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In the office, coworkers Sabine and Michael sat quietly at their cubicles. In the office, there was flux. For example, sometimes the temperature waffled between tropical and arctic, and the managerial staff also ran hot and cold. Sabine sat with Michael on her right and Melissa, who had been hired before her and always wore earbuds, on her left. Their collective boss, Heidi, was going through a divorce and sometimes had outbursts, and at these times Sabine and Michael turned toward their keyboards and screens. Melissa either did not hear or pretended not to.
Sabine had lied to get the job. She didn’t know anything about making slide presentations or spreadsheets.
“How are your pivot tables?” Heidi had asked in the interview.
“Well, I think they usually turn out beautifully,” Sabine had replied. Her response seemed to go over well, though she didn’t really know what a pivot table was. It had to do with spreadsheets, she knew that, but why or how? No clue.
It didn’t matter to her, lying. She’d lied to get her last job, at a coffee shop. It was just a job. In that interview, she had said, I prefer medium-body roasts with a strong finish, when in fact she had no idea what she preferred. None of it was life or death. It was not like she was pretending to be a doctor.
The coffee shop had taken her through college, roughly—she didn’t actually graduate—and she had enjoyed working there. She liked learning how to properly grind the beans and then tamp the grounds. She enjoyed negotiating the old, fussy espresso maker, and she enjoyed pulling the shots into warm mugs. She did not enjoy steaming milk because she believed her coffee was good enough not to need milk, but she still steamed with aplomb, until the foam coated the back of a spoon. Occasionally, if she was hungry, she could admit that milk-steaming be damned, she did enjoy a very dry cappuccino. Yet, usually she was not hungry.
After she dropped out and the semester turned and the coffee shop teemed with new freshmen, with their textbooks and their hope, bonking against the regulars at their usual tables, she understood she couldn’t stay because she wasn’t either of them. She was their barista, not their peer.
On a break one day, Sabine used the community computer to begin contriving a résumé, inventing nearly all of it. Besides the freshmen, she had two other groups of clientele: the consultants and the writers, and she drew her inspiration from them—from the consultants, a bullet-pointed skillset; from the writers, a sense of hope that if she could just get it down, the next line (always the next line) might be perfect enough to nudge her whole life forward.
Besides, it seemed like all the two groups ever did was type, and she could touch type. It was the writers she admired more. Some had a few published pieces, and all had books in various stages. She liked their dreaminess, the way they made it up as they went along, even if most of them tipped poorly.
And it was the writers who, when the city entertained zoning a chain coffee shop only a few blocks down, hosted a rally and showed up with pithy signs, and it seemed to work. The chain did not appear in the neighborhood. Maybe, even, Sabine’s job was saved.
The coffee shop had responded by opening up for more readings. Instead of just the Tuesday open mic that had been a standard since well before Sabine’s time, every other weeknight and alternating Fridays gave space to the writers, and so she heard the way they fabricated, and she heard the way they frequently could not separate these fabrications from their own lives.
She understood them a little more as she worked on the résumé, as the project stretched from just one break to two, to three, to a whole month of breaks. Sometimes she thought she was judging them a little harshly. At other times she thought if they would spend less time drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, they’d get more writing done.
At their readings, their abundant, repetitive readings, the short-shorts and prose poems would echo from the cheap, poorly adjusted microphone and ping against the espresso machine, so that no matter how carefully they had constructed their sentences and stanzas, it all sounded like clatter. Sometimes she recognized the stories from her customers’ lives, like the time Penelope (photo essays) and Raul (short-stories with an emphasis on temporalization) had ended their eight-year affair at the corner table, the best table, there by the window and overlooking the bay (slideshow by Penelope, captions by Raul). There was the time Jane (nonfiction) and her teenage daughter Chrysanthemum (free verse, contemporary haiku, and hybrid poetry) thought they had been evicted, but it turned out to be okay; it was only that they were both stoned and were at unit 401 instead of 501, and they didn’t understand right away, as their world filtered through a slow pot swirl, that the notice tacked to the door was not for them, because it was not their door, not their furniture inside when they jiggled the handle to get in so they could quickly round up what they could carry. The mauve sofa in 401 jolted them to realization—(verse and live gong by Chrysa, reading by Jane):
What a difference
Just one flight up those old stairs
Makes for us, Mother
She thought of them as she used one of the built-in templates from the word processing software. She had started by putting her name and address at the top, but sometimes she retyped it; in fact she had retyped it probably a hundred times, just so she could feel the action of her fingertips on the keyboard, feel like she was working.
Of course she had noticed the writers always changed what happened, trying for pith or drama. The consultants probably did too. She didn’t know what they did at their jobs, but she saw the spreadsheets, the charts, and she had taken enough statistics, worked her butt off for a B- even, to understand that there was as much interpretation in data as in trouble and love.
(Cool blue light under the door
My home. Mother’s home.)
And Penelope’s Polaroid photos, grainy and off-color because she bought old, unpredictable film to save money and then coated the prints in Mod Podge to seal them up and scanned batches at the library, paired with Raul’s minimalist narration, actually worked well, Sabine thought, but it was nothing like them as a couple. As a couple they did not have the gritty tension of mixed media. As a couple they were boring, and each had complicated coffee orders, and they argued about whether it was okay for Penelope to say she was vegetarian when she was actually pescatarian.
“Fish are animals too, Penelope,” Raul would say.
“But no one knows what it means,” Penelope would answer.
“I know what it means,” Raul said.
“But you’re vegan. Of course you know. Most people consider eating only fish to be vegetarian.”
In her time at the coffee shop, Sabine heard a hundred variations on this argument, and a hundred times she had assured Raul that she never put his almond milk into the dairy steamer, even though she did it all the time.
“Catholics maybe think this, the Lent thing,” Raul would say to P, “but don’t put your religious industrial complex in this space. Fish have eyeballs. Broccoli does not have eyeballs!”
And one series on their slides, during their reading/presentation, did address this. A corn with human ears. Eyes on potatoes, on beans. A radicchio styled to look like a vagina. P’s vagina. Kiwi fruit as Raul’s balls, avocado as another man’s larger balls.
By the time the readings started, the consultants were always gone. They finished work at two or three, snapping their laptop cases shut, packing up their messenger bags, and padding out into the street in their colored tennis shoes, headed to their condos for a night of Netflix or other Wi-Fi-enabled activities.
On the community computer, Sabine listed her college, and she listed her imaginary skillset.
Later, she would ask Raul to proofread it and P to offer some suggestions for design flair (lines at the side, Sabine’s name in cerulean blue). Chrysa changed her objective so it read:
Making coffee now
But looking for my big break
Call, not pull, the shots?
It took her longer to ask one of the more regular consultants to take a look, and while she didn’t know a thing about him but his coffee order (doppio) she believed that he would offer her the ruthless critique she needed.
“Too many words, too much color,” he said, while looking at his phone. “Sentences aren’t helpful. Just use bullets and tabs. Everything must have a result,” he said. “And listen, what’s your number? I’ll text you a list of words you have to work in.”
“I have a pen,” Sabine said.
“I’d rather text,” he said.
She recited her number, and he sent the text, and she stared at it for a while. Velocity. Synergy. Demonstrable. Actionable.
“Okay,” she said. “Thank you.”
At the community computer, she deleted Chrysa’s objective, P’s blue lines, and Raul’s semicolons. She did so a little guiltily, ignoring the advice of all the people she liked best.
Demonstrable experience in enabling synergy with actionable approach to departmental velocity.
“Good,” the consultant said.
“I don’t even know what that means.”
“That’s fine. Meaning isn’t really the point. It’s not art, it’s just a résumé. I’ll text you a couple of places I know are hiring.”
She submitted. Then she waited. Then she started getting calls.
At the first interview, she did very poorly. She was dressed wrong, and her hair looked messy.
For the second interview, Sabine blow-dried. Her head felt bouncy, and when paired with the gray twinset she’d found at a secondhand store, she thought she could pass for the type of person who held a desk job. Her boyfriend, who she shared the apartment with, said she looked like her mother.
“What’s your greatest weakness?” the second interviewer asked.
Sabine correctly recognized this as a place where she should tell a lie. “My greatest weakness is that I am sometimes too truthful,” she said.
“Can you relate that characteristic to this role?”
“No,” Sabine said. “I cannot.”
“Okay,” the interviewer said. “Well, that’s truthful, but not really what I’m looking for.”
On the third interview, with Heidi (nervous, distracted Heidi), Sabine wore the twinset, blow-dried, and texted the consultant. What do I do if I don’t know the answer to a question? Dodge, he replied.
“How are your pivot tables?” Heidi asked.
“Well, I think they usually turn out beautifully,” Sabine replied.
When she got the offer, she was shocked at the salary, at the number of vacation days. Health and dental and vision. She ran her tongue across her teeth and imagined how much smoother they would be with two annual cleanings. She squinted—she didn’t need glasses, but she could get some anyway.
Her boyfriend was not impressed.
Her boyfriend’s name was Ryan, but he preferred to go by Sebastian.
Sabine didn’t care what he went by, since she’d spent her whole life having the pronounced e of her name dropped.
He was still piddling at school, in a studio program. The program was actually competitive, but Sabine honestly could not pick out his installation art from any of his peers’. At the shows, there was string, a lot of string, and there were nails and scraps of denim; there was salt everywhere, salt making gallery floors slick and prematurely aging the finishes. Tempura paint. Oil paint. Paint from organic vegetable dyes. Once, just after the offer, her boyfriend needed a pint of blood, but he was scared of needles so he made it from boiled beets.
“It’s too purple,” Sabine said, peering into their only large pot, roiling on the stove. Now and then a hunk of tuber would pop to the surface. “Maybe add turmeric? The yellow might balance it out?”
“Purple and yellow make gray,” he said, and she could tell he was trying to keep his voice calm. “You’re selling out.”
“I’m not,” Sabine said. “I just can’t do the coffee thing anymore.”
“You used to make the most beautiful bird-scapes,” he said. He was wistful as he stirred the pot of desiccated beets. He threw in a handful of beet tops, a neutralizing green.
It was hard for her to describe to him why she’d quit the bird-scapes—her word, which she did not point out he was appropriating, for the canvasses she outlined nature scenes on and then filled in with feather. When she’d first started, in high school, the project had seemed very pure and she had spent hours collecting fallen feathers, but as time went on, it was easier to purchase in craft shops or on eBay. After one spin through the washer at the Laundromat, crammed into an old pillowcase and washed on hot, her bagged, store-bought feathers were ragged enough to pass for having been found on the forest floor.
And at first she’d only used pine tar or other kinds of pitch and sap to affix the feathers to her hand-stretched canvas boards she’d cut herself with a manual saw, but as time went on, she wielded a hot glue gun against whatever hangable surface she could find on sale. There just wasn’t time to do it all—work and school and scavenging. At the very beginning of her junior year, she’d landed a solo show, but the only piece that had sold was the worst of all of them—synthetic down pasted to a bed of rayon and glitter in a cheap attempt at Starry Night. She priced it at $2,345.67. The ascending numbers, simply a random way to price, were meant to be a marker to anyone who actually cared about art, because she was embarrassed of the piece, but the enormous eighteen-by-twenty-foot canvas filled the space for the other works she didn’t have. She was even more humiliated that someone wanted to buy it, and absolutely deflated when she cashed the check, even though it got her current on rent.
Still, her boyfriend had been impressed by her take, and he delighted in its irony.
Now that she had spent more time at a proper office, and more time with her coworker Michael, she thought about it differently. Consecutive pricing, she could have called it, the string of ascending numbers. It could even be a way to bid. Start with five, and go from there. $5.43; $54.31; $543.10.
Her boyfriend didn’t know Michael, but that didn’t stop him from not liking him.
He would never say his name, only “that guy.” That guy you sit with, that guy you work with, that guy—wait, why are you having lunch with that guy?
At the office, she and Michael didn’t talk about art so much, though Sabine thought about it as she worked through her slides, through her tables. At first, she knew so little, she was constantly at the help files, and she wished Raul and Penelope and Jane and Chrysa had a nicely tabled instruction set detailing exactly how to proceed.
She’d heard Penelope and Raul had patched things up, and Chrysa was doing a series of observations:
Oh, it’s so stable—
You at your screen. What about
The rest of your life?!
Sometimes she looked up and Michael would be looking at her, and then he would look away, though Sabine would not. Once, after a long weekend, the elevator opened to the twelfth floor and Michael was just outside the door. He’d been in early, was headed out for coffee.
And there was a pull there, in the way he looked at her, the way he touched her shoulder.
“Coffee?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she said, but she was not fine. The spot on her shoulder was burning. This was what Ryan/Sebastian had seen before she’d seen, the way she wanted to pull Michael to her. She wished she’d worn something different than her same rumpled twinset and black pants.
Then they were exchanging places, she stepping outside of the elevator and he stepping in, and then the doors were closing and he was whooshing through the building, past the debt collectors on floor ten, the engineers on six.
She imagined him descending, swiftly, away from her. She depressed the button on the elevator, to call the next car, but the elevator was taking forever, and she didn’t know where, exactly, he might get coffee from; there were many places and among many other things she didn’t know about Michael, she didn’t know which shop was his favorite.
Sabine turned from the elevator bank and headed for the stairs. At eleven, she passed Melissa, earbuds snug, slim thighs hiking the flights. At seven, a group of workers arguing. By the time she burst through the lobby and into the street of her downtown building, Michael was long gone. A light rain had started, and she spotted Heidi, sheltered by a polka-dot umbrella, crossing the street. Even though at home Sabine and Sebastian/Ryan talked a lot about feelings, she didn’t think she could explain this feeling to him, how all she’d really have to do was wait for Michael to come back, his latte steaming, but also how it seemed impossible to wait. How she liked Heidi but didn’t want to talk to her in this moment. How the way the steam rising from the manhole covers and the cars splattered with just a few sparse drops seemed inexplicably and terminally sad.
How, when she looked at the sidewalk, the concrete dark with dirt and damp, there was a single feather, and how, whether fallen from the sky or loosed from a scavenging pigeon’s wing, as much as she wanted it, Sabine simply could not bend, could not pick it up.
The night I try to kill myself a boy
is shot in the shoulders at the gas
station next to my apartment.
I don’t flinch. I lie
on the rubber of my bed that keeps
the bugs away and stare at the black
poles holding the bunk bed together.
The mice play sought and found
in the shoe closet filled with all size 10’s.
What miracle can I conjure tonight?
I sleep till dawn and the spirit that wants me gone
slaps my eyes to rise: Through the kitchen window,
the dark clouds are yoked with life.
I know the sharp knives in my home
but draw the thin butter knife because
I don’t want a mess for my mother to clean,
I don’t want her to weep as she dips
a rag in Clorox and stains the floor to reverse
its memory. My burial must be neat.
I trace the peak of the blade across the linea
negra on my stomach; the one to appear
only when I am pregnant. I am yet to meet
a man: how do I leave this earth with ease?
ODE ON MY UPSPEAK
“A lot of these really flamboyant things you hear are cute, and girls are supposed to be cute, but they’re not just using them because they’re girls. They’re using them to achieve some kind of interactional and stylistic end.” – Penny Eckert, New York Times
I admire its belligerent uncertainty, like:
I’ll know if I know when I please. Pointed
indecision as auto-prick that sticks my sentence-tip.
When my tongue spring-toes into a run, I vault
across silences sucking this tick like perpetual mint—
surprised but satisfied. I want all my action
rising, okay? While we’re at it, I dig my umms,
impervious little monks who squat
in well-spaced rows, their insistent vibrato
a hypno-chant that spins my speech to incantation.
I love how they punctuate, bead-like,
my vocal fry, that holey string to which I cling.
Its creak makes me speak like a crumb-scraper
savoring the linen tablecloth. I lick
the conversation down and shake
each glottal rattle at the sky, my diphthong
kernels popping in a thrum that sets me singing
like an optimist—I’ve got nowhere to go but up
to the roof of a high rising terminal.
Oh my voice, you are a wing tethered to a gender
like a brick—or a period—and you jump regardless.
I Want to Walk to McDonald’s Forever, Friend
I want to wade there with you on a snow day,
wheeze-winded & teary. I want to smash the ice
in your lashes, then let the oily steam breathe us
back to running blood. Or I want to walk there
in crop tops we’ll swap in the lime fluorescent
of the slime-tiled john so we can walk home as one
another. I want to wooze in your menthol-cherry
aura as we find every flickering arch in the city.
Delicate licker of grease-dipped French tips,
send me a Rite-Aid valentine that says be my bitch
& I’ll be yours. No take-backs, no joke, no jinx
when I answered that trick crush question with you,
you who then flipped & tramped the whole year solo.
But I swear on my mamaw’s spine we can walk
it all back with Big Macs & a thousand half-hug pats.
Please let’s just meet on the mouth of straw,
suck it up, crush only our cups, & let the year drip down
the sewer slats as we walk back & back & back.
by Jennifer Stern
Where is Liu Xia?
This is how you try to erase a person after he’s died: you delete all mentions of him. You ban the phrase R.I.P. on blogs. You arrest those who mourn him. You spread his ashes out in the ocean where no memorial can be built. You take his wife, the woman who now stands for him, and make her disappear.
This woman is the poet and artist Liu Xia.
The past few weeks have been devastating for her and for all of us who care about human rights in China. Liu Xia’s husband, Liu Xiaobo, died on July 13th from cancer he was diagnosed with in prison. He was an activist, Nobel Peace Prize winner, poet, deeply human in his writing, and deeply symbolic of the fight for democracy in China. He died of what many are calling “political murder” under guard, and unable to leave the hospital chosen for him, far from all of his friends and family, save Liu Xia. There in the hospital, it is believed, Liu Xia was allowed to touch her husband for the first time in seven years.
Liu Xia did not choose to be a political figure. She is an artist who fell in love with a poet she hung out with at salons she often hosted. She writes about Kafka and strange dreams and birds and smoking and her mother-in-law and Nijinsky and her brother and language and watching her beloved transform from man to figure and back again.
Liu Xia was placed under house arrest when Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize. Since then she’s been trapped in her home, barely allowed visitors or phone calls or guarded trips to the store. She hasn’t been able to sit with a friend and hear her own voice in response to another’s. Under house arrest, her health has deteriorated, and those few friends who’ve spoken with her say that the vibrant, specific woman they knew has become fragile, and is on the verge of breaking apart. Liu Xia was never accused of a crime. She was punished to punish her husband and as a lesson to a nation. And now no one knows where she is. No one knows where the Chinese government is hiding her.
Many of us here read and write poems to know that we exist and that we are entwined with others through an art form that exists all over the world. Liu Xia is one of us, a poet. I wish there was one way to stop the erasure of a human, but I don’t think there is. Yet we can do this: read Liu Xia’s poems. They exist. We can enjoy them, or not. We can argue with them. We can pass them on to a friend and say, “Read this, this poet exists.” We can teach her poems or keep them for ourselves. We exist. And because of that, Liu Xia’s poems can speak even when her voice can’t be heard. I want to believe that it’s harder to erase this person, specific in her words and life, when we’re in the middle of a conversation.
~ Jennifer Stern, co-translator of Liu Xia’s poems
Four Way Review is featuring Liu Xia’s work and this introduction alongside Bat City Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Poetry Northwest, Scoundrel Time, Tupelo Quarterly, and other publications in an effort to draw attention to the life and writing of the poet Liu Xia at this critical moment. The poems, translated by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern, are reprinted from Empty Chairs: Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, 2015) with the permission of the translators and Graywolf Press.
—for Xiaobo’s mother
Suddenly, you’re gone.
Two hours after entering
the hospital you took
your last breath.
This is the way you longed to die.
You did it, mother,
leaving us choking on blood.
When the call came with the news
we were drinking with friends,
and I was reading a poem by Kevin Hart
called “Praying for the Dead.”
I saw you for the last time at the funeral home.
You seemed tiny in the new clothes,
your face caked with makeup.
I was afraid you would turn into a doll,
one of the dolls possessed by rage
in my photographs.
I wanted to run out
but Xiaobo took my hand firmly.
I couldn’t even move.
I know you never liked me.
All along you suspected I had planned
everything: your son imprisoned,
his refusal to live with you in Dalian,
and even your illnesses—
all my fault.
You couldn’t stand my laugh.
You asked me to leave.
The first time I went to your house
it was full of plastic sheets and bags.
The sofa, mattress, carpet, heater, the drawers,
and even the cutting board and kettle
were covered or filled with plastic.
I couldn’t breathe.
You looked lonely in your plastic house
as a queen.
Every month during the three years
when Xiaobo was in that Dalian prison,
I had to bite my tongue
to enter your territory.
Each time, with a sawtooth voice,
you said to me, “You don’t need to come again.
I’m his mother. I will take care of everything.”
As for the things I brought from Beijing—you
didn’t bother to take a look.
I couldn’t make you soft.
The ocean of Dalian wore me down.
For a year and half
I couldn’t see Xiaobo,
so I asked you humbly
“Mother, how is Xiaobo doing?”
You said he lost weight
so I tried to find nutritious foods.
You said his face was terribly swollen
so I sought medical advice from everywhere.
You said he was getting too fat
so I told him in a letter
not to add sugar when making powdered milk.
Under your magic wand
I moved around desperately.
You were always right,
and I had to tolerate you.
I tried to be a well-behaved daughter-in-law.
I gave you new clothes, cotton socks,
and gold bracelets, but you put them aside,
When I offered to take you out to eat, you said
the food was poisoned.
There was one thing you didn’t reject,
the medicine I brought you.
You liked taking medicine
more than any food in the world.
Your pickled veggie pot
was full of worms.
so many plastic sheets separated us.
Love for the same man
split us apart.
We couldn’t get close to each other.
When we needed each other’s comfort
we became enemies.
One day you came back from the prison
and talked to yourself:
“Let Xiaobo die. Done with it.”
From that moment on I didn’t
need to hide my hate.
You are finally gone.
Those plastic bags are in the trash.
I don’t pray for reconciliation,
but you appear regularly
in the shadows.
Xiaobo was startled by you in his dreams—
you were moaning helplessly.
You’ve forgotten to take your dentures
which are biting me,
making me doubt
if this is the right ending.
please do not block the light
that illuminates my pen.
Let these words survive.
Let me finish reading
“Praying for the Dead.”
francine j. harris is the author of allegiance (2012), a finalist for both the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the PEN Open Book Award, and play dead (2016). She won the 2014 Boston Review Annual Poetry Prize and her poetry has appeared in many journals, including McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, Poetry, Meridian, Indiana Review, Callaloo, Rattle, Ninth Letter, and Boston Review. She was a 2008 Cave Canem fellow, and was awarded a NEA fellowship in 2015. She currently serves as the Writer in Residence at Washington University in St. Louis.
FWR: The “pink pigs” poems from your book Play Dead started as a personal essay for Tran(s)tudies. At what point did you decide to turn that essay into poems? Are the headers and footers in the poems a relic from the original essay, or were they something that came out as you worked on the poems?
fjh: I think it may have been the other way around. The poem began as a poem, and I used it in an essay I wrote for Tran(s)tudies; the essay was about code switching and I used it in this part where I was talking about speaking back to people that I grew up with, in kind of an indirect way into my writing. I can’t answer the question about ‘who you’re talking to in your poems or in writing in general’, but there are moments where talking back to folks that I couldn’t have certain conversations with. And in the essay, I believe I was talking back to some of the girls I grew up with and it was an example of one of those internal conversations turning into a piece. This piece was an amalgamation of a few specific people.
Actually when I wrote it, I had been reading Donald Barthelme; he has these little short narratives through dialogue and it just triggered something as I was reading it… But after I wrote it I realized that I was reaching even further back in terms of influence. It wasn’t exactly Barthelme who was triggering that voice, but Gayl Jones, who in the novel Eva’s Man has this very particular way of men and women talking, or not talking. There is a way in which their dialogue says and doesn’t say lots of things about consent and passiveness, and about things happening under the surface. I think all that stuff was playing into that, and when I originally wrote it, it was all one long piece but that didn’t quite work in the book, so I pulled it apart and let it intersperse throughout the whole collection.
FWR: Throughout the whole manuscript, there is this feeling that there’s this conversation happening between the past and present or imagined present and imagined past.
fjh: When you say imagined, what do you mean?
FWR: Looking back upon events that have happened, one tends to recreate them, but in that recreation they’re never quite the same as they were.
fjh: I think what I like about that conversation is that I don’t think it’s that idealistic, though. There’s just as much failure in that conversation as there might have been, or would have been, or was, in the relationships themselves. I think art allows a different kind of failure, a failure that can be productive. But I think, partly that’s what I gathered or what inspired me from Gayl Jones, that these imagined conversations are not any more romantic than the original. It just sits differently in the psyche, manifests differently. Does that make sense?
FWR: It does, and it speaks a little bit to that tension in the form and structure of your poems: between who is speaking, or when there’s an attempt to say or an inability to say. Is that fair?
fjh: Yeah, I think that’s fair. I’m definitely one of those poets who began writing because I didn’t know how to talk. I still don’t know how to talk. A lot of times I say things wrong, all the time. Ha! I think sometimes if I could just stop talking, and just do poems, everyone might be better off. Ha!
FWR: When you’re writing, do you see the poem ahead of time? For example, in “kara, you wild.andIdon’tknow” or “tatterdemalion,” were those the shapes you wanted because of the tension that you wanted that syntax to create? Or was it only through the playing through different forms that you realized that that’s the form you were hoping for?
fjh: I think that started– I get a lot of questions about this– I think I’ve realized, I don’t write towards visual structure. I’m interested in it, but maybe only in revision. I appreciate visual structure on the page. It’s not like I look at it and think it’s gratuitous or that I don’t find beauty in it, but I don’t think I come to it for that reason. It’s always something I’m thinking about in hindsight. So in answer to your question, no, I have no idea what shape it’s supposed to take.
I draw a little bit and sometimes if I’m drawing, I think, “what if this was text that looked this way?” I’ve tried that and it hardly ever works. It’s usually very forced. But I think because I do appreciate things visually, it’s become an editing point for me. It’s become a fun way to edit things. So those boxes, I started making those boxes and I didn’t know why I was making them, but it seemed to make sense because that’s what Kara Walker in “Cut”, which is an illustration she has of a girl figure with these really slashed off wrists, and so it just kind of made sense. But I was just doodling, and then I realized that this has a kind of resonance considering who I’m talking about and what I’m talking about in the poem. I guess I play with [visual structure] and if I like it, I’ll keep it.
FWR: Do you have a favorite poem to teach? How do you open up that conversation?
fjh: Every semester I gather things. And there are things that I come back to, and usually the poems I keep coming back to are because I can teach them for so many different reasons. Mary Ruefle’s “White Buttons” [for example]: I keep teaching this poem, because there are so many reasons to teach this poem. I can teach it to talk about how images reinforce themselves over a period of time because it’s a little bit longer, so these images just develop out of thin air– almost literally- there are these text pages, these book pages, like petals, and you don’t know how it happened, right? There’s a way that the images build, and I can teach it for that. I can teach it for the associative moves she makes, like that weird move she makes where she suddenly says:
(I am sorry I did not
go to your funeral
but like you said
on the phone
an insect cannot crawl
I can teach it as a second person address, that interrupts the speaker. I can teach it for so many different reasons. One of the poems I’ve been teaching on and off for years is Yusef Komunyakaa “You And I Are Disappearing” for almost all of the same reasons. There are so many reasons to teach that poem: listing, cataloguing, subtext, how you can read a poem have two entirely different experiences with the poems based on your experience with the subject matter, imagery. I’m always grabbing poems for imagery… The funny thing is, I feel like, and maybe this is an essentialist statement, I’ll say poems today that stay with me, stay with me for the same reasons– because there’s a lot going on in them. Every time I come back to them I’m thinking of something else, something else that makes it work.
The thing that– I hear it like dinging. This is the thing this time around that jumps.
FWR: Who or what is inspiring you right now? If you could recommend one piece of art to anyone in this world, who might it be?
fjh: You know, it’s funny when you asked me this question, I had a weird moment, because I think the question you actually asked me was, ‘is there an artwork or a poem that you would share with anybody?’ and the first thing I thought was, ‘what I’m supposed to say is if there’s a piece of art I could give to someone like Trump that would somehow change him, what would it be?’
I was thinking about the artworks that I like, thinking, would it make a difference for Trump to walk through a gallery of any of those artists, or would that matter? Would it make a difference for someone to read Dawn Lundy Martin into his ear while he slept? But I had this moment where I realized how personally I view art. I’m kind of selfish about it. I don’t want to share anything with someone I have so little respect for. So if I were to show art to someone, it wouldn’t be for the thought of changing them, it would be for the thought of giving them something.
Sometimes I just gather things to show friends at appropriate occasions. I was going to tell you about this artist I’ve just found, whose work I really love, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, just because I was so excited about her art and her process, and it is the kind of thing I would want to share just, over a moment, over coffee. That’s how I think of sharing artwork, not as changing the world.
DEATH OF A CHILD
This is how a child dies:
little by little. His breath
curdles. His hands
heavy on their branches.
I can’t explain it.
I can’t explain it.
On the walk back to the car
even the stones in the yards
are burning. Far overhead
in the dead orchard of space
a star explodes
and then collapses
into a black door.
This is the afterlife, but
I’m not dead. I’m just
here in this field.
The lambs I curled like twins
and lay into their boats. I stuffed their ears
with the wooly sound of sleep.
The pigs I showered with white carnations.
The cows I placed cut branches over, green parasols
fluttering on the stems. All the dead
becalmed in their vessels, sent onto the river.
The river was a murmur of many boats drifting.
Petals in the eddies, creak of prow against stern…
The parade grew large between the banks.
Then there were only boats, boats
and the sound of water beneath them.
Before the insects start to grind their million bodies,
before impulse scatters the deer into the trees,
there’s a rest.
The dawn and the day observe each other.
The herd begins to move over the field, one shared dream
of grass and wind.
The small stones of their hooves in the stony field.
I’ve exhausted my cruelty.
I’ve arrived at myself again.
The sun builds a slow house inside my house,
touching the stilled curtains, the bottoms of cups
left out on the table.
FOR ITS BLUE FLICKERING
If you take cobalt as a simple salt
and dissolve it—if you dip a small metal loop
in such a solution and place it in a standard
flame, it burns a brilliant blue,
the flame itself bluer than the richest of skies
in summer. I wanted to be that blue.
And so, I claimed that element as my own,
imagined that fire could make of me
something bluer than the bluest of blues.
But what does an eighteen-year-old boy know
of the blues? All I knew then of cobalt
was its stable isotope. I had no knowledge
of the radioactive one with its gamma rays
used for decades to treat cancer. I had yet
to be exposed to such a thing. I was hot
for cobalt, for its blue flickering. Chemistry
can be such an odd thing. When a teacher of mine
offered up that faggots doused in certain chemicals
burned blue, I saw it as a sign; how can we
not see such things as signs, as omens?
Blue the waters of the Caribbean Sea,
blue the skies over the high deserts,
and blue the passages I found in old Greek texts
that surprised my prudish sense
of what men could do with men. It always
came back to blue. But boyish ideas are just that.
They seem for all the world to be fixed things,
when all they are is merely fleeting. In the end,
my make up was none other than anthracite,
something cold, dark, and difficult to ignite.
It is dense, only semi-lustrous, and hardly
noticeable. One dreams in cobalt, but one lives
in anthracite. Yes, the analogy is that basic.
Anthracite, one of earth’s studies in difficulty:
once lit it burns and burns. Caught somewhere
between ordinary coal and extraordinary graphite,
anthracite surprises when it burns. It isn’t flashy—
it produces a short, blue, and smokeless flame
that reminds one of the heart more than the sky.
PORTRAIT IN AZURE AND TWINE UNRAVELLING
Sometimes what attracts us is nothing more
than a marker of what is wrong with us.
Ravel was heralded as a genius, a master
of Impressionism, for his use of highly repetitive
structures, his rhythmic and repetitive structures.
Who can deny the beauty of Bolero? Not me.
As a child, I asked my mother to listen to me
while I practiced words like cobalt, each one more
and more odd for their sounds, their structures,
something I was still figuring out. “Grant us
Peace,” we repeated at Mass. Everything was repetitive.
And that is how it started, me trying to master
the language, the very words, fearful they would master
me, instead. Azure, sinecure, the long u had me
so early, and then the hard t one finds in repetitive,
substantive, titillation. I always needed more and more
words. Debussy once described Ravel as a man just like us,
one who understands that repetition structures
the way we move through the world, structures
our very breath, breath being that thing necessary to master
song, language, the natural world around us.
The first time I took a lover, she took time to watch me
sitting on the edge of the bed mouthing the word more.
After four hours, she dressed and called me repetitive,
told me the fun of it had ended, had become repetitive.
Memory, even when about something painful, structures
our worlds, structures our hearts and minds and more.
Within years of writing Bolero, Ravel could no longer master
music. He even lost the ability to use language. Imagine me
hearing this story. We were still new to each other, not yet us
but still a me and you. When Ravel left this world, left us,
you told me, many thought him mad and madly repetitive
pouring the same cup of water over and over. “Listen to me,”
you said. “Music is more than the simple structures
one need master.” I chose language instead of music to master,
all 171,000 words in the English language and more.
This morning, you caught me mouthing something other than more.
Ravel was not a man like us. Really. I just needed a new word to master.
My love, I’m repetitive. I sit here saying: “structures, structures, structures.”
TIME SURE FLIES WHEN YOU’RE NOT LIVING UP TO YOUR POTENTIAL
So, everything failed. The jabbed-iron trees flamed out
in spectacular failure along the ragged range. Forecast
failed. The pollster that glistered turned huckster. And
the memory of that ex who called you petit bouchon
failed to reassure that you once loved wreckful and reckless
and in a foreign tongue. All around you now Florida fails pinkly
and by voracious flora. The lizard who burned or drowned
hot-tubbing in your hot coffee failed perfectly, curled into
an eternal question mark, little fingers clenched, dukes up.
If death is the body’s failure, it is also its final fuck you.
Which has to count for something. Which has to be a win.
LIGHTNING SUSPECTED IN DEATHS OF HORSES
I want to take you to the black-mud spring pasture
where six horses fell and did not get back up.
I don’t know if they were dark or dappled—
I wasn’t there. I read it in a newspaper in Vermont,
sitting at the counter of a diner that no longer
exists. Lightning Suspected in Deaths of Horses—
small article in a bottom corner, not much
more information than that. It struck me—
I’m not trying to be funny—I carried
that headline around until it became a slogan
although I’m not sure what I’d been sold.
Maybe this: the sky opens, you kneel
and beg its mercy and it doesn’t make
one lick of difference. Or, light appears
and your life is transformed. Finally getting
exactly what you’ve asked for all along:
a shift in luck, sudden brilliance, your body
lit, electric, your own enough to let it go.
Remember that time the ocean came in through my bedroom window? Remember that time I woke up choking on sea salt spray, my bed a boat on the sea that had replaced the stained gray carpet? Of course you don’t. You weren’t there any longer. But each night I heard you singing. Remember that tape you left—how quaint, I said when you slipped it in my player, like olden days!—the one I told my therapist I threw away? I didn’t. It was all I had of you left. You sang each night’s lullaby, sang me into a sleep so deep it bled into death. Whether you liked it or not. You probably did. You had a certain affinity for resurrection narratives. Remember that time I woke thick with sweat, salt dried on my skin like sand? Of course you don’t. You weren’t there any longer. How easily tapes break, their black film twisted like seaweed. There’s a reason no one uses them anymore.
He got out of his truck and composed himself. His new white shirt stuck to his lower back where he’d been sweating against the vinyl seat. She was in the hotel up there, and she might be looking down. It was seven o’clock exactly. The curbs, the sidewalks, and the asphalt were unbroken and clean. Maybe fifteen stories, it was a new hotel.
When he was halfway across the parking lot, he looked back at his truck. He liked the look of it in the last light. It was just washed, and the cam that he had dropped in only a month ago made a thumping and purring that got him looks at stoplights. Admiration and envy. The truck was almost thirty years old, battered and authentic. He liked the way it shifted on the column. He had nice forearms, and a girl could admire that without having to understand. The evening was cooling off, and he was relieved. The air conditioner was broken, and they’d have to accept what the weather would give them. He went in.
He got off the elevator, saw the brass plaque numbers, and figured the direction to her room. It was only three doors from the elevator. Outside the door lay a room service tray with some dirty dishes staggered and peeking out from a silver platter cover. It struck him as odd, but he didn’t think about it, and he knocked.
She came to the door. He was expecting a black dress, maybe something deeply red or blue. But she was in her pajamas. Her face was the same. Not so youthful around the eyes and the mouth, but he wanted to kiss her on her eyes and her mouth. They hugged in the doorway for a good while. She started pulling away first, and he thought to say something, but he just let her turn and go back to the rumpled bed where she plopped down and leaned back against the headboard.
Trying to show his old sense of humor, he said, “Are you good to go?”
“My stomach feels funny,” she said.
“Mine, too,” he said. “Am I overdressed or what?”
“I ate some room service,” she said.
He’d seen the dishes in the hall. He touched the TV with his hand, and it was warm. She had been watching it before he came.
“We were supposed to go out.”
She shrugged, tilting her head, squinting, giving him a look as if she were only a little sorry she’d disappointed him. He didn’t want to be mad at her, her pretty head tilted that way. On the drive to the hotel, he worried that they might fight at some point, and he was irritated already. They hadn’t seen each other in five years, and she pulls a stunt like this.
“Do you want me to rub your belly?” he said.
“No,” she said
When they were in college in Laramie, they used to lie in bed taking turns rubbing each other’s bellies while they talked about classes and their stupid jobs and stupid friends. They were such a comfort to each other then, holding each other when they were falling away from their parents into their own lives. They were sensitive in the way that others around them weren’t.
He asked, “We’re still going out, right?”
She looked apologetic, maybe. She looked at the wall. “I don’t think so,” she said.
He raised his eyebrows, perplexed, standing there in his white shirt and black shoes and clean blue jeans.
“I should go,” he said. His jaw was tight.
“Don’t go. Sit down for a while.” She smiled, but he couldn’t tell what it meant. What was a while.
“Why’d you go and eat? We were supposed to go out. Together.” He didn’t mean to plead with her.
“I don’t know. I was hungry.”
Him, he was not hungry. He had lost all appetite since she called out of the blue and said her company was sending her and her boss to Dallas for a conference and would he like to get together for dinner one night. It would be nice to see him again.
Now, even though he had no appetite, he wanted to go to dinner, to go out with her. Dinner had been her idea. She was supposed to ride in his truck that he didn’t have when he’d known her, and they might look at each other along the bench seat with the wind blowing on them as they spoke in raised voices so to be heard over the road noise and the pretty cam. He had been thinking how he would open the truck door for her.
The last time they went out, they had gone to a nice restaurant with candles. They fought and both cried right there at the table because he couldn’t find a way to make it work. He was the one who left. Their families tore them apart for a dozen different reasons. But they were kids then. Now they were adults. But she’d eaten already, and she was in her pajamas. He felt sick to his stomach. He didn’t want to let on about how mad he was, but what could he say?
“Well, this is a fine how-dee-do,” he said. He sat down in the hotel chair and sighed. The sweat on the lower part of his shirt was cold against his skin. “What now?”
“We can talk,” she said.
“OK, you start,” he said.
She looked at him with wide eyes. He had barked it, a little, and then he tried to undo the meanness in his tone. “You’re really pretty. You look great, you know, not the pajamas and all, but you look nice. Your hair is like I remember it. I like the color.”
They were supposed to go out. What brought this on? That she would order room service just to spite him?
He picked the card up off the table next to him, glanced at it quickly and said, “Maybe I could order something off the room service, too? But then my stomach would hurt.” He was sounding mean again, and he didn’t want to. “I had a couple nice places in mind.” He couldn’t get over it. The way it was going. He should kiss her on the cheek and say goodbye. He shouldn’t have come.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “We got through with our meeting, and I was just crazy hungry.”
Crazy, yes. Hungry, what the hell?
Two men walked by the hotel room door, and one was telling the other he should get out of mutual funds. Then it was quiet again. What was her boss like? Her boss must be crazy for her. She was beautiful. Her hair was brown, straight, with blond and reddish highlights, cut in bangs across the front. It was bobbed in the back, and around the sides toward the front it got longer and longer sharply. It would cut a man to look at her, the way her neck was bare. It would cut him right to the heart. Your eyes went from her brown eyes straight to her neck. He used to kiss and kiss her neck. If she were on top of him, she would finally tilt her head way back when they made love. And shudder. Her neck drove him crazy.
“How’s your boss?” he said.
“Larry? Oh, don’t worry,” she said. “He’s a creep.”
“I’m not worried,” he said. “I just wondered how the job is coming.” She worked for a company that sold frozen food to half the restaurants in America.
“We just look at spreadsheets and graphs all morning, and everybody tries to predict who’s going to buy what next year. I agree with what Larry says to make him look good. I write down what everybody says, and I act interested.”
Is she acting interested now? Not so much. They used to know each other without having to understand or gauge each other or think there was a strategy.
“Do you like Dallas?” he asked.
“It’s fine,” she said. “We haven’t been much outside the hotel. We’re not even close to downtown. I guess you know that.”
There was a lamp on the table. It was lying on its side, and the lampshade was askew.
“They’re supposed to come with a new light bulb,” she said.
Someone knocked at the door. He got up and opened it. A housekeeper stood there with a light bulb in hand. He thanked her, took it, and closed the door. He set it beside the lamp, and sat back down.
“What timing!” she laughed.
“That’s pretty weird,” he said. “What could it mean?” He figured he should fix it for her. He got back up and screwed the light bulb into the lamp, tested it, turned it back off, put the lampshade on, and then turned it on. He could feel her looking at him, at his clean white shirt, and he wondered how she hated him to spite him so.
“Would you mind if I sat over there beside you?” he said. He wanted to try.
“No, that’s fine.”
He wasn’t sure from her answer whether she was suggesting he stay put or if he could move over there. He got up and went over to the bed. She moved over a little, making room for him, and he sat down.
He gave her his open palm. She took his hand. Out of pity, it seemed. She didn’t hold it affectionately, but she held it. They sat there for a while like that. Like two people shaking hands on a deal neither of them would honor. But she turned his hand over and began to stroke his hand with her other hand. “Kiss me on the cheek,” she said.
He leaned into her as if leaning into a knife. It took some doing. He kissed her gently, but he pulled back to look at her. To take her in. He wanted to kiss her neck, but he was afraid she would push him away. She looked at him hard, her eyes unsympathetic.
“You were the one who left Laramie,” she said. “You never asked me to come with you.”
“That was a long time ago,” he said. “But here we are.”
He had tears welling up, but he quenched them by wrinkling his nose and blinking hard. She looked, it seemed, through him. No tears at all.
“There you are,” she said. “There you have it.”
“I think I should go,” he said. He stood up a little too quickly. He didn’t want to be dramatic.
“I’m not soft any more,” she said.
“I see that,” he said. Through the windows’ sheer curtains, he could see it was getting dark outside. “I wish we could have gone out, though.” As if there were one last chance. He had so much to say to her. Or he thought he would have so much to say once they got to talking. At the restaurant.
“It was good to see you,” she said, as he walked to the door.
“Was it?” he said, and he wasn’t sure she heard him. She was still there leaning up against the headboard. He didn’t look back. He opened the door and walked out and closed it.
When they used to be out walking home from a bar or from school or anything, she would fall on him so he’d have to catch her in his arms. It was a game they played. She’d just fall helpless into him like she couldn’t stand up. She’d laugh and laugh when she was doing that. He remembered walking home from the bars with her one night. A curb next to the sidewalk gradually rose into a garden wall, and she walked it like a balance beam, and he had to catch her when she fell on him from about three feet high. He spun her around then, and the stars spun and her laughing spun. You’re strong as a tree, she said. Rock-a-bye baby, he said. Those days he felt like he was swallowed into an easy whirlpool of strength and comfort. This was love.
Now in the hotel hallway he was dizzy, and he thought he might fall down. His knees wouldn’t hold him up. His couldn’t swallow, and he felt like he might be sick. He walked slowly, his hand along the thick wallpaper to steady himself. He couldn’t turn around and go back to the room.
He made it to the elevator and rode down. The lobby was a little busier than when he had arrived. People were meeting and making plans for going out, and three women with cocktail dresses and funny flashing antennae on their heads were raising a ruckus in the hotel bar.
Walking to the truck, he felt self-conscious in his white shirt and no jacket. He should have worn a jacket. He drove without the radio on. His mind was back in Laramie the whole trip home. There was a townie bar where they had played pool. They drank cheap bottles of beer, and sometimes she smoked. In the coldest part of winter, walking down the street, sometimes your eyelids would freeze together when you blinked. Once in the summer, they lay out under the stars all night until the sun was coming up. He remembered she kept a red and black plaid blanket in the back of her car for any sudden picnic. Everything was simpler back then and understood. There was no worry about yesterday or tomorrow. No sterile hotels or busy highways.
He walked into his house, and he climbed the stairs to his room. His wife was lying in bed, reading a doll collector’s magazine. He went into the bathroom and brushed his teeth, wondering if back at the hotel she was still leaning against the headboard and if she had turned the TV back on. Did she go down to the hotel bar? Was she sleeping by now?
When he came out of the bathroom, he fell onto the bed. He couldn’t keep himself from crying. He was sobbing. His wife put her hand on him and said, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?”
wanted: a width, a girth. vessel me, burden me, break me into bearing:
take this sluice to be swollen, worn, heavy in gait, o
give me a heft to hold, his or her own I am, owing surrender:
the deed to a bastard house I lost—
there is no one to ask to bear with me
our unborn. who is our? it takes a plural to produce
the thing that’s gone— what we?
who were you anyway?