Poetry and Lights 2022

Why We Light the Candle
 for Irene McKinney 


by Anita Skeen

Not ten minutes after I wrote our friend Jane  

telling her of your passing, she wrote back   

a brief note:  Thanks for letting me know.  


I’m lighting a candle now.  She’s in Oklahoma,  

headlamp of the sun rolling along the plains. 

In Michigan, it’s February, there should be snow 


but the day is bright as July, not a storm in sight. 

Still, I strike a match to the Frasier fir candle 

beside my chair.  The flame sputters,  


chipmunk chatter.  It’s Christmas, 

the tree Daddy and I cut each December. 

We lugged it home, cloaked it with light  


and ornament, tinsel shivering  

like the rain.  It stood, a midnight  

radiance, something more than tree, 


now grandmother, tricycle, cinnamon. 

I didn’t figure how lighting this candle 

would return me to those West Virginia hills, 


where you are now, or were  

before your feral self  

slipped loose the skin of pain.   


How many times do we,  

in grief, strike flint to wick to light  

the path ahead, to light  


our own diminished cosmos?   

Just a small snap of flame   

to dispel the lowering gloom,  


one flicker in the catacombs of loss. 

Words you gave us beam like carbide lanterns: 

Talbott Churchyard, bones and plots,  


how tiny what I loved was, 

the unknown buried in the known. 

A simple word, an ordinary tree. 


How particulars attach, go luminous. 

What you leave us: the bloom of your voice, 

the deep vowels of the church organ, their release. 



Anita Skeen is professor emerita in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University, where she is series editor for the Wheelbarrow Books Poetry Competition.  She’s been teaching and coordinating writing programs at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico for over 40 years.  She serves on the board of directors for the Theodore Roethke Foundation in Saginaw, Michigan. She is the author of six volumes of poetry, including “The Unauthorized Audubon” (2014), a collection of poems about imaginary birds accompanied by the linocuts of anthropologist/visual artist Laura B. DeLind. 

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