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poemoftheweek poem of the week


Kara Candito 


A Short Genealogy of Power Tools

There was this shed behind the pre-fab house 
          where I straddled a boy named Boomer 
on his father’s John Deere. Into the shaved back 
of his head, I dug my hands to pretend they were 
                      power tools; my hands blasting 
his body open, so I could crawl inside and make it mine. 

But afterward, when the mulch smelled feral 
           and the wheelbarrow looked like an exhausted animal,
and I had to pee, there was just this total annoyance 
with being back in my body, with being a person 
                     of dumb, particular needs, suddenly 
waving hello to his mother, who called 
           the bathroom a powder room, which was a sad 
suburban lie that cut me anyway.
And the soap was sharp and the shower curtain 
was sharp and I was wearing a white sweatshirt. 
                        And the face in the mirror was the worst 

kind of moralist. It said: You cannot invent a thing 
           with wires and blades and call it a coronation. 
I want to tell you this without saying that my mother’s car
was already in the driveway; that shoulder-pads 
                     and brass buttons made her look like a man; 
that when she squinted and said, Stop being so goddamn sullen, 
                     she was one. And breathing became 
this nameless, miraculous crime.

Creation Myth, 1979 (Reappropriated)

           Apprentice of the deadpan entrance—born on Labor Day, 
two weeks late, plopped onto the lap of a heat wave; the doctor 
           dragged off the tenth hole; your father sobbing 
in the waiting room, cigars stillborn in the box. The firstborn should be a son. 
           9 ½ months earlier, his youngest brother, stranded 
on I-95 in a blizzard, shelled his last pistachio, unfastened his seatbelt 
           and sank into the giddy, dreamless sleep of a toddler—

           his last thought an abandoned mineshaft where mussel shell fossils 
and cypress trees brand the blasted walls. At the same moment
           in a duplex in Quincy, the oblivious seams of your 
parents’ sighs as they rolled back and forth in front of the fire 
          with “A Case of You” blaring on the battery-powered radio, 
clothes crammed inside a military-issue sleeping bag; 

           the roof already buckling beneath snow and ice. 
          White waves breaking over the wall at Nantasket, white waves 
of sex and sleep, all that is numb and holy. Only a child conceived 
          in a killing blizzard could love the jagged elegies of frost 
on the highway, could watch the same clip of a senator shooting himself 
          in the mouth over and over, mesmerized by the alchemy 
of objects—the state seal on the wall, an organ donor card facedown 
          on the podium, the camera panning in on the exit wound. 

          You were meant for that immaculate spectacle, 
a halo of blood and tissue. Nothing still, nothing whole. 
          Past and future pinned there, like a dentist’s chair 
where the hygienist administers nitrous like a drunken sergeant—
          the needle throbbing through the gum, the needle 
withdrawn. Laughing when it feels like half your face is gone.



Monologue During a Blackout 

            What about a zebra?—suppose 
you had to come back as a zebra, 
            knowing you’d spend your life 
                                 trampling the savannah with the desperation 
            of an Open During Construction sign?

            Once, stepping off a plane 
onto the blacktop of an ancient city 
            where my father was born, 
                                  I smelled burning garbage and understood 
            anything can happen. Often,     

            it doesn’t. The rain stops. We are not 
washed away.  I do not
           glide down five black flights 
                                  to greet the electric truck. But when 
           the air conditioner aches on again, how 
blunt, how exquisite. No, I don’t 
           want to be famous. Yes, the radio—
                                  a man with the voice of a woman sings 
           about a woman. The sky, 

           you say, looks darker now. Would you 
call white a bright color? Would you 
           like Bach better through headphones?—
                                   I mean the seismic privacy of tiny, angry 
           gods beating your middle ear. I mean 

           to make you dizzy. Here,
run your thumb along my chin 
           while two workers shimmy down 
                                   a high voltage poll and everything 
           that can pass between two people—
pleasure, shock, surveillance—
           the static of it—private or public—draws shut
                                   like curtains across a first class cabin. 
           What I thought in the dark,
forget it. A group of zebras is called 
            a harem. We call them black. 
                                   We call them white.


        -from Spectator, selected by Guest Editor Mark J. Brewin

BIO: Kara Candito is the author of Spectator (University of Utah Press, 2014), winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize, and Taste of Cherry (University of Nebraska Press, 2009), winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. Her work has been published in Blackbird, AGNI, The Kenyon Review, jubilat, Drunken Boat, Forklift Ohio, The Rumpus, Indiana Review, Best New Poets 2007, and elsewhere. Candito is the winner of a Pushcart Prize and the recipient of scholarships and awards from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Council for Wisconsin Writers, the Vermont Studio Center, the MacDowell Colony, and the Santa Fe Arts Institute. She is a co-curator of the Monsters of Poetry reading series, a creative writing professor at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville, and the  co-director of  Membership for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. She lives in Madison, WI, where she reads, writes, eats spicy food, drinks mezcal, and dreams of living in the tropics.

An Interview with Kara Candito by Aaron Bauer

Aaron Bauer: “A Short Genealogy of Power Tools” and “Monologue During a Blackout” are great titles. They set a context for the poem to unfold and are intriguing in and of themselves. At what point in the writing process do you usually come up with the “final” title for your poems? What duties do you think a poem’s title should perform?

Kara Candito: Thanks! I take immense pleasure in titles. Sometimes, a title arrives serendipitously and early on in the writing process. In the case of “A Short Genealogy of Power Tools,” I was reading Foucault and thought it would be fun to apply his concept of genealogy to the finite, often clichéd and bodily territory of early sexual experience. Writing another poem from Spectator, “A Genealogy of the Father,” I found myself taking a similar approach to a larger subject, and decided that title would be a fitting echo within the manuscript. In most cases, titles elude me for a while. They arrive when I’m reworking a poem, at that exact moment when it feels like I’ve finally got my finger on its tiny pulse. As for a theory of titles, I’m a disciple of René Magritte, whose titles and paintings themselves invite intuitive associations without pinning down meaning or establishing a singular expectation. In one of his letters, Magritte wrote of Hegel’s Holiday (1958) that he wanted to paint a glass of water with genius. The inclusion of Hegel in the title establishes a playful, philosophical resonance that invites the viewer’s engagement.

AB: I am fascinated by the way you use space on the page. How do you feel this visual tool transfers to the way we hear one of your poems when it is performed?

KC: Writing is a very physical act for me. White space and the shape of a poem on the page are almost as important as the words themselves. Because I’m drawn to jagged, unstable experiences and voices, I seek out forms that enact content and create necessarily elaborate, sometimes rigid containers for all of the weirdness. Although I almost always have a sense of line length when I begin writing a poem, the stanzaic patterns and indentations usually unfold later, as I start to consider sound and momentum. For instance, the forms of “Monologue during a Blackout” and “A Short Genealogy of Power Tools” evolved to emphasize the rhythm of distraction and the subversion of narrative expectation. 

AB: One specific use I noticed with your line indentation is that it often standardizes somewhat where the lines end on the page—even if the lines themselves are different lengths. Such as here:


There was this shed behind the pre-fab house 
         where I straddled a boy named Boomer 
on his father’s John Deere. Into the shaved back 
of his head, I dug my hands to pretend they were 
                       power tools; my hands blasting 
his body open, so I could crawl inside and make it mine. 


What effects does this “standardization” have on the poems for you as you read and interpret them? 

KC: In the process of shaping “A Short Genealogy of Power Tools,” I treated the left-hand margin as malleable and the right-hand margin as a semi-static endpoint in order to write into the voice’s emerging rhythm. I see those gaps in the left-hand margin as moments where the speaker grapples with self-doubt and the inconsistencies between memory and its performance.

AB: Even without a formal structure guiding these poems, there are certain formal consistencies within each of them. How do you decide upon the form a poem will take? Does the poem find it shape during your initial writing process or is that something that you impose later on when revising? How does this process impact the relationship between form and content in your poetry? 

KC: The standardized, but irregular forms of all three poems are first and foremost architectural. Seen from outside, they generate certain visual affects. My hope is for the reader to experience them from the inside as well, both physically and cognitively, like someone walking through a city or building for the first time, attuned to stops and turns. When I read these poems aloud, I emphasize the micro-pauses at the beginning of each indented line and treat lineation and formal arrangement as tools for pacing. In terms of influence, I’m drawn to what Alice Fulton does with non-traditional lineation and the relationship between affect and the visual rendering of poems on the page.

AB: The closing lines of “Monologue During a Blackout” read:

A group of zebras is called 
           a harem. We call them black. 
                                  We call them white. 


Likewise in “A Short Genealogy of Power Tools,” you write: “the bathroom a powder room.” What is the power in naming a thing? How does a name for a thing affect our relationship to it and/or our understanding of it?

KC: I think the act of naming is both validating and violating. Calling someone or something by a name acknowledges her/his/its subjectivity and also subjects that person or thing to the violence of being pinned down to a particular label. When I teach in China for a program affiliated with my current university, I call students by invented English names because their real names are unpronounceable to me. At first, this felt distancing and depersonalizing. Eventually, I came to appreciate these “stage names” as conducive to the performance of their English language selves. One student chose to call herself Crystal because she loved crystals. Another chose Tayloras an homage to Taylor Swift. 

Once, during a discussion of Robert Hass’ “Meditation at Lagunitas,” a student confessed that she first thought “blackberry” was a reference to the wireless handheld device and not the berry. As a response to the gradual slippage of language, her “misreading” got at the essence of Hass’ poem for me—that desire to name a thing or a memory in order to keep it close forever, and the impossibility of that desire because language, like memory, is always slipping away from us. 

In “Monologue during a Blackout,” the speaker interrogates the grey spaces between black and white truths. She flails to catalogue her insights for an intimate you until the lights come on again and bleach out all hope of deeper connection. As one of the poem’s tropes, a zebra can accurately be referred to as black or white, but it is of course both. Plurality is discomfiting because it insists upon the flexibility and openness of names and categories.

In the messy after-space of the sex act, the speaker of “A Short Genealogy of Power Tools” attends to the needs of her body, which is, indelibly, a woman’s body. The mother of the guy she’s just had sex with calls the bathroom a “powder room,” as if to affix some dignity to the space where the basest bodily functions take place. Of course, no one powders her nose in a powder room anymore (unless powder is a euphemistic drug reference), so this renaming reasserts the instability of names that the speaker seeks out in the poem’s opening. All is not lost, although her very Angela Chase resistance to powder room (“a sad, suburban lie”) suggests that she’s already internalized the violence of naming and gendering to such an extent that she’s cynical about the transformative powers of language. 

Throughout Spectator and the newer poems I’ve been writing, there’s a preoccupation with the cultural and social relativity of naming, and also a recognition of the ways in which we’re defined and subjected by the names and categories that are ascribed to us. 

AB: In these poems, we certainly see subversions of expectations—especially in regards to gender and sex—as prominent themes. In “Creation Myth, 1979 (Reappropriated),” we see a father disappointed at the birth of his daughter (the line “cigars stillborn in the box” is particularly haunting). How do gender roles or ideas about gender construction inform you and your writing process? How do gender roles impact the speakers of your poems? 

KC: Until a few years ago, I believed in gender as a performance (Judith Butler, etc), as if every morning I put on a WOMAN cape before I left the house. Of course, gender is a spectrum and gender roles are social constructs that we internalize early on. Yet, identity categories—gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, etc—shape our experiences of the world in profound ways. In middle school, I was sexually harassed for having a woman’s body. I think the consciousnesses of women and other marginalized groups are often shaped by experiences of otherness and injury. Viewing themselves through the eyes of a culture that privileges certain qualities, like masculinity, whiteness and heterosexuality, they come to understand themselves as Other. My poems can’t and perhaps don’t want to banish that out-of-body awareness, which is essential to my project as a writer and human being. Whether traditional gender roles and sexual identities are being repeated or subverted, they’re present in everything I write. 

I also believe that empathy is instrumental to art, and that empathy entails the ethical imagination of other subjectivities. For example, the Lorca persona poems in Spectator speak to themes that are present throughout the book—erotic love, displacement, social regulation, violence, and death—from new angles enabled by the persona’s gender and historical moment. Wearing the mask of one of my favorite dead poets, I made some discoveries that would have eluded a loosely autobiographical “I.” Of course, there are bad, under-imagined persona poems, and perhaps the Lorca poems fit into this category. But I believe that imagination shouldn’t and doesn’t end at the borders of the self.

Returning to gender, I spoke at a recent residency with another female poet about some of the frustrations and challenges of writing while being a woman. She said that when her poems deal with gender in overt ways, her workshop peers classify or dismiss them as “women’s writing.” When she writes more cerebral poems that don’t deal with gendered experience, she’s accused of concealing her gender, or writing in drag. Her story, which isn’t unique, says a lot about the relationship between gender, power, and permission (to speak, write, or act). As a female poet and person, I’m drawn out of necessity to the intersections between gender and power.

AB: All three of the poems we are featuring are in first person. Because of the shadow of Confessionalism, readers are often tempted—if not outright taught—to read the “I” in poetry as autobiographical. Do you make any distinctions in your own writing about the difference between a persona poem and a Confessionalist one? How do these two modes of writing inform one another if your work?

KC: I see every “I” in my poems as a persona, although some are closer to my autobiographical self than others. In the spirit of Confessionalism, I’m drawn to charged, sometimes intimate and uncomfortable subjects, but my speakers are always imagined and performed. In fact, I’ve found that immediacy and urgency are best achieved when I deviate from the script of the real. I’m a big admirer of the persona poem form’s attention to context, compression and linguistic performance, and I often exploit these three elements in my work. My writing process braids elements of autobiography, history and other literary and non-literary texts until patterns and rhythms emerge.  

In the creative writing workshops I teach, speaker is a sacred word and you, as in “the I in this poem who is also the you sitting next to me,” is blasphemy. Regardless of whether or not a poem is purely autobiographical, it exists independently from the writer and is the product of revision and artifice, as well as emotion and authorial intent. In workshops, I’ve found that the conversations enabled by this distinction can mean the difference between poetry and non-transformative sharing. 

AB: T. S. Eliot wrote, “The emotion of art is impersonal.” Do you agree with him or do you think that contemporary poetry has evolved a new relationship between emotion and art? What role(s) do you feel the personal plays in your poetry and in Contemporary poetry in general?

KC: I do and don’t agree with Eliot. To be fair, I just realized that I echoed him pretty much verbatim in my above response about braiding the personal and the impersonal (I even give a little nod to tradition) in order to achieve immediacy in my poems. The personal is crucial to my poetry, but explorations of the connections between the personal, social, and historical are what make a poem a poem for me. That is, I’m with Eliot when he rails against Wordsworth’s sappy, solipsistic definition of poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling,” but I think he goes too far when he champions the extinguishment of personality. Lately, I’ve been reading contemporary Latin American and American poetry that might be considered political, and I think that much of the subversive and revelatory power of this poetry stems from the friction between an articulated private self and social and cultural systems of power. I’m thinking here of Eduardo Milán, Rachel Zucker, Tracy K Smith, Rocío Cerón, Sandra Simonds,  Cate Marvin, Tarfia Faizullah, Carmen Gimenez-Smith, Joshua Clover, Carl Adamshick, Kyle McCord, Cathy Park Hong, Terrance Hayes, and others. 

AB: What is your favorite book of poems at the moment? What did you most enjoy of this work?

KC: This is a tough question for me in August, as I’ve had two months to read and write poetry. Last week, I received Carl Adamshick’s second collection, Saint Friend. So far, I’m loving what he does with the long poem form.

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