Joshua Sutherland Allen

Joshua Sutherland Allen

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Why I Hate Working on Christmas Music

This is the season that I dread,
When autumn chills turn leafy forests red.
Visions of winter concerts fill my head,
And haunt my dreams at night in bed.

My choir sets serious scores and texts aside,
And turns to drab banalities of Christmastide.
The great majestic works in which we pride,
We put away and practice on “Sleigh Ride.”

The Tallis is already good to go,
The Bach will be within a week or so –
Music that helps my students learn and grow –
But now it’s time to work on “Let It Snow.” 

When I must hear or sing of silver bells,
I think that it must be my funeral knell,
And when kids’ voices with “White Christmas” swell,
I know that I am in musicians’ hell.

We could, of course, work only on the lays,
Chorales, and carols of the great feast day,
The works of Palestrina or Fauré:
These might my musical chagrin allay.

But then, the truth that I must now admit,
Is that my students like the Christmas hits –
The very ones that I think are base shit –
And though their attitude does not acquit

Vapidity of musicality,
I must remind myself that I can see
Their point – that silly as a song may be,
Value is not only in profundity.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Supermoon Eclipse

A strange ritual we enact, my wife and I,
A rite not to be repeated for eighteen years,
And not having been done
Since the early days of our lives
In 1982, to be precise:
Driving around the countryside,
Looking, and praying,
If praying is the right word,
For clouds to dissolve and disappear
So we can watch the moon disappear,
Turned red and eaten away
By our own shadow,
Projected two hundred and fifty thousand miles
Through vacuous space and Van Allen belts
To swallow the reflected lunar light
In its darkness.

The clouds that cover the moon
Disperse in time for us to see
The moon re-covered by our own earthly image.
We watch it a while,
And then drive home,

Through streets crowded with fellow watchers –
Neighbors who never have known each other
Until this night,
When a shadow draws us together.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Parent-Teacher Conferences

A clock clicking wasted seconds,
An empty room with polished floor
And textbooks put away,
Whiteboards cleaned.

Sounds of volleyball match next door,
Music rooms perched above the gym,
Balls bouncing, girls shouting,

Sitting and grading in silence
Papers written with wasted ink –
Formal writing couched in
Text-speak, slang.

Six o’clock and no one coming,
No crowds are cheering in this room;
Family at home eating
Without me.

A classroom waiting silently,
With gradebook and standards on hand
To talk about student

But no one comes tonight except
For those I do not need to see.
Those whose kids are struggling
Are not here.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Lacie, Our Cavalier King Charles Spaniel

Our dog, Lacie, died this past week.  Lacie and my wife, Traci, were best friends.  I used to joke that Lacie is the only one in the world that Traci loves more than she love me.  I wrote this poem in memory of Lacie, imagining what she might say to Traci now.

Here where I am,
Beneath the cedars and the hickories,
The pink and flowered dogwood by the way,
Beside the path that you have raked,
The bench you set,

You can just see
Across the hills, the pasture with the cows
Where I once went to call, that autumn day
I ran away, chasing some birds.
You looked for me,

And found me there,
Away and visiting the cows, my friends,
As I would call them.  I could make new friends
Anywhere, a standard, they say
Of my pure breed.

I loved it here,
In this cool forest, rabbits all around,
With leaves to chase, and shades in which to lie;
The bright butterflies I’d follow
And be happy.

I loved you too,
My dearest friend, and still love you.  You saved me
From misery and gave me warmth and comfort.
But best of all, you knew my soul,
And I knew yours.

Did you notice –
I’m sure you did – the way I cared for you
When you and he came home from hospital,
Your baby gone, your womb empty?
Sitting with you,

Licking your face,
I never left your side, you needed me,
The way I needed you in my last days,
When you, in return, stayed with me,
Stroking my fur

As my heart failed.
A heart too full of love to beat forever,
Not slowed so much by heart murmurs as by
The deep compassion held for you,
My constant love.

And I can say
Now that I’ve entered the mystic beyond:
The love you have shown me, and I’ve shown you,
I now give to your little child.
She’s here with me,

So do not fear.
The two of us – both she and I – together
Know you and pray for you always.  So visit
This lovely spot you made for me,
This arbor grave,

And speak to me,
And we will hear, and somehow be together
Where hickory and cedar trees give cover.
The love we had will never end,
My dearest friend.

Sunday, September 13, 2015


Footsteps are echoing down deserted halls:
A school on Sunday – students and teachers
Away, at home, forgetting fears and bothers,
Preparing for the week to come.  The sounds
Of steps from solitary visitor
Resound down quiet corridor, and tell
Just how alone I am.  Each sound made stronger
And still more resonant by empty space
And empty tile.  It seems not right, and yet
It also seems not wrong, somehow, or rather
It feels somehow that this is where I’m meant
To be, in this abandoned, darkened place.
With no one here, I am alone, with just
Myself, my work, and God perhaps for dismal
Company.  I don’t fear the dark, the space,
Or even being alone, and yet the sound
Of my own steps clacking, shuffling down
The hollow halls does chill me in some way.

It is as being at home, when one
You love is not around, away
On some small errand, or on some
Extended journey out of town,
Or even gone for good.  The sounds
Of daily, domestic habits,
Opening, closing doors, taking
Weekly garbage bins to the curb,
Washing dishes, bathing, splashing
In water run from rusty pipes:
Each isolated sound resounds
Through empty rooms, and empty mind.

It is also,
The emptiness
Of brains and hearts
Defeated and
From their routines:
Minds that are tired –
Those that cannot
Process more work,
Problem solving,
Good hearts that break
From too much love,
That give themselves
To ones who don’t
Understand, and
Beating slowly
Fade as their blood
Cannot be pumped
Or carry its
Load – oxygen and love –
To its members.


Friday, September 11, 2015

On Writing Bad Poetry

I. Choosing a Meter

Dactyls are second to none in the way that they bear elegiacs,
Mournful, sad songs of the ancients of Greek and of Roman antiquity,
How they can carry the lofty, bold lays of Homeric and Hesiod hymns,
Telling of Muses who sing for departed, old heroes of legend:
Long-haired Achaeans, swift-footed Achilles, and breakers of horses.
And yet, for Milton, Shakespeare, and for Donne,               
The iamb is the mode of choice, its soft
And soothing, restful cadence flowing smoothly
Across an English or provincial tongue.

Trochees rarely make good verses –
Dies irae, the exception
Poe’s stark Raven uses trochees,
As it beats your brain to pieces.
Hiawatha is the same, its
Silly rhythms tear asunder
Any beauty in its text.

Nature haiku are
Sometimes quite lovely, and yet
Rarely have much depth.        

The limerick is always such fun,
And sometimes they make use of puns,
But they’re always so base,
And lacking in grace,
That I want to be shot with a gun.

If you want,
You can sing a song of yourself,
           Your varied carols raise.
And sound of Whitman and his barbaric yawp
           Raising your voice and strain in lyric free verse.

Or if you are of hymnic mind,
This meter could help you,
Eight syllables in the first line
And six more in line two:

The standard meter of the fold
And of its hymns divine.
“Amazing Grace!” fits in this mold,
And also “Auld Lang Syne.”

e e cummings is an excellent model for
all aspiring poets out there except
for the fact that you must                  
be brilliant to be
able to pull this off
or else it just
and sounds
like rubbish

II.  To Rhyme, or Not to Rhyme

So now that we have settled on a time
And meter for our stanzas and our words,
We turn our thoughts to whether we should rhyme.

The terza rima lets us rhyme in thirds,
Dante its advocate both strong and true,
A favorite for those smart poetic nerds.

When I have fears sonnets may cease to be,
Before our pens have gleaned all use from them,
That Keats and Wordsworth we’ll no longer see,
That English textbooks will not teach this gem,
Nor students come to know Donne’s battered heart
Or Shakespeare’s mistress, lovely, temperate, fair,
The beauteous depth of Blake’s and Dunbar’s art,
Or learn how Browning loved with grace and care,
That teachers will not teach the flowing verse
Nor poets write the rich, fourteen-lined form,                         
Which for long centuries was our common purse
Of literary wealth – poetic norm:
Then will I weep and mourn for my dear tongue,
The English lingua franca that I love,
Assume that it’s become a heap of dung
And push it off with one disgusted shove.

And yet, so many of the greats have made
Blank verse their staple and foundation sound.                        
Like Robert Frost in “Mending Wall,” and “Birches” too,
And some of Ezra Pound’s succinct, brief works.

The couplet is a nice poetic twist,
As friendly as a friendly game of whist.

It always works just as it should,
So it’s been used by poets not so good.

Many a bad poet in couplets writes
Rotten poetry that really bites.

This form contains so much gross muck,
That we may rightly say, couplets suck.

(If evidence is needed, then please see
Joyce Kilmer’s verse about a tree.)

Of course, you could create your own rhyme scheme,
It’s easy as a meme, but never think to deflate
The power of your words to satisfy a rhyme –
Life is short, there is no time, you turds.

III.  Internal Sounds

Poetry is, at heart, a spoken word,
A sound from the heart
Passing briefly the tongue
And vocal chords and flying
Through air to the ear
And from there to the brain.
Therefore take care for how you sound,
And not just how your words array
A page in a book, or on a blog,
But how they seize the ear
Of those who listen,
And those who cannot help but listen.

Onomatopoeia is a sizzling hot way
To add a little pop to your sound.
But never overuse the little bams and crashes,
The punching power of sounding words,
Unless you want to bring your poem
Banging down and grinding to a halt.

Alliteration is the poet’s persistent problem,
Patterns of sound
Given pride of place in poetry and prose,
Pretty, playful, pleasing, perhaps,
Yet also with the penchant to be
Persnickety, peevish, petulant,
And perhaps painfully pedantic.

IV.  Foreign Words

For some it is almost de rigueur
To add a French, Greek, or German word or two
Into an English language work.
Of course this adds a certain je ne sais quoi,                          
A sense the author is un citoyen du monde,
A member of the οἶκος and πόλις that is our world,
Ein Mensch und ein Bürger der Welt.
If you do this, ich grolle nicht, and yet
I know that you are merely writing
Because you need the world to know
How smart you are.
It is the writer’s and the scholar’s hell
(Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate)
For their intelligence to go unremarked.
But as for me, I'll say no more:
βοῦς ἐπὶ γλώσσῃ μέγας.

V. Pulling It All Together

So now, we have decided on a form,
Pentameter, iambic, rhyme and verse
Our thoughts can now to pen and paper swarm,
And we may write however grand or terse.

There can be nothing left to do, correct?
We have the perfect sounding, polished phrases.
Just print the damn thing now, and so direct
Your agent to find royalties and raises.

One thing alone is missing from this stuff,
I hesitate to mention it at all,
Your poem is just now grand-standing fluff,
We never chose a theme on which to call.                           

What is the poem about? I hear you ask –
We spent such time discussing rhyme and sound,
We never talked about the crucial task
Of choosing content – themes were never found.

A lovely song of nothing we have here,
Concise and sounding beautifully deep,
But vapid as a day spent drunk on beer,
Good only to be tossed on rubbish heap. 

But do not fear, my loyal, friendly bards,
A truth I tell to you, so listen well,
Great works may be stylistically unmarred,
But deep within no hidden truths they tell.

Some of the greatest poets of our age –
Great emblems of tenacity and grit –
Write poems full of lyric grace or rage,
But deep within, they are just piles of shit.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Bound to Love

This poem came to be as I was experimenting with the Petrarchan sonnet form:

Syrian migrants harshly turned away,
Kentucky clerk jailed for contempt of court,
Illegal immigrants urged to deport,
And workers can be fired for being gay.
The preachers gripe about moral decay,
While candidates denounce those who abort,
And ridicule the poor as if it’s sport,
And say, “If only kids in school could pray.”
Devout I used to be, a foolish youth,
A child of God with passionate belief.
But faith, the manufacturer of grief,
Compels disciples to meanness and hate.
So wiser now am I, and done with truth,
But bound to love, the highest human trait.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015


When I was young, as best I can recall,
One day I said that I was bored, words sprung
From youthful haste and foolishness outpoured,
And said to she whose laboring love and work
Kept food upon our table, laundry clean
Within our drawers; kept grimy, moldy stains
From laying claim to all our tubs and toilets.
I’m sure I spoke my artless, silly thoughts
Just as my mother was unloading dishes
From dishwasher, or laundry from the dryer.
She looked at me with fed-up eyes and said,
“If you are bored, it means that you are boring.”

From that day on I’ve considered these words
When boredom or ennui has made me yawn
And slowly shut my eyes, with sleep made dewy,
Or when I’ve made lamenting, mournful cries
About how there is nothing here to do.
My mother’s scolding voice sounds in my head,
Reminding me that toil is never past,
Always there’s work to do, both in the home,
Where bathtubs need a scrubbing, laundry folding,
And in the world, where children are abused,
And homelessness and poverty abound.

And yet I have not adequately learned
The lesson she once strove for me to learn.
No, I have never, ever erred again,
By telling someone working that I’m bored,
But I have often simply given in
And let the boredom win, and laid my head
Upon my hands, or on some paper scrap
Discarded on my desk, and had a nap.
I guess that she was right, those years ago,
When I am bored indeed I am just boring.
But I am happy so to be, my boredom
Consumed by snoring and by somnolence.
And then in restful, sleeping, vivid dreams,
I do the things my boring self won’t do,
Or rather, maybe, will not think to do 
When my body’s boringly awake.

Monday, September 7, 2015


Fierce, in May, at about 10 weeks old.

We have a gigantic puppy named Fierce,
Who is the source of all distress and dismay.
A tiny, white fuzz when we rescued him
From oblivion by the side of the road,
Now he’s a humongous, sharp-toothed terror,
Not all that bright, but full of joy and energy.

His name I say too many times a day,
Because he is the cause of so much frustration:
There’s toilet paper chewed and strung all over,
Because Fierce.
The trashcan in the kitchen overturned,
Because Fierce.
The cat has run away,
Because Fierce.
My phone no longer has a case,
Because Fierce.
I am all wet,
Because Fierce.
There’s pee and poop all over the house,
Because Fierce.
The dishes in the kitchen are not safe,
Because Fierce.
I have not a single pair of pristine shoes,
Because Fierce.
The cord to the space heater split in two,
Because Fierce.
There’s trash in the backyard,
Because Fierce.
There’s not a moment of peace,
Because Fierce.
I dread going home,
Because Fierce.

And yet, when my wife comes home from work,
Her eyes light up and pains of work dissolve,
She’s happy again, and she will know joy,
Not because of me, her loving husband,
Or anything thing that I have done,
But because Fierce.

Fierce now.

Sunday, September 6, 2015


A phantom lives across the street from me,
Inhabiting the dappled corner house,
The one where they are building up the porch.
And yet at times he moves across the way
And then resides in my unfinished basement,
Or in our ashen guest bedroom downstairs.
His frequent travels through the neighborhood,
And just as frequent sojourns in our home,
Are governed by the mind and mental power
Of my curly-haired girl.  Our phantom friend,
Luigi is his name, sprang from her mind –
Perhaps aided by goading from my dad –
Already fully grown and with his own
Distinctive backstory.  He bought the house
On the sun-speckled block, but then concluded
That it lacked the space he needed.  So then,
He set to work expanding the front deck,
And when it’s done he’ll have parties on it.

Luigi never takes a bath or shower,
So you can always tell just where he is.
He poops his pants almost each day or so,
So, you can see, his scent is always vile;
His odor once ran off a skunk, they say.

Once when whirling round the block on her bike,
Our girl alluded, gestured down the street
To the ancient German Lutheran church.
“That’s where Luigi goes to church,” she said.
Protesting slightly, I boldly exclaimed:
“I always thought Luigi would be Catholic!”
My mother set me straight, and smiling said:
“Of course Luigi is a Lutheran,
His mother’s name was Hildegard.”

I could no longer challenge anything
She had to say about our friend.  A smelly,
Soiled Saxon, savvy, clever, and skilled
In matters of home repair and expansion,
A second-generation citizen
Of this great nation, born of immigrants
From Europe’s principal political
And economic power – a Lutheran
With an Italian name. 

                                    She knows him best,
So I’ll defer to her, and be content
To hear the silly stories she creates
And wants to share with me. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Wandering Cat

Two things there are that God cannot control,
In all his awesome majesty and power:
The master of the universe himself
Cannot force love for him from human hearts,
Nor can he mandate or compel justice
Or peace throughout his world. 

        But one more thing
There is God cannot do, and this small thing
Is that which I regret perhaps the most
Of all.  The infinite, divine, supreme,
Creating power has no command over
The mind or frantic actions of a cat.
I’ve heard it said that cats all show
The signs of Asperger Syndrome, while dogs
All live with ADHD.  A cat knows not
How to behave in social interaction,
Nor how to properly return the love
We give to them, in feeding, petting care.

This little cat of mine, she wastes no time
And runs away whene’er she sees a door
Even slightly opened to give the dogs
The opportunity to go and pee.
With all her inborn feline stealth and speed
She sneaks past me and prances, scampers through
The slightly opened door.

                                               I know the course
This jaunt of hers will take.  She will remain
Outside for just a day or two.  We will
See her just once or twice in all that time,
Perhaps chasing a bird, a mouse, a squirrel,
But never catching it, because she is
Too slow and lazy to keep up with things
That spend their lives, however brief, outside
Avoiding claws and teeth of predators.
I may see her again, another day,
Perched atop the gated fence that borders
Our backyard, or lying beneath my car.
I’ll call to her, and walk to her, but she
Will run away, because when she’s outside,
She wants nothing at all to do with me

I will give her a few days more, and then
She will no doubt return to me.  One night
She’ll come back in, just as she left, but now
A little thinner, hungry, thirsty too.
She’ll drink her water up as if she thinks
There’s no tomorrow, then she’ll sit beside
Her bowl of food, and wrap her furry tail
Around her furry feet, and she will eat.
And when she’s had her fill, she will settle
In my lap, and purring, fall fast asleep.

Our prodigal returning home to us,
Our stray returning to domestic life.
This cat of mine has a way of showing
The value of a wandering life, the truth
That adventure nourishes the spirit,
But also that it’s good to come back home,
Where you know you have a food bowl waiting,
And a soft, warm bed and lap to sleep on.
She knows that no matter the length of time
She’s been away, we will welcome her back,
And give her rest, and say she is at home.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015


I heard an Intercom buzz – when I died –
Or rather, it is what killed me –
The constant crackling, sawing, sizzling sound,
The sassy, sparking strain
Of electrical fuses on the fritz. 
The noisome, noxious noise,
The putrid, persistant popping
Buries all other waves of sound
In the room – particularly sinful
In a music classroom.

I am overtired
Of the Intercom I myself desired.
I begged the office every day
For an intercom that worked,
And also a phone, and perhaps a bell
So that I did not have to call around
And figure out when to dismiss my students.
The day we had intruder lockdown,
And I was unaware what went on,
Because my room had no intercom,
No bell, no phone, no connection
With the outside world.
It took them weeks to get it done,
And when they did, it worked quite well
For about an hour.  And then
It stopped, and I am left alone
With this ceaseless, sputtering sizzle.

I know now how it is that I will die,
This sound will pierce my brain.
I will be teaching, the bell will ring,
And I will keel over.  Perhaps I will
Stagger a little bit first,
Or perhaps I will just fall,
Not knowing what it was that hit me.
But I will collapse as life-bearing blood
Ebbs and pools around my head.
My students will know what happened,
They will see the small holes in my head
Where the sound stabbed in
And slashed my brain
To the size of squishy spaghetti.
Yes, I know how my end will be,
And now I can sing the refrain:
This is how the world ends,
Not with a bang, but a crackle.

My apologies to Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and T. S. Eliot.

Monday, August 31, 2015


Three tadpoles inhabit my front stoop,
Tenants of a flower vase from my mother’s house;
She scooped them up and put them there
One day while keeping my daughter.

It was a project they started together:
“We’ll watch and see how they grow,” they said.
Grandmother and girl caught the creatures,
Gave them their glassy home,

And then forgot about them.
And so they are mine to keep,
And mine to feed –
A little dried cabbage every few days or so.

The water is mine to aerate,
And the vase is mine to clean,
And switch out for a shallower pan someday,
So that the tadpoles can jump out when they have legs.

Flicking tails the tiny amphibians swim,
Ever curious about the giant that gives them cabbage
And stirs their water every day or two,
Breaking up the shadows where they hide and play.

They swim and grow, almost twice as big now
As they were the day they brought them home.
Soon their legs will emerge and tails disappear,
And I watch and wonder,

If someday they may be eating size.
Is it that kind of frog?  I cannot say,
But when I see them now, I envision
Those young, new legs fried on a plate.

Perhaps I am more like a frog
Than I would care to admit:
I can marvel at the mysteries of new life,
But in the end my appetite wins.

I do hunger and thirst for righteousness,
Also for knowledge and wisdom,
But most days these are easily conquered
By hunger for comfort, good food, good drink.

I like to think that I am good in my career,
That I make some difference in the lives
Of the students I teach; that I am
Something positive in my community.

But most days, I am like a frog:
Swimming to and fro,
Aimless and darting,
Trying not to be eaten.

I know, from them, the crucial truth,
That however big or great you may become,
There's always something, or even someone,
Who will eat you:

For each Achilles there is a heel,
A harpoon for each great whale.
Every Caesar has a Cassius,
And every Lincoln a Booth.

So when I go home this afternoon,
I plan to salute my little friends –
My fellow pilgrims through this world.
And give them some extra cabbage.

This I plan, that is,
Unless the cat has gotten in,
And in her scheming mischief,
Has eaten them before I arrive.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


Each day we complete a banal and sacred ritual,
A domestic compline in our homely chapel:
A bath, not baptism, but holy cleansing,
A Eucharistic meal of fruit and water,
Sacred readings not of Gospel or Quran,
But of Dr. Seuss and Chicken Little,
And a divine touch more solemn
Than that by which the hemorrhaging woman
Brushed the garment of Christ
And became whole.
A small hand, innocent of worldly ugliness,
Pure and unblemished by wrinkles,
Yet gnarled and chafed
From over-zealous nail biting:
I take it in mine, and I am complete,
I know love, and I comprehend grace.
Sitting by my child’s bed at night,
Reading her a story,
Listening outside her door as she finishes her bath,
Holding her hand as she falls asleep,
We enact a holy rite.

Chafed hands and bitten nails
Are a strange sort of sacrament,
Not unlike baptism in uncomfortably cold water,
A wedding where the cake never arrives,
Or the Body of Christ present in stale bread:
Divine mysteries manifest in fallible, human constructs.
But I like things that are human;
I’m happy with the marred and incomplete.
The sacred liturgies, even the Holy Gospel itself,
Set forth the way I learned it as a child,
With its flawless, Elizabethan cadence
And its majestic prose,
Is not quite so awesome
As my child’s small voice, reading to me about Rover.
Light-filled corridors infused with incense and statuary,
Are not quite as sacred
As my child’s rickety bedside.
When Thomas touched the hands and side of his Lord,
He could not have been more inspired
Than I am, when I hold my child’s slight hands in mine.
I cannot know if God or heaven are real,
But Paradise is in the gentle touch
She and I share each night.
There is no need for transcendent glory
When we perceive the immanent splendor
Of sacred touch
And mundane rites of human life.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Second Sunday of Easter

Childish hands, curly hair,
Disney princess dress,
Knobby knees bisecting skinny legs,
Dirty feet with painted toes.

Tired eyes, silly laughter,
Little arms embrace as sleep draws near;
Snoring sweet from mouth petite,
Foster parents adoring by her bed.

Wooden benches, legal laptops,
Suited lawyers, judicial decrees;
Family services, juvenile offices,
Birth mother’s rights restored.

Childish hands, curly hair
Gentle voice with loud, juicy lisp,
Knobby knees and gleaming eyes,
Taken away to another home.

Empty hallways, echoing bedrooms,
Backyard filled with abandoned toys;
Car seat vacant, souls are barren,
Foster parents bereft of joy.