Three Poems by Todd Boss

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When We Say Knuckle Down

we mean there’s torque to be
doubled, the way the quarter-
horse re-couples her shoe-heavy

hooves, head down, and throws
herself forward, we mean
the load in the sled demands a

hard haul ahead, the hill to be
taken as a problem not of moment
but momentum, we mean

the chili will taste better once
the bitter bread of winter’s eaten,
slashing our faces sheet on sheet,

just as in summer we mean
it matters not how hot the sun
if there are chores to be done.

The knuckles have nothing
to do with it really, not the ones
around reins or handles, not

the ones we wring like rags over
figures evenings—no we don’t
mean those—we mean the knuckles

of our wills, those folding bones
in there somewhere where our
lives have hold of the land—

we mean that the whole body,
the whole mind, the whole
damned soul is a goddamned hand.



When My Father Says Toughen Up

it’s like the clop of the walnut
block beneath the gavel of the

judge who fits the punishment
to the crime, or like the pop of the

velveteen seedpod of the lupine
finally scattering its ordnance of

shot amongst the hollyhock,
or like the aftershock of a

Massey Ferguson engine cut off
too hot, that chuff out the muffler

that echoes off the pole barn
sharp as a whooping cough,

or like the upstart of a startled
roughed grouse thumping into

flight right beside you on a walk,
or like the hard clap on the back

you get when you choke, as if
to congratulate you. He didn’t

say it to berate you, he said it to
hike you up an inch or two, like

when he took you by the collar
when you were little to zip you

into that boiled wool jacket he
sent you out to chores with,

or like the high salute we send
soldiers to wars with.



When My Mother Says Tough Luck

it’s like the rough leather
tongue in a boot somehow,

the way you dig your
thumb in there when it gets

stuck to curl it out again
against the topside

of your foot and pull it flat
so you can truss it up,

or like the slap of milk
on milk in a metal bucket

carried up the ramp
to be dumped in the bulk-

house tank with the rest,
or the clink of the bucket

handle against the bucket
once the milk’s poured out

and the bucket’s done
its chore, or like the

prayer a shucked off pair
of garden gloves cough

softly when they’re chucked
from the hand and land

filthy on the back porch floor.




Todd Boss is a poet, public artist and film producer in Minneapolis. His poetry collections are Pitch (2012, W. W. Norton) and Yellowrocket (2008). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, NPR, The London Times, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, the Midwest Booksellers’ Choice Award, and the Emily Clark Balch Prize from Virginia Quarterly Review. His large-scale public artworks include a 2012 installation in the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis to mark the 5th anniversary of the 35W Bridge collapse, and a block-wide projection of poetry films onto the 3D surface of Saint Paul’s historic Union Depot. He is the founding Executive and Artistic Director of Motionpoems, a nonprofit initiative that partners with major publishers and film companies to turn great contemporary poems into short films. More at

Photo of old barn interior courtesy Shutterstock.

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