21+ Best David Wagoner Poems

David Russell Wagoner is an American poet who has written many poetry collections and ten novels. Two of his books have been nominated for National Book Awards.

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Famous David Wagoner Poems

Every Good Boy Does Fine

I practiced my cornet in a cold garage
Where I could blast it till the oil in drums
Boomed back; tossed free throws till I couldn’t move my thumbs;
Sprinted through tires, tackling a headless dummy.

In my first contest, playing a wobbly solo,
I blew up in the coda, alone on stage,
And twisting like my hand-tied necktie, saw the judge
Letting my silence dwindle down his scale.

At my first basketball game, gangling away from home
A hundred miles by bus to a dressing room,
Under the showering voice of the coach, I stood in a towel,
Having forgotten shoes, socks, uniform.

In my first football game, the first play under the lights
I intercepted a pass. For seventy yards, I ran
Through music and squeals, surging, lifting my cleats,
Only to be brought down by the safety man.

I took my second chances with less care, but in dreams
I saw the bald judge slumped in the front row,
The coach and team at the doorway, the safety man
Galloping loud at my heels. They watch me now.

You who have always homed your way through passages,
Sat safe on the bench while some came naked to court,
Slipped out of arms to win in the long run,
Consider this poem a failure, sprawling flat on a page.

The Name

When a man or a woman died, something of theirs,
some token—a beaded belt, a pair of moccasins,
a necklace—would be left beside the path
where a hunting party, returning, would see it
and know that name was dead now.
They would remember how to say it,
but not at the campfire, not in stories,
not whispered in the night to anyone else,
but only to themselves.
Then, after years, when the right one had been born,
they would hold that child above the earth
to the four directions and speak the name again.

The Cherry Tree

Out of the nursery and into the garden
where it rooted and survived its first hard winter,
then a few years of freedom while it blossomed,
put out its first tentative branches, withstood
the insects and the poisons for insects,
developed strange ideas about its height
and suffered the pruning of its quirks and clutters,
its self-indulgent thrusts
and the infighting of stems at cross purposes
year after year. Each April it forgot
why it couldn’t do what it had to do,
and always after blossoms, fruit, and leaf-fall,
was shown once more what simply couldn’t happen.

Its oldest branches now, the survivors carved
by knife blades, rain, and wind, are sending shoots
straight up, blood red, into the light again.

In Rubble

Right after the bomb, even before the ceiling
And walls and floor are rearranging
You and themselves into a different world,
You must hold still, must wait for them
To settle down in unpredictable ways,
To bring their wars, shuddering,
To an end, and only then should you begin
Numbly to feel what freedom may be left
To your feet or knees, to your elbows
Or clenched fingers. Where you used to walk
Or lean or lie down or fix your attention
At a whim or stomp your foot
Or slump in a chair, you’ll find a new
Architecturally unsound floor-plan
To contend with, if you can move
At all. Now you may remember others
Who were somewhere near you before
This breakdown of circumstances. Caught by surprise
Like you, they may be waiting separately
At their own levels, inside their own portions
Of your incoherent flat. They may be thinking
Of you, as you are of them, and wondering
Whether some common passageway, no matter
How crooked or narrow, might still exist
Between you, through which you might share the absence
Of food and water and the cold comfort
Of daylight. They may be expecting you
To arrive at any moment, to crawl through dust
And fire to their rescue as they find their bodies
Growing more stiff, assuming even more
Unusual attitudes at every turn
Of a second hand, at every sound
Of a bell or an alarm, at every pounding
Of a door or a heart, so if you can’t reach them
Now and they can’t reach you, remember, please
Remember, whatever you say,
Whatever you hear or keep to yourself, whatever
You scream or whisper, will need to make
Some kind of sense, perhaps for days and days.

That Child

That child was dangerous. That just-born
Newly washed and silent baby
Wrapped in deerskin and held warm
Against the side of its mother could understand
The language of birds and animals
Even when asleep. It knew why Bluejay
Was scolding the bushes, what Hawk was explaining
To the wind on the cliffside, what Bittern had found out
While standing alone in marsh grass. It knew
What the screams of Fox and the whistling of Otter
Were telling the forest. That child knew
The language of Fire
As it gnawed at sticks like Beaver
And what Water said all day and all night
At the creek’s mouth. As its small fingers
Closed around Stone, it held what Stone was saying.
It knew what Bear Mother whispered to herself
Under the snow. It could not tell
Anyone what it knew. It would laugh
Or cry out or startle or suddenly stare
At nothing, but had no way
To repeat what it was hearing, what it wanted most
Not to remember. It had no way to know
Why it would fall under a spell
And lie still as if not breathing,
Having grown afraid
Of what it could understand. That child would learn
To sit and crawl and stand and begin
Putting one foot forward and following it
With the other, would learn to put one word
It could barely remember slightly ahead
Of the other and then walk and speak
And finally run and chatter,
And all the Tillamook would know that child
Had forgotten everything and at last could listen
Only to people and was safe now.

At The Door

All actors look for them-the defining moments
When what a character does is what he is.
The script may say, He goes to the door
And exits or She goes out the door stage left.

But you see your fingers touching the doorknob,
Closing around it, turning it
As if by themselves. The latch slides
Out of the strike-plate, the door swings on its hinges,
And you’re about to take that step
Over the threshold into a different light.

For the audience, you may simply be
Disappearing from the scene, yet in those few seconds
You can reach for the knob as the last object on earth
You wanted to touch. Or you can take it
Warmly like the hand your father offered
Once in forgiveness and afterward
Kept to himself.

Or you can stand there briefly, as bewildered
As by the door of a walk-in time-lock safe,
Stand there and stare
At the whole concept of shutness, like a rat
Whose maze has been rebaffled overnight,
Stand still and quiver, unable to turn
Around or go left or right.

Or you can grasp it with a sly, soundless discretion,
Open it inch by inch, testing each fraction
Of torque on the spindles, on tiptoe
Slip yourself through the upright slot
And press the lock-stile silently
Back into its frame.

Or you can use your shoulder
Or the hard heel of your shoe
And a leg-thrust to break it open.

Or you can approach the door as if accustomed
To having all barriers open by themselves.
You can wrench aside
This unauthorized interruption of your progress
And then leave it ajar
For others to do with as they may see fit.

Or you can stand at ease
And give the impression you can see through
This door or any door and have no need
To take your physical self to the other side.

Or you can turn the knob as if at last
Nothing could please you more, your body language
Filled with expectations of joy at where you’re going,
Holding yourself momentarily in the posture
Of an awestruck pilgrim at the gate-though you know
You’ll only be stepping out against the scrim
Or a wobbly flat daubed with a landscape,
A scribble of leaves, a hint of flowers,
The bare suggestion of a garden.

This Is A Wonderful Poem

Come at it carefully, don’t trust it, that isn’t its right name,
It’s wearing stolen rags, it’s never been washed, its breath
Would look moss-green if it were really breathing,
It won’t get out of the way, it stares at you
Out of eyes burnt gray as the sidewalk,
Its skin is overcast with colorless dirt,
It has no distinguishing marks, no I.D. cards,
It wants something of yours but hasn’t decided
Whether to ask for it or just take it,
There are no policemen, no friendly neighbors,
No peacekeeping busybodies to yell for, only this
Thing standing between you and the place you were headed,
You have about thirty seconds to get past it, around it,
Or simply to back away and try to forget it,
It won’t take no for an answer: try hitting it first
And you’ll learn what’s trembling in its torn pocket.
Now, what do you want to do about it?

The Junior High School Band Concert

When our semi-conductor
Raised his baton, we sat there
Gaping at Marche Militaire,
Our mouth-opening number.
It seemed faintly familiar
(We’d rehearsed it all that winter),
But we attacked in such a blur,
No army anywhere
On its stomach or all fours
Could have squeezed through our crossfire.

I played cornet, seventh chair,
Out of seven, my embouchure
A glorified Bronx cheer
Through that three-keyed keyhole stopper
And neighborhood window-slammer
Where mildew fought for air
At every exhausted corner,
My fingering still unsure
After scaling it for a year
Except on the spit-valve lever.

Each straight-faced mother and father
Retested his moral fiber
Against our traps and slurs
And the inadvertent whickers
Paradiddled by our snares,
And when the brass bulled forth
A blare fit to horn over
Jericho two bars sooner
Than Joshua’s harsh measures,
They still had the nerve to stare.

By the last lost chord, our director
Looked older and soberer.
No doubt, in his mind’s ear
Some band somewhere
In some music of some Sphere
Was striking a note as pure
As the wishes of Franz Schubert,
But meanwhile here we were:
A lesson in everything minor,
Decomposing our first composer.

The Shooting Of John Dillinger Outside The Biograph Theater, July 22, 1934

Chicago ran a fever of a hundred and one that groggy Sunday.
A reporter fried an egg on a sidewalk; the air looked shaky.
And a hundred thousand people were in the lake like shirts in
a laundry.
Why was Johnny lonely?
Not because two dozen solid citizens, heat-struck, had keeled
over backward.
Not because those lawful souls had fallen out of their sockets
and melted.
But because the sun went down like a lump in a furnace or a
bull in the Stockyards.
Where was Johnny headed?
Under the Biograph Theater sign that said, “Our Air is
Past seventeen FBI men and four policemen who stood in
doorways and sweated.
Johnny sat down in a cold seat to watch Clark Gable get
Had Johnny been mistreated?
Yes, but Gable told the D.A. he’d rather fry than be shut up
Two women sat by Johnny.One looked sweet, one looked like
J. Edgar Hoover.
Polly Hamilton made him feel hot, but Anna Sage made him
Was Johnny a good lover?
Yes, but he passed out his share of squeezes and pokes like a
jittery masher
While Agent Purvis sneaked up and down the aisle like an
extra usher,
Trying to make sure they wouldn’t slip out till the show was
Was Johnny a fourflusher?
No, not if he knew the game.He got it up or got it back.
But he liked to take snapshots of policemen with his own Kodak,
And once in a while he liked to take them with an automatic.
Why was Johnny frantic?
Because he couldn’t take a walk or sit down in a movie
Without begin afraid he’d run smack into somebody
Who’d point at his rearranged face and holler, “Johnny!”
Was Johnny ugly?
Yes, because Dr. Wilhelm Loeser had given him a new profile
With a baggy jawline and squint eyes and an erased dimple,
With kangaroo-tendon cheekbones and a gigolo’s mustache
that should’ve been illegal.
Did Johnny love a girl?
Yes, a good-looking, hard-headed Indian named Billie Frechette.
He wanted to marry her and lie down and try to get over it,
But she was locked in jail for giving him first-aid and comfort.
Did Johnny feel hurt?
He felt like breaking a bank or jumping over a railing
Into some panicky teller’s cage to shout, “Reach for the ceiling!”
Or like kicking some vice president in the bum checks and
What was he really doing?
Going up the aisle with the crowd and into the lobby
With Polly saying, “Would you do what Clark done?” And
Johnny saying, “Maybe.”
And Anna saying, “If he’d been smart, he’d of acted like
Bing Crosby.”
Did Johnny look flashy?
Yes, his white-on-white shirt and tie were luminous.
His trousers were creased like knives to the tops of his shoes,
And his yellow straw hat came down to his dark glasses.
Was Johnny suspicious?
Yes, and when Agent Purvis signalled with a trembling cigar,
Johnny ducked left and ran out of the theater,
And innocent Polly and squealing Anna were left nowhere.
Was Johnny a fast runner?
No, but he crouched and scurried past a friendly liquor store
Under the coupled arms of double-daters, under awnings,
under stars,
To the curb at the mouth of an alley. He hunched there.
Was Johnny a thinker?
No, but he was thinking more or less of Billie Frechette
Who was lost in prison for longer than he could possibly wait,
And then it was suddenly too hard to think around a bullet.
Did anyone shoot straight?
Yes, but Mrs. Etta Natalsky fell out from under her picture hat.
Theresa Paulus sprawled on the sidewalk, clutching her left foot.
And both of them groaned loud and long under the streetlight.
Did Johnny like that?
No, but he lay down with those strange women, his face
in the alley,
One shoe off, cinders in his mouth, his eyelids heavy.
When they shouted questions at him, he talked back to nobody.
Did Johnny lie easy?
Yes, holding his gun and holding his breath as a last trick,
He waited, but when the Agents came close, his breath
wouldn’t work.
Clark Gable walked his last mile; Johnny ran a half a block.
Did he run out of luck?
Yes, before he was cool, they had him spread out on dished-in
In the Cook County Morgue, surrounded by babbling people
With a crime reporter presiding over the head of the table.
Did Johnny have a soul?
Yes, and it was climbing his slippery wind-pipe like a trapped
It was beating the inside of his ribcage, hollering, “Let me
out of here!”
Maybe it got out, and maybe it just stayed there.
Was Johnny a money-maker?
Yes, and thousands paid 25¢ to see him, mostly women,
And one said, “I wouldn’t have come, except he’s a moral
And another, “I’m disappointed.He feels like a dead man.”
Did Johnny have a brain?
Yes, and it always worked best through the worst of dangers,
Through flat-footed hammerlocks, through guarded doors,
around corners,
But it got taken out in the morgue and sold to some doctors.
Could Johnny take orders?
No, but he stayed in the wicker basket carried by six men
Through the bulging crowd to the hearse and let himself be
locked in,
And he stayed put as it went driving south in a driving rain.
And he didn’t get stolen?
No, not even after his old hard-nosed dad refused to sell
The quick-drawing corpse for $10,000 to somebody in a
He figured he’d let Johnny decide how to get to Hell.
Did anyone wish him well?
Yes, half of Indiana camped in the family pasture,
And the minister said, “With luck, he could have been a
And up the sleeve of his oversized gray suit, Johnny twitched
a finger.
Does anyone remember?
Everyone still alive.And some dead ones.It was a new kind of
With hot and cold drinks and hot and cold tears.They planted
him in a cemetery
With three unknown vice presidents, Benjamin Harrison, and
James Whitcomb Riley,
Who never held up anybody.


Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. you must let it find you.

Following A Stream

Don’t do it, the guidebook says,
if you’re lost. Then it goes on
to talk about something else,
taking the easy way out,
which of course is what water does
as a matter of course always
taking whatever turn
the earth has told it to
while and since it was born,
including flowing over
the edge of a waterfall
or simply disappearing
underground for a long dark time
before it reappears
as a spring so far away
from where you thought you were
and where you think you are
it might never occur
to you to imagine where
that could be as you go downhill.

Up Against the Sea

At the foot of the cliff, the sea is taking back
what it left there long ago, and the landowners
have made a barricade of three old cars
between low and high tide and loaded them
with so many river stones, they’ve been weighed down
below their springs, below their shock absorbers.

The waves are breaking over the side panels,
on blurred teenage graffiti, and barnacles
and tougher limpets have made themselves at home
on mats and cushions, on the salt versions
of vinyl and rust. The sea is welcoming
all of them, as ever, as passengers
at the end of a lover’s leap, at the beginning
of a joy ride down an old lover’s lane again.

Among Driftwood

Trees haven’t come here to die. They’ve done that
in other forests, on other coasts, having lost
their leaves and their bark and come ashore
by themselves on a five-mile sand spit. Branches
and split logs, upended stumps, roots in the wind,
and in one small cove, someone
with nothing better to do it with
has built a shack, then abandoned it—
a doorway, but no roof, accidental windows,
no hope of a foundation. It’s already
slumping back to what it was
like a sandcastle. These parts of trees
have surrendered and been washed clean
of imperfections. They won’t be judged
for punk knot, frost crack, pitch scab,
or heart rot by lumbermen. The stump outside
the door has ninety rings on its face
and is looking good for more,
regardless of contractors. I remember
shacks in the woods and shacks nailed up in trees
and along bent railroad tracks,
under new freeways, and up skid-road alleys
where the impulse was to be half savage
or halfway civilized, to be where
no one could say, at least for a little while,
Get out of there. Keep moving. Go away.
I crawl inside as if I’m coming home.

Report from a Forest Logged by the Weyerhaeuser Company

Three square miles clear-cut.
Now only the facts matter:
The heaps of gray-splintered rubble,
The churned-up duff, the roots, the bulldozed slash,
The silence,

And beyond the ninth hummock
(All of them pitched sideways like wrecked houses)
A creek still running somewhere, bridged and dammed
By cracked branches.
No birdsong. Not one note.

And this is April, a sunlit morning.
Nothing but facts. Wedges like half-moons
Fallen where saws cut over and under them
Bear ninety or more rings.
A trillium gapes at so much light

Among the living: a bent huckleberry,
A patch of salal, a wasp,
And now, making a mistake about me,
Two brown-and-black butterflies landing
For a moment on my boot.

Among the dead: thousands of fir seedlings
A foot high, planted ten feet apart,
Parched brown for lack of the usual free rain,
Two buckshot beer cans, and overhead,
A vulture big as an eagle.

Selective logging, they say, we’ll take three miles,
It’s good for the bears and deer, they say,
More brush and berries sooner or later,
We’re thinking about the future-if you’re in it
With us, they say. It’s a comfort to say

Like Dividend or Forest Management or Keep Out.

They’ve managed this to a fare-thee-well.

Bums at Breakfast

Daily, the bums sat down to eat in our kitchen.
They seemed to be whatever the day was like:
If it was hot or cold, they were hot or cold;
If it was wet, they came in dripping wet.
One left his snowy shoes on the back porch
But his socks stuck to the clean linoleum,
And one, when my mother led him to the sink,
Wrung out his hat instead of washing his hands.

My father said they’d made a mark on the house,
A hobo’s sign on the sidewalk, pointing the way.
I hunted everywhere, but never found it.
It must have said, ‘It’s only good in the morning-
When the husband’s out.’ My father knew by heart
Lectures on Thrift and Doggedness,
But he was always either working or sleeping.
My mother didn’t know any advice.

They ate their food politely, with old hands,
Not looking around, and spoke in short, plain answers.
Sometimes they said what they’d been doing lately
Or told us what was wrong; but listening hard,
I broke their language into secret codes:
Their east meant west, their job meant walking and walking,
Their money meant danger, home meant running and hiding,
Their father and mother were different kinds of weather.

Dumbly, I watched them leave by the back door,
Their pockets empty as a ten-year-old’s;
Yet they looked twice as rich, being full of breakfast.
I carried mine like a lump all the way to school.
When I was growing hungry, where would they be?
None ever came twice. Never to lunch or dinner.
They were always starting fresh in the fresh morning.
I dreamed of days that stopped at the beginning.

Old Man, Old Man

Young men, not knowing what to remember,
Come to this hiding place of the moons and years,
To this Old Man. Old Man, they say, where should we go?
Where did you find what you remember? Was it perched in a tree?
Did it hover deep in the white water? Was it covered over
With dead stalks in the grass? Will we taste it
If our mouths have long lain empty?
Will we feel it between our eyes if we face the wind
All night, and turn the color of earth?
If we lie down in the rain, can we remember sunlight?

He answers, I have become the best and worst I dreamed.
When I move my feet, the ground moves under them.
When I lie down, I fit the earth too well.
Stones long underwater will burst in the fire, but stones
Long in the sun and under the dry night
Will ring when you strike them. Or break in two.
There were always many places to beg for answers:
Now the places themselves have come in close to be told.
I have called even my voice in close to whisper with it:
Every secret is as near as your fingers.
If your heart stutters with pain and hope,
Bend forward over it like a man at a small campfire.

My Fire

In the cave under our house
I tended the fire: a furnace
Where black fossils of ferns
And swamp-shaking dinosaurs
Would burn through the cold mornings
If I shook the dying and dead
Ashes down through the grate
And, with firetongs, hauled out clinkers
Like the vertebrae of monsters.

I made my magic there,
Not the bloody charms of hunters,
Not shamans or animals
Painted on damp walls,
But something from fire. My father
Tended huge rows of fires
And burned with them all day,
Sometimes all evening, all night
In a steelmill, brought fire home
On his face and his burnt skin
And slept, glowing dark red.

My fire made steam in coils
And pipes and radiators
Poured from the steel he made
Somewhere I’d only seen
Far off, the burning mountains
Where God kept His true flame
To Himself, melting and turning
Blood-colored ore to pigs
And men to something stranger.

My spirit would swell and sing
Inside those pipes, would knock
And rattle to be let out,
Would circle through walls and floors,
Turn back to water and fall
To the fire again, turn white,
Rise hissing in every room
Against the windows to grow
Fronds and bone-white flowers,
All ice in a frozen garden.

The Heart Of The Forest

You pretend to look for wildflowers, but what you’re doing
is trying to find traces of where your feet
lost their sense of direction in the woods.

You can name the trees and what’s staying alive
under them, but you’re afraid this may be a time
when you find the ghost-pale, skinned corpses of beavers

or the green antlers still on the skulls of elk,
or the leaflike, feather-light wings of owls suspended
upside down on spikes among living branches,

so you rehearse remembering the place
where one of your clumsy feet once found itself
secure, where it lifted you and moved you,

where you breathed again and saw, in the near-darkness
of the forest floor, a fir tree fallen and broken
into nurse logs, out of whose rotten, moss-covered sides,

among small spillways of lilies of the valley,
dozens of other selves were growing, rooted
all the way through into another forest

where nothing comes to an end, where nothing is lost,
and lying down with one ear to the ground,
you listened to its heart and yours still beating.

This is a Wonderful Poem

Come at it carefully, don’t trust it, that isn’t its right name,
It’s wearing stolen rags, it’s never been washed, its breath
Would look moss-green if it were really breathing,
It won’t get out of the way, it stares at you
Out of eyes burnt gray as the sidewalk,
Its skin is overcast with colorless dirt,
It has no distinguishing marks, no I.D. cards,
It wants something of yours but hasn’t decided
Whether to ask for it or just take it,
There are no policemen, no friendly neighbors,
No peacekeeping busybodies to yell for, only this
Thing standing between you and the place you were headed,
You have about thirty seconds to get past it, around it,
Or simply to back away and try to forget it,
It won’t take no for an answer: try hitting it first
And you’ll learn what’s trembling in its torn pocket.
Now, what do you want to do about it?

For Laurel and Hardy on My Workroom Wall

They’re tipping their battered derbies and striding forward
In step for a change, chipper, self-assured,
Their cardboard suitcases labeled
Guest of Steerage. They’ve just arrived at the boot camp
Of the good old French Foreign Legion
Which they’ve chosen as their slice of life
Instead of drowning themselves. Once again
They’re about to become their own mothers and fathers
And their own unknowable children
Who will rehearse sad laughter and mock tears,
Will frown with completely unsuccessful
Concentration, and will practice the amazement
Of suddenly understanding everything
That baffles them and will go on baffling them
While they pretend they’re only one reel away
From belonging in the world. Their arrival
Will mark a new beginning of meaningless
Hostilities with a slaphappy ending. In a moment,
They’ll hear music, and as if they’d known all along
This was what they’d come for, they’ll put down
The mops and buckets given them as charms
With which to cleanse the Sahara and move their feet
With a calm, sure, delicate disregard
For all close-order drill and begin dancing.

Peacock Display

He approaches her, trailing his whole fortune,
Perfectly cocksure, and suddenly spreads
The huge fan of his tail for her amazement.

Each turquoise and purple, black-horned, walleyed quill
Comes quivering forward, an amphitheatric shell
For his most fortunate audience: her alone.

He plumes himself. He shakes his brassily gold
Wings and rump in a dance, lifting his claws
Stiff-legged under the great bulge of his breast.

And she strolls calmly away, pecking and pausing,
Not watching him, astonished to discover
All these seeds spread just for her in the dirt.

Their Bodies

To the students of anatomy
at Indiana University

That gaunt old man came first, his hair as white
As your scoured tables. Maybe you’ll recollect him
By the scars of steelmill burns on the backs of his hands,
On the nape of his neck, on his arms and sinewy legs,
And her by the enduring innocence
Of her face, as open to all of you in death
As it would have been in life: she would memorize
Your names and ages and pastimes and hometowns
If she could, but she can’t now, so remember her.

They believed in doctors, listened to their advice,
And followed it faithfully. You should treat them
One last time as they would have treated you.
They had been kind to others all their lives
And believed in being useful. Remember somewhere
Their son is trying hard to believe you’ll learn
As much as possible from them, as he did,
And will do your best to learn politely and truly.

They gave away the gift of those useful bodies
Against his wish. (They had their own ways
Of doing everything, always.) If you’re not certain
Which ones are theirs, be gentle to everybody.