This week in the PEN Poetry Series, guest editor Dawn Lundy Martin features an excerpt from a poem by Stephanie Cawley. About Cawley’s work, Martin writes: “In these hybrid utterances by Stephanie Cawley we are in the world of neither/nor, both/and, but not simply in terms of the way the work seeks to speak. The speaker herself balances on the tightrope between living and dying, between staring out the window and wildness. What language can speak the dead father, these poems ardently ask, What language can speak the psyche’s collapse into itself? When I read My Heart But Not My Heart, which has the musical quality of river, it’s impossible for me not to also feel, oxymoronically, a burning under that river. This is what I always mean when I ask, What is compelling the poem to speak? It is as if there is no containing this work, for Cawley, no not attempting it. This is the only kind of contemporary literature I’m interested in reading.” 


from My Heart But Not My Heart

All day I stare at these plants I can barely keep alive. Hairy-leaved violets, flowers curled and brown. Succulents shaped like spoons and knives. Tiny ones with prickly dark stalks. These kept best but I didn’t notice them until the other plants had all almost died.


I imagine I could be more forgiving if I tried, but I don’t try, not really.


When everything is covered in a fine dust made from the bodies of sharp sea creatures so small they are almost invisible. When what’s visible is determined not by me or eyesight but technological limits. Each word drifts away from its usefulness in this way. Each word a stalk and withered.


Again I come back to this question of intent and whether I should stop staring out the window and letting things run wild.


It was Chris who told me about permaculture, the belief in letting the land go and tell you what it wants. He says it will grow what it needs to grow and in the right combinations. Tomatoes next to carrots, and so on. I want to believe but I haven’t seen the videos.


And anyway, here, in Pennsylvania, the most haunted state, the dead shimmer on the surface of the lakes. Or this is just my view of the world, a cold and grey and barren place.


Some people write whole books about rocks and secret histories of leaves. Some people write novels where every character is from a dream.


Cicadas were considered “over” for poetry but my friend wrote these great poems about them anyway. They went on humming loud and pissed off outside my window.


Sometimes I imagine I’ll look outside at the sky and something will happen but mostly nothing does.


Just now I discovered the view into the apartments across the street. A girl over there has a mirror and two plants and I have two plants and a mirror here. I have one photograph on the wall of my dead father. My dead father is different from my alive father because my dead father is alive and my alive father is dead. I could tell this could be a cuter joke with better syntax but what else is new.


The thing about the sky is it looks like film. It looks like film for a photograph of the sky. Which is to say, dependent on light.


Being sad in a room results in a gloomy wallpaper that shimmers just at the edge of my vision and it only takes three to five days to imprint my despair on a place this way.


I was longing for an older kind of language. Depressive. Manic-depressive. My father was diagnosed, according to my mother, with bipolar disorder, but she claimed he claimed this never happened.


I like depressive because it’s both adjective and noun, a depressive person or just a depressive. A state of being that is fixed, a relation to the world, a point to which one may return. Better than “depressed” which seems temporary, like being “tired” or “hungry.” Better than “suffering from major depression.” The remove at which language keeps the problem.


It has never felt this way to me, a permanence to the way I can lay on the floor all day looking at light through a window, or the trees’ sway, or a chip in the plaster.


Of course I don’t mean to be in love with this way of being. But it is a constant refrain to remember you’d still rather be dead than in this crowded hallway.


It’s bad and I can’t open my mouth. It’s bad and I wonder if I will show up in the room each day I am supposed to.


I feel a little better after I’ve written some things down. The ripped open clouds. The tree bark gone green. In the garden children plant little blue flags like speech bubbles on the rocks and moss and trees. I am the king of the flowers. Please do not step on me. My life long family tradition is to die in the winter.


I google “fathers who give birth” and aside from the obvious seahorses there is only Athena who emerges from Zeus’ split skull. I don’t think I’m Athena in the story but I wouldn’t mind being an owl. I dreamt my arm tattooed with an owl who would be my father who was the father who was dead in Descent of Alette. But in this version I am the owl. Not my father. Everything collapses like this.


All I want is to disappear into a normal and silent crush of leaving and entering the house at the same time each day but instead I can’t stop sleeping in and longing to talk all day at nothing, at the stupid clouds.


I stopped because the world kept happening around me. I dreamed of my sister on a far-off telephone, me trapped in a car that would move but not motor on. I dreamed of my mother clipped and distant and the texture of rain on a windshield and a message sent out of the wrong atmosphere.


I dreamed I could write a story that was all beginning, and the beginning was an emerging out of nothing, a gradual brightening, or darkening, space condensed into a point that opens.


In Chris’ dream I am his wife and he builds us a house with mud and he is dying but okay about it. In the terrible novel I realize a suicide is coming and want to stop reading but can’t. A woman is punished with violence and I want to scream.


Everyone loves stories where women are made to live their whole lives underground. Everyone loves stories where women get, in the end, what they deserve. It’s funny or it isn’t the obviousness of the train and its clockwork precision, as if what’s funny about women is the way they are always having to stop to cry and make themselves late.


Outside, the sound of a piston, air pressure, a large piece of machinery. A forklift drives down the street carrying what looks like a large window. 



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