Poem of the Week | March 17, 2014

This week we offer a new poem by Mark Wagenaar. Wagenaar is the 2013 winner of the James Wright Poetry Award, the Yellowwood Poetry Prize, & the Poetry Internatioanal Prize, as well as the runner-up in the North American Review’s 2013 James Hearst Poetry Prize. His debut manuscript, Voodoo Inverso, was the 2012 winner of the Felix Pollak Prize, from the University of Wisconsin Press. Recent publications or acceptances include Tupelo Quarterly, Image, Field, Cider Press Review, The Pinch, & Sou’wester. He & his wife (& fellow poet) Chelsea are doctoral fellows at the University of North Texas.

Author’s note:

This is a poem in a structure that I consider a form, much like a sonnet, with its own particular history. I’m drawn to contemporary examples, such as W.S. Merwin’s “Some Last Questions”, Mark Strand’s “Answers”, & Eric Pankey’s haunting poem “My Mother Amid the Shades,” but you can find even earlier examples within Blake’s work. The rhetorical question within a poem is a very common structure of course, but the Q & A is a form used so widely, & across so many cultures & religions, that I’m not sure one can definitely pin down one poet or country & say, well here’s where this started (last week I happened upon two different Japanese examples in an international anthology). I’ve also encountered the Q & A in worship, in different call-&-response liturgies, as well as variations within black gospel music, but perhaps the earliest example might be the surviving Old English riddles, about as lovely, coarse, mysterious, sacral & bawdy as any text that I’ve read (earliest example, at least in English, as some of these riddles were ripped off [excuse me, influenced] by Latin sources). The riddle’s a Q that demands the reader to supply the A, & although there’s a definite answer, ambiguities within the riddle mean there could be many answers that at least partially fit. Several drafts of this poem, in fact, were the parts speaking themselves, in riddle form, but it just didn’t seem to work quite right. I’ve encountered the riddle in the work of several contemporary poets, & Laura Kasischke in particular is writing some astonishing work that incorporates the riddle. I thought the riddle to be particularly fitting within this context, as in the Old English text many are bodiless/voiceless objects that demand to be named—which is an acknowledgment, of course, & here it is the bodies (& thus the event)—something that was hidden—that are being acknowledged, & given voice.
For my part, the form has taught me to question, & re-imagine, my assumptions regarding the work that an image can do, as well as the narrative linearity of a poem. I think that time & space can be treated differently in this form. And this poem’s also the result of some thinking on how to write about (& engage) different geopolitical questions & assumptions about the world in the Age of the Selfie/live Tweeted revolutions/mostly monolithic politics of American poetry, & how to write in a constantly changing culture without becoming an immediate cliché or, conversely, dated in two or three or five years (not to mention daily asking the unanswerable question, do I have the right to write about something like this?). It does seem strange that, even in this era of phone cameras & Gorgon Stare drones, these massacres happen. And—this is an obvious truth, I guess—where there are no phones, or cameras, or witnesses, there are only the bodies that tell the stories. That’s all that persists. And I thought that telling these stories/visions of what the bones etc could become would be sadder somehow, & more resonant, than telling the story of the massacre, which we already know. Because that can often be the problem with the ‘poetry of witness’ or the political poem—you don’t surprise anyone, least of all yourself.
These are events we do our best to remember while needing to forget, in order to live our lives & go about our daily routines. There were many mass graves in this area. So many stories that will never be told. And I was also hardhit by the story of the mass execution on the Jadar River, which is where the river in this poem comes from.


Questions after a Mass Grave Is Found Outside Srebrenica

after Merwin


Who will count the bones
Whoever has finished counting the stars


What are ribs
Beached coracles from a distant country
that has seven words for thirst


And metacarpals
They shine on x-rays like far off streets at night
that veer off into all we have touched


What are shins
Arrows falling for years


Then where is the bow
I saw it once shining
in a little boat drifting on the river


What is the heel
What has been rounded by the glassblower’s breath


What is the heel
The calyx that holds the moon


What are tracers
Embers of a stolen childhood


What are tracers
They shimmer like the black beads of a bracelet hanging from a hand
They return what has fallen to earth
They shine like skinned rabbits strung from a butcher’s window in last light


What is hair
The only thing that will pick a lock made of rain


What is the jawbone
A lyre in its next life


What is the heart
A web that holds drops of dew


Then where is the spider
It has gone to the river to bring back stars


Then what is the river
It shines like skin where the shroud has worn through


What is the river
It has untied the black scarf from your mother’s hair
& wrapped it around itself


Who are the people on the riverbank
Spots on the flank of a deer
rising from its bed of stars