Poem of the Week | November 10, 2014

This week we offer a new poem by Janice N. Harrington. Harrington’s Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Her latest book of poetry is The Hands of Strangers: Poems from the Nursing Home (BOA Editions). She teaches at the University of Illinois.
Author’s note:

“Topoanalysis” responds to an oil painting by the African American folk artist Horace H. Pippin. The words of Bachelard, “at the first poetic overture, the reader who is ‘reading a room’ leaves off reading and starts to think of some place in his own past, ” complicate the poem’s conversations.
I wanted to enact that moment when the reader breaks from the painting to look into his or her personal past. The poem strives to erase the lines between artist and subject, past and present, a work of art and its audience, and even words and paint. If there is a painted child who hears the painter’s step, then perhaps there is a child made of language who hears the reader’s step?
“Topoanalysis” also honors the life and work of Horace H. Pippin, a World War I soldier who fought with the famed 369th infantry, an African American unit that not only introduced jazz music to Europe but also fought valiantly on the frontlines of France. Pippin had every reason not to make art. He wasn’t wealthy. He lived in a segregated and racially-charged America. He didn’t have an MFA or the backing of the academy. His right arm was disabled as a result of a painful war wound. And yet he produced a magnificent series of paintings. I am fascinated by his work and continue to generate poems about his life and art and the relation between them.



Asleep, a painting by Horace Pippin, 1943


Topoanalysis: “the systematic psychological study
of the sites of our intimate lives.”
—Gaston Bachelard


This is his childhood. This is Goshen.
This is the room of play and prayer and griddle cakes,
where women scrubbed brown babes in wooden tubs,
patched quilts, braided rugs, ordained cleanliness,
and smoked clay pipes for ease.


Atop a quilted pallet, children sleep. Someone
has already listened to their prayers and said amen.
Someone has tucked the covers tight, stirred the stove’s embers
and banked its heat against the night.


This is his childhood. This is Goshen.
This the room he painted to cradle the boy he was.
The painter’s step, the sleepers think, is the floor settling.
His breath against their skin, they think a draft or the night’s cold.
And if the painted boy should open painted eyes,
he’ll think: a dream, or the Sand Man, or if I should die before I wake


Thus, very quickly, at the very first word,
at the first poetic overture, the reader
who is ‘reading a room’ leaves off reading
and starts to think of some place in his own past.
—Gaston Bachelard


The house is gone or is here still, though no one will answer,
or a child will, and the screen door that never stayed closed
invites the sun, and smoke-staunched air, and yellow dust,
and pine-rot as it always did. Inside the house
that is, or was once, there waits a castiron bed and a child
and straight back chairs. A child schooled by silence, who knows
that soundlessness and shhhh are motes of dust, are red as cellar dirt.
Silence can smell like raw earth and the down, down darkness
of a well. Hush, and still, and without noise are tiptoe
and tadpoles sperming against a concrete bank. Silence


is a gathering of goldfish under lusters of waterlilies, white
shining, white-scalding, a white silence that sets everything
afire. Silence is what the child called lonely and pulled
from her pocket with a soil of cornbread crumbs to feed the goldfish.
Salty crumbs will kill the fish, but the child refuses to believe it.
Poor child, poor fish, poor woman peering into the depths
of a floating world, seeing hunger and thinking its ache
the same as silence or lonely, trying to sate each empty mouth
with this one small act: a spill of cornbread coins, giving all, saving
nothing, refusing cause or effect, refusing to believe death
small enough to fit inside a pocket’s depths or a child’s fist,
the lessons of its silence any graver than those already learned.