Some time ago, in the spirit of good fun, I asked the denizens of Harriet what was on their desks and – perhaps understandably – reaped few responses. What does it matter, the cluttered context in which a writer gets her writing done? Who wants to confess to the favourite Troll doll that stands watch over a keyboard? Nevertheless, I was happy to read the note that trailed a Geoffrey Brock translation, in the April issue of the print magazine:

“Many writers populate their desks with pictures and quotes, as if to make their work seem less solitary by giving them the feeling of being watched or addressed. When I was growing up, my father had a scrawled Machado quatrain (in Bly’s translation) taped up over his writing desk:

Mankind owns four things
that are no good at sea:
rudder, anchor, oars
and the fear of going down.

Though I didn’t fully grasp its meaning, I sensed that it contained a prodigious truth, and I understood that my father had it there as a kind of reminder, even a goad.”

Brock goes on to mention other writers and the various quotes and photos with which they fortify themselves. “Writers love such talismans,” he writes. “Some are words, some images.” The poem he translates, a sonnet by Franco Fortini, ponders a photo of Chinese workers, tacked to the sonnet’s speaker’s wall. The photo’s a kind of conscience.

I have no such photo, but Brock’s translation and its accompanying note got me thinking about the mantras I recall from time to time – the mantras which I can only recall since the curling Post-Its that surround me, a flaking wallpaper of the stuff, preserve no mantras, though they ought to (as it stands, future archaeologists are poised to learn much about my recent appointments and my inability to retain a phone number). But Eliot’s famous quote about what he learned from Laforgue and co. – “the business of the poet was to make poetry out of the unexplored resources of the unpoetical” - has clung, as has a more recent quote, by an American novelist and poet, known more in Canada, name of Richard Teleky: “poems have needs / that differ from poets’….”

I’m sure I’ve more, but quick, look around: which mantras or talismans are currently confronting you with the sheer fact of themselves – perhaps the way those Chinese workers in the photo are confronting Fortini’s speaker?

They look wary or ironic or tense.
They know I do not write for them. I know

they didn’t live for me. Yet sometimes I feel
I’m being asked for more candid words,
more credible deeds, by their doubtfulness.

Actually, those lines by Fortini, by way of Brock, wouldn’t make a half bad mantra for tacking to some wall....

Originally Published: May 13th, 2009

Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

  1. May 13, 2009
     Dale Smith

    Mantra tacked to my wall:\r


    Philip Whalen, from Highgrade--Doodles and Poems\r

    It's xeroxed in his hand and must have come to me via Joanne Kyger years ago. Talisman-wise, I have a new dowsing stone. And several artifacts (arrow points, scrapers, stone axes) culled from an ancient midden near the Medina River in Central Texas.

  2. May 13, 2009
     Don Share

    Cavafy's "Ithaka" ... various bits of Spicer... W.S. Graham... Janet Frame... Delmore Schwartz's poem on the Great American Word, Sure... & a recent translation of Hester Knibbe.\r

    A tile from a cemented-over wall in a Boston Red Line tunnel; and a railroad spike from my hometown of Memphis. Also some spiders.

  3. May 13, 2009

    I haven't had a desk since I was a kid.

  4. May 13, 2009
     thomas brady

    An Edgar A. Poe stamp.

  5. May 13, 2009
     Don Share

    Well, if we're talking philately... Frank Sinatra stamp for me. And don't tell me the dude wasn't a poet! If the UK replaces The Queen with Dusty Springfield, she's in, too.

  6. May 13, 2009
     Don Share

    Me, neither. I have a broken door in the basement propped up on some junk.

  7. May 13, 2009
     Lavinia Greenlaw

    A microscope and a compass. \r

    Are there other people who don't do any actual writing at their desk?

  8. May 13, 2009
     Don Share

    I write while riding trains during my commute... virtually never at a desk.

  9. May 13, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    My most prized art objects: Three stones my son brought back for me a couple years ago, from Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty.\r


  10. May 13, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    I do a lot of writing on the go, too, in a notebook. But I type it up at my desk.

  11. May 13, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    But the post is also about the mantras you carry around w/ you!

  12. May 13, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    by the way, perhaps the greatest essay on talismans and poetic imagination is Mikhail Epstein's "Thing and Word: On the Lyrical Museum," in *After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism & Contemporary Russian Culture* (U. of Massachusetts Press, 1995).\r


  13. May 13, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Hear hear!

  14. May 13, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Great mantra, that!

  15. May 13, 2009
     Miriam Levine

    Tacked up over my desk is this poem by Dahlia Ravikovitch, translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfield:\r


    He came at midnight, both legs lopped off,\r
    though his old wounds had long since healed.\r
    He came through the third-story window--\r
    I was struck with wonder at how he got in.\r
    We'd lived through an age of calamity;\r
    many had lost their closest kin.\r
    In streets sown with shredded papers\r
    the orphan survivors were skipping about.\r

    I was frozen as crystal when he came.\r
    He thawed me like pliant wax,\r
    altered me even as the pall of night\r
    turns into the feather of dawn,\r
    his bold spirit translucent a mist\r
    that streams from the morning clouds.

  16. May 13, 2009
     Henry Gould

    A postcard-size Russian icon of St. Michael, given to me by Elena Shvarts.\r

    Some toy soldiers.\r

    A small broadside of a tongue-in-cheek want-ad, written by young Ez Pound : "Poet Out of a Job". \r

    Tiny (original? unlikely - but looks like one) photo of same, in old age, found in 2nd-hand vol. of Cantos.\r

    Tend to edit & print up things at my desk. Otherwise write elsewhere, in little notebooks, or with my beloved "Neo" - a little gray word-processor designed for elementary school students. Shows 4 lines on text on screen (1 quatrain). I can use it anywhere!\r

    (I have a small very thing gold(?) ring on my keychain, which I found once on the street, in Fox Point, Providence, when I used to walk there daily, on my lunchbreak, composing lovelorn poem called "India Point".)

  17. May 13, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Thanks for the reference, Kent! And is one allowed to take stones from there?!?

  18. May 13, 2009
     thomas brady

    Johhny Mercer was the 'poet:'\r

    You'd never know it, but buddy I'm a kind of poet\r
    And I've got a lot of things to say\r
    And when I'm gloomy, you simply gotta listen to me\r
    Until it's all talked away\r

    'One For My Baby'--lyrics by Johnny Mercer\r

    I've always been fascinated by 'teams' of music and lyric writers.\r

    Wouldn't it be funny to see something like this:\r

    Lyrics by John Ashbery\r
    Music by John Keats

  19. May 13, 2009
     michael robbins

    My friend made me a kind of Cornell box involving William Carlos Williams, which stands behind two Buddha Boxes. On top of the Cornell box are a paperback from 1902 called Card Tricks and How to Do Them, & Little Leather Library editions of Kipling & (ahem) Poe. A letter from Ange Mlinko has been sitting next to my computer for over two years because I wrote a good poem while it was there & I can't be sure that's it's not a charm.

  20. May 13, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Michael, yours is the superstition of the ballplayer who tucks his pants into his socks, one time, and gets a hit, and doesn't untuck until his next hitting slump. (Apologies for the sports analogy; they can be awful, I know.)

  21. May 13, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Thanks, Miriam.

  22. May 13, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    I like the rigour I assume that Neo inspires: one quatrain at a time.

  23. May 13, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Thomas, this is a neat idea. We should all come up w/ unlikely pairings now.... With whom should we pair Poe?

  24. May 13, 2009

    The question of what talismans we carry around in our heads is similar to the question of lyrical-bits-in-daily-life that Annie asked recently, focussed on one's everyday life as a writer. \r

    In the library rec-room guest-bedroom at home I put up a post card of Joos van Cleve the Elder's painting of St. Jerome in his Study, depicting the saint musing over an open book while pointing to a skull on his desk. For a while I really wanted a skull on my desk but never got one. \r

    Here's a nice bouquet of talismans:\r

    Make a joyful noise, all the earth:\r
    make a loud noise.\r
    With trumpets and sound of cornet\r
    make a joyful noise.\r
    Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof;\r
    the world, and they that dwell therein.\r
    Let the floods clap their hands:\r
    let the hills be joyful together\r
    -- Psalm 98 (redacted)\r

    The hills are alive. -- Oscar Hammerstein II\r

    Bring the noise. -- Chuck D.\r

    No sound is dissonant which tells of life. -- Coleridge

  25. May 13, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Thanks, John. I didn't mean to overlap w/ Annie's post. I'm glad Chuck D. has provided a talisman.

  26. May 13, 2009

    Thanks for the post, Jason -- I don't mind at all the overlap with Annie's post. The focus on writing interests me.

  27. May 13, 2009
     Don Share

    St. Jerome in his study! Great stuff, John. There are a number of versions of that study; here's one I like:\r\r

    How he got any work done there, I'll never know!

  28. May 13, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Me, too -- perhaps too much at times. I'm a sucker for those Paris Review interviews, for insight into the nitty gritty.

  29. May 13, 2009
     Colin Ward

    Talisman? A 4-inch high inukshuk, honouring an early, very modest, success.\r

    Mantra? "...the wheel within the clay" by the late, great John Stewart.

  30. May 13, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    (Which is a good thing, I think!)

  31. May 13, 2009
     michael robbins

    You really do need to check out the Baseball Project (see\r

    From the opening track, "Past Time": \r

    When Campy Campaneris played all nine positions in a game. When Pete Rose demolished Ray Fosse he was never the same. 31 wins and an album on Capitol for Denny McLain. So long ago, so long, Pastime, are you past your prime? The DiMaggios, Shoeless Joe, Minnie Minoso, Yo La Tengo. Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox made the Sox go go. The sideburns of Pepitone and Oscar Gamble's afro. So long ago, so long, Pastime, are you past your prime? One thing you can say about time is that it always passes. One thing you can say about the game is that it's not getting any faster. You can get tangled up in a ball of rubber bands and twine, the cowhide and pine tar, snuff, spit and chalk dust lines. Two round-trippers and a no-hitter, that's Rick Wise (not Bobby Wine). So long ago, so long, Pastime, are you past your prime?

  32. May 13, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    I know, I know. It sounds quite cool. I'm on it.

  33. May 13, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    And yet it's the "early, very modest" successes that matter, right?

  34. May 13, 2009
     Colin Ward


    And yet it’s the “early, very modest” successes that matter, right? \r

    Especially so if those are all one has! \r

    Maybe I peaked too early. :)

  35. May 13, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Whatever plateau you think you're on is just prologue to the next peak!

  36. May 14, 2009
     Annie Finch

    menu from nyc pub called The Dead Poet, called "The Book of Verse" and adorned with Longfellow quote\r

    Quote from Tao te Ching\r

    Goddess Bast\r

    Goddess Hathor\r

    Toy pirate ship\r

    plastic Pegasus model\r

    whalebone owl fetish\r

    Poetry Foundation Pegasus button \r


  37. May 14, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Which verse of the Tao Te Ching?\r
    And which translation?

  38. May 14, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    >Thanks for the reference, Kent! And is one allowed to take stones from there?!?\r

    I don't know what the "rules" are at present, Jason, but like Smithson's other earthworks and site installations, Spiral Jetty was created as an entropic work. I'm sure Smithson would have approved of scruffy 22-year old poet-artists on a cross-country pilgrimage taking away a few small stones: a completely different thing than chipping off a piece of paint from a Corot at the Louvre. \r

    All in the spirit of "site displacement"!\r


  39. May 14, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Now I feel self-conscious about all of that paint-chipping I do in galleries.

  40. May 14, 2009
     Don Share

    I might as well admit that I pocketed a small bit of gravel from Yeats's grave once upon a time.

  41. May 14, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Don Share said:\r

    >I might as well admit that I pocketed a small bit of gravel from Yeats’s grave once upon a time.\r

    Just more proof (if such were needed, with the forthcoming Conceptual/Flarf feature) that Poetry Magazine has been taken over by cultural hooligans.\r


  42. May 14, 2009
     Don Share

    I won't even discuss my behavior in the vicinity of Jack Kerouac's grave...

  43. May 14, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Just curious (being nosy). That little book has made a great difference in my life.

  44. May 14, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Don, you can't tease us like that.

  45. May 15, 2009
     james stotts

    porcelain frog, 8 bottle caps (5 grey, one red, one green, one black), a stack of cd's out of their case (iron & wine, janis joplin, cat power, josh rouse, the new dylan album), picture of my mother as a young woman from a jc penny sitting, church key, pearl necklace, enameled jewelry box with a troika scene, three pens, russian nesting doll, rubik's snake, bookmark with portland's eleven bridges, poetry books (kharms, metres, pessoa, tsvetaeva, kinnell), tony judt's REAPPRAISALS, bartender manual, guide to contact juggling, instruction pamphlet for cigar box juggling, cellular phone, coaster, bulleit's.

  46. May 16, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Well, okay then. Sorry to impose on you.

  47. May 17, 2009

    Interesting query, actually. It didn't catch me until I made an association not so tangential. Around mid-century Roethke famously said that Goethe was a "thingy" poet. Goethe himself confessed to being as much late in life when he had his conversations with that literary wanna-be Eckermann. He told his sometime secretary, I figure with some exaggeration, that he always had to have a thing of his creations in front of him in order to make the poem. This rather puts a twist on the notion of talismans, right? Perhaps the thinginess of the object is what grounds some writers.\r

    On my desk are two Goddess figurines, one to hold votary candles and the other contains lamp oil. Both are ceramic. One is a tall slender female figure. The other is as roundly proportioned as the Venus of Willendorf. They both raise their arms above them. The slender figure was given to me by a friend and she is green. The object actually incited a suite of poems. So I get what Goethe meant. But the real cache is on the top of a book shelf immediately behind me. Found and given things. Lots of stones and minerals. But other things too. Just things that perhaps ground me.\r


  48. May 18, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    James and Terreson, thanks for sharing your talismans. Quite interesting to hear what 'grounds' people...