32 Cento

May 11, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: Brittany Perham on 32 Poems 12.2.

32 Poems, Volume 12, Number 2, came in the mail on a winter afternoon, which, where I am in San Francisco, means fog coming up from the beach, over the tops of the houses and down into the streets. I read the issue straight through at the kitchen counter with the stove light on. When I was through, there were many poems that called me back, poems whose lines I heard turn over in my head. I turned on the space heater and got out a legal pad. Then I went back in search of the lines I loved.

Some of the lines I wrote down I loved for their music, some for their tightly-packed images, some for their syntactical surprises, their parallels and repetitions operating in such a tiny space. Some lines I loved for their strangeness, for their jolt. Before long, I had filled three yellow pages. There were, I saw, many poems I’d like to say something about in my Contributor’s Marginalia, many lines to which I’d like to call a reader back the way I had been called back. As I was thinking about which poem to choose, I started recopying the lines, rearranging them in different families and configurations. There were arrows, asterisks and stars, numbering systems, drawings in the margins. Before long, a trail of yellow paper on the kitchen floor.

At first, I had meant to do this as an exercise—the way I ask my students, on the first day of a poetry class, to make a cento from the handful of poems I bring them. At first, I thought that the process of connecting lines from each poet in the issue might help me clarify my thoughts—a kind of meditation that would finally reveal the poem I was going to write about. Instead, that first afternoon turned into a series of afternoons—some in the kitchen, some at bars on Fillmore and Divisadero—where I spliced together the lines I loved, looking for combinations that lit something up in the connection.

The cento I’ve written—though I’m not sure “written” is the right word— is one such combination. A combination that, I hope, will call us back to all of the fine work in this issue. To all of you represented here by your lines, let me say that I hope seeing your words repurposed or refashioned, the reclaimed material for a new construction, will be pleasurable or interesting or at least amusing to you. Let me also say that I spent these afternoons happily, grateful to have your poems, grateful to be working with your lines, lines that I wished I had written. These lines, and your poems, will stay with me now for a long time.

32 Cento

Day one. Monkey is strapped into chair.
A square room, no glass to it.
You break with a hammer to get out
The bong we’d made from an empty can.
Last home run. Last pot roast.
Once you get over the panic, there is still the blue suit,
A baby in bed.
You wait for what will never come, a life,
A red carpet,
To get out on the widow’s walk—

        Like one of Rothko’s blues receding further and further

Do not trip out at dusk.
The lights will flicker off in the houses.
We crack the brain’s backdoor.


Seven a.m. in December in the middle of the street.

It is the job of the child to take away the trees,
The street empty the pines small doors.

As a funeral wreath, I comforted no one.

Were I a pebble, I would disturb your window
Where people dropped harps out of windows.

I’m the greasy luster at the end of the bar.


No secret: We do not bury our dead.
But memory, as muse, is identity’s loyal dog.
It whips the bungied, flapping tarp off the woodpile.
Every day it tries to get out.

I own a dog. I dog the dog.
This one forever.
What kind of man would dream a waterclock like this?

In the line of fire, someone will dare
A lake, a boathouse, a flower garden.

O memorable mortality! begins
Some evening—January, say.

[32 Poems, Volume 12, Number 2, Fall/Winter 2014. Sources: Majmudar, Kauffman, Carlson-Wee, Didden, Webb, Klatt, Barnett, Griffith, Lam, Perham, Van De Kamp, Stallings, Barker, Perham, Parks, Stephenson, Reynolds, Larsen, Fraser, Luzitano, Wing, Noll, Pau-Llosa, McCombs, Larsen, Shomer, Wing, McCombs, Didden, Powell, O’Brien, Kauffman. Some capitalization and end-of-line punctuation has been changed.]

Brittany Perham teaches at Stanford University, where she was a Wallace Stegner Fellow. Her first collection of poems, The Curiosities, was published in 2012; new work is forthcoming in Southwest Review. She lives in San Francisco.

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