Thomas Centolella

April 6, 2020

One of the many poets I had the privilege of hearing read at the WordTemple Poetry Series was San Francisco poet Thomas Centolella. I remember sitting in the front row thinking “He’s one of the magicians.” What did I mean by that? He wasn’t pulling a rabbit out of a hat or sawing a costume-clad woman in half, but as he read one poem after another I found myself asking How did he do that?

In Robert Bly’s Leaping Poetry, he says his idea of art “often has at its center a long floating leap, around which the work of art in ancient times used to gather itself like steel shavings around the magnet. But a work of art does not necessarily have at its center a single long floating leap. The work can have many leaps, perhaps shorter. The real joy of poetry is to experience this leaping inside a poem. A poet who is ‘leaping’ makes a jump from an object or idea soaked in unconscious substance to an object or idea soaked in conscious psychic substance. What is marvelous is to see this leaping return in poetry of this century…Thought of in terms of language…leaping is the ability to associate fast.”

So, yes, I think these leaps have something to do with the magic I find in Centolella’s work; that and a good dose of passion.

Thomas Centolella is the author of four books of poetry: Terra Firma (Copper Canyon Press), selected by Denise Levertov for the National Poetry Series and winner of the American Book Award; Lights & Mysteries (Copper Canyon Press), winner of the California Book Award from the Commonwealth Club; Views from along the Middle Way (Copper Canyon Press); and Almost Human (Tupelo Press), winner of the Dorset Prize, selected by Edward Hirsch.

Centolellla was given a Lannan Literary Award in Poetry in 1992 and a Lannan Residency in 2000. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, he has taught creative writing and literature for many years in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Here are a few poems by Thomas Centolella. Your comments, as always, will be appreciated.



I could have gone this evening to evensong.

Watched the light from a star on its way to dust

arrive at my cathedral’s nave, collaborate

with colored glass, and dazzle the congregation.

But it’s all paled for me, the luminous, the legendary

lives of saints (alleged to be as human as us

but impossibly strong). And my idea of exaltation?

A grunting old woman with grocery bags, her own joints

nearly leaden, trudging in from the street

not so much to be delivered from evil

as to get out of the cold and off her swollen feet.


I could have gone to evensong and joined the singers

from my choice seat near the sanctuary,

in that pew where another woman (exempt from pain

because much younger, one of fate’s loveliest chosen few)

let my long fingers stroke her long fingers,

and settled her fragrant head on my shoulder

in full view of the bishop — whose smile,

though benign as a saint’s, was a far cry

from laughter, as if we embodied the kingdom

and the power and the glory

he had always hungered after.


No surprise that I go to evensong anyway

when I close my eyes. I go out of spite, and irk the mild clergy

with my black leather jacket and the godless smirk

that says faith is for suckers — one of the Dark Prince’s

minions, now that I have fallen further

than I ever intended…But above a steady pilot light

fragrant herbs are steeping to balance my humors

(she used to joke I resembled a medieval saint),

and when did I ever feel completely at home

among the cynical one-note gloom-and-doomers?

And the voices I hear when I’m this alone


(somewhere between a locked ward

and a choir primed for heaven)

make their own kind of music

in their own sweet time,

and keep me even.



The Art of Preservation

Morning, the way mornings used to be

before those brilliant few days

when light would stir our sleeping bodies

like revelation. Early morning, the rooms

in half-tones, and I’m holding in my left hand

as if it were some kind of evidence

my own heart: encased in a pouch

of the latest plastic, murky in its own

dark blood: the art of preservation.

Those fine yellow words

from the manufacturer — are they instructions

or a warning? How calm I’ve become,

pale in the bathroom mirror, a casualty

that by all rights should not even be

breathing, much less on my feet.

On my left side there’s the slender bruise,

reddish purple, where my heart (to be replaced?

transplanted?) was deftly removed. Obviously

the operation is incomplete. What I need to do

is reinsert it — it’s getting late,

I’ve got to get to get to work. I keep thinking:

This is a dream, it ought to be easy,

it should slip right back in-between my ribs…

And wonder to behold, it does.

Then the alarm goes off: it’s morning

time again to go to work. I check my side

in the bathroom mirror: I’m fine,

more or less. Just a little scar

like expensive silk. Just a little tenderness.



“In the Evening We Shall be Examined on Love”

— St. John of the Cross

And it won’t be multiple choice,

though some of us would prefer it that way.

Neither will it be essay, which tempts us to run on

when we should be sticking to the point, if not together.

In the evening there shall be implications

our fear will change to complications. No cheating,

we’ll be told, and we’ll try to figure the cost of being true

to ourselves. In the evening when the sky has turned

that certain blue, blue of exam books, blue of no more

daily evasions, we shall climb the hill as the light empties

and park our tired bodies on a bench above the city

and try to fill in the blanks. And we won’t be tested

like defendants on trial, cross-examined

till one of us breaks down, guilty as charged. No,

in the evening, after the day has refused to testify,

we shall be examined on love like students

who don’t even recall signing up for the course

and now must take their orals, forced to speak for once

from the heart and not off the top of their heads.

And when the evening is over and it’s late,

the student body asleep, even the great teachers

retired for the night, we shall stay up

and run back over the questions, each in our own way:

what’s true, what’s false, what unknown quantity

will balance the equation, what it would mean years from now

to look back and know

we did not fail.

Published by Katherine Hastings

Katherine Hastings is the author of three collections from Spuyten Duyvil Press (NYC): Shakespeare & Stein Walk Into a Bar (2016); Nighthawks (2014); and Cloud Fire (2012), as well as several chapbooks. Poet laureate emerita of Sonoma County, CA, Hastings edited Know Me Here — An Anthology of Poetry by Women; Digging Our Poetic Roots — Poems from Sonoma County; and What Redwoods Know — Poems from California State Parks, published as a benefit for the California State Parks Foundation when 70 parks were faced with permanent closure. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including The Book of Forms — A Handbook of Poetics (University Press of New England, Lewis Putnam Turco, editor); Verde Que Te Quiero Verde — Poems After Federico Garcia Lorca (Open Country Press, Natalie Peeterse, Editor); Changing Harm to Harmony — Bullies & Bystanders Project (Marin Poetry Center, Joseph Zaccardi, editor); Beatitude — Golden Anniversary (Latif Harris and Neeli Cherkovski, editors), among others. She hosted WordTemple on NPR affiliate KRCB FM from 2017 — 2017 and founded the WordTemple Poetry Series in Sonoma County (2006 — 2017) where she also taught craft-focused poetry workshops. Following the October 2017 wildfires, Hastings moved with her partner to Western New York in 2018. "Shakespeare & Stein Walk in to Bar is animated by the two most rewarding and replenishing of poetic forces: dexterous formal diversity and a fierce, unflinching searching..." — Malachi Black "Rooted in what Hastings calls the "momentary forever," these marvelous poems, so rich with detail and so full of duende, explore the paradoxes of transience. Yes, the poet reminds us: 'The alarm is set and ticking' for each least thing in the living world..." — Susan Kelly-DeWitt On Cloud Fire: "'s your veiled history." — Lawrence Ferlinghetti "For Katherine Hastings, 'The mirror is a lake of longing'. Her poems are told us by 'a woman with a moon in her chest;' their surprising images embrace close observation, deeply dramatized love and losses, and have the power of crossing boundaries of spirit to reveal truths otherwise unseen." — Daniel Hoffman, US Poet Laureate, 1973 — 1974

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