Stephen Wehr – Five Poems


Fountain Lights in Bryant Park, NYC

In the shadow of a building whose summit
Midas crumpled in an envious rage,
a small marble fountain
undulates in its own shadows.
Droplets spew
over the softening rhapsody of car horns,
and two high knobs
of a mangy sycamore
eye the guests below warily,
consigned to this punishment
for rudeness to tourists in a former life.
The doggerel of the garbage cart pauses
nearby, and I shiver,
the approaching night is exhaling
down my collar
as a child skips off the slate
to compress a soup tray
with her sandal,
and the man with the Mutant Ninja t-shirt
growls profanity
to a triangle of laughter.

The nameless library statue presides
over this indecorous field.

A woman strides to an open table
from the direction of the B of A tower
to partner with her lover over a take-out box,
steam and noodles and the fountain lights
spelling JOY JOY JOY
on the sleeve of her dress, the hem of his suit.


Either Way: Wallowa

Rocky lanes of highland water
gush through the halls
of subalpine fir.
High desert alfalfa fields
checker past sections of hay stubble
beneath a gray chorus of mountains
in dusty robes of snow.

The child in the buddy seat
holds a lunch sack
in her father’s line of sight,
though his gaze completes
the spare calligraphy
of his tractor rows.
Beyond three corrugated wheat bins
the claws of an embittered cottonwood
beg the barren sky.

There’s a secret the land won’t divulge,

and if you ask how to build
a commonwealth under the mountains,
it is impossible to know
if work produces the grit,
or the other way around.
Either way,
you wrestle with a godly fire.


Ghazal: Just North of Atwater

We trim and clean the Swanson graves.
Indian summer winds sail in
from Dakota as the corn is cut.

Just north of Atwater, a copse lit
in orange and red and yellow
surrounds the farmhouse in flame.

The thirsty hinges of the abandoned barn
MMMRRRWWWHHHEEEEE as the children’s light feet
press the splinters of hay in the loft.

The patient troughs sit empty as they have
since Lamona left for vo-tech school.
With silver rags we polish the ghostly barrows.

In the house, the green linoleum
slopes toward the corners of the kitchen.
The siding was ripped in a prairie storm.

We sit on chairs and carpets that have held
all the guests of their lives over a well
so deep it draws a twinkling to their eyes.



A linen dusk falls
on the slumbering mountains.
Beckoning Venus winks
through a fading
pink cloud
and the silver breath
of the moon
cools the fiery tips
of the mesquite.

These mountains—
so red, then purple.
How my dry prayer
travels along
these softening hues.


Trempealeau Morning: Mississippi River Ride

When the sun’s yellow-white strobe
through the forest’s gray fingers
is cast in pleasant flashes
and our revolving motion is encircled
in blinding bubbles of light
that lift us above the garrulous gravel
to hover in sharp May air –
then amidst the coot’s gentle krrrp and prrkk
and the sharp clarion
of a secret society of sand hill cranes—
there along the shy speckled grasses
shimmering against the hips of the river
our bicycles descend.


Twelve Chapters on Beauty

  1. My work as a poet-craftsman often begins with the particularity of a specific place or person. I like to write in situ. Beauty is in the details.
  2. I approach the beautiful from a position of brokenness and vulnerability, as well as hope.
  3. Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkyn in The Idiot rightly declares that “Beauty will save the world,” especially since his subject, Nastassya Filippovna, was a “disgraced person,” who had experienced great suffering. Nastassya means “Resurrection.”
  4. We seem likelier to stumble across the beautiful when we exercise courage in anxiety, boldness in humility, when we sing in our “chains like the sea” (Dylan Thomas).
  5. Beauty is an inner and outer experience, but the two were truly written by the same hand. The outer world recreates the inner world, “making this thing other” (David Jones), recalling the inner world to its original beauty, despite great brokenness.
  6. Plato’s Phaedrus claims that beauty “causes a man [sic] to be regarded as mad, who, when he sees the beauty of the earth, remembering true beauty, feels his wings growing and longs to stretch them for an upward flight, but cannot do so.” Beauty may instill a kind of mania, in which the soul begins to escape the ego’s cords.
  7. The hook of mutability is lodged in every aspect of the universe’s natural splendor, making it all the more precious and worthy of wonder and contemplation.
  8. In Eastern Orthodox Christian icons, “the honor given the image passes on to its prototype” (St. Basil) – in other words, the saint, or the Christ. Neither gold leaf, paint nor mere wood is worshipped, though the object “behind” the icon is venerated. For example, “If you listen carefully you will hear that the words are underneath the water” (Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It). What are the words saying?
  9. Beauty holds together the many paradoxes of this life, and does not artificially collapse or “answer” such mysteries, such as the relation of man & woman, life & death, suffering & blessedness, heaven & earth. Beauty lies in the bosom of apposition.
  10. Beauty is the opposite of lust. With beauty, there is nothing to possess or extract for selfish pleasure. Similarly, beauty is hard to find when one is distracted by the passion of self-love (what Eastern Christian monastics call philautia).
  11. When I serve as a witness to beauty, I try to do so in this spirit:

But intimations of the true life never died,
And it is for us, in this time of harm,
To keep, in metaphor and symbol and in psalm,
Reminders of that sacred reverence (cf. Hermann Hesse, from The Glass Bead Game).

  1. Though I am not formally a sacred artist, because that implies spiritual progress, I believe that beauty is an instrument to instill in us a reverence and desire for eternal things.


Stephen Wehr is a poet, lay teacher and investment manager with an English degree from Wake Forest University, and graduate degrees from Princeton Seminary and University of Virginia. His work is often an inner response to adventure and the outdoors. A lifelong Minnesotan, Stephen lives with his wife and three sons and a blue parakeet named Carl.