An Interview with Robert King (2001)

In 2001, Eileen Sullivan, for the summer issue of The South Dakota Review, interviewed Robert King who’d previously had several poems and an essay in SDR, along with five poems in that issue. At the conclusion, the two poems mentioned in the interview are re-printed, although they were not among the five printed in that issue.

SDR: You have worked and written during most of your career in this general region of the country. Is this where you were raised, and what is your view of region’s influence on writing, and upon writing?

RK: It’s easy to overstate the influence of region on a writer, but it’s probably easy to understate it, too. Maybe it’s just difficult to determine I don’t think of Frost primarily as a New England wrier but obviously that environment—physical, social, and emotional—plays a large role in his work. Or it’s given a large role by his work. In my case, I grew up and spent most of life within a couple hundred miles one way or the other of the Central/Mountain Time division—my first full-length manuscript was called Central Mountain Time—so I knew the Rocky Mountains as well as the high plains and then the prairie.

I’d say the specific impacts this region had on me were two-fold: the main one was simply nature itself. My family hiked and camped and I’ve always felt the profound presence of nature. In early college, I thought of myself as nature poet, writing descriptions of “mountain beauty,” that kind of thing. I got interested in the history of the prairie and the west and the fact that a lot of it was invisible. I mean in Philadelphia you can walk up to the place where something happened; in the prairie and west it’s a bit more ambiguous. It was here, it was over there, it was around here somewhere. You can visit the bar in Deadwood where Wild Bill died but since the town burned after that and they moved the buildings forward, the exact spot is under the asphalt parking lot behind the bar. And you can see time happening in the plains and the west—erosion, weather, gains and loss—very clearly, It think. A lot of my poems have to do with time and/or with nature so that’s been partly the effect of my “region.” 

William Kloefkorn, in an issue of The Midwest Quarterly a few years ago, started the introductory essay off with “The Great Plains is a town of about 700 semi-warm bodies in south-=central Kansas,” which is where he grew up. I love the idea of localizing the local that way.  But later on he says the poet hopes to “move beyond and rise above” the details of those local geographies. Let me look up the ending of that essay for a moment: “Like any local, the Great Plains can give the writer something substantial to move away from while in fact not altogether moving away.”  That’s true of any region, any locale, seems to me. It’s a very familiar paradox, that back and forth.

SDR: Are there other regional writers whose works express their region well who may have influenced you? Are there drawbacks to this concept of regionalism for writers?

RK: Well, I’m not that conscious of influences, nor did I think of myself as particularly regional. I just wrote about what was around me and out of whom I was, and I thought everybody did it. If “region” has to do with subject matter and perspective and style, I think Frank O’Hara is a wonderful regional writer of Manhattan. But I mainly think he’s wonderful.

But I do have deep respect for the writers I read who write out of the material of their own environment, like Sydney Lea in New England, Linda Hasselstrom in the Dakotas, Twyla Hansen or Marge Saiser in  Nebraska, along with, of course, Kloefkorn and Ted Kooser. But—to take those four Nebraskans as a case in point—there’s not a lot in common among them. I mean, you would never confuse one writer with another. Regarding nature poets—maybe that’s a kind of regionalism in itself—I love Pattiann Rogers and worship Mary Oliver’s sounds and images. Earlier, for me, it was Gary Snyder. But in none of these cases would I call them “influences.” I think my influences came from other areas of poetry, other poets.

Is there a drawback to the concept of regionalism? Oh, sure. I think if it gets to be a genre label—“Oh, he writes Midwestern regionalism” or “She’s a northern California environmentalist poet” or whatever—that has drawbacks, but that’s mainly done by the critics or the public, I think, not the writer. It could also be a negative concept if a writer saw it like joining a club, trying to write a certain way to fit in with others in his state or region.

SDR: What changes do you see in poetry’s position in American culture today versus throughout the last century and when you were first writing poetry? What rends in American poetry have you noticed and which do you believe are bearing the best fruit?

RK: Changes in poetry’s position in America? Wow, I have no good answers for that. I tend to believe what any persuasive writer tells me at any given moment: it was better then when poets were respected and admired, or it’s better now that there’s a lot more diversity in poetry and more excitement and more publishing, or is it less? No, it’s not, yes, it is, that kind of thing.

When I first began writing poetry in the ‘50s, Dylan Thomas was a headliner. Not too much later on, Allen Ginsberg was famous. I mention that because measuring the “position” of something in our culture often has to do with fame. Thomas was the Shelly of the ‘40s and ‘50s, Ginsberg was the Tennyson of the ‘60s and ‘70s. So there are individuals who command public attention, and yet most of poetry continues on under the radar screen, and I really don’t know why that would have been any different a century ago.

Regarding trends and which ones I think are “bearing the best fruit,” I probably don’t have much original to offer. I’m 64 now and in my lifetime I’ve seen the modernist camp split between Eliot and Williams—I mean the effect of that on poets years later, the issue of American immediate experience versus British mediated experience. And I got to see the blossoming of personal experience when Robert Lowell’s Life Studies came out and Snodgrass’s Heart’s Needle won the Pulitzer. Then I got to see the reaction to that.

The discussions, more or less current, about formalism or non-formalism don’t excite me at all, but I bet they feel exciting to younger writers and that’s fine. We  used to spend nights arguing who got into New Poets of England and America and who didn’t, that whole period of the “anthology wars,” but I’ll leave those battles to the young.

In my opinion, the general trend with the “best fruit,” to use your phrase, is trying to bring more into a poem than the singular experience. Some call it multiple perspectives or a disjunctive rhetoric or the meditative approach. I can’t really describe it, but powerful examples are Charles Wright and the later Larry Levis. I’m in admiration of their works. That constitutes a way out of excessive personalism, or the self-indulgence which marks some contemporary poetry.

SDR: You teach, so you probably have met students who expect you to persuade them of the value of poetry. How do you answer when they ask: what purpose does poetry have? What are some of your biggest challenges in working with your student poets?

RK: Fewer students ask what is the purpose of poetry than try to tell me what it is, actually. But, yes, sometimes there’s a certain doubt about what this is all about. It’s an experience, I tell them, like any other. I may have gotten this general idea from something Susan Sontag wrote, I don’t remember, but an art work is an experience like other experiences in life. A poem is an experience like a walk in the rain is, like a movie is, like camping overnight, an opera, and wind-surfing are. And here’s how to have this experience of poetry—try it and see what you think. There are ways to have very good walks in the rain or hikes and ways to have very good readings of poems.

I certainly don’t want to get into telling people why poetry is good for them. It’s an experience of a certain kind, and certain experiences are immensely enjoyable and life-affirming and perspective-changing, and that’s what poems are for. When I teach writing, I prefer to teach the beginning sections rather than graduate students—after some development it all seems like personal choice to me, not a matter of teaching and learning—and so the biggest challenges are the two wrong assumptions beginning poets often make. One is that poetry is general and abstract, rather than specific and concrete, and the other is that a poem means anything you think it does. I have a theory that the teaching of poetry in the secondary school must further this misapprehension, if it doesn’t cause it completely. But once you get over those two hurdles, it’s pretty much a matter of development, though it does take some students a long time to get over there.

SDR: Does an awareness of an audience have an effect upon your poetry? Are there audiences you imagine as you write that encourage the creative process, and are there audiences you dread thinking about as your write? What would you like readers to take from your poems?

RK”: I really don’t think of an audience as I write. I think of a reader, which may be different, or maybe that’s what some people mean by audience. To me the concept of audience involves certain thematic interests a writer might identify—rural life, or example, or art and philosophy---along with tastes and habits which the writer then writes to, or maybe, in another kind of poetry, tries to violate. Writing for the select few, or the generally educated, or the so-called common man.

I think a reader just reads a poem, and I’ve very aware of my poems as meant-to-be-read. I may use an informal diction but that’s because that’s what I want to read in my poetry, not because I’m trying to write for an audience that prefers simple diction. I really don’t think of preferred or dreaded audiences.

I can’t, myself, imagine an audience per se that would encourage the creative process, but maybe I’m not understanding the question. Carol Bly said something to the effect that to write you had to kill the parent and the small-town neighbor and the clergyman inside yourself—that is, you couldn’t think of them as an audience if you were going to be creative. I do expect a reader not to be prim and stiff, to be able to roll with the language, but that’s just being generally sensitive. I have what may be the same problem in answering what I’d like readers to take from my poems. I want them to take the language that has been created and have an experience with it. That’s all. Sure, I want them to get the humor, swoon over the profound parts, feel satisfied at the end, like they’ve been somewhere, but I imagine every poet wants that.

SDR: Could we talk briefly about your method/work habits…when you write, how you write (longhand/computer), where you write. Do you think the manner of composition affects the writing?

RK: My poems often begin as notes or lines handwritten at the time I think of them. Then I select something to type—I should say “word-process,” what a verb!—sometimes leaving them as notes, sometimes continuing with the image or thought on the computer. If something really seems promising, I’ll print that out and hand-write revisions; if it seems promising but I’m not sure what the promise is, I’ll put it in a folder label “current work,” somehow ending up with three or four such folders—I have one now called “Lately” because I had too many “Current Work” ones—so I have to winnow stuff out, consolidate others, that kind of thing. I write first drafts mostly in the morning and usually “out somewhere”—a coffee shop, library, student union, often my office. Some revision work can be done at any time of day. What inspires me—I’m leery of using that word because of its sometimes grand connotations—is often a visual image, sometimes a whole experience, and sometimes a piece of language itself that sounds inviting.

SDR: I am also very interested in knowing what other art forms most influence you or inspire you…music? painting? sculpture? What music do you listen to, etc.

RK: Other art forms are very important to me, primarily music. I listen to classical music almost all the time on a public radio station while I write or read, instrumental music. I don’t have a good feel for vocal music anyway and I think the words distract me. Music was the first art that attracted me as a child and I played and replayed family records like Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” and “Sing, Sing, Sing” from Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall concert.  I love to listen to classical music while I drive and watch the connections the music makes with the landscape. If I were to be honest, many of my poems would be called “Driving Through Landscape While Listening to Music” and then just a number. I also love visual art, always try to see shows or museums, but I don’t write much about visual art. I come close to thinking it’s cheating, although I’m willing to admit it’s not. It’s a prejudice of mine, I guess. Usually I find poems about particular works of art mainly working because of the imagery and idea of the other artist’s work. That famous Auden poem, “Breughel’s Icarus,” is a huge example of a poem that doesn’t do that. But a lot of what I read seems to be just nicely written descriptions of the painting. So then I think, “Why don’t you do your own work?” 

SDR: I have a two-part question that is connected to writing and teaching. First, how difficult is it to get the attention of a more sizable publisher, even a university press, to put out a collection of poems? And second, I notice that over the years you have had what looks like very labor-intensive teaching positions. I am wondering how much the demands on you to carry full teaching loads over the years has taken away from your time to write. I seems clear to me that in order for your poems to get the kind of attention they deserve, you’d have to lighten up your teaching load and devote time to marketing your own work, which is tedious in the best of circumstances, and virtually impossible for a writer who also is teaching the kinds of loads you have carried over the years.

RK: Thanks for implying that my work should get more attention. I think there are two factors involved in where I am today, older, with magazine publications and chapbooks, but no full-length book. One is that most of my life I was very involved in teaching and the people I’d meet the next day in class came before the invisible readers who might interact with a possible poem. Of course, the academic life is full of a lot of other time demands, and I was never good at resisting those. And, of course, understand that I published professional articles in journals such as Language Arts, Writing Teacher, and Action in Teacher Education, along with lots of presentations at NCTE and IRA national  conferences and others, as well as being a writer-in-the-schools for several years and developing a K-12 curriculum guide for creative writing in North Dakota. I felt all those things were important, too. Now that I’ve moved on from that full-time involvement with education, I’ve had more success with poetry—two chapbooks in four years won competitions and were published.

The second factor has to do with the tremendous competition for book-publication. I once entered a contest for a first book of poetry, thus excluding anyone who had published a book of poems, anyone who didn’t have fifty of sixty poems ready, and anyone who didn’t happen to read the ad for that contest which was not a major one. They had 1,600 entrants, I was told later. So there’s a lot of competition. That intense competition, I think, favors a book which is very singular and focused—a theme album, if you well, not just “my best fifty poems”—and it doesn’t hurt if there’s something unique like your father’s dying or even exotic like your year in India. My work may appear or be a bit more familiar, a bit lost in the crowd. But I’m growing and continuing, changing as I change.
Another element, I think, is that people, even me, like a certain singularity in poetry books. Not Here Are the Beatles but Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—the theme album idea. And I often seem to be writing different kinds of things at the same time. Bill Stafford said of an early chapbook of mine that there was a surprising variety to the poems, and he meant it as a compliment, but I also think it can be a drawback. A lot of readers don’t want to have to ask, “Now what the hell is this?” as they start each new poem. I’d like more people to read my work, of course, and public readings are important—I must read fairly well because I get a great reaction from audiences—but, let’s face it, that’s not why one sits down and starts out a poem about something one’s seen on the street that morning.

SER: Criticism and theory is a necessary part of both the academic’s and the poet’s life. What influence does this have upon your work if any?

RK: I’ve never kept up much on critical or theoretical issues, except by osmosis through friends or people I found interesting. My first academic introduction to poetry was, at the University of Iowa, Understanding Poetry by Brooks and Warren, and I’m sure I’ve carried some New Criticism perspectives with me all my life, the value of the words of the poem, the poem as a wrought urn rather than a spontaneous yelp or an artifact of the poet’s life. Of course, some urns can be wrought a little more causally or freely than others. And now that I’ve used the phrase “well-wrought urn” I find I want to disavow it for its static, non-organic implications. But still I’m sure that was a critical tenet I carried with me.  Several years ago, I did ask a colleague to help introduce me to deconstruction and post-modernism in general, and then I decided I could pass. I think critical theories are much more important as methods of reading literature than of creating it. I’m mainly influence by the actual poems of other poets.

SDR: What poets of the last 50 years have exerted the greatest influence upon you?

RK: Well, since I admitted being influenced by other poets now I have to name them? I’m a little uneasy about wording a possible answer since the phrase “I feel I’ve been influenced by the work of,” and then you name a famous person, seems self-important, an attempt to justify one’s writing by means of someone else. Or you’re so hot you’re taking just a little of John Donne and little of someone else.

But it is certainly easy to say that I learned a lot from William Carlos Williams’ work about imagery, perspective, tone, phrasing and lots more. Don Justice was a teacher of mine, and I’ve always admired his work although right off the bat now you have two poets it might be hard to imagine together. Denise Levertov, there’s another whose books I’d sit down with in a second to enjoy over and over and, in a very different way, Robert Bly. Berryman certainly has been an influence for his tone and serious flippancy in The Dram Songs. I’m not saying I try to do that, but have that rhythms and diction solidly in my head. Frank O’Hara is another, and I’ve mentioned the lush intensity of Mary Oliver—I’d love to be influenced by her work. Oh, okay, here’s one guy I read over and over, looked forward to his next book, the whole thing: James Wright. Wow. The Branch Will Not Break was a very pivotal book for me in its imagery and, matter of fact, in its regionality. I’m making up a word so I don’t have to say regionalism. But you can see this list doesn’t really add up to a single unified thing, nor was I ever thinking “This is an O’Hara line, that’s a Wright stanza,” et cetera. I can’t tell what’s in my poetry in relation to influences—that’d be for someone else to figure out. Or maybe I just don’t want to spend time that way.

SDR: Is the image still as central to poetry as it was during much of the 20th century, or have poets moved to other concerns? How important is it to your work?

RK: I think the image has been very important to my work since the beginning, and very important to poetry during the 20th century, but I think it’s obviously changed. With the first Imagists, it was Pound’s “emotional and intellectual complex” at a moment in time and I think that seems fairly worn by now. Or, if you want to really compare it, go back to the early Imagists, some of the early poems in Poetry under Monroe in the mid-teens and twenties: some of those are really pompous or self-conscious or over the top—I remember one comparing the moon to a full diaper in the sky, for Pete’s sake! Williams is the master of the image, although “The Red Wheelbarrow” for all the fun and fuming it causes among undergraduates is much less important for me than Paterson. Now that is a book—wow. And that’s not just a series of images alone but a continuous stream of thought. Paterson is the American Four Quartets, in my opinion. I think it knocks “The Wasteland” off the map. And I’m afraid nobody reads it any more. The image now is still there solidly and still connected with thought, although somewhat more “personal” thought, even when it gets cosmic. I’m thinking here of Charles Wright and Larry Levis. I think a lot of my early work focused on the single image, the complex of the moment; now I think I’m trying to push further, get more multiplicity in a single poem.

SDR: What part of the process of writing poetry still challenges you the most? How do you know when a poem is finished? How long, on average, does it take for you to bring a poem to completion?

RK: What still “challenges” me in writing a poem? I love that word. The first thing coming to mind may be important: omitting things in revision which I loved when I first wrote them. I love them in there so much I sometimes deny for a long time what they’re doing in the poem. And it’s sometimes difficult for me to keep from pounding a poem into place to fit my original intention or impression. I know the poem itself is the most important thing, but sometimes I pretend that’s not the case this time. Knowing a poem is finished may be another one of my challenges or, rather, making a poem be finished before it wants to, or after it’s ended. But in general I think what convinces a poet the poem has ended is a combination of rhythm and language—you feel something’s been summed up without a summary, or another image or metaphor has suddenly come out of the material that gives a sense of closure.

How long to complete a poem? Mary Oliver’s very specific on this: I think she says seventy-two to seventy-six hours, something specific, for a poem to come to light. I’d love to be able to say something like that. I suppose there’s an average of, say, a dozen writings for a poem, but that’s probably a median that no poem occupies. I was trying to find something between three and twenty. Ted Kooser told me he writes something and puts it away for three weeks or so before working on it. I’d like to be able to do that, but I usually can’t resist jumping on it immediately.

SDR: What has changed the most in your poems over the years? Has your motivation for writing a poem changed?

RK: What has changed the most? I think what I referred to earlier: the move from the single image to the more complicated, or more multiple poem. My motivation? Well, I think a lot of years I wrote because I had certain experiences, saw certain things, wrote out of personal emotions and moods. Now I feel I’m working more with the outside world or just “the world.” I see myself as finding things in the world and bringing them up for experience and examination, like finding stones in a stream. I was too self-centered when I was young; and a lot of the young today are, too.

SDR: Your poems make use of a lot of rhythms and diction of natural speech, and the essay of yours we ran in SDR last summer ["Grass Land Water" which became a chapter in Stepping Twice into the River, University Press of Colorado, 2005] used a lot of poetic turns of phrase. How conscious is this on  your part, and what do you think this suggests about poetry today?

RK: Well, one thing is that I’ve come late to literary prose, so the learning curve has really been excitingly high. It was amazing, after years of writing poetry and passable academic prose, to plunge into literary prose and write some of the worst sentences I’ve ever seen! I probably turned to some feel for poetic rhythm and combination to help me into and through prose. I found prose much more “freeing” because it didn’t have that connection to the line—it was more the sentence furling and unfurling. Yeah, that was conscious, I guess, or maybe “helpless.” I’m often doing anything I can in a piece of prose—including intense repetition, parallelism, the quick-cut, the long sentence, the short one, the shift in diction all that—to stay with the idea in language and not fall out of it, or off of it. Prose would be my version of wind-surfing. Of course, today is the day of inter-genre, isn’t it? And prose poetry has its own magazines and anthologies and everything! I think it’s great to work in all those forms and inter-forms and non-forms. It’s also pretty obvious that there are about as many kinds of prose-poems as there are prose-poets, so it’s a fairly open form.

SDR: One thing I enjoy about your poems is this apparent incongruence between a mythically and historically significant past and an unheroic or just plain silly present America. Perhaps you could talk about this quality in your work.

RK: What an interesting way to put it—the mythic past and the plain old silly present? First, that’s what it always seems like, doesn’t it? You go to a lecture on Lewis and Clark and then you’re driving home and complaining about the traffic? That difference or irony or juxtaposition has got to hit you. The past is often presented in that solemn way and the present sometimes seems less. I have one of the two photographs taken of my grandparents in their life; the younger generation has video tapes of their parties, or rolls of instantly developed Polaroids in which everybody is making a face. I’m always aware of this contrast, and know it’s significant, but also it’s only a partial truth. I have an old movie film my uncle took of my mother in college with his sisters, who are pantomiming playing violins in an orchestra, really hamming it up, laughing. Our ancestors were that way, too. So how big is the difference? We can’t really now. But the main reason may be that I myself often feel silly and personal and irrelevant in the present when faced with a vast prairie scene or some echo of two generations earlier.

SDR: I often see in your poems an amused and irreverent tone used almost simultaneously with an element of awe about the wonders of science and nature reality. What is this fascination with science in your work?

RK: Yeah, I think I do that—I’ll own that light irreverence and that awe both. Down deep, it may be that I am basically an irreverent and easily amused person who’s dealing with subjects of wonder and awe, and I’m trying to get both aspects in. I feel a tremendous tug from nature—I almost lose myself in it—but I don’t want to get romantic or sentimental so I try to get the scientific aspect in to show I know what’s what. A Freudian might wonder about a poet whose father was a science teacher in high school and then a chemistry teacher in college, a poet who went into English as his mother had and did very poorly in chemistry. But I’m not a Freudian. The fact is my father taught me at a very early age what made up granite, why the rocks of Colorado were slanted that way, the sense of geologic time, all that, and I thought that was amazing as a child, and I still do. It shows you that nature is not a pretty background for our picnics. I was always impressed by the stunning distances and times involved in the universe.

SDR: In the poem “Treatise on Light,” you start with a scientific fact (again, your interest in science coming through), and work toward a contemplation of how science both explains and reveals human and scientific reality. You start a lot of your poems with an anchor in some bit of scientific data and then move into broader philosophical considerations. Why is this strategy so prevalent in your work?

RK: “Treatise on Light”—Well, I start some poems with a bit of data because that bit of data blew me away. Imagine the difference between a kid who’s told that stars are the angels of God or something and another kid who gets told, “You know, some of those stars aren’t even there anymore.” That’s got to make a different in how a 9-year-old looks out his window at night, doesn’t it?

And then that first stanza brings in a completely crude human experience, urinating at night under the stars in the mountains, and that’s a very real aspect but a very real contrast. And, notice something else: the second stanza starts with a personal experience with religion. My father was a science teacher and went to a conservative Baptist church—put those two things together!

There’s another contrast. I haven’t used religion much in my poetry, but I can tell it’s starting to come in here and there. But  always as a contrast with something else. And then, yes, I try to move into some broader consideration. This is a prevalent structure in my poems because it’s a prevalent structure in my experience. I read some fact, or experience some bit of data, and then wonder about it, move around in it, try to move beyond it. I think I like to start with absolute reality, which has to be chemistry and physics and geology, doesn’t it? Maybe not the most “im`portant” reality for most of us, but the rock--bottom of the material of our world. And then I try to make something out of that.

SDR: An other idea I see cropping up in your poem is this notion of communication and a lack of communication occurring, as in the poem “Table Conversation,” in which we get only the outside speaker’s version of what might be said at a conversation between two people the speaker can’t hear. A good number of your poems deal with this issue of communication and its relative strengths and weaknesses. I’m interested in why this idea seems to come up in so many of your poems.

RK: Hmm, yes, another kind of contrast, right? Communicating and/or not communicating. I can’t give a personal reason as to why that particular contrast would be particularly frequent with me, but there are two easy aspects to mention. One is that communication is almost entirely what we humans do with each other and with ourselves, so it’s an important element and its various successes and failures are important in our relationships. But also poetry is a kind of communication, and it has successes and failures as well. So poetry is surely going to take cognizance of the difficulties of communicating. Do we really know what someone is saying to us? That’s a common question—a bit annoying because it’s so general but a valid area for philosophy and psychology, and certainly poetry, to explore. Secondly, with my interests in the natural world I’m constantly bouncing back and forth in my mind from utter atheism to the rosy-glasses of Emersonian transcendentalism. “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact,” so what does this river mean? A mountain? This, that, nothing, everything. Nature’s a message. No, it isn’t. I find lots of tension in this area of man, nature and communication, and this tension helps create art, I think, or it’s what art’s made of.

Poems referred to in interview:  


By now everyone knows that a star may be extinct
the romantic night we see it, our hearts glub-glubbing
the way they do, but once at night in the mountains
I stepped from the cabin to relieve myself and muttered
“Forgive me” up to an eternal watch, being both overwhelmed
and stewed with that sensitivity drunks have for the cosmos
or anything spinning around them. That sky was alive
and personal, on the grandest of scales, and looking down on me.

When I was thirteen, an evangelist promised the Last Judgment
consisted of a sky-wide movie of each poor life, the world at large
as audience which meant my girlfriend seeing what I did alone.
I would ache, I knew, for the film to jam and curl, to burn like hell.
Hearing the stars weren’t permanent, I forgot about eternity,
having a new worry and, since I believed in everything
that made me tingle, I lay at night to watch one wink out
as I watched, but nothing was extinguished above our house.

The truth, I’ve been told recently, regarding light we see
is that stars die with a noticeable flourish of illumination,
not simply blink their pinpoints off. And this time is so vast
against the slow drag of space it would take longer than life
to watch one star brighten up and die in its dusty afterglow
which is not true, I’ve found, of anything else on earth
where, for example, people disappear at  the speed of light.
Where darkness is they were, and where the brightness was.

(Naming Names, Palanquin Press, 2001)


"The ocean rolls like this," he says with his hand.
Then, "I have a beard. My chin is dark."
"There is a circular whirlpool on my arm,"
the woman with him muses, looking down.

"My hand is wet," he replies. "I must shake it."
"My ear is too high," she says. "I feel its weight."
"Now,” he declares authoritatively, "I must hold
my head up." "Here’s one point," he says, "and there."

"The grave," she reports sadly, "was about this wide.
And here is the broken church of my hands."
"Look how a fish swims, he says. "This way and that."
"These are my lips," she murmurs. "This hand half-reaches

to God, sand in an hour glass. These are my lips again."
"A violin," he points out, "is shaped thus, and thus."
"These are my lips," she keeps repeating, "these are my lips."
"The grave," he asserts finally, "was filled up in this manner."

(Naming Names, Palanquin Press, 2001)