Poems from Quiet Lives (Humana, 1983)


hid in Grand Rapids, Mich. follows the late Dr. Williams & his magnificent peer Reznikoff in practicing direct treatment of phanopoeic world, his gift solid as theirs.”

—Allen Ginsberg


Copyright ©1983 by David Cope




Poems from Quiet Lives appeared in Big Scream, City Lights Journal #4, Blind Alley, In the Light, Windows in the Stone, Delirium, The World, Roof, Bombay Gin and Ferro Botanica.  “American Dream” and “Crash” appeared in New Directions Anthology #37; “Crash” was also featured in The Pushcart Prize #2:  Best of the Small Presses and in Poems to Live By in Troubling Times (Beacon, 2006).  “Abandoned Hotel” and “The Landlady” were published in New Blood 1.1 (Artz, 1980).  “Labor Day” was included in Visiting Walt:  poems inspired by the life & work of Walt Whitman (Iowa, 2003).  “Rexroth Gone” was published in Sins & Felonies (Ed. G. F. Korreck.  Barbaric Yawp, 2007).




Poems included here: 


Abandoned Hotel

American Dream

Paint Work


Lunch Hour

A Quiet Life

The Welfare Office


The Landlady

Half Moon

Rexroth Gone 

Chinese Calligraphy


Labor Day







Abandoned Hotel


urine, fresh in the doorway,

puddles on the sidewalk. 

we key the lock of the abandoned Hillside,

looking for free furniture: 

windows broken out, smashed chairs & dressers,

yellowed mattresses laid on the floors,

a Bible, a picture of "Smiling Rose,”

pussy” sprayed on the wall six times,

& eleven pigeons parading in the hall. 

the paint peels from every wall. 

outside, a crone wheels a battered pram, empty;

the police have an old man against a wall.





American Dream


the house was all in flames,

orange billows bursting up into the sunlight.

FBI agents & police were laid up

behind walls, sheds & other buildings

armed with M-16s & rocket launchers.

the firemen were kept back.

the battle had gone on for some time

when the fire exploded thruout the house.

one of the bodies could be seen inside the house,

loaded with ammunition bullets,

the bullets exploding from the heat.





Paint Work


his workmen stopped to listen;

the neighbors opened the window. 

he waved his arms

& pointed to the new roof.  his expenses: 

she hadn’t paid in two months. 

he hadn’t agreed to her painting the place. 

where was the contract?  show it. 

he looked indoors.  the chisels began again.







now I know the secret of peace

wandering here among hills where no one lives. 

white pines,

clumps of sumac, hillsides covered with white oaks, 

poplars & birches: 

I never stand still for long,

but listen & move on. 

the light floods the woods & valley. 

even the shadows are luminous & clear, 

& I, just another face among so many.



sitting around a table waiting for the day to end

these men relive the war: 

sore shoulders & jaws firing rifles at boot camp,

the advantages of the M-16,

how a grenade works,

blasting tiny shrapnel in every direction. 

Roger relives watching perimeters at night,

calling artillery strikes on anything that moved: 

so jumpy

any monkey or snake in the brush might set him off,

he talks of loneliness, staring into the alien night

when everything he loved was far away.

Jerry—fond of guns & tactics—

proudly remembers taking an M-16 off a dead GI;

he’d been issued an M-14

& wanted a better gun.  this was how to get one. 

Benny talks of piles of bodies,

corpses with arms, heads, legs ripped off,

the twisted faces of the dead,

the stink that filled his nostrils,

a smell he can’t forget. 

he speaks without passion,

regretting the wasted effort, the needless deaths,

yet he accepts his part in it,

still amazed people could live like this for years,

from attack to counter-attack

hiding in fields & ditches,

finding uncles & sons blasted to pieces

more often than children are born.



Ann Arbor: 

after the politicians’ lies, the funerals of friends,

the nightly deaths in the evening news,

our rage swelled into riot. 

surging around a lone police car

we smashed the windows out, punching the driver’s face in. 

others ran thru the main streets;

store fronts & bank windows shattered on the pavement. 

as the dark night settled in

we blocked traffic, heading farther & farther downtown. 

suddenly police filled the streets before us—

gas masks, nightsticks, dogs straining at leashes. 

a charge! 

shouts!  screams!  nightsticks cracking skulls! 

tear gas all over main street!  panic! 

some ran blindly, in any direction,

officers in gas masks on their heels;

others sat down in the street, folding their arms,

waiting to be beaten & carried off. 

up the dark alley!  thru sidestreets, home again,

& once home

I looked at my face in the mirror,

filled with rage & horror, alone & cut off.



years later, on a picnic,

we watch light play thru willow branches. 

listening to this soft breeze

I wonder how I put the violence behind me. 

so many friends dead

& those come back still dazed & broken,

yet the night passes, somehow.




Lunch Hour


waiting for a bus

some laid-off workers shoot craps.

this one’s won, he’s dancing around

slapping at the losers.





A Quiet Life


Minh will turn down citizenship: 

he wants to go home. 

the Texans treated him badly,

when all he wanted was work, a quiet life. 

his eyes turn away.  he sighs deeply.


could we get Sang’s children out

in a month or two? 

no, said Tham.  a time of storms. 

on my boat, Lien said, my children go 3 days

no food, & water only to wet the lips. 

four people die,

& this in good weather.





The Welfare Office


a fat black woman bellows

at the face behind the desk,

her coat billowing about her boy

who clutches her knees. 

rows of haggard faces wait

in a stupor. 

the bureaucrats take them one by one. 

forms & signatures, in a cubicle—

muffled conversations,

mechanical clacking:

drove buses Saigon to Hanoi 2 years? 

small appliance repair? 

he’s lucky, should be no problem

once he learns English.” 

outside, bodies crowd the lightpoles;

the police lift a derelict

from a boarded doorway.







the cars lie, one on its side,

a rear wheel still spinning,

& the other upside down. 

the bodies are scattered across the cornfield,

bent & broken on the frozen ground. 

two ambulances pull up. 

the attendants arrange & cover the dead. 

cars pull over to the side of the road—

everyone shuffles,

eager to help, hands in pockets.





The Landlady


a thousand dead roaches in the sink

& on the floor, a thousand more, crawling. 

she wanted “to do business fairly,”

but didn’t know whom to trust. 

the tenants had tried to set the house afire,

then left, six months back on the rent. 

she wonders how to fix the battered wall,

the smashed ceiling, the live wire;

how she’ll keep her finances straight,

whether her children are growing up right.





Half Moon


blood in the toilet

& cramps like labor, tissue

settling to the bottom of the water: 

outside, the moon’s cut in half,

frigid in the mist.  man & wife,

they cry softly together,

& look into each other’s eyes.





Rexroth Gone


tenderly now,

let me blow this faint gentle breath out

     to another of my fathers. 


two days since I heard this news,

& all day today heaving & sighing,

     his mountain meadows, the Spanish dead,


Sacco & Vanzetti, Dylan Thomas,

& all the tiny plum blossoms he floated us: 

     if I sit tonight in shadows,


the moon’ll be full, the crickets sing

sweet lament.  tenderly now,

     this faint gentle breath to you,





Chinese Calligraphy


T’ang Yin, Freer Gallery


Dreaming of Immortality in a Thatched Cottage—

a man

surrounded by the immensity of trees, mountains & sky,


& in the sky his other self has left it all behind. 

coming in here: 

car horns, a small boy tried to strangle a pigeon,

throngs sat in the shade, wiping their brows,

taxis slammed on their brakes. 

& I, I would leave this place?







two mechanics sit in broken glass,

one cigarette between them

passed back & forth,

taking turns reefing on a stubborn wheel nut. 

the poet appears, broom & dustpan in hand.





Labor Day


all our jams are up,

our watermelons, tomatoes, cukes & peaches.

cruising past these fields of corn,

their tassels shining in the sundown,

already I’m dreaming of Thanksgiving.

in fall I can’t help but think of death,

its dear color:

already here & there the maples turn;

here is a funeral cortege, holding up traffic,

the women covering their faces,

heads bent, the men solemn, staring straight ahead.

a whole life passes before me,

someone I never knew;

the sun shines over the hearse, thru the windows

onto their laps where their hands are folded.


home, sitting on the porch with you,

these sweet short moments

talking & looking over our marigolds

never come often enough.

yet together our lives’re kind:  we get by,

savoring this time

as the gardener puts his yard in order.

everywhere I look, people are whistling, busy:

now’s the time to read Whitman again.