If you could meet a writer from the past, who would it be?

—asked by: Anonymous

From the past… how far ago does it have to be? Working backwards, I’d say Szymborska first. She looks like somebody’s kindly, chainsmoking, doting grandmother who’s sometimes a bit distracted, quiet but cutting. Then again, I don’t know how to speak Polish, so I don’t know how that would turn out. Then all those writers living and writing and dying right after each other during the Plague in the 1980s: they knew how to live, and they were able to put down what it means to desire, to love—what these cost. Then, Lawrence Durrell. A man who can write a moving elegy to a city, one of those novels where the setting is even more important than characters. Then finally Virginia Woolf, but I doubt if we’d get along. I think she works really well written down: in fact, I think her genius is in the attempt to express in words the inexpressible condition of being human without being reduced to pointing and grunting. Her novels happen inside the head, and I don’t know how she’d be.

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III.

My stomach is the size of a fist, the perfect place
for a fist to land. Enough room for a fist and
not enough for air. The fist lands, connecting
with the speed of bad news, heavy like waiting rooms’
black morning talk shows where time passes slowly
and fingers are skinless and raw from anticipation.

Bad news takes a second to land, yet some god
seems to delight in prolonging the wait.
Then a second second to settle. Then a third.
These three seconds are three minutes,
three hours. Three lifetimes. (But maybe that much
is punishment.)

Time that stands still while some woman
describes in gruesome detail her yeast infection.

While something keeps the wall warm: names,
a dozen names on a dozen panels, keeping
the walls warm even when the walls don’t need it.
(Or, not only the living need blankets.)

The needle pierces skin in six thousand places.
Who could have so much skin? My stomach is the size
of a fist, the perfect place for a fist to land,
one I’ve been expecting for years, that fist my
brother threatened to hit me with. That fist of his
I kiss. He punches once and I imagine him naked.
The second lands and I am naked myself, crawling
across some room flooded by antiseptic light,
without corners, without edges.

My stomach is the size of a fist. I listen to Schubert,
waiting for the news. Der Tannenbaum, music that prolongs
youth, music to accompany that condemnation
to a perpetual summer as punishment for crimes unknown.

My brother died in a car crash in some
distant Siberia, the same exile I was in.

                                                      Welcome to Siberia,
to the death camps. Here’re your pills, your bills,
your chills. Keep them safe, those pills, those bills.
Nothing keeps out the chill. My stomach is the size
of a fist. Small enough for one pill, a dozen, three
dozen. I stopped counting bottles after three months.

My stomach
                 is a well, deep enough to take those blows. 

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II.

He was beautiful, so I took him in with open arms,
and all of myself spread open before him,
unaware of how easily he can learn to hide in the quiet
recesses of bone, hide in marrow grown spongy
with hope. With open arms, like a guest
who parted walls and then later broke them down
for the fun of it. And there is no way,
no way yet, they tell me, of how to get him out.

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I.

Ive been writing letters to my brother
(the one who stopped existing).

I tell him blood can turn to poison
and I’ve forgotten how to ask
for just one nightmareless night’s sleep.

Ive asked so many times before
that it sounds like a rehearsed prayer,
like counting off beads just as I count off

the numbers, an inconstant penitence
where one week’s count was small enough for a celebration
and the next month’s turning that feast into a wake.

Six, seven dozen misplaced and found again.
Six, seven digits, fluctuating with no way
to tell where the next count would land.

I’ve been writing letters to my brother
(the one who doesn’t exist)
asking him to come visit me sometime

and I’m holding off until I get
his reply.

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Hi! You haven't posted in while. I just want to ask who is (or are, if you like) your favorite poet/s? Do they influence your work or style in writing?

—asked by: Anonymous

Hi. Yes. I’ve been going through a particularly rough patch. I feel exhausted by writing. I’ve not written anything for a very long time. Things feel stale and barren, and I’m left with the taste of something bad in my mouth. 

Is, are. That’s a difficult question. Now, I’ve been reading Inger Christensen and Mark Doty. Christensen, I think, is impossibly brilliant. Alphabet, It—I think the influence manifests when I force myself to look at things differently. To see things not just as things but in a larger web of connections. The same with Szymborska. At first reading, they’re both cold, and possess a wry sense of humor.

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IV.

Underneath,
now,
all these lights
that leave nothing
for shame,

a paper gown,
a tall padded table.

Everywhere,

this light.

There is no freedom
from it, no freedom
from it, no freedom
from it. There is no
freedom in it.

It pins me down on
what feels like a wax tablet
and crucifies me with pins.
I am splayed apart like
some biology experiment—
that rite of passage
where a kid is given scalpels
sharp as the cruelty of children
must be and takes it to an ethered frog.

Only I am the kid.
And I am the frog.

Underneath, now, my own fingers poised
clumsily, connecting me to myself with surgical steel.
Above, there is the light; my head, light; my touch, light
enough to cut skin, peeling away my chest. See, here is my
heart as it writes out my life. See, here are my lungs
as they breathe my life. My stomach. My guts. And yet, my fingers powdery with latex, my nose full of ether.

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Hi! What kind of books do you read?

—asked by: Anonymous

Hello there, sir or madam. The books I read, or those I’ve read?

Now, I’m reading Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum—I’m a sucker for meandering detective stories of sorts. Before this, I was reading Inger Christensen’s alphabet—obsessively, almost religiously. I do tend to read a lot of rather off-beat fiction, and then some poetry.

Of poetry, I confess that I like Wislawa Szymborska, Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert—I know, they’re all Polish. It’s just a strange coincidence. I do like Mark Doty, Margaret Atwood, and Paul Celan.

But fiction is another matter. It’s always another matter entirely.

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Of course it isn’t as we thought it would be.

Our bodies could only do so much
and the spaces between them could only be arrived at
propositionally:

there are an infinite number of midpoints
before our touch could land on one another.

Or prepositionally—
it’s always an above or beside,
beneath, between,

and always the vastness
of the just-before.

We could only do so much.

The sleep they promised us was worth very little.

The dreams, when they came, were so worn
with repetition, they felt
like thrift-store clothes.

Of course it’s never as we think it will be.
Nothing prepares us for it.

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After a bleak day
(they seem to run into each other,
friends or old relations
eager to strike at it again,
unsure of how the last time felt)

with children I wish were my own,
or myself—such distinctions barely matter,
the motivation behind them exactly the same—

the Los Angeles sky was blue and restful
as an empty syringe jabbed into
my arm, bent like the sudden relief
between hills, filling
with the burning sunset of my blood.

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The Poet in the World

I was asked to write an essay about the poet Inger Christensen in relation to Marcel Reich-Ranicki’s comments regarding Wislawa Szymborska. The enterprise is staggering, and I have been working at it very slowly. I have decided to write about Christensen first. This is, ideally, half of the first section of that essay.

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I.
Sweet god, the nightmares pursue me—
will there be no rest?

The first night was the most difficult:
I was bound naked in a wheatfield,

the blades slicing into my skin
like sacrificial knives to unfallow the field.

The meager bunches of grain were drooping
and the harvest fell on me like hail.

The bloodsky curdled from spoilt milk
to purple and thin and unforgiving came the rain.

II.
I came home from working with children
open and empty like promises,

and slept what shallow sleep I can gain.
And even then, the nightmares came.

This time a train on tracks of skin
unstopping, across the same field

where once I had lain bound. I shook
myself awake only to sleep again

and wake in the back seat of a car
when I was nine again, and the great emptiness

of the sky was still.

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All the ladies love the shipping

—  Sir Joseph’s Barge is Seen from Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore

Dear Jacob,

You asked me why I love my city. At the time, I felt as though I could not give you a coherent answer—not because I didn’t know why, but because I didn’t know where to begin. In my mind, I cannot distance the city from myself, even though I am no longer there. In its marriage to myself, and to everybody I knew (polygamous but faithful), there existed a kind of undertone—like the fine shadings of a sunset.

It was a place I chose for myself, unencumbered by the ghosts of history and of relations. I was as unknown to it as it was to me. Its streets were unexplored. Its hills, uncursed yet (as they shall be in the future; much maligned are those hills, and rightly so, for all the to-ing and fro-ing up and down their steepness). That loving is cartography is more fully this.

That it was my choice meant much. That it was a city I wasn’t born into, a city where I knew nobody—an open city, free and fresh—this mattered much. Perhaps I could say that it mattered most.

Each time I step out of the bus, I have this feeling of return: buoyant and clear and certain and light; it was a homecoming—something I’ve never felt coming back to the house I grew up in. How could I not have fallen in love with that?—the liberation it meant for me, the return to my choice? I had never wanted to leave the city, and yet I have. 

The bells ringing out from the Cathedral at dawn and dusk, at noon, at three—ceaseless tolling in sun or storm—signaling that the light is yet to be spent, or had already been spent. How strange that I still call it mine. Or perhaps it isn’t strange at all. It is mine because I took something from it (or had it taken something from me?—at this point, both seem equally the case).

It was a space where I could meet new loves, forget old ones, or live in the memories of the past. Worry, fret, obsess. Over-analyze. But the old comforts are always there. The city appears so small that one cannot help but meet friends down the street, form opinions of random strangers, shrug at the rush of weekend tourists, invent games to pass the time. And these same people, ripped from the fabric of the city seem diminished. As though we were not fully ourselves when we were not there. As though meeting each other outside the city was an aberration. Jarring and disconcerting. And yet we were still ourselves, although lacking something—lacking the added dimension of the city, the promise of everywhere we could go to—sites of shared memory, of past comforts.

The city where under the acacia trees, with rain thin as mist, she who loved me took a cab home and never forgave me. And under those same trees, I steeled myself to never forgive he whom I loved. Could these have happened anywhere else? Perhaps. That these had not happened elsewhere is all that is important to me. The image compels the emotion, and chains it to the self forever. The same city where, perhaps to spite the cold, he and I took three blankets to my apartment’s roof-top, to watch the meteor shower. The same city whose hills shone with the lights of houses, diffused through fog.

And friends, our habits ossified—the staying put at a cafe for seven hours. Sunday crosswords passed across the table. Bottles and bottles of dark beer. A cancer’s worth of cigarettes. That it could have happened elsewhere is plausible. But it had not happened anywhere else.

Recognize it or not, we change—without meaning to, or while intending something else to happen. We change, and the city along with us. When we return from our exile (and all moments not spent in the city is exile, and all those nights are spent in the painful reconstruction of the city), we pretend that all things are exactly as they had been. But they are not. We carry along with us the memories of everywhere we’ve been—so that when we do return, we superimpose images of what we see with what we saw. The tragedy of homecoming is when our memories no longer correspond to the city we see around us. And when the city we return to appears different, would we be diminished in turn?

Always,

E.

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If were not a little mad and generally silly
I should give you my advice upon the subject, willy-nilly;
I should show you in a moment how to grapple with the question,
And you’d really be astonished at the force of my suggestion.
On the subject I shall write you a most valuable letter,
Full of excellent suggestions when I feel a little better,
But at present I’m afraid I am as mad as any hatter,
So I’ll keep ‘em to myself, for my opinion doesn’t matter!

—  My Eyes are Fully Open from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore

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I’m not sure if I wanted to steal
their child or be him, at the center
of an excellent house,
incapable of faltering…

—  Mark Doty, Rocket

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