This week in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features a poem by Noah Warren.
Late in the development of music,
a recorder echoed down the street.
Lopsided whole notes, B, G, C, C
left a fourth floor window. It was
the kind of prettiness anyone could make,
the kind that everyone had.
Tuesday, Paris, and there’s no America
I wouldn’t ransom. Men beg
on the bridge a boy king
named for his mother—who held
his hand as he laid the first stone.
I am greedy for the inanimate, the river,
the coats, yellow leaves and the wind
Edging out above
the current, I test a second stone,
Real. There is little I feel
unable to hurt. There is no past
I don’t deserve.
Vivid, shot, wired, dead, Audubon’s
ravenous purple crow’s about to spring
forward and gobble the two
creamy hummingbird eggs;
he’s about to hunch back into the gloss
of lockscreen walnut leaves.
I press him
with my thumb and he blurs: breath
on the other side of the window.
My grandfather’s shortest long poem
inhabits Audubon to rediscover
the Southern landscapes, holy with grotesques,
my grandfather fled. Jean-Jacques’ halfblood
Frenchness stands in for the intellect’s
estrangement from its origins—whence
judgment—and yet, as Red
/Audubon learns, a clean gaze
curves back to the American sin
it composes, and stays.
It is also his best poem,
and it ends in utter candor: the boy self
pleading to the poet who inherits him,
“Tell me a story.”
ambitious, proud, that poet wrote
“The Briar Patch.” He saw
in his South, an “image”—
as he glossed thirty years later,
too gently—“of the unchangeable
human condition, beautiful, sad, and tragic.”
“Let the negro sit beneath his own vine and fig tree.”
In the morning, light steals palely
from leaf, to leaf, to museum,
then slowly descends, reddening
the yellowed stone, the still blue air.
At midday I peer behind each face.
In the evening I walk,
I walk, until I know
night by its spines,
its many lamps—
Grandmother wrote seething in his shadow
even after he died. When she died, a small grey TV
entered our house. Alone in the house
after school, I crept down to the basement.
Or, when QVC came through, a maze of grills,
perfumes, closet organizers, heart jewelery,
and solvents. “What have you been doing
all afternoon?” – “Nothing, reading.”
That skeletal woman could not see
outside a shrinking circle in the center
of bright white blur.
Half her height, I took her hand, I led her
carefully down the path to the grove.
Her lungs were two black rags.
Describe where we are, she breathed, at last.
Sly earth tones, houndstooth, faux polar bear fur,
anonymity, the smell of urine and old iron, four priceless
lamassus looted, the ever-more-corporate FIAC,
two competing anti-FIACs, Johnny Hallyday’s obsequies,
a terrorism scare, you, falling in an intersection while jogging,
my father forbidding me from coming, on Skype,
from his hospital bed, trying not to spend
a hundred euros buying shoes, buying green lentils
carrots and tangerines “chez l’arabe,”
the loss of my notebook, freaking out, not you, the receipt
of a cryptic email about said notebook, Rodger in the green suit
spiced with the taupe foulard, outside at the Esmeralda,
pouring black Médoc, chatting easily, then vivisecting this poem,
“You want it to solve what you haven’t.”
A man in a lilac blazer sets down his amp.
Six inches from the terrace, he stands
with his back to the terrace.
Wobbly reverb fills the alley.
Steak blood fills the trench
I plow in my cauliflower mash.
Crows rustle the tree.
Or she made me read her Saint-Exupéry.
She gripped my wrist to stop me
so she could correct my accent,
then again, harder, to translate back
to me what I’d said. Afterward, I wore
a bracelet of tenderness
and used the pronoun “one.”
I began to write because she spoke
about writing to me as the sign
of a mature self. The mature self
could, like a ship, disassemble
and remake itself as it moved.
For such will could it be loved.
One photographer, neckless, hairless, reapplies the thick
cordovan lipstick, then dabs the excess from my teeth.
The other, less accomplished, more ambitious, twitches
into place the fringe of the nylon tunic I wear.
They perch me on the islet’s narrow prow,
that splits the river, gazing back toward them.
Later the nervous one hands me their phone so I can
thumb through. In the background, a long barge grows
shot by shot. I don’t know what happened to those shots,
whether they ever used them. I don’t know what else
I did that day. But I remember the feeling of posing
as if thinking, then beginning to think, then being moved.
Back from a run—père lachaise, belleville, buttes-chaumont. yelled at for running in the cemetery. ran away. woke up this morning w/ mind black · but not languishing, rather ecstatic · the sense of standing in outer space, a cold so pure it’s not experienced as cold, with my face open, chest open, blackness flaming thru me, singing.
& outside was warm but sickly air. the soup of hurricane detritus, a velvet hand on the mouth · & a fang in the back of the brain—I ran.
proust a smooth black granite pedestal with his name on the end, brother & sister-in-law on one side, parents on the other, gold letters. a spaceship thru nothing. the slab in 2001.
the austrian election happened
we all live next door to the shoah museum but no one ever talks about it
what would they say
lucid dream when I lay down naked to nap just now: her coming toward me but with my face and I turn away
a deep grinding sound glass breaking chariot wheels going by in the street below
Grandfather, a boy, lay down on the lawn
and fell asleep. Beyond the redbuds
his brother started arcing stones
over the redbuds, as high as he could.
The case I carry is small as a walnut,
old brass lined with green baize. Within
an eye pale as mine. He wrote
“Defeat is possible, and the stars rise.”
How have you been, are you okay, the
Maybe at six o’clock my time we can
on the phone for a bit. Some
happened I want to tell you about.
As all this short day recorded gregorian chant
and real hammerblows bluster through my wall.
Oh live-work. Jazz trumpet smokes down the hall.
Across the cold courtyard, I know, vantablack
is being splashed over marble torsos. Oh joy
without rest. I watch swollen clouds scud
and know without knowing that less than a block
away a long dove-feather gown is being sewn.
It has taken months; it will be worn once.
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