Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: ‘Her Art,’ by LaWanda Walters


Her Art

I’d like to cry on Elizabeth Bishop’s shoulder.
I lost my mother’s engagement ring, for one thing.
Not your fault, she’d say. So much seems to want
to be lost. Even if, one day, in anger or grief
you threw it across the room or placed it somewhere
safe, the fact is, now, it’s gone. Just read my poem.

Remember? My mother’s watch was in that poem.
My losses are famous. Don’t cry on anyone’s shoulder—
even if I were available, I’m lost somewhere.
Find a nice shape and put your list of things
inside as you’d pack a valise. Be careful of your grief,
how you throw it around. People don’t want

a sight like that. Write about your want
as if it were an apple or a moth. A poem,
if you’re lucky, can help someone else’s grief.
It might be there to lean on like a shoulder,
though that should not be your intent. My things—
why should you care at all for them or where

or why I lost them? You saw me, somewhere,
painting Florida, transcribing my want,
that perilous view, into some other thing.
It is not a raft for you to climb on. The poem
might be about someone else’s shoulders,
how I miss them, perhaps, which is my grief,

not yours to worry over. Chart loss on a graph,
see how precisely rocks recall the wear
of tides and rain. Then think of those shoulders
you miss—pose them like a sculpture. The want
of arms made the Venus de Milo. A poem
is luck like that and discipline and things

you’ll never have again. See those things
as tiles in a watercolor tin. Grief,
set right, can flicker and stay, and then the poem
can stand in for your lost ring. I cannot say where
to look for any of this, or if the friend you want
will disappear. Step into loss as you should—
as you like to step in water, somewhere, your shoulders
cold until you’re swimming. My poem was a thing
I made, and it took some balancing, that grief and want.


First published in The Antioch Review (Summer 2007), then reprinted in Best New Poets (edited by Natasha Trethewey, Meridian 2007) and in Light Is the Odalisque (Silver Concho Series, edited by Pamela Uschuk and William Pitt Root, Press 53 2016); reprinted with permission of the publisher. Order Light Is the Odalisque here.



LaWanda Walters, cropped photo taken by Tess Despres Weinberg_5-19-16LaWanda Walters grew up in Mississippi and North Carolina. She earned an B.A. at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, an M.A. in Literature from California State University at Humboldt, and an MFA in Poetry from Indiana University, where she won the Academy of American Poets Prize. Her poems have appeared in The Antioch Review, The Cincinnati Review, Cutthroat, The Georgia Review, The Laurel Review, North American Review, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, Southern Poetry Review, and Sou’wester. Her poem “Marilyn Monroe” appears in Obsession: Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century (Dartmouth College Press 2014). “Goodness in Mississippi” was chosen by Sherman Alexie for Best American Poetry 2015. She is the mother of two grown children, Tess Despres Weinberg and Sean Jason Weinberg, and lives with her husband, John Philip Drury, in Cincinnati. Author Photo Credit: Tess Despres Weinberg.

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  • Carolyne Wright July 25, 2016 at 3:04 am

    Wow, congratulations to LaWanda! All the allusions to Miss Bishop’s famous villanelle, and Lawanda’s interweaving of her own parallel transmutations of loss, want, and regret into art: “My poem was a thing / I made, and it took some balancing, that grief and want.” Wow.

    And thanks, Rebecca, for posting this poem! I would love to teach this poem next time I teach the sestina, perhaps as part of my course, “Writing Under the Influence of Elizabeth Bishop,” which is more or less a forms course, forms which Miss Bishop herself practiced (sestina, sonnet, villanelle), and some that she didn’t (ghazal, pantoum, triolet among them).

    • LaWanda Walters May 22, 2020 at 1:55 pm

      Carolyne, thank you so much! That poem felt like a gift, once it got started. And Rebecca, thank you so much for your wonderful explication/writing about the poem. Love, LaWanda

      • Carolyne Wright July 13, 2020 at 2:49 am

        Thanks, LaWanda! I found your reply! 🙂 And thanks again, Rebecca! BTW, I used to get your emails . . . but they seem to have stopped coming . . . I will look into this!