Learning the Angels is Rennie McQuilkin's fifth book of poetry.  Depicting love's labors and delights, the collection moves from sensual pleasures to the battle between Love and its adversaries, Time and Ego. The last section, “Balancing,” arrives at a sort of “lumination,” a sense that the Angel of Love is with us more than we know.

McQuilkin was for many years the director of the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival and has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Poetry, The Yale Review, Yankee, The Hudson Review, The Southern Review, Crazyhorse, The Gettysburg Review, The Christian Science Monitor, The North American Review, The American Scholar, and many other publications.

Read some poems from the book.

Praise for the book:

"Rennie McQuilkin's poems are pungently exact about the properties of the real world: how things look, what they're called, how they happen. In a book which has poignancy, gusto, and many another mood, there is never a false feeling... Most of all I relish in these poems the surprising yet probable way in which a scene or association of images can produce what seems an inevitable development of thought." - Richard Wilbur

"Rennie McQuilkin is a poet with an extraordinary eye. But more than that, he is a poet who knows how to use it. He looks at the hard questions of the world, never flinching, and translates them with a clarity that is rare in American poetry today. Whether he is writing about the world itself, or the world mirrored in art, his poems strike to the heart of the thing and give us time and again 'the truth beyond the lines.' " - David Bottoms

"He has a voice unlike that of any other contemporary poet - so natural, so sympathetic, so convincing that the many moments and passages of fulfilled perceptions occur in these poems like the effortless unfolding of wings. McQuilkin speaks from us and with us in a language so devoid of all rhetoric it is pure American: the natural man is lifted out of himself almost beyond his knowing... My response is one of pure thanks." - Dick Allen


ISBN: 0-9662783-4-8
LCCN: 2003091562
Length: 88 pages
Binding: 5/5" x 8/5" trade paperback









Waiting up, he’s deep in Angels & Archangels:

lion-bodied Cherubim, Principalities

six-winged, translucent as cathedral windows,

heavily armored Archangels, and the usual


angels for the dirty work, recording, hand-

delivering, and as he now learns, placing a finger

on the lips of every newborn, leaving the cleft

imposing silence concerning clouds of glory.


Now she breezes in, douses the light, wants

to cuddle, undoes, runs a finger along the cleft

that gives the tip of his sex its face of a heart.

It's devil's work, he knows.


At dawn he’s in the dew-damp garden, picking

strawberries for her, 

turning the leaves pale-side-up to uncover

the heart-shaped fruit, 


and coming on the snake, a hog nose, head up,

neck flared and glistening.He knows its lineage,

says his prayer

to angels, archangels and wheels of fire.


Reinforced, he returns

full of Powers and Dominions. She yawns,

half-rises on her divan, plumps a pillow,

pours cream on the berries. Its blush


deepens. He finds himself

sliding a hand beneath her robe,

along the nape, the shoulders, the spine,

the small, that valley lightly downed—


which leads to what comes over him,

her shoulder blades working the air, her finger 

on his lips.




for Kelly, my student



Her turn had come. She knew

by heart almost

the lines she was to speak

but gave us, God help her,


the truth

beyond the lines,

beyond the book she dropped,

its pages thrashing to the floor

like broken wings--


the truth

she beat her head upon,

bit into so hard

I could not pry her jaws,

teeth grinding--


the truth beyond us

she saw as ever,

her risen eyes gone white

as bone.


I did what I could,

I held her and held her, seized

with sudden love and knowing

we all fall down.


In the end

I carried her curled in my arms

across one threshold

and another




for my mother


In her eighty-ninth year she’s reducing
her inventory—china to the children, mementos
to the trash—but in her boudoir
keeps half a dozen square-shouldered Zippos,

on one her husband’s initials,
the best man’s on another, the rest anyone’s guess.
Dry-chambered, their rusted spark wheels stalled,
they are lined up gravely on a jewelry chest

full of antique gap-toothed keys with elaborate
scrollwork on their hilts, fit to open
high-backed steamer trunks, perhaps the door
to a sunken garden

where every night the dry-bones come
in mothballed flannels and hand-knit sweaters
to roll their own, light up
like fireflies and, sotto voce, remember her.




Scraping bottom, I pole us,
two old-timers,
through the gut to Turtle Pond.
Within, it's stop and go
and stinks. No place to bring you.

Think how it was in the spring,
I say—clear, the big snappers
gliding up like ocean-going Greens,
Pileateds scalloping the shoreline
red, white and black,
draping swags from tree to tree.

Whatever's left now is on its way
out—water lilies shut, olive drab
sepals stiff, a half-pint flask half
under, two mud-brown bobbers

all too apt. I’m at a loss, my love,
ship the paddle,
let the marbled algae have its way.

Is that you humming?
You like something so far gone?
I like how you chime in
with the splay-legged frogs
chirping, careening the scum,

how you let a slime of duckweed
and ooze of late bog-spawn
slide through your fingers
like a miser forgetting to count,
and how you sniff, connoisseur
of stinks.

But what do you make of this
that rises darkly to starboard now,
tows the swamp-green barge
of a shell, dangles the dead head
of a water lily from its jagged jaw,
inhales hoarsely

and sinks, slowly
until only the algae on its shell
protrudes like quills?

We know the stories—
mergansers, mallards, cygnets
going under with barely a ripple.

What you do
is reach out to rub it
with your paddle, and the old
snapper rubs back, revolving
so slowly counterclockwise
we lose track.

Next thing, it's dusk.
In the gut, the rushes, feathered
beige, almost lavender
in the last light,
brush my neck, shoulders,
bare arms.

I like how you smile, reach back
to dub me with your paddle.


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