the true intensity of life

January 16, 2020

We…talk of the purpose of art and poetry, and how when we read a poem or look at a painting we are led into the true intensity of life, the one right here as we walk down the street and are struck again, as if for the first time, by the changing of the leaves from green to gold, that brief glimpse into the final hallway. Maybe the purpose of art is to help us apprehend the loud silences, the shimmering depths, the small intensities of ants going about their business, tunnelling out whole cities beneath our sidewalks, and awake us to the absolute mystery that is life. Art asks us to contemplate death rather than to simply imagine it or even press ourselves up against it as we do in our youth. It’s coming, no matter how fast we run from it or toward it, and art asks us to stop and confront death rather than being merely tolerant of, tempted or titillated by it.

Dorianne Laux
Interview in The Smoking Poet (Winter 2010-2011 Issue)


January 6, 2020

A forest in autumn taught me the secret of all secrets.
Complete surrender, death, and rebirth.

Anna de Noailles
A Forest In Autumn
trans. Jethro Bithell

I will die in Paris, on a rainy day,
on some day I can already remember.
I will die in Paris – and I don’t step aside –
perhaps on a Thursday, as today is Thursday, in autumn.

It will be a Thursday, because today, Thursday, setting down
these lines, I have put my upper arm bones on
wrong, and never so much as today have I found myself
with all the road ahead of me, alone.

César Vallejo is dead. Everyone beat him
although he never does anything to them;
they beat him hard with a stick and hard also

with a rope. These are the witnesses:
the Thursdays, and the bones of my arms,
the solitude, and the rain, and the roads. . .

César Vallejo

word of witness

November 19, 2019

The poem is a thing between You and I. It builds, line by line, a ground across which You and I can meet, can see one another, can be in the moral bind of the gaze.

An elegy is a poem to a “you” gone missing. When the poem sings, “you” appears.

But what if there were a world in which, on a forced march, a guard calls out not a name, but yells out only “you,” and a young man, a prisoner, steps out from the line in which he trudges through the cold forward, and realizing he wasn’t the one being spoken too, blushes as if embarrassed at his mistake, and then the guard shoots him. What if there were a world in which children were packed into train cars and shipped to camps, and those that were too young to know their names had them written on a scrap of cardboard hung on a string around their neck, but with no food, no water, and the train ride so long, the children ate their names for they had no other food, and when they arrive, no one knows what to call them, those children to be called only “you.” But what if there were a world in which a crippled boy in a camp speaks over and over a variant of one word but no one knows what that word means, and he limps from person to person saying mass-klo or matisklo, and others in the camp think it is the child’s name, and some thing it means bread, or meat, but no one knows with any certainty this one word the boy speaks, his only word, and now nothing of him remains, because in the camp he died. What if there were a world in which that word remains speaking forever in the air. What if there were a world…o one, o none, o no one, o you…in which that word were the only word of witness.

Dan Beachy-Quick


November 16, 2019

The day after I visit my daughter in prison
I think of how she is not allowed to handle money
not even go near the vending machines
in the visiting room so it is up to me to scan
the glass boxes, memorize, and
walk back to her to
ask what she wants — pizza or fries — for
there is no fruit amidst Cheetos and Skittles
and I think of fruit, of watching her Papa
put a banana peel in the silver ware drawer
when I went to be with him in his last days
at which time he tucked in the banana
with such finesse
before taking off all his clothes
and attempting to button an invisible shirt
around his swollen cancerous belly
It was then he turned to me
lips in a full smile, saying
I’d like to do it again
only next time
I’d like to do it better.
In the decade since he died, I think about It
an elusive pronoun that can function by itself or
partake in discourse: was his It my It? Does it matter as
the past becomes the present
and tomorrow twists memories
of windsong and longing
of the whisper paint made
when it touched his canvas
and stayed, of
Beethoven’s Triple Concerto
washing the walls in a Greenwich Village loft
where I peeled not pages
in a thesaurus, where I measured not words but flour,
where I fed not my soul but his as I sprinkled
powdered sugar on homemade crepes suzette
Would I do any of it again?
Only if I were crazy

Kathryn Gahl

stop for Death

November 4, 2019

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

Emily Dickinson

regret all that has gone

November 4, 2019

The past attracts me, the present terrifies me because the future means death. I regret all that has gone by. I mourn all who have lived; I should like to check time, to stop the clock. But time goes, it goes, it passes, it takes from me each second a little of myself for the annihilation of to-morrow. And I shall never live again.

Guy de Maupassant
A Tress of Hair

Edge of the Wild

November 3, 2019

It ends and starts with intention, for all beginnings are ends.

Invaluable, it doesn’t count for much, I know, but I try. Hard.
There are ways to repeat this, a chorus of crows, a fluttering of sound.
I might get used to it, after some time, but I’ll often be on edge, pinfooted.
It would look like spying, but see here, what I’ve quietly done.
Love and love and more love: evergreen,
Warm, belly-full; cool, satiated, a wilding of grin, romp and ballad.
If all my fears went driving, all stirrings travelled on,
I’d still be here, finishing things; planted and pruning.
There is no gateway; no golden harp.
I am in need, I am in want, I am in hope.
It isn’t a secret, a sheltered hideaway or a silent hurt.
I am admiring the view now, seeing all that it is full and plenty,
And wanting it for myself, closing the distance of one jealousy to another.
Forever; wild and steaming, rioting and skimming the sky with resilience
I am mostly staring at stars, backlit by moonlight.
Most nights, I wonder, half-handedly curious, yet struck with ebbing
Let me, help me to see the worth, the riches, the flourish under the hibernating.
I am so afraid of being troubled and alone at the end of this world,
At the start of whatever is next.

Leah Umansky

King Vultures

November 2, 2019

It starts as a fragment of sky
that detaches itself from the stratosphere,
something in my eye as I look up.
I call it the Land of the Dead,
its messenger gliding toward me,
star-ermine cape scalloped with black wings,
to land at the foot of the kapok tree
between buttresses
that remind me of the house we lived in once —
you said a gale had ripped off its roof.

Furniture inside for the afterlife —
and you laid out on the table,
a skeleton curled like a foetus
that the king vultures pierce,
their beaks inside your bowel,
their heads painted with prisms,
their white eyes haloed with red.
Kings of light
who once wore the constellations as headdresses,
death eaters
now bringing up lumps of your flesh,
putrid at first, then sweet.
Maggots shrink back into eggs, flies buzz to their pupas.

If I sniff I can smell the stink that’s followed me ever since you died.
Who knows what the mind can do
but here your corpse
is becoming fragrant,
your face pointed east where the sun rises
as our family arrives,
their tears flowing up, back into their eyes,
their tissues folded into pockets.
They hug each other then carry you
into the hut, remove the herbs
packed in your heart, your intestines.
A brush paints backwards, removing the annatto dye
that’s protected me against your ghost,
dressing me in red jaguar clothes.

Now the surgeons arrive, scrub their hands, peel on stained
white gloves and green masks
and unpick the stitches across your abdomen,
a scalpel erases its cut,
iodine is wiped off your skin.
You wake as you are counting backwards. When you get to one,
the anaesthetist’s needle pops out of the cannula on your hand
and as the gurney is wheeled down corridors
the sedative wears off.
Now you’re back in the ward, anti-psychotics
sucked out of your blood into the saline drip.
Poisons rush up syringes; pills appear on your tongue
and fly back into nurses’ hands.
Your teeth plant themselves in your gums
and you menstruate.
Wrinkles smooth themselves out
as your hair grows auburn.

Here comes the hard part, the Land of the Dead
floating just above my head
because all along as you’ve been healing
I’ve been getting smaller until
I’m a newborn, resting against
the buttress of your thigh, a liana
linking me to you from my navel.
The kapok tree drops a shower of red blooms around me
as I cry out and take a sharp breath.
I’m lifted up, lowered into the ledge of your womb
where I settle in a foetal position facing east.
The king vultures have followed me in
and someone is zipping up my roof with a scalpel.
I squeeze my eyelids shut and my eyes sink into their sockets
then vanish.
My lips close and fuse.
My ears no longer hear your heart.

I’ve gone back as far as I can. You must do the work now
my pregnant mother, you who once told me
what your psychiatrist said—that
you should never have had children.
You were crying at the time and I consoled you
in the hall of my bedsit, cradling the black phone.
The vultures stayed with me all my life. I wake some nights
and their starry heads are above me, as they were
when I lay inside you, my organs shining in the dark
like caskets of jewels to be plundered.

Pascale Petit


October 24, 2019

If I should die before the rest of you,
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone.
Nor, when I’m gone, speak in a Sunday voice,
But be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep if you must,
Parting is hell.
But life goes on,
So…sing as well.

Joyce Grenfell