Joseph Featherstone


Joseph Featherstone is a poet, writer, and educator.  He was an editor of the New Republic, and has served as the principal of the Commonwealth School in Boston, and for many years as the faculty leader of an acclaimed teacher education program at Michigan State University. He is the author of a number of books, including Dear Josie,  Witnessing the Hopes and Failures of Democratic Education (Teachers College Press, 2002).  His work has appeared in  magazines such as Ploughshares and the Harvard Review. He has published a poetry collection, Brace’s Cove (New Issues), and has a new ms in preparation. Mr. Featherstone and his family have been living in East Gloucester summers, part-time, or full-time since the 1960’s.


Upon Reading that a Committee of the Catholic Church Has Abolished Limbo


Instead, we follow a loose thread from the hem of a cotton dress to a border —

the vast rim of vanished children in the arms of unknown nurses, their cries rising unanswered —

the zone of slippage between life and life repository and keep and dump of treasured and wasted

things, unfulfilled vows, the cat gone missing — and all those on this earth who die baptized only

by the waters of kindness — Oh,  Reiko,  tell me the story again — your grandfather,

home on his last furlough from the Pacific war, the black lacquer chopsticks flashing as he taught

his small daughter how to hold one grain of rice.

Voice   For Ornette Coleman

Notes are crap

Sound is real

Parker looked at his watch


Put the horn in the case


And walked out the door

He knew what he could play

He knew this audience
Was not ready for the unknown
You can’t  learn life

Only way you die

Is if something kills you


Sound is Armstrong


Improvising  so beyond

Never  a straight chord

His  high note


Not only for the high


For humanity

I listened to the cantor Joseph Rosenblatt

I cried like a baby


Sobbing, praying, singing, all in one breath

I said wait


You can’t find those notes

They are not notes

They don’t exist

He’s resolving


The sound

Of a human being

The sad of it


When you name  you go  too far
No codify  no  idol

My mother was born Christmas Day

After I got my saxophone
I would go to her

When I learned to play something by ear

Listen to this, listen to this, I would say
You know what she said

Junior,  you don’t have to tell me

I know who you are.
Words can’t tell

Sound does. Only voices do

This proves God has no master
The  human race has wasted its history



Seeking what he fears —

fourteen months after, searching for new scripture,
he walks with the shovel to open his wife’s coffin.

There is no object so foul

that intense light will not make it beautiful

Calling from old brightness,
she pins a washed sheet on the tossing wind —

clean, white, not the dank cerements

of his daily mind. She contained the sea’s trembling —

their faith lodged in magnetism,

Not the errant compass needle.

His boots leaking ground water,

he refuses second sight. The soldered eye

misses the world’s bright wedding.


The Age of Ice
No snow or wind to mar the shining facts

of daylight or recollection’s salt of night stars —

snap-frozen yesterday, smooth as doctrine but for the long glacial
seams that groan and shove like mastodons.

Clear shallow bottom flies by — a lily in amber ice,

tuft of frozen thistle down, full of seeds.
Sun, ice, buried flower alchemize:

a beehive in mind’s cello, knock of apple, the dump

of summer frogs. Breath catches
at muscled brightness underfoot — a pickerel

flashing the serene soft-lit parlors of fishes.

The ancient principle of ice is maintained by green leaves


and fossils and ten thousand seasons of hope’s polish.

Measured depths and daily risks instruct

a catechism of cold and melt. The haloes of the icons


in the sun’s glaring mercies

are proof of my cataracts, young and growing;

at the sight some old sweet edge divides and tells me I will die.


My motion dissents, calling out blue

and blueness to sky and Brace’s Cove, wildness.

I scrape quick on borrowed skates, as wick as any fern
or muskrat or ear of corn.

When the great cold came all living things did not die.

Humans walked the frozen mirror


cut images with bones, took bits of burning birch

and outlined spring from memory.

I try a shaky figure eight


and meet, face housed in fur, the ancestor

who on the cave’s wall drew the pregnant mare.


For an Old Friend, Sober After Many Years 
You and I stood,  astonished,

to see them at play — dropping a feather,
recovering it in mid-air.   Years later I learned

the long shadow of their necessity:
one week of freezing summer fog

with no bugs yielded ranks of small corpses
shriveled in the nests from hunger.

All praise then for the discipline of tree swallows


burning through Niles Pond’s sun stoked mists —

they shoot like stars over a fresh moon that rises


over our old planet of luck and decay.

By wanting one thing or a very few things


they turn the morning from what it is not to what it is.
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