourself in, higher and further,

and you will find the place

where you are desire and sense,

where your feet and elbows

disappear and your breath is still.

There you can make stories.

When you climb back down,

hands and feet scraping stones,

your stories will be on your back,

heavy or light.

Where your talk is full silence,

you leave markings, and if not afraid,

you can climb again, maybe tomorrow.


       From Between the Bones, Poems by Mary Sue Koeppel. Canopic Publishing, 2005



When snow falls delicately,

like a dusting of meows

from a cat trying to get attention

but not making herself intrusive,

the human heart beats quietly,

like a steady, running purr

or the flutter of a set of

ripples on a smooth painting.

Still. There is no sound to that kind

of falling, no fright, only

gentle lapping, a little lifting,

and quiet, quiet respect.


       From In the Library of Silences: Poems of Loss by Mary Sue Koeppel. Rhiannon Press, 2001


While the Wolf Walks the Edge of the Woods

someone, turning in sleep

asks who

and not expecting an answer,

turns again, and

hearing the bell clap

knows it is early, but

the sanga meets before

sun or light or warmth

The nuns kowtow

to the floor and one

wonders if they bow

to Buddha or the light

beginning to streak

through the bamboo curtain

When the light reaches

the eyelids, the sight

says open and the eye

sees the grass bending

against the palmetto

and the palmetto bending

with the robin singing

and the robin bending

to the northeaster and

the whole zangha just

chanting to the rhythm

of the gong  Enough

it is enough    it is

       From Between the Bones, Poems by Mary Sue Koeppel. Canopic Publishing, 2005    



We are not a ripping scherzo,

not allegro of vibrating dance,

certainly not presto crescendo.

No, you and I are andante

lingering over espresso and

creamed strawberries at dusk,

andante, sometimes tremolo,

in soft, swallow-butterfly swoops,

con brio, sweet on the tongue.


       From Between the Bones, Poems by Mary Sue Koeppel. Canopic Publishing, 2005


The Spine-Tailed Dog, Prowling

You've tried to strangle the spine-tailed dog

prowling since the man snapping his leather strap

streaked your young buttocks, your thighs.

You cannot squelch your fears--

fear ants will unflesh you, undertows grab you,

termites eat down your home.

           You want to believe you can belly laugh,

           shake stomach muscles raw.

           You want resolute languor, comfort, joy.

           Want unadulterated joy.

           You imagine joy's tastes-- sweet Bing cherries

           rolled on tongues, shared, swallowed.

           Sweet purple cherries squashed on a water bed

           coating breasts, toes, belly.

Yet the spine-tailed dog

jams his wet nose behind your purple knees,

under you bare neck. How will you

erase stains from your skin?

Before work. Tomorrow.

Even elbow creases will need bleaching.

        From Between the Bones, Poems by Mary Sue Koeppel