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
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.
all these lights
that leave nothing
a paper gown,
a tall padded table.
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.
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.
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
there are an infinite number of midpoints
before our touch could land on one another.
it’s always an above or beside,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All the ladies love the shipping
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?
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!
I’m not sure if I wanted to steal
their child or be him, at the center
of an excellent house,
incapable of faltering…
do not listen since listening
closely enough is impossible:
for this is the sound of fabric
being pulled across backs
the sound of undressing
and the sound of nakedness
are nearly the same,
and this is the sound the backs of fingers
make when they scrape against
Since this is the sound eyes make
when they are heavy and refuse to close,
it is easier to look at them and
refuse to hear;
as hard as to hear
the great silence of the bomb
or that tree which fell but didn’t fall
since there was or there was none
to hear it
or to see it since
listening closely enough is impossible
and seeing is incomplete
see the tree fall
and somebody might taste its fall
and somebody might touch the ground
it shall fall on;
that someone was the ground it fell on
somebody whose body fell on the ground—some
body: it is now under all possible trees
tasting all possible bark and soil
body walks but it’s hard
to listen too closely
she is a he, or whether
this s/he is leaving or arriving
or is aimless or is aimed
it is too difficult to listen
maybe dreams make sounds
like empty pill-bottles shaken maybe dreams
make the sound of ripping
to listen to everything is too hard
this is the sound looking out the window makes
the drowning wooshing of things
as they pass
as they fly by at sixty-
five miles an hour while the car
is painfully still, still as
is all that can be done,
at sound and hearing and sight
attempts at senses.
do not listen—
I take my shoes off.
The once-stiff leather
is now soft and pliant.
It fits me comfortably.
It tells me
that after a long day,
I can take it off
and feel relief.
I take my pants off.
(It seems they need
I rifle through my drawers
looking for a particular pair
of shorts, warm though thin
with reflective piping
down the sides just so
I am seen by oncoming cars.
I put a sweatshirt on.
I lace my running shoes up.
I make sure they are tight.
I knot the laces twice.
I stretch, free in the air.
I start walking.
My goal is each puddle of light
on the sidewalk. To not
think of anything
except the next one
and the next one.
Variations on a Theme by Ivan Argüelles
"I say let me die in mozart’s
Mozart’s unfinished dictionary
where death is yet undefined,
with so many requiems
so much finality, such heavy
unquestioning certainty. So
I cannot die in his unfinished dictionary
try as much as I could never
hear the trill or some cry
of violins snapping strings
and say with a face utterly lacking
and creased, a voice trembling
not here and not I.
Mozart’s unfinished dictionary
The dictionary has his name on it.
The dictionary does not have his name in it.
Mozart’s name is not his music.
His dictionary’s music is yet unfinished.
The flipping of the pages creates
music through means as yet nameless,
through the finished and never-to-finish
process of reading.
Mozart’s unread dictionary.
The unread dictionary without Mozart’s name in it.
The unfinished dictionary Mozart unread.
The dictonary he unread out of existence.
The dictionary of Mozart’s unfinished reading.
The reading of Mozart’s unfinished dictionary.
The non-existent Mozart’s dictionary of existing things.
I say I cannot die if not in Mozart’s dictionary,
where death has no heading,
needs no mentions, has no aim.
I say I must be unread through Mozart’s dictionary,
not-yet finished, not-yet born, and if I must,
I say let me die there, if I must,
and if you will let me, for after all,
it is an escape from memory.
I say unremember me by forgetting my name,
in that dictionary where even it defines itself,
nameless in itself.
I say let Mozart bury Mozart.
Let him die if he must, and let me,
if I must.