Archive for the ‘Editorial’ Category

A Brief and Casual Self-Interview with Zach Savich

Thermos editor Zach Savich’s fourth book of poetry, Century Swept Brutal, will soon be released from Black Ocean Press. For the next week, the book is available at a discount via this link. Below, Zach talks to himself about the book, illness, death, friendship, marriage, and NPR.

Where could I even have written Century Swept Brutal?

David Bartone rented our cabin in New Hampshire, on a lake. Maybe you know David and/or know that his fantastic first book, Practice on Mountains, recently came out from Ahsahta, winner of the Sawtooth Prize. Although David wrote Mountains before we were at the lake, I like to think he finished it there, while I wrote most of the first draft of Century Swept Brutal. Consider: in some ways David is better at being places than I am. During our stay, I went for one run, one bicycle ride, and one excursion to town; otherwise, I stared at the lake and wrote. David climbed several mountains, swam with vagabonds, met hitchhikers, caught fish, etc. He also bought a horribly loud Casio. Good sunsets, a grill. We read Gustaf Sobin and John Taggart and Alice Notley and James Wright. One night we borrowed a rowboat and entered the lake using fragile branches for oars. We made it back, after a fashion, and so I dedicated my book to him.

I wrote its final section in the San Juan Islands during Jay and Cait’s wedding. If you’ve been there, you might recognize a certain kind of flower that, if you forgot your glasses, appears to be made of a single, circular poem, I mean petal; or else you can find it in my book. I offer that flower, or poem, to Cait and Jay. This was when we stayed in the little house owned by Cassie’s aunt, which Cassie and Jay and Melissa and Andy and I had stayed in about a decade before, being poets.

I wrote the book’s first section in Maryland, when my father first had cancer again, a year or so before he died. He saw me read poems in public one time, at a college near my parents’ house. I was excited, revved up, and spoke incredibly quickly during the reading. I worried afterward that I had spoken too incredibly quickly. He said, “It wasn’t too fast for me.”

I think he’d rather be alive again for a few minutes and talk incredibly quickly with any of us than read an elegy. If I say the first section of this book is “instead of elegy” I don’t mean “instead” is any kind of avoidance.

What are my further thoughts concerning this book and the death of my father?

Several. For example, in the first weeks of his final dying, we read the poignant texts. And then, being so caught up in daily poignancy, its bodily flagging, we turned to texts of comedy, absurdity, joy. Beckett understood. You shit your diaper or take a drug or lament our mortal fate or shift your grotesque swellings and go on reading. It was just like getting an MFA.

I wondered what books would we have needed—after poignancy, after absurdity—if he had lived another month.

And then I found one, after doing a reading in Virginia, in a beautiful apartment I could have stayed in for another life: there was Donald Revell’s Tantivy by the bed. I have since found others.

I needed this information three months after he died, when I was diagnosed with the same cancer. I’ve lived. Much remains complex. I am grateful.

He was 60. I was 30, the year he’d been when I was born. A kind of perfect math.

More about this can be said, another time. For now: I’m remembering everyone who ever, knowing nothing about me, said that my interest in interesting literature would wither once I’d suffered more. As though experience erodes discernment, and weariness is a noble aesthetic, is wisdom. Now, having officially suffered more, being daily more weary than at any of my previous weariest moments, I can confirm that I want even more from writing and art. I am happy to find it. I hope this book stands to that. To both the want and the happiness and the want.

Finally, I’ll note my joy at finding that this book, Century Swept Brutal, written when my father was only first dying, written before my diagnosis, has lines that have offered me more after those experiences. “The dying dog could barely walk but lunged / like nothing had happened,” I wrote. It’s true.

What else can one say about a book of poetry, like if I was on NPR?

When I said I wrote Century Swept Brutal staring at the lake, I lied. I wrote some of it that way, but I wrote most of it at a McDonald’s nearby, drinking McDonald’s coffee, eavesdropping, looking across a parking lot at a Walmart. My writing required a professional setting, David said, and he’d know—he used to work at McDonald’s. When I submitted the book to Black Ocean, I had the idea that it was about that kind of interstitial landscape, of sprawl, that I’ve known in Coralville, IA, and Lacey, WA, and Hadley, MA, and throughout MD and PA and so forth. Not quite of any region, and yet, one must conclude (because of heavy usage patterns), also intently expressive of each region. Places made of passing through, outside most stories one would tell about one’s life, and yet—here’s a life. Purgatorial, which is another mode, and also not. I wanted to sit there, be comparable to the harmonic hum sometimes achieved by the air conditioner. Thinking of everyone hearing such a tone—is that sound less present than the passing-through place itself, even less a part of consciousness/official experience? But now I think the book is less of those places, more of the harmonic ping.

I also said I imagined that these poems, more than others I have written, were written for my friends who do not read poetry but are hip to other arts. I am grateful to Black Ocean, as for so many things, for understanding or overlooking whatever I meant by that. I hope it is true, but, clearly, it must be a matter of spirit within the poems, not of any concessions to preemptive, condescending weariness, or trying for a type of communication other than the type I believe poems are best at giving (that only poems can offer, and so should). I have written elsewhere about how offensive I find it when people talk about writing poems for “the people” as though “the people” can’t read; they really mean they are writing poems that justify their own impoverished imaginations, their own uninteresting relationships to language. When anyone who has worked with children or whatever population knows anybody can discuss the strangest art and also remember it.

At another point I thought that this book, compared to my other books, was equivalent to The Muppet Show, but with crystals in place of puppets. I love how, in the early seasons of The Muppet Show, the Muppets are all played by poets and are fairly grungy. But I trust them.

Beautiful to have lost anxiety about intelligence, its calculated remainders. If I say I believe in Poetry, now, more than in poetry, I understand myself; whereas in the past I would have been suspicious. I have read as much as possible for long enough not to mind.

At another point I said that this book re-applied my earliest poetic influences, poets of the Pacific Northwest, my formative home, many first found in Copper Canyon’s excellent anthology The Gift of Tongues, which was my gateway. A mood of mists and ponderous passivity that I think has something to it, but that I wanted to approach without its (to my ears, now, when I remember the poetry scene in Olympia, WA, in the 1990s) elements of self-satisfaction, self-mythologizing, simple-mindedness, suspicion of modernity, indulgences…instead supplying my own indulgences.

Hilary, my wife, was at the lake, as well. We would be married in a few months, standing in the Fort River outside Amherst, MA, our friends reading poems from the bank. David read a wedding poem that was published in the latest jubilat, Pam read, Kyle read a poem about watching us do pilates in Jeff’s old room just that morning, we swam, and then we went to Jensen’s going away party. Paid the justice of the peace with the proceeds of a scrapped car: a kind of perfect math. There’s at least one day a week I can’t sleep for the luck of it, astonished at how much better life can be than I would have known to imagine, I say this still healing, I say this grieving, I say this pained. But before that, on our way home from New Hampshire, we stopped at an Indian restaurant in, let’s say, Concord. It reminded me of this Indian restaurant I went to once (alone, with a book of poems) in Seattle, a decade earlier. Where, in my memory, I found a large metal staple in my curry. And I pulled it out, set it on the napkin, and continued eating, paid, tipped, left. I don’t think I was proud or thrilled at the adventure of finding a staple in my curry or that I enjoyed witnessing myself being the type of person who found one, did that. Rather, I think I found it, ate, paid, tipped, left. I remember also that the sauce was fairly salty. Could a poem be such a meal.

The book is in interwoven sections, each a distinct sequence.

Themes include: water, the senses.

Two sections are written in a form of dialogue between a “he” and a “she” that may be of particular interest.

What about the publishing side of things?

People sometimes worry about what will happen with publishing. Don’t worry. Black Ocean is happening with publishing.

Anything else I want to say?

When I was sickest with and after my cancer, I had many friends—poets, many of them—who offered to do anything they could to help, and they meant it. Many would have left their lives and come to where we lived and done anything. Many more whom I know, and probably many I don’t, would have also, had we asked, and many, many more said things (knowing my state or not) that meant a world. Let’s yawn at those who clearly write mostly from an anxious hope for prestige or a particular success or hoping to replicate parts of celebrity culture and media cycle and commerical renown that don’t matter, that aren’t what any intelligent fourteen-year-old or cancerous person or ardent reader of Sobin and Taggart and Notley could care about, and let’s yawn at those who say that’s all contemporary writing is. I have a thousand friends who prove that what we are doing is advancing better values, in complicating opposition, or caring, in art.

I’m sorry that I couldn’t always reply when you wrote or called. I hope to call you or help some way if you are ever in similar days. Because it meant a world to come to and hear your messages. If this new book can say thanks for that, I hope it will, or I hope I will.

Zach Savich & Hilary Plum on Paul Killebrew’s “Ethical Consciousness”

Zach Savich: Let me start personally. Remember when my dad died? I read Ethical Consciousness shortly after. One thing grief granted me was the advent of weeping as an aesthetic response–I mean weeping in a way that isn’t linked simply to grief. Why do you think Paul’s book made me cry?

Hilary Plum: Yes, I read this book in the weeks before, while pacing the floor of your parents’ living room. At that time everyone slept on different schedules, which is to say, your sister and I sometimes slept, but you and your mother and father didn’t. I can’t answer your question, but I know what you mean. For instance, the poem “To My Enemies,” which ends, “the scene where / the technology / of society’s disenchantment / startles at the sound / of dishes crashing / across the restaurant, / only to find itself / in the gaze / of racialized desire.” Those last lines have been in my head for months: it’s their motion, which I can’t explain and which keeps presenting itself to me as possible explanation for a dizzying range of phenomena.

At the time I tried to say something to you of sentences that suggest, that create, (that intone?), an emotion or quality of thought, even as one could not parse their syntax to find that emotion or thought within, or could not parse their syntax, properly, at all. Since I already knew something about Frost, you tried to explain to me John Ashbery. Tell me more about this? Or, another way to ask a different question (“only to find itself / in the gaze”), if emotion can rise like a ghost out of syntax (is this tone?), can an “ethical consciousness” do the same, and what should we call this?

ZS: I love you for suggesting that to “intone” can mean to evoke or incite tone (rather than corresponding to a particular tone, an intoning tone). When I finished crying, I thought, “People will read this book and think of Ashbery and Schuyler. But only as much as they always should.” Schuyler because of the short lines, at once tense and poised, exacting in their depiction, but also conjuring the complementary absence of a surrounding context from which the depiction was exacted, which one can feel as loss (“Two street lights / pulsed orange / flowers through / a dull fog”). Ashbery because of the attentive drift of syntax, ruminative, so epistemology spins from the casually authoritative musing of phrases, often around a general yet intimate “you.” Take a sentence like this: “Could you also / pass through entirely, or is that / one of those / axiomatic falsehoods / upon which so / little of existence / finds any footing and / that yet / persists?” The tender persisting reminds me of Ashbery, as does the creation of tone (is this what I was trying to say about Frost/Ashbery?) through sentence patterns that amount to half of meaning (“Could you x or is that y upon which z…”—a good Mad Lib!).

I suppose that, as a pattern of thought and thus of behavior (if only the behavior of language), this kind of syntax could suggest a form of “ethical consciousness,” not only in its meditative concern, but in its phrasing alone, a posture akin to the postures through which one is “ethical” (a judge’s reflective slouch, a protestor’s raised hand)? Let’s return to firmer ground. In this book, “ethical consciousness” also crops up overtly—through what we could call thought experiments into the nature of the self and its relationships with varied sorts of society. The virtuosic long poem at the end of the book, “Muted Flags,” has one of my favorite examples of this, when its narrator realizes that “it seemed likely” that people around the world happen to say some of the same words at the same time, which forms “an incidental choir” that also accrues into a kind of lovely, collective exquisite corpse. There’s an app that tracks this? Soon enough. If you were making other apps inspired by Ethical Consciousness, what would they do?

HP: You know very well that I have never seen an app. Or, in the words of Killebrew’s “Blind Preference”: “You / are like a ditch / feeding itself / to the lawn, / a regular guy / making his way / through the ocean. / States are built on / promises like you.” By you, I think I mean I. And this inability to distinguish ourselves from our interlocutors, to tell our speech from the incidental choir’s, is another chord that “Muted Flags” makes resound. I want to splice these thoughts together to make a proposition like this: it is the “tender” persistence of the I amid the looming absence of surrounding context—note here, now, the soft threat of loss—that allows or demands our ethical consciousness. Like the scene in “Muted Flags,” in which the speaker—an I whose identity permutes, or loses and finds itself while still speaking, throughout the poem—is mugged and says of his mugger:

I must have
looked at him
so strangely,
not, as he might
have expected, shocked
or frightened, but
as if I’d
just walked out of 
a dark theater
into the daylight,
and he were
soliciting strangers
for bit parts
in the inevitable

Here even the theater won’t stay put; we can’t say when we are and aren’t in it. The speaker has twenty bucks and splits it with the mugger, who waits for him faithfully when he goes to make change. And so you and I float on, and later in the poem, in a leap that gives me a joy I also cannot explain, the speaker abruptly addresses “your recently successful / run for Congress. / Or, more precisely, your sudden disappearance / as a recognizable self / during the campaign.” This Ashbery-ish attentive syntactical drift, which in Killebrew becomes a breeziness of understated intelligence—aren’t we all regular guys? is this not the ocean?—is a means continually to implicate everyone on any side of this speech. We’re caught, unsure if we’re accuser or accused. So that lines like “States are built on / promises like you” both affirm and condemn us. Maybe another way to say this is that I become momentarily aware of the posture of ethics as posture: as we raise a hand, prosecutorial, righteousness blooms then fades and speech tumbles on: “All / we have seen / is fifteen feet / of road, and yet, / here we are, / the Treaty of Versailles.” If there could be an app this self-aware, one of these days in some poem Killebrew will simultaneously design, critique, and dissolve it, as he does with other conceptual art projects others would be thrilled just to dream up (e.g., the excerpt from his new “Negro Yachtsmen I Have Known,” just published on Thermos). But given all this, what makes Ethical Consciousness so funny?

ZS: Probably the same quality that has caused me, in the year I have known Paul outside of admiring his books, to present him with the following gifts: a set of Alf trading cards, a pair of spy glasses (with mirrors to let you see behind you), a bottle of bourbon chosen for the rad eagle on it. In the book, there are several kinds of humor, many of them played straight (that is, no pause for a laugh track):

a) There’s the humor that emerges from the kind of intricately whimsical concepts you mention. In “Experiment,” for example, the speaker of the poem—let’s call him Paul Killebrew—tries to pass through a wall  by tuning “the particles / in my body / to align / with the empty / spaces between / the particles / of the wall.” This is stoner science presented soberly, as though any such experiment will, even in failing, reveal something about the nature of the world, and so it does. 

b) There’s the humor of one-liners, often tinged with pseudo-profundity, foregrounding not just the punchline but the point of view of one who takes the joke seriously. Like the start of the first poem in the book: “My disease, if I / have one, is life / in its entirety.” Which is both funny and not at all. Or the start of “Deliveries,” in which a few one-liners stack up: “Does the vacuum cleaner / mind / that it’s in the lake? / What am I today, the news?”

c) There’s the humor of discombobulation. Which can come from gentle blips in expected or conventional usage (“The dominant / palette was / 1961”; “Now everyone has his eye”) or from larger deviations (the end of “Actually Present,” e.g., which goes “Something / something something, something / something something”). In that poem, and others, this perspective can turn the represented world into geometrical configurations that recall the unfinished landscapes at the edges of video games; thought becomes similarly configured, programmatic and disoriented (“but I wanted to rearrange thin bars of thought / into a ladder-like system of total devotion”; “I lived mostly as a walk / through frozen iterations of a neighborhood”). Still attentive, but trippily so. So that “flecks of consciousness / bending along / contours of the soul” reveal “never more surface, / just more tension / as the surface / spreads.” That isn’t funny, exactly. But it tilts your head like a joke might be in the works. But then the set-up continues past the point of any bada bing… 

One could go on. Another type—or related aspect—of humor in the book is a kind of exuberant glee that is present in even moments of graver reflection (“Just simmer down, silverware,” begins “Teach Me to Box”). I think this glee is similar to the fabulous painting by David Rathman on the book’s front and back covers. It’s worth mentioning that while you and I were living in a place in which we were lonely, I often enjoyed watching this video of a Neil Young performance. My theory was that everyone we knew and missed had a corresponding avatar in the crowd shots, so watching the video was a way to hang out with them. This cover is a lot like that, and perhaps humor in the book is, too, offering a way of looking that reorients things, and then extends beyond comedy. Or emerges from a kind of—should I call it sadness?—emotional need that makes the concepts, the one-liners, the discombobulations feel necessary.

HP: They do feel necessary, and beyond comedy, so that I laugh when I’m reading but not when I’m remembering. Because—and this too is a quality these poems’ share with the best comedy—there is a way (tilt your head and you’ll see it) that these poems are indictments and the charges serious. I don’t mean that this is their sole or lasting function. But it is a function: gleefully, amiably enough, we indict and are indicted by ourselves. But who’s we, who is in these poems? I agree with you and Neil that it may be everybody. I wish I could say how Killebrew does this, how diverse speech acts, welcomed into this intimate, tricksy voice, become diverse people, people who then encounter each other in a society as troubling as the one we live in. What I mean is something like: “the implacable now / takes me back inside / the government compound, enveloped / by its pressed brown gravel and humorless / architecture, an architecture that anticipates me / like a fact anticipates being buried.” Or that I too am waiting “for someone to stand up and insist that I, / for all my faults, am really just a compendium, / not blameless, exactly, but also not worth calculating, / past the decimal” (from “For David Park”). 

Really all I’m saying is that I’ve been living in these poems since last winter when I first read them, and I think you’re in there too. And I want to live in his new work, which—we’re in luck—Thermos published yesterday. Meet me there?

Living Review: Robert Fernandez’s “Pink Reef”

For this living review of Pink Reef, I talked for awhile with Dan Rosenberg about two poems from the book. It was a natural tack to take: our respective poetry classes recently read the book in common and discussed it at length in an e-mail exchange, part of the PXP program that Robert Fernandez will participate in a couple weeks from now.

The nature of the living review is to occupy a wider swath of time than ordinary in living with and thinking about a book. The dialogue that follows is, then, a beginning — something Dan and I will return to in time, as different poems or different ideas strike us. Please find the poems discussed, reprinted from Pink Reef, below the text of our dialogue. — AS


AS: [“I am shrill”] feels to me, even early on, like a departure from the general tenor of Pink Reef. The speaker is isolated as he appears to me to be in most of these poems, but is in a distinct physical space, behind the veil of a waterfall, bringing a strange lucidity to the act of perception.


DR: It’s funny that you’d refer to it as “lucidity,” since lucid is derived from lux, light, which plays such a central role here.


AS: Right. But I’m thinking of it in terms of the other kind of lightness — like a feather falling. I think of snakes, for instance, as having a sort of heaviness about them — a gravity, a specific weight. But with all this water and color falling around, the snakes cooling themselves seem to me to be relieved of that heaviness. They become cool in the way that water becomes mist. They are light. Perhaps in the sense of illumination that you mean, as well.


DR: I wonder if this poem unites the two? When my students wanted to talk about this one, they focused on the permeability of the landscape here, how the repeated “take their color” shifts from a literal reading (“falling water / & the sky” do lend color to things) to more imaginative and impossible bleed-throughs. The odalisques receive not just the reasonable color that comes from light refracted in water, but also the unreasonable but suggestive color reflecting from the snakes.


AS: I’m struck by how unified the poem actually is, how direct — whether or not it’s unifying the different sorts of lightness we’re discussing. The litany of things you mention, each of them giving color to the odalisques, seem at first to be conditional, suggested — but in fact there’s nothing conditional about the poem. It’s pure statement. The act of perception is over at the outset, isn’t it?


DR: I agree entirely that the language is unconditional, potent here — but I actually tend to think of this poem as a process of discovery, as the magic by which perception is transmuted into beauty. There is something so insistently visual about this poem despite its opening claim to shrillness. It seems obsessed with the interpermeability of landscape and body (or am I just obsessed with that and seeing it here?), of the material and the immaterial. I know that Robert claims among his predecessors the surrealists, and I can see their fundamental project of bringing together public and private realities as a driving force here, and in the book in general. (That’s another of my obsessions. Do I just love this book because it lets me think about what I want to think about?)


AS: [“we become soft”] is another poem I’d call “insistently visual” — another poem water moves through. In this case it wells up, it comes pooling through blue holes with all the weight in it that I saw drained from [“I was shrill”]. The speaker’s condition is more complicated here, however. The poem opens with a surreal transformation of the plural speaker into “soft / light in purple wafers,” but then that plural speaker disappears (almost) entirely into another permeable waterscape.


DR: Does the speaker disappear, or is the rest of the poem a litany of transformation? Grammatically, we could read this poem as a list of things the “we” becomes — which, indeed, erases the speaker by making them everything.


AS: I think that’s probably the most interesting way to read the syntax, but it’s not definitive — I can as easily see the transformation you’re talking about finish off in the second couplet.


DR: Yes, or even the first.


AS: And it’s this richness of choice in terms of how to treat the speaker as transformed into or observant of the waterscape that makes this the more satisfying poem of the two we’ve discussed.


DR: Are you trying to start a fight, Stallings?


AS: See, [“I was shrill”] is rich and direct in its sonic qualities, and I take a lot of pleasure in that. But while the series of statements that make up its landscape of perception are interesting, and resolve in another purity, the beauty of rainbow light, I’m ultimately left with a single understanding of that landscape, a single perceived thing that hinges on each listed thing’s relation to the odalisques. But in [“we become soft”], the complexity achieved by the transformation of the plural speaker into “soft / light in purple wafers” carries through the rest of the poem’s opening out, suggesting and then attaining a spiritual level that the first poem, for me anyhow, does not.


DR: I agree on the relative syntactic stability of the first poem, but I have to take issue with the notion that such stability limits the landscape to a single significance. When I think about how that poem unfurls I find myself following trails of thought — how this poem creates its physical reality, how it’s a poem of creation, how its gleeful embrace of the impossible goes unremarked (as if all this color-swapping is natural, as it might be in a dream), etc. — all buoyed by the sonic and imagistic pleasures you described.


AS: What you’re saying is that you see the first poem as also attaining a spiritual level. And I would agree with that, upon reflection. The two poems are more similar even than I’d thought to begin with, perhaps. Their motions are different, their syntaxes are different, but they’re aimed in a direction that is, if not exactly the same, similar. Like most of Robert’s poetry, they move with, or toward, spirit.

from Pink Reef

I am shrill,
barking through

a waterfall
at black rock

these odalisques
on the moss

take their color
from the falling water
& the sky

take their color
from the snakes
that cool themselves

& drink
between the rocks

take their color
from the fine

the rainbow’s

from Pink Reef

we become soft
light in purple wafers,

a depth of

blue holes

in the limestone

& spirits,


from limestone punctures,

manta rays,

in limestone fountains

Living Review: Caryl Pagel’s “Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death”

(Note: a living review is one intended to occur over the lifespan of a book — one naturally encounters a book of poems over a year or a decade rather than a day or a week, in which sense to fully review a book for purchase shortly after it appears can seem a disingenuous proposition, if a valuably disingenuous proposition. This review form is intended as an alternative, a record or representation of one reader’s ongoing relationship with a book. It is meant to expand and alter with time, each response integral to the whole and thus not replaced but amplified or reframed by a later thought. Check back. –AS)


available here

Caryl Pagel’s first book has a sense of humor. It isn’t the first thing you’ll notice, it’s rather grim, and I sometimes wonder if I’ve imagined it, but no, it’s there, most evidently in “Common Plant & Animal Names (Existing & Not Existing),” also notably in the sonnets she called in her public letter “gothic, spooky” — especially “A War-Time Parade” and “Gravedigger.”

I suppose I could make a likelier statement, but it seems worthwhile to note that this undercurrent exists in a book that has, for good reason, been taken to be rather deadly in its serious matter and its serious impact.

I see it here:

                       I glimpse this minute your syrupy skull
                       bobbing along & cracking itself half-
                       open into a grin           Who can still           tell
                       if that’s my arm waving HELLO?           You who–
                       yooo whooo–can you?

and here:

                       Because I am the Gravedigger I can
                       no longer be the Mayor

and truth be told, even here:

                                                                                He says: I
                       watched in awe
           Says: I’ll tell you what
           I’ll tell: The small one ate
                       the large one on — his first flight out

That’s funny, right?

And seeing it here as an undercurrent, I confess that I begin to see it everywhere. The humor of deepest anxiety, the agape mouth confronted with true and crushing irony, true and overwhelming wonder. And thinking this way, I go so far as to imagine that the ending of “Verdical Hallucination,” NOT FUNNY, NOT AT ALL, has some amount of humor in it. It can’t be. I must be crazy, it’s a trick of reading I’m playing on myself.

Except, except: I think it actually isn’t.


Close cousin to this kind of funny is terrified. Terrified is what I am reading “Levitation” and “A Vision,” the opening and closing poems in Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death. In a completely different way, I am terrified reading some of Cesaire’s poems. That aside, I can’t think of other poems that genuinely make my skin crawl:

                                                                                                       After recording a blank mouth slack hands
           straight back           all will conclude that what one witnesses is made: string smoke mirrors
           It is           not The walls hum & quake; a grim audible gasp escapes the lips of a           lady


           See: there are dark soldiers at my back

           They compose an army

           This morning I am aware that if I take one step forward they will take one step forward

           If I take one step back I will join them

The key to my terror is the remarkable calm with which these lines are delivered. Though they seem to come from the furthest reaches of nightmare, the images are related so lucidly and with such simplicity that I am forced to confront them as ordinary occurrence. And they may well be ordinary occurrence — but damned if that isn’t the most frightening thought I’ve had in awhile.

On Caryl Pagel’s “The Sick Bed”

Even as my own editor, I consider myself honored and lucky to have the opportunity to write about one of my favorite poems. I wish I could say everything about this poem; but then, there’s the poem, for that. — AS

On Caryl Pagel’s “The Sick Bed”

To whom does a ghost most dearly mean, and when? Is it more intensely known when encountered, or when anticipated but not yet encountered? Are there ghosts of the ill as there are ghosts of the dead? May one sit, in more than a metaphorical manner, with the ghost of a living person, if that person is ill or dying? What about with the ghost of oneself?

For all the countless times I’ve read this poem, quickly or closely, I confess that I can’t yet claim to comprehend with clarity the relationships between the speaker and illness, the speaker and death, illness and death, the speaker and the patient, the patient and death, all these things and ghostliness. Is the speaker ill? Dying? Is she rather attending a patient fallen ill? Is that person dying? I feel the room of the sick bed haunted by all these possibilities, by conditions not yet settled.

The image that best defines the physical space:

            May your light strum from
            a dust torn window

The room itself is spectral. It tenuously admits something ghostly. In this matter at least, my inability to clearly define relationships among things feels like an asset.


A poem of magisterial stillness. Though the narrative circumstance for the speaker at times seems to border on shame, and is always lined entirely with tension, the poem itself evokes a stillness so remote that it might be etched into a different century altogether (and maybe this sentence is falsely opposed: after all, what is more full of tension, more full of deniable potential, than a stillness?).

One source of that stillness is entrapment. Muted, perhaps largely voluntary, the speaker as nurse or vigil-keeper, or the speaker as beset by illness, anyhow in a state of entrapment brought about by illness — that state which obliterates all other concern by force of simple need. For comfort, for relief. Prostrate condition in which one may promise anything at all but may not act.

Words in this poem often are caught between meanings in much the same manner as the vigil-keeper at a death is caught between life and death (as surely as the dying). The poem’s second section evokes this most succinctly: “Gone uncaught / un-lit or flown” contains an almost total negation of motion or its possibility, but in no sense a negation of the conditions of entrapment or stillness. The word “left” in the section’s penultimate line seems to me to occupy such a space between meanings.


There is an aspect of reading in contemporary poetry that I’ve struggled to articulate: I don’t know how to explain the satisfaction I take in sitting with a line, or a pattern of line break, that suggests, but doesn’t force, ambiguities. Consider this line, from the first section of “The Sick Bed”:

            What made me mean body

Although the line seems in most readings to pick up on something unfinished in the lines that precede it, and there is a certain ambiguity therefore already in the line as a physical and rhetorical space, I’m most concerned with the ambiguity in the sentence itself, located in the word “mean.”

If taken literally as it seems to be meant, that is, as a probing reconsideration of something the speaker said (or anyhow felt or thought) in a past moment, the line ends the poem’s first section on a rich note of consternation — one is as moving sparingly through a room, pausing at the window but not really looking out, astonished by the capability of the self for error.

On the other hand, there’s no keeping entirely out the connotation of lowliness or basicness in the word “mean.” The implications of a full acceptance of that connotation are striking, as the “you” and “he” that have dominated the section (I take it someone has died, though it isn’t certain) then serve a purpose additional to what they already have, as a prod for the speaker to consider her own bodily meanness. Which taking Ammons into account, I might then consider either as a reflection on mortality and smallness, or as the root of a sort of awe forthcoming in the particularity of the lowly — a sort of awe that might easily be seen as arising from a death or the depths of an illness.

Which double root is the point, to an extent: attempts to settle ambiguity in one direction or another lead to other ambiguities. The syntax of this poem — of many poems, but of this — is wonderfully full of decisions that can’t be made definitively. When considered against the stanza (for instance, the many ways words might organize into sentence in the passage “may your head fall empty / illness find / approaching graveness” — the line breaks guide choice to an extent, but they don’t entirely close off the possibility of reading syntax as “empty illness” and “find approaching”) or section or poem as a whole, however, what I find I encounter is not a poem, but a poem and several ghosts of a poem, each of them whole.

Does it go at all beyond the pride of recognition to consider questions of this sort? Is it ultimately academic? Egotistical? I think it isn’t, though clearly I have enough doubts that I’m willing to list them.

Tell me, though — does this sort of pausing, considering, though it ultimately leave one uncertain, feel worthwhile to you, valuable? It’s nothing new I’m describing: if you’ve read much poetry, you’ve considered this yourself much as I have here. Ambiguity (of one sort or another) is a defining characteristic of most contemporary poetry worth reading. But in and of itself, does it make a given poem one worth reading? Can it carry poems, for you, like it carries this poem, for me?


Or maybe what carries this poem, for me, is not ambiguity at all. Maybe it’s the moments of absolute clarity that punctuate the poem’s later sections:

            That day became
            a broken ear

for instance, or:

            Prayer shuts one from page


            Exception: unseen

            Please let me leave unseen

These statements are as perilously balanced, as artfully constructed, as the moments of ambiguity I’ve found such richness in; but they have a character of desperation to them that even the stillness of ambiguity can’t quite attain. What’s released from a state of betweenness must emerge with the urgency that drove it forth still somehow attendant upon it? I can’t commit to something like that.

But then again, what’s more urgent than a ghost?

What’s Out There

THERMOS editor Jay Thompson on poetry criticism around the Web.

What sustains you in poetry? Who do you trust for recommendations of new books? If you’re out of school, what’s your network? If you’re in school, what’s your counterbalance? Who bugs you, who do you love? What do you want to share? Here’s some prose that’s scratched my brain this month.

The English scholar Hai-Dang Phan on Linh Dinh’s words, odors, blood and money

A really sad really short story by Steven Dixon

From the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, Bhanu Kapil writes about the notebook

A lyric essay by one of my favorite poets, Dan Beachy-Quick, on the dusty odd collector and splinterer Martin Corless-Smith

Stinger six years old but still sharp: Steve Evans on “The Resistible Rise of Fence Enterprises”

An old essay by Mary Kinzie (thanks to Michael Theune for referring me to this) questioning poetry as apotheosis

Where do you want to be published? Success, memoir, idealism against materiality, and the “omnipresent Line”: Jennifer Moxley interviewed by Noah Eli Gordon

A funeral-garland future: Joyelle McSweeney on the “future” of “poetry”

What are you reading these days?

An Appreciation: on Lucas Bernhardt’s “Infidelities of Coal” in THERMOS 3

What do we like in what we choose? Every so often, we’ll publish a short appreciation by one of THERMOS’s editors of a poem from the current issue. Here’s Jay on a poem in issue 3 (available online in its entirety soon!), with the poem following:

“Like a piece of ice on a hot stove,” said American poetry’s saddest-eyed Yankee backwoodsman, “the poem must ride on its own melting.”

Robert Frost meant, I think, the way a poem slips ahead. O’Hara’s “Vaguely I hear the purple roar of the torn-down Third Avenue El” sliding forward to “the captured time of our being”; or Elizabeth Bishop’s “The moon in the bureau mirror” to “and you love me.” This effortlessness is easy to love: I don’t notice how close the poem is to its own extinction, until—fft!—the lifespan of its thought is vaporously, unavoidably up.

I recognize this slide, maybe, from my day-to-day moments’ thoughts, the dumb predestiny I sense in my own attention: purple sign neon recalling a dream I had about a truck with amethyst mudflaps; a man scraping snow off his windshield outside the café, then inside dabbing whipped cream off his baby daughter’s nose. Whole before my reason could sort, done seemingly as soon as I fully see. The poem’s lifespan is likewise dictated (cube volume, burner heat, strength of toss) like a law of physics.

It’s this elegance of gesture—rhetoric, form, and frame—that I can’t get enough of in Lucas Bernhardt’s “Infidelities of Coal,” a forty-four-line, single-sentence heroic loser of a poem from the new issue of Thermos.

The poem’s formal body is restless, but its imagery slides in a few tight circles. Regret glints in the eye like a diamond, the self smolders into coal ash, coal whose diamond finality outsmarts the earth it hid in, the diamond the self ends up as tiny on a fiancé’s finger. The heart of the argument is “words outsmart us.” The last word of the poem is “proscribed.” Is coal faithless for being anonymous (untraceable back to its origin) or for shifting form (into diamonds)? The labor the poem clearly required feels light in reading—what a blessing! It also radiates the warmth of a joke. Then it’s done. Fft!

Here’s Lucas’s poem.

Infidelities of Coal
by Lucas Bernhardt

The difference between
saying What’s funny
about having
a reputation
for doing things you
regret at parties is

and thinking first
of confidantes
beneath leaves, napping
like gnats in the
afternoon, swarming
toward dusk, then of
the smoldering, always
approximating self,
more hooked than
awhirl, a thread
of ash looking back
at the crawling
coal, and finally
of regret itself
resting with its wings
tucked across
its back like a
closed pair of scissors,
housed in the eye,
glinting in the facets
of the eye, is
that our words
outsmart us the way
a diamond out-
smarts a seam,
a miner outsmarts
a diamond, a boss
outsmarts a miner,
etc., and even
if the diamond-cutter
does sometimes
grimace, there we are
atop the fiance’s
finger wondering
why, if our lives
are so important,
they should be
so proscribed.