Gardens are also good places

to sulk. You pass beds of

spiky voodoo lilies

and trip over the roots

of a sweet gum tree,

in search of medieval

plants whose leaves,

when they drop off

turn into birds

if they fall on land,

and colored carp if they

plop into water.


Suddenly the archetypal

human desire for peace

with every other species

wells up in you. The lion

and the lamb cuddling up.

The snake and the snail, kissing.

Even the prick of the thistle,

queen of the weeds, revives

your secret belief

in perpetual spring,

your faith that for every hurt

there is a leaf to cure it.


~ Amy Gerstler from Bitter Angel


Marcus Stone, circa 1900


The wind is tossing the lilacs,

The new leaves laugh in the sun,

And the petals fall on the orchard wall,

But for me the spring is done.


Beneath the apple blossoms

I go a wintry way,

For love that smiled in April

Is false to me in May.


~ Sara Teasdale


“Apple Blossom” by Henry Ryland (1856-1924)

With writing the conclusion for my seminar paper on the lyric “I” the only remaining task of my first doctoral course at Claremont, it seems only fitting that I repost my article on endings.  Enjoy!


Like most people, I believe, I love the last bursts of fireworks at the end of a public Fourth of July show.  The pyrotechnicians know we wait for them with anticipation and excitement, eager for the rhythmic, more sporadic booms of the first rockets to culminate in the rapid-fire, snare drum-like rat-a-tat and dazzling sparks shower of the finale.  The end seems ironically endless until, at last, we are oohed and aahed out, breathless and completely fulfilled for that holiday.  And then the rogue pops and whistles begin in random episodes throughout the neighborhood and continue for hours, even days, jarring our bliss.

Huh? I thought we were done with that…?

Ah, yes…the lingering conclusion.  I’ve seen this before.  Like those crazy candles on a birthday cake that never fully extinguish after the song, P.F. Chang’s Great Wall of Chocolate, a third curtain call, and then a fourth, the protracted or seemingly unending ending merely delays the inevitable and may even undermine what was or could have been a spectacular and perfectly timed denouement.

Admittedly, we have conflicting feelings about endings.  Firstly, we tend to prefer beginnings with all their possibilities and mystery.  Secondly, there is the pressure to get them just right.  Done poorly, they can destroy the merits of all that came before.  And, frankly, most of us have more practice with starting things than with finishing them.

The written conclusion can be just as tricky as the real life one, as both writers and readers can attest.  Personally, I’ve always been inexorably daunted by the task of summing up.  Perhaps it’s the perceived (and correct, by the way) notion that the last paragraph will singularly uphold or enervate the entire narrative or essay that has me rattled.  Or perhaps the looming deadline triggers what remains of my creativity to gather its things, turn out the lights, and go home.  Then again, it’s hard to write with the Grim Reader snickering over my shoulder.  “Seriously?” he scoffs, crunching an apple and rolling his sockets.  “How many times are you going to say that?”

In On Writing Well, William Zinsser cautions writers about the oh-so-important last sentence: “An article that doesn’t stop where it should stop becomes a drag and therefore a failure. […] The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.”  He goes on to extol the virtues of striking at the end an echo of a note that was sounded at the beginning, gratifying the reader’s sense of symmetry with its resonance.

There is such a thing as a perfect ending.  The wish only comes true if the candles are blown out.  The bowing and clapping (and fireworks) have to conclude so we can all leave the arena and get some sleep.  And, really, no one needs six layers of chocolate cake.  Ending well, according to Zinsser, is a joy in itself.  Like the epilogue that hints at a sequel, things must end so new things can begin.


This column first appeared in the Orange County Register.


I’ve watched his eyelids sag, spring open

   Vaguely and gradually go sliding

      Shut again, fly up

With a kind of drunken surprise, then wobble

   Peacefully together to send him

      Home from one school early.  Soon his lashes

Flutter in REM sleep. I suppose he’s dreaming

   What all of us kings and poets and peasants

      Have dreamed: of not making the grade,

Of draining the inexhaustible horn cup

   Of the cerebral cortex where ganglions

      Are ganging up on us with more connections

Than atoms in heaven, but coming up once more

   Empty.  I see a clear stillness

      Settle over his face, a calming of the surface

Of water when the wind dies. Somewhere

   Down there, he’s taking another course

      Whose resonance (let’s hope) resembles

The muttered thunder, the gutter bowling, the lightning

   Of minor minions of Thor, the groans and gurgling

      Of feral lovers and preliterate Mowglis, the songs

Of shamans whistled through bird bones. A worried neighbor

   Gives him the elbow, and he shudders

      Awake, recollects himself, brings back

His hands from aboriginal outposts,

   Takes in new light, reorganizes his shoes,

      Stands up in them at the buzzer, barely recalls

His books and notebooks, meets my eyes

   And wonders what to say and whether to say it,

      Then keeps it to himself as today’s lesson.


                                              ~ David Wagoner


Posted in honor of our dedicated professors on this National Teacher Day.


“In the Classroom” by Paul Louis Martin des Amoignes, 1886


Winds of May, that dance on the sea,

Dancing a ring-around in glee

From furrow to furrow, while overhead

The foam flies up to be garlanded,

In silvery arches spanning the air,

Saw you my true love anywhere?

Welladay! Welladay!

For the winds of May!

Love is unhappy when love is away!


~ James Joyce


John William Waterhouse, 1916

The sun shines fair on Tweedside, the river flowing bright,

Your heart is full of pleasure, your eyes are full of light,

Your cheeks are like the morning, your pearls are like the dew,

Or morning and her dew-drops are like your pearls and you.


Because you are a princess, a princess of the land,

You will not turn your lightsome eyes a moment where I stand,

A poor unnoticed poet, a-making of his rhymes;

But I have found a mistress, more fair a thousand times.


’Tis May, the elfish maiden, the daughter of the Spring,

Upon whose birthday morning the birds delight to sing.

They would not sing one note for you, if you should so command,

Although you are a princess, a princess of the land.


                                                                       ~ Robert Fuller Murray


“Spring Spreads One Green Lap of Flowers” by John William Waterhouse, 1910

April Love

We have walked in Love’s land a little way,

We have learnt his lesson a little while,

And shall we not part at the end of day,

With a sigh, a smile?

A little while in the shine of the sun,

We were twined together, joined lips, forgot

How the shadows fall when the day is done,

And when Love is not.

We have made no vows—there will none be broke,

Our love was free as the wind on the hill,

There was no word said we need wish unspoke,

We have wrought no ill.

So shall we not part at the end of day,

Who have loved and lingered a little while,

Join lips for the last time, go our way,

With a sigh, a smile?


                                ~ Ernest Dowson


“Phantasy” by William Savage Cooper, 1896

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