John Brehm

“John Brehm weaves together timeless wisdom and a deep poetic sensibility.”

— Joseph Goldstein, author of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening



Sleep Thief


My wife had the brilliant idea
to put jasmine blossoms
beside the bed
to help carry me off
to sleep and keep me there
all night long—
sleep, blessed sleep,
like the elegant doe
you catch sight of
in the forest and then
it bounds away
—but in the night
my cat ate my wife’s
brilliant idea
and stepped right over
my spinning head
and curled herself into
a black spiral
of unimpeded slumber
and thought nothing of it.


NEW: published in Cloudbank



I wonder what the neighbors think when they see me
outside with the BB gun shooting at the pigeons
on our roof. I gave them a copy of my anthology,
The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Joy,
and the introduction makes me sound like
a person who probably wouldn’t be shooting
at pigeons, even if only with a BB gun,
which doesn’t really hurt them (I tell myself)
but simply encourages them to find
someplace else to deposit their smeary droppings
that threaten to turn one side of our house
into a bad Jackson Pollock painting.
“Honey, come look at this—isn’t that
the mindfulness guy out there with a gun,
shooting at his own house?” I’m well aware
of the irony, but life’s like that, isn’t it?
A contradiction wrapped in an absurdity, etc.
Still, plunking pigeons with a BB gun
might not fall afoul of the injunction
to not cause harm. (I thought about shooting
myself in the foot just to see how much
it hurt but decided against it). I tried
placing scary-looking plastic owls strategically
around the roof but the pigeons laughed at that.
I tried an electronic device that sent out
a kind of sub-audible (to humans) shrieking,
imitative of a bird of prey, but they didn’t fall for that
either. I always thought pigeons were dumb,
but now I’m not so sure. They’ve outsmarted me,
so far, not that that’s any great accomplishment,
moving from one side of the roof to the other,
where the angle for firing is not so good,
and where the homeowner
is exposed, even in this early morning half-light,
to the watchful eyes of the neighbors.


NEW: published in The Gettysburg Review

No Day at the Beach


It’s no day at the beach
being me, I said.
It’s no walk
in the park.
I can see that,
she said.
Trust me, I said.
It’s no picnic.
Clearly, she said.
What’s that
to mean? I said.
I’m just agreeing
with you, she
said. You might
have argued
a bit, I said. Tried
to convince me
Who knows,
maybe it is
a day at the beach
being me. Or
maybe it’s a day
at the beach
being with me.
No, she said. It’s not.


--from No Day at the Beach; first published in The Sun

The Poems I Have Not Written


I’m so wildly unprolific, the poems
I have not written would reach
from here to the California coast
if you laid them end to end.

And if you stacked them up,
the poems I have not written
would sway like a silent
Tower of Babel, saying nothing

and everything in a thousand
different tongues. So moving, so
filled with and emptied of suffering,
so steeped in the music of a voice

speechless before the truth,
the poems I have not written
would break the hearts of every
woman who’s ever left me,

make them eye their husbands
with a sharp contempt and hate
themselves for turning their backs
on the very source of beauty.

The poems I have not written
would compel all other poets
to ask of God: "Why do you
let me live? I am worthless.

please strike me dead at once,
destroy my works and cleanse
the earth of all my ghastly
imperfections." Trees would

bow their heads before the poems
I have not written. "Take me,"
they would say, "and turn me
into your pages so that I

might live forever as the ground
from which your words arise."
The wind itself, about which
I might have written so eloquently,

praising its slick and intersecting
rivers of air, its stately calms
and furious interrogations,
its flutelike lingerings and passionate

reproofs, would divert its course
to sweep down and then pass over
the poems I have not written,
and the life I have not lived, the life

I’ve failed even to imagine,
which they so perfectly describe.


--from Sea of Faith; first published in The Southern Review

At Coney Island


Strange tubas in my ears and the fat
yellow light lolling across
the boardwalk doesn’t
exactly help and of course
elephants lumbering
through one’s thoughts
remembering where they
must go to die is not
the pleasantest of situations
either and the ocean
what can you say about it?
It hardly knows itself
but there it is the one
and the many waves all doing
whatever waves do, lapping
doggedly at the shore,
making a splash, lending
themselves unwisely
to human metaphor,
the whole earth meanwhile
spinning through space
like a basketball on the tip
of an idle god’s finger.
People stroll by eating
hot dogs, heroes, corn-
on-the-cob, wildly purple
bursts of cotton candy
and other members
of the colorful, hard-
to-believe food groups.
Well, some of us do a pretty
decent job of amusing ourselves
here where the land
meets the sea and music
empties the air
of silence. This is what
we crawled up out of
four hundred million years ago,
and this is what
we’ve become now that
we’ve dried ourselves off.
Creatures so fearful
of death we’ll actually
get on a rollercoaster
just to calm ourselves down.
This is the much needed
transfusion of the outer
to the inner world.
Elephants, tubas, fat light
falling across the bathers
asleep on the shore
of the Atlantic  Ocean.
Their children splashing
each other in the freezing water.


--from Sea of Faith; first published in Poetry

More Poems



Review of No Day at the Beach

John Brehm’s pilgrimage began in Nebraska and took him to Brooklyn. There he honed a rather sharp edge which now, as he seeks illumination in Portland, Oregon, he sometimes deprecates as an obstacle to compassion for other people...



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John Brehm was born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska and educated at the University of Nebraska and Cornell University. He is the author of four books of poetry, Sea of Faith, Help Is on the Way, No Day at the Beach, and Dharma Talk. He has also published a collection of essays, The Dharma of Poetry, which is a companion to his acclaimed anthology, The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Joy. His poems have appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, The Gettysburg Review, The Sun, The Southern Review, Plume, Gulf Coast, The Missouri Review, New Ohio Review, The Writer’s Almanac, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, The Best American Poetry, The Norton Introduction to Literature, and many other journals and anthologies.