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Poetry & Prose

Learn about the relationship between poetry and prose with this collection of essays, poems, and videos that examine the meeting of the two genres.

poem

Untitled [The child thought it strange]

The child thought it strange to define words with other words. What did you draw? The man thought he was looking at a purple oval with a touch of yellow. I drew that, the child answered ecstatically, feeling the paper with his finger. The frost is a little behind the shadows. A slash of tree trunk and the L of the roof. We hate a work of art that finds designs inside us, better to lie in the fog of melting snow and see the lake that remains and the person who has left, the ones we would rather not see but do in this reduction. What I loved about the little box full of hair elastics and bobby pins was my own wonder at the little squares of wood, 6 to a side, each of which had its own cross-section of branch, as if it had found something that could be wholly repeated when dispersed. The child, between the toilet and the window, liked the way it opened and spilled the many-colored elastics. An after-image of the monks spot-welding an iron fence in orange robes at night while we drove past fell apart in the nest of elastics, blue and orange among them. The ruins of December are full of people. Feeling is lost. The melted lake, re-frozen, clear as a picture plane in the public park, drags in its current a bit of duckweed torn at the root, bright-green, but it stops when the skater does and reveals its stasis. Further out, a void that can be seen clearly through this fiction starts the world in orbit around involuted space. Participation is voluntary as the wind pushes a glove and a cry faster through the deeps of sky and cloud than the ear and hand that released them. Now that the ocean is gone I am sail and ship, but the embargo on motion means he can only be thrown away, the hour you were queen. Go to work we tell the child. Go to work, go to work, go to work.

Richard Meier
2011
poem

Posthumous Remorse

When you go to sleep, my gloomy beauty, below a black marble monument, when from alcove and manor you are reduced to damp vault and hollow grave;

     when the stone—pressing on your timorous chest and sides already lulled by a charmed indifference—halts your heart from beating, from willing, your feet from their bold adventuring,

     then the tomb, confidant to my infinite dream (since the tomb understands the poet always), through those long nights in which slumber is banished,

     will say to you: "What does it profit you, imperfect courtisan, not to have known what the dead weep for?" —And the worm will gnaw at your hide like remorse.

Charles Baudelaire
2006
poem

How to Be a Lawyer

My father taught me how to play the beer bottle. It was Schlitz, and I was three or four. "You tuck your lower lip under, then blow air over the top of the bottle." I produced a tone, and we laughed. He paused. "You can make a different sound if there's less in the bottle," he said, motioning for me to take a sip. I did, then blew another note. We laughed again.

"Do you want to learn something else? Here's how to be a lawyer. Raise one eyebrow." I did so. "Good. Now hold it for a few seconds, turn toward the jury, and say 'I see.'"

Jordan Davis
2013
poem

In the Event

If you are sitting in an exit row please identify yourself to a crew member to allow for reseating if you lack the ability to read, speak, or understand the language, or the graphic form, or the ability to understand oral crew commands in the language specified.

You maybe understand this but will you understand how to comply with these instructions, the instructions of our crew, who are fully authorized, and all the illuminated signs posted throughout the cabin?  Please locate them now.

If you are sitting in an exit row and unlikely if needed to perform one or more of the applicable functions then you must de-select yourself because only you know, finally, if you lack sufficient mobility, strength, dexterity to reach, grasp, push, pull, turn, shove, lift out, hold, deposit nearby, maneuver over the seatbacks to the next row objects the size and weight of over-wing window door exits, remove, reach, maintain, balance, stabilize, exit, and assist others.

You may lack capacities, have conditions, or be otherwise compromised, for example if you are traveling with a pet container that contains a service animal or emotional support animal.

You may feel yourself supportive, and of course that’s good, super, if you can perform the functions: locate, recognize, comprehend, operate, assess, follow, stow, secure, pass expeditiously, deploy, select, but most of all you need to want to, and if you do not no reason need be given, because what reason is there to not want to help on this long flight should something go wrong, terribly, obviously, or subtly, as when you ask for water and no water arrives then you haven’t been heard, Wilbur is lost to the frise aileron, the flight cannot in your mind continue, I mean you cannot adjust the airflow, temperature, cargo storage space is limited to what it is, there’s no room for more.

But why isn’t there? says Orville. Space is infinite, the limits of the plane are inside us as we are inside nowhere luggage shifting around the bags inside bags making, in fact, more room: ‘clarification through expansion’ writes the soul in paraphrase, and even as you make a very short turn, you never feel the sensation of being thrown but find yourself facing where you started from. The objects on the ground seem to be moving faster though you perceive no change in the force of the wind on your face. You know then you are traveling with the wind, the capacity of the ordinary opening beyond belief.

If you put your hand to the window now you feel the deep cold out there where no one is no one wants to be or can be even and this we know before experience and the expertise of those who learn from manuals you’ve never held, never located, recognized, assessed, or followed.

You may think that to help anyone you must be with no one that requires your care you must be willing to do all of these things by yourself and without harming yourself to be able to reach up, sideways, and down.

But your condition is not the event of an evacuation, but rather the capacities you lack to be an emotional animal going somewhere a great distance, past every echelon, to a place without command; an elevation, a knowledge, a knack tuning the instrument to its final pitch & yaw. 

When you look out the window what do you see?  The plane is probably flying level. But should the pilot find himself unable, or you do, you can take control by reaching over and holding the yoke in such a manner that miniature wings in the indicator stay parallel with the artificial horizon. 

Pulling back will send you higher where feeling becomes pronounced. That’s okay, lift should be equal, the door won’t open even if you yank on it due to the pressure.

Soon enough however, but not too soon; dream flowers drawn by moving veils is power (though naught be fairer than a dying nebula).

With time you understand, there are stars in the universe cold enough to be touched by the human hand.

Joshua Weiner
2014
poem

The Prose Poem

On the map it is precise and rectilinear as a chessboard, though driving past you would hardly notice it, this boundary line or ragged margin, a shallow swale that cups a simple trickle of water, less rill than rivulet, more gully than dell, a tangled ditch grown up throughout with a fearsome assortment of wildflowers and bracken. There is no fence, though here and there a weathered post asserts a former claim, strands of fallen wire taken by the dust. To the left a cornfield carries into the distance, dips and rises to the blue sky, a rolling plain of green and healthy plants aligned in close order, row upon row upon row. To the right, a field of wheat, a field of hay, young grasses breaking the soil, filling their allotted land with the rich, slow-waving spectacle of their grain. As for the farmers, they are, for the most part, indistinguishable: here the tractor is red, there yellow; here a pair of dirty hands, there a pair of dirty hands. They are cultivators of the soil. They grow crops by pattern, by acre, by foresight, by habit. What corn is to one, wheat is to the other, and though to some eyes the similarities outweigh the differences it would be as unthinkable for the second to commence planting corn as for the first to switch over to wheat. What happens in the gully between them is no concern of theirs, they say, so long as the plough stays out, the weeds stay in the ditch where they belong, though anyone would notice the wind-sewn cornstalks poking up their shaggy ears like young lovers run off into the bushes, and the kinship of these wild grasses with those the farmer cultivates is too obvious to mention, sage and dun-colored stalks hanging their noble heads, hoarding exotic burrs and seeds, and yet it is neither corn nor wheat that truly flourishes there, nor some jackalopian hybrid of the two. What grows in that place is possessed of a beauty all its own, ramshackle and unexpected, even in winter, when the wind hangs icicles from the skeletons of briars and small tracks cross the snow in search of forgotten grain; in the spring the little trickle of water swells to welcome frogs and minnows, a muskrat, a family of turtles, nesting doves in the verdant grass; in summer it is a thoroughfare for raccoons and opossums, field mice, swallows and black birds, migrating egrets, a passing fox; in autumn the geese avoid its abundance, seeking out windrows of toppled stalks, fatter grain more quickly discerned, more easily digested. Of those that travel the local road, few pay that fertile hollow any mind, even those with an eye for what blossoms, vetch and timothy, early forsythia, the fatted calf in the fallow field, the rabbit running for cover, the hawk's descent from the lightning-struck tree. You've passed this way yourself many times, and can tell me, if you would, do the formal fields end where the valley begins, or does everything that surrounds us emerge from its embrace?

Campbell McGrath
2003
poem

from Citizen, VI [My brothers are notorious]

My brothers are notorious. They have not been to prison. They have been imprisoned. The prison is not a place you enter. It is no place. My brothers are notorious. They do regular things, like wait. On my birthday they say my name. They will never forget that we are named. What is that memory?

The days of our childhood together were steep steps into a collapsing mind. It looked like we rescued ourselves, were rescued. Then there are these days, each day of our adult lives. They will never forget our way through, these brothers, each brother, my brother, dear brother, my dearest brothers, dear hea rt—

Your hearts are broken. This is not a secret though there are secrets. And as yet I do not understand how my own sorrow has turned into my brothers' hearts. The hearts of my brothers are broken. If I knew another way to be, I would call up a brother, I would hear myself saying, my brother, dear brother, my dearest brothers, dear heart—

On the tip of a tongue one note following another is another path, another dawn where the pink sky is the bloodshot of struck, of sleepless, of sorry, of senseless, shush. Those years of and before me and my brothers, the years of passage, plantation, migration, of Jim Crow segregation, of poverty, inner cities, profiling, of one in three, two jobs, boy, hey boy, each a felony, accumulate into the hours inside our lives where we are all caught hanging, the rope inside us, the tree inside us, its roots our limbs, a throat sliced through and when we open our mouth to speak, blossoms, o blossoms, no place coming out, brother, dear brother, that kind of blue. The sky is the silence of brothers all the days leading up to my call.

If I called I'd say good-bye before I broke the good-bye. I say good-bye before anyone can hang up. Don't hang up. My brother hangs up though he is there. I keep talking. The talk keeps him there. The sky is blue, kind of blue. The day is hot. Is it cold? Are you cold? It does get cool. Is it cool? Are you cool?

My brother is completed by sky. The sky is his silence. Eventually, he says, it is raining. It is raining down. It was raining. It stopped raining. It is raining down. He won't hang up. He's there, he's there but he's hung up though he is there. Good-bye, I say. I break the good-bye. I say good-bye before anyone can hang up, don't hang up. Wait with me. Wait with me though the waiting might be the call of good-byes.

Claudia Rankine
2014
poem

Camp of No Return

      I sat in the old tree swing without swinging. My loafer had fallen off and I left it on the ground. My sister came running out of the house to tell me something. She said, "I'm going to camp tomorrow." I said, "I don't believe you." She said, "I am. It's a fact. Mother told me." We didn't speak for the rest of the day. I was mad at her for getting to do something I didn't. At dinner I asked mother what kind of camp it was. She said, "Oh, just a camp like any other." I didn't really know what that meant. The next day they got her ready to go, and then they drove off, leaving me with the neighbors. When they got back everything was normal, except I missed Maisie. And I missed her more each following day. I didn't know how much she had meant to me before. I asked my parents over and over how much longer it would be. All they said was soon. I told some kids at school how long my sister had been gone. One of them said, "She'll never be back. That's the death camp." When I got home I told my parents what that boy had said. "He doesn't know what he's talking about," my father said. But after a couple of more weeks of her absence I began to wonder. That's when they began to clean out Maisie's room. I said, "What are you doing?" You said Maise will be back soon." My mother said, "Maisie's not coming back. She likes it there better than she does here." "That's not true. I don't believe you," I said. My father gave me a look that let me know I might be next if I didn't mend my ways. I never said a word about Maisie again.

James Tate
2012
poem

About Foam

A paradoxical pleasure is both solid nor liquid that can be wet, dry, hard, soft, expansive, changeable. An intricate and hollow polymer network is energy transport at its finest, a compound structure of gas nor bubbles nor fans. Once hardened it can be tough to break. What binds. A gel for instance can envelop like an elastic skin. It can be prodded distorted pushed about, yet will bounce back and hold its shape. Under greater surface tension, it breaks into liquid starts to flow. A resilient responsive substance is mysterious, swift to morph, ever present in all that is cellular and delivers a shake-up. It supports the many invisible synthetic demands of industry-dependent living from insulants to binding agents. It has naturally assisted in the solidification of soap, the rising of bread, egg whites, and soufflés since the 17th century. The old ponce pumice stone works on hard callouses. Once exploded it can be hard as ash. The skeletal containers of dead sponges were used by Romans for brushes and combs, and for cups. Proust's memory work is foamic in a foam-lined room. A sudden foaming from the mouth for instance is the warning of miles of a thick sluggish matter heaped along coastlines, or bubbling up, obstructing the flow of vast industrial evacuation conduits. Matter turns unwelcoming, seemingly unregonisable. A persistent reactivity to events in its surroundings acts on a profound imbalance, the sign of a system being worked beyond capacity. Foams everywhere like the letter e, down to the alveolar structure.

Caroline Bergvall
2011
poem

The List of Famous Hats

Napoleon's hat is an obvious choice I guess to list as a famous hat, but that's not the hat I have in mind. That was his hat for show. I am thinking of his private bathing cap, which in all honesty wasn't much different than the one any jerk might buy at a corner drugstore now, except for two minor eccentricities. The first one isn't even funny: Simply it was a white rubber bathing cap, but too small. Napoleon led such a hectic life ever since his childhood, even farther back than that, that he never had a chance to buy a new bathing cap and still as a grown-up--well, he didn't really grow that much, but his head did: He was a pinhead at birth, and he used, until his death really, the same little tiny bathing cap that he was born in, and this meant that later it was very painful to him and gave him many headaches, as if he needed more. So, he had to vaseline his skull like crazy to even get the thing on. The second eccentricity was that it was a tricorn bathing cap. Scholars like to make a lot out of this, and it would be easy to do. My theory is simple-minded to be sure: that beneath his public head there was another head and it was a pyramid or something.

James Tate
1986