Poem: the listening


I keep thinking that G-d says he will bring the fire next time. And I ask, what should a poet talk about? The fire is supposed to be metaphorical. And poets are supposed to fixate on politics and love. Ed Roberson keeps making me think about things actually burning. I do not know anyone who lost a home or feared death as fires blazed in California or Australia. There is not really a name for that ignorance. This poem, though, erases a bit of it, reminding me of those who can go up in smoke, “prior to any announcement.” What loss does such a reality require? Selected by Reginald Dwayne Betts

By Ed Roberson

We always think we are
listening from a distance —

but in a state where the wildfires
move eighty-three feet per minute

we might not be fast enough
to outdistance events

anymore we can go up
in a puff prior to any announcement.

Up in smoke
used to mean disappeared
but half the state useless though it

is is still here
the poisonous smoke settling back

to the blank ground
that cataract it all went over.


Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet and a lawyer. He created the Million Book Project, an initiative to curate microlibraries and install them in prisons across the country. His latest collection of poetry, ‘‘Felon,’’ explores the post-incarceration experience. In 2019, he won a National Magazine Award in Essays and Criticism for his article in The Times Magazine about his journey from teenage carjacker to aspiring lawyer. Ed Roberson is a poet whose works include ‘‘Asked What Has Changed’’ (Wesleyan University Press, 2021). He has been awarded many honors, including the 2016 PEN/Voelckner Award for Poetry.

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