John Elsberg

Six Poems

The Stone

He painted
a stone

he placed the black stone
in a window

it grew warm in the sun

it was the only warm thing
in his house


My Father’s Thumb

Near the end

when my father
lit his pipe

the flame would lick his thumb

he didn’t seem to notice

until I grabbed
his hand

then he looked at me
as if the pain

was mine


Pursuing Structure as an Only Child

He is the distant figure still

but this extended

of his death
is like

the slow turn of a lock:

it is not a tangible door
but it has

a frame like any other.


No Bounds

his lo
ve was like ri
in a wo
oden ves

she wa
s the angr
y s


Virginia in Late August

There is a softness in Virginia light
in late August the light promises
of the good days of autumn to come
it is the reward for enduring all
that sweltering heat of mid summer
it does not pretend to have dark shadows
it is the light of unwinding of having
a beer on the reclaimed front porch
feet propped on the rail it is
the light that gives a distance to all
those small defeats of the past a softness
that comes from that coolness after mowing
that makes any virtue as easy
as the curl of the bead on the glass at rest.


Love Poem

for Adrian Henri

She would love me if I were darkly handsome
She would love me if I were a priest who believed
in white magic and miracles
She would love me if I had an insatiable sexual appetite
She would love me if I were a partisan in some noble cause
She would love me if I stood up and denounced
the stupidity of war
She would love me if I really had to leave
She would love me if I stopped a pretty girl on the street
and asked her, eye to eye, back to my place
She would love me if I glittered always with the “right”
word or phrase
She would love me if I could answer all of her questions
She would love me if I displayed the unfortunate symptoms
of the sufferings of my class
She would love me if I had ecstatic visions of a new world order
and never answered the phone
She would love me if I built a high tower
and said it was good work, and that my work was done
She would love me if I could answer none of her questions
She would love me if I denounced this society
as totally corrupt and went underground to write
revolutionary poems to wrap around bombs
She would love me if I exercised a position of great power
with a cool, decisive hand
She would love me if I went into the park and took off
all my clothes and offered bread to old ladies
She would love me if I lived every moment to the fullest
She would love me if I talked to her more
She would love me if I had said none of the above
She would love me (she said)
if only I would smile like I used to


Originally published in Vol. 2:3, Summer 2001.



John Elsberg (August 4, 1945 - July 28, 2012) wrote wrote 15 books and chapbooks of poetry, including All This Dark: 24 Tanka Sequences (co-written with Eric Greinke, 2012), Sailor: The Father Poems (1999), Offsets (1994), Home-Style Cooking on Third Avenue (1982), Walking, as a Controlled Fall (1980), The Price of Reindeer (1979), and Cornwall (1972). Elsberg taught at the University of Maryland, then spent many years as editor in chief of the U.S. Army Center of Military History. Elsberg also had a deep commitment to small press publishing. In the 1970s he was the fiction editor of Gargoyle. He edited Bogg magazine from 1980 until his death, and also co-edited the Delmarva Review and Delaware Poetry Review in his later years. For nearly twenty-five years, he hosted an open mic series at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda. He also led workshops, most notably introducing high school students to experimental poetry. Elsberg loved experimentation with language and language play; one of his chapbooks, A Week in the Lake District (1998), was published in the shape of a lady’s fan, and others included poems with alternative spacings. Elsberg also had a life-long interest in poems written in traditional Japanese verse forms.