Frank Sherlock reads “The Next Last One”
Don Share: This is the Poetry magazine podcast for the week of November 5th, 2018. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh, consulting editor for the magazine.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt, associate editor for the magazine. On the Poetry magazine podcast, we listen to a poem or two in the current issue.
Don Share: Frank Sherlock is currently finishing a new manuscript, called “When the Body Fails Its Indenture.” He is former poet laureate of Philadelphia.
Lindsay Garbutt: Sherlock’s poem, “The Next Last One,” is featured in the November issue of the magazine. He said it was inspired by an essay by Alexander Chee that explores the question: what would you read to someone who was dying?
Don Share: Sherlock said Chee goes on to ask another question: dying, what stories would you tell?
Frank Sherlock: And I was haunted, because I just couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer. So I started to write through the possibility that the two might be the same, since the people I love are dying, as am I.
Lindsay Garbutt: There is no punctuation in Sherlock’s poem. The lines are sometimes broken up with spaces instead of commas or periods.
Frank Sherlock: I became fascinated with punctuation to a point that it was restricting the rest of me letting go a bit, so I started to write poems without punctuation to see where it would go, and I felt like it was matching where I wanted the poem to be.
Don Share: Here is the poem.
Frank Sherlock: “The Next Last One”
One day we’re told to look at the sun
through a hole in a cereal box All there is to be seen
is the rest of the world disappearing This
somehow shadows aliveness but almost
everyone who has ever lived is restlessly sleeping as dead
For who About what The end is near over
& over yet we insist on making dates to keep talking
Always about the last eclipse the next blood
flower buck worm strawberry ice wolf event
Then there’s a last constellation we might ever see
until there’s something else to look out for
Gone are the frightening & gorgeous conspirators
that I’m sure I will not see again
Traces of sweat & mystery streaks
some hells communion & of course
a few awkward goodbyes The mattress is
gone forever like so many of the bodies I’ve worshipped
Here we are left with impressions
& a recollection of my side of the story I cry
w/ one eye all the time but the right one staid defiant
What would you read to someone you
love if you knew that they were dying
If it’s over again can we share more than black sites &
drownings skin turned confetti blue turned coal
& innards swept down sewers w/ brooms
We give way beyond what we know So the gun
in my mouth made me a monster for a while
Coming back shoeless calloused me
everywhere but the bottoms of feet Someone
dressed like a traitor convinced me
there are loyalties that deserve to be broken Someone
w/ death to the klan on the door
let me know I already broke free
Hear them both They’re dead & it’s tricky
since the decomposed & me are close but here
I am w/ you The friend who is you
Impossible almost lover you The us
we chose as family you & others in the fullness of time
None of us breed but someone will give
birth behind bulletproof glass where life &
the divide begin This is a fabled event
packaged as betterment It will spawn someone
who pays to spray us
like invasive bugs in the street Cops
were children so we can look forward to
good regime/bad regime during future
questioning Thanks for the theater
but we’ve seen the play Civil discourse is broken
down in the destruction manual They can have all
the orchestras Classical music will never drown out the sins
What would you write to someone you
love if you thought you might be dying
Maybe once I was someone who I’d love to see
punched in the face But I am here & not yet dead so
a constellation of the imaginary is no imaginary
constellation There is no sky w/o a dream of sky You
who are family fuck a grid & thanks to you I see
brightness independent of state-sponsored power
We talk about who threw that brick through
the window & how it’s now part of a path in a garden
Broken glass is as old as glass but the sound is
more than fresh wounds There are fresh worlds still to be heard
Oh & you my friend I will fight anyone who says
you’re not pretty That is just ridiculous talk Distant
impractical you I believed we could be possible w/ translation
software & hearts-for-eyes emojis No dice
but not before I entertained
dressing in a tux as your husband Look
I never thought when you said no more haircuts
until wars were over that you’d never have
short hair again My beautiful barber
brushes my face I feel funny I
moan a weird prayer for peace I guess it could happen
lol after all we deserve a new start Soon we’ll be dead & brag
about riches We were here & looked right into the sun
Christina Pugh: I see this poem as really working through metaphors, “look[ing] at the sun // through [the] hole in a cereal box,” you know, looking to see an eclipse, might be a metaphor for everyone dying. But it doesn’t quite fit exactly, according to the voice in the poem. So I feel like this is a voice that is really doing a lot of conceptual, metaphoric exploring, especially in the beginning and the end when, you know, the sun is looked at finally. And also, just a lot of emotional work about what do you do when you are dying, when the people you love are dying. I feel like that’s a philosophical, existential situation, and also it can be a very urgent personal situation. I feel like this poem is existing on both levels and aware of both levels.
Lindsay Garbutt: It’s also aware of and enacting a sort of cyclical nature of life, too, I think; the fact that eclipses for as long as they’ve existed have always seemed to signify this sort of death of one thing, beginning of a new thing. And so the title itself, “The Next Last One,” the fact that, oh, we say this is the last time but there will be another last time and another last time.
Frank Sherlock: The end is near over // & over yet we insist on making dates to keep talking ...
Lindsay Garbutt: So the fact that we are aware of this ending and then we keep, you know, enjoying life until this ending comes, and I think for that reason the end of the poem is so optimistic to me.
Frank Sherlock: We were here & looked right into the sun ...
Lindsay Garbutt: We did this kind of, like, stupid thing to look right into the sun, but it was also something to sort of praise and something to take advantage of in this limited time that we have.
Don Share: Yes, and I think the poem is also narrating the coexistence of darkness and light, intense darkness and intense brightness of the sun, of the shadows around us. And by sort of thinking it through, working through all the metaphors, there is another aspect of it, which reminds me a little bit of many of Frank O’Hara’s poems, which is a talent or gift for sort of weaving things into a form of intimacy, so that you never feel isolated and alone, even though you start off maybe with that.
Frank Sherlock: Gone are the frightening & gorgeous conspirators / that I’m sure I will not see again ...
Don Share: And working through that the impressions, the recollections of what the poet says is “my side of the story,” all of the kind of interactions around us, good and bad, dark and light, create a kind of theatre, it’s this— “thanks for the theatre / but we’ve seen the play.” I mean, that’s really intriguing to me. It’s kind of: we do know that certain things are inevitable, death or eclipses, certain things we have to expect even though we’d rather not. But they play out in a certain way. And the question at the heart of the poem, literally in the middle of the poem, is what happens when civil discourse is broken down in the “destruction manual.”
Frank Sherlock: Classical music will never drown out the sins // What would you write to someone you / love if you thought you might be dying ...
Don Share: All these questions are very, I mean, it’s very vivid. “Maybe once I was someone who I’d love to see / punched in the face,” or, “we talk about who threw that brick through / the window.” So these are, you know, this is not sort of recollected in any kind of tranquility, but sort of in the flux, in the middle of it.
Frank Sherlock: My beautiful barber / brushes my face I feel funny I / moan a weird prayer for peace ...
Don Share: There are sort of characters that are woven into this, there are wars, there are weird prayers, you know, “a weird prayer for peace / I guess it could happen / lol.” I mean, it’s sort of a kind of wrestling with demons. And yet there is a gorgeous hopefulness in spite of everything that shines through the poem. And I think you can hear it in the poet’s voice as well.
Lindsay Garbutt: Hmm, yeah.
Christina Pugh: Yeah, definitely.
Lindsay Garbutt: I mean, in that part that you mentioned about the brick being thrown through the window:
Frank Sherlock: We talk about who threw that brick through / the window & how it’s now part of a path in a garden ...
Lindsay Garbutt: So the fact that this sort of destruction that happens ends up becoming sort of our journey or also something beautiful. And right after that is the line:
Frank Sherlock: Broken glass is as old as glass ...
Lindsay Garbutt: So the fact that destruction of the thing is as old as the thing itself is just kind of something we have to accept about life and still find the beauty in it anyway. And I think that’s made very clear at the beginning of the poem, it says:
Frank Sherlock: All there is to be seen / is the rest of the world disappearing ...
Lindsay Garbutt: That sentence can almost be read two ways, which is: all we can see around us is the destruction of the earth, but also: all that it takes to be seen is to let other things go a little bit. It sort of focuses your attention on certain aspects of seeing and being seen. The way it, kind of—as you were saying, Don—makes peace with the darkness in order to see what there is that is light.
Don Share: It leaves things open, too, which is what I think generates, if there is any hope, that hopefulness.
Frank Sherlock: Someone // dressed like a traitor convinced me / there are loyalties that deserve to be broken ...
Don Share: It’s almost like gravity in reverse or something, it’s, you know, sort of a pushing out to break free. It’s not easy. But there is so much impetus there, there is energy. There is yearning. There is struggle. There is worrying about the future. But, you know, if you worry about the future, you are presupposing that there will be one and that is something that I felt very moved by in the poem.
Christina Pugh: Hmm. You know, you were talking, Don, about Frank O’Hara and just the presence of friends and loved ones and how palpable they are in the poem, and there are these couple of lines…
Frank Sherlock: & thanks to you I see / brightness independent of state-sponsored power ...
Christina Pugh: The possibility that through love and friendship and the energy between people you can, as you were saying, Lindsay, perceive “brightness”—starriness, eclipseness—“independent of state-sponsored power.” Which does seem in a way impossible, but also incredibly inspiring, and maybe something that the poem can enable the poet to see.
Don Share: And I think that we can see it too, because what it does is activate the imagination.
Frank Sherlock: But I am here & not yet dead so / a constellation of the imaginary is no imaginary / constellation There is no sky w/o a dream of sky ...
Don Share: You can read “The Next Last One” by Frank Sherlock in the November 2018 issue of Poetry magazine or online at poetrymagazine.org.
Lindsay Garbutt: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all November episodes all at once in the full-length podcast on Soundcloud.
Christina Pugh: Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and please link to the podcast on social media.
Don Share: The Poetry magazine podcast is recorded by Ed Herrmann and produced by Curtis Fox and Catherine Fenollosa.
Lindsay Garbutt: The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Lindsay Garbutt.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.