The Telephone Project is a poetic sequence stretching across aesthetics and and identities.¬† Each poet writes an original poem in response to the preceding poem, with just one parameter: we ask that writers be respectful of the poets who precede them.
The sequence’s two threads begin with the same poem, which is a response to translations of two fragments from Sappho.
The project is ongoing, and we will update it periodically.
Click here to view or print this sequence as a PDF.
TELEPHONE PROJECT 1
these toys [
after and with Sappho
The hope gets hold of me that I won‚Äôt share
anything that the blessed gods [themselves desire‚ÄĒ
no lending those toys that smell of clay or graphite
however much apportioning was thrust
into tissue, gray or pink.¬† I‚Äôm sick
of placating them with string or wax‚ÄĒ
after all I have to work.
I look toward the beekeeper keeping bees at home
that she knows damn well will sting and swarm.
As in Cincinnati
Stung, the beekeeper becomes
Tending to him, his honey-makers
drone and go,
leaving only their delicate cells, the holes
in a poem
by Sappho.¬† And after
the last bees
have gone, the sound is
of vacant houses,
of vagrants inside, building fires
in the living room.
Can you forget what happened before?
‚ÄĒSappho, ‚ÄúSix Fragments for Atthis‚ÄĚ
The picture is still so clear to me
I cannot imagine you cannot see.
The fire‚Äôs marks are red, and burn;
I turn and turn for your return.
Then I see what I did not see:
you see a different part in me
that when the cold and dark return
the fire in you will burn and burn.
All smoke now, the white stars, the stupid wax
that crouched too fast under the hooded heat.
No stub of toe, no crust of tears, no sex
but dissipating wisp, finished, incomplete.
I would make accusation a form of love
except it has been done before.
Sundays we watched the Giants fumble
another play, but somehow stumble
to a big touchdown.
Your hands were sure, ran down my zipper
and caught so well I took you for a keeper,
took you in my mouth.
I suspect the lonely ones who compose long poems
of hearts unbroken.
My suspicion is ungenerous, I confess,
fever of the forsaken.
Sappho, teach me to lay a curse on him that sits:
when boys eat his ass, give them a mouthful of shit.
‚ÄĒJee Leong Koh
‚ÄúTen Kinds of Memory and Memory Itself‚ÄĚ
In the middle of the gallery: white string on a cold floor.
Everywhere else: guards guarding against
And though the signs said not to touch,
you could have touched me again,
they wouldn‚Äôt have minded,
no, the guards might have liked something fleeting
to stare at for a while,
something else to remember.
As would I‚ÄĒ
[n.b. the title is from Richard Tuttle‚Äôs installation at the Whitney]
Bienvenida: Santo Tom√°s
In the middle of the yard, a goat,
bound at the hooves,
wags its grotesque tongue.
Everywhere else, I am falling in love,
and today that will change too,
for an old man has heard my uncle
drag the small beast to the block,
the music, the laughter
inside the slaughter.
The old man will come
the mile by foot
from the barrio‚Äôs far edge,
up the long dirt road,
unshod, a ratty tank-top,
with a brand new Vegas cap,
a cut black strip
of inner tube draped
around his neck,
and he rolls in front of him,
the whole way, a common
jug, emptied of all its molasses,
immense, to his hip in height
and three times
the old man‚Äôs girth.
My uncle is strumming the guts
out of his ukelele
when the old man arrives
and sets the huge jar down,
pulls the bike tube
off his nape and stretches it
across this massive ceramic
yawn, holding the strip
of galvanized rubber in place
with one big muddy toe,
then finds the first down-
beat to join my uncle
in the kind of mooing chorus
they think has tricked all
the thousand blossoms
they never kissed.
The old man plucks
from the makeshift bass
not so much a moan
but a pulse to range
a full octave
into each man‚Äôs chest,
the sinews of the old timer‚Äôs arm,
straining, the long muscle
of his back, taut,
his quadricep, his calves,
his black foot pumping
blood into his whole
his maw flashing
every one of his seven
good teeth to heaven,
and if a man become
the heart of a giant, the song
of a giant, each one of us
laughing like a giant,
if each one of us fulfill
the exact measure of a man,
and if the goat is singing
as its dying
among men who are singing
and dying, the youngest
cousin among us, butcher,
slaughterer, sings too,
reaches into the carcass,
wholly still now,
yanking from its belly
the entrails, like small versions
of the sky, releasing them
from his fist onto the block,
a bloody pile of white string.
Bienvenida: Santo Tom√°s (continued)
Three instruments, then, and still
no song, of love, death, uncles, or
old men.¬† Or giants.¬† Or goats.¬† Or
cousins.¬† Three passages are more
difficult than they look, and we
keep looking into them for saints
& someones & legendary strings
as if we knew where all this was
going.¬† Were going.¬† We‚Äôre going.
When you wish upon a star, Saint Thomas
wonders what you are, where he is too
to you and what you hold onto.
Like that other time you made the same
mistake and killed farm stock
for a song.¬† That was bad.¬† The song
was not good.¬† And we weren‚Äôt.
But someone has to, uncles
simply play and old men show up
like John Lee Hooker?¬† We already feel
the big ‚Äúas if‚ÄĚ as if we don‚Äôt belong
even though we took it all
the way the first time, that last time
it sounded good.¬† That‚Äôs what playing is,
Saint Thomas, without looking it up
we know it whether confirmed or not,
it‚Äôs a kind of way, of going there.
It‚Äôs where, we hear, you‚Äôre from,
Saint Thomas, your welcome, you‚Äôre welcome,
a tune you can hum before you holler
another name somewhat closer to home.
Saint Thomas: The Other Amelie
Here she must have stood
when she knew it‚ÄĒ
Waves rushing in, aborting
flotsam, claiming her song,
coco heads wobbling on strings
invisible, the decapitation already lost
in the sibilance of the honing stone.
Begin to tell what I am,
machete, before you hide back into the sheath‚ÄĒ
Here she must have waited,
behind the palm trellis,
a splinter of island‚Äôs flesh
summoned to wean the newborn
then return, scars dressed in crushed sage,
milky breasts upping the price,
when she remembered the goat licking
the tether around its neck with such
dreadful ease, sounds abrasive and hallow,
before she mounted the taxi scooter
and noosed her way inland,
skirting the arboretum boasting
rare plumeria‚ÄĒshe too forced upon
this land, pliant settler duping the sphinx moth
with sweet smells, succulent yet nectarless.
Begin to tell what I am, machete,
and tell before your spare that crazed goat.
Show me home.
Amelie (An Echo)
But it was a shipwrecked message‚Äē
in the sibilance
of the honing stone‚Äē
dressed in crushed sage
with such dreadful ease
So the Flesh Spoke
At evensong, one night under the weight
of rafters in the stone, the monks asleep
in the inkwells, nodding past the hour
to gather meaning in the frayed sleeves
of discontent, not attuned to early vespers…
the bones became aroused,
undid the connections, let slip
tendon and thin, other strands…
I could not sleep, I said
to someone in their dream,
standing beside their bed
calling myself the clatter
of their rebellious bones…
The line picked up again,
the receiver startled into place…
the switchboard came alive
like the ghastly google of nerves
in a bleached whale struggling
to get back to sea…is anyone
‚ÄĒAfaa Michael Weaver
June 9, 2010 10:35 Pacific Time
anyone: Blanche Lincoln
anyone: Pau Gasol
anyone: Lindsay Lohan
anyone: Stephan Strasburg
anyone: Meg Whitman
anyone: Blanche Lincoln
anyone: Lady Gaga
anyone: Derek Fisher
anyone: Rod Blagojevish
anyone: Marsha Revel
I could not sleep, I said.
drifting through deep water in plumes or layers
one nightraftersmeaningof discontent¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†¬† ¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† …
let slipother strands…
I could not sleep, I said
were you yesterdayin the starless night¬†¬†¬†¬† *¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† where did you go
Who who do you hear¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† *¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† can you come with me
The crickety summer deceives us¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† *¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† underneath
so many¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† *¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† a swath of pollen and hazeSo many individuals so many
stridulations¬†¬†¬† *¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† so many retrograde eyes
Who who stays hungry¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† *¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† who will scare
At sundown it seems harder ¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† *¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† to eat the air
than live the same way every dayso we take flight¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† *¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† owl music
pinions and talons¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† *¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† into the harmless night
Who who will resent my camouflage
my plumage¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† *¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† my desire for concealmentmy predatory and nearly inaudible work
not wise but able to look downover mammals¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† * ¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† their scurry their scary delay
Only to strangers¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† *¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† to those who will never see you
can you say what you believeWho who
will hear my owl credo
CREDOI have run from and risen from the real and dimly
adumbrated shapes of suburban thingsand then run back to them¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† I believe with ease
in things that nobody can seebut not in what I cannot hear
I do not believe that art is a form of religion
an unforgivable selfishness that takesthe time I always owe to other people
I do not quite believe it but I have come close
I have seen my own span of attention
shrunk to a burnt lightbulb’s tungsten wirelit like a pinpoint star on the back of a spoon
a spiderweb concatenationa matrix of expiation
a mock-up of a better nation¬†¬† ¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† *¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† a trap to catch fliesand songs come at naptime or else¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† *¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† at the end of a day
miniscule in endless promisesto find a way out of the Klein bottle¬† ¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† *¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† out of the air
nachtmusik*¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† dignified spotlight
Who who threw
these deteriorating clothesinto their heap mound on mound
by the noble creekbedamid the curious insects wet logs sticks
where pine needles scatter¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† *¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† their scent rises over the commontracing and tracing across the private lawn
The crickets claim subscriber rights
their comforting abrasive ringblack handle on a rotary phone
we could not bring ourselves to throw awayIt too lies
where horse chestnuts prickle the darkshells split like pillowcases¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† *¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† nothing inside
would keep eyes closedWho would not want
to suck on a thumb¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† *¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† to becomean animal that you could sing to sleep
although the mind fades¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† *¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† recollections fadesex and death whatever they were¬†¬†¬†¬† *¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† fade
as the morning stars regard the moon
and the automobiles out of sight along Route Two
stay asleep in their noise¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† *¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† owl music continues too
still underneath the overheadand baffles itself in descent¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† *¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† to scan the ground
Who who comes down to see
who gets to knowall this raw dirt¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† *¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† all this assertive script
of tangled rootlets¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† small asseverationsone oak’s new fibers reach down just to make
some shelter for another¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† seedling seedlingseedling seedling seedling seed
Your cover is shallow¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† you grown-up
you like it that wayYou get ten minutes to yourself¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† at dawn
before the creek wakes up again
Confessor. Mother. Father. Ghost. This who
you talk to when you‚Äôre talking to yourself.
The ocean is one version. Gray green
in sawtooth blossoms
all it meets it swallows.
Such sheer abandon: it must be what flows
beneath those little mercies when the nerves
give in to sleep, orgasm, even pissing.
Or the phatic stream of ‚ÄúJesus Jesus Jesus‚ÄĚ
swims free for moments
and it feels like fullrelease, full trust: as if some listener
absorbed the whole rip-tide of consciousness.
As if the vacuum pull
beneath the blueslide to the eel-grass ledges and drop offs
were sentient. Were more than emptiness.
them salt-water negroes
come drownin your little bit of garden
ain‚Äôt no peace with them
they got haints spillin
from they¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† done seen too much eyes
no mercy¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† can pull they heads above sea-level
you been here your whole life girl
in this soil
for better or worse
they won‚Äôt ¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† never
sweat all that salt outta him
join up with that man
them eyes will forever
be pullin you towards the things he
mother father¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† ghosts
you won‚Äôt sleep free
with his heart always
draggin ¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† at your roots
and you dig in hard
you rip that poor negro
right in two
–Evie Shockley (May 27, 2011)
mother father ghosts
Warming her milk on the stove,
mother then sits to sip her coffee as Iranian radio
crackles out the battery-operated receiver,
the ghost of a noose
whiskering around her downturned head.
My parents were for years
next. We protected you too much,
mother says, the sound of the gallows‚Äô trapdoor
as the kitchen cabinets open and close.
I paint my toenails red
as the screen at Cinema Rex
curls aflame then drifts
into a pile of black,
the aisles lit with bodies
throwing themselves into the locked doors,
in the city that showed me my first
and my mother her first caf√© glace.
We protected you too much, she says.
They tried, they did,
but a mobile of nooses turned above my crib.
On the wood-paneled TV, Mr. Rogers
changes his loafers or a friend,
who you can‚Äôt bear to see cry,
confesses to the tribunal: Today,
I don‚Äôt know why I became political.
He is wishing instead
for the coffee we are having
or the Texan light through the windshield
as he sits between my parents
on the bench seat. Ghosts
or Delkash singing out the warped tape
like a chained elephant lumbering into the big tent
would quiet my parents
as the Buick‚Äôs turn signal clicked
–SS [full name deleted]
Poem for Delkash
when I held the envelope
I knew the time
a little harmless
loneliness would guide
my hand holding
disc with the blue
letters spelling her name
into the machine
and I heard
her voice in Persian
inside me make
deep ancient canyons
has ever known
some time passes
I suddenly notice
it is afternoon
I am standing
in the kitchen
holding a broom
she stops singing
alone for a while
the music wanders
then her voice returns
she says a word
it sounds like glacier
I‚Äôm pretty sure
the song describes
how it feels when
does not happen
most of the afternoon
beautiful old stove
we will never know
placed their hands
on your dials
would never change
I cannot imagine
what it is like
for those who know
they must stand together
thinking for too long
we have waited
for fear which is not
a guest to leave
they might shoot us
but we will stay
here in the street
until we are all
at last older sisters
to each other
The sky some denim. The mountain some denim.
Your Hauptbahnhof, your glaciers of omission.
They omit everything: night train to Berlin,
the Ackerstrasse summer, and lucid white arm
of the marriage certificate drowsing in its cool
orange folder. Names writ wet, twinned Balearic
blue. With their pour of pale, their luminous
monitor, moon field, summit, the glaciers pull closer,
further. Someone was watching, measuring‚ÄĒwho?
The Alpen yawn open, click closed.
Your heart, smallest chalet, alights on their form.
Then the valley. How to describe the desire you feel
for the dark house, careful triangle, in their long
wintering shadow? Animals traverse their steep,
their corridors, coursing past pines‚ÄĒ
lithe, perfumed pedestals‚ÄĒthat describe you
in their verticality, darkly. How like fathers they appear
then, like sisters. Like the evenings, which take
on the aspect of loveliest strangers, one who will
come to love you as days and months‚ÄĒyes, years‚ÄĒ
pass and shed in the form of mountains, of moraines.