August 4, 2018


There's a moment in Louise Glück's poem "In the Plaza" (A Village Life) when time slows almost to a stop. The poem-speaker is contemplating a man who is looking at a woman. The woman is unaware of being watched and admired. She is perfectly herself, absorbed in whatever small thing she is doing.

The poem describes her innocence as a form of power. The man knows, or imagines -- or the man knows, the poem imagines -- eventual change: she will notice his watching, begin to expect it.

          But he hopes this will not happen immediately

Glück offers up this period of time -- days? weeks? -- like something stable, something objective and physical that we could examine. Desire and innocence, normally fluid, are pinned to it.

It gives me chills. But they're nothing like the chills the poem's last lines drop on me, when in the speaker's imagining -- after the time of watching, after the man and the woman become lovers, after the woman withdraws, as the speaker (firmly lodged in the man's imagination) predicts she will, into "that private world of feeling women enter when they love," loses herself -- the woman becomes

          in that sense, so little use to him
          it hardly matters whether she lives or dies.

In contrast to this species of (as I read it) breathtaking callousness, Sue Goyette holds up a moment of compassion in the poem "Persist" (from outskirts).

A boy has run into the street and is nearly, but not, hit by a car. The stopped-time unfolding of the driver's wild imaginings is one of the best illustrations I know in contemporary poetry of a mind in a split-second of pressure.

          Forgive this enterprise of engine and fuel...The beast in my 
          hands has escaped and gone feral. Listen to me blame the weather ...
          Are you the child chosen to draw satellites ... to draw water ... Or do you
          simply draw the level of video game that is the present challenge?

Later, the driver recalls the boy's face and the way he looked at her "in that second. The joy" of seeing his father across the street, "slurred with sudden panic" when he sees the car. The remembered movement of a face is seen as though through a lens: slowed down, filmy, "slurred." It astonishes me, no matter how often I read this poem.

Image: Igor Starkov, Pexels Photo

Louise Glück, A Village Life. New York: FSG 2009
Sue Goyette, outskirts. London Ontario: Brick Books, 2011


July 5, 2018


It's been a season of so much to catch up on.

For instance, this fabulous interview with Ben Ladouceur, this year's Dayne Ogilvie prize winner, at Open Book.

I always find reliably wonderful attractions at Andrew Ray's Some Landscapes, and need to drop in more frequently at Clarissa Aykroyd's The Stone and the Star.  I found Thomas Whyte's great little Volksy bus of an interview site when he asked me to answer a few questions -- visit Billeh Nickerson, Cassidy McFadzean, Sennah Yee, Joelle Barron and many more there.

Two of the many books calling me back for re-reading are Darren Bifford's False Spring, a breathtaking collection of arguments and conversation with poetry and the world (Open Book also ran a great interview with him), and Allan Cooper's luminous Everything We’ve Loved Comes Back to Find Us. (Full disclosure: I was the NB Book Awards judge who chose Cooper's book as the 2018 winner of The Fiddlehead Poetry Book Prize.)

Judith Herz's John Donne and Contemporary Poetry charts a kind of life and afterlife in essays and poems that roam, study, live with, and inspire, with contributions from Carl Phillips, Steph Burt, Alicia Ostriker, Molly Peacock and more.

The to-read list grows ever longer -- AF Moritz's The Sparrow, Amanda Jernigan's Years, Months, Days, Steve McOrmond's Reckon, even some not yet made into books, like Sonnet L'Abbé's Sonnet's Shakespeare (see three at Numéro Cinq), due this fall --

-- as does the dipped-into-will-return: Roo Borson, Cardinal at the Eastern Red Cedar (so quietly persistent, these poems), Brenda Hillman's Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (notes on every page so far) … I've even had to put LitHub on pause …

May 24, 2018


Sarah DesRosiers-Legault

After another one
dies, they'll tell me: don't
avoid being alive.

But - my body is worn
by the in-between.
My skin knows that cold place,

naked on tiles, sticky and
dying. When I am in rehab, I’ll
notice more.

I’ll see that mosquitos
under blue light are
some sort of magic. I can hear.

Gravity makes noise when you
know it’s there. Over the filling of the
mop bucket I’ll tell you about the times

I was molested. I’ll notice the brightness
of the yellow and the muck in the places
muck can build up.

Some stars eat other stars, you know?
One swells until it can
swallow the other whole,

they call it sharing.
A promise that hides what will
explode into black holes.

On good days

I'm okay with being alive,
I just want to do it drunk.

Sarah DesRosiers-Legault writes, works,studies and lives in Montreal. Her work has been published in Anti-Heroin Chic. On writing poetry, she says: For me poetry is an act of healing. Somehow it makes saying the unsayable so much easier. Also, it is a way of eternalizing every thing or person I have lost. I get to enter different elements of my own grieving that I might not have even known to be there. This piece ("I Am Made of This") was inspired by "The New Experience" by Suzanne Buffam, which I read while I was feeling blocked--it immediately cured that. I can sometimes find it difficult to share my poems, as they really are such personal parts of myself. I think what I’ve learnt as a poet is that I probably just have to suck it up and put it out there.

April 26, 2018


Bob Churchill

I’ve let the backyard go to jungle
again.  Not like “The Bush” in Vietnam—
after fifty years still the place
of nightmares, with lime-green pit vipers
nestled in lianas, blood-sheened
leaves large as platters,
teenage girls in black pajamas
eager to poke me full
of bullet holes with battered AK-47s.

Here, chest-high stands
of nettles meant to sear
red itchfire blisters into skin,
4-foot dandelions gone to lace,
pungent wild onions fatter
than my thumb.  And the Creeping Jenny,
a toddler testing newfound legs,
has somehow galloped everywhere.

Here, a Ruby-throated hummingbird
siphons nectar at a feeder. Cicadas
rasp metallic song from ash-leaf-
sunshine-flutter. The almost-painful
sweetness of wild Honeysuckle
perfumes the courtyard.  And festooning
twenty feet of board fence,
the draped ramble of an unpruned
Concord grapevine.  Each season

its hard green beads stuff
squirrels’ guts months before
that drowsing afternoon,
forever in the future, when full-
to-bursting bunches push themselves
into my hand, beg to be popped
one-by-one onto a thirsty tongue
or pressed through thick, rich, purple ooze
into warm Summer wine.

My former co-editor of poetry at Douglas Glover’s Numéro Cinq, Susan Aizenberg, introduced me to Bob Churchill, a Vietnam combat veteran (1969-70) who recently retired after thirty-eight years as Assistant Professor of English at Creighton University.  He has written poems all his life, but has published very few over the years—mostly in small literary magazines.  In May, 2017, he graduated from Creighton’s MFA program.

Bob writes: What draws me to poetry? I love the challenge of trying to communicate an experience in language that's packed so full of possibilities it incandesces. Some favorite poets:  Dylan Thomas, Yeats, Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Ted Kooser, Susan Aizenberg, Betsy Scholl (and many others). The most challenging thing about writing poetry for me is disciplining myself to sit down and write regularly.

April 24, 2018


For Poetry Month, ceramic artist and steward of the land Susie Osler offers this poem by New Zealand poet Fleur Adcock.
Fleur Adcock by Caroline Forbes/British Council
Fleur Adcock

Literally thin-skinned, I suppose, my face
catches the wind off the snow-line and flushes
with a flush that will never wholly settle. Well:
that was a metropolitan vanity,
wanting to look young for ever, to pass.

I was never a pre-Raphaelite beauty
nor anything but pretty enough to satisfy
men who need to be seen with passable women.
But now that I am in love with a place
which doesn’t care how I look, or if I’m happy,

happy is how I look, and that’s all.
My hair will grow grey in any case,
my nails chip and flake, my waist thicken,
and the years work all their usual changes.
If my face is to be weather-beaten as well

that’s little enough lost, a fair bargain
for a year among the lakes and fells, when simply
to look out of my window at the high pass
makes me indifferent to mirrors and to what
my soul may wear over its new complexion.

From what I understand, this poem by Fleur Adcock is autobiographical. It’s an unapologetic affirmation made by a woman (Adcock presumably) who has seemingly wrestled with feeling (in)adequately pleasing in the eyes of men for most of her years and who now finds herself finally at ease, fully grounded, and happy in the company of the land. To this I say….‘Hallelujah!’  In this mildly irreverent 'fuck you!’ to the ‘civilized’ world, an outworn cloak of judgement, vanity, and romantic relationship has been ditched in exchange for the (unconditional) acceptance and intimate relationship that she develops with the wild lands she inhabits, and indeed also with herself.

Can’t we all use a dose of this?

At the age of 51, I find myself grappling with the challenges of being an aging woman in contemporary society.  In times where beauty and value oft seem measured by a woman’s ability to stave off the thickening waist, the chipped nails and the wrinkling evidence of a life….well….lived, I may have failed to measure up.  But I also know in my bones the sense of wholeness, depth and ease that arises in solitude and in the company of wildness.  It is potent and powerful. Wandering in the bush where I've been fortunate to live for 16 years - especially in winter - the line between self and the land softens.  The shackles of time and judgement (be they self or socially imposed) slough off….wither away.

And happy is how I feel!

As I become aware of more and more people who are opting for collegen, botox, plastic surgery and other age-defying treatments, I have begun to wonder what we are are setting future generations of women up for (and now men as well).  Has it become unacceptable to age? To look like who we are and the age we areFor our bodies to ‘weather’ over time like a beautiful tree, or mountain, or a flower passing its 'prime'? Do our elder years have nothing to offer us but losses? What happened to wisdom? Of becoming comfortable in our aging skins?

I can’t yet say I’ve become 'indifferent to mirrors’, but I am learning, ever so slowly, to begin embracing my changing, weathered complexion! 
Susie's Creation Story

April 21, 2018


sakura sakura saku sakura chiru sakura

cherry tree
cherry blossoms
cherry blossoms scatter
cherry tree

narande takenoko take ni naritsutsu

side by side the bamboo shoots becoming bamboo

mata miru koto mo nai yama ga tōzakaru

the mountain I'll never see again

From Santōka: A translation with photographic images (PIE Books, 2006). Translated from the Japanese by Emiko Miyashita and Paul Watsky. Reproduced by kind permission.

April 19, 2018


Sandra de Helen

There's an arroyo seco right next to my
littoral zone. Crazy right? Dry bed adjacent
to an area so rich in love and light, plants
and animals, it could make a person
orgasmic. Can we slop some of that salty
moisture from the zone into our bed? The
dust is choking me. The rocks are sharp.
I long for the silky feel of oceanic blue
upon my parched skin. I dream in colors
of algae and starfish. Will you kindly
stagger away from the rain shadow and
let me dip your lips in the balm of warm
liquid? The sun reaches depths here you
may not have experienced. Its heat will
penetrate all the way to your sediment.
I've done everything but subduct you.
Kiss me, you fool.

Sandra de Helen on poetry, poets and the challenges of her practice:
I’m overly fond of words. When I see a poet use them to create images and stories, I’m delighted. I read many things, and I always have at least one book of poetry at hand. I love several poets (Judy Grahn, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Emily Dickinson) and I memorized poetry from an early age. I was mesmerized by James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphant Annie,” which my Mom used to recite until I learned to recite it myself. Mom recited poetry regularly, and I loved how the rhymes (hers were all rhyming) created pictures and feelings for me. The most challenging thing for me about my poetry practice is that I also have a playwriting practice, an essay practice… I want to write it all. 

Photo: Bev Standish
Sandra de Helen’s work appears or is forthcoming in Artemis Journal, ROAR, The Dandelion Review, The Medical Journal of Australia, Mom Egg, Lavender Review: Night Issue, and other journals. Her collection of lesbian love poems, Desire Returns for a Visit, is forthcoming from Launch Point Press.

April 17, 2018


Ellen Bass by Irene Young/
Ellen Bass

What did I love about killing the chickens?  Let me start
with the drive to the farm as darkness
was sinking back into the earth.
The road damp and shining like the snail’s silver
ribbon and the orchard
with its bony branches. I loved the yellow rubber
aprons and the way Janet knotted my broken strap.
And the stainless-steel altars
we bleached, Brian sharpening
the knives, testing the edge on his thumbnail. All eighty-eight Cornish
hens huddled in their crates. Wrapping my palms around
their white wings, lowering them into the tapered urn.
Some seemed unwitting as the world narrowed;
some cackled and fluttered; some struggled.
I gathered each one, tucked her bright feet,
drew her head through the kill cone’s sharp collar,
her keratin beak and the rumpled red vascular comb
that once kept her cool as she pecked in her mansion of grass.
I didn’t look into those stone eyes. I didn’t ask forgiveness.
I slid the blade between the feathers
and made quick crescent cuts, severing
the arteries just under the jaw. Blood like liquor
pouring out of the bottle. When I see the nub of heart later,
it’s hard to believe such a small star could flare
like that. I lifted each body, bathing it in heated water
until the scaly membrane of the shanks
sloughed off under my thumb.
And after they were tossed in the large plucking drum
I loved the newly naked birds. Sundering
the heads and feet neatly at the joints, a poor
man’s riches for golden stock. Slitting a fissure
reaching into the chamber,
freeing the organs, the spill of intestines, blue-tinged gizzard,
the small purses of lungs, the royal hearts,
easing the floppy liver, carefully, from the green gall bladder,
its bitter bile. And the fascia unfurling
like a transparent fan. When I tug the esophagus
down through the neck, I love the suck and release
as it lets go. Then slicing off the anus with its gray pearl
of shit. Over and over, my hands explore
each cave, learning to see with my fingertips. Like a traveller
in a foreign country, entering church after church.
In every one the same figures of the Madonna, Christ on the Cross,
which I’d always thought was gore
until Marie said to her it was tender,
the most tender image, every saint and political prisoner,
every jailed poet and burning monk.
But though I have all the time in the world
to think thoughts like this, I don’t.
I’m empty as I rinse each carcass,
and this is what I love most.
It’s like when the refrigerator turns off and you hear
the silence. As the sun rose higher
we shed our sweatshirts and moved the coolers into the shade,
but, other than that, no time passed.
I didn’t get hungry. I didn’t want to stop.
I was breathing from some bright reserve.
We twisted each pullet into plastic, iced and loaded them in the cars.
I loved the truth. Even in just this one thing:
looking straight at the terrible,
one-sided accord we make with the living of this world.
At the end, we scoured the tables, hosed the dried blood,
the stain blossoming through the water.

What I love about "What Did I Love" by Ellen Bass is firstly the familiarity of the poem.  I feel so intimately sure she is sharing this poem with only me, you know?  There is no sense of an awareness of an audience bigger than one.  Also, there is nothing forced or trying in the tone.  I get the sense that I'd really like Bass in person because, hey, she's telling me her deep enjoyment in killing an animal.  And because I grew up on a farm myself, I get that satisfaction in the cull, in the actions of the cull, and then what you do with the body to make it food.  I also feel like Bass is taking me by the arm and saying, "Slow your roll, lady.  Look here.  This is life becoming more than life."  It's that noninvasive insistence Bass does: she is saying, like, appreciate this animal becoming --through this practical everyday practice-- meat or nourishment or an enriched self or whatever.  And Bass isn't getting high and mighty, which I appreciate.  It's such a simple poem: each step in the killing held in place by its image.  I love it.  That's it.

April 11, 2018


Mary Jo Salter photo by Marina Levitskaya

Passionate intensity, quiet unfolding, excited language -- whatever the formal elements, it's a poem's particular energy that stays with me. Fragments of my earliest reading materialize in memory's ear, kinetically intact, sometimes even intensified. This kind of memorable energy courses through Mary Jo Salter's chain of sonnets "The Surveyors."

As fall gave way to winter, and winter to more winter, Mary Jo and I exchanged emails about her writing and her life, the multiplicity of endings in poems, time-jumbling, the sonnet as ramble, and poetry's particular remembering.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you first come to poetry?

MARY JO SALTER: Through my parents.  They were both literary, in oblique ways.  My father was a master's degree dropout in the English department at Berkeley, before turning to the advertising business--another way of working with words--by the time I was born.  I used to love trying to come up with slogans, really fast ways of saying something snazzy, the way he did.  Thanks to him, I never looked down on puns--I still love them.  My mother was actually the more literary parent, though she wasn't a writer until, in her last bedridden years, she started writing Emily Dickinson-like poems that went straight to the heart of life.  She had always foisted books on me, eye-opening books like "The Catcher in the Rye" was I was 12.  My mother was a painter and sculptor, but she was the one who walked around with poems in her head, and who wasn't afraid to quote them--Robert Louis Stevenson and Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll.  She wouldn't say, "It's time to do your homework;" she'd say, "The time has come, the walrus said, to speak of many things..."  She was also, I see now, a model for me of the legitimacy of being a female who created things.

Never once did my parents make me feel that I was wasting my time when I wrote a poem (the first one at age 7) or played the piano or drew a picture.  Never once did they ask me how I was going to make a living doing such useless stuff. They took me to museums, to the theater and to the opera before I could understand what I was seeing or hearing. Only now do I realize how rare that was.

SG: “The Surveyors” begins with an excerpt from a letter that describes a poem the letter-writer dreamed you had written. “Does this poem exist?” your friend asks.

In the poem’s opening lines, you look back over the landscape of your life – a rich one, lived and literary – from a point in time as though from a point in space, and confess that the poem your friend has dreamed is not one you have written.

Or is it? As the poem develops, “the chain / gone taut, then running out, over and over,” your poetic attention sweeps panoramically across the landscape of memory and imagination, settling finally on the present, at which point you aver that although you’re sorry to say it, “ The Surveyors’ does not exist.”

With this paradox, the question that occasions the poem has become the question that haunts the poem: what does it mean, to exist? Does taking stock, surveying, provide an answer to that question, or is the paradox itself the answer?

April 9, 2018

Once There Was and Never Was

For Poetry Month, Naz Arabaghian offers this poem from Forgotten Bread, an anthology of first-generation Armenian American writing (edited by David Kherdian, Heyday Press, 2007).

Diana Der-Hovanessian (photo by Karen Antashyan)

The Armenian American poet Diana Der-Hovanessian (1934-2018), who was twice a Fulbright professor of American poetry and an award-winning author of more than 20 books of poems and translations, has been a fixture on my “reread again and often” list. Along with other poets of the Armenian diaspora (the 2016 Pulitzer recipient Peter Balakian, David Kherdian, Helene Pilibosian, Harold Bond [Bondjoukian], and Gregory Djanikian immediately come to mind), Der-Hovanessian’s work permeates with longing and loss, remembrance and renewal; her poems are palimpsests on which the twentieth-century genocide of the Armenian people has left its traumatic imprint. I’m always struck by how a misleadingly whimsical poem like “Once in a Village” coalesces snippets of history (Tadem, the tale of its fate “too terrible to tell”) with fragments of folklore (the incantatory “Once there was, and never was,” the woods, a mysterious king), details from borrowed proverbial wisdom (the speaker’s grandmother’s stories) with reports of rumored atrocities (burning villages, orphaned children, a lonely boy noticing how “goats, the school, the children,/their teacher, the church,/priest and parish disappeared/in a terrible way”), narrative convention with lyrical concision.

Once in a Village

Once there was, and never was,
my grandmother’s stories began
the way all Armenian fairytales
begin: Once there was
and never was, a village,
at the end of the woods,
a small village roofed
with cranes and smoke.

Once there was, and never was,
at the foot of a mountain
a village called Tadem,
where everyday, a shepherd boy
passed the house of a woodsman
at the edge of the town.
The woodsman lived there with
his wife and little girl.
And when the boy took his goats
to graze, the girl would watch
secretly from a window, making
up names for the goats, and the boy.
She was not the daughter of the woodsman
and his wife, but had been sent
to live with them by her real father
a mysterious king, with a mysterious name.

Once there was, and never was,
a village with a shepherd boy,
and a witch’s curse. In this village
lived a woodsman, his wife
and an orphan girl who thought
she was the daughter of a nameless king.

Years passed and the king never came
to take home his little girl
and so she was sent far away
to America to marry.

And after she was gone the boy felt lonely
and unwatched. But not for long
because a strange thing happened.
His goats, the school, the children,
their teacher, the church,
priest and parish disappeared
in a terrible way. Too terrible to tell.

One morning there was an Armenian village
that turned into a Turkish fire.

Once there was or never was
a little girl who thought
she was the lost daughter
of a lost king who would go back
for her and thank everyone
in that village for taking care
of her. He would thank woodsman,
priest, teacher, baker, shoemaker,
children, tillers in the fields
for singing their songs for her.
And she would go with him
to thank them for being her friends.
But they disappeared.
Once in a village, a rooster crowed
and no one stirred.
Once there was a village
with wild hedges, a goat boy who never grew up
and a princess who never woke.

April 5, 2018


A trilingual Poetry Month offering from poet Emiko Miyashita

Here are three from a set of 72 haiku by Paul-Louis Couchoud (1879-1959) in his first Hai-kai collection Au fil de l'eau (1905), which I am just reading in a book titled Le japonisme de Haiku: P.-L.  Couchoud et les échanges culturels franco-japonais in Japanese written by Dr. Yoriko Shibata and published by Kadokawa Gakugei Shuppan in Tokyo.

L'orage se prépare.                                
Toutes les feuilles du tremble
Battent de l'aile.


A poplar tree stands straight connecting the earth and the sky; dark clouds are moving in with the cool wind. A thunder storm is about to begin. The poplar tree is flapping all its leaves, a feeling of tension builds up in the rustling sounds.

A daffodil in our small garden had six buds; every morning we stood by the plant. Now, all six are blooming, we just admire them from our balcony. I think hints and signs excite the mind with dreams of things to come.

Couchoud was traveling in a river boat pulled from the shore; it must have been scary to be on the water in the thunder storm.


D'une main elle bat le linge
Et de l'autre rajuste 
Ses cheveux sur son front.


Someone is washing clothes in the river. While washing with one hand, she tidies her loose hair with the other hand. Nothing special is happening here, however, this small deed enables us to see the young woman more in person. The breeze, the sunshine, the flow of cool river water, the white of the clothes, the blue of the sky. Our imagination continues to seek the missing puzzle pieces.


Une simple fleur de papier
Dans un vase.
Eglise rustique (St-Bouize)


A small church in a village. There is not much to mention, except for a single paper flower in a vase. How quiet and how modest; the paper flower makes me think of timelessness but paper itself turns yellow and crumbles into pieces in the course of time. Perhaps the god is taking a short trip and is away from the church, so that there is no offering of fresh flowers today? 

Couchoud says what haijin (Hai-kai poet) has to do is just to point at things, which he does in these three Hai-kai poems. The things he has selected are still in motion and will be so forever. Lovely!

Emiko Miyashita is a poet and translator based in Tokyo.

March 21, 2018

Sweet Mouthful: World Poetry Day

To celebrate World Poetry Day, I asked friend and colleague Anna Lepine about her favorite poem. Here's what she chose and why.

I love “Goblin Market” because it can be understood on so many levels and because it is such a sweet mouthful to read out loud. It is a story about the dangers of excessive pleasures and consumption (“come buy, come buy,” say the goblin men), but it is also a forgiving look at desire. Laura, the “fallen” one, is redeemed, but not before her sister Lizzie has to get smeared all over with goblin juices. I also love how one of the things that was eerie about the poem initially was that the fruit was “all ripe together / in summer weather.” Our reliance on modern grocery stores removes the spookiness of the goblins’ tempting descriptions of fruit, but the Victorians would have been suspicious about strawberries being ripe at the same time as pears, not to mention their easy access to exotic pomegranates. The poem is absolutely “sweet to tongue and sound to eye,” and I can’t get tired of reading it.

Read Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" here

Anna Lepine reads and writes from Hudson, Quebec.

March 7, 2018


Susie Osler, Traces series

Morning at the Cardinal Café, where a strong flat white and even a decaf can cause visions of bright chattering birds to enter a conversation

Conversation with potter, image-maker, and steward of the land Susie Osler (see also Fieldwork) this snowy spring morning about words, the wild, voice, material, now, then

Then this mirror-poem, "Melt" by Patricia Young, from 2008's Here Come the Moonbathers (first published on the Parliamentary Poet Laureate Poem of the Day website) -- here's a little bit:

Patricia Young

One morning they appear in nameless droves.
Fabulous creatures flicking their silver fins and ancient jewels.

A long lost mythology? Weird migration?
They lurched onto the tundra like bawling infants,

announced themselves with the subtlety of a brass band.
Wave upon wave, antlers vibrating, tails ablaze.

Who? we asked. Who are you?
One day they weren’t there and the next

they were traveling toward us
with the speed of a birchwood forest.

We gathered to mourn those passing
swiftly into memory, the polar bear and arctic seal.

Time cracked.
The century was thinner than ice.

We had 1200 words for reindeer but not one
for hornet, robin, elk, salmon, barn owl.

Try to understand: we had never seen a barn.

Read the whole of Patricia Young's "Melt"  here.

Image of Mars courtesy NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

February 5, 2018


Mary Jo Salter

Also, I had a dream, about a year and a half ago, that I read a poem called "The Surveyors," and it was by you. Does this poem exist? I cannot remember any of the words, only that there were all four seasons in it, and that there were nice descriptions of a chain being made taut, the running out of the chain, over and over...

              for Matthew Yeager, who wrote me this letter

Dear Matt,
I'm sorry to say "The Surveyors" does not exist,
despite my being haunted by your question
for a long while now, imagining time and again
that the past can change; that the poem is on the list
of things I did once, because you dreamed it of me.
It's true, I regret, I've never put all four
seasons into one poem, though the Shakespeare 
sonnet I love most keenly, 73
("That time of year thou may'st in me behold"),
implies them, and I wish I'd made a gesture
at least of homage. But when I read your letter
in the autumn of my life, I felt no cold;
I heard Vivaldi's "Spring" scrape violins 
over and over, like the running out of chains.

"Over and over, like the running out of chains"--
I've already quoted wrong the thing you said,
not being you. I can't be in your head.
You can't follow me back there, hearing strains
of Vivaldi in cafes. America
had just learned cappuccino, and to say
croissant, not Danish; we went for those parfait
glasses of yogurt, with strata of granola.
I was so new. The year was '73
or maybe '72. It doesn't matter.
I had discovered sex and poetry.
Thinking of either one would make me shudder.
I was happy. I was nervous about exams.
I was going to read all the works of Henry James.

I was going to read all the works of Henry James,
but haven't. So much unfinished business
unless you're Henry James, who had time to witness
every minute of life, then record the whole, it seems.
Yes, it was thrilling art, but also bad
to make us wait so long to locate Chad
and Madame de Thing in their adulterous boat.
The Europeans or The Ambassadors --
the grandeur James could pour into a title!
That plural but hawk-like wisdom, above it all --
implied too by your title "The Surveyors."
Tripod and hard hat, compass, orange vest:
sometimes, I think, more grounded work is best,
or better than the poem you thought I wrote.

Or better than the poem you thought I wrote
is another one I never wrote: it's set
in shabby, hipster Zagreb, where my love
and I, now sixty, walked past shuttered shops
on a Sunday morning, and found ourselves in front of
the -- really? -- Museum of Broken Relationships,
which was open. Of course it was open. So we spent
time in the gift shop, where they charged the equivalent
of thirteen dollars for a little pink
eraser that would help you not to think.
RUB IT ALL OUT, it said. A pillowcase
read SLEEP IT OFF. By this age, I'd erased
much of my past quite nicely; so had he.
We walked out holding hands, a bit brokenly.

We walked out holding hands, a bit brokenly,
like Adam and Eve, in my favorite poem of all.
Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour
but you're not, since these two made sure you were mortal.
No human, though, can dream beyond the power
of your blind omniscience; modernity
in poetry must die if you don't last.
what's more Einsteinian than Book Eleven,
Michael escorting Adam up that hill
to make their space-time survey of the past
ahead, witnessed not just in the brain
but in present action? Cain killing Abel
as the seed of countless long-dead wars, and even
while Eve has not yet given birth in pain...

While Eve has not yet given birth in pain,
I have. I try to sneak a look, like Thetis,
over the shoulder of whatever may
now forge my daughters' prospects. Surely Auden
had Milton's scene in mind when he shaped his;
what Homer saw on his word-hammered shield
had taken on the sheen of the word-field
surveyed by Adam; implied an unnamed Mary,
who knew It is written, and that she must yield.
I live for nothing more than for my children,
yet I'll confess, Matt, I know well the If
Clause of self-sabotage: If I must lose
my life, why not make this my hour to choose?
Jesus, tempted, might have jumped off the cliff.

Jesus, tempted, might have jumped. Off the cliff
is where this poem-that-isn't now must go.
Today in the paper ("the paper" has a whiff
of yesterday to it, sorry), Elon Musk
averred we might be living in a vast
computer simulation of a past
world re-created by our own descendants.
To them our metaphors can make no sense --
the summer of my life, my day at dusk...
Death, thou shalt die, said Donne. Could that be so?
The only instinct greater than survival
is, apparently, its keenest rival,
the drive to guarantee no thing's not dead.
Melt all the ice caps. Cut off every head.

Melt all the ice caps. Cut off every head
to serve the crude medieval god up there
and post the act on social media, where
all life went anyway -- into the Cloud.
Numberless universes at this minute
(though what's a minute?) may be simulcast,
we're also told, in which case nothing's lost,
yet something's deathly in the infinite:
it leaves us mortals out. What's with this glee
we humans feel, enabling the posthuman?
Doubtless we'll come to singularity
with our machines, but why must we be glad?
A life from here to there, in one direction --
oh, I was content with what I had.

Oh, I was content with what I had:
a perch on the back stoop. I'm maybe three.
This is it, Matt, my first memory.
I'm in a wool coat, tailored, double-breasted,
absurd for a toddler; but that's how things were.
The president was Dwight D. Eisenhower.
So long ago! I look down from my great
height, the fourth step of new-poured concrete,
to survey the new sod of our new backyard.
My mother is on her knees. She's working hard, 
making a garden, planting flowers between
different-sized rocks. She calls it a "rock garden."
Here in Grand Rapids, people are not so grand. 
My mother is making art from her plot of dirt,
Japanese art, and the neighbours won't understand.
She'll spend a lot of time feeling proud and hurt.

She'll spend a lot of time feeling proud and hurt
like her daughter. I came by it honestly,
being stung by life, soothing myself with art,
making stuff up, getting things different-sized.
You doubt my first memory? I'm not surprised.
I must have fused two scenes, since nobody,
I see now, wears a winter coat in weather
warm enough to plant flowers in. It's wrong
and the sonnet I just wrote contained sixteen
lines, which even I know is too long. 
I've lived already longer than my mother
and haven't lived enough. Live all you can,
said Lambert Strether; it's a mistake not to.
Living by this is the best I think I'll do.

Living by this is the best I think I'll do,
while praying not to burden those I love.
What hope I won't? When my time comes to vault
off the bridge, I'll be a midget, bent and frail
(I'm too short, even now, to clear the rail)
and besides (will they concede it's not my fault
my brain is shot?), I won't be good for new
information, or even old stuff I believe
nobody told me. Half-deaf, paranoid
nihilist nonsense, technophobic rants,
the imagined feats of grandchildren, the round
of half-true stories run into the ground --
and gone will be Vivaldi, sex, romance,
sweet things I must remember I've enjoyed.

Sweet things. I must remember. I've enjoyed
forgetting, then remembering again,
the running out (remember, Matt, the chain
gone taut, then running out, over and over?)
of what my life is, before it meets the void.
A buried marriage. Late, my truest lover. 
My children jumping too high on the bed,
landing on college campuses. Goodbye,
goodbye, walk through that gate, don't watch me cry.
Lost friends, a dozen places I called home.
I can't see all I'm seeing -- give me time!
If I wrote the poem you dreamed, would that imply
we'd finalized my list?...For now that's why,
I'm sorry to say, "The Surveyors" does not exist.

From The Surveyors (Knopf, 2017). Reproduced with permission.

Image: Herman Saftleven, Imaginary River Landscape. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.