The Operating System


04-107I’m thinking about all the magnificent souls I’ve been reading lately and just, also, enjoying the pleasure of sidling up next to at the humble mid-20th century bar in my suburban Atomic Ranch, following a reading at my college, an hour and a world away from NYC—poets Laura McCullough, Paul Lisicky, Michael Waters, Suzanne Roberts, Mihaela Moscaliuc, Suzanne Parker, and my students and friends. How did I get so lucky?
I’ve never had a mentor. Never worked for long with a writer I was in awe of, so I’ve had to educate myself (perhaps at some point we all do), and I’m pleased by the stack of books that I have right now next to my chair—Ashberry’s translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, Snodgrass and Edmund White, H.D.’s recollections of Pound, the re-issue of Fred Marchant’s Tipping Point, a compact analysis of Kant (bless the writer who can take me to the essence of the matter without filigree), a recent issue of Salmagundi, which I have to love for the name alone.
But how to choose one writer who I can say has influenced my work, who stands alone. The question is—a question that Exit Strata itself seems to beg—whether any one writer working alone can be said to be entire unto herself. The answer simply seems to be, “No.” While at the end of a long night, I’m still left with just myself and the blank screen, I write with all of these voices in my mind, a kind of collaborative writing process in which the long dead and the just discovered are guiding my fingers.
Nevertheless (what a great and enigmatic word), I can point to Khaled Mattawa’s mysterious and eloquent Tocqueville as a very recent influence—an Oppen in a more discursive and contemporary mode. As well as Ken Chen’s Juvenilia. Ken read from his work at a recent Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and for me, it was the highlight of the whole event, in large part because he brought three writers onto the stage with him to perform the multiplicity of voices that enter his work—collaboration again.
Actually, while I enjoy the idea of collaboration, I play poorly with others. Not generous enough, perhaps. Something I’m working on. Rather, I’ve been interested in the short love poem lately, probably because my own impulses lead toward the long poem, the abstract, and the intellectual. There is something about the short, simple love poem that is elemental, which I aspire to. One can only write about death so much before one starts ordering too many martinis at the bar. And aren’t these the two subjects—love and death—around which it all revolves? For me anyway. Deaths large and small. Loves overwhelming and fleeting.
So I’ve settled on these Robert Creeley poems, from his Selected, wonderfully simple and enigmatic, maybe in part because they are never about the One alone, but always in concert with the Other.

Old Song

Take off your clothes, love,
And come to me.

Soon will the sun be breaking
Over yon sea.

And all our hairs be white, love,
For aught we do

And all our night be one, love,
For all we knew.

What I especially adore about this is the undulation of its tenses. The last line, with its past tense “knew,” torques the entire poem for me, so that it exists across multiple times and spaces. Also, the grammatical tension of the plural “all” with the singular “night.” May all such nights be dissolved into the one? “Yon” of course sounds archaic, and yet the poem feels very present to me. The rhyme as well one might consider tired and worn out, and yet when the subject is sex and love, who the hell cares? And who uses the word “love” as a line break three times in an eight-line poem except a poet well acquainted with both love and poetry? I have to admire his surety. Here’s another Creeley, less rhyming, but still about love, and also paradox.

The Whip

I spent a night turning in bed,
my love was a feather, a flat

sleeping thing. She was
very white

and quiet, and above us on
the roof, there was another woman I

also loved, had
addressed myself to in

a fit she
returned. That

encompasses it. But now I was
lonely, I yelled,

but what is that? Ugh,
she said, beside me, she put

her hand on
my back, for which act

I think to say this

What is the “it” and the “this” that the speaker wishes to enunciate? Is it the truth of paradox? Is it something about love that s/he has just discovered? Is it the speaker’s answer to the problem of loving, which I would say, is (love that is) both a question and an answer? Again, it’s bold in its assertions, yet quiet in its answers.
So resisting my recent impulses to write 10-page-long abstract Oppen-esque missives (he may have thought he was trying to be clear, but he was cracked on that account), I thought I would try the Creeley style, which is really, after all, just the flip side of Oppen—one writer discoursing on the soul in time, and the other the soul across time. Here’s my poem—equally about love, I hope.


You climbed into my arm
and I thought it would be a short poem.

You rolled onto my chest
and the news scrolled its worst.

In the museum, the sculptures each assumed
lives of their own

when the lights went out. I enveloped you
out and under me then,

sung epics, the longed for unravelings
and equally, their return.

Michael Broek’s chapbook, The Logic of Yoo, was published by Beloit Poetry Journal. His poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Blackbird, Fourteen Hills, The Literary Review, From the Fishouse, The Sycamore Review, The Cimarron Review, Parthenon West Review, and many others. He holds a PhD in American Literature and is the founding editor of the online journal Tran(s)tudies and the Managing Editor of Mead: The Magazine of Literature and Libations.



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