Floating Exile

In the pause before the next beginning.

These lonely ships over wine-dark waters carry the sons of mothers long trained to cry in secret if they cry at all. So much has been swallowed already. Mothers, when you go, too, may you sing what went before you and after, what was taken into the void you know so well and will not be recovered except by the rare fruit of your trembling womb, in the long-awaited retelling. Give us their stories again.

Working With Silence

With Jorie Graham.

Recognize this astonishment, this awe, this resistance to the hurry of speech. Its pressure signals the weight of what language battles. Here is the rupture, the interrupter; partner; opponent; interrogator; monument. Watch it.

To meet it on its own terms is to welcome some erosion. Each confrontation will put an end to the original witness, the one who meant to do the looking, and wrest from her womb a new creature, sharply aware of being watched.

When the word fists stop swinging, held behind the back, and the shouting mouth surrenders to its hold, what emerges? Here are the boundaries between flesh and time, sealed and open, the words we speak and those unspeaking us.


The above are notes while reading Jorie Graham’s essay “Some Notes on Silence” in By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry (2000), edited by Molly McQuade. The italicized phrases are Graham’s.

What the Poem Taught

How not to lose the life of life.

It is autumn, she said. And we are going to die. And we have all this choosing to do, with great stakes. And yet, simultaneously: this beloved, ill; this new child, this sudden bird, this love. How often we keep our thinking separate from what we know. For a simple reason: simultaneous submersion within all sensibilities is unbearable.

So, how to know anything? How to keep the life of life in life? Try not knowing. Try reading below the threshold of interpretation. Try burying the head, leaving only the ear. It is possible to transcend personality and arrive. At a shared physical understanding. These songs were always here to pull us into them and we.


The italicized phrase comes from Jorie Graham, whose work inspires this piece.

Reading in Space

Across time.

A question for the author: how do you want people to feel when they walk into this book? She answered by blackening a number of pages, then adding windows. If you stood before the words in the sunlight, they would curve across your body like cats.

The best part of the book, she answered, is what I don’t understand––also, the suspended moment when a page is turned; the wait between words, as especially what they do not say.

She invited the doubters among us to put our fingers in the wound between voice and image, and again between voice and word, between voice and speaker, the speaker and her intentions, and we were beginning to get a sense every page brought with it another wound.

Every page revealed itself by slicing us open, and we fell to the floor to collect ourselves like autumn leaves to our chests, a gesture of remembrance for all we had yet to imagine we were.

Between decay and emergence, these open windows. And from window to window, the broken skins between space and her time.


Inspired by the work of Lynn Xu, whose debut exhibit And Those Ashen Heaps That Cantilevered Vase of Moonlight is currently on display at the Museum of Contemporary art in Tuscon, Arizona.

The Book

What lies in wait.

There is a door to another world, ready to slam shut against this one; a weapon to strike against foes in this one; a secret criminal, trespasser, spy––smuggling ancient maps, nourishment, and provocation.

There is a tower, a lighthouse, a boat.

There is a jealous hymn over still waters, ready to bite; a scheming deceiver, and all of it is true.

What is the Use

Of literature, with Italo Calvino.

Here is a testament of value for the moment: why this and why now? Only that which can embody a bottomless array of embedded contradictions can work to shape these sensibilities. The writer insists: here is a teacher of proportions, and of the place of love, of death, of sadness, irony, humor. The value is the practice of attributing value.

Here is a map for the labyrinth of the hour––not fixed, but continually born, to name the nameless, illuminate the cave walls, construct a home solid and complex enough to hold the disorder of the world.


Inspired by Italo Calvino’s The Uses of Literature.

Dreaming a Discovery

Fresh eyes for old forms.

It began with an idea. Considering certain fundamental principles––of geometry, for example––what if we replaced points, lines, and planes with words, sentences, and paragraphs? If truths lend themselves well to interpretation where correct structures are used, why not apply some rules to the invention of new forms?

No one needed to make anything up, only to let the new rules serve as lenses trained on what already is. It was settled, then: a movement began. To join, one only needed to commit to certain practices. Once elected, no one could quit. No one wanted to; there was freedom in constraints, and practitioners learned that they might move easily between Hegel and comic strips, philosophies of mathematics and conversations overheard at flea market stands.

One of the leaders can be found among these every day, scouring the aisles and the remainder bins, the trash piles, and the antique shops with the same reverence he wears in the great libraries of the world. You will hear him muttering to himself as he picks up one after another item to add to his collection. “Hmmph,” he will say, “this might be useful.”


Inspired by the work of Raymond Queneau and the Oulipo movement, while consulting Warren Motte’s article “Raymond Queneau and the Early Oulipo” (French Forum, Winter 2006). 


With Salarrué.

Like a Polaroid shaken in the light, details of the once-beloved artist emerge. This happens just before the record of his life is erased by time and war. His students remember.

He was called unclassifiable, a sphinx without a riddle, a gentle man uninterested in greatness. He loved invented worlds and claimed Atlantis as his home country.

He loved the people of the land and not its titles. And they knew it.


In honor of the birthday of the celebrated Salvadoran painter, writer, and philosopher Salvador Salazar Arrué, better known as Salarrué (1899-1975). Reed Johnson’s 2005 article in the LA Times discusses a recent resurgence of interest in the artist’s life and work.

Out of Sight

With Italo Calvino.

The cities were born a little at a time––not unlike poems, you said––of various inspirations. You had a habit of collecting odd strangers and mythical heroes, and notes on places that you had been, might be, would tend to imagine. What happened was not a book exactly, but a geography to move in. You mapped cities of memory, cities of desire, cities and signs. There were continuous cities and hidden cities. These cities were braided: cobweb cities across an abyss, a microscopic city, spreading. 

Watch that one, you said, and as it grew, it revealed concentric cities like tree rings. Sometimes, you said, you would come across a city that would write itself.

Into what? We wondered, and you said yes.


Inspired by Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in honor of his birthday.

Orphic Journeys

With Jan Carew.

In the dreaming month when sea drums echo, here come the opposing spirits of ancestral dead, and here is the body in-between. Also here, a motley collection of other spirits of various purposes and temperaments, each with their own will to interfere. Balancing between limbo and nothingness, the dreamer leaves, searching for an end to exile.

The first sign of trouble was the ignorance of proper names, and then came erasure in the land of wind. Now throbs the ache of missing limbs and thirst beside these drained reservoirs of memory. Dispossessed of a place in the sun, the dreamer enters the tombs, to gnaw at the bones of collected griefs in shattered time.

And then, trespassing through prehistory to recover a lost Eden, the dreamer returns to the hills, and then to the river and finally, to the same sea that was the beginning of looking out and beyond.


Today is the birthday of Jan Carew (1920-2017), Afro-Caribbean poet, playwright, scholar, and novelist of far-reaching influence. In honor of this day, I spent the morning with his essay, The Caribbean Writer and Exile, published in Journal of Black Studies (Jun. 1978). This post is assembled using images and phrases found in Carew’s essay.