Poetry Feature: Festival of American Poets, Part Two

The Common brings you a special two-part series to celebrate the Pioneer Valley Poetry Productions Festival of Major American Poets, which was held at Amherst College’s Fayerweather Hall on October 13 and 14.

Part Two – featuring poems by Michael Heller and Cole Swensen.



High Basin

(after Odes suivies de Thibet by Victor Segalen)

To collect myself there in the mountain’s cut: to bathe in the self’s pool:

all its stories-of myself, to myself—gathered, and led into runnels,

to flow from on high to low, flux without root or rootedness,

useless to name, useless except to surrender and admit

the shame of wanting the unknowable, incessantly casting and retrieving the bait

of the ego, as though before a watershed teeming with life.

The gods must be fond of laughing.  Your warriorship enclosed between

a helmet of sky overhead and the rock’s amphitheater, armor hard from its hollowing,

plaything of the self’s interior winds.

But to heal again I turn to your example Tibet, rich with adventures.

Can I imitate your sacred lake, Yam dok-Tso, outlet to the West?

Doubled lake—lake—twice set in its liquid nomination, word/thing

of mind, only mind, distilled as though a secondary water.

Can I also, by hyperbole and sequence, journey there?

Transport from level to level,

to move with high compassion and swelling O calculator

to be—to the ninth power, for all beings,

and almost to the centuple fold, to the crescent (growing) number,

without denial.

And also following toward infinity.


Tower Views

To begin with landscape, to chart neighborhood,
hand-in-hand, to see on each walk what’s already been seen.

Near Gramercy Park, MONY’s tower rises, slim, rectangular.
Just north, New York Life, a gold-leafed pyramid, splendiferous

in its surety, outshines the Empire State’s clichéd soar—tonight
lit blood red, bordered by paler bands.  Our vernacular, urbanity

plus man-made sorrow, as with Tu Fu’s Ch’ang-an “a chessboard”
inscribing “a hundred years of saddest news.”  Not quite sure

what our walks articulate, but here, before the park’s locked gates,
views that rival constellations or mist-shrouded peaks seep like a star’s

imprint into human time, some old rejoicing in their repeats, possibly
because traffic varies sound or snow crystals embed a difference,

as does spring air, alive with night jasmine.  A romance, a vertigo,
though we are looking up, searching for a breviary, for an order

of language that makes sense.  We are hand-in-hand, feeling robust,
yet sensing there’s fragility to it all, that what can be abolished stands

to be abolished, as on some nights we wander over to Sixth to look
downtown—Le Tour Abolie—say bombers or circumstance did it.

This comes as memory, as laminates of sound to Babel’s ziggurat, bound
to tower, to level upon level, variant and echo, until in a word we find

a reparation that seems to undo time, to undo death, as on these walks.


Poems from Dianoia (Nightboat Books, 2016)


Michael Heller has published over twenty-five volumes of poetry, essays, memoir, and fiction. His most recent books are Dianoia, a new collection of poems, and Dans le signe, translations of his poetry in French.  The libretto/poem for Constellations of Waking, a work based on the life of Walter Benjamin, is forthcoming in 2018. Among his many awards and honors are the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Prize, a New York Foundation on the Arts Fellowship, the National Endowment for the Humanities Poet/Scholar Award and the Fund for Poetry. A collection of essays on his work, The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller: Nomad Memory, was published in 2015.




Agnes Varda: Here and There 1

Something opens in space that one can hold.
Begin with a stair
then a door
Landscape of a window
just beyond the door
Landscape of the radiator
just below the window
and now the ghosts are children
in front of everything green.

Landscape of a park
means over there in hope
the panes repeat in light
in stains across the floor.

Now its panes divide
the tree within that light
breaking in.

Landscape that opened
a window in a wall
Landscape of feathers
that come and go across the woman, old.

The feathers are the snow you held for years until it shut.


Agnes Varda: Here and There 2

Landscape: Two doves
are sitting on her chest
in the sun, a third
tucked into the crook of her arm.

Landscape of yellow
once also sun, which has now

been forgotten, makes us forget
what was
that lovely fading something loved
for which
another day was made.


Agnes Varda: Here and There 3

Landscape abandoned in a garden—
empty shoes
two purple and
two green. Fake wings. In the shadow
of a distant season
in which green reigns.

Landscape in a greenhouse
with trees passing quickly.
Landscape of trees
drawn onto linen. Landscape stark
in ink.

Landscape in the breeze of a tree
of an orchid that comes back to life.

Landscape of orchid on table
of woman coming forward
of the careful placement.
The orchid is placed on the table
and then we walk away.


Cole Swensen is the author of 17 collections of poetry, most recently On Walking On (Nightboat Books, 2017) and a chapbook, Gave (Omnidawn, 2017). A former Guggenheim Fellow, she has won the National Poetry Series, the Iowa Poetry Prize, and the SF Poetry Center Book Award. She co-edited the 2009 Norton Anthology American Hybrid and is the founding editor of La Presse, a small press dedicated to translation. A translator herself, she has won the PEN USA Award in translation and has translated over 20 volumes of poetry, prose, and art criticism. 


Poetry Feature: Festival of American Poets, Part Two

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