Transom editors Kiki Petrosino and Dan Rosenberg asked for some process notes.
Here's what I wrote:
Notes on The World Book poems
These poems are part of a larger series I've been working on...for awhile. The inspiration for this collection comes from an incomplete set of The World Book Encyclopedias published in 1947.
I randomly grab an Encyclopedia volume from the shelf (where they, unlike my other books, are not alphabetized) and open to a random page. Faced with disparate entries, I figure out how to fit them together. Is there a link? Or does the vibration happen in the variance: English Sparrows and Engraving, Dinwiddie and Diphtheria—like sewing machines and umbrellas?
I like to supplement the 1947 Encyclopedia entries with research I do on the (infinite and sometimes erroneous) Internet. I’m fascinated by facts and trivia—the more outrageous and outdated, the better. I was once told you shouldn’t include information in a poem. I still don’t know what that means.
Dinwiddie pg. 1996 Diphtheria
To build a life-like diorama, kill the bird first.
I grab the bent neck of a swan,
arrange artificial foliage, a hand-woven nest.
Paint and light complete the illusion
of frozen mid-flight along The New River,
purportedly the oldest river under thunderbolts.
Look through a small opening from a great distance
to safely view a total eclipse of the past,
a contagious disease in fission on a glass slide,
or what’s framed in a transparent casket.
On display in a department store window,
five identical girls, ten identical shoes beneath
matching sets of petticoats. Their lives began
in incubators, continued on cobbled streets.
The hour before midnight a man passes,
raises a lantern to their startled faces, says,
I’m searching for someone honest, actual.
He’s partially serious; the sun cannot be contained
or concealed in a box, cannot become the darkness
of an uncharitable sky or your hand
over my eyes. If an orange is an orange
in a magician’s palm and premises are true or false:
—All birds speak French
—Swans are birds, therefore, says the youth,
—Swans speak French and will kill
or should be killed. If you were asked to deliver a letter
that would hasten the start of a war, would you
take a short cut or linger in the woods,
purposely become lost? Your fever not high exactly,
but your pulse rapid as you count and pray upon
a chain of poisonous berries plucked from vines
at the river’s shore. How many swans have to die
to prove there’s no song at the moment of death?
How come I can’t stop making false forms,
can’t tell the difference between a bird and a god?
Diorama pg. 1997 Diorama
Her hand around the necks of both swans—
the handle of an intricately carved pastry wheel,
a tusk whittled to purpose. Every graven line
made by the scrimshander’s hands,
he thought of her, turned bone to dust—to two swans
with a single body harnessed to a cart with one roller:
a plow through dough;
the bow of a ship scything waves,
water, like the swans’ necks, curved
against the direction of the cleave while her hand
is where his hand was when he began
such unrest with his knife. Three years at sea,
memories of the first and only time he saw her.
This gift used for seven times as long
as he was gone, then discarded. Later, found
and framed in a box lidded by glass.
To make the display, the birds must be put to rest.
The sweetest sound is one unheard. That unseen:
what’s palmed by the large hands of a magician
—is that you? Make an orange disappear until
all I want is pith and zest. What’s in my hand
is what I want to give you: fish from Lethe
—have I given them before?—
the flash of scales under the surface of water
struck by sun. I give them to you
again and again. What else? Pie and candy,
the sweetness of parched lips. I slip the last five letters
of your name in my pocket, forget them with cob nuts,
pens and found feathers. With an unsteady hand
I construct us in miniature, in a shoebox railway station,
I frame myself in the train’s window, my palm
touches glass, not your face. On the platform
you stand—raincoat tight to throat, the silence
of wheels, the unchartable sky of pinpricked stars
—you wave an endless goodbye.
English Sparrow pg. 2360 Engraving
I’m nothing but a monkey-shaped silhouette
in this ship’s rigging. Shanghaied for want
of a haircut and quick drink: temporary pleasures
—how quickly the locks lengthen, how fast to sober.
Not so the finality of the pull of a trapdoor lever,
the fall to mattress—not out of kindness;
there is no courtesy but toward currency.
The figurehead’s direction charted
by the captain with ancient instruments,
dead matter. My orders: fix lines etched against sky
same color as water, hard to tell where the horizon;
where Lot’s wife looked back, dissolved;
where seabirds’ wings unfold: spars and sails:
how quickly the word spread. First paper,
thus printing. Credit the Chinese,
pull an impression from wood blocks. Everything backwards
until the proof. Compare this capture
to the choice of making a pilgrimage,
the comfort of a catch-all saint. How strong my mettle,
St. Christopher’s sheen against my breast?
For a brief moment, soaked in salt and sweat,
I succumb to seasickness. Across my face, my ghost
—most likely to be left in some city
with an unfamiliar alphabet; where was home anyway?
Where the roots of those related too weak in soil
with so few boot prints? Do I say, now,
exile or adventure? Did the rat,
the English sparrow? Not a true sparrow.
A dull-colored bird carried from continent
to another. Caught in the crow’s nest, some twigs,
spotted eggs. These birds, these vermin.
The hazards of travel. Of easy transport.
Of open ports. This is how disease spreads,
how songbirds gone. How pests. How all that’s left
is a short, shrill chirp, not pleasant to hear.