Saturday, May 14, 2016

on taking a birthday polaroid at the crestone zen center

         with a camera almost as old as me,
the zen monk cocks the shutter to
take a black and white polaroid
to mark my 60th birthday:

“hold your arms out high –
like you’ve just won something,” he says.

after our breakfast of tea, rice and fruit,
in the midst of a warm May morning,
I squint to see the picture he took
just moments ago.

“It looks so cold there,” he says
looking over my shoulder and
tapping at the center
of the underexposed print.
“And you can’t smell
the crabapple blossoms at all.”

“Can you normally smell them?” I ask.

“Yes, well, every spring,” he answers,
brushing pink petals from his black robe
and putting his camera away.

“Every single spring.”


Friday, April 29, 2016


In a hotel lounge twenty-six floors above Seoul,
the sound of rush hour is muted.
The acrid grey sky is cancerous with sunrise.

With neckties tight,
and coffees half finished,
four businessmen at the next table
speak of the silver flash of trout
in shimmering Colorado streams.
Children in Bangladesh.
Second homes. Long hours suffered.
Rare earth minerals pried from Mongolia.
Starving migrations. Picassos. Monets.
The value of love. What to bid.
Consumption of McDonald’s.
The smoothness of ivory.
Profits for a cure. Stocks. Wine.
Pyongyang and cigarettes.
Their adored sons.

But my translation is poor;
their language of pure math
is difficult, a distillation.
A torrent of calculations with too many
decimal places rushing through stock markets,
canyons, favelas and forests far below,

washing away everything
that cannot escape
to higher ground.

Then, with laughter at a good joke,
they push back from their table,
and are gone into the stillborn sunset
bleeding across the city.

Gentle brown winds from China
burn our lungs.
The evening closes over us
like rising water;

nothing moves.


Friday, April 22, 2016

a poet puts down his camera

a photo is worth a thousand words too many for this poet.

the dam has burst and the flood of words
It held back sweeps me onto blank pages, the receeding waters leave the debris of my life scattered everywhere.

the scene would make for a vivid photograph, but I will find meaning in the beautiful chaos, letter by letter, word by word,

one poem at a time.

Saturday, August 15, 2015


saturday morning is lighting
the tips of the evergreens,
the wind comes in gusts through the window -
tousling my hair as my grandfather did.

i’ve just spent an hour reading of war
in chechnya. my coffee has grown cold,
but not so cold as their dead. curled up
in my worn reading chair,
there is still sleep lingering in my bones,
which is to say life.

my cold coffee now bitter - like the character
counting gunshot wounds instead of cadavers
as if each shot were a separate death,
as if in the tallying he will understand,
as if in the reading, will i.

another gust flips the pages
to where i left off, so i begin
again to count with him,
hoping to find the sentence
where ends the tallying.

i wake to find the sun high.
i have slept again. I dump
my cold coffee down the sink,
while he continues his bitter count

without me turning even a page.


Wednesday, February 4, 2015


let us wonder at

the pondering
the last act
the final door

all that leads there
is not true nor
the stained glass
layered with dust

let us find stones
and cast them
in the waters of John
and watch the ripples
spread and fade

let us watch the sun
rise from its palace

let us wonder
at dead children
life bleached from their hearts
their dear hearts
that beat so fast when born
but now just
cavities collapsing

and oceans

beating against shores

sounding their soft alarm

while dervish galaxies
whirl their endless stars

across the moonless sky

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Advent (for nelson mandela)

It seems unlikely to me, this season of Advent,
a story of an unwed Mother journeying far,
for reasons unclear, to a filthy manger,
to give birth to the Child - covered in blood -
in a pile of hay. And Joseph, a seemingly mute witness,
watching the story unfold, sensing
the grief that will one day enfold them.

Then there was a Star and three Wise Men.
From the East they came,
to the Mother and Child. Kneeling,
they brought gifts that he already knew then
he would need later. Reconciliation not being an
easy affair.

When Mandela was born, there was no Star, but
the Wise came to him eventually, if reluctantly,
and only much later. And Gifts?
I imagine freeing the oppressed counts.
He was not nailed to a Cross, but he carried one
for twenty-seven years
in a small cell and alone.

A man who forgave the enemies that tortured him,
imprisoned him, spat on him. A man who reconciled
an entire nation exacting no retribution.
And in this season of Advent,
Mandela has gone, called by the Child.
How long the people of South Africa waited
to follow their Star out of the wilderness.
How they must now grieve.

Listening to the news,
how foolish I feel in this season of shopping,
as I straighten the star on the top of my plastic tree,
take the dusty, sanitized manger yet again
from its old cardboard box,
and wrap gifts that are not wise at all
for people who know not what they do.

- r. russeth

Saturday, August 3, 2013

dark matter

One day we shall together write an epitaph across an alien sky,
Where an as yet unborn race will struggle
To understand that which holds together everything.

They will argue the nature of the gods,
Fight wars over liturgies and covenants,
As they build their first ship,
And journey to one of their three moons.

Their planet will suddenly seem very small
As one moon slides over their home world
Like a six fingered hand. Hiding it from their astronauts, who, humbled,
Will weep without tears.

But by then we will be long of that which holds together everything.
Our ashes making a slow journey of return
Through the sleep of galaxies;
While our revelations, written on photons,
Leap ahead.

And on a certain night,
Untold but as yet unborn children,
Will hear their mothers 
Calling them home at dusk
From their games with rules
Nothing like ours.

Called to bedtime,
Without perhaps seeing that one star
In that one night – with its untold trillions of revelations -
Flash brilliantly for a blink of an eye
For anyone bothering to turn an eye or three

To the small space between two
Of the three rising moons,
Before turning off the porch light,
And latching the screen door.

Brilliant unread epitaph,
Filling the night with all we never needed to know,
Before fading to everything
That mattered.

-        richard russeth

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

metaphorically speaking

Flying to Phoenix,
I picture myself leaping from this plane
high over the dreaming desert,
just to find out, once and for all,
if metaphor
can trump literal.
But, of course, I don't leap.

The pen may be mightier
than the sword, but, in the end,
I know gravity always wins.
Mountains turn to plains,
fire turns to ash,
life itself

falls to earth.

As the rising sun
sets free the night,
the pilot tells us
to prepare for landing.
The plane shudders
as its wheels come down.
No one speaks.

I always think of landing
as a kind of birth,
but I can feel the people around me
wondering what their
eulogies would be. Who
would speak for them?

How I envy the pilot staring out
at the fast approaching tarmac,
soothing control tower voices
in his head, the end of the
journey known with GPS precision.

My runway is so hard to see,
if it is there at all,
metaphors being such difficult things
upon which to land.

Saturday, January 12, 2013


in your body

light through your veins

each cell pregnant

with your future

no rage

can change

the fading 

the way water


in the flower bed



today, the sun was an hour hand;
the moon was Monday.
while dusk crept like a tide into our small church,
we remembered the dead by reading the litany of saints;
the dead heard us and smiled.
a siren went by on its way to save someone.
a child set prayer wheels spinning in Katmandu.
an old woman counted the veins on her hands.
we wrote prayers on small pieces of paper with pencil stubs.
streetlights went green. yellow. red.
a nun’s hands sang the rosary in Vatican City.
thousands swirled around the Kaaba in Mecca.
the bread and wine blessed our hands and mouths.
somewhere tequila was drunk.
we read each prayer aloud since the dead can no longer read.
a Sufi spun in mystic trance in Senegal.
in London, the DJs whirled and the crowds surged.
a murder was committed on a blameless victim in New Orleans.
deadheads twirled round and round their universe.
a drug user was found dead by a general’s statue in a park.
we exchanged a sign of peace between ourselves.
buddhist monks felt the dharma wheel turn in san francisco.
the poor are still with us when the service ends.
our prayers wind their way along their paths,
while the world spins quietly through the night.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


At eleven thousand feet,
we stood under a clear vault
of blue sky, but not the blue
you are thinking of, no.

Not the blue of the suburbs'
huddled masses. Nor the blue
of the Blue Note Club in New York,
though almost that of a tenor sax
with a split reed.

It's somewhat like that blue bottle
your neighbor kept – god knows why –
in her bedroom window. Not exactly
the blue of New Orleans or Nashville
or Harlem either, though maybe almost
the blue of a pick-up game along
the Henry Hudson Parkway at about 89th.

Miami almost has it but its too warm
and there are too many boats.  Minnesota
probably has one or two lakes among its 10,000
that nail it, but I've never actually seen them.
I might say it was the blue of Chartres
with monks singing compline,
but that does neither justice.

Let’s just say, it was blue

the way winning the seventh game
of the world series tied
in the bottom of the ninth
with two outs and nobody on
is baseball.

That blue.


seventeen syllables allen ginsberg would have gratefully counted

Sun on clouds, moon in trees, nothing in this world is beautiful alone.


broken seashells

Her words slid backwards,
stumbling on a rough patch,

each syllable a stone
she threw from her mouth.

The second drew blood; he sputtered,

gears grinding across his face.

When she spoke again, it was all ozone,
broken wires and small sparks.

His jaw was a slow car crash.

“Broken seashells washing over each other,”
he’d thought the first time he heard her on the phone.

Now he knocked back a shot of gasoline,
and no one dared strike a match,

except for her -

tossing it to him like a flower,
and walking away.

Why I Write Poetry

When my father’s chest fell for the last time,
it was hard to look up and realize
everything else was as it had been before.
Green buses trundled by seven floors below
belching diesel and noise. The cafeteria workers
moved dinner from room to room. Parents
wept in the fluorescent hall.

Not that I thought he’d live forever
or, terribly enough, that I wanted him forever,
only that he’d live long enough to ask me
why I write poetry.

He appeared relieved, actually to be done
with this pale green room and dull world, until his
last exhale, which lingered
with us even as it sank into his chest,
the bed, the floor under, the basement,
the dirt, the water far below. As if
in the midst of his last,
he’d unexpectedly recalled
his first, and how much it
tasted like vinegar or sugar,
felt like the end
of a long rise
through the now beckoning deep.