Archive for the ‘Caryl Pagel’ Category

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.

THERMOS 1: Caryl Pagel

Today we begin a two-week feature of Caryl Pagel’s poetry. One of the poets we started the journal for, we’ve returned to Caryl’s work more than to any other poet’s. It’s been wonderful to watch as Rescue Press has flourished and her first book, Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death has gained widespread recognition. We’re all proud to call her a friend and to continue our project of publishing more of/about her poetry this month. She’s an inspiring presence, we’re sure you (will) agree. This poem is from our first issue. Check back throughout the week for poems from our 5th and 8th issues, as well as writing about Caryl and her poetry by me and by Hilary Plum. Then, check back next week for even more! — AS

[Hear One Cry Out]

Hear one cry out
as if threatened–

Sheep act scattering

You emerge from the wings

The town in tow
puts call to trial

Then grumbles back


Under gold light
performance continues

A costumed herd accustomed
to my silence resumes
their place–

gathered upstage
against the back-drop

Back-drop an open field

All day long I keep track of this collection

in spite of lies
that lie

beneath my one line


Watched on watch
I can tell

one grows lonely

hears a whisper through the trees cut-
out along the wall

The scene escapes

Again I cry

You plead
I wait for right cue

Held up
by attention
by terror

by rave

a chance to star

it kills my wonder when
wide interest wanes

I turn
shock-monster growing bold

Told to keep

for damage

real risk appears in shadow now