You should read The Pedestrians by Rachel Zucker because she wrote this line about having a piece of copper in your body that makes conception unlikely, but “[w]ithout the chance of another child, sex lost some of its appeal, purposefulness, danger, pleasure, mystery, productiveness.” This is something I’ve tried to say, but when I do, it sounds like something a nun with an agenda told me in Sex Ed about how impractical and unethical birth control can be, which is not a point I care to make. Zucker makes it sound the way I mean it, like a feeling that cannot be solved:

“This was difficult to explain to her husband, because he didn’t feel that way and wasn’t made that way.

‘We’re animals,’ he says, happily after sex.

‘No,’ she thinks. Not anymore.”

Maybe you’ve also been thinking about fertility and sex, in which case, you should read this book. Maybe you haven’t been thinking about fertility and sex at all, but you think about marriage or whether life in the city can be authentic or how sublime an ocean can be. Either way, you should read The Pedestrians because I’ve been lonely for someone to talk to. I talk to people all the time and it seems they also feel lonely when we talk, though I do not mean to suggest that talking about loneliness is the solution. Please no, let’s not start talking about that. Let’s read this book instead:

“She thought of a fox trying to reach a bunch of delicious-looking grapes on the high vine. The trunk was too straight, the bark too smooth, the first branch too high.

Everything about the tree was unhelpful, wrote one of Aesop’s translators.”

The poems are conversational and funny like the one above, which describes failed efforts to communicate. There are no phony pleasantries here, lyrical or otherwise, only the pleasure of forthright sincerity.

A nun with an agenda once explained to me why God has to be a triangle. Then Frank O’Hara explained in his Personism manifesto why the poem between the writer and the reader is a pleasure, Lucky Pierre style, and I agreed that we are tangents crisscrossing each other and the intersections are painful. So painful poetry makes us feel better. The Pedestrians is like going to the coffee shop to be alone together, except the poems don’t step on my foot and then interrupt to ask what I’m reading. They don’t ask why I don’t have another baby, or tell me about all the weird only-children they know. These poems don’t cross at all, when they touch you they stop:

“It was hard to say goodbye to the ocean…. She wanted to say, ‘Thank you.’ But to whom? To which part? The part of the ocean that was trying to push her away or the part that wanted to swallow her?”

The Pedestrians is not the only book where our minds can meet at the apex of our isolation, but it is first on a finite list made by me. Well, Kenneth Koch’s Collected Poems is first, but if you are a person who reads reviews of poetry you are very likely tired of hearing about him. Did you know he wrote a comic book with no pictures? It’s called The Art of the Possible and it will also make you feel you have made a true friend just by reading it.

I also keep a list of books that make me feel more lonely than less and on it is The Inside of an Apple by Joshua Beckman, which was published by the same press (Wave) in the same year with the same sort of picture-less white cover with black text. I read it the week before The Pedestrians and it caused me to despair and only overcome that despair by picking up another book.
When Beckman writes,

that form bells
     planes that act
like stars
       drunk blue
palette of early
              in which
an electric
light swings
over the yard
   it is a branch”

I suspect someone is feeling something, but I don’t know who and I don’t know what. And I think I get enough of that kind of uncertainty in my life outside of books, or so I felt the first time I read The Inside of an Apple.

I have often thought the world (in and out of books) is too full of people who are mean-spirited or not trying hard enough. I feel like one of those mean-spirited and not-trying people when this seemingly earnest book with its mostly white space pages tells me

              “I live
and on one mountain
   then the next
      the sun shines down”

and I don’t know why anyone would bother to say that. In general I think the most mundane moments are infused with meaning, but I cannot find the meaning in this poem’s moment. It makes me feel like such a confused and lonely Pierre.

Like most (many? some?) people, I hold myself to standards I cannot reach and sometimes this makes me paranoid, bitter, and judgmental. As you know, Walt Whitman said “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” I hold myself to the standard of believing him, even though the echo chamber of my mind, much like your mind I suspect, wants to assert the primacy of my subjective experience. I read The Inside of the Apple all the way to the end because I’m trying to outgrow the narcissism of my cogito. I’ve heard everyone has the thought that they are the only real thought, which is one piece of evidence that led me to believe in Whitman’s transcendental notion that we are all the same thought.


   “Quit &
      like stupid
child’s wooden box”

is an atom belonging to you but not me, or it’s not a very good stanza. I have also considered the possibility I need to try harder to connect, so I tried harder and felt even worse about the book and my alienated self. Then I read The Pedestrians, with which didn’t have to try at all, and I understood everything and, even though I didn’t write or speak a word the whole time I was reading, felt understood in return.

Feeling understood often makes people more patient and forgiving. After I read The Pedestrians I wanted to try The Inside of an Apple again, in part because it once more seemed possible for everyone to be understood, but also because the editors at Wave like these poems, and they brought me books by Mary Ruefle and Eileen Myles and now Rachel Zucker, who all make me feel lucky to be reading. Moreover, I recognize that differences in opinion, especially about poetic tastes, are common. Even Whitman had them. It is also common for people to change their minds. Whitman did that too.

Zucker wrote a poem called “real poem (post-confessional)” that goes:

“Last night the Post-Confessional
Poet said, ‘I don’t know how many
poets stand up at a reading and
tell you how bad they’re doing – I’m
doing real bad.’”

This poem about going to a poetry reading as if it were a regular, no-big-deal sort of thing made me realize some people might not feel so lonely in the way I do. Many poets and readers of poetry do not live in a town with one coffee shop and no poets. They spend afternoons at art shows that are not a quilt fair at the First Baptist Church. Maybe they are surrounded by people concerned with the things that concern them and poems are where they go to be alone.

Every six months I tell thirty-five college sophomores that in order to understand American poetry you have to understand Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. They don’t understand what I mean and the more I try to explain the more I feel like Walt is all I need. But it is misguided to cling only to Walt Whitman and the poets who embrace his effusively chatty style. When I read The Inside of an Apple as if I were trying to find a quiet place instead of get out of one, I began to understand the poems very well and found them beautiful and funny and endearing in their privacy, not unlike the poems of Emily Dickinson.

“Crackle crackle
 little hails on my hat
clicking their notes atone
   hear this: an awning to
     bounce off of, and the things
you saved up
   for dreams came down speaking.”

Another one that starts with an image that charms with its funny, endearing privacy is: “God’s cabin’s a jungle / ain’t no fear of lions there” before turning towards the more unadorned notes and impressions that characterize Beckman’s style. I stopped imagining the speaker was talking to me and instead heard him telling no one but himself:

“I placed my foot on a moss
which I made die
and then my knee the same.”

I was moved by what I just overheard. And when he goes on to write, “Sometimes I see all that is seen of me,” I think maybe we are sitting in the same coffee shop after all, reading our books quietly with our backs to each other. Which is another way of being with someone with whom you share an understanding.

You shouldn’t just read The Pedestrians. You should also read Josh Beckman’s The Inside of the Apple. You should read it because maybe you’ve been lonely for awhile now and maybe the person you are lonely for is yourself.

Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of Rag and Bone, which won the 2010 Elixir Press Prize. She is an associate professor of English at University of Central Missouri, where she also serves as poetry editor for Pleiades. New poems have recently appeared in West Branch, Nimrod, and at


A Poem of Force

September 8, 2014

Contributor’s Marginalia: Catherine Staples on “Young Achilles” by Brian Brodeur

There is so much to admire in Brodeur’s “Young Achilles”: the emotional realism of imagery and gesture, trueness to Homer, and the economy of his narrative moves. Initially, what drew me was his deft storytelling and the grounded rhythm of his opening lines with their Anglo-Saxon alliterative patterns and internal rhyme: “Bored of playing swords, bare-faced Achilles/ trundles down the dunes at Skyros Harbor….”

Brodeur captures the psychology of Achilles’ shifting emotions. They move as quickly as the boy sliding downhill through sand—from boredom to jealousy to violence—and that fleet quickness is pure Achilles. One minute the young Achilles “watches” a stranger on the beach preparing dinner, and next his envy erupts: “Why should he get to light fires on the beach/and swim in the ocean without a chaperone?” Then, the lethal lobbing of rocks. By the time the man’s request for mercy is refused, it’s as if a shutter on the future gusts open: an icy portrait is glimpsed of the hundreds of supplications Achilles will ignore.

Achilles smiles. Why shouldn’t he be feared?
He wishes he could throw stones at the sea
and stop the senseless tide from shifting.
The man has stopped moving.

But bravado falls away and tone modulates in the very next line. Achilles sense of entrapment emerges, that acknowledgment is a sly movement towards truth. The man didn’t deserve to die, it’s the sea he ought to have been aiming for, the changing tides, inexorable and senseless as his fixed fate. The self-justification of the first line is undercut by the truth of the next. The smile is gone, his thoughts are interrupted by the brilliant fourth line, more observation than fact. It’s as if he’s not yet ready to acknowledge this death, a death which we imagine he had not intended. I truly admire the sequence, its subtle and explosive juxtapositions.

When Achilles approaches the man, he “flips” him with his “sandaled foot” the way you might right a wrong-side up horseshoe crab on the beach. With that brusque gesture, the fallen man is no longer a man. Brodeur conveys his lifelessness with matter-of-fact imagery, “Sand fleas flick in and out of his mouth.” Achilles’ victim is inanimate while these other small middling creatures carry on as before, the man’s mouth becomes the cave they flit in and out of. I’m reminded of Simone Weil’s famous essay, “The Iliad or The Poem of Force,” written in 1939, on the eve of WWII. Weil argues that the true hero of The Iliad is force and that “force is what makes the person subjected to it a thing.”

Brodeur knows his Homer and the portrait of young Achilles is fittingly complex and ambivalent. With Achilles’ passing thought, “His skinny arms could be a boy’s,” there is an intimation of wondering acknowledged, a hint of Achilles’ identification with his victim. When Achilles “bows to stroke/ the man’s wet face and hair, closing his eyes,” it’s so unexpected it feels like grace; we are in the realm of reconciliation. Even if it only lasts a few seconds—before the eye and mind take in the equivocation of the poem’s next line—we can imagine the moment when the Trojan king kneels before the killer and Achilles weeps with him, momentarily restored to his humanity. However, the promise of that gesture is immediately undercut by Achilles’ patronizing, “There. There,” he says, “That’s better, go to sleep,” as if he hadn’t killed the man in cold blood there on the beach, as if this unnecessary death was merely sleep. I am grateful for Brodeur’s life-like portrait of “Young Achilles,” for the stunning ways it engages in conversation with Homer.

Catherine Staples

Catherine Staples is the author of The Rattling Window (Ashland Poetry Press, 2013) winner of the McGovern Prize. Her poems appeared in Prairie Schooner, Southern Review, Commonweal, Blackbird, Third Coast, 32 Poems, and Quarterly West among others. Honors include Honorable Mention for NEPC’s 2014 Shelia Margaret Motton Book Award, finalist for the 2014 Eric Hoffer Award, a Walter F. Dakin fellowship from the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and Southern Poetry Review’s 2011 Guy Owen Prize. She lives with her family in Devon, PA and teaches in the Honors program and English Department at Villanova University.

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A Landscape Adequate to Loss

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