Ink runs from the corners of my mouth. There is no happiness like mine. I have been eating poetry. The librarian does not believe what she sees. Her eyes are sad and she walks with her hands in her dress. The poems are gone. The light is dim. The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up. Their eyeballs roll, their blond legs burn like brush. The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep. She does not understand. When I get on my knees and lick her hand, she screams. I am a new man. I snarl at her and bark. I romp with joy in the bookish dark.
Seeing to Write, Writing to See
From Collected Poems by Mark Strand. Copyright © 2014 by Mark Strand. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A book is a suicide postponed.
Too volatile, am I? too voluble? too much a word-person? I blame the soup: I'm a primordially stirred person. Two pronouns and a vehicle was Icarus with wings. The apparatus of his selves made an ab- surd person. The sound I make is sympathy's: sad dogs are tied afar. But howling I become an ever more un- heard person. I need a hundred more of you to make a likelihood. The mirror's not convincing-- that at-best in- ferred person. As time's revealing gets revolting, I start looking out. Look in and what you see is one unholy blurred person. The only cure for birth one doesn't love to contemplate. Better to be an unsung song, an unoc- curred person. McHugh, you'll be the death of me -- each self and second studied! Addressing you like this, I'm halfway to the third person.
From The Father of the Predicaments, forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in September 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Heather McHugh. Reprinted by permission of the author.
At this height, Kansas is just a concept, a checkerboard design of wheat and corn no larger than the foldout section of my neighbor's travel magazine. At this stage of the journey I would estimate the distance between myself and my own feelings is roughly the same as the mileage from Seattle to New York, so I can lean back into the upholstered interval between Muzak and lunch, a little bored, a little old and strange. I remember, as a dreamy backyard kind of kid, tilting up my head to watch those planes engrave the sky in lines so steady and so straight they implied the enormous concentration of good men, but now my eyes flicker from the in-flight movie to the stewardess's pantyline, then back into my book, where men throw harpoons at something much bigger and probably better than themselves, wanting to kill it, wanting to see great clouds of blood erupt to prove that they exist. Imagine being born and growing up, rushing through the world for sixty years at unimaginable speeds. Imagine a century like a room so large, a corridor so long you could travel for a lifetime and never find the door, until you had forgotten that such a thing as doors exist. Better to be on board the Pequod, with a mad one-legged captain living for revenge. Better to feel the salt wind spitting in your face, to hold your sharpened weapon high, to see the glisten of the beast beneath the waves. What a relief it would be to hear someone in the crew cry out like a gull, Oh Captain, Captain! Where are we going now?
Copyright © 1998 by Tony Hoagland. Used from Donkey Gospel with the permission of Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota. All rights reserved. www.graywolfpress.org
It was the summer of Chandra Levy, disappearing from Washington D.C., her lover a Congressman, evasive and blow-dried from Modesto, the TV wondering in every room in America to an image of her tight jeans and piles of curls frozen in a studio pose. It was the summer the only woman known as a serial killer, a ten-dollar whore trolling the plains of central Florida, said she knew she would kill again, murder filled her dreams and if she walked in the world, it would crack her open with its awful wings. It was the summer that in Texas, another young woman killed her five children, left with too many little boys, always pregnant. One Thanksgiving, she tried to slash her own throat. That summer the Congressman lied again about the nature of his relations, or, as he said, he couldn't remember if they had sex that last night he saw her, but there were many anonymous girls that summer, there always are, who lower their necks to the stone and pray, not to God but to the Virgin, herself once a young girl, chosen in her room by an archangel. Instead of praying, that summer I watched television, reruns of a UFO series featuring a melancholic woman detective who had gotten cancer and was made sterile by aliens. I watched infomercials: exercise machines, pasta makers, and a product called Nails Again With Henna, ladies, make your nails steely strong, naturally, and then the photograph of Chandra Levy would appear again, below a bright red number, such as 81, to indicate the days she was missing. Her mother said, please understand how we're feeling when told that the police don't believe she will be found alive, though they searched the parks and forests of the Capitol for the remains and I remembered being caught in Tennessee, my tent filled with wind lifting around me, tornado honey, said the operator when I called in fear. The highway barren, I drove to a truck stop where maybe a hundred trucks hummed in pale, even rows like eggs in a carton. Truckers paced in the dining room, fatigue in their beards, in their bottomless cups of coffee. The store sold handcuffs, dirty magazines, t-shirts that read, Ass, gas or grass. Nobody rides for free, and a bulletin board bore a public notice: Jane Doe, found in a refrigerator box outside Johnson, TN, her slight measurements and weight. The photographs were of her face, not peaceful in death, and of her tattoos Born to Run, and J.T. caught in scrollworks of roses. One winter in Harvard Square, I wandered drunk, my arms full of still warm, stolen laundry, and a man said come to my studio and of course I went— for some girls, our bodies are not immortal so much as expendable, we have punished them or wearied from dragging them around for so long and so we go wearing the brilliant plumage of the possibly freed by death. Quick on the icy sidewalks, I felt thin and fleet, and the night made me feel unique in the eyes of the stranger. He told me he made sculptures of figure skaters, not of the women's bodies, but of the air that whipped around them, a study of negative space, which he said was the where-we-were-not that made us. Dizzy from beer, I thought why not step into that space? He locked the door behind me.
From Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream by Connie Voisine. Copyright © 2008 by Connie Voisine. Used by permission of University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.
For the time being call me Home. All the ingénues do. Units are the engines I understand best. One betrayal, two. Merrily, merrily, merrily. Define hope. Machine. Define machine. Nope. Like thoughts, the geniuses race through. If you're lucky after a number of revolutions, you'll feel something catch.
From Sad Little Breathing Machine by Matthea Harvey. Copyright © 2004 by Matthea Harvey. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota. All rights reserved.
I might as well begin by saying how much I like the title. It gets me right away because I’m in a workshop now so immediately the poem has my attention, like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve. And I like the first couple of stanzas, the way they establish this mode of self-pointing that runs through the whole poem and tells us that words are food thrown down on the ground for other words to eat. I can almost taste the tail of the snake in its own mouth, if you know what I mean. But what I’m not sure about is the voice, which sounds in places very casual, very blue jeans, but other times seems standoffish, professorial in the worst sense of the word like the poem is blowing pipe smoke in my face. But maybe that’s just what it wants to do. What I did find engaging were the middle stanzas, especially the fourth one. I like the image of clouds flying like lozenges which gives me a very clear picture. And I really like how this drawbridge operator just appears out of the blue with his feet up on the iron railing and his fishing pole jigging—I like jigging— a hook in the slow industrial canal below. I love slow industrial canal below. All those l’s. Maybe it’s just me, but the next stanza is where I start to have a problem. I mean how can the evening bump into the stars? And what’s an obbligato of snow? Also, I roam the decaffeinated streets. At that point I’m lost. I need help. The other thing that throws me off, and maybe this is just me, is the way the scene keeps shifting around. First, we’re in this big aerodrome and the speaker is inspecting a row of dirigibles, which makes me think this could be a dream. Then he takes us into his garden, the part with the dahlias and the coiling hose, though that’s nice, the coiling hose, but then I’m not sure where we’re supposed to be. The rain and the mint green light, that makes it feel outdoors, but what about this wallpaper? Or is it a kind of indoor cemetery? There’s something about death going on here. In fact, I start to wonder if what we have here is really two poems, or three, or four, or possibly none. But then there’s that last stanza, my favorite. This is where the poem wins me back, especially the lines spoken in the voice of the mouse. I mean we’ve all seen these images in cartoons before, but I still love the details he uses when he’s describing where he lives. The perfect little arch of an entrance in the baseboard, the bed made out of a curled-back sardine can, the spool of thread for a table. I start thinking about how hard the mouse had to work night after night collecting all these things while the people in the house were fast asleep, and that gives me a very strong feeling, a very powerful sense of something. But I don’t know if anyone else was feeling that. Maybe that was just me. Maybe that’s just the way I read it.
"Workshop" from The Art of Drowning, by Billy Collins, © 1995. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
after Lowell our mothers wrung hell and hardtack from row and boll. fenced others' gardens with bones of lovers. embarking from Africa in chains reluctant pilgrims stolen by Jehovah's light planted here the bitter seed of blight and here eternal torches mark the shame of Moloch's mansions built in slavery's name. our hungered eyes do see/refuse the dark illuminate the blood-soaked steps of each historic gain. a yearning yearning to avenge the raping of the womb from which we spring
Copyright © 1993 by Wanda Coleman. Reprinted from Hand Dance with permission of Black Sparrow Press.
The first of the undecoded messages read: "Popeye sits in thunder, Unthought of. From that shoebox of an apartment, From livid curtain's hue, a tangram emerges: a country." Meanwhile the Sea Hag was relaxing on a green couch: "How pleasant To spend one's vacation en la casa de Popeye," she scratched Her cleft chin's solitary hair. She remembered spinach And was going to ask Wimpy if he had bought any spinach. "M'love," he intercepted, "the plains are decked out in thunder Today, and it shall be as you wish." He scratched The part of his head under his hat. The apartment Seemed to grow smaller. "But what if no pleasant Inspiration plunge us now to the stars? For this is my country." Suddenly they remembered how it was cheaper in the country. Wimpy was thoughtfully cutting open a number 2 can of spinach When the door opened and Swee'pea crept in. "How pleasant!" But Swee'pea looked morose. A note was pinned to his bib. "Thunder And tears are unavailing," it read. "Henceforth shall Popeye's apartment Be but remembered space, toxic or salubrious, whole or scratched." Olive came hurtling through the window; its geraniums scratched Her long thigh. "I have news!" she gasped. "Popeye, forced as you know to flee the country One musty gusty evening, by the schemes of his wizened, duplicate father, jealous of the apartment And all that it contains, myself and spinach In particular, heaves bolts of loving thunder At his own astonished becoming, rupturing the pleasant Arpeggio of our years. No more shall pleasant Rays of the sun refresh your sense of growing old, nor the scratched Tree-trunks and mossy foliage, only immaculate darkness and thunder." She grabbed Swee'pea. "I'm taking the brat to the country." "But you can't do that—he hasn't even finished his spinach," Urged the Sea Hag, looking fearfully around at the apartment. But Olive was already out of earshot. Now the apartment Succumbed to a strange new hush. "Actually it's quite pleasant Here," thought the Sea Hag. "If this is all we need fear from spinach Then I don't mind so much. Perhaps we could invite Alice the Goon over"—she scratched One dug pensively—"but Wimpy is such a country Bumpkin, always burping like that." Minute at first, the thunder Soon filled the apartment. It was domestic thunder, The color of spinach. Popeye chuckled and scratched His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country.
From The Double Dream of Spring by John Ashbery. Copyright © 1970, 1969, 1968, 1967, 1966 by John Ashbery. Recording courtesy of the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard University. Used with permission of Georges Borchandt, Inc., Literary Agency.
You should lie down now and remember the forest, for it is disappearing-- no, the truth is it is gone now and so what details you can bring back might have a kind of life. Not the one you had hoped for, but a life --you should lie down now and remember the forest-- nonetheless, you might call it "in the forest," no the truth is, it is gone now, starting somewhere near the beginning, that edge, Or instead the first layer, the place you remember (not the one you had hoped for, but a life) as if it were firm, underfoot, for that place is a sea, nonetheless, you might call it "in the forest," which we can never drift above, we were there or we were not, No surface, skimming. And blank in life, too, or instead the first layer, the place you remember, as layers fold in time, black humus there, as if it were firm, underfoot, for that place is a sea, like a light left hand descending, always on the same keys. The flecked birds of the forest sing behind and before no surface, skimming. And blank in life, too, sing without a music where there cannot be an order, as layers fold in time, black humus there, where wide swatches of light slice between gray trunks, Where the air has a texture of drying moss, the flecked birds of the forest sing behind and before: a musk from the mushrooms and scalloped molds. They sing without a music where there cannot be an order, though high in the dry leaves something does fall, Nothing comes down to us here. Where the air has a texture of drying moss, (in that place where I was raised) the forest was tangled, a musk from the mushrooms and scalloped molds, tangled with brambles, soft-starred and moving, ferns And the marred twines of cinquefoil, false strawberry, sumac-- nothing comes down to us here, stained. A low branch swinging above a brook in that place where I was raised, the forest was tangled, and a cave just the width of shoulder blades. You can understand what I am doing when I think of the entry-- and the marred twines of cinquefoil, false strawberry, sumac-- as a kind of limit. Sometimes I imagine us walking there (. . .pokeberry, stained. A low branch swinging above a brook) in a place that is something like a forest. But perhaps the other kind, where the ground is covered (you can understand what I am doing when I think of the entry) by pliant green needles, there below the piney fronds, a kind of limit. Sometimes I imagine us walking there. And quickening below lie the sharp brown blades, The disfiguring blackness, then the bulbed phosphorescence of the roots. But perhaps the other kind, where the ground is covered, so strangely alike and yet singular, too, below the pliant green needles, the piney fronds. Once we were lost in the forest, so strangely alike and yet singular, too, but the truth is, it is, lost to us now.
From The Forest by Susan Stewart, published by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright © 1995 by Susan Stewart. Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved.
The art of losing isn't hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster. Lose something every day. Accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. The art of losing isn't hard to master. Then practice losing farther, losing faster: places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel. None of these will bring disaster. I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or next-to-last, of three loved houses went. The art of losing isn't hard to master. I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster. —Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident the art of losing's not too hard to master though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
From The Complete Poems 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Copyright © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
for Octavio There's a book called "A Dictionary of Angels." No one has opened it in fifty years, I know, because when I did, The covers creaked, the pages Crumbled. There I discovered The angels were once as plentiful As species of flies. The sky at dusk Used to be thick with them. You had to wave both arms Just to keep them away. Now the sun is shining Through the tall windows. The library is a quiet place. Angels and gods huddled In dark unopened books. The great secret lies On some shelf Miss Jones Passes every day on her rounds. She's very tall, so she keeps Her head tipped as if listening. The books are whispering. I hear nothing, but she does.
From Sixty Poem by Charles Simic. Copyright © 2008 by Charles Simic. Reprinted by permission of Harcourt Trade Publishers. All rights reserved.
Nothing was ever what it claimed to be, the earth, blue egg, in its seeping shell dispensing damage like a hollow hell inchling weeping for a minor sea ticking its tidelets, x and y and z. The blue beneficence we call and spell and call blue heaven, the whiteblue well of constant water, deepening a thee, a thou and who, touching every what— and in the or, a shudder in the cut— and that you are, blue mirror, only stare bluest blankness, whether in the where, sheen that bleeds blue beauty we are taught drowns and booms and vowels. I will not.
From Nomina by Karen Volkman. Copyright © 2008 by Karen Volkman. Reprinted by permission of B.O.A. Editions. All rights reserved.
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The vast waters flow past its back yard. You can purchase a six-pack in bars! Tammy Wynette's on the marquee a block down. It's twenty-five years ago: you went to death, I to life, and which was luckier God only knows. There's this line in an unpublished poem of yours. The river is like that, a blind familiar. The wind will die down when I say so; the leaden and lessening light on the current. Then the moon will rise like the word reconciliation, like Walt Whitman examining the tear on a dead face.
From Wheeling Motel by Franz Wright. Copyright © 2010 by Franz Wright. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf.
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First, forget everything you have learned,
that poetry is difficult,
that it cannot be appreciated by the likes of you,
with your high school equivalency diploma
and steel-tipped boots,
or your white collar misunderstandings.
Do not assume meanings hidden from you:
the best poems mean what they say and say it.
To read poetry requires only courage
enough to leap from the edge
Treat a poem like dirt,
humus rich and heavy from the garden.
Later on it will become the fat tomatoes
and golden squash piled high upon your kitchen table.
Poetry demands surrender,
language saying what is true
doing holy things to the ordinary.
Read just one poem a day.
Someday a book of poems may open in your hands
like a daffodil offering its cup
to the sun.
When you can name five poets
without including Bob Dylan,
when you exceed your quota
and don't even notice,
close this manual.
You can now read poetry.
From We Mad Climb Shaky Ladders by Pamela Spiro Wagner. Copyright © 2009 by Pamela Spiro Wagner. Used by permission of CavanKerry Press, www.cavankerrypress.org. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Was he looking for St. Lucia's light to touch his face those first days in the official November snow & sleet falling on the granite pose of Lincoln? If he were searching for property lines drawn in the blood, or for a hint of resolve crisscrossing a border, maybe he'd find clues in the taste of breadfruit. I could see him stopped there squinting in crooked light, the haze of Wall Street touching clouds of double consciousness, an eye etched into a sign borrowed from Egypt. If he's looking for tips on basketball, how to rise up & guard the hoop, he may glean a few theories about war but they aren't in The Star-Apple Kingdom. If he wants to finally master himself, searching for clues to govern seagulls in salty air, he'll find henchmen busy with locks & chains in a ghost schooner's nocturnal calm. He's reading someone who won't speak of milk & honey, but of looking ahead beyond pillars of salt raised in a dream where fat bulbs split open the earth. The spine of the manifest was broken, leaking deeds, songs & testaments. Justice stood in the shoes of mercy, & doubt was bandaged up & put to bed. Now, he looks as if he wants to eat words, their sweet, intoxicating flavor. Banana leaf & animal, being & nonbeing. In fact, craving wisdom, he bites into memory. The President of the United States of America thumbs the pages slowly, moving from reverie to reverie, learning why one envies the octopus for its ink, how a man's skin becomes the final page.
Copyright © 2011 by Yusef Komunyakaa. Used with permission of the author.
As it happens every night, beloveds, while we turned in the night sleeping uneasily the world went on without us. We live in our own time zone and there are only a small million of us in this time zone and the world as a result has a tendency to begin and end without us. While we turned sleeping uneasily at least ten were injured in a bomb blast in Bombay and four killed in Palestine. While we turned sleeping uneasily a warehouse of food aid was destroyed, stocks on upbeat sales soared, Australia threatened first strikes, there was heavy gunfire in the city of Man, the Belarus ambassador to Japan went missing, a cruise ship caught fire, on yet another cruise ship many got sick, and the pope made a statement against xenophobia. While we turned sleeping uneasily perhaps J Lo gave Ben a prenuptial demand for sex four times a week. While we turned sleeping uneasily Liam Gallagher brawled and irate fans complained that "Popstars: The Rivals" was fixed. While we turned sleeping uneasily the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of whether university admissions may favor racial minorities. While we turned sleeping uneasily poachers caught sturgeon in the reed-filled Caspian, which shelters boar and wolves, and some of the residents on the space shuttle planned a return flight to the US. Beloveds, our world is small and isolated. We live our lives in six hundred square feet about a quarter mile from the shore on land that is seven hundred square miles and five thousand miles from the nearest land mass. Despite our isolation, there is no escape from the news of how many days are left in the Iraq inspections. The news poll for today was should we invade Iraq now or should we wait until the inspections are complete and we tried to laugh together at this question but our laughter was uneasy and we just decided to turn off the television that arrives to us from those other time zones. Beloveds, we do not know how to live our lives with any agency outside of our bed. It makes me angry that how we live in our bed—full of connected loving and full of isolated sleep and dreaming also—has no relevance to the rest of the world. How can the power of our combination of intimacy and isolation have so little power outside the space of our bed? Beloveds, the shuttle is set to return home and out the window of the shuttle one can see the earth. "How massive the earth is; how minute the atmosphere," one of the astronauts notes. Beloveds, what do we do but keep breathing as best we can this minute atmosphere?
Copyright © 2005 by Juliana Spahr. From This Connection of Everyone with Lungs: Poems. Reprinted with permission of the University of California Press.
The perfect voter has a smile but no eyes, maybe not even a nose or hair on his or her toes, maybe not even a single sperm cell, ovum, little paramecium. Politics is a slug copulating in a Poughkeepsie garden. Politics is a grain of rice stuck in the mouth of a king. I voted for a clump of cells, anything to believe in, true as rain, sure as red wheat. I carried my ballots around like smokes, pondered big questions, resources and need, stars and planets, prehistoric languages. I sat on Alice's mushroom in Central Park, smoked longingly in the direction of the mayor's mansion. Someday I won't politic anymore, my big heart will stop loving America and I'll leave her as easy as a marriage, splitting our assets, hoping to get the advantage before the other side yells: Wow! America, Vespucci's first name and home of free and brave, Te amo.
From Exquisite Politics. Copyright © 1997 Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton. Reprinted by permission of Tia Chucha Press.