Discussion Guide

World-Making

Four poems in the September 2018 issue.

Keith S. Wilson’s “Heliocentric” tracks an astronaut into the “exosphere,” the outermost layer of Earth’s atmosphere: “Impossible / to know the difference // from where I sit and space.” He finds himself not just in a planetary border zone, but also in an interpersonal one. “I promise I still dream // of coming back to you,” he declares to a former partner, and later, “I’m saying I can’t say / when I’ll return.” His language reflects those conflicted intentions. Note Wilson’s pointed use of line breaks: the astronaut is trying “to commit / to memory the old songs”—but not to commit to a relationship. “I ought’ve picked you // up flowers when I had the chance”—but not to have simply picked “you.”

As his epigraph, Wilson chooses Odysseus’s plea to his sailors as their ship approaches the island of the murderously alluring Sirens: “If I beg and pray you to set me free, then bind me more tightly still.” The modern-day, ambivalent Odysseus of “Heliocentric” hears the Siren calls of both Earth and outer space, of both domesticity and exploration—and he is neither fully bound nor fully free.

In “On World-Making,” Nomi Stone considers the paradoxes of losing a lover. “‘It is not as if,’” she writes, quoting the theorist Judith Butler, “‘an I exists / independently over here and then simply loses a you over there.’” Rather, the “‘attachment to you… is part of what composes who I am.’”

Stone’s adaptation of the Petrarchan sonnet—which traditionally consists of an eight-line “octave” followed by a six-line “sestet”—cuts and reshuffles the form’s usual components. She splits the sestet in two and places the octave within it; she then bisects the octave, too, introducing white space between its fourth and fifth lines. The result is two four-line stanzas lying between two three-line stanzas. The distinct halves of the poem formally mirror one another—testimony to the connection that can survive separation.

“My name hinges on the S,” observes sam sax. So does his superbly sibilant poem “LISP,” which features the letter as many as ten times per line.

Yet as a child, sax couldn’t pronounce the sound in question. His lisp took on an additional meaning: “a sigmatism,” or lisp, “is the homosexual mystique.” (He refers to the so-called “gay lisp,” a style of speech—not technically a lisp—stereotypically associated with gay men.) “Sent to a speech / pathologist,” sax was “schooled / practiced silence,” and in the end, “i straightened my sound / into a masculine i.”  But that straightening was far from total: “still i slipped / my hand inside my neighbor’s / waistband.” The silencing, as this poem attests, didn’t work either. sax capitalizes his title, as if to shout out the formerly unpronounceable word—a parallel to his frank discussion of an often hushed-up subject.

Object Permanence” explores, despite its title, the most tragic kind of transience. Alison Rollins writes: “an ampersand is a boy / clutching his knees / to his chest.” Later, she crowds a line with that symbol: a mother finds her son lying dead in the street, and she “repeats her prayers / again, & again, & again, & again, & again.” In their multiplicity, the ampersands conjure the countless victims of urban violence. They also reflect this particular boy, over and over, and his mother’s boundless wish to bring him back—to make his life “permanent.” Yet the line suggests it is her sorrow, not her son’s life, that will go on and on.

“Object permanence” is a term from developmental psychology; it refers to the awareness that objects continue to exist even when we can’t perceive them. Here, it indicates at once a mother’s unfulfillable wish for her child’s permanence and the relative permanence, so much less meaningful, of objects: “She holds the boy’s cracked / phone in her hands, as if it were / the whole world.”

Originally Published: August 31st, 2018
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In