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LISTENING TO VIRGINIA

(Virginia Leishman reading To the Lighthouse)

Driving around town doing errands,
I almost have to pull to the side of the road
because I can’t go on another minute without
seeing the words of some gorgeous passage
in the paperback I keep on the passenger seat…
but I resist that impulse and keep listening,
until it is almost Woolf herself sitting beside me
like some dear great aunt who happens to be a genius
telling me stories in a voice like sparkling waves
and following eddies of thought into the minds
of other people sitting around a dinner table
or strolling under the trees, pulling me along
in the current of her words like a twig riding a stream
around boulders and down foaming cascades,
getting drawn into a whirlpool of consciousness
and sucked under swirling into the thoughts of
someone else, swimming for a time among the reeds
and glinting minnows before breaking free
and popping back up to the surface only to discover
that in my engrossment I’ve overshot
the grocery store and have to turn around,
and even after I’m settled in the parking lot
I can’t stop but sit there with the car idling
because now she is going over it all again
though differently this time, with new details
or from inside the mind of someone else,
as if each person were a hive, with its own
murmurs and stirrings, that we visit like bees,
haunting its dark compartments, but reaching
only so far, never to the very heart, the queen’s
chamber where the deepest secrets are stored
(and only there to truly know another person),
though the vibrations and the dance of the worker bees
tell us something, give us something we can take
with us as we fly back out into honeyed daylight.

 

From Into Daylight (Tupelo Press, 2014).

 

 

FOR CLARE

I saw a brown shape in the unmown grass,
half-hidden in a tuft, and crouching down
to get a closer look, I found a young rabbit,
no bigger than my hand, trembling there
in its makeshift nest. And I thought of John Clare:
this was one of his creatures in my own yard,
pressed close to the earth, timid and alone,
almost a visitation from the “bard
of the fallow field and the green meadow,”
who loved the things of nature for what they are.
It didn’t run away when I parted the grass
and stroked its soft fur, but quivered in fear,
the arteries in its small translucent ears
glowing red, its dark eyes wide. I thought
of keeping it, at least for a few days,
feeding it bread and lettuce, giving it water
from an eye dropper. Then it did run away
in little bounds to the edge of the woods,
and into the woods. I thought again of Clare,
how, after he escaped from the asylum,
he walked almost a hundred miles home,
lost, delusional, beyond anyone’s care,
waking soaked in a ditch beside the road,
so hungry that he fed himself on grass.

 

From Into Daylight (Tupelo Press, 2014).

 

 

ENCOUNTER WITH JOHN MALKOVICH

When I spot him in Tower Records, two aisles over,
flipping through bins of discounted CDs
at their going-out-of-business sale, his shaven head
half-covered by the hood of his gray sweatshirt,

my first thought is I want to tell my brother,
but my brother is dead. And yet I watch him furtively,
searching for some Malkovichian quirk,
some tic that might make Andy laugh,

but he isn’t giving anything away
besides his slightly awkward stoop over the racks.
Then it comes to me that if I can’t tell my brother
about John Malkovich, I can tell John Malkovich

about my brother, and my heart starts pounding.
Normally, I don’t believe in pestering celebrities,
but there are exceptions: if Spalding Gray
walked in right now, I would definitely talk to him—

but that’s impossible, since he, like my brother,
though under very different circumstances,
killed himself. But John Malkovich is alive
and standing right over there, and my mind

is racing ahead to the two of us leaving
the record store together, then having coffee
at a nearby diner, where I am already
telling him how my brother was obsessed

with the movie of Sam Shepard’s True West
and especially with him, John Malkovich,
playing Lee, the older of two brothers;
how Andy, who was my older brother,

loved to imitate Malkovich, or rather Lee,
everything from his small off-kilter mannerisms
to his most feral outbursts—but even then
he’d be smiling, unable to hide his delight;

and how, every Christmas, he brought the video
to our parents’ house in Ohio, and our parents
would groan when they walked through the room,
and sigh, “Not this again,” or call it

“the most unChristmassy movie ever made.”
Which is probably true. But for us—him and me,
our other brother and our sister, but especially him—
you’d have to say it was our It’s a Wonderful Life.

And I have to tell him how Andy used to cue the tape up
and ask, “Can we just watch this one scene before—”
before whatever it was we were about to do,
go out for dinner or visit our demented grandmother,

and we’d watch him, John Malkovich, standing on a chair
shouting pronouncements, or destroying a typewriter
with a golf club, and we’d go off laughing and exhilarated
to our appointed errand, his inflections ringing in our ears. . . .

But now it’s something about the way he thoughtfully
considers his purchases, shuffling through them,
then putting one back, reconsidering, his hand
hesitating over the bins, that somehow reminds me

of Andy, and makes me certain Malkovich
would be interested in him, a sympathetic character
if there ever was one: funny, gentle,
a lover of dogs and kids (who had neither),

with an odd sense of humor and some mostly unobtrusive
symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder,
who, like Lee, but to a much lesser degree (or so
we thought), had trouble placing himself in the world—

a part I’m certain Malkovich could play,
all of it coming full circle, Malkovich
playing Andy playing Malkovich playing Lee,
or just Malkovich playing Andy, bringing him

back to life, the way Lee suddenly springs
back up at the end of the movie, alive
after all, menacing as death, the phone cord
still wrapped around his neck. . . .

It turns out that John Malkovich and I
do leave the store together: we check out
at the same time, two registers apart,
then head for the door, the moment coming

to a peak for me as I realize my last chance
is about to slip away. But Malkovich, in front of me,
has to wait there while a stream of people coming in
briefly blocks his exit, and I watch, in profile,

his flurry of impatient blinking—or is it a display
of exaggerated patience?—each blink counting off the seconds
he is forced to wait, or the number of customers
going by him, not recognizing him, it seems to me,

though his hood is down by now. And I think,
this is it, this little fit of blinking is the thing
Andy would delight in most, the one detail
he would rewind the tape to see again.

 

From Into Daylight (Tupelo Press, 2014).

 

 

VISION

I just got back from the eye doctor, who told me
I need bifocals. She put those drops in my eyes
that dilate the pupils, so everything has
that vaseline-on-the-lens glow around it,
and the page I’m writing on is blurred
and blinding, even with these sunglasses.
I’m waiting for the “reversing drops” to kick in
(sounds like something from Alice in Wonderland),
but meanwhile I like the way our golden retriever
looks more golden than ever, the way the black-eyed
Susans seem to break out of their contours, dilating
into some semi-visionary version of themselves,
and even the mail truck emanates a white light
as if it might be delivering news so good
I can’t even imagine it. Of course it’s just bills,
catalogues, and an issue of Time magazine
full of pictures of a flooded New Orleans
that I have to hold at arm’s length to make out:
a twisted old woman sprouting plastic tubes
lies with others on an airport conveyor belt
like unclaimed luggage, and there’s a woman feeding
her dog on an overpass as a body floats below.
Maybe we need some kind of bifocals
to take it all in—the darkness and the light,
our own lives and the lives of others, suffering
and joy, if it is out there—or something more
like the compound eyes of these crimson dragonflies
patrolling the yard, each lens focused on some
different facet of reality, and linked to a separate
part of the brain. We would probably go crazy.
In my own eyes with their single, flawed lenses,
the drops have almost worn off now, and my pupils
are narrowing down, adjusting themselves
to their diminished vision of the world.

 

From Into Daylight (Tupelo Press, 2014).

 

 

THE DAY YOU LOOKED UPON ME AS A STRANGER,

I had left you at the gate to buy a newspaper
and on my way back stopped at a bank of monitors
to check the status of our flight to London.

That was when you noticed a middle-aged man
in a brown jacket and the green short-brimmed cap
I’d bought for the trip. It wasn’t until I turned

and walked toward you that you saw him as me.
What a nice-looking man, you told me you’d thought—
maybe European, with that unusual cap…

somebody, you said, you might want to meet.
We both laughed. And it aroused my vanity
that you had been attracted to me afresh,

with no baggage. A kind of affirmation.
But doubt seeped into that crevice of time
when you had looked upon me as a stranger,

and I wondered if you’d pictured him
as someone more intriguing than I could be
after decades of marriage, all my foibles known.

Did you have one of those under-the-radar daydreams
of meeting him, hitting it off, and getting
on a plane together? In those few moments,

did you imagine a whole life with him?
And were you disappointed, or glad, to find
it was only the life you already had?

 

From Into Daylight (Tupelo Press, 2014).

 

 

CROSS-FERTILIZATION

It’s come to this: I’m helping flowers have sex,
crouching down on one knee to insert
a Q-tip into one freckled foxglove bell
after another, without any clue
as to what I’m doing—which, come to think of it,
is always true the first time with sex.
And soon Randy Newman’s early song
“Maybe I’m Doing it Wrong” is running
through my head as I fumble and probe,
golden pollen tumbling off the swab.

I transported these foxgloves from upstate New York,
where they grow wild, to our back yard
in Massachusetts, and I want them to multiply,
but the bumblebees, their main pollinators,
haven’t found them, and I’m not waiting around.
The only diagram I found online portrayed
a flower in cross section, the stamens extending
the loaded anthers toward the flared opening,
but the text explained, “The female sexual
organs are hidden.” Of course they are.

Which leaves me in the dark, transported back
to a state of awkward if ardent
unenlightenment, a complete beginner
figuring it out as I go along,
giggling a little and humming an old song
as I stick the Q-tip into another flower
as if to light the pilot of a gas stove
with a kitchen match, leaning in to listen for
the small quick gasp that comes
when the flame makes contact with the source.

 

From Into Daylight (Tupelo Press, 2014).

 

 

OUR OTHER SISTER

for Ellen

The cruelest thing I did to my younger sister
wasn’t shooting a homemade blowdart into her knee,
where it dangled for a breathless second

before dropping off, but telling her we had
another, older sister who’d gone away.
What my motives were I can’t recall: a whim,

or was it some need of mine to toy with loss,
to probe the ache of imaginary wounds?
But that first sentence was like a strand of DNA

that replicated itself in coiling lies
when my sister began asking her desperate questions.
I called our older sister Isabel

and gave her hazel eyes and long blonde hair.
I had her run away to California
where she took drugs and made hippie jewelry.

Before I knew it, she’d moved to Santa Fe
and opened a shop. She sent a postcard
every year or so, but she’d stopped calling.

I can still see my younger sister staring at me,
her eyes widening with desolation
then filling with tears. I can still remember

how thrilled and horrified I was
that something I’d just made up
had that kind of power, and I can still feel

the blowdart of remorse stabbing me in the heart
as I rushed to tell her none of it was true.
But it was too late. Our other sister

had already taken shape, and we could not
call her back from her life far away
or tell her how badly we missed her.

 

From Feeding the Fire (Sarabande Books, 2001).
 

 

MEDUSA

(New England Aquarium)

Like fireworks, but alive,
a nebula exploding
over and over in a liquid sky,
this undulant soft bell
of jellyfish glowing orange
and trailing a baroque
mane of streamers, so
exquisite in its fluid
movements you can’t pull
your body away, this lucent
smooth sexual organ
ruffled underneath
like a swimming orchid,
offers you a second-
hand ecstasy, saying
you can only get
this close by being
separate, you can only
see this clearly
through a wall of glass,
only imagine
what it might be like
to succumb to something
beyond yourself,
becoming nothing
but that pulsing,
your whole being reduced
to the medusa,
tentacled tresses flowing
entangled in a slow-motion
whiplash of rapture—
while you stand there,
an onlooker
turning to stone.

 

From Feeding the Fire (Sarabande Books, 2001).
 

 

FORK

Because on the first day of class you said,
“In ten years most of you won’t be writing,”
barely hiding that you hoped it would be true;
because you told me over and over, in front of the class,
that I was “hopeless,” that I was wasting my time
but more importantly yours, that I just didn’t get it;
because you violently scratched out every other word,
scrawled “Awk” and “Eek” in the margins
as if you were some exotic bird,
then highlighted your own remarks in pink;
because you made us proofread the galleys
of your how-I-became-a-famous-writer memoir;
because you wanted disciples, and got them,
and hated me for not becoming one;
because you were beautiful and knew it, and used it,
making wide come-fuck-me eyes
at your readers from the jackets of your books;
because when, at the end of the semester,
you grudgingly had the class over for dinner
at your over-decorated pseudo-Colonial
full of photographs with you at the center,
you served us take-out pizza on plastic plates
but had us eat it with your good silver;
and because a perverse inspiration rippled through me,

I stole a fork, slipping it into the pocket of my jeans,
then hummed with inward glee the rest of the evening
to feel its sharp tines pressing against my thigh
as we sat around you in your dark paneled study
listening to you blather on about your latest prize.
The fork was my prize. I practically sprinted
back to my dorm room, where I examined it:
a ridiculously ornate pattern, with vegetal swirls
and the curvaceous initials of one of your ancestors,
its flamboyance perfectly suited to your
red-lipsticked and silk-scarved ostentation.

That summer, after graduation, I flew to Europe,
stuffing the fork into one of the outer pouches
of my backpack. On a Eurail pass I covered ground
as only the young can, sleeping in youth hostels,
train stations, even once in the Luxembourg Gardens.
I’m sure you remember the snapshots you received
anonymously, each featuring your fork
at some celebrated European location: your fork
held at arm’s length with the Eiffel Tower
listing in the background; your fork
in the meaty hand of a smiling Beefeater;
your fork balanced on Keats’s grave in Rome
or sprouting like an antenna from Brunelleschi’s dome;
your fork dwarfing the Matterhorn.
I mailed the photos one by one—if possible
with the authenticating postmark of the city
where I took them. It was my mission that summer.

That was half my life ago. But all these years
I’ve kept the fork, through dozens of moves
and changes—always in the same desk drawer
among my pens and pencils, its sharp points
spurring me on. It became a talisman
whose tarnished aura had as much to do
with me as you. You might even say your fork
made me a writer. Not you, your fork.
You are still the worst teacher I ever had.
You should have been fired but instead got tenure.
As for the fork, just yesterday my daughter
asked me why I keep a fork in my desk drawer,
and I realized I don’t need it any more.
It has served its purpose. Therefore
I am returning it to you with this letter.

 

From Incomplete Knowledge (Four Way Books, 2006).
 

 

From AN UNDERTAKING

6. His Socks

Starting with the tumulus
on the floor beside his dresser,
clean but not yet put away
(now never to be put away),
a cairn of soft rocks
at least two feet high,
though many of them were not
balled up into pairs
but loose, or tied to their mates.
There were more in the dresser,
more on the closet shelves,
nests of them, like litters
of some small mammal, sleeping—
or dead, like the litter
of newborn rabbits that froze
when we were kids.
We buried them in a shoebox.
In every box my father
and I went through, no matter
what it contained—old papers,
framed photos, cassette tapes—
there would always be
at least a few more pairs,
and the one who found them
would call to the other,
“More socks,” in sad amazement,
or exasperated bafflement,
because, for the life of us,
we couldn’t find an explanation.
And what might have seemed
one of his endearing foibles
we couldn’t keep from seeing
as some dark obsession,
one more thing about him
we hadn’t known, would never
understand. Who could need
so many socks? Nylon dress socks,
gym socks of white cotton,
gray wool hunting socks
with an orange band on top,
even a few, from deep
in a trunk, with name tags
our mother had sewn in
decades ago. Enough socks
for several lifetimes,
though his one life was over.
Socks whose heels were worn
to a tenuous mesh, others
in their original packaging,
but most somewhere between.
If I’d taken them all I never
would have had to buy
another pair, no matter
how long I lived. But I
kept thinking of his feet
and how those socks would
never warm them again.
I took only a few pairs—
loose-fitting cotton, gray—
to wear to bed on cold nights,
my own feet sheathed
in the contours of his.

 

From Incomplete Knowledge (Four Way Books, 2006).
 

 

VISITATION

for my mother

Walking past the open window, she is surprised
by the song of the white-throated sparrow
and stops to listen. She has been thinking of
the dead ones she loves—her father who lived
over a century, and her oldest son, suddenly gone
at forty-seven—and she can’t help thinking
she has called them back, that they are calling her
in the voices of these birds passing through Ohio
on their spring migration . . . because, after years
of summers in upstate New York, the white-throat
has become something like the family bird.
Her father used to stop whatever he was doing
and point out its clear, whistling song. She hears it
again: “Poor Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody.”
She tries not to think, “Poor Andy,” but she
has already thought it, and now she is weeping.
But then she hears another, so clear, it’s as if
the bird were in the room with her, or in her head,
telling her that everything will be all right.
She cannot see them from her second-story window—
they are hidden in the new leaves of the old maple,
or behind the white blossoms of the dogwood—
but she stands and listens, knowing they will stay
for only a few days before moving on.

 

From Incomplete Knowledge (Four Way Books, 2006).
 

 

THE NAMES OF THINGS

Just after breakfast and still
waking up, I take the path cut
through the meadow, my mind caught
in some rudimentary stage,
the stems of timothy bending
inward with the weight of a single
drop of condensed fog clinging
to each of their fuzzy heads
that brush wetly against my jeans.
Out on a rise, the lupines stand
like a choir singing their purples,
pinks and whites to the buttercups
spread thickly through the grasses—
and to the sparser daisies, orange
hawkweed, pink and white clover,
purple vetch, butter-and-eggs.
It’s a pleasure to name things
as long as one doesn’t get
hung up about it. A pleasure, too,
to pick up the dirt road and listen
to my sneakers soaked with dew
scrunching on the damp pinkish sand—
that must be feldspar, an element
of granite, I remember from
fifth grade. I don’t know what
this black salamander with yellow spots
is called—I want to say yellow-
spotted salamander, as if names
innocently sprang from things
themselves. Purple columbines
nod in a ditch, escapees
from someone’s garden. It isn’t
until I’m on my way back
that they remind me of the school
shootings in Colorado,
the association clinging to the spurs
of their delicate, complex blooms.
And I remember the hawk
in hawkweed, and that it’s also
called devil’s paintbrush, and how
lupines are named after wolves . . .
how like second thoughts the darker
world encroaches even on these
fields protected as a sanctuary,
something ulterior always
creeping in like seeds carried
in the excrement of these buoyant
goldfinches, whose yellow bodies
are as bright as joy itself,
but whose species name in Latin
means “sorrowful.”

 

From Incomplete Knowledge (Four Way Books, 2006).


Jeffrey Harrison is available to give readings, interviews, or teach workshops; contact by email: jeffrey.harrison@comcast.net