On the Truths Between the Words ‹ Literary Center

In every poem there is a ghost. The emptiness of the page between the words. White space where what is said falls short of what, at the most essential level, needed to be said.

For each image, a negative. A lighted room turned dark. Against him, the outline of a face, his vague features.

If you ask my dad about Hanukkah ’59—his tenth—if you ask him about growing up a Jew in Louisville, he won’t tell you about the headlights, suddenly, through white curtains. The swastika, striped with white in a red brick. The red brick, suddenly, through the dining room window—or the December wind, how it made the thin white curtains dance.

Lamb with mint from the gardenhe would say. Dreideling for chocolate pieces.

Close your eyes. You might see, spreading against the black back of your eyelids, small flared patterns of light called phosphenes. Close your eyes tighter: maybe the light is getting brighter. Now relax: watch the shapes fade away. Some will say, the inherent electrical charges that the retina produces at rest. Others, anotthe experience of light in the total absence of light.

I would like to say something about my brother. When I try, however – Lord how I try – it always comes back to the silence in which I spoke, the phone glued to his ear as I spoke my last words to him. The phone glued to his ear in a remote intensive care unit. The silence he told me.

An empty chair at the breakfast table.


My first aesthetic principle, I once said to a therapist, is absence. He was an old Jewish man, my therapist, Fienberg his name. He told me that although I would never replace or resurrect my brother, I could meet new brothers…Welcome them into your life, he said.

Highlight the line. Tap delete. Start typing—different words this time.

My main aesthetic principle, I told another therapist – another Jewish man (Reimer), although this one is a converted Buddhist – is resurrection.

Highlight the row. Tap delete. Now, from memory, retype the old words.

Have you ever triedhe asked, his eyes still and gentle like a tired cat, sitting in the void?

Open a new document. Watch the slider, its little pulsation. See your brother’s bedside heart monitor. Imagine you have been there. See, too, the white curtains, 1959, watch the glass drag and fray, tessellate and calm down. See the window – a clean backdrop for white curtains, their stillness.


For years after my brother’s death, people gave me collections of poems by Whitman and William Blake, prose by Mary Oliver and Terry Tempest Williams – all well-meaning, of course, and with the alleged intention of to provide, through literary company, a sort of of the way forward – to quote Oliver loosely, “standing in the beauty and mystery of the world, in the fields or at the bottom of the books (can) redignify the most piqued heart. And while I felt the love in those gifts, those words, they ultimately felt inauthentic in the context of my own experience. I wasn’t ready to list my feelings or the wildlife, nor was I ready to find solace in the shade of an octogenarian live oak tree. I needed to wallow – to sit for a long time in the damp apartment my brother had left behind, to rummage through his things, to leave notes he would never read in his bedside drawer. .

I am not, as a reader or writer, particularly interested in poems whose intention is to heal or to transcend, to provide in personal or collective spheres a new and radical vision of the future. Although I recognize them as potentialities, I find that faithfulness to the act of writing – as opposed to any intention or preconceived program for the written work – tends to produce something more authentic and, as such , powerful.

Walking into the room without intention, listening rather than wanting the poem towards a specific ending, I find that the words eventually work out the way they were meant to. Look, for example, at Walt Whitman’s poetry, these lines from “Song of the Exposition”: “Thou Union holding all, fusing, absorbe, / tolerating all, thee, ever thee, I sing.” I am less interested, here, in the words themselves, which seem too big, perhaps contrived, than I am in the way his lines – famously long, unspanning, always trying to “contain everything” – implement the inclusiveness he sought as a poetic correlative to the new idealized American political project.

I am not, as a reader or writer, particularly interested in poems whose intention is to heal or to transcend, to provide in personal or collective spheres a new and radical vision of the future.

It is his writing in the moment that I admire, his faithfulness to instinct, how he allows his voice, his unique moment in the history of the country, to push the line beyond the material constraints of page, of the historical antecedent. And I admire that while it had little or no material effect on our country’s bloodiest war or its outcome, the poem was written nonetheless. I keep Whitman – and that sense of writing in the futile, the irrevocable – close to the present day as my first complete manuscript of poems, dealing largely with the loss of a brother and the ultimate helplessness of the language – is coming to an end.


The poem, to me, is what poet-critic Ben Lerner calls “a record failure.” Alongside its urgency and potential to go beyond the violence and banality of the human condition – towards the divine, the transcendent – ​​is its definitional impossibility. We poets feel the itch to make a poem and feel, in that impulse, all the abstract potential of the poem – the felt impact, say, of a poem on its reader, the depth of its images – but this potential, these potentialities, are necessarily compromised when introduced into the world of language and representation.

There is an unbridgeable gulf, in other words, between poetry – the infinite potential one senses when one is inspired to write – and any actual poem. And while some might see that as a reason to abandon the poem—Dreideling for chocolate pieces—bridging the gap between life and poetry by abolishing any attempt at poetic actualization –Lamb with mint from the garden“I find that comforting. Inspiring.

A ghost is anything that you don’t see in the room, but are sure, nonetheless, is in the room, wasting itself, getting air.

For each image, a negative.

In my poems, I try to leave room for the ghost of Poetry, the phosphenes, to leave empty the chair at the breakfast table, to let absence say everything that I cannot, never can. My poems are failures, and with each of them I strive to fail more successfully.


What I mean is that, in the face of the inevitable deficiencies of language – the certain failure of the poem to live up to its potential – to nevertheless choose to write and make poems is no less profound than opting, in the face of humans and the environment. crises that dominate the cycle of contemporary news, continue to live. In this respect, the poem, although it is a failure compared to Poetry, is by the fact of its existence an act of defiance, something of a vital impetus.

Lerner, who in his book essay The HI’m afraid of Poetry writes extensively on the “bitter logic” of poetry (a term passed on to him by Allen Grossman), on poetry as a word for value or potential that no particular poem can realize, also writes on the poem as a necessary function of being human. “The bitterness of poetic logic,” he writes, “is particularly astringent because we were taught from an early age that we are all poets simply because we are human. Our ability to write poems is therefore in a way the measure of our humanity. Lived human experience is littered with, perhaps defined by, failure – what happens to our loved ones, ultimately? ours?

There is an unbridgeable gulf between poetry – the infinite potential one feels when one is inspired to write – and any actual poem.

The poems are what I do following a failure. Faced with the unexplained and the irrefutable. My brother’s apartment, now occupied by strangers, a single mother and her child. The Star of David that my father doesn’t wear, but keeps in his sock drawer, behind his father’s cigar cutter.

And that’s what many of my favorite poets and poems do. “A Moment” by Gregory Orr, for example: how one moment you are standing / shoulder to shoulder / the next you are alone in a field. For Orr’s masterful subtlety and the way the poem deals with the death of a brother, “A Moment” is and always will be a touchstone for me. “Incident” by Natasha Trethewey, a poem I’ve written extensively about, is another, a poem that uses form and subtlety, quiet imagery and a distant tone, to carve out a chilling memory of one of the most perverse acts of hatred and violence in our country. .


Conversations about poems and crafting poems might not, in a quantifiable sense, make the world a better place. The poems themselves do not necessarily transcend the everyday or offer hope to a reader working in everyday life – though I count that among the poem’s myriad potentialities. But I strongly believe that poems and conversations about poems can give a new texture to everyday life, a dimensionality that allows life to be touched and manipulated, to reorient it to serve, eventually, the awe and beauty that poems successful sometimes evoke.

It’s a way of life for me: making and talking about poems. A way of coping. And my manuscript, Less the window than the day, is ultimately a record of this adaptation – a record, like any of its component poems, of a failure.

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