On Epistolary Poetics

Poetics statements are difficult for me. Friends, including John Gallaher and Dana Levin—-who are quite good at them—-keep urging me to write them. Other friends solicit. I admire the poetics statement as a form, poetics itself as a sort of glass-bottomed boat I’m prohibited from boarding. Later, you can tell me about all the curious beauty you saw beneath your feet. In the meantime we live in a very small and ancient village, where we are charged (whether we will or no) with taking care of both our mad and our dead. Humility is an appropriate posture.

(Say what you will about Walt Whitman, but his was indeed a posture of heartbreaking humility when he was charged with taking care of the mad, the dying, and the dead.)

The thing is, both the dead and (usually) the mad pass through poems as if one or the other were substanceless. Where prose is concerned, we are not always so lucky. They show up at our back doors and in our email queues at all hours of the night with their threats and recriminations.

The poem-as-letter, poem-as-epistolary-artifact presupposes a reader. Convokes, even. George Oppen: ‘…and my wife reading letters she knew were two weeks late and did not prove I was not dead while she read. Why did I play all that, what was I doing there?’ (‘Route’)

A letter is a trace, and like any trace is also, in the long run, either invisible or else a scar. In middle age I begin to appreciate a poetics of ephemerality, even as we carve the scars deeper. Not everything, perhaps, has to be written on the surface of the skin, the pericardium, the glassine sheaths of the other internal organs. Not everything has to drive us further from love.

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If I tell you every poem I draft stands in lieu of an entry in a diary I have no intention of ever keeping I hew much closer to the truth than if I make some argument about ambition, volition, or abstract form. To keep a diary presupposes a sense of intimacy and a sense of privacy, oriented away from some force or forces and in the direction of others. The self becomes a swatch of hair kept in the locket language wears around its pale throat. Ragged children tumble from the alleys, snatch at the glimmering gold. Their teeth have been sharpened to points.  Their eyes have the slit pupils of goats. They snarl and lunge. To keep a diary is to advertise one’s helplessness in just such a precarious moment. Language knows to keep moving.

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Or maybe language is actually a sort of vast silk parachute that is keeping us from plummeting, held aloft the way a sleeping lung sorts oxygen from nitrogen in the darkest hours. Each time we talk or think we tear a bit off and wave it in the effluent. This saves us, but only just a little. There are gods who live in our national parks who wait for us to drop into their pretty penthouse arbors, which are disguised as saints. The saints have their own parachutes, which they never open. They smile to themselves when we wave our bits of silk at them. We mistake these smiles for benevolence and fall into them. We keep falling into them, only to discover at the last minute they are really lakes, deep lakes upon which our beautiful silk floats the way the gods do, like the discarded paper money of some extinguished nation.

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The original verse being empty, we nailed a baseball cap to it & whited out the names. As if someone had died, in an accident or the like, except in this case it was all gondolas, the minutiae & detritus of gracious living. Everything is plastic when you want it to be, which is why the bees hate us & why we keep filling out these interminable forms. If we requisition the right gods, we can remove the cap (carefully) from what we had been calling ‘God’ & roll it on a dolly to where the ocean starts. Mercifully there’s no beach in sight, just ultraviolet radiation & cyclopean pylons doubling up in costumes Jarry could have designed. We went outside as long as there was an ‘outside’ to go to: an attendance policy anyone could believe in, a trail of smoke drifting beyond the perimeter of some frontier fort.


In Malayalam all instruction manuals read like epic poetry, which is why the food’s so good in that restaurant. The lights go on & we’re inside what looks like a rolling pin manufactory: long, low wooden tables with precision equipment, except that everything’s coated in a pale dust & nobody else is around. It looks as if nobody’s been here for years. The rolling pins —- if that’s what they are —- rest on the tables & in hoppers in the marrow-light as if they’ve come to specialize in certain, severe forms of micro-gravity the moon won’t bother to co-opt. Through the windows, we can see the moon: indeed, through every window of the factory, a moon.


 In the history of epoxy there’s no room for even a brief discourse on tenderness or terror. This is what makes epoxy superior to other adhesives, in spite of the destruction of the rainforests & the small stinging sensation caused by driving a forklift over one’s left foot, a means of solidifying map to gradient in the event we really do succeed in depleting the fossil record once & for all. Once we have the map, then we also have the sleeve from which the map, like a hand or arm, extends. We sever the hand from the arm just as architecture severs the arm, that basic mechanism, from this inter-urban biosphere. Trains run back & forth between the warehouse districts & the bay, only nobody rides them anymore. We can’t think that way. We can’t let our skins mingle with the chemical snow.