NEA Literature Fellowships

David Keplinger

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(2003 - Poetry)

Elegy For the Precious Time Before Dinner

Along the fringe of two known worlds
That make the field, the prison yard,
Behind the house my mother and her sisters
Live in, this was years ago.

We're all still there, itinerant
As wind, the straits of corn
And guards who pace their impossible promontories,
And the small mouse just born here,
Total as a thumb.

With her sisters who are dead and my mother is a beauty
Taking the spoon
To beat the dog back from the pot,
At which they all begin to laugh.

Little beetles with a kind of Viking armor
I want to smash you, smash the spiders
Atop their pagodas
Which are the same as thoughts,
Smash the crazy locust that won't abandon its post.

At the house the women happily
Eye up the sauce about to boil.
I am wearing my emblematic cape.
I can fly at any moment if I want to,
But I don't.

David Keplinger's first book, The Rose Inside, was chosen by Mary Oliver for the 1999 T.S. Eliot prize. His essays, translations, and poems have appeared in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Gettysburg Review, AGNI, Virginia Quarterly Review, Mid-American Review, The American Voice, and many other journals. He has received grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Academy of American Poets, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and elsewhere. Keplinger currently directs the creative writing program at Colorado State University-Pueblo.

Author's Statement

"Elegy for the Precious Time Before Dinner" was one of those poems which incubated for years, then appeared one afternoon in a matter of ten minutes. It had been, in fact, many different failed poems that came together as one. Looking at the piece and its cast of characters, its backdrop of the maximum security Graterford Prison and my late aunt's house on the Pennsylvania countryside, the process by which this poem came to be seems now exactly right. So many disparate forces had crisscrossed there. In between those two worlds -- one of possibility and one of consequence -- there was a beautiful cornfield where I would sit all afternoon. The poem tries to create a "cathedral effect" in which no contradictory element is unwelcome. That's how I feel about poetry. It is literally supposed to smash you, or, your old preconceptions, and connect you to a more grand, more expansive "you" at the same time. As Rilke said, "You must change your life."