Afterword poems by Rennie McQuilkin

Image of Rennie McQuilkin
Photo courtesy of Hill-Stead Museum.  

Afterword presents work selected from the daily poems written by CT Poet Laureate Rennie McQuilkin during 2016 and 2017.  They reflect a joyous gloaming in his late life, offering praise more often than disparagement and spiced with wit. Here is the poet’s own commentary on the book: “After finishing several late-life writing projects, I was ready to “sell my camel,” as the Bedouins say. But poems continued to rise up, at first sporadically and then in January of 2017, more insistently, perhaps incited by the 25th anniversary of the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival and a strangely sanguine sense of mortality. From then until the end of the year, I wrote nearly a poem per day, often late at night when I fell into bemused mullings of the day’s events. Afterword is a sampling of those poems, beginning with the earliest from 2016.” About the book, Richard Blanco has this to say: “As the title so aptly evokes, the poems in Afterword read like tender after-thoughts on those seemingly ordinary encounters of our lives which are rendered extraordinary through McQuilkin’s keen eye and exquisitely shaped language.”
Afterword cover image
Photo by Donna Page.

From 2015 to 2018, Rennie McQuilkin was Poet Laureate of Connecticut.  His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Poetry, The Southern Review, The Yale Review, The Hudson Review, The American Scholar,   Crazyhorse, and elsewhere. This is his sixteenth poetry collection.  He has received numerous awards for his work, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, the Ruth Fox Award of the New England Poetry Club, the Swallows Tale Poetry Award, and the Texas Review Chapbook Prize.  He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Connecticut Center for the Book; and in 2010 his volume of new and selected poems, The Weathering, was awarded the Center’s annual poetry prize under the aegis of the Library of Congress. Recently, McQuilkin won the 2018 Next Generation Indie Book Award in Poetry. For nine years he directed the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, which he co-founded at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut. With his wife, the artist Sarah McQuilkin, he lives in Simsbury, CT, where he has been the local poet laureate. The McQuilkins will soon be moving to Seabury Life, a retirement community in Bloomfield, CT.

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ISBN 978-1-943826-43-8

First Edition 2018

6" x 9" paperback, 112 pages

This book can be ordered from all bookstores, including Amazon.



Copyright © 2018 by Rennie McQuilkin




Aubade with Woodstove   


Beside me she makes her somewhat joyful noise –
slight gasps, a small whispering,
cracklings like a careful animal walking on twigs.

She’d be happier if I’d open a window, let her
breathe dawn’s gray-rose weather. 
Off to see what my kind are up to now,

I let the outside in, and she leaps to the occasion.
I too am revived, not by the daily news I carry in
(worse than ever) but by the earthly celebration

going on despite the news I feed the fire
that knows what to make of it.  We two, gone wild,
are for the moment full of cheer, a brightening.






Earth was providentially in love with her Sky
and he with her.  Whatever she asked, he did:
became a low cloud cover like summer linen
touching lightly, shielding her limbs in sleep,
jolted her with bolts of lightning
when she craved excitement,
and if she burst into flames, drenched her
with a good growing shower.
When she grew quiet, he blurred the world
to mist, inhabiting her, no difference between
the two of them, the sky earth, earth sky.



That Time


Strange how a fleeting moment
fifty years ago is what defines that time
of life:  the way she lifted her blouse
so suddenly her breasts, pink-hearted,
rose up like startled birds
and all these years have held their pose.



Love Is Like That


My grandson has moved in.  His room stinks.
He is covered with a thick pelt of fur,
is pushing 300 pounds, walks hunched over.
When I ask him again today
to open the door wider when he showers
to keep a thick crop of mold from spreading,
he pushes it farther shut.
My voice rises. “Open it!”  Soon we’re screaming
before we go to our rooms.  And I’m thinking
How ridiculous.  When he comes back down,
he’s crying, says that when he was in jail
the guards watched everyone in the showers.
“I don’t want anyone seeing me like that.”
Then why does he sprawl on his bed, door open,
mostly naked, I ask.  He shakes his large head.
But it’s dawning on me.  It’s the bear in him.
The room is his den, he’s safe there. 
The bathroom downstairs is my territory.
He’s not safe there.  Bears are like that.

We’re both quiet now.
I say “I love you” as he leaves for work.
He says it back, almost under his breath,
but shuts the door softly. 
When I come down next morning, he’s lit a fire
in the woodstove.  He says he only had to blow
on the embers.



Casting On
for Lorrie


It is not a matter of choice.
Seeing her mother die
slowly in an agony of waiting,

and her friend, her beautiful friend
attacked from within both breasts
and beyond,

and the very country she inhabits
destroying itself inside out,
tyranny tearing its fiber,

she knits, knits and knits –
too ferociously her friends say.
What’s too ferocious?

She knits, that’s all.  For her friend
so suddenly at sea
she casts on fifty times around

the rim of a cap to fit a head losing
its exquisite curls – she works
yarn tough as hawsers to hold her,

knits and purls and purls, knits
until her hands ache with an ache
she welcomes,

and when one strawberry helmet
is done, she begins another
another color.

She cannot stop
knitting magenta scarves for her mother,
scarlet muffs for her friend,

bright sweaters and sweaters for all of us
like chain mail.  She casts on, casts on
and on, not to lose herself, adrift in an ocean

of loss.  Like any creature in peril, she will
not stop.  Her knitting needles
flash and blur, swords whetting for war.



Song of the Hunchback


Who am I to call a woodcock ungainly with that noggin
too big for its body and a double-jointed beak too big
for the noggin that issues such blatantly nasal kazooing
you’d never think the thing could rise up, wing-whistle

just like that and circle so melodiously and spiral down
like helixes of DNA I wish I had, bent over, earth-bound
as I am.  It’s solace to know a creature that ugly
can ride the sky so courtly.  No matter how wholly dumb

and deaf and blind we are and bent by Time,
there’s hope that some of what we are will fly.



Aubade Beneath Steep Hill


Like the strings of a harp, slender birches and oaks
on the slope of Steep Hill are played by last light
of the moon sliding in and out among them,
slim fingers of moon light – and now, as the trees part
in a breeze, this wider glow, like a harpist’s palm
on her strings.  Hush, hush . . .

until the water music of a russet wood thrush calls
up the mauve, violet, and rose
blush of cumulus dawning and a second thrush
responds with the liquid anapest of I am here
in answer to the other’s Are you there?

As the west continues to brighten in light of the east
the antiphony quickens.  Are you there? 
I am here.
Are you there? 
I am here.



Arrival of the Whooper Swans

December 8, 2016


If the batch of us on a student ship in ’54
who ate and drank and danced our way to Galway
were moved to rise at 5 a.m. for landfall,
all of us rushing to the rail to look and look,
going silent then cheering as the Cliffs of Moher
hove into view – if that, then imagine a skein

of a hundred Whooping Swans flying 2000 miles
at 8000 feet from the western coast of Greenland
to County Clare,  no food or drink or revelry,
just a rush of head wind, necks out, wings spent,
cloud cover thick, direction a matter of faith,

then the long descent from an urge millennia old
and through a break in the clouds, there, those
vertical cliffs!  Don’t tell me Whooper Swans have
no word for “Land Ho!”  Just listen to that
whooping the land-lubbing folk of Kilmacrehy hear,
lying abed this early morning of the Advent season.




The Visitation

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby
leaped in her womb. Luke, 1:41


She is fatigued by a long muleback journey
over rough dirt roads to her elderly
Cousin Elizabeth, who is by some miracle
with child, and perhaps can offer advice to
Mary, just 16 but also chosen by Jahweh
and nearing her term.

There is talk: that Elizabeth has been with
a Dark One, Mary with a wild.  Talk
of stoning.  Even as the house door shuts,
a crowd is gathering outside, beginning
to hurl a rain of pebbles at the windows.
Which makes it all the more miraculous

that each is so entirely deaf to all
but the other, desiring to fill
the five years since their visit in Nazareth,
one moving from childhood to motherhood,
the other from dying to giving life that now
leaps in her womb, the salt sea of it,

as if to enter a wild baptismal river.
And Mary feels an answering stir, sees two
men facing nakedly, deep in cleansing water.
As the two mirror each other, the stir
grows more insistent, and each removes her
shift, reveals the bulge of herself.

The tightening hoods of motherbelly shine,
at the center of each a swelling birthknot
like a nipple filling.  Each touches the drum
of the other’s womb, hears a response within, 
feels tears of triumph and foreboding rise:
tears of a sisterhood no man can put asunder.




for Norah Pollard


Shut in, she sees a heron from her window.
It sits like a weather vane on the ridge of
a nearby barn, lifting one leg, then another.

Inside the barn a whitetail has been hung
to bleed, be parceled into venison.

This morning she strings colored beads –
a rabbit, an elephant, a mole, a bird, a fish –
around that eastern window the sun prefers,

striking facets of each small creature
she gives proper names . . .   She sees Earth
hang in dark Space like a blue-green bead.



The Angling


Like an angler choosing the perfect lure
(feather-and-fabric mayfly or damselfly
stitched during a long winter)
the poet selects the right nib, fits it

to a favorite pen, dips it in jet-blue ink
the pen drinks in.
Before it can make its mark, he inscribes
with it the space above a blank page,

the nib shadow-casting back and forth
then settling on the page, its cursive
forming ovals, lines, parabolas –
animal origins of a language as old

as what the poet hopes may lurk below
and rise like dream to the lure –
perhaps some first memory, every-colored,
some rainbow-speckled, dappled nibble,

and sudden strike
of a thing the poet begins to play,
letting out his line, letting out, reeling in,
playing it for how long he has no idea,

sometimes seeing it break the surface,
permitting momentary glimpses of itself.
He hopes what he nets, though quickly
fading in the ordinary air, will be essential.

What’s up is never Truth itself, of course.
Not even Moses was allowed to look that
in the face.  But may it be something,
a beginning.



Christmas Eve Afternoon at Braddock Bay

for Eleanor and Will


And it was said that we should go to see this thing
come to us from afar.  So we set forth over fields
simplified by snow and ice, bent low to negotiate
an avenue of wild rose arched by the weight of winter,
its red berries promising; passed a stand of cattails,
umber seed-tubes broken into beige wool redolent
as spice; and came to an endless lake, steel-blue under
a lowering anthracite sky ornamented by salmon trim
at its distant edge. Along the shore past bare willows
glowing from within, a serration of waves broke, all
but frozen.  From the rock-ridden jut of a long spit
hung teeth of ice – a place as austere

as the cold cattle shed and tooth-gnawed slats of a
small corn crib we’d hallow as a manger that night,
nursery of God.  Here, now, at the heart of wilderness
was the mystery we’d come far to see, at first nothing:
a white-topped, white-and-gray-striped boulder
at the far end of the promontory.  Then the white top
of the boulder moved, swiveled like a lighthouse
illuminating a circle of the world, searching into us:
the oval, gold-eyed face of a Snowy Owl
from the Arctic tundra, a creature so fiercely itself
it was proof of Divinity.



The Venerable Bede Orders Ink for his Quill 720 AD


I would prefer my ink to come from something other than the soot
of oil lamps or the galls afflicting oak trees.  Rather than darkness
and affliction, I’d like there to be birdsong and blossoming in my ink,
which leads me to prefer this other recipe from Brother Jonathan:
sliced and pummeled bark of the flowering hawthorn tree boiled long
and mixed with mead.



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