The Poem That Won’t Leave You Alone, Volume 2

The Poem That Won’t Leave You Alone, Volume 2


Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth
By my so potent art.

All I can generally remember is that there’s something about a tree in it, and it’s awesome, but that seems to draw me back to read it from time to time, and to draw it back to my mind, or heart, or both, to look back in on. The enjambment maybe makes it less easy to memorize than other, caesura-heavy speeches in Shakespeare, maybe odd considering the great claims it makes, and how incredibly end-heavy the rhyming couplets of its source are:

Ye Ayres and windes: ye Elves of Hilles, of Brookes, of Woods alone,
Of standing Lakes, and of the Night approche ye everychone
Through helpe of whom (the crooked bankes much wondring at the thing)
I have compelled streames to run cleane backward to their spring.
By charmes I make the calme Seas rough, and make the rough Seas plaine,
And cover all the Skie with Cloudes and chase them thence againe. …
By charmes I raise and lay the windes, and burst the Vipers jaw.
And from the bowels of the Earth both stones and trees doe draw.
Whole woods and Forestes I remove. I make the Mountaines shake,
And even the Earth it selfe to grone and fearfully to quake.
I call up dead men from their graves: and thee O lightsome Moone
I darken oft, though beaten brasse abate thy perill soone.
Our Sorcerie dimmes the Morning faire, and darkes the Sun at Noone.
The flaming breath of firie Bulles ye quenched for my sake
And caused their unwieldie neckes the bended yoke to take.
Among the Earthbred brothers you a mortall war did set …

Ovid’s Medea (in The Metamorphosis) claimed a creative power that Golding’s translation then drew out, and highlighted with rhymes. The streams came home to springs, the seas were made plain, her power encountered the mountains and moon, and won—a lot mightier than Prospero’s claims, and moreso because of the form. It puts the greatest structures made by nature right out into the white space, and has them transformed by her. From villainess/victim, she became something other, undercutting, overcoming.

What Shakespeare did with that passage, in The Tempest, somehow started to speak to me around 2010, when it looked like the end of the PhD program was approaching, and who knew what waited after that. Things during the doctoral program there at MU had not gone as planned; instead of getting an MFA thesis published and a nice job lined up, I had that thesis still in pieces, three or four other possible manuscripts of original poems, a translation project that had not gotten me a Fulbright but looked like years’ worth of potential work, plays, and shrinking hope of the tenure track job—the recession hadn’t so much taken them away as shown me that the market had been shaky for a long time. Maybe there was some comfort in focusing instead on Prospero’s retrospective summing up . . . though he was moving from that magician phase into another one, as shown in the end of the play. A new beginning, for him.

But things were ending for me, i.e., I had a year or so more in the degree program, and it seemed like that passage in the play called to me mostly because of what came after it–I was heading toward a book-drowning in the form of a busy life that would probably look a certain way, and had an image of Shakespeare in retirement, in repose, that seemed like one to try and live up to (but with a modern toilet and other important innovations, including no government executions of my poet friends—that was before the 2016 presidential election, so tragically we will have to wait and see on that).

And that’s one of many images of Shakespeare, but the little bit of reading I’ve gotten to do since then makes him seem like he didn’t really ever completely get out. That’s not my reading for historical accuracy so there’s a good chance it might not be. But his having maybe played Prospero also cemented that vision in my mind, and it seemed like something to keep in front of me, there in my apartment near MU, with the mouse (who I actually woke up to see one day sitting on my collected works of Shakespeare).

But at some point, I’d also gotten to read Venus and Adonis, and also Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, and maybe my misreading of both began to spark things inside; Shakespeare duking it out on the page with Marlowe, fighting admirably dirty, then, well, not being the one stabbed to death after spying for Queen Elizabeth, and not so much winning as finding his own voice resounding in an emptier space than before, maybe. That perspective has been giving way to a look at Shakespeare’s maybe more complicated relationship with Ovid, maybe less a haunting or a fighting than a possession—Ovid wouldn’t leave him alone. Shakespeare didn’t fight with him—he found kinship, connection.

There are the historical parallels. Both lived in times of empire, when a lot of advances (if that’s the right word) in conquest, colonization, etc. were paralleled with cultural wonders, but also with brutally repressive, enforced moral codes aligned with certain religious views. Lots of great things had happened, maybe at least superficially because a lot of power had briefly been handed to individuals, but the price, especially within the individuals who occupied the nation(s), had been brutal. Ovid wasn’t really exiled for writing dirty poetry, was he? He let his poetry work independently of the state, even though the former ruler had been declared a god. Shakespeare may have been incredibly diplomatic in his way of hiding censorable truths in plain sight, but maybe that, after all, was exile, too. Along with the one from his family.

It had seemed, for and to me, for I don’t know how long, like I might live in language–a safe space, airless but stretching on pretty much forever, and I’m remembering now what Rodney Jones said once during a workshop: that poems were what, when he read them, said “you’re okay.” What I believed I discovered in poststructuralist and other theories, rather or more than a way of reseeing culture and our global community, was an ecstatic path that could stay in place as long as someone was paying attention. When Obama, then a candidate, came to the MU campus in 2008, the brief glimpses I got of him, which punctuated the force of his voice, were as small as a letter. Language. Speaks us (one of maybe two things I felt like I understood, that Heidegger said).

What I overlook in stories of Ovid, Shakespeare, and others (as if they’d written while loudly saying “I am depositing this in the canon!,” and “this won’t be received well for 200 years, but after that, oh damn”), is that they went through a lot. William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died while he was in London, working, working, working. Ovid, when Augustus exiled him, had to leave his wife, and who knows what else that had been home for him (after he’d left the path his father wanted for him, that he may have wished at that point that he’d followed). These gifts they’d been given, the creativity, the popularity for some time, the validation of other kinds . . . the language . . . may have seemed like dark tricks.

But both kept writing, not as singular, established voices, but, I believe, because the words kept coming. After The Metamorphosis, in exile, Ovid would write his Tristia, which didn’t accomplish the rhetorical goal of getting him back in the emperor’s good graces, but would maybe do much more, for many more, than that. Shakespeare would, after The Tempest, collaborate with other playwrights, and maybe find more camaraderie, more community, there. But while writing The Tempest, he’d come the closest he’d come since maybe 1593, with the epigraph and a lot of the content of Venus and Adonis, to quoting maybe his favorite poet. He wasn’t fighting him; to me, it’s like a Shakespearean veneer gives way, and the other’s work starts to show through, glow through. (And I don’t mean that as anti-veneer.) It’s like his stanza could fit comfortably within the other. Yes, I did this magic–so did someone else.

One of the most difficult gifts I personally believe we’ve gotten over the last decade, maybe much longer than that, is a complicated, mysterious, challenging sense of community. Whatever the boat is, I’m in it with you. Maybe, just maybe, Augustus rose up, big jerk, as at least part of a fear reaction to the incredible cultural diversity that was not part of Rome’s colonial project, but was maybe the best result of it. And the big ugly signifier, Trump, may be a similar incarnation of such fears. And when I have tried to constrict the poems in my life, whether mine or others’, too much as a practical project with a quantifiable goal, it hasn’t worked. But I have, thank God, continued to be followed around (and that description fits how little control over that I have) by poems, pieces of poems, and not-exactly-poems, that I can’t, don’t have to, will not drown.



Lucie Brock-Broido died in a cold season. It was March with a vengeance: many days I didn’t go outside because I could not brave blizzard stacked upon blizzard. When I could, I walked the Brooklyn streets downhill holding the lip of my hood low, giving up altogether on umbrella; and when I got to the subway I was engulfed in a bewildering fiery wetness, everything the color of sun, steaming. Things began to move. I took my wet seat and pulled out the book. I needed to read more of Lucie.


The Supernatural is Only the Natural, Disclosed

At your feet, I am a shoemaker’s apprentice,
         Toxic in a long day of fumes. I’m listening

To the fluorescent light come on
         In April, flinging a hot white scarf

Across a month mottled by the chemicals
Of eastern standard time, in the spokes of wheels

Of hormones turning in an unseasoned sky.


The Master Letters, which includes this poem, is Brock-Broido’s second book and maybe the volume for which she is most famous. But fundamentally Lucie does not have individual poems. To my mind, her poetry operates on two levels: the individual word and the lifelong opus. Lucie was a maker, and what she made was enchantment. In that sense, then, it almost didn’t matter which poem I was drawn to on those days in frail winter, or what poem I reach for today. Lucie’s work in toto is what won’t leave me alone.

                                                    In a gospel
According to Hunters, you name your bird

Without a gun. You sit & watch as one does in the woods,
Contemplating prey, awefully. You have a heart

As large as a silver cleat, small thing.
I should have liked to see you, before you became improbable.


I met Lucie in 2009, when I came to New York to study with her. As many have recounted, she was a striking character, an affecting presence. (Most common descriptors: mane, scarlet, feral.) And to hear her read the poems of her personal canon was a powerful sensory experience.

But it took years before I began to see the way that Lucie treats individual words. If you listen to a recording of her, you can catch it. There is in her voice a very deep tenderness to sound, a quaver in the determined velvet with which she lands each syllable.

At root, Lucie believed in the individual, oracular, magical power of certain words. This is far from the linguistic theory of Saussure, the notion that the sign is arbitrary. In Lucie’s cosmology, rather, there are some words so plush and rich in color that they make things happen in the world. To invoke a dire wolf is not just to construct an image in a poem; the words have their own energy and weight that tremble against the invisible. This is language as spell and conjuring. Love the words enough, treat them with awe, live with them like bright wild animals, and you may see what they can make of you.

In your woods, I would not name the flowers—
They bother me, spicy & devout as they are, perennial & full

Of the pretense of sweetness & decline.
You dazzle me.

It is almost impossible to write about Lucie and not use Lucie’s own language, or pale imitations thereof. Her poems are not explicable in the common sense; strangely, their excellence hinges on how well they resist paraphrase.

But if there’s one point I take from reading Lucie, it is reverence. Reverence for the tradition, for the student, for wonder, for work, for the numinous. Reverence for words, above all. Lucie’s poems, more often than not, are architected around the curious erotics of power: who has it and who will give it, who will beg and how beautifully. The poems of The Master Letters are all done up in that weave of debasement, exigency, plaint. Lucie concludes the next poem after “The Supernatural” with a signoff: the speaker calls herself “your— / Punitive Divine.” Who here, I wonder, is punishing whom? Is the dominated all the more divine, touching language thus? Does she become most masterful in her prostrations?

In the wilderness, the blacksmiths & the cobblers leave
Their machinery on all night, greased

By the nasty oils of midnight
Till the custodian slips off the switch at dawn.

Should you, before this reaches you, experience Immortality,
Who will inform me of the exchange?

Nowadays I am fortunate enough to teach curious, creative students. My undergraduates at the Fashion Institute of Technology are still finding their way into poetry. They want rules and footholds, so I teach them form and meter, while trying to leave a little room for the mystery that keeps us writing.

I never knew how to bring Lucie’s ineffable, inexplicable poems into my own classroom, and so I had only discussed her with writers already familiar with her work. But the week she died, surrounded by the snow of loss, I got off the subway and walked into class with only the blank page of my bewilderment and a sheaf of photocopies of “The Supernatural is Only the Natural, Disclosed.”

Slowly, students read the poem aloud one, two times. We talked about archaisms and surprising word choice (“spicy”), and how they affect the tongue. We did what I think Lucie would have wanted, and tried to experience the poem as physically as possible. And then I offered them something I never would have been able to before, never while Lucie was alive.

“Do you remember what it felt like to spin in circles when you were little?” I asked. “When you’d have spun too much, and you’d bring yourself helplessly to the floor, and watch the room keep moving?” They looked up at me, something starting to catch. “There was a feeling that the world wasn’t quite how you’d thought it had been, but you could control it with your own actions. Make it keep turning.”

The students were still in the whorl of having read such an extraterrestrial poem, so I kept going. “What if you wrote a poem fully believing that your words could make some magic happen? Could you approach the page with the confidence that you could cast a spell? That, by listening to your gut, your blood, you could make something come alive?”

I gave them a small hoard of words from Lucie’s poem to use, just as she had once done for me. I told them to address their poems to someone they loved, wanted to pay homage to, wanted to change by their conjuring. And then in that rapt silence, everyone began to write. I did too. There was enough of Lucie in the room to lift our language up. Who was surrendering here? Under whose whelm?

I entreat you—Sir—in your next white wove
Missive to call my name—correctly—just

This once. The continual misspelling
Is a form of sorcery, it smacks

Of heresy. It would bereave—
Your Gnome

Six months later, I am leaving New York—the home I arrived at nine years ago, almost entirely because of Lucie. This week, the Brooklyn streets are clearer but the sense of absence reforms itself. As I pack my apartment, the years of books stack up: the volumes of poetry I’ve held close and husbanded or dreamed of one day reading. Then the piles disappear into the silence of their boxes. The room whitens and enlarges. Certain books stay out as totems, even if I won’t get to read them before I fly. I pack Lucie’s last.



My Grandfather

used to ask us to read him
the shop-signs in Devanagri:

‘मिंटू आइस-क्रीम’
‘जगत हार्डवेयर’
‘चित्र सिनेमा’

All his life, he
had known only Urdu
– leaving Lahore at 18,
a young railway-clerk
new at the desk then
– in the early months here
he had struggled, tried opening
a cigarette-shop in Delhi
(Pachkuiyan Road) before
being given the same job
in the Indian railways
in Lucknow.

In all this commotion,
he never bothered
learning another script,
dependent still, at 73, on his grandchildren
to read him ice-cream signs
when he treated them to
an orange-bar.

Now, years later,
when I ache to read Faiz’s letters
in his own hand-writing, I have to
write to a facebook-friend in Lahore,
or ask a boy in our neighborhood,
or worse, use a translation app,
which is like rubbing stones on silk.

What grand-father and I
do not know – Urdu, Hindi –
lie in each others’ glass, in
each others’ loss, in their
remaining on our tongue, and yet,
as we try, in their flying from our eye.

[The shop-signs in Devanagri script, in the above poem, transliterate and translate to the following:
Mee-tay Ice Cream {meaning Sweet Ice Cream}
Jagath Hardware
Chitr Cinema {meaning Picture Cinema}]

I rarely feel the need to relate to what I am reading in the case of literary texts. Identification (or dis-identification, for that matter) along subjective lines is not a lens with which I often feel compelled by to encounter a piece of prose or poetry, a story or a lyric. In fact, I have often felt most challenged by a text when I can’t easily identify myself with a character or a narrative strand. It is not that I think identification is unimportant or insignificant – many of “us” would like to see ourselves in a narrative, “we” like to see ourselves and our lives reflected or represented in a text, “we” want our stories told and our voices heard. What I am getting at, however, is that I have often felt that literature – either in its prose or poetic form – might offer up an opportunity for us as readers to encounter alterity and difference in some startling ways. I am not suggesting that literature serve as yet another site of or for anthropology wherein we “encounter” the difference of an/the other in the text, as it may be represented in it; rather, what I am suggesting is that literature might work as a space in which we can imagine and rethink the confluence of several categories precisely such as alterity, difference, otherness, learning about self and other, relationality, empathy, and ethicality.

Hence, it is all the more a lovely surprise when I come across a text – in the case here, a poem – to which I find myself wholeheartedly connecting with and relating. Akhil Katyal is a poet, academic, and activist living in and working out of Delhi. He was a participant, as well, of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2016. The poem I want to reflect on here, “My Grandfather” – the poem that won’t leave me alone, so to speak, precisely because of my identification with its central premise – appears in Katyal’s first book of poems Night Charge Extra published in 2015 by the Writers Workshop based in Kolkata.

“My Grandfather” is the tender poem with which he opens this collection. A poem that might be interpreted, at its heart, as being about memory, historicity, loss, and inheritance, could also be about how Katyal attempts to cover an impossible-to-measure distance between his grandfather and him in their shared experience of the loss of language. Art historian John Paul Ricco might call such a scene one of shared-separation:

[Separation] is the spacing of existence, and is, by definition, never solitary but always shared. It is what affirms that for anything to exist, there must be more than one thing, each one separated from each other one, together partaking in the spacing between that is opened up by separation. Existence, therefore, is relational and shared, and hence is always to be understood as coexistence. Not the coming together of solitary and autonomous beings, but existence as sharing or partaking in separation as the there is of existence – the spacing (there) of being {is) together. If separation is the spacing of existence, and if existence is always relational and shared, then sharing in separation is the praxis of coexistence – of being-together (Ricco, The Decision Between Us: Art and Ethics in the Time of Scenes, 3)

In the case of Katyal’s poem, this shared-separation dramatizes language and its capacity to be lost, unlearned, not learned, or resisted, as the case may be. An Urdu-reading grandfather, displaced from Lahore as a result of history’s weighty attempt at redrawing the map of the subcontinent, a byproduct of the aftermath of the partition, the cleaving, of India and Pakistan – of India from Pakistan and of Pakistan from India – finds himself speaking a language familiar to him in his new home in Delhi whose new script, in Devanagri, remains unknown, elusive, foreign, distant. He harbored, still, no desire in learning the new script, as the language that he spoke, an old, familiar, intimate language, remained the same. He asks his grandchildren to read the script for him – an inheritance in the opposite direction, he possesses the script vis-à-vis his grandchildren reading it for and to him. As the poet notes, years later, on his part as he attempts to read the famed poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s letters in their Urdu original, what he did not inherit from his grandfather – the knowledge and ease with which to read and grasp the Urdu script – is palpable. One could ask, at this conjecture, as I did, what might the “after” in aftermath, here of partition, mean? To reiterate the closing of the poem, the poet responds to this aftermath of such a loss of the script of each other’s tongues, which while being lost in the form of script remains, nonetheless, the same in speech:

What grandfather and I
do not know – Urdu, Hindi –
lie in each other’s glass, in
each other’s loss, in their
remaining on our tongue, and yet,
as we try, in their flying from our eye.

This poem has stayed with me, like an uncanny lesson in Derrida’s hauntology, precisely because it forced me, like a specter, to think about and confront my own relationship to language – my own mother tongue Malayalam, a language from the Dravidian family of languages, spoken in the southern Indian state of Kerala – as one of both inheritance and loss. Malayalam is an incredibly difficult language to learn – with 36 consonants and 16 vowels, it has the largest number of letters in any of the Indian language orthographies. My earliest memories of trying to learn it are those that involve my maternal grandfather, someone who I was quite close to, attempting to teach me the intricately complex script. He would pour out uncooked rice into a deep dish or plate and using his index finger inscribe the surface of the rice with a letter from the Malayalam alphabet. He would make sure that I fully captured the shape of the letter he wrote on the surface of the rice and then erase this with his hand. He would ask me to repeat the inscription of the same letter, its shape culled from my memory. He would say that he preferred this method – over using a pen and paper – to teaching me and his other grandchildren the letters to the Malayalam alphabet because it felt incredibly tactile, it literally gave us “food for thought,” that it produced a site within which letters could be written as immediately as they could be erased or faded away. There was something about using the index finger to inscribe the letters of the alphabet in a dish of uncooked rice that seemed to tie together memory with sustenance, remembering with forgetting, presence with absence, and erasure and loss with the fungible quality of language itself.

Years later now, my relationship to Malayalam is still difficult, pained even. I moved to Canada at the age of 16; at the time of writing this I am almost 39. I have only visited Kerala a handful of times since my move. One of these visits took place just a few months before my grandfather passed away; I was 25 and he was 86 at the time. My memory of the language he taught me, the language he left me, perhaps my most genuine inheritance, eludes me often; I find it fading over time. I still understand it quite well, speak it rarely and rather shyly for fear of making errors in pronunciation or grammatical mistakes, and can read at a snail’s pace or perhaps at the pace of a child, a child the same age as I was when I was first taught the language. The pain of this loss is most trenchantly felt when on those incredibly rare occasions while using the subway in downtown Toronto, I hear Malayalam being softly spoken between two people on a crowded train. My ears perk up almost instantly, not so much to eavesdrop on the content of their conversation as much as to recapture something lost, perhaps the shape of my language’s sound as it arrives at my ears. A pleasant chill of nostalgia runs down my spine – pleasant because it feels as though something lost has been recovered if only momentarily, chilly because I know it will be lost again too soon, faded like letters inscribed on the surface of uncooked rice. This unbearable lightness of being, to quip Milan Kundera, this nostalgia is perhaps what Yasmin Nair names as a sort of melancholy, a linguistic melancholy, in her moving essay “On Malayalam and Melancholia,” where she describes a scene, not unlike the one I experienced, of listening in on Malayalam being spoken by two strangers within her earshot at a restaurant. Katyal’s poem allowed me to share (in this) melancholic experience – share not only with respect to how I found myself identifying with its narrative, but also share in the separation, the impossible-to-measure distance(s), between the past and the present, between my own grandfather, specifically my memory of him, and myself, and between the complicated nature of inheritance(s) and the subsequent loss of things, anxious love objects nonetheless, like language, that I may claim for myself.


When I first got this invitation to submit a poem and a photograph, I dug out my old green spiral notebook in which I started writing as a teenager. At that time in my youth, there were poems and quotes that were meaningful to me, and I wrote them out in longhand in this notebook. Now this notebook offers an older me a view back to a younger me.

My dad loved Henry Wadsworth Longfellow‘s poetry and he often read out loud the poems to me as a child. Several of these are recorded in my notebook. Today I found one Longfellow poem that surprisingly spoke to me then. Its message certainly seems more profound to me now. As I read the verse, I immediately thought of a photograph I took of my mother last year, while she was napping. She is snuggled under a quilt that was made from fabric blocks that were cut and sewn from my Dad’s thin old shirts after he died.

For over 30 years, I have had a project taking photographs of my parents, at their home in Iowa. The whole series shows their everyday lives, and over time, the inevitable signs of aging. My dad died eight years ago, so now my photography is just of Mom. When this digital photograph came up for review on my computer screen, I knew it was a “keeper.” It shows so much about Mom and aging and loss and her frail condition. Now I present it as a visual interpretation of this poem:


As a fond mother, when the day is o’er,
         Leads by the hand her little child to bed,
Half willing, half reluctant to be led,
And leave his broken playthings on the floor,
Still gazing at them through the open door,
         Nor wholly reassured and comforted
By promises of others in their stead,
Which, though more splendid, may not please him more;
So Nature deals with us, and takes away
         Our playthings one by one, and by the hand
Leads us to rest so gently, that we go
Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,
         Being too full of sleep to understand
How far the unknown transcends the what we know.



A contemporary poem that I return to is one of Gina Myers’s “Hold it Down” poems from her second collection of the same title, published by Coconut Books in 2013. I have been a fan of hers since her 2009 collection, A Model Year. I have taught this poem when I focus on political poetry, and if I were to edit an anthology of the best American political poems of the 21st century, this would definitely be included.

The poem, which is one long stanza, begins by locating us in the everyday current of the speaker’s life, while also establishing the setting and personal background:

It’s 70 degrees outside but in the drugstore
Christmas music plays over the speakers as
I stand in line balancing my checkbook
in my head, stretching things thin until
my next paycheck when the rent is due.
The security guard cracks a joke, but
I wasn’t paying attention, so I just smile
& step forward in line. Images move
across the screen. When I think about money
it seems impossible. All over the country
people are moving into the streets
& we’re here in Atlanta starting a new life.

I enjoy the conversational, honest tone as the speaker shares her financial worries. I also appreciate how the poems moves from the realistic setting, to moments of interiority, and then to the Occupy movement, and then to the personal hopes of starting a new life in a new city. The poem continues:

Darkness surrounds the latest revision
of our shared history. Everything clouded.
Yesterday 1 couldn’t tear myself from the news
& already today the events have been distorted,
the numbers downplayed. It’s late fall
& in the early morning crispness, the leaves
fall from the trees & cover the sidewalks.
This new feeling we lack a name for, struggle
manifested in the streets & in parks & on bridges
across the nation. The headlines read
“Protesters clash with police,” but as we watched
the live stream, we saw aggression only by officers
dressed in riot gear. We saw people tossed
on the ground, hit with batons,
a woman punched in the face, an eighty-four year old
woman’s face drenched in pepper spray.
The images endless in this land of the free.
I’m losing focus, distracted by the newsfeed
on the computer screen, hitting refresh.

I think about this poem as a kind of “poetry of virtual witness,” which explores how to emotionally process the political events we are now able to witness not only on the television news and in newspaper headlines, but also on internet “live streams” and social media newsfeeds. Myers does a great job in the above excerpt capturing some of these endless images of state violence in “this land of the free. Craft-wise, the poem flows from image to image in a kind of lyrical riot, until we hit the powerful end stop of the poet herself “hitting refresh.” The poem then shifts:

The cat paws at my leg, demands its own attention.
This shift entirely unexpected but necessary.
Leaves blot the window. Every so often
I leave & start from scratch, imagine
damaged relationships & sick cities
where there was no damage & no sickness
greater than anywhere else. In Atlanta,
everyone drives. The bartender called us
“hardcore” when we said we’d walked there.
She said, “No one in Atlanta walks anywhere.”
Walking home from work in post-daylight
savings time darkness I pass no one on the
sidewalks. I pass the traffic backed up by
the stoplight. The weekend passes too quickly—
I wish it would last longer, which is what this all
is really about: time & my lack of control
over it, my inability to do what I want with it.

We move from the virtual space of witnessing, back into the space of the real (the poet’s domestic space, in this case). From there, the poem shifts back to an interior space to meditate on damage and sickness and cities, and then back out into the bars and streets of Atlanta. I love how the bartender’s voice turns the poem, and then we are back in the streets, in the “post-daylight savings time darkness” (what a description!). And then, once again, into a reflective space. The poem ends:

And there’s a greater futility at work
here too—a greater frustration in my inability
to control my environment or to stop my country
from killing its citizens. The police beat people
standing still, linking arms, holding cardboard signs.
Each day I think more & more about the past,
about where things began to go wrong, where I, too,
began to go wrong. Before I moved, before I
got sick, before I unfriended you on Facebook,
before I decided I no longer loved you,
before New York, before college—thinking back
to childhood when we could run fearless
through the neighborhood at night, when
we didn’t think about the future, when we loved
our country because we didn’t know better.

I deeply appreciate how honest and vulnerable this poem is. I appreciate how it interweaves the poet’s real life and subjectivity with larger social, cultural, economic, political, and national structures and realities. I appreciate how this poem is contemplative without being philosophical, and confessional without being melodramatic. I appreciate how this poem foregrounds the positionality of the speaker without appropriating the suffering she witnesses. In terms of craft, I appreciate the lyrical rhythms and pacing of the poem, the well-timed line breaks and the sentence structure variations, and the direct language and striking imagery.

This poem is still relevant in 2018 and will be for many years to come, I fear. So I am thankful to Gina for gifting us this poem, which has helped me think about how we can “hold it down” in these difficult times.



A Martian Sends a Postcard Home

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings—

they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.

I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand.

Mist is when the sky is tired of flight
and rests its soft machine on ground:

then the world is dim and bookish
like engravings under tissue paper.

Rain is when the earth is television.
It has the property of making colours darker.

Model T is a room with the lock inside—
a key is turned to free the world

for movement, so quick there is a film
to watch for anything missed.

But time is tied to the wrist
or kept in a box, ticking with impatience.

In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps,
that snores when you pick it up.

If the ghost cries, they carry it
to their lips and soothe it to sleep

with sounds. And yet they wake it up
deliberately, by tickling with a finger.

Only the young are allowed to suffer
openly. Adults go to a punishment room

with water but nothing to eat.
They lock the door and suffer the noises

alone. No one is exempt
and everyone’s pain has a different smell.

At night when all the colours die,
they hide in pairs

and read about themselves—
in colour, with their eyelids shut.

Craig Raine (British Poet, 1944-)
from A Martian Sends a Postcard Home. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1980.

I first came across Craig Raine’s “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” when I was an undergraduate. I loved it then, thought the conceit was inventive. (I wanted to be a Martian, thought of poetry already as an alien endeavor.) Later I started to hate it. Never mind the fact that it spawned a mock “school” of Martian Poetics, rendering quite literal the Russian Formalists’ call for poetry that “defamiliarizes.” In many respects it just behaves like a very bad poem, the worst kind to offer as example to students. For one, we have to decode it all, have to “find the right answer,” translate this Martian’s misnomers and generally poor understanding of Earth-based plumbing systems (let alone the exigencies of our digestive tract). A “Caxton” is not a “mechanical bird,” which we “treasure” for the “markings” on its wings. Rather it’s a book. (One has to intuit somehow that the Martian uses the proper name Caxton almost metonymically, and that he somehow thinks all automobiles are “Model Ts.”) Though some entries by this odd traveler are quite striking (“Rain is when the Earth is television”; the toilet is a “punishment room / with water but nothing to eat”), some confuse my students simply because of referents now too foreign to their daily lives. The telephone, for example, strikes the Martian as a “haunted apparatus […] that snores when you pick it up.” Who among our students (who among us, really) remembers what a dial tone sounded like? Other entries smack of triteness (“But time is tied to the wrist / or kept in a box, ticking with impatience.”) But mostly, over time, I tired of trying to imbue in my students the notion that poetry is not a code to be cracked, a secret language available only to the initiated. Seems this poem, simple as it is structurally (what could be simpler than a bunch of stuff a traveler catalogs on a postcard’s back?), seems it always wanted to argue the opposite. And so we’d dutifully march through each of the Martian’s hare-brained descriptions. (No, that’s not a baby; that’s a telephone. He wants you to imagine that the phone is a living thing, a “ghost” that “cries.”), and each time I would feel less like the poem was doing anything but instilling in my students the worst possible idea about poetry: that it was simply a puzzle to solve. Once solved, once we “figured out” just what the hell this little, green man was talking about, our job would end.

That is, if we forget about history, about politics, about all the extra-textual mess that ends up somehow shaking its dust out on poems. Published in 1980, Raine’s alienated alien writes from a time of ramped up fears regarding technology. Forget the omnipresent Cold-War shivers. We had other, realer manifestations of our Frankenstein world. Test-tube babies (1978), the introduction of the Sony Walkman (1979), not to mention the disaster of Three-Mile Island (1979) are all lurking in this poem and its fears of technology. Just go down its list, and you see again and again veiled criticisms of our great technological achievements. Books are mechanical birds, yes, but the Martian has “never seen one fly.” Automobiles are merely rooms “with the lock inside.” Yes, I know he’s describing the ignition as a “lock,” but the deeper fear here is that we’re entombed inside our technologies. A simple telephone becomes “haunted,” a “ghost” that “cries” and must be “soothed to sleep.” We tend to our little machines as if they were our own ghoulish offspring. Even that humblest, most undeniably human of spaces, the bathroom, is where adults go to “suffer the noises alone,” with “everyone’s pain” emitting a “different smell.” Ick.

We humans, too, are a solipsistic bunch, locked in our various rooms within rooms. To this alien observer, we’re hermetically sealed off from the world, from interaction with each other or with the environment. There is very little “nature” in this poem. And when we do glimpse it, it too is mechanical and also defective. Mist is just “sky” that is “tired of flight / and rests its soft machine on ground.” Other than that, it’s pretty much broad strokes: “the world” gets a mention, but mostly we’re holed up in bathrooms, novels, cars, and our own self-centered narratives. Even dreaming, to the Martian, is merely when we “hide in pairs” (not very romantic) and “read about [ourselves] / in colour with [our] eyelids shut.” Me, me, me, me. Apart from the troubling image of some bug-eyed spaceman peering in on us as we burrow into REM sleep, the poem’s final figure is one of fear, selfishness, and monotonous sameness (since night is when “all the colours die”). Allow history its room here, and you are forced to see this poem as quite a fearful little creature. Poets are strangers in a strange land, at least we train ourselves to be. The Martian, in that respect, is honoring that role. The objects of his gaze, though—we humans—don’t come across as too ennobled. In that respect, this poem seems again quite timely, as rising right-wing fears of the influx of aliens (not the green, imaginary kind but real people with darker skin) are again being heard. England, to many of the older generations in the late ’70s and early ’80s, must have seemed unrecognizably foreign and alienating. Build a wall, keep ’em out. We’re not much different now. Who, the poem seems to ask, is the real alien, here? And where’s it all going to end?



A brief introduction: Chad Parmenter was kind enough to ask me to contribute to the second installment of “The Poem That Won’t Leave You Alone.” I decided on Vallejo’s “Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca.” This poem made a heavy impression on me when I first read it in the original Spanish. I translated it into English for the sole purpose that the At Length reader can understand how I view the poem. My thoughts on the poem’s meaning are just that, my thoughts and ideas on how I view the poem, and are not intended to be taken as gospel.

Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca
César Vallejo

moriré en París con aguacero,
un día del cual tengo ya el recuerdo.
Me moriré en París -y no me corro-
tal vez un jueves, como es hoy, de otoño.

Jueves será, porque hoy, jueves, que proso
estos versos, los húmeros me he puesto
a la mala y, jamás como hoy, me he vuelto,
con todo mi camino, a verme solo.

César Vallejo ha muerto, le pegaban
todos sin que él les haga nada;
le daban duro con un palo y duro

también con una soga; son testigos
los días jueves y los huesos húmeros,
la soledad, la lluvia, los caminos…

Black Stone on top of a white stone
Translated by Steve Castro

I will die in Paris, during a downpour,
a day in which I already possess the memory.
I will die in Paris -and I won’t step aside-
perhaps on a Thursday, like it is today, in autumn.

A Thursday it will be, because today, Thursday, that I prose
these verses, [because of] the humeri [physical pain] I have put myself
in the bad [state of mind], never as today, have I turned
with all my paths, to see myself alone.

César Vallejo has died, they all beat him
without him ever doing anything to them;
they hit him hard with a stick and hard

also with a rope; the witnesses are
the Thursdays and the humeri bones,
solitude, the rain, the paths…

Vallejo’s poem captivated me because to me it seems incredibly profound. It starts from the title, “Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca” / Black stone over a white stone. In Revelation 2:17, we are told, “I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it,” English Standard Version. I feel Vallejo had this biblical passage in mind when he wrote this sonnet. He opens the third stanza by writing “César Vallejo ha muerto / César Vallejo has died.” Upon death, a white stone would erase César Vallejo’s name and give him a new name. I feel the speaker, based on the title, implies that the César Vallejo of this earth, both in name and body, has been (beginning with the third stanza) /will be (prior to third stanza) erased from existence and will be given a stone with his new identity in the afterlife. According to the book of Revelation, God gives a white stone to the saints. Vallejo places a black stone over a white stone. Hence, the black stone takes priority over the white stone. If a white stone is given to those who have reached salvation, then is the black stone given to the condemned? Does the speaker in Vallejo’s poem, i.e., César Vallejo, imply that César Vallejo is eternally damned and destined to be given a black stone? I seem to think so, since Vallejo placed a black stone on top of a white stone. This poem is drenched in darkness and despair, i.e., predicting your own death by a severe beating.

The second stanza also captivated me a great deal. “Jueves será, porque hoy, jueves, que proso / estos versos, los húmeros me he puesto / a la mala” / A Thursday it will be, because today, Thursday, that I prose / these verses, the humeri I have put myself / in the bad. The original Spanish verses seem to me to be awkwardly constructed, i.e., “… los húmeros me he puesto / a la mala.” What I believe the speaker to mean is the physical pain of the humeri is so strong that it greatly affects, in a negative way, the speaker’s state of mind. The reader can see the speaker’s state of mind being affected by the awkward construction of words in those verses. The pain is so strong and intense that it affected the very language the speaker used at that very moment in time, and it prevented the speaker from coherence for the briefest of periods. To me it’s a brilliant way for me to feel empathy with the speaker’s misery, both mentally and physically. That line/verse also reminded me that the Humerus is the long bone in the arm that runs from the shoulder to the elbow. If the speaker’s Humeri are in constant pain, then it would be incredibly painful to pick up a pen/pencil and write. There is this layer about the pain, both physical and mental, that also includes putting pen to paper.

Even the ending seems incredibly tragic to me. “son testigos / los días jueves y los huesos húmeros, / la soledad, la lluvia, los caminos…” / the witnesses are / the Thursdays and the humeri bones, / solitude, the rain, the paths…

The witnesses are:

The day of the speaker’s death.

The speaker’s humeri bones, meaning, that by now, the bones have been picked clean.

Solitude, which, if personified, will not be able to speak to others on behalf of the speaker, since solitude prefers to be alone.

The rain, washing away any evidence of the speaker’s existence on this earth.

The paths, no longer to be trotted by the speaker.

This is the poem I come back to, and these are a few of the ways, but not all, that I think about this poem, and keep me coming back for more.



On “Sailing to Byzantium”

It’s closer to the truth to say that I won’t leave the poem alone. I keep pulling on what seem like loose threads, suspicious of my pleasure in the poem–wary of what my sometimes-self-forgetful presence there might reveal about the self that finds such ready camouflage in the poem’s weave.

I hadn’t read “Sailing to Byzantium” in god-knows-how-many years, and I hadn’t much cared for it when I did. At the time, the poem felt willfully remote: inhumanly abstract and too fond of alien fantasy. I didn’t trust it then, and I don’t completely trust it now. Which seems right for this feature: I imagine any ghost at least partly distrust what it is that it haunts.

There’s an anthology of English poetry on a shelf in my classroom, and lately I’ve been pulling it down when my students are working independently, glancing at various Yeats poems and carrying a line or two in my head as I walk around the room, checking in on those who need help. The lines seem to absorb a certain amount of loneliness, to calm the wash of anxiety and isolation, which has been more turbulent in me this year.

It helped, at first, after years of writing mostly about contemporary poems, that these poems were beyond my reach. It helped that their importance was already established, and that there was, presumably, nothing for me to make of them beyond themselves. In recent years, I had finished two books, one a collection of poems, one of essays on poems, and I had failed to find a publisher for either one. A podcast I’d been recording with three poets I admire died quickly, undernourished among busy schedules and successes–too few of them, I felt in my despondency, mine. The two sides of the coin that turns in me—arrogance and insecurity, each one an image of loneliness—were alternating with greater speed. I had two answers for my failures, each one at odds with the healthier, truer response of treating myself as unexceptional, as being in no need of exception, and settling into my ordinary—and in fact fortunate—human life.

But if the coincidence of my dissatisfaction and Yeats’ images of escape had anything to do with my initial pleasure in “Sailing to Byzantium,” I didn’t notice. The poem’s first appeal was sensual, that initial stanza winding through syntax, rhythm and rhyme to arrive in the sonic immediacy of “Caught in that sensual music all neglect,” a line so dense and propulsive that it overrides its own warnings. A heavy emphasis, I suppose, should land on “that,” the second use of the same distancing demonstrative adjective in just seven lines. But the meter resists that, and even if it didn’t, I, too, am already caught–or, more accurately, enchanted, willingly, grateful for the commendation it unpersuasively condemns. That sweeping “all” of “all neglect” lands, in my ear, as a welcome. Coming so soon after “all summer long,” the provisional but unchecked bounty (posed as complaint) from just two lines earlier, that second “all,” for me, opens up to everything that the previous sentence gathered, abundantly, into vibrant ease. And, by easy implication, it opens up to every living thing save, I guess, Yeats, though even in his exemption he sings into that vitality–a vitality that carries into and through the last line of the stanza, “Monuments of unageing intellect,” which is among the parts of the poem I still don’t trust.

Abstracted, I distrust almost everything the line invokes: “monuments,” in which both medium and message seem almost invariably overwhelmed by scale and sweep, locked away from human warmth and imperfection; “unageing,” which evokes the ineradicable permanence of plastic, as well as plastic surgery’s aspiration toward the same (including Yeats’ eventual election of surgery to restore his erections late in life, finally resolving the crisis that, apparently, launched this thirty-two line ship); and even “intellect,” a term that seems to set the mind off from all it fashions into understanding, looking out on an undifferentiated “all” from which it chooses, uninflected by anything it perceives. And even “of”: why not? That elusive, portentous preposition that will echo in the next two stanzas: “Monuments of its own magnificence,” “the artifice of eternity.” And that all of this has been enlisted in the lordly idiosyncrasy that has apparently earned Yeats the nickname “Silly Willy” among some in his native Ireland. And yet….

And yet: The poem carries time outside of time. There is a sense of something more than human made human, not too different from a starry night seen far from most human habitation. Feeling it, I am very much embodied–and even as I feel my body made graceful in its movement, even as I feel it made large via what it can perceive, I also feel, perhaps ironically, my body’s impermanence, summoned and set at ease. And so it is, too, in the second stanza’s first four lines:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress….

I grew up terrified of death, and not only the possibility of ceasing to exist but also the chance that I could go on living after death, locked into some terrible permanence. Slowly, eventually, that terror healed into a pro forma atheism–agnosticism without the curiosity, basically. I lost interest in the possibility of anything beyond this human life. The idea of a soul became alien to me, and it has stayed that way, with rare exceptions, ever since. But this soul, Yeats’ soul, the one that sings and exults with such determination and so little need for dignity, still wearing a mortal dress that can’t be all that different from the tattered coat in the second line, alive inside the rhythmic density of a line that begins, mid-clause, “soul clap its hands” and the release into a gentler regularity in the following line…, that soul I like. That soul–one of the shifting, conflicting metonymies of selfhood that spring up throughout the second and third stanzas–that soul I can imagine, all the more so because it is inseparable from its articulation, “sing, and louder sing,” as well as the “unless” lodged, in the second line, beside the very thing it’s meant to oppose. At least in my mind, “unless” carries the “tattered coat upon a stick” all the way forward into the soul’s “mortal dress” with which it rhymes. And that mortal dress–in sound and sense and unlikeliness–like the fog a ghost displaces, is what makes it visible, tangible, thrilling to me.

There are parts of the poem that stay remote: the rest of the second stanza, and all but the last line of the fourth and final stanza, which William Empson claims is “full of the lilting flipness of the comic prose of Oscar Wilde.” Helen Vendler (who usefully describes each stanza of the poem as a “station,” as in as a station of the cross) claims that Yeats chooses there, resolvingly, “to be embodied in one of the profane artifacts of time, one serving the court rather than the cathedral.” Neither of those explanations suffices to make those seven lines matter to me. It’s hard to treat anything in the poem with irony, to separate it from Yeats, in part because Yeats’ vision is so relentlessly idiosyncratic, and so unwaveringly assured, that I cannot bring it to life in anyone other than the single, strange, brilliant, historical person in whom it actually existed and then somehow arrived on a shelf near my desk in the former library that the school turned into a classroom the year I started teaching, almost six years ago.

But even if I can’t really walk through the door marked “Once out of nature,” it’s worth going around. It’s worth it in order to be once again swept up, in that last line, in a final generalization of particularity, “of what is passed, or passing, or to come,” which recalls and maybe returns to “whatever is begotten, born and dies.” And as long as I’m at play in those structures, I’m happy. They make their own time. It feels purposeful, and for a while I’ve been able to extend that sense of purpose by writing this. And just as I should admit to myself that I am unexceptional and get on with life, I imagine I should be satisfied with that pleasure. But I have not, and I am not, not really, not yet.

In the third stanza, Yeats petitions the sages, once they’ve finished their perning and mastering (an odd mastery, given that they must first dance through Yeats’ eccentric vision), to gather him “into the artifice of eternity.” It is, like the two other highly Latinate X of Y formulations that precede it, monumental and unyielding. More appealing, by far, are the lines that precede it:

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me

Here, the fractured metonymies do gather, arriving at the simple, first-person singular pronoun, “me.”

Like many people, I’ve spent much of my life feeling out of place in the places I imagined I should belong—and just as much of it trying to correct for that. For a while, as a kid, I believed I was an actual alien and that my thoughts were audible. I assumed everyone had conspired out of kindness, or at least pity, not to let me know. And so even as I have resisted the fact that I am unexceptional—that these books probably won’t be published; that others’, better, will—I have also feared my own eccentricity. My ambition has always been toward a kind of ballast that would have made me more stable and secure in this world as I first learned to imagine it—and still imagine it today.

“Sailing to Byzantium” does not actually seem monumental—not to me—nor does it make me think of a song, no matter how many times Yeats writes of singing. Instead, I’m struck by a sculptural confluence of solidity into motion, a sense of movement written like water into rock. Following its contours, the long lines of the sculptor’s knife agile and alert in its stilled descriptions of muscle and movement, I feel reconciled, neither scattered nor entombed. Like life, that feeling can be prolonged but not preserved, and I remain wary that, lingering in illusion old and odd enough that I cannot carry it back, I am estranging myself, nurturing an effete instinct toward mere comfort, decadent, disembodied, and weird, most so when most at ease.

I’m thinking again about a conversation I had with my friend Matthew, one I wrote about in the book of essays that I’ve so far failed to find a home for. Sitting at a bar, we stumbled back to the idea of timelessness in poetry–how much that idea matters to him, how awful it feels to me. I’ve worked so hard to make a home for myself in this world, to understand its terms and, eventually, its failures, well enough to slough off some of my early feelings of alienation. Art itself, writ large or treated as exceptional, has always been tricky for me; another thing that has always seemed out of place in the world as I first and most lastingly came to recognize it. But part of any world is how we leave it, both in escape and through our eventual, inevitable absence from it, passing, then past, as well as all that we drag back for as long as we are able to find our way. And among the powers of art is to give what is strange in us solidity and life.

Part of being unexceptional, at least in our long, commercial moment, is hungering to be exceptional. I am still not at ease with the exemptions my time inside the poem has granted me, nor with my desire to be exempt. It is, among other things, an unlikely and unflattering mirror of my desire to make myself central to the version of America I have haunted, largely unnoticed, for more than forty years. I imagine Yeats, who so labored over this note to the world describing his departure from it, understood as much. And I wonder, once again, what I am. And I read the poem again, and get back to work.


To read Volume 1 of this feature, click here.


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