Rennie McQuilkin
This volume contains poems written over a period of forty years in response to works of art ranging from known masterpieces to crayon drawings, graffiti and household objects. The poems demonstrate that writing about art and artifacts is no less personal than writing about any intense experience, and that humor can be at home in a serious poem. The book contains 30 pages of notes presenting topics for writing and discussion as well as personal notations and ways of gaining internet access to artworks on which the poems are based. McQuilkin hopes that readers will refer to the Antrim House website’s Seminar Room, where art not available on the internet will be posted and where selected poems written in response to the book’s “assignments” will appear.

Private CollectionRichard Wilbur calls McQuilkin’s poems “pungently exact about the properties of the real world.” And David Bottoms has written that “Rennie McQuilkin is a poet with an extraordinary eye... He looks at the hard questions of the world, never flinching, and translates them with a clarity that is rare in American poetry today.” Dick Allen agrees: “He has a voice unlike that of any other contemporary poet... 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.”

Rennie McQuilkin’s poetry has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Southern Review, The Yale Review, The Hudson Review, Poetry, and The American Scholar. He is the author of eight books, two of which have won awards—the Swallow’s Tale Poetry Prize for We All Fall Down and the Texas Review Chapbook Prize for An Astonishment and an Hissing. McQuilkin has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, and for many years he directed the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, which he co-founded at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, CT. In 2003 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Connecticut Center for the Book.

Read some sample poems from the book.

View the artwork which inspired some of these poems on the Seminar page.

The Antrim House seminar room offers notes, issues for discussion, and writing assignments. Click here to attend the seminar on Private Collection.


ISBN 0-9770633-1-3
Length: 120 pages
Binding: 5/5" x 8/5" trade paperback





Things keep going on the way they do
except one day in the middle of nothing
they don’t.

I remember how hot it was—not a creak
from the windmill
and the Fords our folks had come in

We stood around.
Our Sunday suits were no place for hands,
they said, and wouldn’t let us in the dark
of the barn or anywhere God wouldn’t be
because the preacher was in the yard
to baptize whoever he could
in Tatums’ water tank.

Six lined up.
I envied them the cool of their gowns
and the year or so they had on me
but not the way he dragged them under
and kept them there so long they bucked
like bullheads.

Mostly, I went along with the hymnbook
someone pushed at me
until he got to Ellen McGee,
held her under and didn’t stop,
thinking maybe anything that pretty
was bound for goings on.

I was ready for something like the cat
I’d tried to drown and failed
when up she came as sweet...
and stood for a spell at the edge
of the tank, at home in the sky.

And her gown, wet through, was true to her
and her face was where the sun had been.

Based on John Steuart Curry's "Baptlism in Kansas"


At breakfast with father
when I grew tired of seeing the war news
on the back of his bare-knuckled
paper, I studied what else stood between us.

 For all its British silver, it was Byzantine
and Gallic, onion-domed
and perforated with tiny fleurs-de-lis to
pour the sugar. Or so I say now.

Then, it was merely beyond me. And he went on
flipping pages with angry snaps.
Nothing worth his while there. But still
the paper stayed up,

the test
continued.  I thought
of snatching the Times away, finding
my father

less furious
than disappointed I was, as ever,
stupid, stupid, stupid — like all the rest that
passed for news. So I waited,

watched his hand emerge,
huge and graceful,
close gently around the sugar tower,
raise it deftly out of sight behind the paper,

and return it,
ridged and shining, to its appointed place.
I made a promise to myself: 

I would study harder,
craft myself more perfectly, wait patiently
for him to notice and reach out
that gently to me.




after an early work by Mack Burns, Age 4


He crayoned his first crèche in three parts.
All’s well at the top—the Firmament is
solid, heavenly blue. But the sky is trouble.
It’s full of what—stars or angels
swarming like a plague of leggy spiders.

Just above the manger is a star burst
of yellow from something like a Scud
incoming.  Part Three has the Baby Jesus
the size of his parents, his feet and head
protruding from a purple perambulator.

A lush brown, black-haired Mary,
her arms and one leg colored jaggedly,
leans forward as if to wheel the giant baby,
hissing to the blueblood blob of Joseph
“Let’s get out of here!”

The space around the shed is fire-orange
except for a—camel?  Brown as Mary
and humped high as the ridgepole,
it’s kicking a hole in the siding. To knock
sense into Joseph’s head?  Or show it’s 

raring to go?  Maybe left by a Wise Man
after he informed on the king. But—
shouldn’t it be a donkey? A minor mistake.
Thank God for its headstrong headful
of a stall somewhere Herod never heard of. 




after “Sleigh Ride,” Winslow Homer


Look again. There are crows
slightly darker than the sky
circling that cliff
and more below in the winterkill
around the slough.
They can barely wait.

Center left, a two-horse sleigh
on the edge of the cliff rounds a bend
too quickly. The couple within
is caught by a shaft of sun
through a rift in the sky. In no time
the dark will close on them.

But all that
will have to wait. The scene
is still on its easel, set for the painter
who enters now, biting into a windfall
Mac, his mood much improved.
He adds a dash of red,

small banner—
the lady’s scarf expressing the turn
she leans into, insisting
on tea at four, a fire, festivity.
He wishes her well
against the clenching sky, the crows.




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