Karl Kirchwey

Karl Kirchwey has published four books, and his work has been widely anthologized, in volumes such as Poetry After 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets, The Best of the Best American Poetry 1987-1998, and After Ovid: New Metamorphoses. His poems brush away the layers of fog and cobweb settled over history, revealing classical resonances in every piece of contemporary life. Mary Jo Salter aptly called him “a poet for whom the world of antiquity is as real as this morning’s breakfast.”

William Logan wrote of Kirchwey’s 2002 volume, At the Palace of Jove, that he “reminds us that we live only by the sacrifice of the dead, and therefore in their shadows. Shadows fall frequently over these poems, from lives corrupted, crippled, or destroyed.” In “The War,” from The Happiness of this World (2007), a poem in which Hector and his infant son Astyanax appear as all-too-real ghosts in a re-envisioned World War II scene, Kirchwey ends by asking, “Here is the war. Where is the enemy?” Rooted in the search for the causes of grief and erasure of being, his pronouncements are not always joyous: “There is no omen, only accident, / imped on the peach-pale wing of our own error.” Still, despite unreportable sadnesses, he poet seeks joy in the appearance of fireflies and vernal spaces, “tiny hot springs / of the beating heart” glimpsed in a sonogram, and the quiet slowing-down of moments when history echoes and intervenes.

For thirteen years, Kirchwey served as director of the 92 nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center in New York City. He holds degrees from Yale College and Columbia University, and has traveled extensively through India and Southeast Asia. Currently an associate professor and director of the Creative Writing Program at Bryn Mawr College, Kirchwey served as Conkling Poet at Smith 1995-97, and contributed crucial ideas and advice to Annie Boutelle as she developed the proposal for a Poetry Center at Smith.

Poetry Center Reading: 

Fall 2007


Words crushed on the palate end in silence
every time, not in the palaver of song.
You cannot fill your basket with what is merely visible,
grapeshot of onyx, gleaming confected dark,
for here neglect has grown complex and fertile,
in this tangled fane, this daggered understory,
and to pluck the sinister fruit, you must angle in
on a reach with your left arm, neither too shallow
not too steep, one from which you can recover,
then bear down gently until you feel the parting
of flesh from hollow stem in a place you cannot see.
Your own reflex will always guide you wrong,
your whole hand driven backward onto the thorn,
returned to sunlight with a wounding cursive,
your blood mingling with the pulp of the drupe.
Read what is written there. Discovering
there are seeds between your teeth, speak that language.

From THE HAPPINESS OF THIS WORLD (G.P. Putman’s Sons, 2007)


(Remembering Manadel Al-Jamadi, and Others)

“They stressed him out so bad he passed away,”
then buried him in ice like Heinekens.
I don’t believe a single word they say,

the euphemism of its stubbornly
embedded in the jargon of complacence:
“They stressed him out so bad he passed away.”

rigged up with wires like a Christmas tree,
the hooded man, the threatened into balance.
I don’t believe a single word they say,

but the photographs tell a more complex lie.
Thumbs-up, the woman soldier points and grins:
“They stressed him out so bad he passed away,”

and images framed in complicity
survive as the most lethal evidence.
I don’t believe a single word they say,

although self-image takes a while to die,
denial so wrought up with impudence.
“They stressed him out so bad he passed away.”
I don’t believe a single word they say.

(May 2004)

From THE HAPPINESS OF THIS WORLD (G.P. Putman’s Sons, 2007)


The parquet has become all sinks and man-traps,
+++deep-rutted by the feet of kitchen chairs.
The wagging tongue-and-groove laps –overlaps–
+++its generations of mismatched veneers.

The beveled oak moldings are fanged with nails
+++half drawn by the concussion of existence;
each saddle’s ridden up, under your footfalls,
+++which you counted as a firm threshold once.

The eggshell wall’s gone to maculate
+++moue and pucker; the cabinet door’s
top hinge is double-jointed, so that it
+++shows off just like a schoolboy during recess.

Still, for a few moments the westering sun
+++catches the window opposite and, glancing,
touches the butcher-block (its sealant gone)
+++and makes it glow in radiant oblong,

insisting that the ordinary be given its due,
+++the gimcrack habitude of every day.
Years pass, and things acquire a bias, and you-
+++so deep in life you did not notice-may

yet honor, from a kind of present exile,
+++this well-loved place in which no line is plumb;
or know it with leaving, since after all
+++to repair is also to be called home.

From: THE HAPPINESS OF THIS WORLD (G.P. Putman’s Sons, 2007)