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American Life in Poetry

by Ted Kooser, U.S. Poet Laureate, 2004-2006

One big test of the endurance of any relationship is taking on a joint improvement project. Here Sue Ellen Thompson offers an account of one such trial by fire.


My parents argued over wallpaper. Would stripes

make the room look larger? He

would measure, cut, and paste; she’d swipe

the flaws out with her brush. Once it was properly

hung, doubt would set in. Would the floral

have been a better choice? Then it would grow

until she was certain: it had to go. Divorce

terrified me as a child. I didn’t know

what led to it, but I had my suspicions.

The stripes came down. Up went

the flowers. Eventually it became my definition

of marriage: bad choices, arguments

whose victors time refused to tell,

but everything done together and done well.

Reprinted by permission of the author. Copyright 2006 by Sue Ellen Thompson, from her book, The Golden Hour, published by Autumn House Press. This weekly column is supported by the Poetry Foundation, the Library of Congress and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This column does not accept unsolicited poetry. Send comments to

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