American Life in Poetry: Doing the Bills

Kwame Dawes. Courtesy photo.

The humble meal of bread, sugar and milk is an iconic expression of the seemingly “unpoetic” quotidian rituals of life — paying bills, worrying about the bills, surviving the bills.

In the poem, “Doing the Bills”, Lee Upton is reminded of her father, even as she, with a partner, does the bills.

She captures such deep sentiment in the image of the head being held in the hands. The moment of beauty arrives in the meal that she describes. It is a spot of sweetness in a world of everyday hardship.

Doing the Bills
By Lee Upton

My father impaling bills
on a nail on a block of wood
then putting his head in his hands
and you with your head in your hands
and my head in my hands
hands over my eyes
and I see again what I forgot for decades
my father
after doing the bills
crumbling bread in a bowl
and pouring milk over the bread
and spooning in sugar.

American Life in Poetry does not accept unsolicited manuscripts. It is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2021 by Lee Upton, “Doing the Bills” from The Southern Review, Vol. 37:3, Summer 2021. Introduction copyright ©2022 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Kwame Dawes, is George W. Holmes Professor of English and Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner at the University of Nebraska.