Archive for the ‘Caryl Pagel’ Category

Caryl Pagel: Two New Poems

Our extended feature of Caryl Pagel ends today, with these two new poems from her forthcoming H_NGM_AN book, titled Twice Told. Thanks so much to Caryl, and to everyone who has had anything to say these couple weeks about her and her poetry. Please check back in the future for additions and updates to this feature, and take time in a few months to purchase and read her new collection, or to order any of the editions published by Rescue Press. — AS

The Badlands

You note there is a hole
for where the heart once was
and a horizon for where the
eye was once and an absence
for where the animals–once–were
watching                                   The bloody buffalo body–once
tender and upright–was pierced you
heard through the heart that is
now the hole in the growing
hollow of a grey frame                                   Your
friend the painter claimed that this
was the wild west and in
the wild west there is nothing
else to be gained but further
destruction                                   Your friend the painter paints
something that is not a bleeding
and something that is not meaning
but instead reveals the vision of
a version of the story that
you couldn’t quite believe had emerged
yet                                   Imagine a massive animal body
slow and wait                                   It freaks and
breaks                                   Imagine the animal body dropped
in death amidst great waves of
winter plains–stained by bitter crimson
notes in an unknown language                                   Imagine
the figure–implied by the hole–that
in this particular case records the
presence of the prey that never
ambled                                   Recall that at first there
was no legend                                   So you started
with fauna                                   You started with the
hunt and knew that if he
could paint the lack of animals
then you could pen LAST–and
BUFFALO–and HEART–and it would
happen                                   You could write of frantic
paths stamped through the badlands and
radical lady sharpshooters and robbers rampant
on the lamb and flowers                                   You
could write of the tallgrass                                   You
could write of the green                                   You
could write of the roiling sea
some settlers saw in the rolling wheat
while walking–famished and desperate–toward
far coasts and freedom                                   You could
mention horizons that signaled flight or
the brittle Midwest landscape that swallowed
families whole–or the circus of
tired humans that–once upon a
time–one could pay to watch
paraded through a small town                                   You
could write of how everything that
dies is eventually archived                                   Of railroads
and radios and posts and the
single survivor whom you both had
decided in her brash and somber
splendor captured the very last buffalo
heart in all the land to
make a bare and daring gift
of it to her sullen lover and–
once disregarded–this action marked the
end of the wild west and
the beginning of our tame days

Four Dead Men

He took a solitary walk across
the region                                   He couldn’t stop he
couldn’t stop he couldn’t pause he
couldn’t stop he sought to circle
the space                                   He needed to circle
the space you see                                   He needed
to see the place you see
he could only fathom the place
he knew you see if he
saw it plainly as he circled
and you heard that he recorded
his thoughts on the walk at
the hospital                                   His walk began–so
the story goes–as the dog
days were drawing to an end

It was the finish of one
mood and his commencement of another
He was going to conclude unmoving
he knew you see he would
eventually break down immobile you know
only realizing in retrospect–after the
act of walking–but before recording–
that he could remember the faces
he encountered if he began to
watch once more–if he took
a walk around the region in
his mind–if he recalled the
damage that he’d done and wrote
it down                                   At that time this
man–this first dead man–was
attempting to make things appear you
see he was attempting to reclaim
that which in his mind had
wholly vanished                                   He was feeling–in
fact–a little apparitional                                   He was
attempting to think himself healthy you
know he wanted to walk himself
well and so he wrote down
what he saw and you experienced
what he saw within the stretched
and spooky spiraling sentences that unraveled
and expanded as a rough path
parallels a road that no one
is headed down                                   They wouldn’t stop
He couldn’t stop                                   He disclosed you
know in prose the destruction of
important historical buildings                                   He witnessed the
wreck of ancient languages                                   He saw
old ruins which recalled him to
new ruins some of which he
was seeing again in his mind
and some of which he read
about and some of which you
were reading about him reading about
and some of which he knew
from the very few people he
had stopped long enough to talk
to                                   This man–this first dead
man–admired the wildest gardens you
know but he also couldn’t stop
imagining his passed friends’ faces he
wrote he couldn’t stop thinking dead
strangers’ thoughts you read he couldn’t
stop                                   He couldn’t stop                                   He couldn’t
stop and didn’t want to                                   You
are shocked now abruptly up from
a page on which he is
describing the interesting history of herring
to see another man hovering–here
in your doorway                                   This other man–
this second man is living and
you love him but he can’t stop
he can’t see–you can’t stop
he can’t see he needs someone
to take him to the hospital
He needs someone to circle his
sickness                                   He needs you and only
you to circle his circles and
he needs you and only you
to attend to his sickness but
you’re not–you’re going to stop
You read instead a book about
a man who has recently been
in the hospital                                   This man is
leaving in part to see the
now empty home of a friend
who had recently passed in part
perhaps because he should have remained
in the hospital                                   Instead this man–
this third man dead–is visiting
his friend’s home just after he
died–a suicide–with the hope
that he–the third dead man–
could inhabit again the tone and
humor and luminous brilliant beautiful significant
wonderful loving tortured sorrowful stagnant angry
awesome puzzled tragic hurtful magic difficult
mind of his dear friend during
the time in which he still
survived–when this man was not
yet ill but lived instead to
write about architecture and remarkable buildings


Emily Pettit on Caryl Pagel

I met Caryl Pagel and her poems in Iowa City in 2006. When I arrived there I knew no one. At the first reading I attended in Iowa City, Caryl Pagel gave a reading that moved my heart brain — it blew it up, it built better things. It took me months to gather the courage I needed to talk to Caryl. I was in love with her poems. I was too shy to speak. In her poems I encountered ideas I needed to have regarding a new kind of caring. A caring that went hand in hand with a sort of despairing. In Caryl’s poems I saw things I needed to see, had been in search of seeing. Annuals and perennials to tend to. Systems of classification that could build bold new notions my heart brain needed to navigate. Where do we move with what is haunted? How do we move with what is haunted? How do we move?

Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. So with the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and when his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast. – William James

What William James and Caryl Pagel know is how to help other brain hearts have nuanced and necessary compassion for human capability.

Later — I read that             my body circled around the building & returned through the
opposite             pane Tell me how that is possible; I could not see it but I was there

                                                                                                                                          – Caryl Pagel

In 2008 I asked Caryl if Factory Hollow Press could publish a chapbook of her poems and she put together a stunning chapbook titled, Visions, Crisis Apparitions and Other Exceptional Experiences. I wanted people and poets I knew to know these poems I had the great privilege and proximity to get to know. I knew other people would want to know these poems too. Needed to know these poems too. Then in 2011 I asked Caryl if Factory Hollow Pres could publish her extraordinary first book Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death. I knew other people would want to know these poems too. Needed to know these poems too.

Tell me I’m still here           Am I still here?           YES!
& everyone I know is marching toward
me:           my friends           family           my father’s face
right there & exploding with delight for
having recognized me so — alright!           Laugh?
                                                                       – Caryl Pagel

Good-humor is a philosophic state of mind; it seems to say to Nature that we take her no more seriously than she takes us. I maintain that one should always talk of philosophy with a smile. – William James

I’ve taught Caryl Pagel’s poems a lot in poetry workshops that I’ve led and witnessed her poems put people on new paths of discovery, new paths of daring, new paths of dedication.

Vision, the idea of vision, a spectrum of visions, what vision might mean is where the work one’s heart brain gets access to through Caryl Pagel’s poems.

Romance & mystery & physiology & psychology & philosophy & truth & knowledge & reality & introspection & emotions & death & life & interpretations & pragmatism & epistemology & biology & the body & empiricism & ritual & reason & experimentation — are only a few of the ideas that one will encounter when one encounters Caryl Pagel’s poems and prose. Everything I know and want to know and need to know about Negative Capability can be encountered in Caryl’s work. I am eternally grateful to know Caryl’s poems and person.

Caryl Pagel: “–Why a chapbook, in general?” (Re-printed)

Nearly three years ago, we ran a prose piece of Caryl’s in which she spoke at wonderful length about the chapbook form, and her experience of it and love for it. At the time, she’d recently had a chapbook of her own published, and had recently published a chapbook of Shane McCrae’s via Rescue Press. We’d call this a “Public Letter” if we ran it for the first time today, but we hadn’t thought of it yet in 2010. Anyhow, enjoy. — AS

THERMOS had occasion this past spring to ask this question (and others) of  two-time contributor, Rescue Press editor, and all-around phenomenon Caryl Pagel. We liked the results of that casual query so much that we decided to offer them here, for general consideration.

1. Chapbooks prioritize art and design.

In my experience, chapbook presses are often more concerned with the aesthetics of the object of the book than many other types of presses, even small book presses. Publishers of chapbooks start not just with a passion for poetry and art, but also with visions of dynamic covers, exotic fonts, experimental stitching, and intense paper quality dancing in their imagination. For example, one might look at the gorgeous covers and production language on Press Press Press. The books on this site are not all chapbooks, but most are, and most take pride in explaining the care that went into producing a limited amount of copies of the object that presents the poems: “thread-bound,” “letter-pressed,” “hand sewn,” “vellum inlay,” “archival quality,” etc. The care implies a commitment to the work, and to the time and struggle of creating a book.

(Also, see DIAGRAM’s comments about a chapbook as an art form.)

A few years ago, when I published a chapbook with Factory Hollow Press, the editors encouraged author involvement in the look of the book. They let me choose the image and design the cover. This level of participation might not have mattered much to everyone, but it did to me. Often poets have an image in mind, or a vision of colors, or at least a vague notion of the kind of visual experience they hope their readers to have. At many larger publishing houses the author signs away any right to what their book looks like. The cover of my chapbook, Visions, Crisis Apparitions, and Other Exceptional Experiences, is a photograph from the University of Iowa archives. The photo shows an operating theater at the turn of the last century; full theater, empty table. The image is spooky, haunting, and incredibly compelling to me on many levels that (I think, I hope) relate to the experimental and emotive forces behind the poems. Also, the theater was what existed in the building (Seashore Hall, Iowa City) where I’ve worked every summer for five years, and where I wrote many of the poems that appear in the chapbook. It was important to me at the time to associate what I was writing with the history of the place where I was writing it.

Other beautiful chapbooks presses:

Cosa Nostra Editions

Dancing Girl Press

Horseless Press

Octopus Books

Pilot Books

Tarpaulin Sky

2. Chapbooks are quiet, intimate, private.

The first chapbook I ever bought was The Genuine Negro Hero, by Thomas Sayers Ellis, published by the Wick Poetry Chapbook Series in 2001. It is 32 pages long with 14 poems. It was my first introduction to Thomas Sayers Ellis’ poetry. There was something about the minimalism of the design, the care in arrangement, and the utter simplicity of production that made what happened on the inside seem (even before I read the poems) of utmost importance. Stripped of image, or any sort of accompanying marketing, I felt as if it was just my mind and the verse (which is, I suppose, how one should always feel while reading poetry), and as if my reading of those poems could/would change one of our lives, which it did (mine). I read the chapbook once and immediately read it again. I memorized lines, thought about music, and studied specific line breaks, turns, images. This is not to say that I would not have loved Sayers Ellis’ work if my first encounter had been with a full-length collection—but I know that at that point in my life it was more manageable, more magical, more memorable to carry a few poems with me than to attempt to fully comprehend four times the amount of starts and stops. Reading poetry can be, for me, utterly exhausting. Why not start/stay small? Learn specific sounds? Commit a few poems to heart? Why not step into the vision of the author completely—live in/with less, more? Chapbooks encourage one to think about size and mode and process of publication. Emily Dickinson famously shared her work by gifting tiny collections of poems in letters—she stitched her pieces in fascicles, kept her gatherings small. Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III (a “full length” book) is only 50 pages with 10 poems, and could certainly have been closer to 30 pages if the design was not as spaced out. What is a chapbook? Is it defined by cost, process, length, distribution? I don’t know. These people have a sort-of definition.

Other examples of chapbooks that I continue to think about more often—and with a greater sense of intimacy—than larger collections are: Elizabeth Whitehead’s “a pilgrim’s traveling kit” (Cosa Nostra Editions), Nick Twemlow’s “Your Mouth Is Everywhere” (Racquetball Tournament Press), and John Taggart’s “Unveiling/Marianne Moore” (Atticus/Finch).

Also, another interesting aspect of chapbooks and chapbook presses is that often the work is solicited. This is not always the case, but when it is—as with Factory Hollow—the press slowly develops an aesthetic personality, hopefully one that is curious, wide-ranging, and idiosyncratic; one that acts as the personal library of a few exploratory readers.

3. Chapbooks (because they are not created with large sales/audiences in mind) can be chaotic, experimental, multi-genre, hybrid, and strange.

See: Michelle Taransky’s “The Plans Caution” (Queue), The Cupboard Pamphlet series, Craig Dworkin’s “Dure” (Cuneiform), The Song Cave’s single poem collections, or Brave Men Press’ “Coincides:” .

4. Chapbooks are “local.”

Chapbook presses often prioritize specific communities and coteries over a single selection from a large slush-pile of books. They remain “local” in spirit, small in size (although often nationally read and appreciated). I personally do not think that one of these processes is better than the other. We need both Springsteen and Bon Iver. I guess that much of what I have to say about chapbooks could be interchangeable with small presses, independent journals, and local reading series in general. It’s exciting to think about all of these groups that try to engage with local communities, and that can be found everywhere: New Orleans, Chicago, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Omaha, Cincinnati, etc. Not just New York. Independent chapbook presses and authors are not bound by the same fiscal and marketing concerns of larger institutions. That’s a big reason for my personal enthusiasm for publishing a chapbook. I can’t say that I was thinking as much about theme or selection, or publishing format while I was writing the poems, but when the opportunity to publish with Factory Hollow came along I couldn’t have been more excited to give my work to a small, loving, innovative, group of smart readers and writers. I also enjoyed choosing 12 poems that weren’t necessarily thematically linked originally—and noticing the strange themes and echoes and obsessions that inevitably exist within one’s work at any given time. Putting it together felt like curating a small show, or making a mix tape: I attempted to pay close attention to order and arrangement, to tiny patterns of language and sound, to formal similarities, and tonal shifts. I don’t know if it was successful at every turn, but certainly an exciting act of gathering.

Rescue Press has recently published their first chapbook, Shane McCrae’s In Canaan. Here are the details:

“In Shane McCrae’s astonishing second chapbook, In Canaan, he inhabits the personae of the escaped slave Margaret Garner, who, in the mid-1800s, murdered one of her daughters in order to keep her from returning to slavery. “I couldn’t stop/Hurting her because it hurt,” writes McCrae in the voice of Garner, “Before that night     I never had the chance to love     / Anyone/ she was the first     person I loved.” McCrae composes in broken forms and shattered fragments, retelling a harrowing historical story through the imagined first-person point of view of its tortured and terrified heroine.”

Rescue Press publishes work by activists, artists, craftsmen, entrepreneurs,list-makers, philosophers, poets, scientists, writers, and creative thinkers of all kinds. They are interested in small collections of artwork, comics, compositions, essays, experiments, how-tos, interrogations, lectures, lists, manifestos, notes, outlines, poetry, procedures, questions, reviews, sketches, stories, technical prose, textbooks, travel writing, and anything else that transforms them. Rescue Press is a library of chaotic and investigative work.

Order In Canaan at Rescue Press, and read McCrae’s recent Safety Book at the Rescue Blog.

An Interview With Caryl Pagel (Re-printed)

I had forgotten that Caryl Pagel inaugurated this blog four years ago with the interview re-printed below. I hadn’t forgotten the interview — how could I? — but I had forgotten that it was the first thing we printed. It seems natural that it should have been. If you’re so inclined, you can read the original post here: it has a picture, where this re-print does not.

Each month, THERMOS conducts an interview with a past contributor. Our poet for July is Caryl Pagel, whose wonderful chapbook, Visions, Crisis Apparitions, and Other Exceptional Experiences, published in 2008, is available from Factory Hollow Press.

Caryl answers our questions about craft, and offers a new poem.

THERMOS: How does what you’re writing now differ from the poems we published?

CARYL PAGEL: Formally, what I’m writing now is more “traditional”—a try at structure, stress, counting. The poem that was published in Thermos (“Hear One Cry Out”) was part of a longer series that struggled to create a very specific physical space—both within the poems and within an imagined world. Many of those pieces are punctuated by “horizon lines,” and account for certain uncanny and terrifying occurrences that take place at a fictional farm. More recent poems (a small collection of which can be found in my chapbook) include gaps, in-betweens, and the spaces that separate religion from spiritualism, war from chaos, flora from art, memory from grief. They attempt to question the act of naming as tribute, or collection—and the practice of investigating and labeling nature removed. There are storms, wars, levitations. Appearances by William James, D.D. Home, Hareward Carrington. They unfold within restraints (sonnets, blank verse, syllabics, etc.) in hopes of highlighting the “scientific” sense of the subjects.

TH: How important is thinking about poetic movements — contemporary, historical, conceptual — to your ideas about the poems you write or would like to write? Do you see your writing as participating in identifiable aesthetic traditions, impulses, or communities? As trying to change or invent them?

CP: Not very important, at least not to my writing. Movements become forms, and although I’m interested in structural forms, it would be claustrophobic (to me) to commit to an ideological, thematic, or conceptual form for an extended period of time (life?). I participate in many traditions—a bit from here, a bit from there—but I hope that each new poem, or project disrupts the “rules” or obsessions of my last poem or project—that it creates its own limitations. At least, it’s helpful for me to believe that. Currently, I’m thinking about what sort of aesthetic tradition or poetics might come from the mixed influence of Inger Christensen, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Taggart.

TH: What were some of the first poems/poets you loved? How do they seem to you now? How do they relate to your own work?

CP: Some of the first poets I loved: Mike Ness, Ian MacKaye, Tim Armstrong, Glenn Danzig, Iggy Pop. The first formal poem I ever wrote was a pantoum about Ian MacKaye. The list still seems relevant, but lacking in girls. Perhaps that explains my current (on-the-page) favorites: Dickinson, Niedecker, Moore, Guest, Christensen—and also, my love for the dynamic music and emotion in Berryman and Hopkins.

TH: If you had to give a brief lecture on some aspect of poetry right now, what would you enchant us with?

CP: Spiritualism, the occult, dark matter.

Dark matter composes more mass than non-dark matter (what’s seen). In other words, apparently, there is more to account for in nothing than in something. Can this lecture be all questions?

A few months ago, I attended a Café Scientifique discussion on dark matter at The Map Room, a Chicago bar—the source of much practical information. We had trouble hearing the scientists through the din, but left transformed anyway.

TH: How do you feel about the different formats you have been or could be published in (established journals, newer journals, chapbooks, books, online, limited-edition projects)? Which particularly suits your poems?

CP: I’m drawn to print journals, still, over online, though just barely, and probably out of a nostalgia for slower pacing, more time. It’s interesting how the same poem moves differently depending on how it is published, especially long poems. My piece in Thermos is an example of that, I think. Online it seems much faster, more fluid, and “whole,” and on the page the reader pauses (visually, rhythmically) in certain moments along with the natural punctuation of a page-turn.

Last spring, I was lucky enough to have a small chapbook of poems published by Factory Hollow Press. The editors/publishers were wonderful, smart, and open to my input on how the chapbook would look and feel. I was able to design the cover, choose the size, etc.—great experiences, and ones that I know aren’t always possible when working with a larger press. I love any form that a book might come in.

TH: One of our editors, Jay Thompson, has written about your work elsewhere) and wonders about the necessity of rupture in your poetry — why do it, why scramble stories? Do you compose or conceptualize by field? By deletion? By choreography?

CP: The poems Jay mentioned (along with others from that manuscript) were primarily composed by sound, rhythm, and a desire for the disruption, interruption, and rupture of the farm “scenes.” I had a mind to sustain “plot”—though not necessarily narrative. Lots of space, moving silences. The horizon lines were both obsessive and surprising to me—a visual indication of breaking that became architecture. The poems also attempted to activate gothic tropes: suspense, doubling, a haunted house, omens, ghosts, unexplained agitation. Jay’s term—“proprioceptive”—is relevant; haunting is always physical, the apparition appearing, disappearing, appearing again elsewhere.

I also love that Jay mentions Barbara Guest in his post. Forces of Imagination, in particular, is a favorite of mine. In “A Reason for Poetics,” Guest says: “The conflict between poet and poem creates an air of mystery…Mystery with its air of surprise and, better word, audacity. At once unexpected dramas have entered the poem. The search for its originating mystery now becomes an adventure. Poet and reader perform together on a highwire strung on a platform between their separated selves.” I like the thought of the poet and reader treading the tensions of a highwire, experiencing either horrible vertigo or amazing balance depending on the other’s gestures, twitches.

TH: What’s something you noticed about the poems — or a particular poem — by other contributors in the issue of Thermos you were in? Things that intrigue you? Techniques you’d like to try or have tried? Ways you see your work as distinct from or related to other poems in the issue?

CP: Thermos (#1) contains several poems whose lines are permanently seared into my heart, along with, and alongside the “greats.” Moments of them strung together have become a jumbled, looping chant. Mis-matched lyrics to a song? When I leave my house in the morning, walking down the steps, I hear a mishmash that goes something like: “Don’t die, little lemon,” “we’re just the grief of a thread,” “I am queen,” “I am queen” “millionwindowed into earth’s closet” “Measure I. Heard you fall,” “I have lived above it forever…”

A new poem from Caryl Pagel:

Natural Science and Religion

One foot one petal off—just—just adjusting the great modern                                 debate All exper-

iments are destined to fail but by failing gain might & thrive                                         History began

with an I I cannot identify I felt an Ivy—                                                                     Ivy me The sense

of what’s seen is not absolute science but sometimes the seen                       seems best Some say if

we do the Lord’s will we will thrive but I’ll ask us what if we                                 attend to the map?

Would you remember? Read I of the robin ‘fore I spotted—                         a Throatwort wrote me

Caryl Pagel’s poems have recently appeared in Gulf Coast, GutCult, New Orleans Review, notnostrums, Parcel, and Thermos. A chapbook of her work, Visions, Crisis Apparitions, and Other Exceptional Experiences, was published by Factory Hollow Press last year. She lives in Milwaukee.

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.

Public Letter: Caryl Pagel

Dear Reader,

When I attempt to inhabit again my initial fascination with the Society for Psychical Research (and the tangled mess of tales I was introduced to through this trail of research and reading), I am always reminded of the year I spent in Iowa City, post graduate school, working for a writing program and attempting to compose a series of gothic, spooky sonnets. It was a particularly eerie year; at each turn—in a small city that by then I knew quite well—I would catch in the periphery of my vision the slippery shadows and familiar figures of friends, most of whom had left town the previous summer, and many of whom I knew I would not see again for quite some time. As part of a university fellowship I had been installed in a bleak and gorgeous A-shaped Tudor that was settled amid widening pines on the elbow of Church Street and which has since become the refuge of some other academy project. It was there that I was to dwell in a massive and cavernous space that was dark enough, bare enough, and echoic enough to create the sensation of a haunted house. The lines of the interior walls scrawled looping nooks and crannies, disclosed dreary windows, and wrote a spiral of circular pathways that drew one ever further from the center. In this house there were handsome earth black built-in bookshelves lining the walls of the library, a soot-speckled hearth, and everywhere medieval arches. At night I would startle to the creak and boom of floorboards as strangers (ghosts or guests of a roommate) stomped around the house, absent again by morning, and some evenings I perceived quick liquid shapes scurrying across the stairs or felt the heavy presence of some sinister force reach toward me through the hollows of the warped walls. At work, too, my mind was burdened with the imperceptible energies I was sure lurked around each border. The building where my office was located, Seashore Hall, was situated in a particularly difficult-to-find wing of the second floor toward which one had to aim from a specific entrance or else suffer the fate, so said A. on my first day, of endless rotation within a mostly vacant maze of corridors; I was told that our suite was—and had been for quite some time—condemned. I never knew quite what that meant but the rooms seemed to manifest themselves as a sizeable and spacious secret from which our daily proceedings were hidden from the remaining population, the irony being that the structure emerged in such a trafficked and familiar location as to stand almost invisible in the center of downtown. It was during this year that I obsessively and for the first time read Shirley Jackson’s fiction; I raced through her stories and followed with We Have Always Lived In The Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. In The Haunting of Hill House Dr. John Montague remarks (after the residents sense an apparition) that there is no actual material threat in what one cannot see. “No physical danger exists,” Montague assures us, “No ghost in all the long history of ghosts has ever hurt anyone physically… One cannot even say that the ghost attacks the mind, because the mind, the conscious, thinking mind, is invulnerable… the menace of the supernatural is that it attacks where modern minds are weakest, where we have abandoned our protective armor of superstition and have no substitute defense.” An account of a ghost is merely that, Jackson suggests: a transformative story. Seashore Hall stands seven stories tall with yellow brick walls and a human-sized rust stripe edging the base like a blood-colored flood line. In describing the building (from within its walls, years later, back in town for the same job) I find myself staring at a Googled still-shot taken by a stranger. Each morning I endeavor to recall exactly what it is I see as I enter the building but my focus fades, my mind blurs, and somehow this picture—in distance, traveling toward me from the past through backlit ether—makes the fact of the place where I sit even clearer. Seashore is nowhere near a seashore, it resides in the lowlands of Iowa. Further research leads me to a series of photographs from the university’s online archives. One particularly captivating image depicts the old operating theater that still exists in the building and I observe in the black and white picture, taken in 1905, an audience of formal, sober young male scientists who are presumably waiting to witness an instructive medical performance. The table, settled in the center of the photo, rests empty. There are tools for slicing, a sink to wash, and a clock hovering just above with vague, unreadable hands. The stage looks blank, foreground stark, and one notices that the room is tense with the stress of a procedure that has yet to occur, or, I realize, squinting—envisioning myself in the room—perhaps what we see are the remains of an experiment recently completed, possibly the patient was saved in surgery and we can all amble home or instead the poor soul has actually absented itself from its corporeal cage and is right now—this instant—occupying the atmosphere, aimlessly adrift among the very air that—a century later and in the same space—I can’t help but inhale. The spirit that escaped this photo could be searching for a door, a hole in the floor, or some other certain release from the labyrinth that is Seashore. Here, the entrances are wide enough for gurneys and there are peeling cracks in the window frames. One time I recall, in the midst of a summer storm, my co-worker’s ceiling started dripping. S.’s office was located near mine and in order to investigate the source of the leak he requested that a janitor lead him into the locked rooms right above us. When the door was opened, S. later reported, the room exposed a long and narrow, untouched and ancient space crammed with furniture from the turn of the century; there were decrepit wooden desks, crooked bookshelves, and in one corner a gorgeous rotten, damp and forgotten baby grand piano. It was here, during the year that I stuck around town, that one day while waiting out bad weather (I had misplaced my umbrella) I stumbled into the Psychology Library that was at that time concealed just around the corner from my office. When I first lifted a volume of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research off a high and grimy shelf I only rested my eyes inside its pages out of boredom. I can tell you now that I was transformed then. The text’s antiquated tone was mesmerizing; I was enchanted by the attention to indiscernible worlds as well as an urgent desire by its authors for a thorough investigation of the unknown. I was also in awe of the objects these ideas resided in; my hands refused to let the books go. The tomes implied another time through parched pages, ancient fonts, faded marginalia, and finger stains; each leaf was as cracked and fragile as the skin of a taxidermied animal, each turn a whispered message from the long dead. When I checked out every journal I could carry (later returning for the remaining), the librarian laughed as the faded crimson stamps revealed the fact that several of the volumes had not been on loan since 1931. At home I spent hours studying the lengthy and curious intros, the collections of first-hand testimonies, and the complex analyses indicating each author’s struggle to report relevant evidence. There were chapters on coincidence and hypnotism, telepathy, clairvoyants, copies of automatic writing, transcriptions of conversations with apparitions, and published confirmation of the scientists’ reservations. The journals existed in some extraordinary space between rationalism (through process, procedure) and chaos (of results, human testimony), between poetry (metaphor, connection) and fiction (character, narrative). As a result I found myself more frequently considering perceptions that occur outside of experience—beyond the senses—and how they relate to the language we employ to explain them. For example, my friend V. offered, the instant where one is sitting alone in a coffee shop, expecting no one, and feels the graze of the gaze of a stranger behind them. Or when one senses out of nowhere a friend in danger or their beloved’s trouble. In the midst of reading the Proceedings (which have taken several years to get through) curiosity has repeatedly recalled me to the work of William James—an integral member of the SPR—who, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, described the sensation of something existing that does not exist or episodes that refuse understanding by established methods: “It is as if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of which we may call ‘something there,’ more deep and more general than any of the special and particular ‘senses’ by which the current psychology supposes existent realities to be originally revealed.” For this reason James included multiple case studies in his various publications as indication of mental discernment. These informal but organized narratives read as the sort of twice told tales performed around a campfire, or, in the town in which I lived, in a crowded booth at George’s. There, on so many summer evenings we would discuss and dissect our own premonitions, sightings, and forecasts, hallucinations or insight. I now long for the sort of evidence that might have been compiled had I transcribed the conversations that occurred spontaneously in this common space, but as it is nothing remains of those ominous and instructive anecdotes but our collaboratively straining memories. I do still recall that once M. illustrated a particularly unusual nightmare predicting the man she was to marry and V. famously witnessed a family of phantoms while driving cross-country on a road trip. When he turned back, V. said, to confirm their presence, the apparitions had vanished but his passenger attests that he saw the same thing. James writes, “The unreasoned and immediate assurance is the deep thing in us… the reasoned argument is but a surface exhibition.” Explanations mutate during delivery but the SPR demonstrated that although no single story serves as absolute proof there is reality in the totality of the tellings. That year I convinced K. to explore the mute corners of Seashore with me and we rode up a trembling elevator, losing ourselves in peach and pale blue hallways that refused connection. Most rooms were closed off, whole floors were dark, and others looked like the setting of ‘70s obedience experiments. When we returned to the office R. relayed a rumor indicating the existence of underground tunnels beneath the city, one of which purportedly connects the basement of Seashore to the lower levels of the town’s old capitol. I pictured the lot of us—me and A. and S. and J. and K.—borrowing an ancient key to burrow below the building. We would descend the until-then unnoticed stairs some sunny winter morning only to approach the secret tunnel in an anxious single file. In ten steps, or maybe twelve, we would stand under Van Allen. In another half a block we’d cross beneath Biology. The tunnels—pitch black and damp—would grow difficult to breath in and after a while our flashlights would die forcing us to guess at the remains of the route in supreme bewilderment. Eventually craggy halls would slim and constrict around our bodies, their circular frame like an overworked vein in trauma. Soil walls would close in and one by one we’d sink to our knees in order to continue crawling; we’d pass through circuits of the earth, faces flushed and frozen as strangers strolling the street above shuddered at the sound of distant voices improbably gossiping underground.

THERMOS 8: Caryl Pagel

Today we close out the first week of our two-week feature of Caryl Pagel and her poetry, with selections from “The Botched Bestiary,” included in Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death. Please check back all next week for more, beginning with a public letter from Caryl on Monday, ending with new poems from her forthcoming second book, Twice Told, out with H_NGM_N this winter. — AS

Those That May Disappear

“The body [was] first described in 1843. It vanished from view after that and was presumed extinct until it was rediscovered in 1967. It is found only in Australia. The body is currently listed as endangered and a number of the populations are now considered extinct.” “The body from North America was considered…extinct in the 1980’s, but recently it has resurfaced. Little is known about the body, but what is known is very strange. It can grow up to three feet in length[,] and when handled gives off a smell like lilies. The body is believed to be able to spit in defense.” “A body has been seen often amid grim dregs and sediment.” “A body has been seen, at one time, lying on the ice. [There are] bodies of at least three different kinds: a long and shallow one, steel-colored, most like those caught in the river; a bright golden kind, with greenish reflections and remarkably deep, which is the most common here; and another, golden-colored, and shaped like the last, but peppered on the sides with small dark brown spots, intermixed with a few faint blood-red ones, very much like a body.” “There is no way of knowing the present location and conditions of these bodies.” “To be honest…if [one is] really convinced that a body is extinct, [they] don’t make a particularly strong effort to continue looking for it.” “But look. If [one] turns [their] eyes to the clouds they might be noticed.” “Bodies [are] dropping down [out of the navy,] blazing sky…” “They are no longer hidden.” “Will they come when one calls?” “Relegated for long eras to remote hiding places…[the bodies are] coming back to the light from the library’s basements…leaping from the capitals and drainpipes, perching at the sleepers’ bedside. Bodies, bodies, bodies, bodies, bodies, bodies, bodies, bodies, bodies [a]re resuming possession of their city.”

            COMMON NAMES: Basilisks, Chimeras, Dragons, Fish, Giant Palouse Earthworm,
                  Griffons, Harpies, Hirococervi, Hydras, I, New Holland Mouse, Pickerel, Sayers,
                  Species, Sphinxes, Trout, Unicorns, Vultures

Those That Require Warning

“Recall the bloated gray bodies pulled off [of] the bodies.” “Fat, half grown, with glossy dark backs.” “[Bodies are] looking to rid the area. Over a period of years, [bodies] developed obstacles, punishments, and a series of intricate studies. Blockades, barbs, barriers.” “[But,] the bodies [would] visually assess the height of the barrier and learn how to lower their bodies enough to crawl under without stopping.” “It was in the early 1970’s that the first of the horror stories about bodies appeared…In its various versions, the tale tended to tell of what natural…haters bodies are.” “The bodies’ massive onslaught spread terror down the forest aisles, and all mobile creatures [took] desperate flight. Bodies swarm[ed] into the air.” “Most bodies establish[ed] their initial nest in decayed wood, but once established, they extend[ed] their tunneling into sound wood…to do considerable damage to a structure.” “Bodies can have a wide variety of effects, with varying levels of inconvenience.” “Everyone says stay away from bodies. They have no lessons for us; they are crazy little instruments…incapable of controlling themselves, lacking manners, lacking souls. When they are massed together, all touching, exchanging bits of information held in their jaws like memoranda, they become a single body. Look out for that.”

            COMMON NAMES: Animals, Ants, Army Ants, Bugs, Carpenter Ants, Cockroaches,
                  Dogs, Insects, Pit Bulls

Those That Operate From Deep Space

“The waters of the brook lap and lap. They come in little ripples, over gray stones. They are rippling a song. It is a gentle song. It is a good-bye song to the body. The time now is when there is no body.” “Bodies spend a year in the river before migrating out to the ocean.” “There, the body does swim off in search of other bodies.” “But there are no bodies.” “But there are no bodies.” “[And yet…] goggles [are] curved to fit the body’s face, and ha[ve] a large groove cut in the back to allow for the nose. A long thin slit was cut through the goggles to allow in a small amount of light…The goggles [a]re held to the head by a cord made of body sinew.” “Whose body’s sinew no body knew.” “At this point, the body…entered an area of dead water, where the water remain[ed] rough, but the current…ineffectual.” “Bodies are found in all [of] the world’s oceans with the exception of the Arctic Ocean, and some…travel between oceans.” “Factors affecting a body’s speed through the water include: overall size and shape; the nature, size and shape of propulsive organs…the type of muscle powering these organs and the conditions under which they operate.” “One body will also…snorkel the surface and below, allowing that body to interact with the body who will accompany a body, all within a natural salt water environment.” “One body stood at the water’s edge and gazed out to…the [other] body…[It] imagined the body falling through the water, drifting until it lodged in slimy plants where bodies nosed its orange feet.” “The water was a dark blue unknown, so dark that it was almost purple. As the body looked down into it, [it] saw the red sifting of the bodies in the dark water and the strange light the sun made.” “Those who go in pursuit of bodies have always relied on their traditional knowledge, which draws upon legend, and is based on their own observation of facts such as the tendency of bodies, swimming in even, wedge-shaped formations, to reflect a pulsating glow skyward when the sunlight falls at a particular angle.” “Most bodies that live in the water make light.” “But what do they look for?” “What can just one body forgive?” “The way is dark so set [the body]/ on fire make [the body] a torch make/ of [the body] a torch in the distance.” “but how will the body see?” “The goggles are all fogged up. Every body burns lantern-bright, and one body can’t tell the living from the dead.”

            COMMON NAMES: Animals, Birds, Caribou, Dolphin, Fish, Ghosts, He, Hering, I,
                  Juveniles, Lars Porsena of Clusium (A Crow), Man, Organism, Orion, Plankton,
                  Rubber Chicken, Sea Turtles, User, You/Yourself

Those That Are Possessed by Nightmares

“The body did not dream of another body but instead of a vast school of bodies that stretched for eight or ten miles, and it was in the time of their mating and they would leap high into the air and return to the same hole they had made in the water when they leaped.” “The body dreamed that those bodies would resurface and follow the body.” “So close [would] the body come to the hull, that at first it seemed as if the body meant it malice; but suddenly going down in a maelstrom, within three rods of the planks, [the body would] wholly disappear from view, as if diving under the keel.” “As creatures who thrive in the deep waters of the ocean, bodies may represent deep emotions. They may also symbolize one’s own intuition.” “The body cannot choose its dreams. Nor does it choose terrifying visions.” “[In this case,] the body’s dreams couldn’t have been very pleasant. Not many pleasant things had happened to the body.” “And what separates the dreams of the body from a body’s dread–or its dead?” “The body will confess.” “One day…uplifting an axe and forgetting, in the body’s wrath, the…dread which had hitherto stayed the body’s hand…[it] aimed a blow at the body…At one point [it] thought of cutting the corpse into minute fragments, and destroying them by fire.” “In disposing of the…body…the same preliminary proceedings commonly take place as in the case of a body; only, in the latter instance, the head is cut off the whole, but in the former the lips and tongue are separately removed and hoisted on the deck…But nothing like this, in the present case, had been done.” “The truth is more startling.” “The image of a wild body [became] the starting-point of a daydream.” “A flagrant body in flight.” “All bodies watching.” “The body [had] a dream of [its] own. [It was] one dream. [It was] a dream of dreams.”

            COMMON NAMES: Animal (Black Cat), He, Her, I, Lions, Monster, My, Porpoise,
                  Right Whale, Sperm Whale, Whale

Those That Are Not Immediately Ill

“At the fork of the road there was the dead tree where bodies were roosting, and through its boughs a body saw the last flare of the sunset. On either side the November woods were flung in broken masses against the sky.” “[A] vine had grown body-like up and around the trunk, and it had grown so large it…half-strangled the small tree, crawling over every branch and shoot, until the vine and the tree were almost indistinguishable.” “Bodies there [we]re few and wretched, for they [we]re fed with boiled meat and boiled rice.” “In the dark of [the] night…bodies search[ed] the air for bodies, bodies scan[ned] the ground for small[er] bodies…and large bodies prowl[ed] about.” “Each body had its own way of managing.” “Bodies mostly eat small flying fruit found in the rainforests.” “Even more will search out rotten vegetation native to the area and drink from ragged veins.” “If the body doesn’t throw up that first time, [it] will spend the rest of [its] life not knowing which are the safe bodies and which are the ones that will make [it] sick.” “There are only a few important rules for a body to remember.” “If a bad body gets a body, [it] will weep…or take away the body’s whiskey, or hurt the body’s daughter’s bones…If a bad body gets a body, [it] will scratch [its] white paint with awls and scarifiers. The good bodies skitter and dance.” “The better bodies laugh.”

            COMMON NAMES: Bats, Blue Jay, Bugs, Butterflies, Buzzards, Cats, Horses, I,
                  Insects, Mammals, Megabats, Microbats, Mosquitos, Moths, Owls, Snake, You/
                  Your, Zombies

Those That Wish Closer Than

“If a body want[s] to know more about the body: bury the body in the desert so that [it has] a commanding view of the high basalt cliffs where [it] lives. Let only the body’s eyes protrude. Do not blink–the movement will alert the body to your continued presence.” “The body must learn what to look for.” “Three and a half inches in length, including the tail, the body is slightly more plump than most bodies…it spends a great amount of time on the ground hunting for seeds and small bodies. In an aviary it is steady and tame, more than reasonably hardy, and seldom fails to attract attention.” “A question: does the body whimper and pulse?” “[A question:] Could [a] body but ride indefinite/ As doth the Meadow body/ And visit only where body liked/ And No one visit Body [?]” “The body’s songs consist of a series of short trills mixed with rich warbles and occasionally high-pitched chip-like notes. Common calls include a strong pseet and a high, thin, tsii.” “[It was] discovered that th[e] body performs…choruses because of the peculiar conditions of ambient light at twilight, which allows the best contrast between the white badge and the surrounding background.” “Every body must discover the laws between foreground and background.” “To find the correct body, a body must learn to distinguish between sounds, as well.” “Vibrant sounds and vagrant sounds.” “[When] the sky [is] serene, the air perfumed, and thousands of melodious notes from bodies unknown…urge the body to arise and go in pursuit, [then, one must imitate the noise].” “A very loud, raucous, growling kowrrr-kowrrr-kowrrr.” “A rattling kerrrrr-eek, a nasal eehr, eehr ki-di-rrik, and one that sounds like quee-zika quee-zika.”

            COMMON NAMES: African Fire Finch, Artist, Bee, Birder, Birds, Cuban Melodious,
                  I, Insect, Me, Raven, Red Warbler, Species (Owl), Waxbill, Yourself

The Botched Bestiary Guide

The Botched Bestiary experiments are tethered to Steve Baker’s discussion of “botching,” hybridity, the pack, and assemblage in The Postmodern Animal, as well as to Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings, and Gilles DeLeuze and Felix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Other sources are listed below.

“Those That May Disappear”: “Top 10 Extinct Creatures That Aren’t Extinct,” Wonderful World Of Animals Blog, July 2008; Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; Chris Hayhurst’s “Life After Death: Some Species Thought To Be Extinct Are Being Rediscovered,” E: The Environmental Magazine, Nov 1999; Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt”; and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

“Those That Require Warning”: Annie Proulx’s “The Half-Skinned Steer”; Lydia Davis’ “Cockroaches In Autumn”; “How Low Can You Go? Ants Learn To Limbo,” Science Daily, May 2006; Vicki Herne’s “Consider The Pit Bull”; “Fierce Onslaught By Day,” The Wonders Of Life On Earth (Time Life Books, 1960); “Getting Rid Of Carpenter Ants,” Pest Control Canada; Wikipedia, “Software Bugs,” 2008; and Lewis Thomas’ “The Tuscan Zoo.”

“Those That Operate From Deep Space”: Opal Whiteley’s The Singing Creek Where The Willows Grow; Wikipedia, “Goggles”; Aidan R. Martin, “Biology of Sharks and Rays”; W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn; “How Do Animals Make Light?” ^^

“Those That Are Possessed By Nightmare”: Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea; Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; “Whale Dreams,” Bella Online; Sherwood Anderson’s “Death In The Woods”; Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat”; John Berger’s “Why Look At Animals?”; and Sylvia Plath’s “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams.”

“Those That Are Not Immediately Ill”: Ellen Glasgow’s “Jordan’s End”; Brigit Pegeen Kelly’ “The Garden of the Trumpet Tree”; Eliot Weinberger’s “The Dream of India”; “Spying On the Secrets of the Night,” The Great Themes: Life Library of Photography; “Bats! What Do Bats Eat?” ^^; Pam Houston’s “Three Lessons In Amazonian Biology”; and Donald Barthelme’s “The Zombies.”

“Those That Wish Closer Than”: Barry Lopez’s “The Raven”; Hank Bates and Bob Busenbark’s Introduction to Finches and Softbills; Emily Dickinson, poem #661; “Red Warbler,” Bird Songs From Around the World; “Owls,” Science Daily; “John James Audubon,” The Great Naturalists. Ed. Robert Huxley; and “Wattled Ibis,” “Boat-Billed Flycatcher,” from Bird Songs From Around The World.

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?

THERMOS 5: Caryl Pagel

Today’s second of three Caryl Pagel poems we’ll re-publish from our print issues this week remains one of my personal favorites — not just of poems we’ve published in THERMOS, but of poems I’ve read in first books, current books, all books these past few years. Happy to have the chance — again — to place it in your attention. — AS

The Sick Bed

When last to mutter
may your head fall empty
illness find
approaching graveness

May your light strum from
a dust torn window
to where you watch
still body part

We none do see each I fall out

For example: I held his hand
I did not
know when it was over

What made me mean body

Gone uncaught
un-lit or flown
it’s strange

of that mine
I can tell you nothing left

but what formed

Now–to hold on
to new space
Frame tremor can you
frame heady loss

with a morning canceled
I think no

morning can go canceled

That day became

a broken ear

a constant ringing

take care of this
beware of

Not any inner thought

Straight became
a monster

I mean master
of my own clean loss

See this version
this image

waits not to grow cold if you ask
I will go by
my second self’s hand

no sneak up from behind
bright shade
tranquil dose
to catch me ill
staring at far off clouds unraveled thin

My lord
the closest killer

hides my enemies too

Open only
unhinged in plea

hands hollowed

Prayer shuts one from page

Like dim reflections
each end sigh
goes fiddle out the window
to play for ghosts

Don’t worry you don’t know them

When it comes
I’ll tell

it sounds like
deathswish or hushwish

Never bell

When last to muster
some tune through
loud gales

You keep it short as I will
ask no more
this way

Exception: unseen

Please let me leave unseen

Hilary Plum on Caryl Pagel

We’re delighted this morning to have Hilary Plum’s thoughts on Caryl Pagel. You can find Hilary’s first novel, They Dragged Them Through the Streets, here, and Caryl’s book of poems, Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death, here. — AS


I do not believe in biography, though I always believe in life.

The first or second or third night I met Caryl we went to a bar called George’s. You may have been there. It was the night of the seventh game of the NBA playoffs, Lakers vs. Celtics. Some nights a basketball game may suffice but this night life was greater. Caryl and I huddled to talk, heads close, drinks close. A man approached, terribly. He said: I noticed you two were pointed at the game. We two blinked. Do you follow basketball? he said. Not really, we said, meaning, dear God. Well, he said, do you know why they’re wearing different colors? and pointed at the screen. Reader, he was about to tell us what a team was. I wish I could report how perfectly I dismissed him. But I couldn’t even speak. As usual Caryl took care of everything.

I first read William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience in college. I decided that semester that I shouldn’t have to buy books and every morning before class I’d go to the library to read that day’s assignment, and came to class with pages of handwritten notes, which I’d refer to throughout discussion. This was inefficient but intense. So when I met Caryl and perceived how deeply James had lived in and through her, I felt communion. If books are a means to commune both with the dead and one another. That is the hypothesis that we are endeavoring to prove. Or, to experience.

I say we because soon after I met Caryl I heard her read some of the beautiful the body poems that in her book comprise “The Botched Bestiary.” Afterward she was discussing the Society for Psychical Research, the organization founded in the 1880s in Boston of which William James was the first president. She mentioned forming such a group today, but not like that; rather she said that to her such a group was made up of all those who were thinking about these ideas and all those—like you two, she said, gesturing across the table to where we sat—with whom she discussed them. The unexplained, the presence of the dead: apparitions, patterns of grief, clairvoyance, collaborative research, testimony as proof. I don’t exaggerate to say a thrill went through me. That I might already be conducting (a conductor for?) this research; that I might be included in the labors and inquiries of a stranger’s rigorous and glorious mind.

What I mean is, knowing Caryl is comforting and thrilling.

I don’t know if it’s coincidence that this is how I imagine, how I might describe, what it would be to see a ghost. Profound thrill, radical comfort.

I took careful notes while reading Caryl’s first book, Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death, but lost them. I like to think that someone found them and from them imagined a book, specter of Caryl’s.

From all this you’ll comprehend how I felt when Caryl invited me to work more with her at Rescue Press.

There are certain events (you are pointed at the game) that women live and witness, that women writers and teachers and editors and ______ live and witness, that we may come to refer to with the shorthand M v. W. It is important to discuss these events; it is important to be in contact with some formidable Ws for when one’s own spirit starts to flag.

James writes: Nevertheless, if we look on man’s whole mental life as it exists, on the life of men that lies in them apart from their learning and science, and that they inwardly and privately follow, we have to confess that the part of it of which rationalism can given an account is relatively superficial. It is the part that has the prestige undoubtedly, for it has the loquacity, it can challenge you for proofs, and chop logic, and put you down with words. But it will fail to convince or convert you all the same, if your dumb intuitions are opposed to its conclusions.

I quote this mostly to note how often Caryl may use that word dumb. It’s a joke, but a serious one: if the part of life for which the rational intelligence may account is relatively superficial. How do we know the rest? How do we live?

We investigate, we commune. Expand or dismiss or mourn or unname the self. Put your head close to Caryl’s.