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Eliot Khalil Wilson

The Bucket of No Sympathy


There was never money for pots or traps.
We'd meet the high tide with our poor magic,
tie turkey and chicken necks to kite string,
and watched them sink into brown-green water-
              like crescent moons drifting down and away.

Then we crawled sideways along the bulkhead
and waited all day like threadbare spiders
for lines to move, to ouiji ghostily, 
there where my brothers and I had tied them
to the bulkhead or the NO CRABBING signs.

The oldest, I would pull the crab line in,
a skill of privilege, the Clotho of Crabs,
a straight line needs a slow hand-over-hand,
                not so fast or slow to scare it away.
You learn to judge the crab's heft and hunger-
how to move as sudden-slowly as age--
and how to keep your shadow off the line.

You pull the line-a dim incandescence-
--the chalk-white carved and tiled underside-
and then the whole manifold jewel of it:
its carapace, a wet slate and moss agate,
its two claws, an opulent Parrish blue,
a blue like nothing else from that river
and tipped with tyrant and martyr red.

Most cling until they're half out of water.
You can see their eyestalks twitching and watch
their plated mouths open and close sideways 
like a professional shuffle of cards.

But the claws are what I remember best.
The locked stubborn clutch, the certain fury,
mocks me in each of my bloodless defeats.
What have I held past thoughts of letting go?

A claw might be wrenched out of the socket
and continue to bite in such a way
that years later the image still props up 
my memory of the word bellicose.

They would have to be ripped from the crab net.
They might bite through a tennis shoe before
being picked up between their paddle fins-
she-crab, doublers, and blue Jimmies alike-
and dropped into the bucket where they'd brood,
bubble morosely--biting each other.

It so suits them--their cardinalization-
their red bodies no better epitaph.
Still when dropping them into the boiling
water, a daisy chain of claws, it was 
too hard not to think there some softening--
such pinching, grabbing becoming a hold.
Harder still when they'd scratch the pot's wall
a so-quiet scratching, unbearable
without some prior benefit of pain.

               One of us would have to be bitten. 
(This one of many boy-blood rituals.)
There had to be a mark. We'd alternate. 
Poor or not, cruelty needed reason then-
              this, many years before the draft cards came,
              and before the Kepone killed the river.

A moment's eternity. Crouched before
The pail, my brothers witnessing the rite,
a left hand--that was each of our left hands-
the torpid-seeming bucket of livid crabs
a left thumb just over the bucket's rim 
then the splash, and a crab not letting go
then the panic, the shaking and cursing,
and a hand that bled and bruised over.
                Only then could we drain the stale water 
cut lines and walk home, the high tide leaving
--already gone--and our backs to the moon.


Blank Verse For The Forbidden Channel

Freud was right; we are such bad citizens.
Born febrile, remorselessly sexual,
and cut from that one principle we keep.

How he'd love these late-night half-blocked channels.
The vertical lines pinching, contracting
and pulling a "God, yes!" from the scramble, 
from this blooming kaleidoscope of skin.

That's you; that's what you are, a mirrored web, 
a body of hands, a small Hindu god.
Everything, everything, your reflection.

In this filtered field of objects and part 
objects appearing and disappearing,
even interference is erotic.

And singularity is taken off.
Manifests breasts of some silver co-ed 
warp and curve into two latent pillows.

The mouth of her Daguerrean roommate
throbs like a pulse then quickly vanishes. 
The white couch's arm bends into a thigh.

The in-and-out sound of a slow-motion
shower is that same sound of one hand cracking
an egg into the empty face of a pan.
Life consists of such naked suggestions.

Late at night on the forbidden channel
even darkness is not the final dark
just the floating dark of before you were born.

It's true. What's clear and certain leaves us cold.
No other channels. What could replace this?
And turning it off means you disappear.


Wedding Vows

...and I'd like to add that I will mind like a dog. I will wear whatever you like. I will go wingtip. No more white socks. A necktie stitched to my throat, turtlenecks in August. New York gray or black, only colors that dogs can see. I will know of squash, vermouth, and wedges. I will do all the grilling because I love it so. I will drive the wagon, man the bar, weed-whack compulsively. I will make money, the bed, never a to do.

I will build like an Egyptian, a two-mile pier complex, a five-story deck. I will listen like a bat, attend to the birth of sounds in the back of your throat. I will remember like an Indian elephant, recall requests made of me in a previous life. Your date of birth will be carved in the palm of my hand. I will make good. I will do right. I will sleep on the pegboard on the wall in the garage.

I'll have a tongue like a sperm whale, eyes like a harp seal, biceps like a fiddler crab. I will have gold coins, gold rings, stiff gold hair like shredded wheat. I will be golden at receptions, gold in your pocket, Paganini in your pants. Money will climb over the house like ivy. Excellent credit will be my white whale. I will always. I will everyday. I will nail the seat down. I will let you pretend I am your father.

I will be a priapic automatic teller machine, never down, never a usage fee, a stock prophet, a para-mutual seer, tractable, worshipful no matter what. I will always want to. I won't notice what you don't point out. I will entertain your friends, say how your love saved me. I will convince them. I will talk, really talk, to them. Deep meanings will be toothpicked and passed around.

I will need zero maintenance. I will be a utility or a railroad. There will be no breakdowns or disconnections. I will allow you lovers, Moroccan teenagers and Turkish men. I will adopt them. I will not cry. I will respond to grief by earning more. My sweat will smell like drug money, like white bread baking. I will be as clean as a Mormon, wholesome like Iowa. I will lead. I will be a star, a rock, like Rock Hudson.

BIO: Eliot Khalil Wilson is the author of The Saint of Letting Small Fish Go, published by Cleveland State Poetry Press. He has received a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Pushcart Prize, a Bush Foundation Fellowship, the Hill-Kohn Prize from the Academy of American Poets and the Robert Winner Prize from the Poetry Society of America. He currently teaches at the University of Colorado Denver.

An Interview with Eliot Khalil Wilson by Zachary Macholz and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Zachary Macholz & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: "The Bucket of No Sympathy," is a relatively long narrative poem. One of the ways it keeps the reader's attention is by transitioning from the first person to the second person and back to the first in a way that feels conversational, casual. How did you decide to use multiple perspectives within a single poem and how were you able to fuse them together so successfully?

Eliot Khalil Wilson: I have to mention at the start that these poems were written many years ago, so the exact details of their composition are a little fuzzy, but with this poem, I remember that I was interested in taking the reader crabbing with me and my brothers; second person, which is really a variety of first person, seemed natural. I wanted to tap into whatever immediacy a "How to" poem offered. Crabbing only gets but so exciting, so a poem about crabbing that was also bound to decasyllabic lines, had to have at least one rhetorical strategy working for it.

I have to add that designating a two and a half page poem as a relatively long poem is troubling to me. Perhaps it seemed longer to you because it was just not keeping your attention. Either that or we've fallen under the spell of some MFAideology that wants every poem to end neatly at one page. I think that is becoming something of a convention and it is pretty limiting.

ZM & AMK: Well, in the world of contemporary poetry that actually gets published, 2-3 pages is fairly long, but, yes, I certainly agree that this is unfortunate. Given all that, "The Bucket of No Sympathy" displays your mastery for storytelling. It succinctly captures and singularizes an experience the speaker presumably had many times. How did you decide what elements of the experience were essential versus aspects-or particular versions-of the experience you would leave out? What particular details or particular versions of this story were most difficult for you to eliminate from the final draft?

EKW: Memory decides for us what is essential and what details are well forgotten. I might have included buying the chicken necks from Bazemore's Grocery and leaving them to rot in the sun for maximum crab appeal, or just the smell of the Lafayette River, but those details somehow seemed like distractions. Who knows how memory edits, but the details I kept just seemed right to achieve the effect I was seeking.

ZM & AMK: "The Forbidden Channel" begins with a strong statement: "Freud was right; we are such bad citizens." Was that always the place the poem began, or did it originally have its genesis in some other line(s)? What are some of the unique challenges-compared to a poem that builds to something or arrives somewhere perhaps unexpectedly-of composing a poem that begins with such an explicit announcement? How much does the opening inform the ending, rhetorically speaking? 

EKW: That was always the beginning. If memory serves, I was reading some essays that were highly critical of Freud, so I guess I felt defensive for him and set about to demonstrate Freudian concepts were beyond refutation. This is a fairly standard type of poem. When Sidney was writing to distinguish poetry from philosophy and history he wrote about how the poet brings together precept and example. This is your standard precept and example poem. Dickinson loved this strategy too. The general statement that "we are all such bad citizens" encounters the complement in a concrete illustration. So I had the first lines in my head for a few days and walked around looking for examples of our bad, libido-driven natures. They were not hard to find.

ZM & AMK: "The Forbidden Channel" not only opens, but also closes, with what feel like strong philosophical statements- including referencing Freud- and these statements hinge on the poem's central metaphor- half-scrambled, late-night cable pornography. Which came first, the desire to express a particular Freudian philosophy or the desire to write a poem about "the forbidden channel" itself? How important to the poem's success is the distance or tension between the two?

EKW: The idea that subsurface libidinal impulses are not just always present, but constitutive of the human consciousness was my objective, but that implies the poem had some sort of linear structure. Few poems ever do. I struggled like always to find the way out and finally did.

ZM & AMK: "Wedding Vows" has something of a sideways entrance: it picks up mid-sentence in the middle of the speaker delivering his wedding vows. Why did you decide that this would be the way the reader entered the poem?

EKW: Wedding Vows is a rant. Rants and invectives are at least as old as Cicero and the Roman Republic and since I was already reaching for the toga, I thought why not begin in medias res.

ZM & AMK: Given that "Wedding Vows" is something of a list, how did you decide on the order or progression of the items in the list?

EKW: It is a list like all my rants and organized (if it is organized) with the most outrageous details coming at the end of each paragraph.

ZM & AMK: I often find that prose poems could just as easily be verse poems, that they almost seem to have invisible lines within them. Why abandon the line break in this poem in particular? What is it about this poem that you feel works best in prose? 

EKW: Prose poems could just as easily be made into verse poems but only in the sense that broom handles could just as easily be baseball bats and golf clubs. The problem is not that they would not work, but that they would not necessarily be any good. A prose poem is not a poem, after all, even if poets write them. That's because prose involves different reading codes than poetry. Prose has a rhythm of continuity as opposed to the rhythm of poetry which, for the most part, has a rhythm of association. This rant or invective should have the effect of a cathartic outpouring of emotion-unchecked and eruptive. When a Shakespearean character starts in on a rant, for example, the text immediately shifts from verse to prose because that's the most appropriate form for it. When one is ranting, who has time for line breaks and layers of nuance? So line breaks never occurred to me but I'm flattered by the idea that this prose has that much poetic potential. 

ZM & AMK: In a collection of typical, verse poems, does a prose poem like "Wedding Vows" have to work harder to seem "poetic" or do you think prose within a collection of poetry is a welcome shift? 

EKW: There is no real way for me to know how much of a welcome shift this prose piece would be from my typical poems, but I was trying for a change of pace. Plus these prose rants are super popular. Lots of people actually dislike poetry, but no one I know hates paragraphs.

A "Mini-Review" of Eliot Khalil Wilson's Featured Poems by Contributing-Editor Aaron Bauer

In the three poems we are featuring this week, we see the usual marks of fine poetry: a lyrical and engaging tonality, vivid imagery, an established tradition that Wilson responds to and innovates. What I enjoy most in these three poems, however, are the non sequiturs, the lines, the stanzas that seem out-of-place with the rest of the poem, the sections that allow us alternative take on the poems' subjects. Just when I thought I was getting a good handle on what an Eliot Khalil Wilson poem was doing, Wilson would suddenly switch gears. At its most powerful, Wilson is able to use the non sequitur to disrupt the form, sound, and logic of the poem; the result is a much more complex and enjoyable work.

I have to admit that my first reading of "The Bucket of No Sympathy" was slightly tainted by having read David Foster Wallace's "Consider the Lobster," wherein the common practice of boiling crustaceans alive receives a hideous description. Thankfully, in this poem, we have a very different take on the act: stanza after stanza of gorgeous description that detail a group of young boys crab fishing, such as we can see in a depiction of a crab that was caught:

           its two claws, an opulent Parrish blue,
           a blue like nothing else from that river,
           and tipped with tyrant and martyr red.

The contrasting blue and red-loaded with symbolic meaning and a pun on "Parrish blue" that injects even more religious connections into the poem-offer up a sense of wonder the boys share in the act of catching and devouring the crabs.

However, near the end of the poem, Wilson throws the reader a curve ball:

                       One of us would have to be bitten.
           (This one of many boy-blood rituals).
           There had to be a mark. We'd alternate.
           poor or not, cruelty needed reason then-
                       this, many years before the draft cards came,
                       and before the Kepone killed the river.

Visually, we can see this stanza stands out from the rest of the poem because of the three indented lines. Whereas most of the poem sticks to the left margin, this stanza seems to want to jump off of it. Also, compared to the heavy visuals in this poem, this stanza seems relatively desaturated-the only suggestion of color being possibly a red suggested in the "boy-blood rituals."

It is the last two lines of this stanza (the only two consecutively indented lines in the poem) that catches us in the throat. We are hurled out of the here and now, into a future time and place where the reasoned cruelty of boys is an almost pious action compared to the brutality of forced participation in war and the indifference of industry to human and environmental well-being. In a world that allows people to be killed senselessly and corporations to decimate entire populations ecosystems for no reason other than having a convenient dumping ground for industrial waste, poor boys boiling crabs alive for food is as spiritual an act as any religious service I could imagine.

Likewise, in "The Forbidden Channel," an act-a youth watching scrambled pornography-that might result in teens around the world having television privileges revoked takes on the sacredness of a spiritual practice. A communion of body and mind exists between the watcher and the "blooming kaleidoscope of skin" on the television wherein "everything" is the watcher's "reflection" and all "singularity is taken off."

However, again near the end of the poem, we are thrust out of the experience of the poem and given a transcendent statement: "Life consists of such naked suggestions." Beforehand, life itself was collapsing into this individual experience-the division between the Other of the scrambled porn stars was absorbed into the consciousness of the self. However, in this simple, one-line sentence, the inverse of that sentiment is stated; now we are asked to look at this experience representative of all other experiences-running into an ex at the grocery store or, of course, reading a good poem-rather than the reductionist viewpoint of all other experiences folding into this one. The distance this line provides from the subject and narrative of the poem provides readers a space for introspection.

"Wedding Vows" is somewhat of a non sequitur in itself, given it is the only prose poem of the three. In the poem we see the pacing and tone of a traditional wedding ceremony spun on its head. The anaphoric "I will" provides some grounding as the poem explores some exaggerated-but perhaps not so exaggerated as the traditional vows themselves: duties a husband pledges to perform for his soon-to-be wife.

Throughout the poem, we see the themes of unquestioning fidelity, financial support, and sycophantic praise over and over. Within each of these impossibly grand promises though, Wilson throws in a line or two that reveal the grain of truth behind each hyperbolic promis. For example, in the first stanza, the soon-to-be husband humbles himself like a dog first repeatedly: ". . . and I'd like to add that I will mind like a dog," and his clothes will be "New York gray or black" because those are "the only colors a dog can see."

This dehumanization on the part of the speaker seems complete within the stanza, except for the one line, "I will do all the grilling because I love it so." This line should rub an astute the wrong way. First, we are shedding the metaphor (and the underlying sentiment) of husband as dog (although a golden lab on his hind legs in front of a grill grasping a spatula would make a great grilling apron), and, second, this is a pledge motivated not by a ceaseless desire to please the bride's whims and fancies but, rather, because the speaker enjoys the responsibility. This admittance of pleasure-and not a masochistic pleasure, but a genuine enjoyment-imparts a certain degree of sincerity to the speaker. The focus of the traditional wedding vows is on pledges for future commitments, and those vows minimize the fulfillment a groom or bride might gain by becoming a husband and wife. This statement and the other seemingly out-of-place ones throughout the poem reveal the motivations of the speaker, why he is more than willing to make these promises.

Wilson's use of non sequiturs invites readers to engage with the experience of reading the poem in a way few poets employ. I would love to spend a bit more time on some of the other aspects of these poems' craft, but as this is a "mini-review," brevity and focus are essential. Wilson's ability to reveal new and different doorways into his poems as he offers alternate perspectives is a skill any contemporary poet could benefit from examining. 

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