Taylor Mali Poems

Hit Title Date Added
1.
What Teachers Make

He says the problem with teachers is
What's a kid going to learn
from someone who decided his best option in life
...

2.
Silver­‐Lined Heart

I'm for reckless abandon
and spontaneous celebrations of nothing at all,
like the twin flutes I kept in the trunk of my car
in a box labeled Emergency Champagne Glasses!

Raise an unexpected glass to long, cold winters
and sweet hot summers and the beautiful confusion of the times in between.
To the unexpected drenching rain that leaves you soaking
wet and smiling breathless;

Here's to the soul‐expanding power of the universally
optimistic simplicity of the beautiful.

See, things you hate, things you despise,
multinational corporations and lies that politicians tell,
injustices that make you mad as hell,
that's all well and good.
And as far as writing poems goes,
I guess you should.
It just might be a poem that gets Mumia released,
brings an end to terrorism or peace in the middle east.

But as far as what soothes me, what inspires and moves me,
honesty behooves me to tell you your rage doesn't move me.
See, like the darkest of clouds my heart has a silver lining,
which does not harken to the loudest whining,
but beats and stirs and grows ever more
when I learn of the things you're actually for.

That's why I'm for best friends, long drives, and smiles,
nothing but the sound of thinking for miles.
For the unconditional love of dogs:
may we learn the lessons of their love by heart.
For therapy when you need it,
and poetry when you need it.
And the wisdom to know the difference.

I'm for hard work, and homework,
and chapter tests, and cumulative exams,
and yearly science fairs, and pop quizzes
when you least expect them just to keep everybody honest.
For love and the fragile human heart,
may it always heal stronger than it was before.
For walks in the woods, and the for the woods themselves,
by which I mean the trees. Definitely for the trees.
Window seats, and locally brewed beer,
and love letters written by hand with fountain pens:
I'm for all of these.

For Galway Kinnell, and Rufus Wainright,
and Mos Def, and the Indigo Girls,
and getting closer to fine each and every day.

For the integrity it takes not to lightly suffer fools.
For God, and faith, and prayers, but not in public schools.

I'm for evolution more than revolution
unless you're offering some kind of solution.
Isn't that how we got the Consitution?

For charm and charisma and style
without being a self­‐important prig.
For chivalry and being a gentleman at the risk of being called a male chauvinist pig.

I'm for crushes not acted upon, for admiration from afar,
for intense sessions of self love,
especially if they make you a nicer person.

I'm for the courage it takes to volunteer, to say "yes," "I believe in this," and "I will."
For the bright side, the glass half full, the silver lining,
and the optimists who consider darkness just a different kind of shining.

I'm for what can be achieved more than for what i would want in an ideal world.
I'm for working every day to make the world a better place
and not complaining about how it isn't

So don't waste my time and your curses on verses
about what you are against, despise, and abhor.
Tell me what inspires you, what fulfills and fires you,
put your gaddamn pen to paper and tell me what you're for!
...

3.
How Falling in Love is like Owning a Dog

First of all, it's a big responsibility,
especially in a city like New York.
So think long and hard before deciding on love.
On the other hand, love gives you a sense of security:
when you're walking down the street late at night
and you have a leash on love
ain't no one going to mess with you.
Because crooks and muggers think love is unpredictable.
Who knows what love could do in its own defense?

On cold winter nights, love is warm.
It lies between you and lives and breathes
and makes funny noises.
Love wakes you up all hours of the night with its needs.
It needs to be fed so it will grow and stay healthy.

Love doesn't like being left alone for long.
But come home and love is always happy to see you.
It may break a few things accidentally in its passion for life,
but you can never be mad at love for long.

Is love good all the time? No! No!
Love can be bad. Bad, love, bad! Very bad love.

Love makes messes.
Love leaves you little surprises here and there.
Love needs lots of cleaning up after.
Somethimes you just want to get love fixed.
Sometimes you want to roll up a piece of newspaper
and swat love on the nose,
not so much to cause pain,
just to let love know Don't you ever do that again!

Sometimes love just wants to go out for a nice long walk.
Because love loves exercise. It will run you around the block
and leave you panting, breathless. Pull you in different directions
at once, or wind itself around and around you
until you're all wound up and you cannot move.

But love makes you meet people wherever you go.
People who have nothing in common but love
stop and talk to each other on the street.

Throw things away and love will bring them back,
again, and again, and again.
But most of all, love needs love, lots of it.
And in return, love loves you and never stops.
...

4.
Labeling Keys

Though not a secretive man,
my father understood combination locks and keys.
Yes, he was a Yale man. And he had a love affair with brass.
And he had a key rack as organized as the writing on the label of each key was neat.

It's the same angel that made him label and date
butcher‐paper­‐wrapped leftovers in the refrigerator
with Christmas‐present creases & hospital corners
and little 2 by 2 post‐it notes with possible suggestions
for the leftover's use: "Turkey scraps. November twenty­‐three.
Yummy treat for the D‐O‐G?"
secured with (count ‘em) one, two rubber bands,
one for snugness, the other for
symmetry.

But there's an art to labeling keys.
The one you keep to your neighbor's house
cannot say on it:
"Neighbor's house across the street.
In Maine for all of May."
Similarly, GUN RACK, BURGLAR ALARM,
SPARE SET OF KEYS TO SAAB IN GARAGE:
these are labels you will not see at our house.
Instead, my father wrote in his own argot,
in a cryptographic language of oblique reference;
the key to the burglar alarm he called THE SIREN'S SONG,
the gun rack, THAT INFERNAL RACKET,
the neighbor's house across the street was now the FARM IN KANSAS.
VICTOR was the Volvo, HENRY, the Honda, GABRIELLA, the Saabatini.
A security of the mind, no doubt, and not so much precluding burglary
as offering a challenge to the industrious burglar,
as well as evincing from my brother and me
much in the way of loving parody,
such as the key to the side door which we labeled:
NOT THE KEY TO THE SIDE DOOR,
DESTITUTE NEIGHBOR'S SQUALID HOVEL FAR, FAR AWAY,
BOATHOUSE IN BAY OF FUNDY.

But among the neatly labeled keys
(some to cars we no longer possessed, like POTEMKIN and GERALD, the Ford)
is a brass ring of assorted expatriates called KEYS TO UNKNOWN PLACES.
Little metal orphans, they have lost their locks; or rather,
their locks have all lost them, misplaced them all in the same place,
on the same ring, which is a sadness no bolt cutter can cure

Even the key that says simply HARTFORD—
somewhere there's a door, a box, a closet full of secrets locked—
and the only thing I know about it is that it is probably not in Hartford.
I keep them all, jingling and jangling, turning the tumblers of the past.
Who knows when I might not be in Hartford again
and have a need for such a key?
Who here knows nothing of magic that escapes
every time a key that should unlock a door
does?
...

5.
Totally like whatever, you know?

In case you hadn't noticed,
it has somehow become uncool
to sound like you know what you're talking about?
Or believe strongly in what you're saying?
Invisible question marks and parenthetical (you know?)'s
have been attaching themselves to the ends of our sentences?
Even when those sentences aren't, like, questions? You know?

Declarative sentences—so-­‐called
because they used to, like, DECLARE things to be true, okay,
as opposed to other things are, like, totally, you know, not—
have been infected by a totally hip
and tragically cool interrogative tone? You know?
Like, don't think I'm uncool just because I've noticed this;
this is just like the word on the street, you know?
It's like what I've heard?
I have nothing personally invested in my own opinions, okay?
I'm just inviting you to join me in my uncertainty?

What has happened to our conviction?
Where are the limbs out on which we once walked?
Have they been, like, chopped down
with the rest of the rain forest?
Or do we have, like, nothing to say?
Has society become so, like, totally . . .
I mean absolutely . . . You know?
That we've just gotten to the point where it's just, like . . .
whatever!

And so actually our disarticulation . . . ness
is just a clever sort of . . . thing
to disguise the fact that we've become
the most aggressively inarticulate generation
to come along since . . .
you know, a long, long time ago!

I entreat you, I implore you, I exhort you,
I challenge you: To speak with conviction.

To say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks
the determination with which you believe it.
Because contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker,
it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY.
You have to speak with it, too.
...

6.
Tony Steinberg: Brave Seventh Grade Viking Warrior

Have you ever seen a Viking ship made out of popsicle sticks
and balsa wood? Coils of brown thread for ropes,
sixteen oars made out of chopsticks, and a red and yellow sail
made from a ripped piece of a little baby brother's footie pajamas?
I have.

He died with his sword in his hand and so went straight to heaven.

The Vikings often buried their bravest warriors in ships.
Or set them adrift and on fire, a floating island of flames,
the soul of the brave warrior rising slowly with the smoke.
In order to understand life in Scandinavia in the Middle Ages,
you must understand the construction of the Viking ship.

So here's what I want the class to do:

I want you to build me a miniature Viking ship.
You have a month to complete this assignment.
You can use whatever materials you want,
but you must all work together.
Like warriors.

These are the projects that I'm known for as a history teacher.
Like the Greek Shield Project.
Or the Marshmallow Catapult Project.
Or the Medieval Castle of Chocolate Cake
(actually, that one was a disaster).
But there was the Egyptian Pyramid Project.
Have you ever seen a family of four
standing around a card table after dinner,
each one holding one triangular side
of a miniature cardboard Egyptian pyramid
until the glue finally dried?
I haven't either, but Mrs. Steinberg said it took 90 minutes,
and even with the little brother on one side saying,

This is a stupid pyramid, Tony!
If I get Mr. Mali next year, my pyramid
will be designed in such a way that it will not necessitate
us standing here for 90 minutes while the glue dries!
And the Tony on the other side saying,
Shut up! Shut up, you idiot!
If you let go before the glue dries
I will disembowel you with your Sony PlayStation!
It was the best family time they'd spent together since Hanukkah.

He died with his sword in his hand and so went straight to heaven.

Mr. Mali, if that's true,
that if you died with your sword in your hand
you would go straight to Valhalla,
then if you were, like, an old Viking
and you were about to die of old age,
could you keep your sword right by your bed
so if you ever felt, like, "I think I might die of old age!"
you could reach out and grab it?

If I were a Viking God, I don't think I would fall for that.
But if I were an old Viking about to die of old age,
that's exactly what I would do. You're a genius.

He died with his sword in his hand and so went straight to heaven.

Tony Steinberg had been missing from school for six weeks
before we finally found out what was wrong.
And the 12 boys left whispered the name of the disease
as if you could catch it from saying it too loud.

We'd been warned. The Middle School Head had come to class
and said Tony was coming to school on Friday.
But he's had a rough time.
The medication he's taking has made all his hair fall out.
So nobody stare, nobody point, nobody laugh.

I always said I liked teaching in a private school
because I could talk about God
and not be breaking the law.
And I sure talk about God a lot.
Yes, in history, of course, that's easy:
Even the Egyptian Pyramid Project
is essentially a spiritual exercise.
But how can you teach math and not believe in a God?

A God of perfect points and planes,
surrounded by right angles and arch angels of varying degrees.
Such a God would not give cancer to seventh grade boy;
wouldn't make his hair fall out from the chemotherapy.
Totally bald in a jacket and tie on Friday morning—
and I don't just mean Tony Steinberg—
not one single boy in my class had hair that day;
the other 12 had all shaved their heads in solidarity.
Have you ever seen 13 bald-headed seventh grade boys,
all pointing at each other, all staring, all laughing?

I have.

And it's a beautiful sight.
And almost as striking as 12 boys
six weeks later—now with crew cuts—
on a Saturday morning,
standing outside the synagogue
with heads bowed, holding hands
and standing in a circle
around the smoldering remains
of a miniature Viking ship,
which they have set on fire,
the soul of the brave warrior
rising slowly with the smoke.
...

7.
Undivided Attention

A grand piano wrapped in quilted pads by movers,
tied up with canvas straps—like classical music's
birthday gift to the criminally insane—
is gently nudged without its legs
out an eighth‐floor window on 62nd street.

It dangles in April air from the neck of the movers' crane,
Chopin-­‐shiny black lacquer squares
and dirty white crisscross patterns hanging like the second‐to­‐last
note of a concerto played on the edge of the seat,
the edge of tears, the edge of eight stories up going over—
it's a piano being pushed out of a window
and lowered down onto a flatbed truck!—and
I'm trying to teach math in the building across the street.

Who can teach when there are such lessons to be learned?
All the greatest common factors are delivered by
long‐necked cranes and flatbed trucks
or come through everything, even air.
Like snow.

See, snow falls for the first time every year, and every year
my students rush to the window
as if snow were more interesting than math,
which, of course, it is.

So please.

Let me teach like a Steinway,
spinning slowly in April air,
so almost-­‐falling, so hinderingly
dangling from the neck of the movers' crane.
So on the edge of losing everything.

Let me teach like the first snow, falling.
...

8.
Like Lilly Like Wilson

I'm writing the poem that will change the world, and it's Lilly Wilson at my office door.
Lilly Wilson, the recovering like addict,
the worst I've ever seen.
So, like, bad the whole eighth grade
started calling her Like Lilly Like Wilson Like.
‘Until I declared my classroom a Like‐Free Zone,
and she could not speak for days.

But when she finally did, it was to say,
Mr. Mali, this is . . . so hard.
Now I have to think before I . . . say anything.

Imagine that, Lilly.

It's for your own good.
Even if you don't like . . .
it.

I'm writing the poem that will change the world,
and it's Lilly Wilson at my office door.
Lilly is writing a research paper for me
about how homosexuals shouldn't be allowed
to adopt children.
I'm writing the poem that will change the world,
and it's Like Lilly Like Wilson at my office door.

She's having trouble finding sources,
which is to say, ones that back her up.
They all argue in favor of what I thought I was against.

And it took four years of college,
three years of graduate school,
and every incidental teaching experience I have ever had
to let out only,

Well, that's a real interesting problem, Lilly.
But what do you propose to do about it?

That's what I want to know.

And the eighth-­‐grade mind is a beautiful thing;
Like a new-­‐born baby's face, you can often see it
change before your very eyes.

I can't believe I'm saying this, Mr. Mali,
but I think I'd like to switch sides.

And I want to tell her to do more than just believe it,
but to enjoy it!
That changing your mind is one of the best ways
of finding out whether or not you still have one.
Or even that minds are like parachutes,
that it doesn't matter what you pack
them with so long as they open
at the right time.
O God, Lilly, I want to say
you make me feel like a teacher,
and who could ask to feel more than that?
I want to say all this but manage only,
Lilly, I am like so impressed with you!

So I finally taught somebody something,
namely, how to change her mind.
And learned in the process that if I ever change the world
it's going to be one eighth grader at a time.
...

9.
Love Hungry For Itself

I love my wife, but I have never loved her
the way she deserves to be loved.
Nor has she loved me in the same way.

Once, we went to bed together
too tired to do anything but kiss,
which we did with our lips drifting.

But after the first dream, love hungry
for itself, we found ourselves making more
with great desire and the divinity of dark.

Leave me this great imperfect love
in which the body knows to seek
what the heart does not think it needs.
...

10.
My Deepest Condiments

I send you my deepest condiments
was in no way what my old friend
meant to say or write or send
the night she penned a note to me
one week after my father died.

Not condolences, or sentiments,
she sent me her deepest condiments
instead, as if the dead have need
of relish, mustard, and ketchup
on the other side.

O, the word made me laugh
so hard out loud it hurt!
So wonderfully absurd,
and such a sweet relief
at a time when it seemed

only grief was allowed in
after my father's death,
sweet and simple laughter,
which is nothing more than
breath from so far deep inside

it often brings up with it tears.
And so I laughed and laughed
until my sides were sore.
And later still, I even cried
a little more.
...