Weekly Prose Feature: “The Written Line Perceived as a Drawing: An Interview with Curtis Bauer” by Emilia Phillips, featuring an excerpt from THE REAL CAUSE FOR YOUR ABSENCE (C&R Press, 2013)

May 3, 2013

Curtis BauerA native of Iowa, Curtis Bauer was raised a son of farmers and artists and has lived in England, Mexico, Spain, and the Eastern and Southwest United States. He is the author of three poetry collections: his first, Fence Line (2004), won the John Ciardi Poetry Prize; Spanish Sketchbook (2012) is a bilingual English/Spanish collection published in Spain; and The Real Cause for Your Absence (2013). Bauer is also a translator of poetry and prose from the Spanish, his publications including Talisman (Editorial Anantes, 2012), by José de María Romero Barea, Eros Is More (Alice James Books, 2014), by Juan Antonio González Iglesias, as well as individual poems and prose from numerous Spanish and South American writers. He is the publisher and editor of Q Ave Press Chapbooks, the Spanish Translations Editor for From the Fishouse, Assistant Editor, and “Emerging Spanish Poets” Series Editor for Vaso Roto Ediciones. He teaches Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. For more information, go to curtisbauer.net.

Emilia Phillips: Zbigniew Herbert wrote, “The most beautiful is the object / which does not exist.” Because of the title, I was primed to look for absence in your collection, an action that, in effect, insists absence as a kind of presence, something almost tangible, the ghost of a form. In the same way that a space where a tooth once was retains a tooth’s shape when framed by other teeth, your collection is full of imagistic negatives that hold the shape of something more solid: shadows, snow, memory. Poetry, with its white spaces and breaks, can provide a formal semblance for absence. It strikes me, however, that many of the poems—with their large or single stanza forms or long lines—insist themselves as a presence, a solid state in counterbalance to what’s missing. In “Still Life with a Man Falling Through It,” made up of long-lined couplets, we see a character on a ladder “slip, tilt, plunge to the ground” as if it’s “a stunt requiring a man to cling to what was not / there.” In some ways, does the poem become what was not there? How does poetry act as a kind of understudy to an absent person, object, or idea?

Curtis Bauer: Writing in general, and the poem in particular, is a way for me to stave off absence, loss. I am writing to someone who is not present in my immediate life, so I’m surrounded by absence. I grew up with absence, people I loved being away, and many of my closest friendships, those people I talk to about the world, are with people not in my immediate proximity. Even my marriage to a woman I’ve been with for close to twenty years has been made up of long periods of absence. Absence is such a strange word: it identifies what is not present, but should be. I suppose “Still Life with a Man Falling Through It,” attempts to fill in for what the character has lost—his footing on the ladder, the ladder itself, ultimately his life—as well as what the woman in the poem eventually loses—her man. So there is a literal absence alluded to in the poem, which I’m very interested in, but there’s also the perceived absence of being unable to get something or someone back. And yet we tell stories, recall moments in which that other is once again present. A poem calls those moments back, brings them back to life for me. This gets complicated when you consider this recovery through the lens of Herbert’s quote: there is a danger of sentimentality in recalling and reviving an experience or a relationship that has been lost; it becomes more beautiful, more precious than the actual. I hope not to do that.

EP: I don’t think you do! Even at their most tender and elegiac, your poems resist lyric stasis. For me, sentimentality thrives on stagnation like a scum on a pool of water. When I read a poem like “Drawing of a Boy Forgetting” or “Becoming a Crow,” I have the feeling of being inside a long hall with an open door on each end, the wind rushing through. The arc of a poem, any great poem, is an act of leaving, of moving from an entrance to an exit, even if the point of the poem is to return to the subject—to, as you said, “bring them back to life.” Is it difficult to leave certain poems, to finish them, because of attachment to a subject or idea?

CB: At the moment, I can’t think of a poem that was difficult to leave or finish due to the subject or idea alone. Poems are hard to write for many reasons: I have the most difficulty with poems I don’t think capture the idea or essence of the subject I’m writing about. I’m honest with myself when it comes to writing. I throw away or abandon quite a bit of work that does not satisfy me. I’ll write in a notebook or in a letter to a friend about something, and continue to write about it, in different incarnations of different poems most likely, until I feel like I get it right. Maybe that’s the wrong way of going about it, but that’s how it works for me.

EP: Assuming that some of your poems are based on personal experiences (and correct me here if I’m wrong), do you ever find yourself rewriting a memory for the sake of poem and, in doing so, perhaps rewrite the memory so that you suspect yourself for no longer accurately remembering what actually happened but for remembering what happened in the poem instead?

CB: Wow, that’s interesting. Especially because I’m trying to imagine what poems of mine may have led you to this question. All poems are based on personal experiences in one way or another, aren’t they? Just as a photographer experiences what she observes and captures in an image, I think a poet can have an experience of someone or something through observation, even if it is at a distance. It’s our ability…maybe I should just speak for myself…my wiring in how I see the world that causes me to empathize to the point of actually feeling like I’ve taken on a life. Those observations influence how I see, how I move on to observe other things. I believe that we can acquire memories of experiences that we haven’t actually had. I heard a lot of stories growing up, saw a lot of photographs of people I didn’t know, but somehow I have the impression that I knew them, that I actually had an experience with them. Maybe some would call that a lie, but I don’t; it’s an experience that I carry with me, that grows in my memory. I think of “Whiteout,” for example, which came from a picture a friend sent me one winter, a winter that wasn’t at all cold in Texas, but looking at that blizzard blur made me cold, made me think of growing up cold and freezing during winters in Iowa. So I remember the cold there, and I remember the view of snow and drifts and whiteout conditions from my grandfather’s house, but the rest of that poem is a composite of stories and experiences, some of which maybe happened, but most of them didn’t. At least not to me.

EP: What you said about your emotional hardwiring fascinates me, particularly in a discussion about “Whiteout,” a poem in which the we go from knowing nothing (“You are suddenly in a life, not knowing which / way your face is facing in the white before you.”) to discovering context, following association toward the harrowing image of the grandfather’s horse “frozen in the middle of the pasture, its eyes / suddenly glass” and landing on that redoubtable ending when the grandfather says, the horse “forgot what standing meant, / and sometimes when you forget you fall.”

For me, “Looking at 12 White Things,” which appears earlier in the collection, provides so much insight on how you’re able to move through poems. It’s like a primer for reading the rest of the book, though likewise a deft poem itself. For our readers, I’ll provide an excerpt:

                    Space is
a thing—the thingness, the gap
it creates. What lay beyond
the space, but a button I can’t fit
to a shirt (attached to a notch
of fabric from the shirt I wore
yesterday). The hand that ripped it
off was white, too, but it won’t stay
stuck to the paper sheet. I write
white hand and the letters form
the word that becomes the thing

Here we have a kind of alchemical recreation of experience: the substance is broken down into words and, if at the right temperature and stirred in the right way, those words cook into substance again—experience—and the experience occurs in an emotional/empathetic space. I’m able to join you there as a reader because the emotional/empathetic space feigns physical space through the poem’s form. While I wouldn’t identify you as a formal poet, your attention to line breaks, in particular, play toward the dynamism of emotion, space, and experience, imagined or remembered.

In this passage, the breaks act as a kind of imagistic cue or emphasis: “the gap” and “a notch,” supported by a break, behave like what they are; “the space” physically lays beyond “What lay beyond”; “to a shirt” literally “can’t fit” on the previous line; “off” is literally ripped off of “The hand that ripped it”; and “the letters form” the next line. I see this sort of attention paid to the line throughout The Real Cause For Your Absence. Will you speak to how you find what one could call “the mood of the line”? Is it based on sonics/rhythm? The sentence? Emotion? And how do you know when the breaks are right for what you’re trying to convey, what kind of space you want to create, in the poem?

CB: I like the idea of the “mood of the line” but I have no idea how to answer this question. Maybe I’m not so good at identifying moods until I’m in the midst of one. But how do I get there? I usually get into a mood through talking, so in the case of poems, through writing in response to something seen, heard, touched . . . Perhaps your question is one about process. I’m fascinated by process, by figuring out how things work. Many writers I love and respect are not, and they don’t want to talk about it; they’d rather talk about the final product, but that makes me think of a comic strip my father used to have hanging in his studio, a strip about how to draw a Dick Tracy comic, I think it was. As I recall, the first frame had a few circles for heads; the next had some stick-like lines for arms, bodies and legs; the third frame was the perfectly drawn and colored, the completed comic strip. There’s mystery in process that can never be explained, but it’s important for me to approximate mine in order to know how I can remind myself when I forget…a bit like that horse, I suppose. So I write in a notebook, as I mentioned before, and I write and I write.

First there are ideas: I suppose that refers to the sentence you mentioned, and those are driven by emotions—what causes me to write about something to begin with, some kind of emotional response, or lack of response. Those initial ideas quickly become secondary, however; then the complexities of language—semantics, sounds, grammar—take over. I like to play with multiple meanings—I think of the poem “Drawings” for example, which is an exploration of meaning and emotion and a gesture at a notation of diversity in the most basic sense. My interest and joy in the multiple also comes out in my enjambed lines; I love how a line is a unit of meaning; knowing this can make sentences all the more interesting, because there are many possibilities for not only meaning, but also rhythm and sound inside that sentence. This pleasure and play can be dangerous of course. I think it was Heather McHugh who warned me against an enamoration (I’m sure she didn’t use that word . . . does it even exist?) with the enjambed line. It’s easy to get carried away and break a line for a quick thrill, shock or surprise. This is where sonics, prosody and rhythm come in. I have to thank the gods for Sarah Lawrence College because that’s where my ear for an evenly cadenced and sturdy line was formed by Thomas Lux; that’s where I studied prosody with Suzanne Hoover; and that’s also where I met most of my friends and readers, two in particular—Ross Gay and Patrick Rosal—have taught me a lot about music and rhythm over the years.

A few of the poems in this book are in blank verse, but that’s not at all common for me. I do scan lines when I’m revising, and that also helps me understand line length. My gut reaction to your question about knowing when the breaks are right for what I want to convey is to say that I’m lucky. I don’t believe that, though. I arrive at my lines like a painter might in a drawing, through sketching and discovering what functions for the subject; or like someone going for a long walk, taking steps to figure out what the cadence, the pace needs to be in order to arrive from point A to point B. But that’s the start; I think knowing what works doesn’t come until the final stages of composition, in those final revisions when all the elements are nearly aligned. I keep revising until they are right.

EP: The Dick Tracy comic reminds me of that moment in the book, in “Still Life With a Bed In the Middle,” in which the speaker’s wife writes on his back: “the letter Q boils between my shoulder blades.” An element of language becomes a visual element, an image. The Q’s almost like the circle for a head in the initial stages of a sketch. Since you mention that you think of drafting a poem in much the same way that a painter approaches a piece through sketching, and since there’s several poems about drawings and sketches in the collection, I wondered if you work in visual art in addition to poetry. If so, please tell us a little bit about it. If not, what attracts you to writing about visual art and its process?

CB: I wish I could use the present tense here, but I haven’t painted for years. I used to, though, and I have paintings and sketchbooks and drawings around the house. I draw, too, but I can’t say I’m as dedicated to my drawings as I am to writing. That said, I’m attracted to visual art and process partly because I grew up with it: my father and step-mother are painters, so when I would see them as a kid that was the world they inhabited, and though I didn’t know it, I became adept at inhabiting different worlds—at that time those worlds were the farms where my mother, step-father and grandparents lived, and the studio, towns and cities where my father and step-mother lived. I should also say that there were paintings and drawings hanging in my mom’s house, too, which were like windows into these other places. I remember three pieces in particular she kept after the divorce, and they hung outside the upstairs bathroom—I spent a lot of time waiting outside that bathroom, and because they were there, I would get lost in thinking about the stories they were telling, the fine details in the foreground and background, as well as the naked bodies. I knew they were special, but I had no conception of the fact that they were 19th Century classical engravings, that this was art. I didn’t realize how lucky I was to have that kind of education until much much later. I thought everyone had paintings and drawings in their rooms, and that everyone went to museums and galleries. So that part of my life coupled with a physical connection to the land definitely influenced me.

All this to say that I think about drawing and painting all the time. I said before that I’m not as dedicated to drawing as I am to writing, but in the moments since I said that I’ve been thinking that I disagree. I’m reminded of Robert Walser’s microscripts, Walter Benjamin’s notebooks and letters, and that spectacular book of correspondence between John Berger and John Christie, I Send You This Cadmium Red: all of them have handwriting that is nearly incomprehensible, but spectacular as art. My handwriting isn’t the greatest, and I’ve had friends tell me that they can’t read the letters or postcards that I send them, but I believe the written line could be perceived as a drawing. When you dwell with drawings some narrative, some image, some lyric is revealed over time. Maybe this sounds like an apology or excuse for sloppiness, but I don’t see it that way: I love letters, as I’ve mentioned, but I continue to savor the notes my friends Elaine, Ross and Sebastian scrawl to me long after the “news” they want to relate has passed.

One final note relating to process. Painters and writers have a lot in common in terms of practice. Alberto Giacometti’s paintings and drawings, for example, are a result of his relentless revisions, his need to blend, cover up, layer, use a mistake to his advantage and perhaps most important, his attempt to capture the mystery of what was in front of him and translate what he saw into a series of lines on the canvas or paper. I find his work fascinating and have learned a lot from studying his work.

EP: How aware are you of how a poem looks on the page? Do you have pet peeves about design and presentation of poetry?

CB: I’m very much aware of how the poem occupies the page, which means that I also think about emptiness, white space. I don’t approach a poem thinking that I’m going to spread it all across the page, with long lines like “To A Woman Standing In A Doorway Watching The Rain” or “Colony Collapse Disorder”; instead, I arrive at it through writing and revising the poem. When I see poems like those, I know that I need to read them differently. There’s a reason they appear in space the way they do. If I have any pet peeve about presentation of poetry, it’s that I can’t identify the reason behind the presentation, or I can’t even approximate it. I don’t have to understand it completely, but I’d like to think I at least have an idea of what’s going on.

EP: How long did it take you to write the collection? On average, how long does a poem take you? How quick do you jump into revising after the initial draft?

CB: I’ve been writing the book since before my first collection came out in 2004. Well, I’ve been writing the poems for this book since then, but this book, the idea of this incarnation came about a couple of years ago when I was up at the Vermont Studio Center.

I wish I could say that a poem takes a specific amount of time, or that I spend X number of hours on a poem. I used to write and complete poems really quickly, but I’ve slowed down. As I’ve mentioned, I write in a notebook. When I’m stuck, or when I feel like I’m repeating myself, or when I see something either in a book or in the world that reminds me of something I’ve written, I’ll go back to what I’ve written. I know it’s not the most efficient way of writing, but I do that until I find that fixation, that kernel for a poem that I can’t set aside. Once I find that I work on the poem steadily until I can’t do anything else. That might be anywhere from a few days to a week. Before I’d send that poem out then; now I hold on to it, put it in a folder on my computer and return to it a month or so later. If the poem still holds that initial energy I know I’m close to being done with it.

EP: You’re a translator of Spanish poets. Can you describe a little bit about what you’ve worked on and what you may be working on now? Do you think your work with translation influences your own poems? If so, how?

CB: I have translated prose, too: a short story and a novel excerpt by José Manuel Fajardo, short stories by the Argentinian writer Leopoldo Brizuela, and others…but I mainly translate poetry, I guess. I translated a book of poems by the Spanish poet Juan Antonio González Iglesias, and Alice James Books will put that out in 2014; another book of my translations of José de María Romero Barea’s poems was published in Spain last fall; and I’ve completed another book by a Mexican poet that’s floating around out in the world. I’ve also translated individual poems—and continue to do so—by a number of other Spanish poets for the From The Fishouse website, for which I’m the Spanish Translations Editor. Right now I’m working on books by Jorge Gimeno, Carlos Pardo and Luis Muñoz, all three Spanish poets who are in their 40s and have been huge influences on the emerging poets of Spain. I’m translating their work while also putting together an anthology of emerging Spanish poets.

This whole translation endeavor is another full time activity, one that often eats into my own writing time. I do it, however, because I think it’s important for poets in the US to be aware of what our contemporaries in other countries are writing. Ask anyone to name a poet from Spain and he’ll say Lorca or Machado, maybe Cernuda. Great, but what about the poets Pere Gimferrer, Miguel Ullán, Jaime Gil de Biedma and Olvido García Valdés, to name only a few who have been instrumental poets for the emerging generation of Spanish poets? And who are our contemporaries, that group of poets who in the US would be in MFA programs or teaching in them? In addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned, a good sample would be Mariano Peyrou, Lorenzo Plana, Elena Medel, Julieta Valero, Ada Salas, Juan Andrés García Román, Andrés Navarro… I should stop there, but I could go on, of course.

Finally, my work is most definitely influenced by translation. I’m a better reader, of course, and listener; my ear is tuned into different sounds and rhythms, and there are different linguistic and syntactical surprises in many of these poets that I think stick somewhere in my head, and if I’m lucky it breaks loose when I sit down to write my own poems. So being a translator has provided me with a flexibility in my own syntax, since both languages have different syntactical structures, and that has enriched the way I write in English, but also how I translate. Another thing that happens that happens to me when I translate, even when I’m listening to conversations in English, is that I often misunderstand. In fact, I’m in a fairly constant state of confusion. Since learning Spanish my language usage has changed:, I confuse prepositions, use words differently, write sentences with huge digressions. I used to get really worried about this, but I’ve grown to enjoy my confusion. Learn from it.

EP: How do you think American poets should involve themselves in the international poetry community, outside of working as a translator: hosting readings, traveling, teaching the work of non-American poets? When there’s so much work being produced in the United States each year, how do we get a handle on our own country’s poetry and have the time to seek out the work of other countries? What, in your opinion, does Spanish-language poetry provide that’s missing in our own poetry culture?

CB: One of the easiest ways is reading the work of poets from around the world. There are quite a few great anthologies out there that can open doors for those who can’t read the work in the original language. One of the first ones I read from cover to cover was Simic and Strand’s Another Republic. I still read through that anthology; that’s where I met Fernando Pessoa, Jean Follain, Nicanor Parra, Yannis Ritsos, Czeslaw Milosz…and so many other poets who have been influential on my own work. There’s McClatchy’s Vintage Anthology of World Poetry, too, which is also great. But there are so many other anthologies now that offer introductions to younger generations of writers. And if people disagree with that statement, I encourage them to put together a new one; that’s how it works, right? Also, there are great web and print journals, Words Without Borders and A Public Space to name only two. The point is, world literature is available to readers in the US. So why don’t we read contemporary or emerging poets from other countries? Because we haven’t been told that we should, perhaps? Because, as you say, we don’t have the time to do this and get a handle on what’s being written in our own country? I think this last one is an easy excuse. I have to make time to read, and I have the responsibility as a writer and teacher to expose myself to as much as possible. I can’t read everything, but I can try.

Reading poets, writers from other countries, we can learn a lot about our own poetics, as well as about what’s going on in the literary and social communities outside our borders. I was lucky to have teachers nudge me toward global writers, and I teach this work in my classes when I can, whether they are lit courses, creative writing or composition classes (I haven’t taught composition for a while now, but I used to teach Hikmet’s poem “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved” in my Comp 1 and Comp 2 classes). We can use literature in translation to discuss about just about anything. Not everyone can take a trip to Spain or Vietnam or the Philippines to attend a poetry reading or buy books by foreign authors in the original language, but reading and talking about poems from some other place can relocate us, move us out of our little world for a while. Also bringing international writers to campus or communities isn’t so difficult. I used to do some translation work for the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa; every fall they have about 30 writers from all over the world in residency and part of their residency is to give readings and lectures. We’d never be able to afford to bring in writers from Venezuela or Belorussia to Texas Tech, but through the IWP we have.

I travel to Spain quite a bit, and a few years ago the publisher of From the Fishouse, an audio archive of emerging poets, asked me to take a recorder along with me and try to record some emerging Spanish poets. This is a whole other question I suppose, but I mention it because it wasn’t so difficult to find the more than 50 poets I’ve recorded so far, to find public readings or bookstores where I could buy books of poetry and literary journals. A little curiosity goes a long way. And what does Spanish-language poetry provide that’s missing in our own poetry culture? Good question. The simplest response is that poetry from other places offers distinct perspectives on social, political and cultural subjects. One of the things I’ve learned from living abroad is that looking at the US from the outside helps me better understand what’s happening in the US that I might often overlook: the outsider sees and fixates on different details; has distinct poetic orientations and uses them differently; and then there’s the simple surprise that comes from reading in a different language.

EP: Gerald Stern says that you’re “one of the most tender new poets.” That said, I wouldn’t call it tenderness, exactly. I’d call it—if I’m allowed to nuance Gerald Stern’s—is sincerity.

I think we confuse sincerity too often with sentimentality, a mistake that’s perhaps inflated trust in what Hoagland calls “the skittery poem of the moment.” For me, however, sincerity isn’t a cloying certitude, like a fundamentalist belief. Instead, it’s a willingness to follow the subject without knowing where it will take you, to admit that, as poets, we don’t have total control over a poem or that there may be no resolution to the tensions that are found there. I think of Dickinson saying, “I am afraid to own a Body — / I am afraid to own a soul”—what a simple and yet severe admission! But that’s Dickinson writing as Dickinson. Perhaps it’s easier to be sincere when we write as “ourselves.” Let’s look at a section of your poem “Becoming a Crow”:

I’m learning to squat and cackle
at the men on the street. This one
with the hat stares and smokes.

I’m learning to read the fear in his body.
My brothers tell me I was a fool,
But so is everyone else.
They watch the man on a ladder,
the jet trails,
the boy burning a doll with a match.

It’s part of, they bark, your nature.

Though the poem acts through an extended metaphor, there’s sincerity here in addressing human nature, as well as the body. The crows are a vehicle for your concerns drive. How do you balance conceit with sincerity?

CB: I like how you distinguish sentimentality from sincerity, and I think you’re dead on—at least in terms of how I write poems—about that willingness to follow the subject without knowing where it will take me. My biggest failures come about when I start writing with something specific in mind, with an idea of what the poem is going to be like when it’s done. One would think that I’d learn my lesson, but I still try to do that. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve started poems knowing that I’m going to follow some received form, but I think that’s different. You’re talking about the direction a poem heads inside the form, the frame of the poem, right?

I like surprise, and I like to discover ideas and images I hadn’t been thinking about through the process of writing. Stafford talks about that, and Strand, and so many writers I admire work this way, discovering what they want to say through the writing of the poem. This can be applied to the poem you just quoted as well, and it’s important you mention Stern. Not because of what he says about me, but what he has taught me. He’s a bird lover if ever there was one, but his poems also masterfully balance their conceit in an honest way. He isn’t afraid of exposing himself, his emotions, confusion and anger. One can understand how loving and angry and relentless he is by reading his poems.

I wonder if I’m talking around the answer to this question. I just read an interview J.D. McClatchy did with Charles Wright for The Paris Review in which Wright talks about how he writes from what he observes, unlike Strand, who writes from ideas. I’m like Wright in that sense; I look outside, and “Becoming A Crow” was an exercise in looking. Maybe “lesson” is a better way of putting it; I’ve learned a lot from crows, but not in the attempt to observe the crows that would fly over my house in Iowa City every afternoon, but as a consideration of apartness, being on the periphery. Crows seem to possess some knowledge I want to tap into. But it comes at a price.

David Wojahn*: What is the single aspect of contemporary poetry which most frustrates or infuriates you?

CB: I’m not sure how to answer that. My first inclination is to say that I’m frustrated by the fact that there is so much out there that I haven’t had the opportunity to read, but that has more to do with my deficiencies than anything in contemporary American poetry. But in addition to that, I think I’m frustrated by a lot of poetry that doesn’t take itself seriously. Or the poets who write it, I guess. There’s this tendency toward the flippant that I find annoying. But I don’t want to generalize. That isn’t all contemporary American poetry, just some that I’ve seen, that I start to read and then get annoyed because I’ve wasted my time with it.

EP: Now, Curtis, provide us with a question for our next interviewee.

CB: Do you find yourself returning to any particular subject matter across your writing career? Why do you think that is?

*As a part of our interview series, we ask each interviewee to provide us with a question for the next interview. David Wojahn’s interview has yet to be published, however, but we’ll let you know as soon as it goes live.

An excerpt from The Real Cause for Your Absence (C&R Press, 2013) by Curtis Bauer, courtesy of the author and the press.

Looking at 12 White Things

I forget to count the ticket stub
in my back pocket. A paperclip.
An envelope folded twelve times
to fit on the 4th row. A space
between the 2nd and 4th. Space is
a thing—the thingness, the gap
it creates. What lay beyond
the space, but a button I can’t fit
to a shirt (attached to a notch
of fabric from the shirt I wore
yesterday). The hand that ripped it
off was white, too, but it won’t stay
stuck to the paper sheet. I write
white hand and the letters form
the word that becomes the thing.
And while I’m cheating color,
lamp, though it’s on the red table.
I write edge of letter though
the rest is coffee stained, and covered
with books. I have no white books,
so I write no white book and try
to get away with it. I own
an ink rag that’s slowly turning blue.
A used stamp I’ve pealed off
an envelope. There’s the dull sheen
on a needle threaded with red string.
If only I could put that sheen in there.
And the noise we call white, how
to put that on the page so when you
look at it, you don’t hear me drowned out.

 

The Real Cause for Your Absence

In the afternoon the river thawed
and not one ice plate remained—
you could sit on the bank and watch
the flow float seed pods and tampon
boxes out of town, as if it were
a road you could stand beside
with your thumb out. Or skip a stone
from a pile the strange neighbor
boy mounded at your feet again.

This year, when the milk cartons
bobbed and twirled on the current,
the grocer seemed a little smaller
and our child gave her pocket stones
back to the riverbed. Suddenly tired,
the greasy mechanic had to look away
from the weasel dipping in and out
of the oak leaves lilting and twirling
in a mid-stream pool. Like last year,

like every year, the days were still
short and dropped their thick dark
hard like a wool quilt over the water.
The whole town went likewise to bed.
Not one lamp burned, which could have
given us a reason to stay. For a while
our bed felt perfect—firm, warm,
occupied—until the water drew our noise
from the windows and we followed—

You went upstream. I climbed down.

 

While Reading I Think About Drawing

Flowers grow inside my wife—

red, pink, white petunias, poppies and lilacs—the petals
dry on the stems of her ribs.

Every morning is a new year here.

I’m waiting for the jittery red and blue birds I have never seen
before tonight to fall asleep.

My grandfather used to say, If swallows rest before
midnight the stars will shine until dawn, but

that’s not written in any book.

The landscape of Atxondo is like a memory of lost birds and fitful sleep,
and waiting wide awake for the first glimmers of a red dawn.

Listen

to the chimney swifts.
They don’t know how to be dishonest.

Or to the dogs playing with water.

These mountains make me a new man.

I still learn from the cherry trees, the barbed wire
stretching up the hill, and the grass blades lapping

on a rock, and that space between each blade.

 

Seeing a Tan Woman’s Face, Late Winter

It’s January, New York, so she must be
back from somewhere nicer than here, but
sometimes I’ll think about the big picture,
about my skin and perspective. I wonder
when I started to lie, when I began to trip
up and push all the verbs and nouns down
deep and flatten them out. I wonder where
green went, where joyous left tan and orange
and soft, smooth, yellowish coffee color
left my hand, and these blue eyes turned
their sight on some little grass blade and to
the mirror and my ruddy face. This morning
on my way to the airport, a woman on Lexington
with flowers, she’s not just a woman, excuse me,
but she’s not Sybil either because she wants to live
and she’s beautiful and the flowers are white lilies
that make me think of spring, humming diesel engines
doing laps around fields and soil ready for planting,
ready for blooms, ready to germinate what touches it
and I want that it to be my hands, my eyes and why
do I have to think she looks like she can’t afford those
cut flowers and now that I’m a thousand miles away
I see the flowers but not the hands, I can hear
the paper crinkle though I was in a car and speeding
and I want to hear her breath because it’s even,
like the ambulance siren passing on the left
the taxi doesn’t move over to let pass. The man
in the back is on a gurney and I hope he has
just had a long night at work and is tired,
so the sweat on his forehead and spittle
dribble at his mouth is natural and could be
a perfect reflection of me, right now seeing her.

 

Experienced Worker, Employment Wanted

I watch the dead gather on the sidewalks
from my car. Every Friday I remind
the garbage man of his promises. I talk

to the old women stranded on the street
corners, pick up their teeth when they fall
from their mouths; I know how to wait

for traffic to thin, for the Dutch bakers
to throw out their scraps and the butcher
to kill a hog. I should add that I am multi-

lingual and the translator of last squeals:
in this instance it means the pig is confused.
I understand pigs; they don’t like confusion.

I dig back yard crypts, line them with pine
paneling and shelves; I stock them with wine
and fine cheeses. I’d like to add spoons,

guitars and cellos, but music sounds off
when it’s tarnished and warped. Still, I will
teach myself to play these instruments.

I am not honest. I bake stale bread for the starving
swallows shivering in the cold air. They are nervous
little birds, always afraid. I know their history:

a man threw a torch down the chimney of their temple
because he wanted to see fire fly. It flew as it burned
an arc in the tails of swallows small enough to fit

in the palm of his hand. Their song repeats,
repeats this memory—they keen for their brothers
and sisters when pecking crumbs from my palm.

Emilia Phillips is the prose editor of 32 Poems.

Each Friday we will publish a new essay, review, or interview for the 32 Poems Weekly Prose Feature, edited by Emilia Phillips. If you have any questions or comments about the series, please contact Emilia at emiliaphillips@32poems.com.

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