American Poet: Autumn: Karen Petersen

karen p[etersen


Karen Petersen has travelled the world extensively, publishing poetry, short stories, and flash both nationally and internationally in a variety of literary publications.  Her poems have been translated into Persian and Spanish, and she has been nominated for numerous prizes, most recently long-listed for the UK’s international Bridport Prize. She is the first person in the history of the Pushcart Prizes to receive nominations in all three categories of poetry, short story, and flash. This year, her chapbook,  Trembling, won the Wil Mills Award, judged by Annie Finch, and her first volume of poetry, Twelve Cities, and Other Places, is forthcoming with the Able Muse Press. More information can be found here:


Karen introduces herself:

I’ve been writing for almost five decades, wearing a variety of hats: poet, editor, journalist, short story writer. As a poet, I made a decision a long time ago to focus on free verse, since when done well, it seemed the most accessible vehicle in which one could be simultaneously profound and yet simple. Over the years I’ve occasionally written formal verse, but not often.

Much of my poetry deals with issues of mortality in all its forms, whether the physical aspects of death and grief or the more subtle notions of extinction and the natural world. My writing has tried to point the reader towards a contemplation, both of their own inner existential state and of the world around them.

Having been in combat environments when I was a photojournalist, I wanted to write some poems about the healing value of family and nature when one is dealing with trauma. ‘Long Night’s Moon’ was nominated for the Forward Prize.



I wander the world dwelling in one
dark blue eventide after another,
Frequenting mountains, caves, forests
and other lonely places,
where hunting sparrowhawks send
small birds shattering out of branches
and into the mouths of waiting foxes.

Sometimes the sky brightly glitters in parts
while being ominously dark in others, often
foretelling storm, rain or snow:
fine, wind-driven snow, disorienting and
obscuring the northern stars so I lose my way,
or ‘dog’s-feet-snow’ falling in large flakes,
quickly blanketing the landscape
and freezing even the shadows under the trees.

I look sunward to feel its warmth on my face,
its apricity, and remember the shimmering
eldritch mirages of the brutal heat
in the southern latitudes
destroying all equilibrium and sanity.
I just want to close my eyes and sleep now,
or else shout my regrets at the lone skylark
riding the currents of all that emptiness.

And then there is this moon,
glowing and round, strong light flowing
like a river through the night sky,
a giant portal to the heavens.
I lean back, conquered, defenseless,
surrendered in full, completely subsumed,
until that delicate pink blush above the horizon
arrives, with its beautiful wild edges.


It was all glowing pink, purple and green
on the small hills above the house today,
the heather and gorse almost on fire
with their fierce, wind-spangled colors.
Geese overhead at dawn, charms of goldfinches
in the privet, the far summits standing clear.
We had a fast sunlit race across the moors,
cloud-shadows flowing over the fells, swallows
hunting low through the flower meadows.
And as I ran across the old chalk finish line
behind my brother, no longer wee but all grown now,
a man in full, I stumbled and he gathered me up,
safe and unhurt, as if I was still a young lass.
To be surrounded by family and unfettered landscape
today was a kind of bountiful perfection, and gave
some peace amid the clattering and hammering
of my troubled dreams, hiding away in a far-off place.


I’m currently working on a book of poems about invertebrates. They are the forgotten heroes of the environment, and often overlooked by the public relations department in the conservation movement. With this book, I want to help raise people’s awareness of this part of the living world around us.



Ancient pollinators
of the earliest flowers,
some look like tree bark,
or are hairy and stout,
others have enough iridescence
to make Tiffany pout.
And some have enough spots
to make a dalmatian dizzy
or even smell worse than
a bum’s tizzy.
Ignored or squashed,
eaten by finches and sparrows,
found in the rock art of the Sahara,
the tombs of the Pharaohs;
Soldier, long-horned,
blister beetles,
sacred scarab,
humble click,
it’s clear that the Creator
had an inordinate fondness
for the lowly Coleoptera.


–in memory of Derek Walcott

Descending through the primal silence
on metal, featherless wings,
piercing the white cantons of cumuli,
our silver bird finds Earth’s anchor
and I arrive to smell the changed air,
charged from sunshine’s clarity, water’s clarity,
azure and brilliant in the Caribbean sky.

In this paradise of heat and green camouflage
my heart lightens, slows, and relaxes.
The room is small, broad shutters open
to the sound of cannonading surf and bird song,
bed linens white as the nearby sand.
The streets are wide and bright, there are no sidewalks,
the men’s dark beauty moving like flares in the night.

This sunny place is theirs, I do not belong.
Yet as a visitor I take a fragrant piece with me
like a benediction over my disassembled life:
my hypertension, my rotting liver, my unraveling brain.
The sun, with its gentle diffusion of light on a lemon wall,
does not feel doomed and mortal here.
It is steady and seasonless, uncontaminated by decay.

Harsh reflections on my aging life and its humiliations
I sit beneath the ragged palms and pastel balconies,
whose shuttered boudoirs were once open
so long ago to wild desire–now, firmly closed.
The African flowers in the weeds between the rocks
carry the sharp smell of history; they are non-native flowers,
gently avenging reminders of these souls in exile.

My past is just blue air now, fading pink petals,
like the falling pods of the flamboyant tree.
My memories drift in this drowsy heat,
lifted by the rhythm of the high hawks, circling.
I’m waiting for a visitation from my stoic angels,
those silent white egrets hiding behind the decrepit sea walls.
At long last, I can hear the dragonfly’s immortal drone.

NOTE: ‘A Return to the Islands’ was long-listed for The Bridport Prize/UK, and nominated for a Pushcart/USA


Ten years after my father’s death
my mother looks at his photo
and says she cannot
even remember his voice.
She’s forgotten–or is it pain?–
the strange depths of their last
ten years together: the light
and the dark.
So it is I,
the umbilical thread,
that holds it all together now;
the frayed, fraying, gossamer fineness
of memory, my only inheritance.
See? I am the keeper, I am the tomb.


It starts with something as simple
as driving by a roadside shrine
to the dead, a place where
an accident occurred,
it doesn’t speak more than that.
You don’t know if it was at night
or during the day, or the age
of the deceased, you just know
that it happened.
And it starts with looking at it,
and because you pass by
this shrine daily you notice something
that no one else just driving by once
would ever know, or even a few
times a year, because they
wouldn’t remember.
You notice that the flowers
are changed every week
and then you realize that someone
in their great grief, and desire
to remember the deceased,
comes faithfully, week after week,
year after year, so that the person
they loved is never forgotten.
And suddenly you are filled with
a great sadness because you feel
their sorrow, in the witnessing
of the flowers, and you start
to notice these shrines
in many places, and you realize
the great grief that surrounds you,
and then and only then
do you understand.

NOTE: All the above poems were published in various literary magazines and acknowledgments can be found on my web site

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