Sunday Jun 23

TurnerBrianBrian Turner is the author of Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise. His poetry and essays have been published in The New York Times,National Geographic, Poetry Daily, The Georgia Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and other journals. He received a USA Hillcrest Fellowship in Literature, an NEA Literature Fellowship in Poetry, the Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship, the Poets’ Prize, and a Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation. His work has appeared on National Public Radio, the BBC, Newshour with Jim Lehrer, and Weekend America, among others. He teaches and is the Director of the low residency MFA at Sierra Nevada College (scheduled to launch in January 2012). He and his wife, the poet Ilyse Kusnetz, live in Orlando.
KusnetzIlyse Ilyse Kusnetz received her MA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University and her Ph.D. in Feminist and Postcolonial British Fiction from the University of Edinburgh. Her poetry has been published in journals such as Rattle, Crazyhorse, the Atlanta Review, Stone Canoe, Poetry Review, the Cimarron Review, Poet Lore, and MiPOesias, and her book reviews and interviews have appeared in The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, The New Statesman, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Florida Review. She is also the author of a chapbook, The Gravity of Falling. Currently, she teaches English and Creative Writing at Valencia College in Orlando, where she lives with her husband, the poet Brian Turner.
How did you two meet?
I.K.  In a way, Brian’s work brought us together.  One of my colleagues had heard Brian speaking on NPR, and she made a strong case for bringing him to the college through the reading series we organize.  At that time I wasn’t familiar with his work, but I soon came to admire it.  After we finally met, we were virtually inseparable—literally, since we lived 3,000 miles away from each other, on different coasts—and we kept in touch through e-mail and by phone, and later by Skype.  Our first real date took place in Ireland—he was reading there, and it took about the same time for me to get to Dublin as it would have to get to California—so really, it was not a typical courtship.  Fortunately, since both of us had lived overseas for significant periods of our lives, we were each used to traveling.  Now, happily, we both live in the same place and he commutes to his residencies.

Brian is so much in the public eye. Is it hard for you, as a poet yourself, Ilyse, to see Brian in the spotlight and so in demand?  Did you guys talk about such matters before deciding to marry?
B.T. I’d rather not think in these terms—it’s an unhealthy way to approach our lives and the life we share together.  As writers, we have a great and collaborative rapport with one another. Ilyse has the first look at everything I write and helps me to see things I hadn’t seen before. We certainly don’t always follow each other’s suggestions, but I know for a fact that her critiques and her way of engaging my work often provide insights and possibilities I hadn’t considered. Her suggestions and edits also add a great deal of polish to my final drafts. Of course, these are surface elements. The real gift is in living and loving an artist who enjoys the world of art and the writer’s life as much as I do. That’s the gift.

I.K.  The reverse is definitely true—Brian is the first one to see a new draft of any poem I’ve written, and I value his feedback and insight.  Each of us is fairly instinctive about what level of critique is needed by the other at a given moment—whether it’s a conceptual comment, or a series of line-edits, or we’ll ask specific questions about word choice, or the trajectory of a poem, etc.  And we are both people who understand that writing requires a certain kind of space.  That, too, is a gift.  That doesn’t mean we’re not thinking of each other within the writing process itself.  Many times we’ll come across a particular tidbit of information and think how well it would fit in the other’s poetic landscape—so we’ll punt it over to each other, usually via e-mail, a small, shiny offering from whatever we’re mining.  We’re both information packrats, so if it doesn’t spark a poem right away, we just file it away until such a time as the right poem comes along. I’m very proud of what Brian’s achieved.  I think his voice and his work are important, and I’m glad whenever others recognize that, too.

Brian, you and Ilyse live in Orlando, where Ilyse teaches at Valencia College, but you are teaching at Sierra Nevada College!  How is that going to work?  Does the fact that Sierra Nevada will be starting a low-residency MFA Program in 2012 have something to do with this logistical problem?  There are so many low-res programs out there now; why have you decided to direct this new one?  What will distinguish it from the others?
I’ve decided to direct the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College for several reasons. The low residency model fits perfectly with our plans as a couple, and it’s an exciting opportunity to create something of lasting use for many people. I love the idea of helping to bring together a wide variety of artists and thinkers—wherever they may be in the course of their writing lives—for the sole purpose of creating great art. The college is situated right on the shores of Lake Tahoe, where the landscape itself invites great clarity of thought. My hope is to create a space where writers can come together and share what it is that brings them back to the page, over and over again.

Brian, you’ve maintained an extraordinary appearance schedule since Here, Bullet appeared.  Are you exhausted by it and ready for it to slack off some, or do you enjoy it?
I’ve wanted to write and to publish books since I was about seven years old. When my first book was published, I really didn’t know what to expect. I soon learned: one of the unexpected gifts of having a book was that it enabled me to meet amazing, incredible, tremendously gifted people that I would have never met otherwise. My life has been augmented by this experience and I’ve learned a great deal from it. It’s true that I’ve been fortunate enough to be a working poet. I’m very, very grateful for this fact.

We all lead complicated lives. With each stage of life, I’ve had to learn how to create balance between the interior and exterior parts of my life (which is an ongoing process).

Most poetry lovers know at least some of your story, Brian.  You are a United States Army veteran, having served for seven years.  You were an infantry team leader for a year in the Iraq War beginning November 2003, with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. In 1999 and 2000, you were with the 10th Mountain Division, deployed in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Your first volume, Here, Bullet, which won the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award and was published by Alice James Books, has sold an astonishingly well for a collection of poetry.  The many comparisons between you and poets like Wilfred Owen, Yusef Komunyakka, Doug Anderson, and Bruce Weigl were, of course, to be expected.  Weigl, as I recall, seemed to have some difficulty moving beyond poetry with war as its landscape, though he now has managed it.  In your second book, Phantom Noise, much of the book is still given to poems that exist in the landscape of war, but I also see poems—particularly in the second half of the book, that are stretching, trying to plumb other lifescapes for their stories.  How conscious of this are you?  Do you struggle with subject matter when another poem set in Iraq, say, begins to insist itself?  I notice in the poems featured in the Congeries this month that, while there seem glimmerings of war submerged just below the surface, the poems seem to yearning, maybe, toward a different place.
Prior to my first book, I wrote several different manuscripts on a wide variety of subject matter. As I look forward, I’m hoping to write many more books. It’s a way of living in the world, recognizing and witnessing that which calls itself to the page. The word you use is the right one: “insist.” The poems in Phantom Noise insisted they be written. I didn’t actually set out to write them initially. In fact, I was writing a book of love poems at the time (a book I’m still working on). I thought I might write another book connected to the war or war-related experience some time further on down the road in my life. But the poems insisted they be written. I think we have to listen to what calls up from within and from without.

We live short lives. Even those given a clarity of ink stretching for many decades in truth have only a short time. The earth spins, the sun rises and sets, and we die. We don’t have time for writer’s block. There is too much Art waiting for us to bring it to the page, and simply not enough time for it all. Some might choose to consider this tragic. I consider it a gift.

As is too frequently the case in the snarky business of poetry, your success has been questioned and/or belittled by some who feel that it is owed more to your subject matter than to your skill or originality as a poet.  For example, Publisher’s Weekly, in its review of Here, Bullet, writes, “The verse in this book is not good, but it is, in a cultural moment that includes Cindy Sheehan, timely.”  This is nothing new, of course, and Natasha Trethewey has had to deal with similar slights in the wake of her Pulitzer Prize for Native Guard.  As one who has suffered at the hands of a reviewer or two myself, I can imagine how this might make you feel, but I don’t know for sure.  How does such talk affect you, if it does?  Sour grapes, or do you ever feel that there may be a germ of truth in what these few critics say. Here, Bullet is a first book after all.
I believe in the world of the poem. And, in so doing, I also believe it’s a great honor for an author to have their work read and considered by another human being. Again: our lives are short; choosing to read someone’s poem is a commitment of a finite resource—Time. The relationship between the author and the reader, via the world of the poem, is incredibly complicated and nuanced. However, in terms of your question here—I try to remember that the poem finishes in the reader. It is a type of conversation. Those who fret and anguish or get pissed off at how a critic engages a text overlook the basic fact that someone has taken the time to read the work in the first place.

It can be difficult when the engagement or criticism seems snarky or petty or mean-spirited, or appears to be completely off-base. I do my best to not let criticism of this sort clutter my thoughts. It doesn’t help me to grow as a writer or to write better poems. On the other hand, I have read a few critiques/reviews that have been insightful to me as a writer, serving as witness to elements in my own work that I hadn’t appreciated or considered.

Unlike Eliot, I don’t think you have to be a great baseball player to one day coach a team. Still, it sure doesn’t hurt.

Brian, I continue to notice in your poems a fondness for the long sentence and the enjambed line.  “Color Vehicle,” I notice, is in fact one long, multi-clause sentence, and “Seven Mile Slough” is composed of two stanzas, each of which is itself composed of a long sentence broken into lines.  The feeling conjured in a reader is often one of unsettledness as one tumbles down the length of the poem.  End stopped lines, when they occur, are typically ended with commas rather than periods, allowing little time for the reader to rest.  Is this intentional?  What other devices do you tend to lean on in order to manipulate the reader’s passage through your poems?
Each poem creates its own set of needs and architecture. In “Color Vehicle,” the entire world is the subject (so the poem is terribly incomplete), every element and moment existing together, lacking any real separation. I was driven by music as I first began the poem, and one thing began to tumble after another until the poem realized (and I did, too, eventually) that one of the symbols of stoppage and death—the period—had to be delayed by the love I have for this world, as long as possible, moment by moment by moment, until, inevitably, the poem reached its end. The period is a haunting presence in this poem, hinted at by commas.

I’m still struggling with whether or not to keep the period at the end of the first stanza in “Seven Mile Slough”—the one falling after the word understory. I’m leaning toward omitting it, as I think the stanza break satisfies the musical space and pause the poem needs. It’s a poem that needs to breathe. And I need to be very alert to where, exactly, the breath falls (and for how long). It’ll be interesting to see how this poem evolves over time, as I think it will.

Something else I notice in your poems, Brian, is that art—painting, architecture, music—quite frequently appear in them.  “In the Guggenheim Museum” in Phantom Noise, “Easel” and “Autopsy” in Here, Bullet, and “Color Vehicle” are just a few examples.  The poem (in Here, Bullet) “Observation Post #789” ends with the lines, “I bend into the form of a bridge, anything / to remind me I am still alive.”  I feel like those lines begin to reveal how these art forms function in the poems somehow.  What role do you see them as playing in your poetry?
Music and visual art are deeply rooted in my imaginative life. All of these elements seem to be threaded/braided/raveled together. It’s all part of the larger conversation we call our lives. Ilyse and I recognize and talk about these things often.

I sometimes hear poets talk about cross-genre forms and hybrid forms as if they are unusual. To be honest, I find this strangely myopic. Show me the poet who isn’t also a musician. Show me the poet who doesn’t sing. Show me the poet who isn’t an architect, a painter, a visionary world-making film-maker of language. We are hybrid creatures. We are the transport of life, carried over the landscapes of time. The world pours through us and, when we’re lucky enough and when we listen well enough, poetry emerges on the other side.

Ilyse, having lived in Scotland for nearly a decade, what can you say about the climate for poetry over there as compared to here?  Do you see many Scottish poets as influenced by the sorts of experimental forays that seem to constitute one period tendency in contemporary U.S. poetry?

Poetry thrives in Scotland.  It’s had pride of place in the culture for a long time, much more so than in the States.  They still celebrate Burns Night every January to honor the Scottish poet Robert Burns.  In terms of experimentation, the giant in Scottish modernist poetry was Hugh MacDiarmid (pen name of Christopher Murray Grieve).  He began to use dialect in his poetry to establish a distinctly Scottish voice that was at once experimental for the genre and a sonic and linguistic reflection of Scottish vernacular (though in true Modernist spirit, he often mixed dialects and excavated and resurrected archaic Scottish words, sprinkling them liberally and sometimes obscurely throughout his poems).  In the 1960s and 1970s there was another wave of poetry and literature that turned to dialect as a means of establishing national identity, so you have people like Tom Leonard rewriting William Carlos Williams’ poem “This is Just to Say” using Glaswegian phonetics, in tandem with a strong push for Scottish self-governance.

Today, you can find a tremendous range of voices and subject matter in Scottish poetry, and although Scottish poets still probably wrestle with the idea of national identity much more than American poets struggle with the idea of American identity, their poetry is also more cosmopolitan in focus.  Perhaps in part that’s because just over a decade ago they finally achieved devolution from Great Britain and a significant degree of self-governance—something they’d been struggling to reestablish for over three centuries—so the drive to create poetry that reflected a specifically national identity may have been redirected a bit.  The last decade has seen poets like Don Paterson writing versions and translations of Machado and Rilke, for example—and only occasionally into Scots vernacular. Kathleen Jamie is another superb Scottish poet who frequently uses dialect in her poetry and who has been at times very nationalistic in her focus (though with a rich eye for irony—one of my favorite poems by her is “Mr. and Mrs. Scotland Are Dead”).  Conversely, the last decade has seen her work draw more definitively, though not exclusively, from nature rather than nation.

I asked you for a substantial submission, as I typically do for this feature, Ilyse, and you sent me ten poems.  It was hard choosing just five!  They delight and affect me in a variety of ways, but I was first of all struck by the range of subject matter, which I think is reflected in the selection published here.  Can you speak to subject matter and how you find the stuff of your poems?
Well, thanks to Brian, I have great inspiration for my love poems!  Some of the rest is just serendipitous—an initial seed for the extended sequence of poems about little people in my current manuscript was planted when some friends and I were visiting Pensacola, and we passed a bar where the Micro Wrestling Federation was doing an event that night.  Things just snowballed from there.  And I read a lot of different types of histories, and often I come across a story or a fragment of a story about something that’s happened that’s either terribly unjust, or conflicted, or the reverse—wonderful, amazing in its own right—and I think, why don’t more people know about this?  Somebody should tell them, or remind them!  And then I think, maybe that’s a fundamental part of my job as a poet, to bear witness to these things that would otherwise fall through the cracks in the historical sidewalk, and which turn out to be metaphors in many cases for what’s happening in our own times.  History repeats itself, and tyranny isn’t a new thing, nor is corruption or profound ignorance.  Maybe I sublimate my political frustrations with a lot of what’s going on today by looking back through history.  I’m connected to WWII through my uncle, who was a medic for the Red Cross, a baker by trade, and a translator by default because he spoke Yiddish.  He was an incredibly gentle man, but the stories he told me made me realize that even a good man can find himself in situations where he feels a deep and abiding satisfaction at the opportunity to inflict suffering upon others, specifically the German people and their allies who turned a blind eye to what was happening during the Holocaust.

A number of your poems are poems that use science and math as subject matter.  Can you tell us how the sciences find their way into your poems?
I actually started out college as a Biology major.  I’ve always been a science geek, and a full-blown fan of Star Trek, you name it.  As a kid, I dreamed of cars that would fly.  I’m so glad they finally figured that one out.  It was about time.  I’m just sorry they probably won’t colonize the Moon or Mars in my lifetime.  I would so love to go.  Science and mathematics in their pure forms are beautiful, complex, and mysterious—very much a divine music, though in a purely secular sense.  But there’s also a flip side to these things.  At the same time as I’m fascinated by scientific discovery, I’m horrified by what human beings have done in the name of science.  The Mengeles of the world, and the people who experiment on animals, how could anyone do that to another sentient creature?  It’s an obscenity, and we don’t cry out against these things enough in our culture.  I admire those who are activists for human and animal rights, and I believe that we have to fight not on behalf of humanity, but on behalf of humane-ness.
In many ways, human beings have been encouraged to have an inflated sense of their own self-worth qua humans.  We see ourselves as a singular product of the fossil record, as if evolution were a development leading toward us and beyond.  But this is only an illusion.  If we were to think the same of giraffes or ocelots, for example, that the pinnacle of evolution led through and on from them, it would be no less whimsical.  Each species exists at the epicenter of its own evolution, and while one species often takes a hand in shaping another (humans increasingly so with the advances of genetic engineering and our impact on the planet’s ecology), there exists no species that is evolution’s objective.  (That’s not to say I don’t play favorites with species.  I’m quite fond of cats, for example).  But maybe we have to earn our right to live on this amazing marble, and in this universe of which we’re only an infinitesimal part.

One of your strengths as a poet is clearly your command of tone.  In the Holocaust poem, “Archival Footage,” you skillfully keep the poem from the sort of easy manipulation a lesser hand might bring to the subject matter, and in poems like “Letter to Scientists” “Gift Horse,” and “The Sultan’s Dwarves,” a wry sense of humor is there, but subtly so.  Does this come easily to you, or is it something you have to work hard at?
It actually took a long time before my sense of humor started to poke through into my poems.  The poet Kelle Groom once read my first manuscript of poems, and I remember her saying something like, “Ilyse, these are wonderful, but I was so surprised because I was expecting them to be funny, because you’re really funny, and they’re so serious!”  My first reaction, of course, was to thank her profusely for thinking that I was funny.  But I also realized that it meant I was probably largely ignoring what was, for better or worse, a fundamental aspect of my voice.  Sometimes you just have to hear the truth from somebody else, you know?  After that, it was like something gave way, and I let myself be a bit quirkier in general, more open to the impulse, and not so quick to edit it out.  I think maybe that’s one of Kelle’s gifts, though—she’s one of those poets who somehow gives permission to others to write more freely.   I’ve felt the same kind of freedom in the room when Sharon Olds or Jane Hirshfield was giving a workshop, too.  They make the air quality better, or something.

Ilyse, these lines from “Gift Horse”—“But isn’t a thing’s beauty / in how it resists / all that would destroy it?”—seem to me to perhaps sum up much of what your poetry is about.  Yes?
I think that’s close to the truth.  The idea of resilience, and that somehow our words can exist as a form of resilience, to reclaim what’s been lost or damaged, yes.  The world’s fragility is a terrible thing, but I think it may also be what predicates our sense of beauty.  It’s like seeing a few hanging threads of what was once a spider’s web—we know in our imaginations the wholeness that at one time it possessed, so maybe that compels us to weave the rest of it, that elusive distance between ruin and the possibility—or perhaps only the idea—of restoration.  But maybe we can only bear witness to what’s left.
To end on a lighter note, there’s a much homier expression I like that sums up a thing’s will to survive and persist despite adverse circumstances—by which, of course, I meansheer cussedness. As I recall, I was a stubborn child.  I’m probably a stubborn poet, too.
Poems by Brian Turner
Color Vehicle

In a blur of synesthesia, I wander the world, bending the branches
with the weight of all I would ask the trees to carry, the blue wings
of words from years ago, the thrumming swarm of photons in the bittersweet
honey of light, the negatives I apply to each leaf and stem developing
photographs deep in the sugars of life, so that as I follow the road into town
I place aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters and lovers and friends
in the leaves above and the leaves below, even the blade of grass
must do its work, the world a chromatic, each of us silent as we approach
Van Gogh’s tree, its leaves made from the ears we each must place there,
wholly strange and tragic and reverent all at once, and necessary, this,
each white picket in the fence-line given names and numbers to hold
against the void, the Earth’s spin toward tomorrow fraying the very moment
we live in, the word now I place over and over again in its many disguises,
the pine cone and the pineapple where I would hide Fibonacci numbers
and the low ceiling of the Eagle pub in Cambridge where Watson & Crick
said to the world We have found the secret of life, and for all I do not know
I wander this world, mnemonic by mnemonic, saving what I can, my lover’s
kiss at the lobe of my ear, her whole note singing to heaven when she thinks
no one is listening, the stray dog with its response a high and tenor
unison, the lowest strings in the symphony given to the mortar which binds
this sidewalk together, all that the strangler fig would pull under
in the green tangle of our lives, the fragile nature of it, the tenuous
slip of it all, and god of no help in this, god in the same predicament,
the covalent bond a sleight of hand the cosmos smiles and gives to us,
and still, we are flying at 67,000 miles per hour through space,
leaning into the hard circle we make round the sun, year by year,
this very moment the wind blowing through the trees before me,
love letters broken open into a confetti of symbols rising in a storm
of colors above, my eyes filled with the music of it dissolving
note by note within and without, A minor to D, a sliding scale
given harmony in the strangers who rise slowly up from the street
to gather in the alphabet and stars, survival at its most tender,
the old man from the grocery store, the neighbor who always frowns,
the couple from Apt B who argue incessantly in a language
that sounds like a disaster, and so many I have never seen before
drifting upward, turned speechless as I walk the street below them,
tying the cords they unravel down to me with their sad faces,
tethering them to shrubs and shopping carts and traffic lights
for as many as I can, here in the landscape of human kites,
the moored ships of lives the wind will at some point carry off,
along with the arms of clocks, the wheels of tanks, the smallest spider
drinking from the tear duct of a child lost happily in dream, all of these,
drifting out, and if the night wind is blowing and you can hear these words
calling out through the branches of the old tree rooted heavy
within the earth you call your life, if you can hear me among the bright
and broken, please, step out into the swirling leaves and hold fast
to the line I unfurl to you in its chromatic weave, it is a rope
made of fire and death, it is a rope woven from the long sentence
of my life, and I would ask that you tie me fast to something
beautiful, that I might live to see all that I have loved one last time.

The Sound of a Lake, Breathing

Somewhere in America, the last breath of the 19th Century
expires. Exhaled by an old man or an old woman
who dies in a nursing home in some backwater town
in Montana or Kansas. Born in the year 1897, or 1898.
No one really notices. The hours slip by.
Mosquito grass opens its purple-brown flowers.
Catfish study the tenuous surface of water.
The hydrogen atom maintains its elegant structure.
As things do. The Spanish American war slides under.
Joshua Slocum completes the first solo circumnavigation
of the globe, as Madam Curie discovers radium and Marconi
invents the radio. Still, turgid pressure remains constant.
The fin whale continues to call across the Atlantic.
Pelicans glide over the foaming crests of waves
while the bats of Cairo and Sao Paulo rise at dusk,
just as they have for millennia, sounding the world into being.
Love, there is so little I can promise. But when you drift
into the blue waters of sleep, out to where the waves roll
in tandem across the surface of a lake, that’s where you’ll find me,
beside you, rowing to the dawn’s far shore.

Seven Mile Slough

A cool breeze lifting the fine hairs
on our forearms, red-winged blackbirds
swaying in the reed mace and Indian summergrass
beyond, the angle of the afternoon’s light
fading to a whisper in woodland’s understory.
And not one word spoken, just this
closing of the day, tiny insects
trailing silver on the water’s surface,
in figures tracing a geometry
your fingertips parallel in the light
touch of my back, as we sit here
turning to shadow.

Poems by Ilyse Kusnetz
Gift Horse
Never look a gift horse in the mouth.
—St. Jerome, On the Epistle to the Ephesians
About The Last Supper
this much is known:
left unfinished by da Vinci,
it moldered
on the refectory wall,
twenty damp Milanese
winters, until Vasari
dismissed it
as merely a mass of blots.
Over time, monks
hammered a doorway
through Mark’s legs,
and one long evening
Napoleon’s soldiers,
garrisoned there for winter
blew away the head and
hands of Christ.
In WWII, when a bomb
leveled Santa Maria
delle Grazie,
the mural survived.
Of da Vinci’s original
work, however, only a few
brushstrokes remained.
His Saint Jerome was luckier.
In a pawn-shop by
the Vatican, Napoleon’s uncle
discovered its torso, and later
amid a wilderness
of broken glass, the head, as if
proof of miraculous returns,
and it’s true, what is lost to us
is sometimes found—

though changed, or missing
a jug of wine, a loaf of bread,
stolen away from your own
heart’s table, your head
lolling like a sad cloud
over your body.
But isn’t a thing’s beauty
in how it resists
all that would destroy it?
How faith rises,
whole and swift-limbed
from such burnt offerings—
the gift horse, whose mouth
we climb inside
to carry ourselves home.
Letter to Scientists
Dear Archimedes, thank you for ignoring
my previous letter, just as you ignored
that Roman soldier who stuck a sword
into your side as you tried to solve
your last equation. Dear Chladni,
the way your experiment caused sand
to dance along nodal lines of vibration
makes me happy. Dewar, thanks again
for discovering how feathers
phosphoresce at absolute zero.

Apologies,Hevelius, it is not of Selenographia
I dream when I look at the moon—
the full moon, the half-moon, the old moon in
the new moon’s arms—though I understand
your compulsion to map it.
Dirac, what can I say? If gravity
does decrease as the universe ages,
bit by bit we’ll unmoor from earth.
Our atmosphere will disappear
in a final pirouette of air—
houses, billboards, cars, giraffes
afloat in the vacuum, countries and
wars flailing for a foothold.
The ground will give up its secrets.
The dead, uprooted from sleep
will dance as they go.
My Uncle as Erwin Schrödinger
Seeing the Red Cross badge on his arm,
a German woman mistakes my uncle
for a doctor. Tell me, she pleads,
are the Russians coming?
Either he nods Yes, tonight—
you’d better get out
or he doesn’t. If they come,
I don’t want to live—

give me poison. He picturesthe vial
of arsenic in his satchel.Sometimes,
folding her outstretched fingers
over nothing, he doesn’t do it. Sometimes
with a shrug, impassive as a croupier’s,
he does.
Archival Footage
Bodies piled like lumber, tottering bodies
withered to bone, lampshades fashioned
of human skin, some displaying tattoos;
shrunken-head paperweights, bisected
heads preserved, suspended in
transparent resin, to better view the Jew brain.
Local townspeople trucked in. Now you can’t
tell the world you didn’t know. One woman
presses a handkerchief to mouth and nose,
a man dizzily cradles his chin. Look closely.
You can see history rooting in their bodies,
the horror of it pulling out their tongues.
The Sultan’s Dwarves
(Topkapi Palace, Constantinople, 1536)
How the sultan and his gözde love to peer over their
balcony as we wrestle in the courtyard pool.
From the kingdom’s dust he gathered us, the great
wooden doors parting before our curious troop.
Harem means forbidden— the scent of cinnamon,
clove, petals of laughter drifting from rows of shuttered
windows, or squabbling, or ghostly weeping. Their
keepers, the eunuchs—those podgy, lecherous
bureaucrats—plot to gain the sultan’s ear. We dwarves
amuse him, though he prefers his concubines, all
pomegranate lips and satin, swelling breasts, bud-filled
branches on which his eye might perch. To no avail—
within these walls, the harem-girls, castrati,
even the effendi, are as miniscule in stature as we.

The mantle of Muhammad, his sandal, his seal, his cup, his footprint on a stone, his swords, his bow, his tooth that broke at Uhud, the hair of his beard. A saucepan belonging to the prophet Abraham; the turban of the prophet Joseph; the staff of Moses; the sword of David; the hands and jeweled skull of John the Baptist; Fatima al-Zahra's veil; the crown of ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani; the gold rain gutters of the Ka‘ba and the gold and silver covers of the Black Stone; a wing of the Door of Repentance; the dust from Muhammad’s tomb.