Poem: Dutch Elm Disease – The New York Times

Poem: Dutch Elm Disease – The New York Times


How does Valencia Robin’s beautiful poem work its melancholy magic? Whether in far-off Vietnam or on a nearby bridge, death is waiting in Milwaukee. The narrator can’t stop remembering; she turns the events of one summer over in her mind until her voice gets in our heads too. The constant patter — desperate yet determined — is like a doomed wish, as if you could talk some sense into memory: sorrow spilling out of a neighbor’s house, the family staggering under a mortal anguish that overwhelms the boundaries of the yard, the street, the city and, finally, even time itself. Selected by Rita Dove

By Valencia Robin

When Danny Johnson’s big brother was killed in Vietnam,
Danny ran around the block five times. I counted. Ran
as if when he stopped his brother would be back in their driveway
washing his car. But nobody knew anything about time travel
back then, Star Trek hadn’t even come out, Lieutenant Uhura
still on Broadway doing Blues for Mr. Charlie. And even if Danny
did understand the space-time continuum, his parents
weren’t having it, his mother on the porch yelling
his name, his father tackling him on the front lawn, all us kids,
the whole block standing there on pause. Which didn’t exist
either. No fast forward, no reverse. We weren’t even Black
yet. Was Milwaukee even Milwaukee? Is the Lincoln Park Bridge
still there, do boys like Danny still climb over the rail,
hug their bony knees to their narrow chests and plop into the river
as if there’s no way his parents could lose two children?
Which is all I know about Vietnam, that and the way the sun hung
in the faded sky as Danny ran around and around
and held the air hostage, that and the way the thick August air
ignored the leaves of all our doomed elm trees
and let itself be held hostage. The streets were like ghosts
when they cut down those trees.


Rita Dove is a Pulitzer Prize winner and former poet laureate of the United States. She edited “The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry,” and her “Collected Poems: 1974-2004” was published in 2016. Valencia Robin is a graduate of the creative writing program at the University of Virginia. Her debut collection, “Ridiculous Light,” was published this year by Persea Books.

Illustration by R.O. Blechman



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