Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 24, 2009

The Biographer as a Poet

I’m off today to see old friends, meet new ones, and put faces to people I’ve met online at the NESCBWI conference in Nashua. The Saturday program is full, but there are spaces for Sunday, when I’ll be leading a workshop on writing poetry that draws from history. I’m excited1

Yesterday my dear friend Margaret told me she’d been waiting to see a poem or two of mine online. So, deep breath, here goes. This is one I wrote while working on Borrowed Names, which will come out from Holt next year.

The Biographer Becomes a Poet

The biographer sidesteps through library stacks,
drawn to the dustiest books. She craves pages that crackle
and spill old secrets. Can she gossip on church steps?
Smell pine branches in a forest? Tiptoe into a bedroom
and dab a finger into hand lotion?
Taste the brittle crusts of toast left on a blue plate,
pineapple juice, vanity cakes and green pumpkin pie,
baguettes with cheese or gooseberry jam?
Quietly, she examines the texture of split seconds
then stretches her legs like a gymnast to leap across years.
Facts shift as they enter particular ears, eyes,
the valves and chambers of a heart.

When no one is watching, the biographer turns a corner,
changes her clothes, though invisibility is her favorite costume.
Quietly as night slips into morning,
she examines life’s broken pieces like jewels,
holds up shards to lamps until they turn into antique maps.
The poet steels up her nerves to speak for another
who did not leave words as precise as she would wish.
She invites whimsy, with her folded wings and crazy hats,
then, instants later, shoves her toward the exit.
She fumbles through mistaken identities, skirts past the obvious,
rakes the shapes of faces from heaps of old leaves.
Cards flap on the table as she gambles
trespasses, begs forgiveness
for failing at the impossible: truth.

–Jeannine Atkins

To read more poetry and about poetry, visit the roundup of today’s posts at Lisa Schellman’s blog:



  1. Hi Jeannine! Love your poem! I hope to run into you at NESCBWI tomorrow. Tell me about Borrowed Names. –Diane

  2. I love the poem! Great images!
    Can’t wait to see you later today!

  3. Simply beautiful, Jeannine!

  4. Gorgeous poem, Jeannine! I’m not typically a poetry fan (shh, don’t tell!), but I savored every line of this one. Yum!

  5. P.S. Have fun at the conference! I’d so love to meet you there.

  6. Thanks, Diane. Hope to see you soon!

  7. Thanks, Cindy! Can’t wait. Oh yeah, I don’t really have to now — just pack and get in the car!

  8. Thanks, Jo. See you so soon! (now those are some beautiful words!)

  9. Thanks, Melodye. And we will have fun at the conference; wish we could just tip the continent so some of you west coast people could fall in for a bit. I’m sure there will be pictures though.
    One of these days our paths will meet.

  10. I love this. I love the sense of risk, and taking that risk because it’s just such magic. Thanks for posting. 🙂

  11. *thunderous applause*
    Bravo, Jeannine. I love it!!
    Thanks so much for sharing it with us. 🙂

  12. risk and magic
    Thanks, Becky. I love that phrase re risk and magic.
    I’m trying to do more with the magic..

  13. Re: WOW!
    gosh, Tracie, thanks so much for the “wow.” I am breathing again.

  14. Jama, thanks for the clapping and smiley face!

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