The Readiness poems by Rennie McQuilkin

Image of Rennie McQuilkin
Photograph by Eleanor McQuilkin Burns.  

Eamon Grennan writes, “The Readiness, Rennie McQuilkin’s latest collection, is a wonder.  With undaunted courage, insight and an always ready, irrepressibly generous humor even in the face of mortal illness, these poems are brief, brilliant testaments to the poet’s stubborn will to praise, to celebrate the radiant ongoingness of the natural and human worlds that he has taken, it seems, into his care.  In line after line – like  bare willows / glowing from within – these poems inhabit the ordinary world in such a way (articulate, unshowy, practical, undeceived) as to reveal its mystery, the living spirit at the heart of it.  Resisting any facile consolation, McQuilkin’s poems show a startling and (for the reader) a reassuring cheerfulness of spirit, the sense that Nothing’s not alive with possibility. With the shades of Dickinson and Hopkins alive behind it, The Readiness is a gift in itself for the richness of its simple, self-aware, undeceived humanity, its ability to look mortality in the face, and to find humour, even that, in what the worst can be.  Part journal, part evensong, The Readiness is, in all its parts, all heart, full of grace.
The Readiness cover image
Photograph by Eleanor McQuilkin Burns.

Rennie McQuilkin was Poet Laureate of Connecticut from 2015 through 2018, when he retired because of illness.  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 seventeenth poetry collection.  He has received a number of awards for his work, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Connecticut 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 at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut. With his wife, the artist Sarah McQuilkin, he lives in Bloomfield, CT.

Click here to read samples from the book.

Click here to view upcoming events.

Click here to read additional material relevant to the book.


ISBN 978-1-943826-50-6
First Edition 2019

6" x 9" paperback, 150 pages
This book can be ordered from all bookstores, including Amazon.
The author will also take direct orders at
400 Seabury Dr., #5196
Bloomfield, CT 06002

Or call 860-217-0023,



Copyright © 2019 by Robert Rennie McQuilkin


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 glimpses of itself.
He hopes what he nets, though quickly
fading in the ordinary air, will be essential.



After the Diagnosis


I’m told cells are growing radically
in me, an underground uprising
because of which how stunning

the world has grown – that twist
of purple skunk cabbage burning
a hole in the snow,

the first Pileated, huge, ungainly,
gorgeous, drumming its code
like a “spark” tapping out Morse

among U-boats in the N. Atlantic:
loud clattering of dots and dashes
signaling All’s well, all’s well.




The Buddha sits beside me,
sedate in teak from Indonesia,
unbothered by a Stink Bug’s landing,
inspiring me to better name a being
in umber armor plate protecting
deftly jointed legs, long and intricate,
carefully measuring the breadth
of the checkered tablecloth before me

where shortly a meal will appear
of which this mite wants just crumbs.
Or perhaps like a silk moth
it lives only for love, this passenger
on the same cruise ship on which
I too circumnavigate the sun, helplessly
in love with light.
Still, I have a mind to take the mite
by the wings, undone by such buzzing
and the bug’s reputation for fending
off death by making a stink about it.
Like Nebuchadnezzar, I am considering
incineration of the pagan thing. 
But the Buddha looks on,
and for now I am moved to do nothing
other than find a better name
for the miracle I feel an urge to murder.





In the lopped lilac, iced-in but its buds fat,
a bough-jouncing Slate-colored Junco’s beak
is a triangular dazzle of ivory so new to me
I’m on high alert
for all the rest I’ve been missing and missing.



The Poisoning


What better at 3 a.m. than surgery –
slicing a Red Delicious in half for
its snappy flesh, of course, but more
for the dark seeds at the heart of it,
raison d’être of the Delicious. 

How good at 3 a.m. to chew the seeds,
tough husks giving way to the soft
cyanide within – “good poison” lethal
only to cancer cells drawn by sweetness
like beetles to Venus Flytraps
then pierced through and through.

How fine at 3 a.m. to poison the Enemy,
expel him at 5 a.m. in my morning pee.


3. 2. 18

The Opening


Betrayed by my body,
I hid from my mirror and all

until they cut into my chest,
left a crater.  I am now so open

to everyone tending to me
there’s no point in hiding.

My wife croons,
cleaning every part of me,

rubbing oils on swollen limbs.
I lie back.  I let love happen.



Race Relations


In the waiting room at the Smilow Cancer Center,
we sit hospitably next to one another,
black, brown, white, beige, all
wearing the same Letter C but smiling like cousins
reunited after living for years in separate countries,
tongues loosened, sharing stories, discovering.
The large Jamaican woman beside me asks
“What stage you at?”  When I tell her “Four,”
she wraps me as if to squeeze out the offending cells.
I hug her back, hard. 



Their Answer

for Chrissy and John


Opposite St. Anne’s Church in Avon is an oasis –
topiaried evergreens, fig trees, an honest-to-God
banana tree towering over
indigo bell flowers, Lily of the Incas, purple phlox,
hardy aspidistra, red and lavender cyclamen,
Golden Sunshine Columbine, salvia, snapdragons,
wild lupine, and delphinium reaching for the sky . . .

Royal purple petunias overflow their boxes,
underscoring every window like mascara;
deep-dyed morning glories and clematis rim doors
like dark kohl.

A stream runs through,
occupied by wood frogs, leopard frogs, bull frogs
and relatives named by the local Eve and Adam.
This is not God’s Eden: that was easy, came naturally
to Him.  The pair who manage this oasis,
both on their second marriages, rise early, work late.
So much 14-14-14 to apply, such pruning and netting,
so many wind-damaged limbs to splint . . .

Their answer to her cancer.



On Leaving Home

for Laura


The viola da gamba's a fully fretted thing
or it was until the piece you’ve been rehearsing –
a Rameau with exuberant notes well beyond

the last fret.  You’ve trained your fingers
but when you’re away from home to rehearse
you find you’ve been sighting on rug patterns
to recall where to fret.

Until we leave home, we’re unaware how sure
its support.  Which is what worries me
and why I’m so delighted with your solution:
small icons – a dog, a rabbit, a cat – to mark

the upper notes.  May I, in my new home,
find finger holds no less ingenious.
May I too not miss a beat!





Like a birthday balloon, I float above,
just one string attached.
I bump the ceiling but feel the tug of love
from those who keep me grounded.



Boxing up the House

for Eleanor


All day you move us forward, filling boxes
for our relocation to a home whose layout 
and décor you’ve planned in fine detail
based on your scale model replica.

At day’s end, this chiming in a room
full of cartons you’re packing: a music box
is playing Adeste Fidelis.  Its base turns,
spinning three children clockwise,
no doubt your sister and brother and you.
Its other half, a festive Christmas tree,
is broken off,

flat on its side.  You sob inconsolably. 
For the moment, all your appointing, plans
for papering and painting must seem no more
than decoration of the last inner sanctum
of an Egyptian pair whose painted selves
replicated on the long boxes they inhabit
are not sufficient to keep them going.



Model T

for Lissa


She had in mind the nitroglycerine he wore
about his neck to jolt a failing ticker in his chest
when she decided to revive his 1926 Model T.

She built a handsome home for it, replaced parts
inactive for sixty years, found a mechanic
for whom Henry Ford’s jalopies were a way of life –

Butch, who gave her for her dad’s 81st a new
carburetor.  Soon, the Ford’s 6 cylinders wheezed
like an old man with chest congestion,

fit to give up the ghost, but before they failed,
Butch fiddled, they coughed and rattled,
then slowly smoothed to steady breathing.

From behind the wheel a daughter's face shone
like chrome.  She was already riding with her father
on Christmas day, taking him back.



The Pedicure

 for Eleanor


Visiting my father in his new home,
I see his toes are curling to claws.
He cannot bear shoes, goes barefoot,
walks on his toe tips
with a clicking like the armadillo’s
on its hard floor at the Bronx Zoo.
I won’t have it.  I am trimming the nails,
easing them from the toes around which
they coil.  And now the foot massage,
magic lotion.  I knead and knead
his toes, straightening, civilizing. 
But there’s no give to them.  They turn
to claws again.  I want my father back!



Lowell’s Barns

for Lowell Fewster


These cross-country barns tracked down
by Lowell, duly recorded by him on film,
are many mansions for swallows and fox,

shades of his country boyhood, gritty ikons
that put on no airs in the chunks of sky
they occupy, their doors wide open

as if amazed by the world they have outgrown.
They are old enough to have seen it all,
some of which we would wish away –

a foreclosed farmer hanging from a fine old
chestnut beam, hired girl manhandled in a mow,
generations of God’s creatures felled, eyes wide . . .

The outstretched arms of a lone telephone pole
and cross-shaped lightning rod on the ridgepole
of this old timer on Route 20 in Pavilion, NY

remind us.  But in the silence of night, after day’s
machining, with a gibbous moon glistening
on its slate roof, a barn is a welcoming

out of the weather, a good place
to recoup, to sleep, or to give birth beyond
the confines of a misunderstanding world.




Return to the top of the page