Telephone Project #1

Telephone Project #1

The Telephone Project is a poetic sequence stretching across aesthetics 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 first thread is below; please click here to see the other one.  To read writers’ explanations of their responses, as well as brief bios for the participants, click here.

The project is ongoing, and we will update it periodically.


these toys [
                          after and with Sappho

The hope gets hold of me that I won’t share
anything that the blessed gods [themselves desire

no lending those toys that smell of clay or graphite
however much apportioning was thrust

into tissue, gray or pink.  I’m sick
of placating them with string or wax—

after all I have to work.

I look toward the beekeeper keeping bees at home
that she knows damn well will sting and swarm.

—Kimiko Hahn


As in Cincinnati

Stung, the beekeeper becomes
the kept.

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.

—Idra Novey


Fever Fragments

Can you forget what happened before?
—Sappho, “Six Fragments for Atthis”

The picture is still so clear to me
I cannot imagine you cannot see.
The fire’s 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.

—Jee Leong Koh


“Ten Kinds of Memory and Memory Itself”

In the middle of the gallery: white string on a cold floor.
Everywhere else: guards guarding against
my strategies—

And though the signs said not to touch,
you could have touched me again,
they wouldn’t have minded,
no, the guards might have liked something fleeting

to stare at for a while,
something else to remember.
As would I—

—Catherine Barnett
[n.b. the title is from Richard Tuttle’s installation at the Whitney]


Bienvenida: Santo Tomás

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’s 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’s 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’s chest,
the sinews of the old timer’s arm,
straining, the long muscle
of his back, taut,
his quadricep, his calves,
his black foot pumping
blood into his whole
miserable body,
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.

—Patrick Rosal


Bienvenida: Santo Tomás (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’re 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’t.
But someone has to, uncles
simply play and old men show up
like John Lee Hooker?  We already feel
the big “as if” as if we don’t belong
even though we took it all
the way the first time, that last time
it sounded good.  That’s what playing is,
Saint Thomas, without looking it up
we know it whether confirmed or not,
it’s a kind of way, of going there.
It’s where, we hear, you’re from,
Saint Thomas, your welcome, you’re welcome,
a tune you can hum before you holler
another name somewhat closer to home.

—Joshua Weiner


Saint Thomas: The Other Amelie

Here she must have stood
when she knew it—

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—

Here she must have waited,
behind the palm trellis,
a splinter of island’s 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—she 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.

—Mihaela Moscaliuc


Amelie (An Echo)

But it was a shipwrecked message―

                   in the sibilance

                   of the honing stone―

                   dressed in crushed sage

                   with such dreadful ease

                   sphinx moth

                   sweet smells


—Dana Levin


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


—Afaa Michael Weaver


June 9, 2010 10:35 Pacific Time

One night
one afternoon
anyone: Blanche Lincoln
anyone: Bernanke
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 night
of discontent                                   …

                                           let slip
                                  other strands…
I could not sleep, I said


the receiver

                 the switchboard


—Juliana Spahr


Owl Music

Who who
         were you yesterday
in 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 haze
So 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 day
so we take flight         *          owl music
         pinions and talons       *          into the harmless night

Who who will resent my camouflage
         my plumage                 *          my desire for concealment
my predatory and nearly inaudible work
         not wise but able to look down
over mammals             *          their scurry their scary delay

Only to strangers         *          to those who will never see you
         can you say what you believe
Who who
         will hear my owl credo

I have run from and risen from the real and dimly
         adumbrated shapes of suburban things
and then run back to them      I believe with ease
         in things that nobody can see
but not in what I cannot hear

I do not believe that art is a form of religion
         an unforgivable selfishness that takes
the 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 wire
lit like a pinpoint star on the back of a spoon
         a spiderweb concatenation
a matrix of expiation
         a mock-up of a better nation               *          a trap to catch flies
and songs come at naptime or else      *          at the end of a day
         miniscule in endless promises
to find a way out of the Klein bottle              *          out of the air
         nachtmusik*          dignified spotlight

Who who threw
         these deteriorating clothes
into their heap mound on mound
         by the noble creekbed
amid the curious insects wet logs sticks
         where pine needles scatter      *          their scent rises over the common
tracing and tracing across the private lawn

The crickets claim subscriber rights
         their comforting abrasive ring
black handle on a rotary phone
         we could not bring ourselves to throw away
It too lies
         where horse chestnuts prickle the dark
shells split like pillowcases                  *          nothing inside

Who who
         would keep eyes closed
Who would not want
         to suck on a thumb                  *          to become
an animal that you could sing to sleep
         although the mind fades         *          recollections fade
sex 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 overhead
and baffles itself in descent                *          to scan the ground

Who who comes down to see
         who gets to know
all this raw dirt            *          all this assertive script
         of tangled rootlets       small asseverations
one oak’s new fibers reach down just to make
         some shelter for another          seedling seedling
seedling seedling seedling seed

Your cover is shallow             you grown-up
         you like it that way
You get ten minutes to yourself         at dawn
         before the creek wakes up again

—Stephen Burt


Salt Water

Confessor. Mother. Father. Ghost. This who
you talk to when you’re 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 “Jesus Jesus Jesus”
swims free for moments
                                             and it feels like full
release, full trust: as if some listener

absorbed the whole rip-tide of consciousness.
As if the vacuum pull
                                            beneath the blue
slide to the eel-grass ledges and drop offs

were sentient. Were more than emptiness.

–Peter Campion



them salt-water negroes

                          come drownin your little bit of garden

                  in ocean

                                    ain’t 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

                  you                                          planted

                            in this soil

                                                    for better or worse

they won’t                   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’t 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’ 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
mega-caliber weapon

and my mother her first café 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’t bear to see cry,
confesses to the tribunal: Today,
I don’t 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’s 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
the circular
polycarbonate plastic
disc with the blue
letters spelling her name
into the machine
had come
and I heard
her voice in Persian
inside me make
deep ancient canyons
only sunlight
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’m pretty sure
the song describes
how it feels when
something important
does not happen
most of the afternoon
still listening
I think
beautiful old stove
many people
we will never know
placed their hands
on your dials
hoping things
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

–Matthew Zapruder


Of Moraines

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—who?

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—

lithe, perfumed pedestals—that 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—yes, years—
pass and shed in the form of mountains, of moraines.

—Quinn Latimer


Below the Alps

That dark house is full of fathers.
Beside it glaciers cry
with ice-covered eyes.
Mountains slide
into sleep. Or were
the mountains the house?
Did the fathers walk
under a roof of ice and pinholes?
The slopes of ice are
alive with Coca-cola cans.
In other time zones
the daughters brush their hair
whish whish whish
glowing and bright.
That dark house full of fathers
is an omission of time–
alongside it
disposable flames in the snow
echo and pine,
metal cans with ice-
covered eyes.

–Meghan O’Rourke


Questions born of a question

Were the mountains the house? Was the house the sky?
Was the sky at the party or had it left by then,
forgetting its gray coat, to tell the host
how lovely springy the bathroom soap smelled
washing its face? Washing windows, one can feel
one is washing the east or west and not be wrong
about the size or purpose of the heart, about anything
as water runs down one’s hand and up one’s arm
reaching the highest parts of having a clear perspective.
Was the father the feather? The beard the bird?
One can make these small changes and locution unfolds
from dingy to dinghy, from dull to a wee boat
with or without oars, still one is flowing, always,
anatomically, atomically, to a point of rest
as or with flowers, if one is talking about life.
One is talking about life if one is asking,
were the mountains pinholes into other time zones,
the Jurassic perhaps under foot, where one thing
is loving some other thing, if each one thing
is disposable flames in the snow? Each one thing
is a bright house full of time, was one side of the moon
reclusive, did the sea strum the drowned guitar? Sometimes
one wants to say yes because it sounds like air from a hose
adoring a tire. Yes. If one is talking about filling up
and driving across the night.

–Bob Hicock


About Progeny

A pair of horses clean the night.
I remember how the stars suffused
my father’s life. His hands broke
the night – it was an oar. The darkness
where we rowed inside a dead window.
What should you say of the heart
these days? It is everlasting snow.
It is the mountain without doors.
It is the sky, not oblivion. The shore
offers little distance, a horse bit spins
within my throat. The locution of
desire? It is disposable as a coat.
I’ve climbed inside of wallpaper
& waited. My mind danced
like a shoe. The party continued.
The clouds trilled like flames
or the cries any love offered.
Inside of the night I galloped,
pulling my name. My wooden face
& the belly where the horsemen
lived. Silvered by uncommon elegies &
ordinary myths. I remembered the wheel
& the anatomy of its questions:
how shall I end this gesture?
How shall the affair be squared?
How shall I be shattered?
No, it is neither talk
nor flowers in that vault. This loveliness
of hoof & heft in the dark,
this amorous patriarchy
of seawater, starfish. No star.
O, the barren tome of trees
gutted to guitars. Bright music –
the wind of ineffable strings.
Blood & stone. Immediate
as a howl. The emptiness
of vowels without handles.
Lips. Remember
how the grief slipped through
my eyes, hungry for morning
& the wide fields the horses’
mouths once knew?

–Rachel Eliza Griffiths


Lente Currite

Two horses clean the night:  they lick the trough
Till every fleck of star dust has come off
And munch through ripened moons down to the rinds,
And rub the stall-door smooth with their behinds.
Their tails are comet tails; the darkness plays
With forelocks, over star and crooked blaze.
Their muzzles silver, and their plodding slows
Because they know the road and where it goes.
The team requires no driver now, is able,
Blinkered, by rote, to stumble to the stable,
Where standing in the paddock, head to tail,
Two brazen colts await their morning pail
Of oats, already champing to be gone,
And itching to be hitched up to the Dawn.

–A.E. Stallings


Slowly Cannot Help the End

Would that neither leave. Of us, never to
Walk out the door as if done, this, the night,
Not coming back. Each
Room we do not go back to is the same
As how we will not remain and we move
Along the board, the chain making the way
It will go, the heart privately unmaking. To be
Always in the midst. Even if the dark
In which much has been accomplished
Falls away unfastened when your face turns
To mine as if to hold it in your hands, a bright
Noon sun where your hands like a pair of horses
Stop to graze instead of heading for shade. You,
Brave enough to bring me out into light.

–Sophie Cabot Black


The Fidelity of Light

how often will your dearness fly
down the open throat of life

and restart the work of wringing myths
from my mouth    even the promised body

blunders like this    nights I slip
outside as the whole city sleeps

to spark a sickly flame against the burst
of stars or June fireflies dispersed

in the yard    and then the radiance of
something else awake in the night

floods the scene    as if to interrupt    as if
your rogue tenderness itself    either way

the head’s calamity ignites with conjuring and
banishing    which means I am

a warm diaspora of blues    which means
the hands will fail to carry this

formula for light    which is to say no
equal signs flare inside this heart

–Geffrey Davis


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