Before you write from the heart

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Dennis H. Lee portrait

Three poems from New Jersey poet Dennis H. Lee, 2020 winner of the Henry Morgenthau III First Book Poetry Prize for his collection, Tidal Wave.
5 minutes


Dennis H. Lee won Passager’s 2020 Henry Morgenthau First Book Poetry Prize for a Writer Over 70 for his book Tidal Wave.

Dennis grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950s. He said, “It was like living in Camelot. I could bike to my grandmother’s house on Coney Island to go on the rides or to fish on the rocks in the Atlantic Ocean. I could go to Dodger games or Yankee games. I could subway to the United Nations and back home, this was all before I was 13 years old. Later, I could take my date for a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. And working in the Catskills was really dancing at great hotels to the music of terrific bands, water skiing, fishing, and keeping the guest’s teenage children happy.

Here are three poems from Dennis Lee’s book Tidal Wave.

Before you write from the heart

we will need you to take a stress
test.” “What?” “We will inject
a dye that will provide us visual
markers that show when you begin
writing from the heart and when you stop.”
“I don’t believe that that is possible.”
“Our tests have always been an accurate
measure. We will discuss our findings
with you at a conference two weeks
after your test. This provides our doctors,
staff-writers, and editors time
to analyze your results.” “What if
you find that I do not always write
from the heart?” “That would be
consistent with our findings,
and will have no effect on the content
of any subsequent rejection slips we send
you. Thank you for your time, and
remember to fast before the test.”

And here’s another one, “I Wish Now I Could’ve Buried You.”

I buried my yellow parakeet
in a grave I dug
with my small red shovel.

I placed her soft body into a clean hole
dug with care
each pebble removed by tiny fingers.

I covered her by hand
head last
mounded and patted the grave.

I placed a special stone
to mark her history
in my memory.

They buried you with pomp and religion.

I only watched and mourned
stood still
steeped in silent rules.

And here’s one more, “Take Out Order.”

A side of salmon please.
Yes, a side of salmon please.
With broccoli please, not the peas.
Yes, broccoli, please.
Right. Salmon but no peas, please.
And a steak with peas. Yes, peas.
And another please.
A steak with peas.
Yes two. Two steaks with peas.
Right, the salmon with no peas. Please.
That’s it. Our name is Lees, yes Lees.
Twenty minutes is fine. Yes, Lees.
No this is not a joke, I’ll be right there.
And remember cook the steaks with care.
Both medium, but with care.
The salmon too with care.
Okay thanks. I’ll be right there.
No. Not a joke. I’ll be right there.
Right. Two steaks and salmon cooked with care
Twenty minutes—yes—I’ll be right there.
Thank you. Good-bye. I’ll be right there.

. . .

Dennis writes about his childhood, but even when he’s writing about other subjects—well, here’s what Morgenthau competition judge David Keplinger said: “Tidal Wave,” he said, “is a serious achievement of growing up and growing older, as if these two worlds existed simultaneously on parallel planes. Much of childhood still abides in this poet, the recollection of the shape and meaning of a button, or in offices where doctors ride small horses into the waiting rooms of life.”

You can see Dennis Lee reading some of his poems, as well as a slide show about his life, at Click on “events” for the reading and “books” for the slide show.

To buy Dennis Lee’s book Tidal Wave or learn more about Passager and its commitment to writers over 50, go to You can download Burning Bright from Spotify, Apple and Google Podcasts, and various other podcast apps.