from The Lake
This week in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features a poem by Natalie Eilbert.
from The Lake
I put on a dress,
empire waisted, the rest of me moves and sways
inside the garment’s husk.
At last night’s reading
a woman read a nice poem about a
barbecue involving her pregnant sister,
and after she read her nice poem
she said when she writes she never
expects her family to read it
and so in this nice poem her sister
did read it and lovingly pointed out
perhaps it went another way.
It was a nice poem about a barbecue
and I almost ran
from the room remembering when my parents
were confronted by my aunt’s boyfriend
who said my life was tragic didn’t they think
it was tragic and they blinked
and they read it they read me and we will never
talk about my tragic life.
It is like the back of my thighs,
no matter the extent to which I jog
and squat and downward dog, there is
a look to my thighs like the ridge of a
dragon’s mouth, rough brush of skin I can’t see
to hate enough.
But that it is there
like the sublime image of deer chewing
alienly in a field
that it is there at all
life’s little, little tragedies.
Have I forgotten how to live?
I dream of cancer not
as a disease but as many sheets wrapping
the body until the body
disappears. The warm wrinkle of brutality.
Rebecca Solnit writes of the violence
of climate change, that to revolt
against brutality we must
revolt against the language
that hides that brutality.
I read this before sleep and panic
for hours, not asleep,
the world I hide in myself, the selfish will
of information, the blood replaced by nitrogen—
what is blood inside the body
but a metaphor for hidden brutalities,
the crowd of red crowned by skin, throne
thrown into phonic droves.
Music thirsts for narrative, leeches
narrative of story. And so where do we stand
on the artist’s statement when
the poem is a vampire
in want of no further information—
the heart’s clotted data
I find difficult to name.
What is the locus
of the project, the tea not steeped,
eucalyptus shine of earthlings—
I would like a poem to be post-country
having decided that the most
humanity can make
is a complete flush
of borders. My body hangs
desiccated as an epic, a bell jar
busily showcasing. I vacillate
urgencies, the lyric rush I am so good at,
a pink that honeys the cheeks
with total isolation,
panic a cud to be chewed in its crisis pasture.
How did I become of two minds,
the winds charm me
into a hardness I’ve never welcomed,
the letting in of seasonal influences.
The beauty of the isthmus is the
choice to stay isolated.
Dickinson describes the volcano
as a secret of confided pinks,
my mind mid-crag mid-deduction—
I am terribly, terribly alone.
The presidential debates are tonight
and I am busy telling my students
to give their poems more specificity,
then less specificity.
Hypocrite Me who balances a lifetime
of shame on the unsaid,
who relies on Stevens while shunning
the supremacist, Stevens
who, mid-read, I understand wrote in order
to know anything, to create
a new topography based
on imaginative inquiry.
And so the racism, the sexism,
what was that, what does one
make of the behavior of poets.
The debates are tonight, the first of many.
I don’t know what to say.
Am I experiencing nightly panic
attacks or is it the multivitamins
kicking in or is it my lack
of nutritional sense with these daily runs.
I get home I’m to take a deep breath in,
but hell how have I gone
An attempt was made. I told S that we are not
the sum total of our mistakes. I said it
as I believe I am the sum total of my mistakes.
I consulted Lisa Robertson for guidance:
“The truth is, everything that isn’t poetry bores me.”
I think this must be true because some days
I state its opposite. Saturdays pour through my body
like tea water. I see the shape of my face
in the steam of a mirror. I do not want to see
the shape. I have been staying with S for a number
of reasons. I am scared. I want to place me
on a hook and back slowly away, and the theoretical
desire clings me harder to ego. Poetry bores me.
The weather bores me. I open my mouth to nobody.
I push my body against no body. The sky opens and I think
of Geryon’s red wings, that in text he must stretch
in secret for us to see the small mutiny of cells. Cells
paned to cells, lonely like mythological scales.
I walk with a black tourmaline tucked in my bra
and my lower back snaps when he calls me. He
was once the dominate you in this poem but do I
imagine any asylum so safe it couldn’t burn? Where
lies vocative in the symptom of elsewhere?
slack against me, they move toward nothing
but the weight of arms. The truth is I fumble
in a clever way and mean every word of it.
When I read the word house, I see a line of windows,
cells paned to cells, a train whistle. Is this what
insouciance feels like. I note on my phone
to write a poem called The Door in the Corner
but the story of the Dogon door is not my story.
The relief in the Mali wood is not my relief.
I have protected myself as best as I could. It did not
keep me safe.
Wake up on foam. As a teen attended foam
parties, hands groping with muted fire toward
not hands, a mud queen
wallowing to scrub limbs clean, a notion I lightly
stole from Virginia Woolf. I am nibbling
a gruyere croissant as if it were
my own stopped heart, a polite hunger to stay
breathing. I can extract necessary fats from my
loneliness, cheese hardened in its spill out of pastry,
an abstraction of its former surface: a prebirth burst
frozen mid-ooze. I ingest the ghost
of degrees, sip coffee picked from scabbing
fingers. Eudora Welty says of To the Lighthouse
that when she opens the book she is “still unwarned,”
her awe her delight “forever cloudless.”
To be unmoored, as I am,
I consider where the sublime enters into this freedom.
A moor is different from its fastening, and I prefer
the proposed etymology of a moor, that it shares
roots with lake and means to die.
A moor, in this sense, is a dead land.
Mi amour, my joy is I have unharnessed myself
simply from the dead land by filling pages with
my signature. I have only just noticed the first section
of To the Lighthouse is The Window—how
did I miss this, in all my years of reading: “It was when
she took her brush in hand that the whole thing
changed.” I have only just noticed, then, the best
kind of windows are doors, doors
the worst kind of windows.
I am free from terror, you see, and only terror is free.
But Eudora Welty said unwarned. And I think of times
within books I too have been unwarned. Descent of Alette.
Watership Down: “The primroses were over.”
The moment of my run this morning, that sense
in the near distance of death, a pile of death, until
the brain replaces death with leaves and trash, until
the eye is over the corpse, sees its black eyes freshly mute.
To witness death, the only just, to then be within
its range, my throat
crowds with soft moons as a fig is a slaughter of seeds
shocked by its splitting, as if flesh contains only the stories
of sutured lines.
A rabbit. A rabbit with its eyes pointed skyward.
I remember when I learned of stereoscopic vision,
the need for an animal to see all sides thus spoke
to its taxonomy as prey. And I thought
I thought of my optometrist father
who said there was an invisible eye in the space
of human eyes so the world rooted in perfect facial symmetry
and in the years following, all my portrait
illustrations foiled in the middle
one faint eye erased between the eyes
and this my understanding then
of how we survive.
A rabbit with its one eye pointed skyward,
it appeared as stone, black crystal
polished smooth to pacify the afternoon.
the eyes will be the very first to go, sucrose proteins
for the small machinery of life, death squad
by any other name, maggots wriggling
with life. And yet, my shock of its body, inexplicably limp.
I thought of nothing but the word fresh.
It was freshly part of death, a homecoming
parting the leaves
to behold an amber parade.
The space of life and death
ruptured by amateur sketchmarks.
All these blue houses are helping me. Today
the wind is Otis Redding plummeting
headlong down. To experience wind of this strength
I feel singular, planetary weight on my skin.
I brace for the weather like a lusty man,
a column rises between my eyes. More debates
have been planned. A bee lands on my fingertip
in a pleading for stillness and I call off the war,
allow it purchase.
The word still becomes itself like all words do.
Except there’s this wind, associated with
the color blue associated
for the sky alone, the way loneliness clings to grammar
only as we need it to reach others.
I suppose I am happy
to perform gone. My father texts me
Gorgeous in response to pink leaves.
There is nothing, I mean,
about the color pink that doesn’t feel hurt.
I’m gone in the bracing weather. I’m gone in the
My attempt at life is a housing crisis
before it can continue to be
At last night’s debate, I had to leave the room.
I had to email my therapist, say simply
I don’t feel good.
And isn’t it rare to dump my suicide
on others and not die, for S to see
my hands blue and shaking terrific with life.
I don’t believe presidential candidates belong
in this poem, a matter of which is rare
for me to draw rigid lines
but to keep them nameless apparitions
polluting the air with their visions
is quite how I see my attempts, an invisible
voice slumped atop a failure inventory.
I distrust the power of powerful names
and yet I tell my students to write
with intentional ambiguity
and gall, itself a product
of uncertainty, albeit forged with precision.
Woolf, early in To the Lighthouse,
writes “the prose of salt,” on boredom perhaps,
and I think of the prose of salt,
the bored light I have missed slumped
atop a failure inventory, panic
igniting the roan hills of my heart
with metal. My breath rank
with bile and caffeine, such is my comportment,
a tongue bright with fool’s gold
a crisis inarticulate slick,
a crisis forged with precision.
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