Merrill Leffler to mentor Takoma’s poetic voice

Merrill Leffler with his Roscoe Magnus, a poem that roosted in the Takoma Park streetscape.Merrill Leffler with his Roscoe Magnus, a poem that roosted in the Takoma Park streetscape. Photo by Julie Wiatt.


Takoma Park’s new poet laureate, Merrill Leffler, is a man of wordmusic.  You will hear it in the poems printed here, and you will hear it in his voice when he speaks, both in his poetry and in his everyday speech.

A resident of Takoma Park for over 30 years, you may have seen Merrill walking around the city, or riding his bike, a tall man with a curly graying hair, bushy eyebrows, a craggy face full of character and humor.

Once upon a time (in the late 1960s and 70s) the poetry community of the Washington D.C. area was small enough that most poets knew one another, and our friendship dates back to that period.

From the beginning, Merrill has been indefatigable, fostering the love of poetry in his students, encouraging poets in their work, and bringing poetry to a larger audience.   During this period he founded “Dryad,” a literary magazine, the precursor of Dryad Press, which publishes books of poetry, as well as some non-fiction.

He started the first regular poetry reading series in Takoma Park at the library. Much later he began Spring for Poetry, which brings poetry posters to the streets and parks of Takoma Park.

And, in a quieter way, all these years, has mentored poets, offering comments on their work, advice on getting published, consulting on and contributing to their projects.

But what better way to introduce a poet than by his poetry, and I’ve chosen three poems from Merrill’s forthcoming (by the end of the year) book “Mark the Music”.  This selection presents a sense of the range of his work, and glimpse of his spirit.  But you will all come to know him better when he takes over this column in the fall.

— Anne Becker, outgoing Poet Laureate (and Vox Poetica editor)

Under a Full Moon at Midnight

This is a paean to relief and ecstasy
A man’s poem of course—the electric ah!
in the long stream arcing a high rainbow
under the spotlight moon, a covenant between
my body and the earth’s.

I think of Li Po smiling
silently on Green Mountain and can hear Rumi
drunk on rapture—drink my brother he calls to me,
think of the elephant loosening a great ebullient
stream that floats a river past your house and drops
turds so immense you could build a hut from them
along the shore to shelter your children.
What release!
Think of your child pedaling under your hand
and of a sudden—it just happens—you let go
and he’s off on his own, free for that first time—
the achieve of, the mastery of the child.
(Hopkins of course.) See the stalwart trees in their silence
the stones resting in the driveway, the cat curled asleep
on the front porch, the smear of blood
on the lion’s mouth sitting over his fresh gazelle
the morning paper and its stories shouting
for attention. The plenitude of it all.
And perhaps
somewhere a friend is dreaming of me, or someone
a stranger is peeing ecstatic under the same moon.
A covenant then between us.
True or not. It is no matter.

— Merrill Leffler


Remembering William Stafford

This morning I’ll skip the bacon
and eggs and have a poem over light —
two or three if you don’t mind.
I feel my appetite coming on.
And even a stack of flapjacks
which I love — with butter
and boysenberry jam spreading
their fingers of sweetness over
the ragged edges — won’t do me now.
When this hunger’s on, only a poem
will do, one that will surprise my need
like a stranger knocking
at the door (a small knock — at first,
I hardly hear it) to ask directions,
it turns out, to this house. He’s looking
for me. Who are you I ask? Your brother
he says, the one you never knew you had
or the one who you’ve been trying to remember
all your life but somehow couldn’t recall
until now, when he arrives. And there he is
before me smiling, holding out his arms
— and all this by chance. Do you
believe it?

So serve me up a poem friend,
but just go easy on the tropes,
for instance, synecdoche and such. A simile
or two is fine and metaphor’s all right.
A rhyming quatrain, maybe on the side
would be ok, but not too much —
they sometimes give me gas.
God I love a breakfast such as this.
It gives me a running start and keeps me going
through to dark when I’m as hungry as a horse.
But that’s another poem. Let’s eat.

— Merrill Leffler

A Short History

Listen –do you hear the music
in the earth that
makes us run? Of
birth and death
and in between the little
violences lifting their
scarred hands
in one poor truce after another

— Merrill Leffler