Poetry for Strangers is about finding inspiration in community, in people, in the chance encounters of everyday life. PFS suggests that every person can be a “muse” of a poem. Every week of this year I will ask a stranger for a single word and then write a poem inspired by the word. I invite you to do the same.

Share your poem on this week’s word!


I met Maggie on a subway ride when everything went wrong. We were both coming off of trips (hers international, mine short). First the train from the airport stopped early due to construction, and Maggie and I ended up riding in reverse back toward the airport. Then there was a second break in the track, which meant we had to get off the train, take a bus from Boston Common, and then go back on the train for the final two stops. Maggie had been traveling all night from France, returning to America for graduate school. We were on the train together for nearly two hours. But at one point, after dark, when we were forced off the train and waiting for our shuttle at Boston Common, we paused to take in a view of the park at night. It was a small moment of beauty, a triumph in a trip of logistical failures.

The Stranger: Maggie

Her Word: Umbrella

The poem I wrote:

For Andria

Say all your unlived months are beans. Small, dry,
unplanted. Their possibility not yet shriveled. Say
there’s a fairy tale with your name written on it.
You live at home with your mother and perhaps a cow
until you are one hundred ninety-two beans old.
You can hold that many in half a hand.

Your beans can be soy or lima, the smaller
the better. Keep them anywhere, your desk,
a soft purple bag where you used to keep
treasure. You may count them, but not too often.
Say you’ve been starving all winter, which is to say
three beans. You know that words are wishes and beans
even more so. Wish on this bean. Toss it
off the roof and see if it grows, what giant
dreams it will lead up to. If you do nothing at all,
when the month turns, one more bean is gone.
You might as well plant them and climb.

But you might not be Jack at all, for there is still
the ogre, living in domestic bliss and harmony
on top of the sky, higher than a mathematician can count
or a hungry boy can climb. Ogre is familiar,
for we rest on clouds and count our luck, each gold piece
an unbitten chance, a symbol of anything we like, a bean.

Jack, whoever Jack is, will come unhidden and kill
this world, so enjoy it once, for a moment, please, before
it collapses and the giant falls. There’s the ogre’s wife
moving furniture around, potting meat for winter,
sweeping dust with a giant broom and leaving it
in the corner, where she keeps the umbrella. Say a small
boy, maybe hero and maybe food, is hiding there,
noiseless beneath the ribs.

Small boy, this squirt who is one of us, isn’t looking
at the ogre’s wife or bag of gold but at his fingers.
In his hand is a harp singing, and you can hear it
almost, her song—she is self-complete, made
of air and gold, she is like nothing on earth,
she is singing—hear it?—about the beauty of beans.


The Challenge: Do you have a poem in you on this word? Write one here.