I’ve just read through some of the poems in your first volume of poetry, the very fine Calling His Children Home (a collection, I think, that displays the influence of the two folks who provided back cover praise for the volume, Norman Dubie and Larry Levis, as well as of Philip Levine and Dave Smith) and have compared them with the three new poems presented here. It seems fair to say that you are still exploring the possibilities inherent in the narrative poem. Have the years since your first book brought you any new sense of what you are trying to do aesthetically? With so much attention being focused on period manifestations of the “experimental lyric,” what is the status of the narrative poem today?
I never wish to stop changing, learning, growing, seeking new challenges and new ways of seeing. While I’m quite pleased to have those extraordinary writers mentioned as influences on my writing and I’m entirely willing to acknowledge my indebtedness—Dubie has been especially empowering—my own list of poets vitally important to my work and my life would necessarily expand to include many others, including Rilke and Trakl and Celan and Stevens and Neruda and Plath and Tranströmer and Yeats and Bishop and more, especially including the writing of contemporary women poets who have opened up fresh territories in our literary landscape, such as the marvelous Beckian Fritz Goldberg or the inescapable Jorie Graham or the wonderful Deborah Digges, just to mention a few. Looking to the more distant past, the philosophies and practices of the British Romantics have remained essential for me, especially their concepts of balance and interdependence. In the now, I’ve learned a great deal from interactions with my own talented and eye-opening students whose inventive writing has dared me to grow—Joshua Poteat, Sarah Vap, Alison Titus, and Mathias Svalina readily come to mind among many. My work as an editor also has allowed me a sweeping view of much that is exciting in current writing, including the many kinds of successes and flashes of brilliance available in what Stephen Burt has termed “elliptical poetry” or, as you’ve called it, the experimental lyric. I’ve been instructed and goaded by that writing. Early in my education I believe I was too often taught how to say “no” to poems (presumably, weak poems), but as I’ve continued to read and write I’ve found that the better modus operandi is to encounter a poem and seek for ways to say “yes” to it, to allow it to reveal its own way of being and operating, rather than to impose rigid pre-existent external standards. What was that statement from e.e. cummings? “I imagine that yes is the only living thing.” Still, I do exercise a stringent set of criteria for what I’m willing to call excellent—which characteristically won’t include the dullness of the mechanically arbitrary or the merely fanciful (see Coleridge on the difference between imagination and fancy). Yet my exacting standards for excellence most definitely can be satisfied in a diverse array of very different sorts of writing. All of us want the poem of the mind in the act of finding what will suffice.
A characterization of my poetry as narrative does make me a bit wary, of course, since it’s so often now become a pejorative term, even in a post-postmodern landscape. After having made a careful study of the subject, I have to say that the division some writers and critics have drawn between “lyric” and “narrative” poetry is, for the most part, a false dichotomy. So often, those terms are waved about as the tattered flags of a kind of political-aesthetic battle that I don’t find illuminating. All lyric poems are rooted in a narrative of some kind, no matter how obscured or liminal or unreal, and poems that have a narrative thread always do have the potential to exhibit the same intensities and mysteries and splendors frequently associated with the lyric. I see no need to fall into the pit of an either-or fallacy. More important than shallow “lyric vs. narrative” wrangling is the need to include vivid imagery, inventive metaphors, brilliant language, and imaginative perspectives.
My desire in writing is to discover a path that will lead my readers and me to what can be stunning, revealing, amazing, exciting, awe-inspiring. Whatever will be discovered may involve taking a path that tracks a kind of narrative, or it may require a blast of fully awakened observation and realization that is lyrical. I’m attracted to whatever works well and keeps my interest. Since my interest is wide-ranging, I may find those paths and those blasts in the realms of psychology or philosophy or history or religion or archeology or chemistry or astrophysics or in something previously unimagined or something dreamed. I’m after whatever will awaken my interest and fascinate my readers.
Astonishment and illumination are the goals, not the willful courting of confusion, and though some readers might find the paths I’ve taken to be difficult, I suppose others could possibly find them too obvious. Randall Jarrell wrestled down the notion of difficulty in poetry long ago in his essay “The Obscurity of the Poet” and equally long ago, with regard to the unholy mixing of the quaint purity of the lyric with the prosaic dross of narration, Robert Penn Warren laid down some worthwhile riffs on that dubious division in his essay “Pure and Impure Poetry.” As Warren wrote, “Poetry wants to be pure, but poems do not.” Insofar as a poet is following a preordained aesthetic theory in his or her work, rather than seeking the path to what the poem might need in order to be revelatory, that poet is wandering into the Slough of Despond and may never escape that dismal swamp, sinking down until there’s nothing left but a ripple swirling atop the grey stew of some abstract quicksand. I’m more interested in having some serious fun. As Nietzsche put it in Beyond Good and Evil, “The maturity of man—that means to have reacquired the seriousness that one had as a child at play.” Sometimes, to really have fun, the poem may require a narrative strand on which to hang those blasts of stunning observation and engaging language. When I step into the ring, I’m willing to mix it up by employing an unorthodox and perhaps temporarily unfashionable combination of punches.
Early in my writing life, when I was an undergraduate student, I took a strong liking to surrealism and Dadaism and all things avant-garde. But soon enough I got bored with the merely arbitrary aspects of some of that poetry, and I became fascinated with an alternative challenge having to do with searching out the elegance and magic available in the profound mysteries of lived experience. For a while that meant that it seemed important for me to record my own experience as a working class intellectual, a construction worker with a brain. But as time went on, I became less interested in righteously recording my radical autobiographical truth and far more interested in what I might imagine, more fully making use of that brain. I’m especially interested when the imagination takes me into knowledge that I didn’t know how to know—the kingdoms of dream and vision. Memory is a vital force, but in creative writing, imagination may be the more important one. When I’m feeling sarcastic, I disparage flabby autobiographical poems by calling them “Poems About My Dog.” (By the way, I do very much like dogs.) Why should readers be expected to care about what a poet feels or has experienced merely because it really happened or it really matters to that poet? Something more will be needed. Imagination provides the necessary risks, which lead to unexpected discoveries.
A turning point came for me during graduate school when Toni Morrison came to give a reading, which of course was astonishing, revelatory, and imaginative in exactly the ways I’m describing as desirable. At the public reception afterwards, a young black man in an army fatigue jacket asked her, “Who do you have in mind as your audience when you write—who are you writing for?” I would like to think he was asking a politically and culturally astute question, perhaps focusing on the particularly thorny dilemmas that black writers must face, but at the time I got the impression that he was actually asking a question about commercial considerations. Toni Morrison answered brilliantly. “I always try to write the sort of book that I would like to read,” she said. When I got home, I began to think over her response and I realized that it had further implications. I asked myself if I was writing the sort of book that I would like to read. My reluctant answer was no. I realized that I was writing the sort of thing I thought I ought to write. I had invited too many abstract notions and extraneous voices and preordained regulations into my head instead of following the path of instinct and inspiration and excitement. At that time, the reading that I most deeply enjoyed was Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I determined that I would from that moment forward seek to write only what I would enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed reading Garcia Marquez—not that I would become an imitation magic realist, you understand, but that I would follow my inspirations wherever they might lead. I’ve been following that path ever since, taking on all sorts of influences and ideas from writers I admire, while also seeking out subjects that are deeply interesting to me—or which are highly problematic for me—and seeing where things might lead. For me, that way of writing is far more intriguing than following some sort of external dictum or narrow ideology that might forbid making use of aspects of writing that could be helpful, including narrative elements. My imagination isn’t a slave to the mission of recording banal realities (Poems About My Dog)—which is, I think, what “elliptical” poets rightly dismiss and avoid—but at the same time I’m not steering away from including elements of story if I find that interesting and useful. Why should poets cede to fiction writers all the fun of creating (and twisting and breaking) stories? First there was poetry, and then there was fiction. I very much love reading and writing fiction, and so once again, I’m wary of these fallacious either-or choices. I was able to study with the great teacher and novelist John Gardner, and all that I learned then, from working hard on my fiction, has continued to be useful to me in writing poetry, and I’m glad of it.
Calling His Children Home (U of Missouri P, 1993) was published about nineteen years ago. This is an eternity in the publishing world. When we recently had an opportunity to read together, you mentioned to me how happy you were to have regained the writing impulse. Many writers stop writing at some point, but it seems to me that only a few begin again with any real sense of determination. To what do you attribute the long dry spell (or is fallow spell a better term?)? And what has happened to bring the writing back to the foreground?
I’m willing to admit that I am an impossible perfectionist, and that there may be some truth to the jokes my friends tell about me, suggesting that they fully expect to have to pry some of my poems out of my cold dead hands before I’ll let them loose into the world. I do revise my work extensively and adventurously—perhaps even ridiculously. After the creative explosion that unearths a first draft like a raw disaster, I feel compelled to take the time to write my way into the discoveries I need to make. I enjoy doing that and I learn from it. While I have a “day job” that does keep me very busy indeed, I’m grateful that my particular twist of fate has also allowed me the time and opportunity to pursue the art of writing for its own sake, not only for the pleasure of writing itself, but also to seek, with humility and without apology, the possibility of getting it just right—and doing so without having constantly to privilege the rush into publication above all other considerations. I’ve pretty much been the opposite of a careerist. My relationship to my writing has had more to do with the internal and the sacred rather than with relentlessly seeking external success. While I never stopped writing, for some years I did slow down on sending out my work during a period in my life when there were distractions of a personal as well as a professional nature to which I gave my attention, including starting up a literary journal. I’ve very much enjoyed my work with students as well, and that’s always been a consuming aspect of my life, about which I have no regrets. However, for a number of years now I’ve been taking a more positive approach toward publishing my writing and allowing my poems, on which I work very hard, to find the readers I hope they will serve and deserve. As a result, writing hasn’t become merely another job for me—a way to get money or get tenure or get noticed—it has retained its sacral nature, its wonder and delight.
I’ve also been fortunate of late to have found my way into a writing project that is energizing and deeply engaging, and that undertaking has put me back into the groove of writing on a more regular basis. And now, after many years of asking my university for some time off to focus on that project, I was granted a leave this past semester. I left Richmond to hole up with my writing away from all other distractions, so that I could make some real progress. The result is that I’ve completed a poetry collection titled Labyrinths in Black and Blue. The collection takes as a focus the mind-bending challenge and meditative comfort and psychological entrapment of the labyrinths in which we all find ourselves amazed nearly every day, while it also deals in various ways with some of the more famous labyrinths of myth and antiquity. The poems wander through that labyrinthine concept by taking many sorts of twists and turns, so that the book does, I believe, avoid getting too tightly wound up in it.
Project books that are narrowly restricted to their central concept (or gimmick) have the potential to become tedious. But with this project, I’ve found that I’ve continually been offered gifts of incitement and information and inspiration by the many complex and subtle ways in which labyrinths have come at me as I’ve been at work. Of course the exemplary conundrums and convoluted puzzles of Jorge Luis Borges lurk in the background, and in fact, as a way of paying him back for all the good and all the difficulty his work has offered to me, I wrote a poem in which I placed him in a labyrinth supreme, an entanglement of eternally multiplying paths from which there could be no escape—just as he might most desire. Additionally, such figures as Walter Benjamin, Franz Schubert, Miyamoto Musashi, John Wilkes Booth, and the Inca Atahualpa make appearances, caught in their own webs. The spirit of Vincent Van Gogh is presented as caught in the state of bardo, the labyrinth between worlds that all souls must wander before being reincarnated into the maze of this world again. The three poems that you’re publishing here are also from the book and enact their own puzzlements. My hope is that readers will enjoy losing themselves in what I’ve laid out for them.
Greg, when I arrived at Virginia Commonwealth as a new MFA candidate, it was still a very young program, drawing largely on Richmond-area folks for its students. Today, the program is typically listed in the top 50 of national MFA programs and has produced dozens of publishing writers. We live, however, in a time of what seems to be a backlash against the proliferation of such programs, and coupled with the current economic state of affairs, things have gotten tough for many MFA programs. What can you say about this, and how is VCU planning on proceeding into the future?
I’m proud of the graduate creative writing program that I’ve helped build at VCU. In addition to having an outstanding faculty and being comfortably at home in an excellent and diverse Department of English—a department which has always valued excellence in both teaching and scholarship—the program has a number of features that I think make it uniquely attractive. For one thing, its curriculum and traditions are remarkably flexible and humane. If a student feels the need to pursue an unusual interest, or would like to study in more than one genre, or comes into the program having earned a previous master’s degree, we find ways to accommodate their particular circumstances and help them to build an appropriate program of study that meets their individual needs and aspirations. We’ve always sought to develop a healthy community of writers who challenge and encourage each other in useful ways rather than foster some sort of nest of competitive vipers bent on crawling over the top of each other. Drawing on my own experiences as a graduate student, when I was sometimes frustrated by bureaucratic nightmares and nonsense, I made sure that in creating the VCU program we found many more ways to say “yes” to students while we instituted very few rules that unwisely say “no.” One example of that approach is that, instead of having students defend their thesis projects before some kind of tribunal of inquisition, we have the faculty members who directed those thesis projects describe and defend and praise them. That seems fair, and it appropriately places the emphasis on the mentoring that goes on in our program.
Building on those foundations, VCU’s program is proceeding into an even stronger future. We are expanding our offerings in creative nonfiction by hiring a new faculty member in that area this year. For many years we have offered one of the nation’s few workshops in writing the novel among other innovative course offerings. VCU is also the home of two outstanding literary awards, The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award and the Levis Reading Prize—the Levis Prize selects the best first or second book of poetry published in a given year and honors the memory of the poet Larry Levis, who taught at VCU—and both contests directly involve our students as screening readers. In recent years we have hired talented and energetic faculty members to join those who were already working very successfully with our students here. For example, our most recent hire is the poet Kathleen Graber whose superb second poetry collection, The Eternal City, last year was a finalist for the National Book Award and went on to win the 2011 Library of Virginia Literary Award. She is an inventive and exciting teacher and thinker, and students have greatly benefitted from working with her. I see our program continuing to grow stronger as it continues to attract talented and committed developing writers as our students. In a time when the nation’s economy is stressed and weakened, one of the wisest things a talented person can do is pursue further education, developing their talents while staying out of the economy as much and as long as possible. Eventually things will turn around again on the economic front, and meanwhile those students will have acquired a terminal degree that will, at the least, afford them a deserved sense of accomplishment in their development as writers, while also opening the possibility of academic and other sorts of writerly employment.
I’ve got to say that I was not the most distinguished and/or promising student in VCU’s MFA program. Neither Dave Smith, who taught in the program then, nor you, I’m sure, would have seen me as one of the folks who would go on to something like success as a poet, whatever that might realistically mean. You’ve been in the teaching business a long time, and so I wonder a bit about the students you’ve taught. Do you typically see something right away that would lead you to predict a bright future for a particular student? If so, are you usually right? Have a lot of students surprised you with what happens for them as writers later?
I learned a long time ago not to spend much effort on picking winners and losers in the horse race of art—it’s thoroughly unpredictable and just as often a losing proposition with human beings as it is with horses. I’ve always encouraged my students to see that the most important ingredient in making a successful writer isn’t necessarily talent, nor is it solely intellectual ability—though both are needed—but it’s determination. The desire to write and the determination to stick with it, even in the face of poverty or lack of immediate success, is more important than flashy brilliance or showy egotism. In your case, John, your own hard work and dedication over the long haul have meant that you have continued over a number of years to grow in strength and experience and perspective as a writer, and in the end you’ve met with various kinds of success, professional and artistic. One thing is indeed assured for all of us: the more you work on your writing, the better you get. There’s that old saw again, supposedly uttered by a famous golfer when someone commented on a phenomenally lucky shot he’d made: “It’s a funny thing, but I’ve noticed that the more I practice, the luckier I get.”
One thing that you’ve been involved with during the past decade or so has been the editing of Blackbird, one of the first online journals of a very high quality. In a 2002 interview with Jeff Lodge, you say of the journal that “[a]ll of us were uncertain when we first started Blackbird what all it might include and what it might be and I'm quite certain we don't know yet what it will be.” Can you tell us about the early days of Blackbird and where it is now? What is your sense about the current role of the online literary journal and how it functions within the greater academic and cultural structures?
Blackbird was first created when Mary Flinn, the editor of the print journal New Virginia Review which had often employed VCU students as interns, began talking with Michael Keller, our guru about all things computer-related in the VCU English Department, about the prohibitive expense of putting out a high-quality print literary journal. They began to consider the possibility of an online publication. I was then Director of Creative Writing, and when the idea was brought to me, I realized it was timely and I agreed to get involved—rather reluctantly, to be honest, as I had never really wanted to be an editor. I had observed the unending, inescapable workload that my friend T.R. Hummer had shouldered with the journals he’d edited (including The Kenyon Review and New England Review), and it struck me as a potential threat to one’s physical and mental health, to say nothing of how it might eat up time needed for one’s own writing. However, Terry was himself on the faculty at VCU at that time, and I felt better when he agreed to be involved as well. By the time the journal really got started, however, Terry had departed to become the editor of The Georgia Review. When we published the first issue of Blackbird in the spring of 2002, the first three literary editors were Mary Flinn, the fiction writer William Tester, and myself, with Michael Keller and Jeff Lodge as the online editors. Our aim then, as it is now, was to publish a journal online whose quality and editorial standards matched that of the best well-established print journals. After Bill Tester left VCU, Mary Flinn and I became the two principal literary editors and later, when Jeff Lodge left to work at VCU Qatar, Patrick Scott Vickers was hired to join Michael Keller in supervising all of the myriad aspects of creating a digital publication as well as working with the doctoral students in VCU’s new interdisciplinary PhD in Media, Art, & Text (MATX) program—both Keller and Vickers are multitalented writers as well as digital creators. Eventually, two graduates of VCU’s MFA program who are outstanding writers themselves, Susan Settlemyre Williams and Randy Marshall, also joined the senior staff. Over the years we’ve also enjoyed the contributions of a string of outstanding Associate Editors as well as interns who come from the ranks of VCU’s MFA program, along with a few select undergraduate students, many of whom have gone on to publishing and writing career successes themselves. Much of the reason why Blackbird has been so successful, in addition to the outstanding contributors we’ve been able to attract and publish, is the remarkably talented and dedicated staff of people who have worked for the journal. I feel a strong sense of responsibility toward both contributors and staff, and that has energized me all along.
In the earliest days of Blackbird, when I attended literary conferences such as Bread Loaf, I was asked to defend online publishing and to explain why I wanted to destroy the pleasure of holding a book or a print journal in one’s hand. But in just a few years it soon became evident what I had been explaining back then—that online journals are not enemies but perhaps might even be saviors of printed books, and that online journals are reaching vastly greater numbers of readers nationally and internationally—importantly including young readers, who by and large do not subscribe to print journals, statistics show. Nowadays I seldom have to defend Blackbird or myself; more often I’m asked to divulge the secret of getting published there (answer: submit excellent work). For one thing, Blackbird has pulled off quite a few publishing coups that have made big news, including publishing a previously unpublished poem by Sylvia Plath, and a complete book-length Buddhist futurist poem by Norman Dubie, and a new translation of a complete book of poetry by Tomas Tranströmer, which we put up just days before he won the Nobel Prize—that collection can be found in the Spring, 2011 issue. In addition, most writers have by now realized that having an online presence, including having work appear in the best online journals, can be vital in the promotion and sales of books—whether they’re delivered in print or digitally. Literary publishing is going through the same sort of revolution and evolution that has blessed and afflicted the music business (among other enterprises), and how it all will sort out remains to be seen, but there’s no question that the internet is now a central and irreplaceable force in the distribution of good writing and good music and much more. Resistance is futile, as Martin Luther himself might have said when he started using the printing press to publish copies of his translation of the Bible, a technological shift in the delivery of the Word which has ever since led to further revolutions and evolutions in our collective cultural enterprise. The internet is our new printing press.
While some folks like to bemoan the evil side effects of the role of the internet and its social and business networks, there are likely just as many if not more new and positive developments about which one can be enthusiastic. In a climate of financial downturn and economic hardship, many universities have been tempted to jettison expensive print literary journals—but all universities have to maintain large computer resources by necessity, and a byproduct of that circumstance is that a well-designed, well-run online literary journal may present itself as a desirably efficient, notably visible, and therefore quite supportable enterprise which is not necessarily prohibitively expensive. New literary genres which can be published online are coming into existence as well, genres which are both legitimate and seriously enjoyable, such as the video essay (I recommend those of John Bresland in Blackbird). Longer literary works, such as the long poem or substantially lengthy short fiction, are now readily being published online, when before their very length might have been the single prohibitive factor that kept superb works from finding their readers in a print journal. While most print journals have runs of only a few thousand, the best online journals such as Blackbird enjoy hundreds of thousands of individual visits to their websites annually. Don’t get me wrong—I still like to have my own work appear in the nation’s outstanding print journals and I enjoy reading them as well, having their elegant pages in my hands. Nevertheless, who would not want their poem or short story or essay to “go viral” and find many thousands of excited readers? Invisibility and inaccessibility won’t do a great literary work any good at all, since in a sense, it doesn’t really exist until it has a reader.
On the Poets & Writers directory pages, there is a line that asks writers to fill in a blank after the question “Identifies as:” On your page, you’ve filled in the blank with the word “Other.” Care to elaborate?
I was adopted as a newborn and I have never been able to contact my biological parents to gain any information, so my ethnicity is something of a mystery. I like to tell people: “What you see is what you get.” One of my wife’s friends took a look at my photo and determined that I looked like a Norwegian pirate. That might do. I admit that I rather like the mystery—it may be that my circumstance allows me to be whatever ethnicity I might wish to be, and I can fantasize any connection I like. In this case, nothing equals everything? In my poetry collection, I’ve included a poem titled “Instructions for the Labyrinth” and in that piece, as in others in the book, I indicate that I identify with the Minotaur, who was also abandoned by his birth parents, who left him to be raised by the blank walls of the labyrinth in which he was imprisoned. I identify with that “Other.” But perhaps you do, too.
I sometimes do envy my friends who have clear ethnic identities and vivid family histories to offer them an identity to claim and to resist. Instead, in my case, I’ve often said that I have the sky for a father and the earth for a mother. Yet in a broader sense, that parentage holds true for all of us, and we will, every one of us, one day return to them.
The Visit: Clouds in Trousers
Power saw ringing the end of its cut, hammer
Drumming its blunt obsession, driving it
Through heavy summer damp and murmur
Of voices snowing the globe of afternoon, and so
It begins. We approach as shadows in a ghostly fog—
Old Virginia clapboard farmhouse and fruit trees
Materializing in the yard, explosions of fat blue hydrangeas,
Magnolias towering over the stone path we follow
Into the menace & allure of slick dark leaves. We want
Simply to live here, perhaps once we did. Let’s open
The screen door, step inside, yet no one is
Here, the house feels us enter & we feel it too, the absence
Of those who make this home, the children for whom
It will always be magic, the couple for whom
It will always be magic and trouble and now we must
Wonder, is this a dream? Such things don’t matter
Anymore. The voices come again, we can’t tell what
They’re saying, and what they’re saying doesn’t
Matter, we don’t want to understand, hold that
Off. We want to be here wavering with these tones
Hanging bells in the air. All we have wanted
And could not say, all we have lost without knowing,
Now belongs here to the strong young couple
Who hold within, tucked inside, that other couple
We once dreamt but could not keep alive. The scent
Of fresh-cut flowers and cooking and the warmth
Of late afternoon sun slips over us. Our puzzled expressions
Linger in the shadows, our dim proposals hang back
In the shadows and it seems they will never come out
Come out wherever you are into this pale hovering, yet now
Here they come, our friends & their children, arms
Open, mouths open, ready to shout and to kiss.
Standing before Shiva as Lord of the Dance
St. Mungo’s, Glasgow
The wheel of flame keeps spinning and so it must
have been my turn for the demon of ignorance
to slip up behind me on a buckled city sidewalk
in the blackwater ebb of night, lost in those depths
of my wandering away from home, away
from the woman I had left so beautifully
angry and alone, adrift on our bed’s floe.
He asked directions to a mumbled crossroads
that did not exist, and so I did not just then
recognize him as the churlish Apasmara
even when he showed me the length
of pipe which would bust my skull,
he thickly explained, if he didn’t use
the gun he had tucked under his sweatshirt.
I made him follow me out into the lava
of leaf shadow shivering down the middle
of the street so that if I was clubbed or shot
at least I would be found before morning.
He took my wallet, money and I.D. and left me
hopping one foot to the other, waiting
to run as he shouted over his shoulder,
Don't you move. Then, I know where you live.
Too late, here in another country, another tick
of the wheel, caught flat-footed before this lithe cast
of gunmetal tall as me, I see now what I could have done:
I could have danced,
keeping my head erect, rolling my eyes,
holding the hourglass drum in one hand, the fire
in another, making my four hands into the sign
of the bone house, the sign of life-from-death,
making the sign do not fear, making the sign
there is a way out. I could have lifted
my left foot with the poise of the elephant breaking
a path through the jungle, breaking through the encircling
flames, and whirling fast as Shiva under the half-moon
streetlamp, could have spun on the demon’s back, smashed
the god particle, shattered the mojo, escaped its illusion,
the snake uncoiling from my right arm,
my desires in ashes, stars and rivers in my hair.
The Great Fire of Smyrna
The city is burning again. The page lies open,
smoke rises, boiling up, screams held within.
O sudden ones, phantasms, denizens of the air.
The city burns. Turkish soldiers throw oil into the houses.
Thousands mass on the waterfront. Stampeded, beaten,
robbed and raped. Many leap into the sea.
We struggle to hear them at this distance.
O daimons, slippery ones, tritons and gorgons.
The bazaars burn, smoke unfurls at the horizon’s
lip, the page turns. Bodies float on the waves
so thick you could walk over the water.
If a swimmer reaches for the neutral ships at anchor,
sailors are ordered to chop free the hand.
Ikons in the churches sweat their tears of lead.
O roaming ones, apparitions, visions that pass by.
And what will we do when the weariness steals
over us like fog rolling into this harbor?
O false ones, banished ones, devils and satyrs.
Ashes smolder in bulged heaps, the bodies are stacked.
The photographs will not cease their staring.
All our gods are hidden, drifting off in smoke.