Photo: Jack Sheedy

In her first full-length poetry collection, Gandy Dancing, Jean Sands has pulled out all the stops. The utter honesty of this compelling book is shocking and welcome. One cannot read its poems without being inspired by the courage, resilience, love, and eventual victory they describe in language stripped to the essentials. From the title poem (describing the way the young poet sees a threatening gang of gandy dancer drunks as circus performers) to the last poem in the collection, “I Became the Woman I Am Now,” Gandy Dancing is a song of triumph, the triumph of the human spirit over the worst that life can throw against it. About the book, Cortney Davis writes, “The poems in Jean Sands’ debut collection, Gandy Dancing, are straightforward and strong, revealing and transformative. Her subjects are those of a woman’s life, and yet these poems speak to all readers: in them we encounter childhood’s memories, both dark and light; spousal abuse and the failures of marriage; the intricacies of parenthood; and, in the face of great loss, the ultimate survival of the heart. These poems open out from the personal to the universal, setting the secrets of our everyday lives against the backdrop of an era, one that spans wars and generations, one shaped by the culture and politics of the times. This is a powerful and unforgettable collection. Reading Gandy Dancing, I was reminded that poetry can change our lives.”

Honor Moore adds this: “Gandy Dancing is an extraordinary first book, the narrative of an American Everywoman whose life does not often come into poems. In language that is direct, uncommonly modest, and so unsparing it breaks the heart, Jean Sands brings that woman, herself, beautifully, shockingly into the great conversation of American poetry.”

And Dick Allen is equally enthusiastic: “As I read and re-read Jean Sands’ poems, the word that comes to me again and again is harrowing.  What a harrowing life is shown in these vignettes of sickness, betrayal, longing, and dashed hope. As Sands writes, ‘I am a shadow with a camera.’ Intense feelings are shared, yet kept ruthlessly in check. Not an image or sound is out of place. Almost every poem clicks shut, is an illuminated and illuminating scene, so honest (the best poem in this intense collection may well be ‘If We Are Honest’) and vivid, so frighteningly lacking in self-pity, it makes the reader say, ‘Yes, damn it, this is unflinching, this is what it’s like to be beaten and survive, this is how our lives are.’ "

Gandy Dancing by Jean Sands
Cover painting courtesy of the Addison Gallery of American Art: George Bellows, “The Circus” (1912) oil on canvas, gift of Elizabeth Paine Metcalf

Jean Sands’ poetry has been published in literary journals, anthologized, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is also a journalist, reviewer, and correspondent whose interviews, essays, and feature articles appear in regional and national publications as well as online. Jean has served as a poet in the schools and has taught poetry and creative writing to adults throughout northwest Connecticut for over twenty years. In addition, she edits novels and non-fiction books for private clients and occasionally offers writing tutorials. Jean Sands lives in Harwinton, Connecticut.

For a recent review (Feb., 2010), click here.

Click here to read sample poems.

Click here to view Jean Sands' upcoming events

Click here to read ancillary material in the Seminar Room


ISBN 978-0-9817883-7-1
Length: 74 pages, 6" x 9" paperback




Tonight the bed is warm,
the covers folded over and over
the way Mother folded a leopard blanket
on my cot in the corner of her room
the nights Gandy Dancers
sat on our front porch drinking wine
while Mother and I huddled behind locks
waiting for Father’s return.

They came before dusk, a Gandy parade
marching to the corner liquor store.
Some lay beside the road with their bottles,
others made it to a neighbor’s yard
or porch like ours, its three inviting
canvas chairs. They drank and sang
and fell asleep, my father stepping over
to unlock the door.

Crouched in a dark corner, Mother whispered
ride rails, eat stew from tin cans,
pump the Gandy cart.
She said stink and breath,
big hands and touch, but I imagined
circus clowns, magicians,
wanted braided hair, tights,
a chance to walk the high wire
or fly a trapeze.

If Mother could have known my thoughts
those nights sitting beside me
she’d have worn gold earrings, Windsong,
silk iridescent in lamp glow,
raised my leopard blanket like a tent,
sang while she braided my hair,
one long blond plait after another.


I pick up a child’s sparkle wheel from the glass-top table
and find myself in the front yard on a summer night,
my parents sitting in their blue canvas chairs.
My uncle, frightened by a long, black lizard –
its yellow polka dots neon in the porch light –
yells and hurries inside. Perhaps it was the desert,
where he tumbled from the back of an Army truck
just seconds before a land mine blew his buddies to bits,
that slithered onto the cement-slab porch that night,
the men writhing, or the nightmares of dark-red blood
that shook him from sleep years after he came home,
arms and legs intact but his mind “a little messed up”
my father said that summer night.
But there were good times too when we laughed
just because it was summer and my parents were young
and full of hope. Nights on that porch
I pumped the sparkle wheel’s handle up and down and
red and white and blue sparks flew
patriotic as the fireworks we shot off on the Fourth of July –
dozens of rockets and Roman candles lighting the sky
over a field of dry grass, Queen Anne’s Lace, and goldenrod.
The war was over.


There was nothing I feared more
than the thick brown belt my father wore.
At night it hung over a chair where it waited
like a snake ready to strike.
Most of the time the strap lay still
and innocent until Mother’s insistence
brought the leather to life. Once,
I hid it under the tall oak Philco that brought
Fibber McGee and Molly into our living room,
my small hand pushing it through the lattice trim
until it coiled in the dark of the carpet’s thick fur.
The next day, my crime discovered, the strap’s
lightning flash burned my skin.


I meet my first ex at a granddaughter’s
birthday party and am about to ask
if he sees our old friends
when I remember the bumblebee
in the backyard when I was a child.
Daddy is painting the house,
whitewash on cinderblock, his shirt,
me lying on the lush dark grass,
the bee working a patch of clover.

As the bee moves closer I yelp
but Daddy says bees are curious –
if I leave it alone it won’t sting.
But I am curious too and kneel close
as it hovers over a purple blossom,
wanting to see its wings move,
its long tongue suck nectar.
I may have reached out a finger
to touch its furry yellow head,
the stripes like licorice across its back.
I step back but the bee darts
fast and sharp.

My ex sits in our son’s living room,
our granddaughter on his knee,
his blue eyes sparkling – that old smile.
When he raises a hand
to smooth her blond hair
I feel it sting my face,
remember the night I escaped
with the granddaughter’s father
an infant in my arms.


Sometimes we miss the spouse left behind,
not the verbal abuse, the violence,
the sexual stranger who insisted,
but the flannel shirt brushing your arm in a bookstore
that makes you remember the smell of wood smoke,
the callused hands that could fix anything.
Sometimes it happens in the second before you’re fully awake
and remember which house you’re in, whose face you’ll greet
across the breakfast table. The longing could happen
at a dinner party in the strong arms of a friend
who hugs you the moment you meet,
in clean laundry as you fold your husband’s shirts
or on the day you see a man’s back and have to breathe deep
to keep yourself from kissing his shaven neck.


for Matt

The day our son’s rabbit died
you were already gone, slid down
out of sight, off in some subterranean world.
He told friends you were spelunking caves,
shovel and pick digging gold, diamonds,
whatever else his nine-year-old mind
conjured up. Once he found a chip
of red glass and claimed rubies,
the glass dark as blood
when held up to light.
Nights in his room, afraid
you’d suffocate, he imagined cave-ins,
how it would feel to be crushed.
He lied about exploring
until he believed it,
and years later part of him
still expected you to come back.

When he found the rabbit she was bloated
and covered with maggots.
Once before, maggots had amazed him –
the neighbor’s cat flattened
in morning, almost bone by afternoon.
What was left of the rabbit
he pulled from the cage with a stick,
dropped her in a paper sack
carried to the burying place
behind the pines – goldfish, hamsters,
a black Lab –
lay on his belly scraping dirt
with his hands, hard, summer-dry dirt,
until his fingers bled.

No shovel would do –
he wanted that hot earth,
the whole world under him,
as if lying there was holding on
to something precious.

In the bag, maggots fattened
on the rabbit. The thought made him sick,
but he didn’t care how long it took
to dig that hole.
When it was deep enough
he put the bag in,
pushed back the dirt
and there in the heat,
dirty hands folded,
he prayed over a dead rabbit,
and, I suppose,
whatever else earth swallows up.

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