November 2016 Poetry Feature

This month’s feature includes new work by contributors.



Portraits with Surgeons and Pandemic 

When I worked for two surgeons, I used to daydream
which one I’d rather repair my hand.
You don’t think of bone surgeons as having regulars,
but one patient drank and kept falling downstairs.
They were always resetting something. It’s not unusual
to think of the world in a tribal sense.
You go into the OR shattered, and return
with a new suite of arcane knowledges
shared by those who’ve been re-broken while asleep.
You go in hungry and afterward a mother or nurse
shows you the cheese danish you wanted while fasting,
but your hunger’s turned queasy and in protest
puts a knife through its throat. I feel different
from those who’ve never been reset,
but can’t tell you why. My sister just had this done.
I feel we’re more sister now, her line-drawing tattoo
slightly misaligned. My cast left a small but
permanent shadow. It’s not unusual for surgeons
to develop god complexes; both appear
in front of the sick, consulting in white garments.
Sometimes they’re miracles, but sometimes beasts,
deepening fractures to repair them. Most people demanded
the surgeon who dressed in Superman scrubs and treated
every bone like boilerplate, but I didn’t believe in him.
Last night I played a board game about saving the world
from plagues. Fewer flight paths mean it’s easier
to save the cities of North America and Europe.
It makes me feel like a reckless tribal god, saving
London because I can imagine shorthand London;
a speckled plate glazed with gravy, the sweaty bromeliads
inside the glass at Kew, The Ambassadors,
that Holbein with two great haystacks of men
wearing chains and furs—large, successful men of the world.
They knew plagues in their time, and fractures. They stand
in front of a lute with a dislocated string and a crucifix
cut off by green curtains. Ambassadors serve
a fractured world. I saw it alongside a gallery tour delivered in Mandarin.
It was winter; some visitors wore paper masks. I understood nothing
until I shuffled to the side with everyone, tilted my head
like everyone’s, and saw the driftwood gash by the men’s feet
tighten into a skull. As a crowd we made startled, delighted noise.
In the quiet after, someone coughed. No one stays
in any gallery for long. We eyed each other
in a way that makes me sorry. The next tour arrived
before we could move on.


Jen Jabaily-Blackburn’s poem “Braintree,” first featured in Issue 10 of The Common, has been selected to appear in the 2016 Best New Poets anthology.




To the Eminent Hate Mongers

I, too, have wandered in the provinces
of blame, those baleful hectares of disdain
specious yet blossoming with snide audacity,
they them you andus the fertile mutant seeds
of lush resentment sprouting its fruits and grains
in hothouses of malice, overheated incubators
oxygenating through the night the artificial
genus of fear, the buried roots of perfidy.

Ah, such satisfaction. And how very sweet
the taste of piquant righteousness. Who knew
it could feel this pleasurable? Whole counties
imbibing sudsy drafts of smug, vintages
of oak-aged anger followed hard on the heels
by those delectable distractions – bitterness
and spite, the acidulous and succulent
harvest of hate ripened on calumny.

Yet remember this, my friends, remember: Beware
the haunts of language, those palliative perversions
which, once unleashed, return always and ever
to eviscerate all who consume them, poisoning
you they themand us until the very smell
of knowledge or conviction or simple decency
is enough to sicken, enough to cramp and roil
and retch whatever is left of the gutted truth

that will undo you, showing up one day
in the duchy of triumph, there inside the tower
of cynicism, at the resplendent ego’s banquet
where softly afoot and on supple tawny hands
your heaping plates will be carried in, the cook
announcing with a smile as sharp and bright
as the grudge he harbors, “Ladies and gentlemen,
come to the table. It’s time to eat your meal.”


Seven Almonds

Just to be alone
in the republic of thought,
no staff, no briefings.


Speeches, letters, notes.
Left hand curled in like a shield
or a scimitar.


Paris. Brussels. Nice.
Karachi, Baghdad, and Homs.
Ankara calling.


Golden State – Cleveland.
Each three-pointer from downtown
a globe in freefall.


The girls swept away
inside a black Escalade,
their faces looming.


Denver. Sandy Hook.
Charleston, and then Orlando.
More lives, more coffins.


And somewhere far off
a predator drone launches
its dark secret flight.


Mr. Khan

The Bengali at the corner liquor store
counting out change on my weekend six-pack,
and yet whose name I cannot actually recall
despite it sounding suspiciously similar

to the Pakistani doctor threading a catheter
up through my mother’s groin to the aorta,
carrying with it the replacement bovine valve
he deploys to save her, as the Hindu nurse
monitors vitals on a screen whose software
was long ago designed by a Kashmiri Muslim
now hoping, praying for his Catholic grandson
to return home stateside, maybe by the playoffs

so together they can watch the Yankees explode,
the crowd-careening frenzy and sirens wailing,
all of us at home ensconced like pashas,
the diehard faithful patiently keeping score.


Peter Filkins is a poet and translator.



Here I Am 

A lyric from the song cycle, Rooms of Light: The Life of Photographs, for music by Fred Hersch.


Here I am, making my grand tour
The summer after graduation.
What is this? Must be the Rome train station.
We never noticed we were poor.
Backpacks and low-rise jeans;
We never lived beyond our means.
(Back then there were no ATMs.)
Here we are,
My friends and me,
We’re napping on a bank of the Thames,
When love was free.


Here I am with that girl I met
On the trip to Brussels or Bruges.
(My God, her duffel bag is huge!)
What was her name? Yvonne? Yvette?
She ditched me; I’m forgetting why.
Oh yeah—when I slept with that Swedish guy.
His sleeping bag was full of fleas.
Here we are,
With our bread and cheese,
On a park bench in the Tuileries,
When love was free.


Here I am,
A woman in the middle
Of her life,
And her life
Is an endless riddle.
In all of Europe
I couldn’t stir up
A memory more un-
Likely and foreign
Than me at twenty-two.
I can’t help gazing
At her bright young eyes,
At her nice firm thighs.
Was I ever twenty-two?
Look at her skin, it’s amazing.
Can you be me?  Am I you?


Here I am at the Berlin Wall.
They tore it down, but it’s still there
In this picture, like my long dark hair.
But there’s a wall between her and me
That, like me, won’t be getting thinner.
Here we are,
Myself and me,
Thinking, “Ich bin ein Berliner,”
But who is free?


Here I am,
Looking at this kernel
Of myself,
And I feel
So strangely maternal.
Do I have a choice?
I can’t believe I’m hearing
My mother’s own voice
Giving me advice:


Did you pack your passport?
Sign your traveler’s checks?
Don’t talk to men,
They only want sex;
Make a ladylike appearance
And when was the last time you sent
A postcard to your parents?


Here it is.
Here’s my postcard to me.
I’ve become my own mother.
Never thought I’d be.
But here I am…
Here I am.


Mary Jo Salter’s eighth book of poems will be published by Knopf in 2017.  


OSIP MANDELSHTAM (translated by Philip Nikolayev)


In the week hours, the heart steals out of hand

Translated from the Russian by Philip Nikolayev.

In the wee hours, the heart steals out of hand
Forbidden silence. It lives on the quiet,
Getting away with mischievous fun, and—
Love it, don’t love it—there’s none other like it.

Love it, don’t love it, you grasp it, but miss it.
Is that not why at your post-midnight feast
You, like a foundling, prefer to keep silent,
The silver mouse still alive in your teeth?

[March 1931]


I’ll tell you with final bluntness, my angel: 

Translated from the Russian by Philip Nikolayev.


“Ma voix aigre et fausse…”
[My shrill and false voice…]
Paul Verlaine


I’ll tell you with final bluntness, my angel:
Is dandy-crazy sherry-brandy
Cock and bull.


Where ancient Greeks saw wholesome beauty,
From whence their fame,
I’ve been gaped at out of black holes by the
Ugliest shame.


And when the Trojans kidnapped Helen
Along the surf,
My mouth was slapped by Mediterranean
Briny froth.


My lips still wet with the sloppy kiss
Of the great empty,
I stare as my dire poverty reveals
Absence of plenty.


It’s all the same, this and all else,
And mighty fine.
Mary, sweet angel, sip your cocktails,
Down your wine,


While I insist with final bluntness,
My dearest: all
Is sherry-brandy, sheer craziness,
Stark cock and bull.


[March 2, 1931]


Preserve my speech forever…

Translated from the Russian by Philip Nikolayev.


Preserve my speech forever for its taste of disaster and smoke,
Dark pitch of collective endurance, and work’s conscientious oil tar.
Just so, the water in Novgorod wells must be deep, sweet and black
To reflect toward Christmas the seven twin fins of a star.


And for that, oh my father and friend and coarse helper, I promise –
I, unrecognized brother, misfit in the family of the people –
That I’ll build such mighty well shafts barbaric Tatars
Will dunk princes in them in a lowered pail.


So long as these frozen scaffolds eye me with love —
As in a garden game of gorodki  to the death –
I am ready to wear a shirt of iron my entire life
And find a helve in the woods for the Petrine axe.


[May 3, 1931]


Osip Mandelshtam (1891–1938) is the author of poetry; a surreal novella, The Egyptian Stamp; and On Poetry, a collection of critical essays. 

Philip Nikolayev has published several collections of poems, including Monkey Time and Letters from Aldenderry.

November 2016 Poetry Feature

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