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Elena Karina Byrne

Elena Karina Byrne

Elena Karina Byrne, Pushcart Prize winner, is author of Squander (Omnidawn), Masque (Tupelo Press) and The Flammable Bird (Zoo Press). Her work has appeared in Best American Poetry, The Kenyon Review, APR, The Paris Review, Yale Review, Poetry, Verse, Denver Quarterly, TriQuarterly, Ploughshares and Bomb. She just completed an essay collection, Voyeur Hour: Meditations on Poetry Art & Desire. Thomas Lux was her first professor.

Things Thomas Said to Me: 1978-2017

No clichés. Take risks. You are Freshman "Dummies," one day losing the title if you are lucky. No bad shit either; replace it with the better work like Crane, Tate, Roethke, McHugh, Stevens and Dickinson. I know this isn't meat, what are you guys feeding me? Monkey Hour, you and Sheila can't call me Mr. Turnip: Mr. Thomas Professor will do. See your pictures on my bulletin board? No clichés but "Dust in the Wind" in Pete's Bar: good. Baseball and graveyards by the sea: good. Kindness, except when it comes to bad writing: good. You will be my pitcher when we play Halpern and Columbia University. Birdbath, you are writing so well, I'll have to cut off your hands. Your work doesn't belong to you, don't take it personally. Your books are your babies. Just because you had two babies doesn't mean you're an adult—don't push it! Fruitpie on fire, yay! I am still your Don. I taught you to write and taught you to shoot; take that target home and pin it up next to a poem. Take the gig. Write the essays. Divorce. Find those who really love you. I'm your pal. See those giant blue clouds over there? No kidding. No clichés. Take risks.

Almost Dancing

Some people see a plowed-under cornfield,
the roots twisted, towards the air, and think 
of bones. Not me. In the proper moonlight
they remind me of slim angels reclining
on the beaches of this world. I take my gladness
where I imagine it. Example: everybody knows
there are small boats of joy cruising

their veins. I say I'd rather consider
the tiny oars that propel these small boats.
When the lawn is close and comfortable
I just open my bathrobe and lie down;
even lassitude, the most hereditary member
of the family within me, can be flogged!
Even Gloom. I said even gloom can be flogged.

I want you to know I am so happy
I can sit face-to-face with a blueberry
and hold that pose. I understand the foolishness
of pearls and how sad all jewels must be.
I've trained myself to be glad as the last
redundant dwarf on this planet
and even my ghost whoops and dances:

because I love my half alive sons and daughters,
because I'm standing in water touching
my lowest ribs but couldn't feel less of a chill,
because I inhabit an orb that is nearly sure
of its place in the galaxy, because my arrows stop
in mid-air realizing the absurdity of the bullseye,
because I have no intention of hugging this scar forever.

                         ...

I love the dawn when it arrives like this,
like a woman wearing a gray slip.
Outside, the meadows are calm: no disaster
above them, none beneath—even the stalks
nearest the ground don't mind their paleness
in these pale moments. We need this globe
but before we moved here who decided

which way to spin it? So: sunrise will be rude,
we're prepared. So: the day will be more rude,
and sundown—ruder yet. Each day
like a heavy bride we carry backwards
across the threshold. Each day
the longest wharf I've ever tried to walk
to the end of... A man or a woman lives

alone because it's their simple
choice. Everything's chosen: I'll jump
100 feet into a pile of ferns. Add a few fronds
and I'll go even higher. That's a choice.
Translated literally it means: bread is made
of rope, sun of dust. It means: never
going back to a house only imagined.

And, of course, it means, is an example of,
the little knife I slipped into a little child—
and now the child is large and so is the knife.
So: we go on, blaming the length
and the breadth of our cures, every day nothing
happens, only the sundial feels relief, and
how deeply the green jungle loves itself!

                         ...

Let's not, however, be too glad. If we dive
into the river laughing, our mouths open,
we could drown. Literally, fellow singers.
We all know we're going to die, drift over,
but what other tunnel? Let's go on, while we're living,
like this: one afternoon a picnic with distress,
one afternoon a picnic never engaged,

and then siestas, siestas ...
And what about the vibrations the surgeon feels
when he finally reaches your heart and lays
his little finger, at a slight angle, lightly,
upon it? Listen, I'd hold on
to my favorite abstraction, desire,
even if it were a minnow trying to live

in only the water I can cup in my hands!
If our mouths are thin then let them lie
one centimeter from each other, barely.
I swear I dread half of every breath I take
but I take them, I breathe them
even after the rubber hammer called sleep
has done its work. I can't name the man

who failed the least and I can't calculate
the unbearable weight of the thread on my shoulder,
but right now in this hayloft
holding a torch, whoever it is haunts me
has appeared, seems slightly familiar
with this language, signs his name, and
like a dead brother, accepts all responsibility.

                         ...

Sleep is a bad alternative; believing
the sodden day, worse. In place of me
a green warp opens—stay behind me, anesthesia,
hold me deep inside your gash—there's a hammock
in this dear breeze and I want to lie
in it anticipating, anticipating the last
and lost hurtling. It's only I could rid myself

of this pastoral nature! I've been thinking
about it too long—even the trout are ballerinas
in their pools, little specs of loss
grazing their sides... I've sold myself
for less than anyone with an imagination
can imagine: living in this grim institution
is a disgrace, like the moon

is a disgrace knowing it's a ghost but still
hanging onto its hole in the sky.
Dragging along in between the cave and the skeleton
of my body, looking for an outer wall
to lean against—the mist all around me
with its terribly small fists—even now
I don't give a damn about this loneliness!

Still—sleep is a bad alternative.
I need a signal from someplace else: a leaf
that falls from a tree and disappears
before it hits the ground; the one birdcall
everyone, even the birds, know.
Like all the mammals on earth, I want
to be forgiven for something I've never done.

                         ...

Every night two breaths are shorter than one,
every night four breaths shorter
than two. Every night mushrooms lift
their soft eyelids: in cellars, untended,
they go on with their half-sleep, half-living—
similar to, though lighter than, ashes, —O
blandishments, blandishments, coming and going.

When I converse with myself as grudgingly as this
the final tree stump in the forest gives way
to air. I'll take my last day last,
that's one thing I'm positive about. As positive
as dust is fragile, both of us so fragile
we can barely flick our tongues. Even when I hold
my mouth at arm's length I can't tell

who's responsible for this irresponsible voice!
In the wasteplaces of my sleep I reconnoiter
slave and salve and yet there's never
a dream in which something doesn't
want to devour me: Quick, what's that big snake
wraps himself around me and crushes
my lungs—not exactly like strangling—

so I can't breathe? Quick! O watch whole chunks
of my heart grab parachutes and jump out,
undecorously. —Thank you for taking me this far,
Father, but how long do I hold onto the tip
of your wing? How long to develop
the talent to lie perfectly still endlessly?
O and ah, fool, stop yourself in mid-breath, foo..

                         ...

In my sleep I got a message: grow wings, dress
in white linen, turn silken and unmerciful,
my one lively tongue frozen to the blade of...
Well, I ignored this message like I ignore all
messages, no matter how nightly, that say: do
this pain unto yourself. Unto myself
I prefer not to do pain. Unto others I do not

prefer to do pain. No, it's bad enough to spend
lachrymose evenings in my lachrymose maiden
gazing across the dim meadows, gazing so far
into the darkness that it takes on a slight curve.
There's a not-so-subtle curse on
and there's an agent for that curse, and both of them
tangible as clawhammers. Is it the same

nasty perambulator who comes in at night
to poison my well? The job that night creeper does:
rare and imported slime, great dirty lumps!
When largely water becomes a large part
of my dream, when ancient necklaces and wristwatches
grow too big for ancient necks and wrists,
I just slide on my belly through this field

of glass...  I'm like a stupid lion playing
with a sparrow, I'm stupid enough to promise myself
languor! No qualms sure, there are no
qualms, and the slits of remorse are only that:
slits. Master of the waltz were the first words
I spoke to her. Of course, we almost danced—
O cheek and cliff and ash—almost.

                         ...

The engagement of my daughter, Miss Jean Grief,
I'm sad to announce, is on. Give me a dose
of two sands, pour me a glass after glass of smoke.
No condolences are absolutely necessary—
they're imbued, firsthand, first left hand
on the one who seems to need condolences: me,
singing, singing along alone. Dissipation,

our old mirror, must be given time, it must
be gradual—O my pills get dusty,
my doctor dead so long his grandchildren move
into resthomes and still I'm drugged up and down
in this hospital admiring the long careers
of nurses. My last job description? : prone, horizontal,
down there with the dust and the breath of snakes.

Like a simple vase not tolerating water, I've forgotten
about rain, or snow, or any precipitation—this geography
is dry, possession of water a felony.
We get along without any liquids whatsoever.
Gravity has given up here and there's no level
water seeks. If my tongue were not swollen,
if swollen were not its natural condition,

I would articulate, in song. Instead, I'll go on
gnawing my dread, wondering whose blood is this
up to my ankles? —The feeling when there's a death
in a family of one, the feeling when you say goodnight
to the fishes and your cells swim away
from each other and then you lay down your head
on a little pile of morphine...

                         ...

Serenely, the terror we wait for, a blue
wire that sings almost the song
through the life, the life which is one
body, two bodies wrapped around a burning
and blue wire—afternoons on this liferaft
surely are tedious, our slow breaths hanging
heavier than the blackest curtains...

I'm certain there's a man strong enough,
determined enough, to strangle himself
with his own hands. And, there's an airplane
that's lost interest in the runway.
—I say good luck to you and the black apple
that lives in the exact center of your body.
I say it doesn't matter if I filled my birdbath

with the ashes—they should have arrived,
regardless, and as a courtesy, bathed.
Gloom, your big dull ears bore me! Inexplicably,
at any moment, I get these bad shivers.
Inexplicably, my child crawls back and forth
back and forth across the carpet—we give him milk,
we give him everything, and still he's nervous.

Watching the long cars twirl their way up
the cemetery hillside we understand
usurpation... —It was like a cold draft
in the vault when so much grass grew so quickly
over that small bird's grave—naturally,
we were uneasy—but guilt is one thing,
and survival, or its facsimile, is another.

                         ...

In this forest deer wear wings and angels
wear boots. In this forest blood is gray.
Nearing the river hard on the low face of the valley,
carrying the sad chill on a day of sad chills,
I know what a man thinks about when he mows his lawn,
what it means when they say a horse is "fear-ridden,"
what the bell beside the dying grandmother's bed means,

why she calls with it: the irritating knell
lets us know whoever calls is about to call,
her. Thinnest smoke of memory and fiction:
I sit here because no other hand put me on
some other planet flailing through weightlessness.
O why did those maniacs teach us a knifethrower
is just another knifethrower unless his assistant

is beautiful? When we tossed the robots off the roof
onto the sidewalk the clangor was small revenge
on the ones dimmer than dim turtles in the mud,
small revenge on the ones who revoked my passport
to the river bottom because I couldn't hold
my breath. Finally, my solution: settle down
with a pint of venom and a pint of anti-venom

and amuse myself with the petulance of death.
—Always the blades of the pinwheel in my chest
are sharp and spin with the wind of each breath.
—Always in my green mansion in the wind
the place between my head and the pillow is calm
and I love best the scalpel moving away,
the scalpel moving away I love best.

                         ...

There is no larger sand dune in the world, no
harbor where fisherman sleep longer
in their own nets. Here, yonder equals approximately
seven lightyears. Pleased not to meet you
is the business, day after night. Here the choirs
sing of disdain with a melody I disdain,
with a refrain that has no right claiming song.

It's no good, no good if these dreams are foretold.
It's no good if wires are shot under the fingernail
to the heart. It's no good getting whipped by snakes.
It's no good loving unpossessively—lying as tenuously
as a lily pad on water. Feel those wings
pass over? Feel a mouse settling in his nes
a mile away? Good, congratulations to you

and your hands which are owned by swans.
Ah, enemies and lovers. For enemies
and lovers always keep a few roses
in the freezer. For enemies and lovers adore
the pilot dozing in the cockpit and wonder at him
because he is twice in the air. This abstract moodiness
becomes almost intolerable! In my sleep who puts out
the mirror and who brings on this fever?

During these alleged years the one good thing
about walking the highwire: walking nothing
but a straight line. If only I had a hacksaw blade
to saw through these threads, these lines
between your conscience and my unconscience! I know this,
though: there is hope, there is an equator, there is
a barely visible rider whose dust is more visible...

 

 

from The Glassblower's Breath, Cleveland State University Poetry Series, 1976

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