Pick-a-Poem: “The Essay”


This week’s poem hearkens back to school days and essay writing. Perhaps we all need a reminder of school in the middle of summer, either to remind us how happy we are that we no longer have to write those essays, or to remind us that essays are returning in just a month. Either way, this is a wonderful poem and it is entitled The Essay, and is written by Brian Culhane. Once again, this poem was found thanks to Poetry Daily. If you’re looking for some daily poetry in your life, be sure to check out their website!

According to Poetry Daily, Brian Culhane “has new or forthcoming work in Slate, Literary Imagination, Salamander, Memorius, Southwest Review, Sewanee Review, PN Review, and Plume. His first book, The King’s Question (Graywolf), won the Poetry Foundation’s Emily Dickinson Award. He teaches at an independent school in Seattle.”

The Essay, by Brian Culhane

I have asked my students once again to write on a theme.
The subject is not the end of the summer,
Though summer has once again ended and they are here.
The subject is not even the throes of adolescence,

Or the Shakespearean sonnet’s use of the couplet.
No, theirs is such a dark and rich theme that their essays
Will look at first like Kafka’s diaries—with self-portraits,
Wraiths or ominous clocks lodged in the margins.

I want each to follow the footsteps of the psychopomp
And find the Gates of Horn that so many have stood before.
Should they be frightened, the pure ether may calm them,
Moving over their hot foreheads with a mother’s palm.

I watch them now bend low to their work, smudging ink,
Capitalizing proper nouns, stopping only to hurry forward,
Their nibs heavy oars, their scribbling an awkward rowing.
The dread of conclusions scrunches their shoulders.

One girl wearing her hair up for the very first time
Raises her hand and, at my nod, walks up to my desk.
She has finished first. Her paragraphs have the weight
Of Etruscan tombs, and her face is that same shade of rose

That glimmers in the background of Pompeian frescoes.
I accept that her script is cuneiform and that a grave puzzle
Awaits my midnight’s musing. For hers is the lost language
Of the young, a smooth stone I weigh in my palm, and let go.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s featured poem. For more of these, check out our site archives.

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan


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