My Wobbly Bicycle, 146

Posted by on Dec 27, 2017 | 8 comments

imagesWhat would be a good poem to start off the new year? Lord knows, fireworks would be appropriate. Oh no, I am so sick of fireworks. How about something peaceful? How about a barn and a barnyard?





This painting of a barn and barnyard near sundown
May be enough to suggest we don’t have to turn
From the visible world to the invisible
In order to grasp the truth of things.
We don’t always have to distrust appearances.
Not if we’re patient. Not if we’re willing
To wait for the sun to reach the angle
When whatever it touches, however retiring,
Feels invited to step forward
Into a moment that might seem to us
Familiar if we gave ourselves more often
To the task of witnessing. Now to witness
A barn and barnyard on a day of rest
When the usual veil of dust and smoke
Is lifted a moment and things appear
To resemble closely what in fact they are.

–Carl Dennis (from Night School, Penguin Poets, 2018.)

Maybe you can ignore my photo and see in your mind the painting of a barn and barnyard, near sundown.


The speaker could have gone a number of ways with his own observation. He could have said, “Oh, this painting makes me feel how lovely things used to be, and ought to be.” Or he could have said, “This painting stands for Beauty, or for Peace” or some other grandiosity. Or, he could have analyzed technique.


Instead, he says let’s not turn from what’s actually there. We don’t have to distrust appearances. Which is another way of saying, we can trust appearances.


If any one line caught me, it was that one about NOT distrusting appearances. I’ve been distrusting them all year, and, I’m quite sure, often rightfully so. But the speaker turns that thought on its head. Look closely, he says. Be patient. Don’t lose yourself in judgments.


images-1Say that to the mind swirling with political/social calamities! But the speaker of this poem would say, “keep looking.” Don’t jump away into concepts—even my own—about what’s true. Don’t even use the words “good” and “bad,” here. Just look.


And in this poem, when there is patience, when you wait until the sun reaches an angle so that it gradually touches each object, each object “steps forward,” and becomes more familiar.


download“Familiar” is a funny way to put it. I thought of this analogy: remember when you visited your grandparents’ cottage and jumped off the dock? Well, not you, but me. I was not concerned with what it “meant” to be there. I was inside the moment. That’s why childhood is so intense and personal. So familiar. When something feels true, there’s that same awareness of being in perfect alignment with what is, at that moment.


I notice that it requires some effort to stay with this poem. There’s not a lot of story in it. Just a painting of a barn and barnyard.


download-1I also notice the poem uses the word, “witnessing.” Carl Dennis calls the act of witnessing a “task.” It’s not an idle pastime—although it’s done on a day of rest. It’s a deliberate practice of not reaching forward into our own concepts of how things are, to just witness them, as they come to us. After a while, the “veil” may lift and things may “resemble closely what in fact they are.”


If you’re still with me, and haven’t moved on to something more exciting, you may be starting to appreciate what Carl Dennis is doing here. He’s celebrating the simple act of staying still enough so that the usual smoke and dust can settle, so that it’s possible to see what actually is, at that moment. To grasp the truth of things.

Naturally–you know me–I’m thinking of meditation. But even if that isn’t where it leads you, we might think of acting like watchtowers in this new year. Not the magazine two guys in ties want to give you, but the kind that stays alert, keeps watch, keeps watch for what things really look like, how they really are, instead of what we’re told we should think about them, or what we’re told they mean.

Carl Dennis is the author of twelve poetry collections, including Practical Gods (Penguin Books, 2001), which won the Pulitzer Prize. His book Night School will be published by Penguin Books in April 2018. He lives in Buffalo, New York.



  1. Spectacular, wonderful, the sun reaching the angle is marvelous. Your observations, as always, ring true and, like a prayer bowl, keep on resonating. Thank you. And the most genuine wishes for the coming year using all the words we always use…

  2. Thanks so much, Judith. Here we go, another year. I’m glad to know you’re reading.

  3. “…celebrating the simple act of staying still enough so that the usual smoke and dust can settle, so that it’s possible to see what actually is, at that moment.” So hard, so important. Thank you!

  4. Dear One: All you say about this poem is, unsurprisingly to me, exemplary. Given the modesty of Carl, a dear old friend, it’s not surprising that he is that odd duck, an under-celebrated celebrity. I mean, he quite rightly won a Pulitzer, but he doesn’t get half the ink of a lot of his inferiors (I’ll name no names).

    • Not surprising that he’s an old friend. You, he, and I have a lot in common. We want people to get what we write. I think he’s wonderful. As do I Ellen Bass, whom you recently praised to me.

  5. Hello Fleda,

    Thank you for sharing Carl’s poem and your thoughts. The poem invited me to a familiar place of meditation.

    I am happy to say I discovered you just this morning while reading an article announcing you’re Connections Literary Series Reading in Southern Maryland in March. I promptly went to my computer to learn more about your work and am eager to read more. I’ve been a fan of Ted Kooser’s writing for some time and was thrilled to see your collaboration.

    If you need lodging or dining recommendations l’d be happy to assist since I’m two miles from the college and plan to attend the event.

    Best wishes,

    Lori Joseph

    • Wonderful, Lori. I’ll be happy to meet you at the reading! I’ll be staying in D.C. with my daughter, but I appreciate your invitation.

  6. The way you discuss “witnessing” makes me think of Keats’s “negative capability”. Also, the poem brings to mind William Stafford’s wonderful poem “With Neighbors One Afternoon:

    “You could see the tiniest pattern of bark on the trees
    and every slight angle of color change
    in the sunshine–millions of miles of golden light
    lavished on people like us.”

    The last phrase, after the dashes, is to me a miracle of witnessing and appreciation.

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