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.