Poem of the Week | September 19, 2016

This week, we are proud to present a new poem by Kevin Stein. Stein has published eleven books of poetry, criticism, and anthology. His recent books include the collections Wrestling Li Po for the Remote (Fifth Star Press) and Sufficiency of the Actual (University of Illinois Press), as well as the essay collection Poetry’s Afterlife: Verse in the Digital Age (University of Michigan Press). He teaches at Bradley University and serves as Illinois’ poet laureate.
Author’s note:

Poets often know less about their poems than a reader with goodwill who simply engages them with attention. So much of writing involves the curious high-wire balancing act of knowing what one is up to and simultaneously accepting the wonder of not-knowing. For me, the latter looms both essential and redemptive.

The poem’s spilling of one thing into another reflects my trust in collage art. My reading is eclectic and its effects a bit like Velcro. The mysterious notion of what sticks and where it reappears gives me comfort as well as the aesthetic heebie-jeebies all at once. That risk, if one is lucky, gives the poem bristle and charge.

At 91, my mother has suffered the evaporation of her memory into the proverbial ether, so she doesn’t know her own story or recognize any of us as part of it. I’ve begun to rummage about in the attic of my own dwindling recollection of working-class youth to ponder the larger world outside of it. Crossing that hard terrain links me to others via our shared aspirations and silly human failures.

There’s something enthralling about forgiveness, both the giving and the getting. The little grievances we keep, or keep hidden, harden the parts of us best left supple and adaptive.




Asking forgiveness I think of Cousteau’s absolving
the octopus he’d petted like a laboratory cat,
how he pardoned its octo-prying a corked jar
to lunch upon the last crab of an ancient
piebald species, thieving his oceanic Eden.
Crunch, there went the Times’ mollusk headlines
and the National Geographic crowning,
a tipping of the academy’s mortarboard
as elusive as Fermat’s Last Theorem.
Forgiveness triumphs of small forgettings,
its arched bridge lit by candles’ handshakes.
If asked to think of the word that goes with
“crab,” “pine,” and “sauce,” I’ll quick get apple
because I’m good at remote associations.
Like this. As a boy I ate the Jonathan my mother
had saved to raise the pay grade of our canned
working-class fruit salad dolloped with heavy syrup.
She wept pennies and I was sent to my selfish room,
boy who thought of himself as the empty fridge.
I pardoned myself myself, sorry Goodwill shirts
my sackcloth and ashes. I wore them like the oak
wears winter’s spent paycheck, someone’s name
black-inked upon their stained necks. Yours?
I wore them like the apple of salaried eyes, like Thales
bisecting a circle into perfect halves and have-nots,
like hunger thou-shall-nots sleep. Mine?
I wore them like Edison electrocuting Topsy
the homicidal circus elephant just to verify
the superiority of my alternating currents,
incandescent bigtop charged and ungrounded.
I wore them like William Tell’s son bore his
father’s fruit, absolving the miss as well as make.
Wore them like comedy equals tragedy-plus-time,
laughter shaking hands with its bloody older brother.