Literature 11-15-2006

What Light: This Week’s Poem: Steve Downing

"What Light" presents a new poem every week by a Minnesota poet, chosen by a jury of writers, publishers, or editors, and sponsored by Magers and Quinn Booksellers.

Steven Downing


He’s out here in the yard, raking. Stewing. Thinking: “Says you.”
“You just don’t rake in the rain,” she’d said, sounding more disappointed than cross.
    “And that wind? You just don’t.” A sigh had wandered out of her

    mouth- and eye-corners like steam, like the force of all charmed dissent.

Yet she would run in it, and had, earlier, her bizarre duck-foot flux of blue and hair

    all a-jog round and round the near blocks. Running, she always looks too small

    for her hair, which somehow admonishes him.

The bright leafy furrow forms and holds. More or less. The problem’s partly the wind,
    partly her sighing. Her engine of disbelief. That hair. Gravity.

In the corner of his own eye, through a beveled tear in the skimmed morning light,
    she monitors his progress from the closed patio door,
    sipping something hot, she and her reflection, sipping, sipping.
    A near-perfect bell curve of steam and breath comes and goes on the glass.

    A difference between. Math, not philosophy.

“Plus, you’ll never get them to burn,” she’d said. And, as reason and proof: “Think
    how hot your fire’ll need to be.” Math, that’s her secret.

But she looks no more substantial than her reflection. And this rain somehow misses him,
    or else passes like neutrino streams and her reflection through him. He concludes:

    their argument was weather, not ideas. Not: Why is there rain,
    rather than not-rain?

And fire isn’t so degreed a thing, not since the first gaseous light began its outward curve.
    Forever, conceptually, one flame’s as hot as another.

Like the stamping of her blue running shoes, like the progress of roots:
    gravity and inertia are manifestations of the same force,

    and make only a passing sound. Like hair. Like steam. “Says me.”


The smartest sentence ever written is by Niels Bohr, a quantum physics theorist: “We are suspended in language.” Wish I’d said that. All my stuff is story telling—poetry, mediation reports, grant proposals, everything. A limitation, but there it is. The writers I read (John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Joan Didion, Cormac McCarthy, others) are all terrific story tellers. I can’t even mimic them, so I do it this way. My favorite poet is Louis Jenkins. If I could write prose poems like his, I’d stop everything else and just pretend to be Louis, period.


Downing has a B.A. from St. John’s University/Collegeville and has been a teacher, house painter, salesperson, musician, theatre technician, freelance writer, conflict resolution mediator, and, since 2001, Executive Director of MacRostie Art Center in Grand Rapids, MN.