The Holding poems by Rennie McQuilkin

picture of Sara and Rennie McQuilkin
Photo by Eleanor McQuilkin Burns.  

In his new poetry collection, subtitled “Love in a Time of Loss,” Rennie McQuilkin focuses on many sorts of loss, primary among them his wife’s Alzheimer’s. His poems also touch on everything from the death of a friend and neglect by a father to the “de-pigeoning” of a garden spot. In facing down such losses, McQuilkin depicts the healing force of love, the “on-goingness” of the natural world, and the resilience innate in all of us. Often witty and generally upbeat, the book is a guide for holding our own and even prevailing in a world fraught with perils. Margaret Gibson, McQuilkin’s successor as Connecticut Poet Laureate, has this praise for the book: “In this tender and ravishingly honest book of poems, with his wife’s Alzheimer’s at its heart, Rennie McQuilkin has given us a chronicle of late life as it daily unfolds toward its inevitable finality.  These poems tell us that memory magnifies who we are, just as forgetting erases the linkages we have to others and to sense of self.  Leave-takings and loss abound in these poems, but so also does affirmation and celebration of connection.  The more his beloved wife forgets, the more this poet holds on, remembering family and friends, paying attention to the paper birch outside his window, to the pigeons making their nest on a porch. And if these poems remember wars, separations, migrations, and climate emergency, they also celebrate jewel-like moments in the Book of Hours that is our life.  They affirm that we make love and home and self and family, that we make song and story.  Whatever is made is also subject to impermanence, but the making—the fidelity to creativity—that is love itself, and it endures.  Bravo! I say, and bow in gratitude to a poet whose life and whose poems have enriched us for so many decades.”
  The Holding cover image

Photograph by Nancy Grover

Rennie McQuilkin was Poet Laureate of Connecticut from  2015 to 2018. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The  Yale Review, Poetry, The Southern Review, The Hudson Review, The American Scholar,  Crazyhorse, and elsewhere. This is his twentieth poetry collection.  He has received a number of awards for his work, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the CT Commission on the Arts, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Connecticut Center for the Book. 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; and in 2018, North of Eden received the Next Generation Indie Book Award in Poetry.  For nine years he directed the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, which he co-founded and directed for many years at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut. In 2018, he and his wife of sixty-two years – artist, teacher, counselor, and gardener Sarah McQuilkin – moved to the Seabury retirement community in Bloomfield, CT. Tragically, Sarah passed away on January 30, 2023.

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ISBN 979-8-9865522-3-1
First edition, 2023
110 pages

Copies of this book can be ordered
from all bookstores including Amazon
 or directly from the author:
 Rennie McQuilkin
400 Seabury Dr., #5196
Bloomfield, CT 06002.
Send $17 per book
plus $4 shipping
by check payable
 to Robert Rennie McQuilkin.

The author can be contacted at and 860-519-1804


copyright © 2023 by Rennie McQuilkin


The Terror

for Sarah


At three a.m. she wakes me, crying out
in a voice so deep and stricken I barely know it:
“We’re losing someone, losing!”  As if drowning,

she gasps for air, bruises me, clutching
so hard I might be a spar floating mid-ocean. 
Telling her she has had a bad dream will not do,

nor my embrace. She holds harder, cries
“Don’t leave me, don’t go!”  I say no, I will stay,
try to help if she will say who we are losing.
“Don’t you know?  How could you not?”

She stares at something fearful.  
At length she begins to breathe more slowly, deeply,
and falls asleep, her mild breathing like the lapping
of ocean waters quelled on a quiet shore . . .

In the morning she has no memory
of her night terror.  We have coffee, chat amicably.
I read aloud to her, as always.  But I am undone.
All day I have been redoubling gifts of love for her.


The Waiting

for Sarah


First thing in the morning she’s tightly swaddled
in blankets pulled around her,
seems bound for the Egyptian Underworld . . .

Happily, the wraps are closer to a silk moth’s
cocoon.  The slightest stir’s within.
I rise and wait, relying on coffee and biscuit,

collecting the least crumbs
with a fingertip, tasting them, savoring
all that is left – most of all her, remembering

how she reached deep in the womb of a ewe,
turned the lamb, pulled him out by the forelegs;
how she dug buried spuds, held them up to view.

I am willing her to break free of her wrappings,
brighten, returned to me to taste the elixir I offer
and drink day in once more.

The Touching

She’s touched your perfect body with
her mind. 
“"Suzanne,"” Leonard Cohen


After being savaged by surgery
I didn’t want anyone seeing my
body’s ruin, not even you, my dear.

But you wanted otherwise, wiser
despite your forgetfulness.  Deeper
than logic, you wanted us as before.

You said you’d only take a shower
if we went under the water together.
There, both of us naked as newborns,

you touched my imperfect body with
your impaired mind and loving hands,
touched me all over, making me shine.


for Sarah

Palm Sunday

for Robin


The spring moon has blossomed. It’s a week from Easter,
a time for celebrating, repeating Christ’s
procession into Jerusalem.  We wind around churches.

A friend has placed a cross of palms outside the door
through which my wife and I are expecting
our son to come for a reunion.  Any time now he will enter

our small world again, 
come into the Jerusalem of our hearts.
But we worry: his blood count’s low, an aneurysm latent.

Arriving, he bears richly plush pussy willows.
He always knows what we need.  How apt that in the Ukraine
(under siege like him) pussy willows, old symbols of rebirth,

have always replaced palms on Palm Sunday.  May Ukrainians
again touch loved ones with the lush fur of willow catkins
as now I touch my son.  Oh my dear, long life, long life.

Hunting for Tees


Once I went with my otherwise commanding father
across acres of links wet with dew
to the 16th hole, the tee box on a knoll,
to hunt for halved remains of many-colored tees
hidden like bight fish in the rough beyond,
sent spinning by eight and nine irons.
We knelt down to find yellow, white, red beauties.
When I found a few perfect tees, I tossed them
to Father, closer than I would ever be
after gin and whiskey replaced me in his affections.
Every so often I’d take out my jar of splintered tees.



I’m throwing a golden Frisbee
with Father, his brilliant mind still
intact, his fine flick of the wrist original,
the Frisbee hanging roundly in the twilight,
a moon not far from the first star, faint,
maybe imagined, but good enough
to wish on, my father benign for
once, smiling.  May the disk
never reach my hand
to which it neatly
spins, all time

Anniversary Song

for Sarah


We watch two doves on a rooftop
standing chest to chest, tall necks
braiding, touching beak to beak,
cooing in the aftermath of love,

recalling us, years ago
after the dance of our bodies –
ourselves again, seeing eye to eye.

Now he flies off in excited circles
while she does the Lambeth Walk
down the ridge of the roof,
barely glancing at him but aware
somewhere deep within that it will

soon be time to prepare, arranging
what he will bring – twine and twigs,
bits of moss, fur, and torn clothing –
piling them around herself,
making a nest shaped like a dove.

We too, my love,
were part of the great adventure
and celebrate it today.


for Sarah


You want and want to “go home,
get out of this place!”  I reason,
say it’s time for bed,
but you insist, voice rising to crisis:
“Home, home, home!  I want to go
to the car.”  I say it makes no sense –
this is our home.  But you insist.
And I agree to take a night drive home

to the zoo. ”Out of the underground
garage we go, turn onto Prospect . . .
There they are,” you chant –
ornamental cows in the unlikely pasture
of someone’s yard, brighter than night
in their DayGlo colors, horned, uddered,
all but mooing.  You moo back.

And at the far end of the herd
the strange one you love does more
than moo in his zoot suit of black & white
stripes with a lei of plastic sunflowers.
The zebra neighs like a trombone,
I know from the way you respond.
You open your arms to take him to you.
“Home, home, ”you sing happily, returning
with the stuffed animal you have in mind.

Elegy for a Paper Birch


They must not be Red Sox fans,
those who call my brother tree
a Green Monster,
calling to mind the outfield wall
beloved by Bosox fans at Fenway
but loathed by visiting teams.

“Cut it down!” they say,
my Paper Birch, admired even by
the savior of Buildings & Grounds,
who doesn’t fault
the tree, just whoever planted it
too close to one of the buildings
he protects with all the love
I lavish on my tree.

I agree the tree must go, but hope
its foes will learn to praise it
before it dies, will come to see how
gracefully the tree’s outer bark curls,
revealing an inner layer pink
as just-born skin, and how goldfinch
sample its candied catkins
like any of us picking chocolates,
testing them first with a squeeze.

I want naysayers to hear the whisk
of its leaves like brushes soft-stroking
the timpani of my window, and savor
the deep green of its leaves buttered
by evening sun.

Tree Ceremony by the Farmington River

 for David K. Leff


Kayak paddles sign figure 8’s, small symbol of infinity
in this temporary eternity
by the clear-flowing Farmington reflecting
sky where elements of David mingle and commune
with multitudes, returned to their beginning.

Bald eagles gyre to make much of the abundance
our departed friend loved as he would love this maple
we’ve planted in his name, a tree for all seasons, a tree
into whose opening in earth we shovel dirt like the grave

of death, a tree whose roots reach to clasp other roots
as we clasp David to ourselves.


for Sarah


The day it was final – you’d have to go
to The Meadows for memory support,
I gave blood, and on my way home,
I lost my wallet, that proof I existed.

I can bear the loss of my outer self
like Osiris, whose dismembered parts
were slowly collected and puzzled together.
Little by little, my credit cards, license, etc.
have been replaced, all but the photos,

which kept you with me, my love – you
at three, pigtailed, wide-smiling; you waving
from South Beach; you remaking the world
at your easel . . .
so much of you gone with my wallet –

and you yourself no longer with me.
Like Osiris, whose most vital part could not
be found, though outwardly he seemed intact,
I must spend my days in the underworld,
from which I’ll be given only temporary release.


for Sarah


Limping, cane in hand, to Memory Care,
cold after too hot a day for November,
I try to avoid stepping on a host of worms,
their pink skin turned white and shriveled.

Canaries in a mine.I enter one
dedicated to finding seams of memory
buried in the ore of dementia.  I wear hope
like a headlamp, looking for signs of clarity

in the dark confines of my dear one’s mind,
her head downcast at this sing-along.
Please, love, give me a sign you remember.
Oh sing, sing a song from the gone days,

a bright seam of music to tell me not all is lost –
those walls of darkened mind will not fall in.

Forest Bathing

for Nurse Ashley and Sarah


You hate showers, must be dragged into the stall.
This morning I find you huddled in a dark corner
rather than be stripped and forced under a torrent
of water.  You say you just want to “get out”
and ask if I could take you for a walk.
Easier said, since the door to the enclosed garden
is alarmed.  But one of the nurses understands
the recurring need that today makes you bridle
when I say it’s time to do morning exercises.
You have no interest in exercises.  You want out.

Nurse Ashley finds you a coat and silences
the alarm.  We walk in a circle like caterpillars
around the rim of a bowl until you say, “Oh look,”
stopping by ground cover, some low-growing kind
of juniper, I think.  The tips of its green needles
are tinted blue like the tall Christmas tree within,
one of the things you love most in your new place.

Suddenly your knuckled face relaxes, lets me in
the way the garden’s December trees with spring buds
are letting you in.  And I understand
why the Japanese consider “forest bathing” to be a way
for the spirit to restore itself. 

“Now we can go back in,” you say,
and we do and you exercise exuberantly.


The figure a poem makes [is] . . .
 a momentary stay against confusion.
                                           Robert Frost


To create a momentary stay against
confusion in the mind of my dear wife
by which I am undone,
I read Wind in the Willows to her,
not the 1001 stories Scheherazade tells
to prevent her demise – still, tale on tale
of the Water Rat, that would-be poet,
and the Mole, his underground friend
who has come up from his burrow
and though his mind is not as sharp as
his earth-pushing nose, is wholly charming.

They lose their way in the Wild Wood,
but are saved from a wintry fate
by the powerful Badger, who warms them,
feeds them, and tucks them in for the night.

My dear one and I are, of course,
the characters, saved from loss for now
by joy of the story.


for Sarah