This week in the PEN Poetry Series, guest editor Heather Christle features an excerpt from Ashley Toliver’s chapbook Ideal Machine, orginally published by Poor Claudia. About Toliver’s work, Christle writes: “When I read these poems by Ashley Toliver I feel a constellation has suddenly come clear in the sky. At one corner Keats’ bright star shines stedfast over the poet’s sweet unrest. At another Zbignew Herbert commands us to ‘be vigilant’  ‘as long as blood turns in the breast your dark star.’ And at the third corner—the one that makes this constellation a shape, not merely a line, Toliver gives us her ‘hustle star / star in me.”‘Whether Toliver’s star gazes toward the tenderness and uncertainty of pregnancy, or to surgery’s strange erotic potential, it provides a fierce and dark center to her powerful, graceful lines, where, like Herbert warns us, ‘No one will console you.’ I don’t want to take away your experience of encountering Toliver’s closing in situ, so you should read the poems before going any further with this introduction. And now that you have, I will close with pointing out the way the ultimate lines of this particular constellation of poems make their own eerie tercet—Herbert, Keats, Toliver—shining in darkly rhymed light. ‘Be faithful Go / And so live ever—or else swoon to death / death is the last road to awe I know.'”


from Ideal Machine

dear surgeon                                let’s say 
we try it:                         put my tongue to curette 
let you                     carve in 
                       at night 
the room fills with children         each one 
of them ours                                          they flame 
around in their gene pools 

live instruments              tuned                shivering 
the glass 
                       a little resonance 
picture postcard                       hair behind the ear 
just the same                   place is a curl 
you can touch it 

the intersection a line 
                                      drawing back to intervene 

tissue and bone                       a moan one makes 

the hand that lifts 
to clavicle     one note pulled to crater 

they can sing or forget 
                                                                       to sing


dear daughter                                          you lived: 
born before the clean sweep 

twinning above you 

                              halo                   moot lightning 

handful of grey carnations     you appeared 
analogous in frame 

                                             a stitch of beyond-me 

dull pearls     you began to speak by blossoming 

dear daughter 

                          in an instant I become cinematic 

my trigger finger 
gives silk to the knot and he grows 

          hustle star 

                                                                  star in me


dear son                                                 don’t flinch 
when he comes for you 

                  singing through my brain       my face 

lure             you wait 
shadows flat under the operating lights 

                                         scissor to flower to bone 


a coiled thing             slipped pattern in aperture 

filial wrists turning he pulls 
out of the skull an animal              first humming 
                               then flaming 

heavy hive with 
                                             the wrong birds inside 

people fall in 
                                    and out of love all the time 

at night I put him                      between my teeth 
tender roe                                                       bones 
                  brittle as mica 

see how the mother-parts shine 
the amber lake I am building around them 

tiny whirl    blister of 
                                architecture            cold music 


dear tiny icicle              you barely existed though 

you were not meant to be mine 
you were not meant to be made 

I lean out over the bridge     let you fall and burst 
I place the nickel               in your mewling mouth 

don’t remove it 

on days when I’m feeling       especially cold I ride 
through my own 
                               icebox of logic 

once I chose                                       life over death 

                                    how mundane 

death is the last                          road to awe I know 


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These poems first appeared in Ideal Machine, published by Poor Claudia in 2014.