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From “The Obscure Lives of Poets”

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How is it that you live, and what is it you do?
— William Wordsworth, to the leech-gatherer

Three, no, four, that I know, married women
of means and brains. One grew moss on her tongue, waking from dreams that smelled
of mildew or hoary socks on a smothering train.
One turned to falconry and the construction of seed bombs to be dropped from three-
story houses. One burned her burka upon being released
from prison for the fourth time shamed so down deep in her molested self, washed
henceforth in formal darkness, another burned
her wedding dress in a fire pot while house finches splashed in the birdbath. [how one
moment touches on another moment and a thought flickers on and off ]
One poet, obsessed with vulvae, son of a butcher,
displayed a large bezoar on his coffee table, and slept in the bear nests in the d’Ardèche,
obsessed. One poet, adopted shortly after birth
by a levee builder on the St. Francis, shot himself with a target pistol on a beautiful
afternoon in early June. One lay across the tracks
on the brink of the Tiananmen uprising. One picked up her manuscript, a block of ash,
from the embers of her Oakland home. Bakhtin, as we know,
smoked his very best pages in prison. The poems of Radnóti were found by his widow in
his overcoat, in a mass grave. One scribbled until his last
conscious breath in an apartment in Waltham, brimmed over with hellish fury and
dysfunctional passion. One was imprisoned on a ship
in Valparaiso during the military coup, but lived with his “iron bad health” to carve a
poem 3.5 kilometers long in the Atacama Desert,
and another in the skies over Brooklyn; to cover thousands of pages with anguish and
light. One is fascinated with lichens and other symbionts.
One with fungi and other entheogens. [how the divine is elusive and pelf is conspicuous]
One spent the better part of this life
writing in the dirt with a stick, crossing out with his foot, that his entire tribe could decipher
the mystery inscribed. [Another surrendered
his youth and gladness with lines of despondency and madness.] One broke faith with the word
before the word could break faith with her, and built
a mountain of detergent in her garage. One made a record of night-flying birds on a scroll
longer than the roll of post-Katrina homicides
in Orleans Parish. One does not like white flowers and has never
shown her poems to a single solitary living soul. Another built a pair of metal wings to be
worn once and then pressed between the covers
of a golden book. One joined the Int’l Concatenated Order of the Hoo-Hoo but
absconded for Europe where he lives large
as an unaffiliated psychedelic narcissist. Some just want the big life. Others suffer
into the night at the thought of what
they should have said, un autre esprit d’escalier. One was able to buy his first car
after a settlement from being bit by a pit bull.
One resolved to trim her hair once she began to sit upon it.
One walked alone from Savannah to Santa Monica. The perfect time to read
the Bible and Gravity’s Rainbow. One posed under a tortuosa beech at Arnold
Arboretum when her picture was taken; wrote
longhand crossing the Gulf, got a job statuing in New Orleans. One of the venerated
continues to write though his sight has abandoned
him and his garden is returning to wilderness. One snores and never locks her doors.
One has lamellar ichthyosis and did not shed her collodion
membrane. Rare relief springs from poetry and lying flat, cloud-searching on the grass.
[how a glass ear is fashioned from words]
One poet goes silent as fishes; one stands in a lightning field and slowly begins to move.
[as a fugue composed in an open boat]
One writes again every thousand+ days and plants all things magenta, so named
for the Italian town of that name.
One, as a lock against beggary and death, writes only elegies; was advised by a mild elder:
It is all right to be depressed just as long
as you don’t let it get you down. [how wisteria can bring down a house/likewise cat’s claw]
One dreamed of leaving her colicky son
under the bleachers. One survived multiple tumors in his brain decades after a year-long
tour in Vietnam. Another walked off
the uranium fields, survived melanoma and many more unkind cuts, torn awake.
How here: [The story has a skip in it. Listen, Señor, I have been used
by my own ignorance, self-disgust, my instinct for failure. Pray for me.]
Seen in this light (this damnable dingy light),
Brothers and Sisters, Señors y Señoras, I tell you how it is that we live, and what it is that
we do, we get ourselves up, off our much abused sofas,
Hermanos, Hermanas, to the old intolerable sound of hollow spoons in hollow bowls,
to insure that our love has not left the world or else

Source: Poetry (February 2016)

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This poem originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Poetry magazine

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From “The Obscure Lives of Poets”

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