Read Me My Rights

Harryette Mullen teaches poetry and African-American literature at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“I’ll be emotionally disturbed for as long as it takes.”

Harryette Mullen

If You Should Go

by Countee Cullen

Love, leave me like the light,
The gently passing day;
We would not know, but for the nght,
When it has slipped away.

So many hopes have fled,
Have left me but the name
of what they were. When love is dead,
Go thou, beloved, the same.

Go quietly; a dream
When done, should leave no trace
That it has lived, except a gleam
Across the dreamer’s face.

[it’s rank it cranks you up]

by Harryette Mullen

it’s rank it cranks you up
crash you’re fracked you suck
shucks you’re wack you be
all you cracked up to be

dead on arrival   
overdosed on whatever
excess of hate and love
I sleep alone

if you were there
then please come in   
tell me what’s good
think up something

psychic sidekick
gimme a pigfoot
show me my lifeline
read me my rights

One Stubborn Remnant of Your Cares

Mark Jarman

“Love make us poets, and the approach of death should make us philosophers.”

George Santayana

Unholy Sonnet

by  Mark Jarman

After the praying, after the hymn-singing,
After the sermon’s trenchant commentary
On the world’s ills, which make ours secondary,
After communion, after the hand wringing,
And after peace descends upon us, bringing
Our eyes up to regard the sanctuary
And how the light swords through it, and how, scary
In their sheer numbers, motes of dust ride, clinging—
There is, as doctors say about some pain,
Discomfort knowing that despite your prayers,
Your listening and rejoicing, your small part
In this communal stab at coming clean,
There is one stubborn remnant of your cares
Intact. There is still murder in your heart.

Sweet Are The Days

by George Santayana

Sweet are the days we wander with no hope
Along life’s labyrinthine trodden way,
With no impatience at the steep’s delay,
Nor sorrow at the swift-descended slope.
Why this inane curiosity to grope
In the dim dust for gems’ unmeaning ray?
Why this proud piety, that dares to pray
For a world wider than the heaven’s cope?

Farewell, my burden! No more will I bear
The foolish load of my fond faith’s despair,
But trip the idle race with careless feet.
The crown of olive let another wear;
It is my crown to mock the runner’s heat
With gentle wonder and with laughter sweet.

I Want My Freedom

Honoring George Floyd during the murder trial of ex MPD officer Derek Chauvin accused in his death.

April Rain Song

By Langston Hughes

Let the rain kiss you
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops
Let the rain sing you a lullaby
The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk
The rain makes running pools in the gutter
The rain plays a little sleep song on our roof at night
And I love the rain.

I have been asked several times in the past three weeks how does it feel in Minneapolis during the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd?  It has felt tense, the community on edge with the expectation that Chauvin will be found guilty and sent to prison.  The case against him seems straight forward, with overwhelming testimony that his actions constituted murder.  But we have seen what appeared to be straightforward trials have unexpected outcomes before and there is palpable  worry that what seems obvious in terms of justice will somehow get mangled in our judicial system, despite overwhelming testimony by government and police officials against Chauvin. 

All of that changed a week ago for the worse with the tragic death of Daunte Wright, another unarmed black man killed by police in the Twin Cities, this time in what appears an accidental shooting but no less tragic and devastating for his family.   Now, there is an additional profound sense of sadness that is like a smog that hangs over this city.  

Yesterday I had an errand in the proximity of the most destructive area of the protests last May/June on Lake Street.   A year later it still looks like a war zone, the majority of the business storefronts covered over in plywood, rubble from buildings gutted by fire evident behind temporary chain link fences that are no longer temporary, groups of heavily armed National Guardsman in helmets, flak jackets, carrying rifles a noticeable presence every mile or so next to armored personnel carriers; a scene that looks like what I used to think was only existed in the Middle East, but is now apart of the daily presence in my city for the next couple of months.   It doesn’t look or feel like my home.  It is disturbing.   

The most troubling aspect is I have doubts that the businesses and theaters that I frequented before all this will survive the double whammy of the economic disruption of COVID and the economic devastation of the damage done in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.  Businesses are a reflection of people – both the livelihood of the owners and employees and the economics of their customers.  They are the places where we spend our money and enjoy our lives.   I fear the people that supported those restaurants, bars, night clubs, record stores, hardware stores, grocery stores, book stores, bike shops, etc, are being hollowed out.  Its not white flight it is blight flight. Its not just white people leaving these neighborhoods, its the entire middle class.  There is lots of expensive new housing being built along that corridor, projects begun prior to all this, now surrounded by urban decay. The question is can anyone afford to live in them and will they want to?    

I don’t feel as safe in the neighborhoods I have lived and shopped for decades.  When the neighborhood grocery store, paint store and hardware store my mother used to shop at are boarded up again and again and again to prevent vandals from breaking windows and stealing things, the sense of violence becomes part of our architecture, we become numb to it. It takes its toll in how you think of your community.   As I drove along Lake Street for several miles,  the spray painted graffiti on boarded up buildings became a blur.   The city-scape a physical manifestation of  anger and economic dysfunction, with little sign of spring.  

I am leaving this city this summer.  I was on the path to move before all this happened the past 12 months, but it feels different now, it has a touch of defeat, a whiff of failure.  Every house I have owned in Minneapolis, I have left in better condition than when I purchased it, I have tried to make my neighborhoods better.  Is that gentrification or being a responsible home owner?  I am in the process of selling my property and moving on.  I won’t be a part of the economic revival that Minneapolis is counting on.  I won’t pay taxes anymore and I will be spending very little money within its confines.  I don’t recognize the city I used to love.  Instead I’ll leave it to the next generation, like me and my friends did 40 years ago, to try and fix things up. When I moved to Minneapolis in 1981, the crime rate was higher than today, urban blight was everywhere.  It took decades for things to get better.  And it did get better, until it didn’t.  I wish the next generation well, hoping the new owners success in creating community once again.   


By Langston Hughes
Freedom will not come
Today, this year
            Nor ever
Through compromise and fear.
I have as much right
As the other fellow has
            To stand
On my two feet
And own the land.
I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.
            Is a strong seed
            In a great need.
            I live here, too.
            I want my freedom
            Just as you.   

Who Will Do It Again?

John Updike (1932 – 2009)

“Only the curious have, if they live, a tale worth telling at all.”

Alistair Reid

Perfection Wasted

by John Updike

And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,
which took a whole life to develop and market-
the quips, the witticisms, the slant
adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched
in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,
their tears confused with their diamond earrings,
their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
their response and your performance twinned.
The jokes over the phone. The memories packed
in the rapid-access file. The whole act.
Who will do it again? That’s it: no one;
imitators and descendants aren’t the same.

Poem Without Ends

by Alastair Reid

One cannot take the beginning out of the air
saying ‘It is the time: the hour is here’.
The process is continuous as wind,
the bird observed, not rising, but in flight,
unrealised, in motion of the mind.

The end of everything is similar, never
actually happening, but always over.
The agony, the bent head, only tell
that already in the heart the innocent evening
is thick with the ferment of farewell.

She’s Making A Mistake

Judith Viorst

Mother Doesn’t Want a Dog

by Judith Viorst

Mother doesn’t want a dog.
Mother says they smell,
And never sit when you say sit,
Or even when you yell.
And when you come home late at night
And there is ice and snow,
You have to go back out because
The dumb dog has to go.

Mother doesn’t want a dog.
Mother says they shed,
And always let the strangers in
And bark at friends instead,
And do disgraceful things on rugs,
And track mud on the floor,
And flop upon your bed at night
And snore their doggy snore.

Mother doesn’t want a dog.
She’s making a mistake.
Because, more than a dog, I think
She will not want this snake.

One of the delights of having small children in your life is the opportunity to sit down and read to them every day.  It’s a way of unplugging from the adult world and entering the world and ideas of children’s books.  One of my favorite books when my children were little was Viorst’s; Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.  I read it so many times, I think I remember the opening lines by heart – “I went to bed with gum in my mouth and woke up with gum in my hair. Its going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”  Viorst continues on to illustrate in a funny way, that things happen and we all have to deal with it.

It feels like we have been a streak of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days lately, more than our fair share.  And unlike Alexander, where a scissors and a bit of snipping can set things right on the first disaster, there is nothing we can do to protect ourselves and our children from the onslaught of no good that is all around us.  The senseless tragedy in Minneapolis this week in the death of Dante Wright is beyond comprehension and I am not going to even attempt to comment  other than to acknowledge the tremendous sadness myself and others in my immediate community are feeling.   No words feel like they address the scope of the frustration and sadness of the ongoing police violence in the Twin Cities.        

For today, I am going to retreat into the simplicity of children’s verse and blot out this terrible, horrible, no good very bad day.   And offer a silent prayer for my city, that some level of healing happens and change is not just rhetoric but real, real soon.   


by Shel Silverstein

Sandra’s seen a leprechuan
Eddie touched a troll,
Laurie danced with witches once,
Charlie found some goblins’ gold.
Donald heard a mermaid sing.
Susy spied an elf.,
But all the magic I have known
I’ve had to make myself.

I Mean You To Know

Louise Gluck

You saved me, you should remember me.

Louise Gluck


by Louise Gluck

No one’s despair is like my despair–

You have no place in this garden
thinking such things, producing
the tiresome outward signs; the man
pointedly weeding an entire forest,
the woman limping, refusing to change clothes
or wash her hair.

Do you suppose I care
if you speak to one another?
But I mean you to know
I expected better of two creatures
who were given minds: if not
that you would actually care for each other
at least that you would understand
grief is distributed
between you, among all your kind, for me
to know you, as deep blue
marks the wild scilla, white
the wood violet.


by Edna St. Vincent Millay

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

I Think It Mercy

The first flowers of Spring 2021 in our yard.


by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Nothing is so beautiful as spring–
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy pear tree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.–Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

Spring has sprung in Minnesota and with it the smells and sounds and sights of green and growing things.  We had a gentle rain this week and grass overnight turned emerald green.  On most lakes the ice is out and our world is turning phases, from solid to liquid.  I am eager to get some dirt under my finger nails, rake up the detritus of winter and allow the recent rains to soak in and get the spring flowers growing. 

There have been many poets who have used the sonnet form as a spiritual medium, to let their minds wander into the sublime, beyond the boundaries of human love and into the infinite.   Both Donne and Hopkins used their poetry as testaments to God, but in doing so reaffirmed their very human relationship with nature and in their eyes its manifestation God’s love in nurturing all life on earth.   In this way, Christianity and Buddhism share some common themes, in that we are all manifestations of God’s (Buddha’s) consciousness and yet, as Donne reminds us, it is in the forgetting, at least in the forgetting of the worst of ourselves,  that we are best remembered.

If Poisonous Minerals, And If That Tree

by John Donne

If poisonous minerals, and if that tree
Whose fruit threw death on else immortal us,
If lecherous goats, if serpents envious
Cannot be damn’d, alas, why should I be?
Why should intent or reason, born in me,
Make sins, else equal, in me more heinous?
And mercy being easy, and glorious
To God, in his stern wrath why threatens he?
But who am I, that dare dispute with thee,
O God? Oh, of thine only worthy blood
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drown in it my sins’ black memory.
That thou remember them, some claim as debt;
I think it mercy, if thou wilt forget.

And A Song Was Born

Koa Kalia Yang

Birth of a Song Poet

by Bee Yang 
Translated by Koa Kalia Yang

“I didn’t have very many people around to say beautiful things to me.”

“I used to go from the house of one neighbor to the next
collecting beautiful things people had to say to each other.”

“By myself, I whispered the words to comfort my heart.  One
day, the words escaped on a sigh and a song was born.”

I have waited to write this entry, hesitant on how to approach it, not wanting exuberant language to not live up to the respect this work deserves.  Every year I have a favorite book that grabs a hold of my heart and imagination and makes a lasting imprint.  In 2020, that book was The Song Poet by Koa Kalia Yang.  Yang is a local St. Paul writer, who tells the story of her families journey from the jungles of Laos to St. Paul. It is a book that delves deeply into war, cultural displacement, racism, equity, fairness and the courage of love and hard work in the immigrant community so that children can have better lives than their parents.  Mostly its a love story between father and daughter and the power of words to be trans-formative from one artist to another, from one generation to another. 

On the opening page the first line begins; “My father would never describe himself as a poet…I am the only person I know who describes my father’s work as poetry….My father is not a writer.  He does not write down his compositions.  He is a singer.  He sings them.”  Koa Yang goes on to describe how as an adult listening to a copy of a cassette, worn and scratched with repeated play and then transferred to CD, she hears the sound of her father’s voice singing his traditional compositions through a fresh perspective as an adult. “What I found…was not a work of suffering.  The first time I listened through my father’s album as an adult, it was striking to me that there was humor, irony, and astute cultural and political criticism.  There was so much more than the hurt that he had harnessed in his songs.  There was the beauty of endless hope….”

I have not been the father my children have wanted or needed me to be.
I have been, at my best and at my worst, only the father I imagined for myself.

Bee Yang

In Koa Yang’s memoir I unexpectedly found a flood of memories.  In the late 1970’s my childhood household hosted several immigrants and visitors for short periods of time, depending on your definition of short and time.  The first were two Vietnamese helicopter pilots that were sponsored by the Presbyterian church we attended.   It was right after the fall of Saigon.  They were both highly educated engineers, resilient yet deeply emotionally wounded, having survived the war but also having left family and their hearts behind in Vietnam.  I was 12 years old, not emotionally mature enough to totally understand the complexity of the situation, but very much cognizant of the upheaval their presence created in our home during their stay of about 10 months.  They needed relatively little from us.  Our house was a safe house in a way, a place to figure out their next steps in their new life in America, a place to save some money and decompress and plan.  They quickly found good jobs and became the success story that is the immigrant experience that is idealized in America; they worked hard and moved to California where they married and continue to live good lives.  However,  in looking back I realize this was the start of my Mother using the cover of strangers living in our home for extended periods to do good work but also keep up the appearance that her marriage was not unraveling.  It’s amazing what the presence of outsiders will do to keep the lid on stress within a family. 

The stranger baton was handed from Bong and Long, the helicopter pilots, to my Mother’s adult cousins, who lived with us for one complete summer, while building a house and stored what seemed like all their earthly possessions in our basement, to a year long exchange student from Peru until eventually even the stretch wrap of strangers couldn’t prevent what was inevitable and my parents separated. 

This didn’t stop my Mother’s need to do good work as a way of healing. When the second wave of immigration from Southeast Asia began happening in 1980 of Hmong refugees to St. Paul, our church again sponsored a family; my Mother put up her hand once more and invited into our house a family of seven from Laos, our home filling with the noises of a family and not the quiet it had become as result of my two sisters having left for college and my Father having moved out, my parents separated but not yet divorced.  I was now a 17 year old and more aware and a bit resentful to all the chaos as well.  The Hmong family lived in the basement suite, which was the old master bedroom with a private bathroom and large play area as well as their own entrance.  They cooked in our kitchen and played in our huge back yard.  It wasn’t good or terrible, it was just awkward.  Unlike Bong and Long, who spoke fluent English, and were largely self sufficient,  this family spoke no English, and were completely dependent on us and the church for all of their basic needs at first.  This level of dependence was not exactly what I think my Mother had imagined.  Their lack of English combined with the circumstances made all communication in the household difficult.  My mother handled most of the interactions and negotiations that have to occur between two families living under one roof in sign language.  But in reality, in the end, both sides just put up with each other, knowing it would eventually come to an end.  The cultural divide was even bigger than the language barrier.  It only lasted about 4 months, two of which I wasn’t there much.  I dealt with it by trying to be home as little as possible, busy with athletics, a job and friends. I pretended it wasn’t happening.  It wasn’t until I read Yang’s book that I really even thought about that experience again.  Just like Koa Yang listening to her father’s voice as an adult helped her see her father through a fresh lens, reading Yang’s memoir helped put me back into those years, only to emerge with a new perspective, to acknowledge how awkward it must have been for that family as well as my Mother and myself.  In her memoir I found new respect; and an acknowledgement of the courage and strength of that family, to come to America and their quiet dignity in accepting the support of the church and my family in living in our house, even if it just was my Mom and I living there at the time.  

We all have those moments when we think about our deceased loved ones with sentences in our minds that begin with; “I wish..”   I wish my Mother and I had read The Song Poet together when she was alive and used it as way to heal those few remaining cuts from those years that still require a few stitches.  Not stitches in our relationship, stitches in ourselves.  In retrospect when I add up all the things that happened in that short period of time from 1975 to 1980 and all the people that came and went from that house, with my Mother and I the only two people that were consistently together during about a 5 year stretch, it hardly seems real.  It is hard to fit the narrative of all those experiences into so short a time span.

One of the curses and blessings that haunt immigrants as well as the generation that grew up in the depression of the 1930’s is the lasting impact that poverty has on your entire lives and the lives of your children.  It creates this driving beat that underscores all conversations with children around the need for education and the need to work, to define success through the lens of a career.  Reading Yang’s memoir it was striking how similar my experience in listening to my father growing up was similar in some ways to hers. I look back on that period today as a father myself, proud of his adult children, knowing I have done my best, like my father has done his best, but also knowing, like Bee Yang, I may not have been everything my children needed or wanted, only the father I imagined myself to be. Maybe that is the eternal song of all fathers from the beginning of time, the true curse of fatherhood, a piece of us becomes our own father’s victories and defeats. 

On Yang’s opening page, she says; ” My father says that on his grave-stone he wants it known that his wife and children are his life’s work.  He would love it if I could add: “All of Bee Yang’s children became good people.”  Those lines set the table for the rest of Yang’s beautiful book and it was with those lines she had me as a reader.  For it is exactly those same sentiments about her children that my Mother lived and breathed and sang her entire life.  Not just to her biological children but all the other children she taught and cherished and adopted and loved over her years.  My mother’s legacy in work was people.   And she too would want me to add, all of her children became good people….

If you are looking for a book to help you think in new ways about the immigrant crisis from a lens slightly different than the one portrayed in the media, I can’t recommend The Song Poet highly enough.  Though it speaks of another time and another place than the world we live in today, it is still relevant.  It is a book that will wrap itself around your imagination and not let go and maybe bring to light much needed healing in your own life or at least shed light on the larger issues of migration and the immigrant experience in America and set it to a rhythm of mutual respect,  born of courage to re-frame our lives to the challenges of today. 

Song of Separation

by Bee Yang
Translated by Kao Kalia Yang

A son wakes up in the early morning.
At the threshold of his house, he says, “Father show me
. . where you have gone.”
He walks the dirt path to the garden he must till.
He wonders, “Is this the direction where my father
. . could be?”
At the edge of the forest, there is a buzzing bee, perched
. . upon a flower whose soft petals glisten in the morning
. . light.
The son wanders close and asks, “Father, did this flower
. . bloom for you years ago when this was your home?”
In the center of his garden, there is a young deer, head
. . bent toward the earth, eating shoots of green rice.
The son quiets his steps and he wants to know, “Is this
. . the animal who now carries my father’s soul?”


It Sings In Me

Sara Teasdale (1884 – 1933)

I make the most of all that comes and the least of all that goes.

Sara Teasdale


by Sara Teasdale

The roofs are shining from the rain.
The sparrows tritter as they fly,
And with a windy April grace
The little clouds go by.

Yet the back-yards are bare and brown
With only one unchanging tree–
I could not be so sure of Spring
Save that it sings in me.

Sara Teasdale was born in St. Louis into a wealthy family.   As a young woman she spent time in Chicago’s literary circles, including a friendship with Harriet Monroe through whom she met and dated the poet Vachel Lindsay.   Teasdale rejected Lindsay’s marriage proposals, an itinerant poet whom may have lacked the income to be a suitable partner in her eyes, but may have been a better match intellectually.  Instead she married Ernst Filsinger in 1914 and moved to New York City.   Teasdale published several collections of  classical poetry and edited several other anthologies.  Though her work is often overlooked today, she was popular with both critics and readers in her day.  Following her divorce in 1929, her health declined rapidly.  Teasdale became an invalid and died following a bout with pneumonia by an overdose of barbiturates.  

There is a sadness that runs through much of Teasdale’s poetry, as if life just didn’t quite measure up to her hopes and dreams.   Its hard to know if it was maniac depression or something darker that had blotted out her joy, but Teasdale seemed to run out of steam as the economic depression of the 1930’s took hold and the life of privilege and wealth that she had enjoyed started to feel out of reach.  In her bob hair cut, and beautiful smile, it would be interesting to know the back story to the last two lines of the sonnet below, but from my perspective the beauty in her words will never be dull.  



by Sara Teasdale

I saw a ship sail forth at evening time;
Her prow was gilded by the western fire,
And all her rigging one vast golden lyre,
For winds to play on to the ocean’s rhyme
Of wave on wave forever singing low.
She floated on a web of burnished gold,
And in such light as praying men behold
Cling round a vision, were her sails aglow.
I saw her come again when dawn was grey,
Her wonder faded and her splendor dead — ‘
She whom I loved once had upon her way
A light most like the sunset. Now ’tis sped.
And this is saddest — what seemed wondrous fair
Are now but straight pale lips, and dull gold hair.

With What Grace I Can


Happy Easter!

The Easter Flower

by Claude McKay

Far from this foreign Easter damp and chilly
My soul steals to a pear-shaped plot of ground,
Where gleamed the lilac-tinted Easter lily
Soft-scented in the air for yards around;

Alone, without a hint of guardian leaf!
Just like a fragile bell of silver rime,
It burst the tomb for freedom sweet and brief
In the young pregnant year at Eastertime;

And many thought it was a sacred sign,
And some called it the resurrection flower;
And I, a pagan, worshiped at its shrine,
Yielding my heart unto its perfumed power.


Mirror in February

by Thomas Kinsella

The day dawns, with scent of must and rain,
Of opened soil, dark trees, dry bedroom air.
Under the fading lamp, half dressed – my brain
Idling on some compulsive fantasy –
I towel my shaven jaw and stop, and stare,
Riveted by a dark exhausted eye,
A dry downturning mouth.

It seems again that it is time to learn,
In this untiring, crumbling place of growth
To which, for the time being, I return.
Now plainly in the mirror of my soul
I read that I have looked my last on youth
And little more; for they are not made whole
That reach the age of Christ.

Below my window the wakening trees,
Hacked clean for better bearing, stand defaced
Suffering their brute necessities;
And how should the flesh not quail, that span for span
Is mutilated more? In slow distaste
I fold my towel with what grace I can,
Not young, and not renewable, but man.