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ZYZZYVA poetry.

Three Poems for Inauguration Day: ‘I Used to Be Much Much Darker’ by Francisco X. Alarcón

I used to be
much much darker
dark as la tierra
recién llovida
& dark was all
I ever wanted:
dark tropical
dark daring
dark tender lips
& I would sing
dream dark
talk only dark

was to spend
tirado como foca
bajo el sol
“you’re already
so dark
muy prieto
too indio!”
some would lash
at my happy
darkness but
I could only
smile back

now I’m not as
dark as I once was
quizás sean
los años
maybe I’m too
far up north
not enough sun
not enough time
but anyway
up here “dark”
is only for
the ashes:
the stuff lonely nights
are made of.

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Three Poems for Inauguration Day: ‘Snake’ by Sherman Alexie

Driving home, I ran over a bull snake
and tore it into three pieces.

I didn’t mean to kill the thing.
I’d thought it was the thin shadow

of a telephone pole stretched across the road.
I realized it was a snake

only after I’d run it over
Thump, thump—

that’s the percussion
of car tires and snakes.

After I ran it over, I stopped,
left the car idling,

and walked back
to the three pieces of snake.

In death-shock, the head and tail
thrashed separately

against the pavement
that had been its warm rock.

The middle piece, strange
and disconnected, did not move.

I said a prayer
to the Snake God,

and wondered if such a god exists.
That’s theology.

If the Snake God does exist,
then it is likely the same

as every other god—

I didn’t want the snake’s body to be insulted
by other cars and their drivers,

so I dragged the tail off the road to the west
and the head off the road to the east.

I could not touch the middle piece,
because it was flattened and gory.

Satisfied that I’d shown the snake
enough respect, I drove away.

But two miles up the road, I turned
around, and traveled back.

I don’t know if there is a Snake Heaven,
but I didn’t want the snake to suffer because of my doubts.

If the snake’s three pieces arrived separately in Heaven,
would any of them be able to find the others?

I dragged the tail and middle
across the road and laid them beside the head,

because snake + snake + snake = snake,
because any trinity can be holy.

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Three Poems for Inauguration Day: ‘Justice Without Passion’ by Jane Hirshfield

My neighbor’s son, learning piano
moves his fingers through the passages
a single note at a time, each lasting an equal interval,
each of them loud, distinct,
deliberate as a camel’s walk through sand.
For him now, all is dispassion, a simple putting in place;
and so, giving equal weight to each mark in his folded-back book,
bending his head towards the difficult task,
he is like a soldier or a saint: blank-faced, and given wholly
to an obedience he does not need to understand.
He is even-handed, I think to myself,
and so, just. But in what we think of as music
there is no justice, nor in the evasive beauty of this boy,
glimpsed through his window across the lawn,
nor in what he will become, years from now, whatever he will become.
For now though, it is the same to him:
right note or wrong, he plays only for playing’s sake
through the late afternoon, through stumbling and error,
through children’s songs, Brahms, long-rehearsed, steady progressions,
as he learns the ancient laws—that human action is judgment,
each note struggling with the rest.
That justice lacking passion fails, betrays.

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‘Letter to Galway From Tahoe’ by Heather Altfeld: ZYZZYVA No. 105, Winter Issue

Dearest Galway, I hardly got to know you, but when I am sad
I write to my poets, as Hugo did, although his poets, generally speaking,
still required postage, and here you are months dead.
Still, for all we know down here, the dead like mail as much as the living,
and maybe you wait each day on a freshly painted porch for a delivery
just before heading out to a café to read the first crop of poems
from the place you now reside, the first of your newly made things,
no doubt bringing the dead as beautifully as you brought us
to the last hiding places of their tears. Because what I did know of you
was how generous you were with your time, I feel I can talk to you from here,
that you would be willing to press the shell of your hand to your ear
for a few minutes to listen.
Do you remember when you sat with my Lucy,
who came to you with her notebook? You were her first poet.
She was nine, and wanted to hear the Oatmeal poem again,
so you wrote a bit of it in her journal and took her hand and bent down to whisper
something in her ear which she still has never told me, she said it was your secret.
She is here elfing muffins before daybreak, a vision of elfinhood, cheerful and dreamy,
half the time pretending she doesn’t know me. Now she has her own important secrets.
I turn to you because I think you were one of the ones a little like me,

for whom terror and beauty were like the green languages of birds
we longed to interpret, and felt, if we could not do so,
that we had failed. I feel as though our ears heard sadness
just a little more strongly over the din,
that we saw it as our job to know it a little better, to bear it, to sing it,
to make some kind of walking peace with it.
Galway, I feel as though I were born to a race of grievers.
The first time it rose up in me, I was five, lying on my Snoopy sleeping bag,
reading the ending of Charlotte’s Web over and over, so that Charlotte died,
over and over, so I could keep crying—
it was the first time I had learned I could call up such sadness in myself,
and it seemed to be endless, a wrenching, fulfilling bottomlessness.
It turns out I was never much good at anything else.
My parents begged me to be a doctor.
At least in all of the ways that they did not know me,
they saw my aptitude for hearing pain.
Long ago they held my small body up to the light
and saw each of the bones and muscles in my hands glowing a magical pink,
and they wanted to count me among the other fine-coated ones, and say,
That’s our girl! She can find what ails you and fix it!
They wanted to tell others that I could read stitches right to left like Torah,
they wanted me to build a home of the shiny coins I would earn
charting the last breath of a patient.
But the first time I saw a corpse
and watched them wash her frozen body in a ritual bathing,
and saw how completely the body shuts in the end—
the kidneys frozen,
the heart frozen,
the bony arms frozen,
the pinky toe just defrosting under the hard light,
it reminded me all too much of the frailty I will endure sooner or later in my life
the way when I saw you last, your hands revealed how very delicate you had become,
how much more delicate you could become.
One doctor said he had seen a field of bedsores express sorrow
more deeply than any words or songs he had ever heard.
Bedsores. I was not born with this sort of fortitude.
It was not the address pinned to my blouse at birth.
So I went onward, searching everywhere for something I could do,
some way into the world that did not ooze or weep, and found myself
trying to be an anthropologist. Here, I was one distance removed from grief,
one valley away from the body direct; it was my job to chronicle
the days and griefs of others. I could learn the lost language of Yahi,
walk the footsteps of the Olduvai gorge to see how the others had walked before us.
I could study the Gisaro of the Kaluli in New Guinea,
whose ceremonies of sorrow chase human sadness into the bodies of birds
who lift and depart through the forest on their wings.
But this was even worse, tender sleeper, than medicine;

no surgery could save any of it, the annihilation so much more complete.
Did you know from the beginning that poetry was going to be your home?
Poetry is what was left when every other made thing failed me.
Grief, I am still learning, is everywhere, from sonnets to bedsores
from the Krakovian crypts to the nests of the Kahuli
it is in the doddering dirge of the Truckee that has become so sleepy this year
that it seems to have forgotten its velocity to live.
What rhyme can I make that will call the snow to flurry out of the sky for us?
What word will call the world to fill buckets with our tears
we can carry to the edge of the river and fling them in?
What sonnet will bring the butter-blond days of my children’s childhood back
so they can lie against me again one last time, damp with sleep?
How did you learn to describe the face of your love
in her most primordial gesture of desire
without the poem turning on you and finding its way to her grave?
I feel more impotent than I have ever felt in my life.
How can I learn to make a little spot for grief, here,
right next to me, right inside the poem
the way you so often did, where it won’t really bother anyone,
a place where grief can just sit by my side, looking at the passersby?
What was your way out of the Book of Nightmares?
How did you make it back to the Book of Meadows,
where the larks sang and the beetles turned their green backs to the sun?

Get your copy of ZYZZYVA No. 105!

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Everything Contained in a Small Moment: ‘Saint Friend’ by Carl Adamshick

Saint FriendSaint Friend (64 pages; McSweeney’s Poetry Series), the newest collection by Carl Adamshick, is massive, not in length, as the collection clocks in at well under 70 pages, but in quality. The poems Adamshick presents us with are expansive thought projects. Even the shorter poems occupy a space that is difficult to comprehend—yet they are so readable, like all the poems here. The fact that Adamshick can write with such variance, that he can be in tune with society and with the incredible poets of the past and present, makes his work impressive and enjoyable.

In the opening poem of the collection, “Layover,” the speaker is in an airport musing as “They keep paging Kenneth Koch.” He follows up with a beautiful existential thought that sprouts throughout the lengthy poem: “Someone should let the announcer know / he is dead, that there is no city he can go to, / that no one is expecting him.” It seems so simple; of course Kenneth Koch has nowhere to go. But Adamshick continues his line of thought: “I want to be paged once a day in an airport / somewhere on this earth, so people / will think I am just running late or lost.” The fear of mortality is perhaps the most relatable theme a poet can tap (that and love, which Adamshick touches on, too), but here the poet examines the anxiety surrounding our legacy, our curiosity about what people will say when we are gone.

Continue reading

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Labor Poem No. 10, Emilio Fonseca Construction I

The flagstones or stepping stones, one mushy tire.
The house. The loaded wheelbarrow, you almost
have to. If you slow, the flagstones, the dirt
path. The slope on which, the slopping concrete.
Or it pushes you. To run, handles, and strain.
The house sits. To get momentum, you almost.
Two wood handles, one mushy tire, the stepping
stones over the dirt. The slopping, the stately
stucco house that pays. Or it pushes you
back down. The wheelbarrow loaded with wet,
the two wood. Almost have to run. The dirt
path, the slope on which, the flagstones or stepping
stones. To get momentum. One mushy, two
wood, the slopping. The house that pays. And strain.

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Adventures in Language School

Rome: such a great city for walking unless
You are hit by a car, as I was tonight, though it was only
A tiny car. The cretino driver had my language progress
In mind as I practiced my idioms and gestures,
Like what they call “holding the umbrella”
(don’t ask, think about it). The driver’s eyes
Told me I had a long way to go if I wished to
Score a point about livestock and his love life.
Still, a sorrowful ghostly city like Rome is good
For dying if it came to that, so many spaces
For monuments, someday maybe one of Me in Language
School, in full command of the imperfect subjunctive,
Which is called the Congiuntivo Imperfetto,
Which sounds like a coffee or pasta but is not.
Later this night a girl in a piazza swathed in moonlight,
Unlit cigarette in her fingertips, asks in her English,
“Have you a fire for me?” Sometimes even Italian fails.
You won’t believe how much you use the Congiuntivo
Imperfetto during foreplay, painting a ceiling, or when hit
By a car. Night times I spent in the Piazza dell’
Orologio—orologio means clock—sweepingly
Subjunctive and imperfect, and studied the big clock
On the tower, the one with missing hands,
And appreciated anew Italians’ conceptions of love
And death and why they were always late.
I am the oldest student in the class by a factor of two.
Also the only male, by a factor of no idea. The Russians
Have atrocious accents but their grammar and miniskirts
Are exceptional, especially with the subjunctive mood.
The goal is to think in Italian, to speak without
Thinking, so I am halfway home. Maybe it was my toga
That turned the teacher against me. I ask her to go
With me to the Coliseum, where everyone soon dies,
As I will, which is why I first came to Rome.
The most beautiful girl in school is from Algiers.
Her black eyes demand I re-examine my whole life.
Oh, the things I could tell you about language school
Would fill a book, a little grammar exercise book
Specializing in the imperfect subjunctive, required
Every minute in Rome especially while sitting next
To a gorgeous sweet Algerian girl named Sisi,
Which in Italian sounds like si, si, yes, yes.
That’s why, if I have to live, Rome is not so bad,
It’s such a sad city, with the best art over my head,
Cars so small that afterward I run back to language school.

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L.C. Smith and Bros., Makers of Fine Guns and Typewriters, Advertise

With the same sweep—one, two, or three lines

so handsome in engraving, embellishment, and finish

makes all-day speed easy for the operator

you will be delighted to the point of ecstasy

a combined one-motion carriage return and line space

ensures the hunter good sport

no lost time, no wasted energy, no mistakes or misplaced letters

the proper aim is up to you, but you can leave the results to us

the inexorable law of Survival of the Fittest is proved

take it with you and give yourself a fair chance

ball bearing, long wearing, hair trigger

improvements cease to stand out against the background of “No Shortcomings”

a necessity for emphasizing

the fullest possible pleasure in the field, and the maximum game in your bag

no necessary operation takes the hands from writing position

prevents fumbling and delay

a key for every character

it speaks with a directness and force

which leaves no room for doubt as to its meaning

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Finding Our Nature in the Surrounding Wilderness: Eric Pankey’s ‘Trace’

TraceEric Pankey’s new poetry collection, Trace (Milkweed, 68 pages), is an intense journey of powerful language to the edge of the wilderness. Even as his poems invoke a sense of earthly calm, the threat of danger looms throughout these poems, grabbing our attention and holding it throughout.

Much of Trace is set in the natural world, offering a somber examination of the ways in which humans occupy the space. Nature here is constant, balancing the frenetic sphere of humans, a realm in which homes are burning down and people are leaving, crying, or simply trying to find themselves. Often, Pankey will use death to show how these worlds intersect. In “The Place of Skulls,” he writes, “After the body’s hauled down, the tree resumes / Its life as a tree.” The enduring mystery of the natural world is also examined, perhaps most evident in lines such as these from “As of Yet,” where Pankey writes, “Call it paradise, this enclosure of trees / No graves yet.”

The spirituality of Trace is not simply beholden to how it addresses nature. The voice of the poems addresses human spirituality often, though it doesn’t seem to be grappling with the issue of what exists and what does not. Rather, the poems offer beautiful insight into how human consciousness exists in concert with nature. In “Edge of Things,” we read, “I wait for the resurrection, but wake to morning; / Mist lifting off the river.” On a similar note, “Cold Mountain Meditations” informs us that “No god offered us fire. A burning branch / Fell from a tree and we dragged it home.” These poems are not a rejection nor outright acceptance of any religious credence, but an examination of how the essence of humans is easily reflected amid the beauty of nature.

The references to religion are thought-provoking, but Pankey’s diction and word choice are arresting, too, often causing the reader to pause and reflect. In “Ritual,” he directly tells us, “Repetition is an aid to memory.” Repetition is also a tool frequently used in the collection to invoke reflection, and helps deliver some of Trace’s more skillful lines. In “The Creation of Adam,” the poem ends with “The scarecrow, who had listened well, knew / If he chose, he could shrug, and shoo the crow. / If he chose. And could shrug. And could move his lips.” Unlike humans, unlike Adam, the scarecrow has no free will.

Trace deftly surrounds the reader in the natural world, offering us a chance to ruminate our existence inside of it. In the collection’s final poem, “Sober Then Drunk Again,” we read “Once I drank with a vengeance / Now I drink in surrender.” While reading Trace, we surrender ourselves to Pankey’s vision, and conclude the book deep in thought.

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Voice low, father, you are
hurting aloud from the book of your life on this earth.

You are tearing out verses, pages,
reciting histories of mountains, waving

like oceans, gritting down teeth
at the sound of a needle as it enters your eye.

The telephone, father, you heard its call, you blinked in red
pajamas. You groped for the nightstand. Knocked

things over. I’ve read your sunken chest.
Halfway to death is blindness. And fingertips,

shin bruises, and if your hands broke, father,
you could not stroke your wife’s hair nor mouth

and neither could a son’s beard
fill your palms. Psalm is an open, burning text

but please, dip only your thumbs in twilight. Talk
not of God’s white furnace, father, and the fires

we are left in. Don’t tell
a tale of a man erased

like scuff on a window.

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The Sasquatch Poems

Sasquatch: a hairy manlike creature reported to exist in the Northwestern U.S. and Western Canada and said to be a primate between six and fifteen tall—also called bigfoot. —Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary

I believe in Sasquatch
just as much as I believe in God
which is not logical
since more people have seen Sasquatch
than have seen God.

We hire priests and politicians
who promise us there are no mysteries
only doors that can be opened easily.

Mystery is a series of large footprints
leading us from the edge of the forest
to the center of the desert.

At the center: an Anasazi pot.

In Hopi, Anasazi means ancient, alien one.
After 1200 A.D., the Anasazi vanished, leaving behind
only the slightest traces of their sudden departure.

Only the Hopi know where they went.

In the year I was born, a Sasquatch chased N
from Benjamin Lake to Turtle Lake.

N was on horseback
and still barely escaped.

N refuses to speak of this event now
and will only smile
when asked about the chase.

Because we are human
we assign human emotions to Sasquatch.
When it chased N from lake to lake
we assume Sasquatch was angry.

How would our hearts change
if we discovered Sasquatch was running
just for the sake of the run, the burn
in the leg muscles and lungs?

We tell these Sasquatch stories
because we are Spokane Indian.

We are Spokane
because our grandparents were Spokane.

Our grandparents told Sasquatch stories.
Our grandparents heard Sasquatch stories

told by their grandparents.
In this way, we come to worship.

By now, the hunters and hobbyists also call them Sasquatch
because they have come to understand a little
of what Indians have always understood.

Headline in the tabloids:
“Bigfoot Baby Found
in Watermelon: Has Elvis’s Sneer.”

Those who say “Bigfoot”
are those who don’t believe.

We must learn to fear metaphor.

We followed the footprints from the source of the stream
to the place where it emptied into the river.

We saw its hair snagged on branches ten feet above us.
Its smell was still powerful a full day after it had passed through.

The smell: rotten eggs, sulfur, burned hair, blood, sawdust
pine sap, bat piss, standing water, split granite, sunlight.

Even now, we like to think science replaced religion
when, in fact, religion became science.

I ran into the house on fire and saved my father and mother.
I ran into the house on fire and saved my sister and brother.
I ran into the house on fire and saved my version of God.
I ran into the house on fire and saved my only effective blanket.
I ran into the house on fire and saved my Adam and Eve.
I ran into the house on fire and saved my porcupine quill.
I ran into the house on fire and saved my cup of ice water.
I ran into the house on fire and saved my metamorphic rock.
I ran into the house on fire and saved my saxophone.
I ran into the house on fire and saved my last will and testament.
I ran into the house on fire and saved my favorite red shirt.
I ran into the house on fire and saved my basketball.
I ran into the house on fire and saved my book about Sasquatch.

After D. B. Cooper hijacked the commercial jet
and parachuted 30,000 feet into the Cascades
where he and his newly acquired money disappeared

we can only assume that he lived
because his death would kill the mystery.
Our only certainty: D. B. Cooper is not Sasquatch.

In order to know what Sasquatch is
we must know what he is not.

Here, I wonder why I speak of Sasquatch as male
when more female Sasquatch have been seen

including the most famous: the Sasquatch woman
who walked across deadfall in the film

shot by Roger Patterson on the Hupa Indian Reservation
in Northern California. We have all seen her

pendulous breasts, prominent brow, large feet
and shadowed eyes as she turns to face the camera

and the commotion caused when Patterson’s horse threw him.
Patterson continued to film as he fell, as he climbed

to his feet, and ran after the Sasquatch. His home movie
has never been discounted, only ignored or dismissed.

The scientists don’t want Sasquatch to exist
because her existence would destroy their God.

Roger Patterson was a Yakama Indian
a fact which provides me with a small, secret pleasure.

I have been taught to keep secrets
and to fool you into believing I’ll reveal them.

If we sit in John F. Kennedy’s limousine on November 22, 1963
and then we look back over our shoulder just as the first shot is fired
we will see a shadowy figure in the sixth-floor window of the

Moving closer, we can see the rifle, a gold ring, and brown eyes.
We can see a bead of sweat fall from forehead to gun stock, soaking
into the finely-grained wood. We can see the fine smoke rise.

We do know that Sasquatch did not shoot JFK
but we wonder if the man who pulled the trigger
was hired by the same men who pay the scientists.

On his deathbed, Roger Patterson wished
he would have shot the Sasquatch
and proved her existence with a corpse.

Thesis: Indians can only be proven superstitious
if non-Indians are proved to be without superstition.

Do the Sasquatch believe in us?

Do you take the bread and wine
because you believe it to be the body and blood?
I do, as other Indians do, too
because that colonial superstition is as beautiful
as any of our indigenous superstitions.

Of course, Sasquatch and Indians have known of each other
for thousands of years. Certain Indians believed Sasquatch
were evil Indians banished from their respective tribes.

Others believed Sasquatch came down from the skies.
Some Indians have sat at lonely campfires and watched
the woods for signs of Sasquatch, their long-lost brother.

A man named Anomaly is over there, in the dark
corner, with his eyes closed, dancing all by himself

I can give you proof of God: Jim Thorpe, Sac and Fox Indian,
won gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912
Stockholm Olympics. He won those medals despite the fact that
Indians were not yet recognized as United States citizens.

Sasquatch did not kidnap the Lindbergh baby.
Sasquatch did not bury the empty coffin of Heinrich Müller.
Sasquatch did not kill the prostitutes in White Chapel.
Sasquatch did not fly with Amelia Earhart.
Sasquatch did not roll the stone away from Jesus’s tomb.
Sasquatch did not build the pyramids.
Sasquatch did not create the Ghost Dance.
Sasquatch did not drop the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Sasquatch did not descend from the Missing Link.
Sasquatch did not drag boulders across Easter Island.
Sasquatch did not crash-land in Roswell, New Mexico.
Sasquatch did not walk across the Bering Strait.
Sasquatch did not sink Lemuria.
Sasquatch did not write Shakespeare’s plays.

I can give you proof of Sasquatch: Indian tribes of the Pacific
Northwest carved ape faces into their totem poles long before
any Europeans arrived and brought news of such animals.
According to the scientists, there are no other primates, aside
from human beings, indigenous to North America.

If Sasquatch is the deviation
then what is the common rule?

Late night on the Spokane Indian Reservation
we can hear the shrill cry echo through the pines.

We have recorded the cry and played it for the experts
who cannot tell us which animal made that sound.

Because the Sasquatch use tools, I wonder if they write poems.
Because the Sasquatch steal salmon from nets, I wonder if they
have justice.
Because the Sasquatch travel alone, I wonder if they love.
Because the Sasquatch travel in families, I wonder if they hate.
Because the Sasquatch stink, I wonder if they feel shame.
Because the Sasquatch hide, I wonder if they are afraid.
Because the Sasquatch cry in the night, I wonder if they believe
in God.

A large footprint in the damp sand.
A bush burning on the mountain.

When I asked the Indian elder, she said
with a smile, “I don’t know if I believe in Sasquatch
but he sure does stink.”

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Self Portrait as Wikipedia Entry

Dean Rader was born in Stockton, California during the Summer of Love. His sorrow is his own. He believes in star-sting and misnomer; he carries a toy whistle in his pocket. American by nationality, he was conceived in a Fiat near the Place du Châtelet. If asked, Rader will lie and say he doesn’t remember it, but his lazy eyes and hunched back give him away. His left pinky finger, broken from basketball, has never healed, which he attributes to the caesura of distance and longing. His heart, the size of a normal man’s heart, has been used as a model for a forensic mannequin. As a young boy, he once carried a small package to the river, but it was the wrong address. If asked to describe the river, he quotes van Heisenstadt (“die grenzen des wasser nicht vom errinerung”). Rader is not the little cricket. He is not a scissors for lefty. His soul, the size of a tiny condom, slides quickly onto time’s blind spot. In 2004, he was asked about time’s blind spot but responded only that “time, like a bandage, is always already wound and unwound.” Once, as a student in college, he grew a third sideburn. Darkness, his maquette, darkness, his morning coffee. Rader’s father studied to be a mortician; his mother was a therapist and, not surprisingly, Rader pursued both. His head, matted with crude sketches of benches, nipples, and flower petals is roughly the size of the Place du Châtelet. Strong at math from an early age, he helped develop what has come to be known as the Osaka Postulate, which proves that the square root of asyndeton is equal to the inshpere of trespass, skin-spark, and elegy. As for his own spiritual beliefs, Rader is silent, though one of his recent poems, entitled “The Last Day of 34” suggests an influence of Simone Weil (“community is work. // For all I know, God may be in both. / For all you know, God may be both) and Luigi Sacramone (“We want so much. // We only believe / in what we ask for”). Considered neither the lip blister nor the noodle wrenc, Rader has emerged, at least somewhat, as the repetitio rerum. In more recent work, he denies this (though indirectly) citing instead his commitment to interlocutory boundaries (bornage) through what he calls the “phatic interstice.” At present his voice, the pitch and timbre of a young girl’s, asks only for Tang. Consumed by his charity work with the NGO Our Uncle of Instrumentality, he has stopped writing entirely. When questioned about this at a 2007 fundraiser, Rader quipped, “Let my words say what I cannot.” Since then, a fragment of an unpublished poem attributed to Rader has started appearing on the Internet:

Line up and line out
says the moonwhittle.
Loss is the ring on our finger, the bright gem
compassing every step as we drop down.
Believe in what you know and you’ll go blind.

Experts doubt its authenticity.

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