Two Poems

Poetry / Kevin Craft

:: Untitled #10 ::

Is that you looking over my shoulder Mark
Rothko looking like 1952 all over again the rainbow
harrowed prismatic glances shy like a planter’s
bed a seeded cloud color seeping from your eyes
into mine Mark Rothko the halves and hues of a livelong

day is that you gliding through Cold War violets
the Red Scare and Bikini Atoll flashes to radical dust

let’s get under our desks let’s bivouac like Eisenhower
like ROYGBIV under the atmosphere the atomized beef
is that you in the bar code of spectral analysis you the iron
shine in an old sun’s gut that’s where it ends
where the photon perishes and we won’t know it

for eight minutes more the light behind light’s own
nuclear suffusion I see you everywhere Mark Rothko

in leaf sight and skydive swimming pool and switchyard
the eyes are the window of the eyes are the harrow
of pigment your witness your layer lament
we are close to overlapping our one mind divided
horizon your still life displacement your ground is there

a better self a clearer camouflage than plain
sight where the actuarial tables are drawn in our favor

the child still stuck beneath his linoleum shield
every day shadeless like shame in the blood
like a televised memory a blacklist I have touched
one or two radiant faces in my time hands
down this too shall be seen through and erstwhile

averted like a star hung nebula absolving all vector 
the runway generation scattered in flight

:: Persona Non Grata ::

          …and indeed were not particularly welcome in any of the states—
          the vagrants, old soldiers, travelling theatrical companies, pedlars—
          all these silted up on the frontier like floating rubbish on a river’s banks.
                    —Penelope Fitzgerald

I wore a mask made of holes,
none of which weep. I was armed
like a gladiator to face assimilated sheep.

I could only nod or shake, never blink,
never strike like a bowling ball
in a back alley brawl. I was a chain letter 

composed of missing links. It wasn’t my style
to menace or gloat.
Here’s what I learned: like a bowling ball

tossed into the drink, half of us sink
and half of us float. Which is why it took so long
for Shelley, billowing in Ligurian troughs,

to wash up on a Pisan beach.
He had to have it both ways, coursing
off course, whereas I rode out of town

on my own stalking horse. Archimedes
sank into his Syracusan bath
and came out the other side, thin

as a meniscus, having moved the Earth
with javelin shade. He did the math,
but still this could not save him

from a Roman soldier’s blade. Likewise, Ovid
in a Black Sea arcade. How do you translate
solitary confinement?

Jade is rarely prized among the jaded,
carnelian among the Gorgon’s foes.
Imagine, for the first time, those follicles

writhing, those sutures erupting
with tectonic woe. When only rivers
balk and cry, ask another banished hero 

to look her in the eye. (Not every tear’s
a crocodile lurking in the Nile.) Like a masquerade,
coastal Campania is riddled with caves.

My descendants are the gawkers and gapers
of Neapolis, the fumaroles and forked
tongues of Phlegraean fields who haven’t lost

their touch so much as fled
to cigarettes and convertibles
in Nyack, New York. They know

the secret stares of peacocks, the audible
of the pass rush, the vigilance of thunder. 
They know the prescription

for ancient hangovers: seven laps
around the gridiron, one for every sage
or wonder. One Mississippi, two Mississippi…

the underworld holds nothing new.
Believe you me, I wore myself out
trying to escape from view.


From the writer

:: Account ::

The thing I love most about poetry is compression—how a poem layers experience, like the sedimentary striping of a river canyon or the excavated foundations of an ancient city. In this way a poem embraces complexity, messiness, fluidity: lives stacked on lives, the heretofore invisible interconnectedness of material reality revealed in the zigzag composition of the line. A poem is curvilinear, satellite to a certain gravity, its arc bending toward accountability—if not justice, exactly, then pointed—with knowing uncertainty—toward wisdom and delight.

In my own practice, this compression takes on several dimensions: I am fond of incongruity, and find great pleasure in straddling tones—the tragicomic yoke of archetype and autobiography fused (not to say confused) in “serioludere,”—serious play. The Fool in Shakespeare, Erasmus’s “In Praise of Folly”—these are my seminal texts.

“Persona Non Grata” began as I was thinking about the double-edged playfulness of this line from Valéry: “a lion is assimilated sheep.” On one hand, it seemed like a wry equation for metaphor making, on the other a terrible vision of the relationship between the powerful and powerless. Eventually, the archetype of the exile or unwelcome figure began to intersect with my own disconnected family history. “Untitled #10” sees the Cold War through the color field abstractions of Mark Rothko, which radiate history on a different frequency, like birds that see in ultraviolet or infrared. I was drawn to the challenge of abstract ekphrasis, of listening in to the language of color. In both poems, the trick in compression is slow revelation: a poem discovers itself only gradually, in different lights and weathers, over time. I hope a reader sees in them many other things besides.


Kevin Craft lives in Seattle and directs the Written Arts Program at Everett Community College. He also teaches at the University of Washington’s Rome Center, and served as editor of Poetry Northwest from 2009 – 2016. His first book, Solar Prominence (2005), was selected by Vern Rutsala for the Gorsline Prize from Cloudbank Books. A new collection, Vagrants & Accidentals, will be published by University of Wisconsin Press in 2017.