This week in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features a poem by Daniel Poppick. 


The Art Buyer



Hurtful and contemporary, I was trying to speak directly in May.

The snow melts,


Splashed across city buses all spring, buds dun and then

From instant to instant

They flood and burst, and purple psychosis blooms across the surface

Of the city. And then comes June.

An unknown number called me twice before I picked up on the third attempt.

Mythology is this feeling that comes to you near streams.

It was not mythology, but sorrow

That was artifice’s original effect. Sorrow is a rune.

One’s techniques fan out across the evening to talk

But conversation is a tune in the heat.

My phone said Juan had entered the falls.

Techniques only take instructions

From their parents on up, but death moves in a ring.

Today is the first day of summer.

I felt happy by this stream and the next,

I think they must be animated by one who animates the week,

Water animating stones and denizens.

So water is parental: strong, cruel,

A cell with openings and shops,

Butchers, grocers and monuments,

Come solstice we gather by a pool of it

To celebrate gravity’s reset

And the body of the king we live inside is stuffed with straw

To burn collectively.

The sea had a footlight on its edge named Satan,

Satan is a sail

Who catches the western wind and crashes through its wall. I’m delaying my point.

Three days ago Andrés’s brother Juan, with whom I haven’t spoken in years,

Slipped on a rock in Las Nubes, Chiapas

Fell into a surging current

That sucked him under

And went down a waterfall he’d been painting.

They recovered his body yesterday.

A mass will be held in San Cristobal on Thursday.

They found his painting resting on another rock, water running around it.

When I heard I walked into the woods and wept,

But let’s admit it, while the tears were real

“Wept” is not the word for what I did,

And when he and I were both alive my love for him was cut with a thought

That he was arrogant and dramatic, way too pure.

He wouldn’t let people cook for him but stole food when he was alone.

We lived in a mouse-infested house off Nostrand

And when he saw one shattered on the kitchen floor,

Its back snapped,

He screamed, walked back to his room and slammed the door.

Once he saw my dad in a shirt that read LIFE IS SIMPLE

EAT FISH and fell mute, fuming.

He made huge, expensive scans of his paintings when he was too broke to buy groceries

And tried to put them up in the New York museums.

Once in Paris he stripped in broad daylight and jumped into the Seine

To swim across and impress a girl, but the current started dragging him under

And the police picked him up in a boat. Dumb little Prospero.

Andrés’s reverence for his antics was total, he hung on every word,

And I hated them both for it. But it was obvious

Juan was possessed by genuine fire. His pictures

Dark and slashy, raw. A delicately sinister beauty radiated from his lips.

A week after he fell

His mom posted a photo of the final painting he left on the rock.

He’d given the falls an alien agility,

Like they were hovering just above the canvas,

And his palate had lightened since he’d moved home, a thin lilac net on the upper edge,

Blues and greens.

It was brutal. I stared at the painting on my computer at work

A week after our parent company fired the art buyer for

No reason. I remembered in that moment how he’d hex me in Spanish to Andrés,

Steal my lentil soup, and one night gently insisted after I said it looked dumb,

I was wrong, Singin’ in the Rain was sacred.

In any case

My theories about his freedom are over. I only know he was it,

A darkling book

Who theorized himself by accidental communication.

I call this book

“He,” another one with a narrative,

Because he is too much in motion to avoid the lie, when in reality

The entirety of night reaches toward this afternoon

And cinema sings behind the curtain of Juan

While he mouths the words he memorized

In silence. The stone he decorated with the price of his materials,

The celestial breeze and ripped horizon, monotone boats,

And almost successfully regulated lust for falling water

Genuflecting to the phosphorescent particles blinking on its surface

As dusk turns and laughs.

I am with this laughter as a port

Is tantamount to rage.

Rage is in season. It is nearly September.

The sun entered my skin and grief beat through its theater.

I’m playing on two screens.

I’ve been reading about colonies and communications.

“The watchful keeper will rid her of unwanted guests

By blowing smoke on her

While holding her in the hollow of his hand,”

Says Karl von Frisch in The Dancing Bees of removing lice from the queen.

One of those was right that said language can ripen to a terrible autumn.

“And this is the meaning of the ‘Battle of the Drones’:

Not a sudden upsurge, or a ‘Massacre of St. Bartholomew’, as some

Poets, writing of bees, would have it;

But a slowly rising hostility on the part of the worker-bees which may drag on for weeks,

Getting fiercer and fiercer

All the time, until every single drone has been killed.”

People are awful and poets are tyrants, but one was wrong who said

Tyrants are not poets. And so says the tyrant,

“That’s the worst.”

I think punishment is evidence of someone else.

The purple iris that drops its root in sand doles out a punishment self-justified.

Poetry has done its work on you

Insofar as you are with people and flowers

But your love for its glyphs looks thin from the balcony.

And in Satan’s argument over the sea the odor of the prideful iris

Lends it accuracy; an iris drifted over the pit

And we saw the pit was true.

The air was so still I heard voices coming in from the mainland.

A loon buried in red glare.

Rotted light and wind can overfill the vein. Wind can take it out of you

Like sentences, light can take the contagion

Out, so the wound rolls through.

It might earn its passage out as Ariel earns theirs,

And thus we come to the coast.

I will lie prone in it

As a crab crosses my spine, the cool water lapping up on my burnt back.

I the tide’s tool, the tide

Mine. Ariel begs the tide

To plant its eyes in my chest, waits for the charge

And clear.



Seawater trapped in the ear

Drips onto this indolent paper. Occasionally

It is inflected with a dye that briefly turns the bonfire green.

Autumn is the season of economy. It is upon us early

In the form of an election, so I have not escaped the other infection

Tumbling through the middle air.

The spruce are full of a magnetic, martial song.

It is this and less, a concert of recorders

Like the faces of my best students, one of whom today admitted

She often came to our class stoned.

I love being prone on the flood. But have you ever been prone on the flood

On weed? “While night

Invests the sea.” I love that break.

I used to teach but now I work “in start-up tech”

And I’m trying to turn back.

The company I work for just fired half of everyone for doing nothing,

They even fired the art buyer

And that’s why the company exists, to sell drones, earrings, and sex toys alongside paintings,

But so far no one’s fired me.

Perhaps these flowers of malignant fantasy, their flames fanned by art,

Correspond not by coincidence

To the décor of the actual world, which I take great pains not to call “the real.”

A cloud of one rains on the other

And by this grace the meadow arrives, I mean flowers are the costume

Of the real. I follow the irises down to the water.

They break the port down to each item, petal by petal away—

Here is the prow, here the wheel,

Here the box of stemware that must be messaged from its straw, here the glass

Looking at the new land, here is the oyster,

Here the rat, this inch of rope,

A distance with a bolt flickering at its rim,

Here is the cake, the name written on it,

The hospital on the hill and the cell that steals you to it,

The undiscovered strain of influenza tumbling on the breeze toward shore.

I’m being indirect, which I’m prone to when I’m reading.

“He wasn’t interested in limits,” Andrés said on the phone the other night.

Night is a limit. Is the line?

What makes Satan pathetic as he glides along the water is

He doesn’t realize he’s

A tool.

Unless over his own cool depths

He tools,

And this he knows well, the verb,

Thus the tyranny of heaven ripples and bends with one’s arrival.

Only in hell or art

Can the phrase “the flower of heaven”

Vibrate through our Roman air.

Today is the first day of summer.

I watched the longest sun of the year go down from a boat in the reach.

People were snapping photos as it dropped beneath the clouds.

The first question Juan asked me when I met him was

If I knew the world were ending, would I write poetry?

When I answered, he saw something in me I don’t know.

A glittering cruelty played upon the keys between us.

The Halloween we lived together

He dressed as Andy Warhol in an old black suit, baby powder in his hair.

We threw a party, and he hid behind a camera and filmed our friends for several hours.

When we carried Andrés up to bed, Juan recorded it.

While we were chanting for Andrés to look alive and Andrés puked, Juan recorded it.

Andrés slept and he filmed, transfixed.

To be transfixed is to be stuck on an arrow

Not oneself, not of one’s world,

Obscure clover, the bienenwolf wespe and royal lice.

“One can still fill whole books with descriptions of their enemies.

In fact there is a wide choice of such books. But in the present

One we shall mention only those which are of particular importance, and,

At the same time,

Have rather fascinating qualities.”

That’s Karl von Frisch on bees again. The angel of speech

Tangled in my idiotic net.

Poetry infected me on a summer day, far before the leaves of hell began to fall.

“Let none admire that riches grow in hell.”

Let none admire a meteor,

Or an exhalation emptying from its temple to become a tone

In the fugitive air, filling the ear

Where it wrecks. When we exit this poem (when we escape)

We will have endured a period of deprivation. Thus we earn

Our passage out, having made our deposit.

An unhappy language in a happy word.

Let none admire the direction of my speech. It is only as brutal as its source.

“Oh, so it’s twin language,” my therapist said of poetry.

In his final email to me on December 11, 2015, Juan wrote

“Dear Dan, I hope you are doing well. My life is a wreck.

I’ve had no girlfriend since we last saw each other. That is the saddest thing I could say.

I wonder what 2039 will bring.

Could you please recommend this article of mine to any literary magazine?

Any option is fine by me. It is about how Shakespeare wrote his Sonnets

In memory of his dead son. It could be a ground-breaking piece,

But all my attempts at publishing it have failed.

Come down to Mexico as soon and for as long as you can.”

The final line of the essay he attached reads

“The dedication is, in fact, an epitaph, a message inscribed onto a tomb:”

I decided then not to have the time for these theatrics, and

I never replied.

Karl von Frish: “All the more remarkable, as insects don’t carry watches.

Bees have no word for ‘up’ in their language.

There are no flowers in the clouds.”                                                                                        

Words go dark because they’re comorbid with rain,

A rain that collected, gathered force

And spoke him back. And if I’d received them?

“He looked bigger, and I finally understood that line

‘Those are pearls that were his eyes,’” Andrés said on the phone.

I didn’t know what to say. I tasted the work of his sentence

Like a drone tastes its planet’s syntax, nectar

Blown across a glasslike sea.

Ariel remains or flies away.

In any case

They leave their shield.



Once a week, the PEN Poetry Series publishes work by emerging and established writers from coast to coast. Subscribe to the PEN Poetry Series mailing list and have poems delivered to your e-mail as soon as they are published (no spam, no news, just poems).