Reading the Icelandic Sagas

This entry is part 21 of 29 in the series Conversari


The difficult syllables clash
in my mouth. Your knitting
needles make short
work of the yarn,
like the dream-woman
who gave An Twig-Belly
his nickname, filling
his disemboweled gut
with a tangle of twigs
until his intestines could
be put back where
they belonged, in all
their tortuous windings.
We puzzle through
the genealogies, struggle
to picture the raw land
rising behind the words,
yet somehow these grim stories
bring us closer together.
Young men described
as promising will end up
wallowing in each other’s gore—
we know this.
Beautiful women will goad
their thin-skinned mates
into horrific acts.
A shepherd boy is smashed
against the ground so hard
his spine snaps, & two years
after his miraculous rescue
An Twig-Belly dies
a quick & needless death,
split by an unheroic sword.
You frown at your knitting
& decide it too needs
to be unraveled. I watch
the dark garment which was
to have been mine dissolve
in your expert fingers.
You smile.
I feel light as air.

See Rachel’s photographic response: “Seed.”

Hit the Lights

This entry is part 22 of 29 in the series Conversari


As long as the lights
stay on, we’re stuck.
You can’t sprout wings
or rake me with sudden claws.
I can’t turn into
a storm-tossed tree
or an otter slippery as sin.

In the light, we are
smaller than life.
Our cries are nothing
but failed words
& our sighs & gasps
might just as well
have been emitted by some
tired engine.

Light always wants
to pin us down,
to make nakedness into
a mere absence of clothes,
a sleight-of-hand devoid
of actual magic.
It strands us
in our separate flesh.

Hit the lights
& let’s get out of
this walled garden!
Let our bodies return
to their original habitat.
There’s a rusty gate
at the end of the path,
& the whole dark forest
just beyond.

See Rachel’s photographic response, “At the junction.”

Vagina Dialogue

This entry is part 23 of 29 in the series Conversari


A college roommate once confessed
he fantasized about growing a vagina
on his shoulder: It would be

so handy, right there
whenever he needed to whisper
in its big wet ear.

John loved redheads & disliked feminists.
One woman informed me
he had “bedroom eyes.”

Where would the uterus go? I asked.
He laughed. It wouldn’t need one—
it would have me.

What about the pillow talk?
It would sing me to sleep, he said,
with its pulse of surf.


See Rachel’s photographic response, “Salty.”


This entry is part 24 of 29 in the series Conversari


“For years, I thought I hated children’s laughter.
I had no idea I was just hungry.”
Healthy Choice ad

No children of my own, I thought
they all laughed that way—
teasing, cruel. Some poor scapegoat
forced to ingest god knows what.

Cleaning the dormitories, scrubbing
the blood from the shower walls,
my stomach contracts like a fist
around a blank coin.

Tomorrow, the soles of the state
inspector’s shoes will squeak
against spit-shiny floors.
He’ll hear nothing else. But today

I move backwards down the corridor
with the mop steering from side to side,
its wet locks dragging
an endless river of filth.

In response to
twisted rib: “Secrecy imposed on the exposure of alleged child abuse”

Old Norse Family Values

This entry is part 25 of 29 in the series Conversari


Gísla saga Súrssonar

Son of sour milk
tried to trick fate
by going under a lifted strip of sod,
making a coin with two heads
held together with rivets,
even staging his own death.

The sons & daughter of Sour
soon soured on each other,
& the blood-brother’s blood, which had dried
on the point of an ensorcelled spear,
blended with the blood of the killer
who had earlier refused such a mingling,
refused to swear brotherhood.

They outlawed the killer’s killer
(also his brother-in-law).
He went back under the sod to hide,
& in his dreams, two women
took turns filling his drinking horn,
one with mead, the other with gore,
& all streams flowed down
into the same broad fjord.

See Rachel’s photographic response: “Blood and milk.”

On Hold

This entry is part 26 of 29 in the series Conversari


Held remotely
says the message on your screen
when I interrupt our call to take another.

Talking or holding: you can’t do both,
even in a world whose far reaches
no longer exceed our grasp.

On the other side of the ocean, I read Resume.
When we do, you tell me laughing
you almost miss being held.

Five hours apart, yet we share a single present,
speaking, listening, from one infinitesimal
moment to the next: we hold.

See Rachel’s photographic response, “Hope and Anchor.”


This entry is part 27 of 29 in the series Conversari


High heels.
Portable pinnacles
to teeter on for others’ titillation,
back arched as if on the edge
of orgasm or some lovers’ leap.
The spine loses its spring
& the feet their feeling.
Toes in a too-small toebox
jostle & twist like
a litter of kittens
tied up in a sack.

Looking for the Reader

This entry is part 28 of 29 in the series Conversari


a found poem

My love sends instant
messages while she works:
“I hope the reader
might surface from
a sea of paper.

I lost the cable too, but it
has just emerged—
along with a packet of tissues,
a lip salve & a hair comb—
from beneath an
ancient layer on
my desk.”

Five minutes later:
“No reader yet, but
two keys, three
xd memory cards,
one paperclip, two buttons,
three elastic
bands & a pair
of buttonhole scissors.
A small stapler, two
passport pictures of A.,
a nintendo stylus, a
medication prescription
form & a folding
plastic fork. Oh,
& a reel of pink
sewing cotton.
But no reader.

The tissues, I see,
came from Hotel Metro Heights,
8/35 WE A. Padam Singh Road,
Karol Bagh, New Delhi-5.

Here’s a receipt for milk
& biscuits for work
which I should have
claimed in March
last year & an un-
signed credit card.
Here’s my prefect’s
badge from school, a short
piece of six-core copper wiring,
the top from a bottle
of bath ales & an
apple pip—make
that two
apple pips. No reader.

Another credit card I didn’t
know I had! This one
is signed. I suppose
I should cut
them up.”

See Rachel’s account and a photo of some of the found objects at twisted rib.

The conversation continues: two videopoems

This entry is part 29 of 29 in the series Conversari


Back in 2011 and 2012, Rachel Rawlins and I had a public dialogue in poems and photos between this blog and hers. Usually I would write a poem, and she would respond with a photo that commented on the text in some way. We called it Conversari. Recently two new videopoems have extended this exercise in ekphrastic call-and-response.

Back on February 27, the Saturday after my 50th birthday, Rachel and a bunch of other friends surprised me with a videopoetry-themed party in the upstairs room of a nearby pub in London. Our friends Marc Neys and Katrijn Clemer came over from Belgium for the weekend, and Marc—AKA Swoon—acted as VJ at the party with a whole program of videopoems by different masters of the art, including two new ones of his own using texts I’d written. One of them adapted the poem “Hit the Lights” from the Conversari series, with a voiceover contributed by Rachel, which significantly changed how I heard the poem. (I didn’t even recognize it as my own at first, which is always a pleasure.) Marc incorporated some great footage of brown bears, a choice which gains in significance as the film proceeds. It was a terrific videopoem all around, I thought:

Watch on Vimeo.

On my birthday itself, we had gone to the old resort town of Southwold on the East Anglian coast, and were blessed with unseasonably warm and mild weather. We stayed in a grand old hotel associated with Adnams brewery, one of my favorite British brewers. I’ve shared some of my still photos from that trip, but I also shot some video footage, including a couple of great, unscripted moments from Rachel, one in our hotel room and one on the beach. The other day I finally thought of a way to use it, tweaking another poem from the Conversari series (mainly adding a couple of lines to make a better fit with the imagery). Here’s the result:

Watch on Vimeo.