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poemoftheweek poem of the week


Rick Barot

Two Video Installations

The elephant in the white room
is told to play dead, and she falls


to the gray floor, rocking a little
before going completely still,


only to wake again, rocking again 
a few times to find momentum


and push herself onto a splayed
position on the floor, her legs


spread like a skirt, and then
the methodical lifting of each leg


so that each gains its footing,
each lifting her a little until she is


fully up, wholly still once more
until some voice in the room


tells her to die again, all of her
wrinkled bulk made blank canvas,


wet stone for an eye, the camera
moving around her as though


she were the center of a carousel
around which the other animals


galloped and leapt up and brayed.
On another screen, one man's


rapture of grief is told in a face
gone blurry as paint sliding


down a wall, a woman's crying is
an open mouth black with depth,


a woman prays, her hands knotted
into white roots, while another


man standing behind the others
cannot decide whether a howl or


a laugh is what's needed in this
moment after they have been told


to think the worst thing they can
remember, the moment then slowed


to sixteen minutes of quiet film, 
so that even the thoughtless blink


of an eye takes a few minutes
to satisfy itself, the pixels changing


like cells under a lens, the last
woman an opera of disbelief about


what has come to pass for them
in the dim room, her face a metal


of rage, the voice somewhere
demanding every form of sorrow


from them, and, having been asked,
this is how they had to answer.


A story gets told, begins to hold fast,
and like rain brings back a thing more


than just itself, one more small noise
appearing in the laundromat, small bird


or cell-phone ring suddenly chirping,
one more office for the eye and ear


to momentarily inhabit, the work of my
nearness that much more urgent, now


there is this story I can tell you about,
now I have you listening, the way


the radiator has kept us listening all of
these nights, the din of its dreaming


the noise of picks and axes deep inside
a mine, the steam in its pipes forcing


a drowsiness on the miners, listening
for some other dream it could have:


say, that two people are quiet within
the cold light of an all-night laundromat,


the only thing open this late, this dark,
one of them telling a story of the dead


president traveling days past the big
and small towns, his train a vivid grief


of flowers thrown by the townspeople
beside the tracks, one telling this


story while the other only half listens,
until the story gets to the part about


the summertime heat, the body traveling
for days, the flowers a necessary cover


for the smell the body is giving out,
there is this other way that flowers can


mean something, not just mourning, not
just beauty, but a necessity that keeps us


awake through the story, the radiator's
other dream, half of their clothes making


a psychedelic circle of colors spinning
in the glass of a dryer, the white clothes


spinning in another dryer, like a magnolia
opening and destroying itself over and


over, the image a nearness, my being
near, my being afraid that this is already


the past I will remember in the future,
this is the meat that the mind's mandibles


get to have, dying, because death gets
to have all it wants: say, the doctor's


funhouse reflection in the patent-leather 
shoe of the dead president, the boy who


finally understands that the secret to
getting hit is knowing that you will be hit,


the flight attendant mis-speaking to us
as the plane glided toward the starry field


that we would be in the ground shortly,
and though I laughed at that, I knew


I would find the right word for you, place
it into her mouth, the flower of it in her


mouth, I would correct the world in this
manner, because you are listening, it is


raining outside the laundromat, the driest
part of your body is the small of your back. 



It is something to be thus saved,
a point on which the landscape
comes to a deep rest.

The ore of a death held
frozen, there in the gull so far

inland, embedded in the ice


at the river's edge. Its bulk
in the thick gloss is darker
than the ice, shoe-shaped,


only the spoon-curved head 
telling you what it is, one eye
open though no longer sustaining.


The feet are ribbed, like sails
tight on a mast. And a thing,
you remember, obliges by lying


down, its back to sky. How long
it has been like this, this little
a question to the world.


How small of a happening, though
it happened because
there is witness of it. The width


of water utterly silent,
the distance a pencil-smudge
of Chinese hills. First its fall,


then immersion, every air discovered
out of each quill,
its feathers matted with grit.


The day is a white octave, breathing
its snow, and the bird
delicate, like a bone inside the ear.

         -from Want, Sarabande Books (2008), selected by Guest Editor Ocean Vuong


BIO: Rick Barot was born in the Philippines and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area.  He has published three volumes of poetry: The Darker Fall (2002), Want (2008), which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and won the 2009 Grub Street Book Prize, and Chord (2015), all published by Sarabande Books.  Chord received the UNT Rilke Prize, the PEN Open Book Award, and the Publishing Triangle’s Thom Gunn Award.  It was also a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize.  His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Poetry, The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and two editions of the Best American Poetry series.  He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Artist Trust of Washington, the Civitella Ranieri, and Stanford University, where he was a Wallace E. Stegner Fellow and a Jones Lecturer.  He lives in Tacoma, Washington and directs The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Pacific Lutheran University.  He is also the poetry editor for New England Review.


PROMPT: Rick Barot's "Magnolia," consists of a single sentence, divided into couplets, taking as its inspiration a seemingly simple setting: a laundromat. However, by partnering this innocuous location with vivid imaginative leaps, laundry in a dryer becomes a "magnolia / opening and destroying itself over and // over." Your challenge this week, is to write your own poem of a single sentence, grounding it in a specific place--a local dive bar, your home, or maybe a workplace--and see what develops when you pair a stable setting with an expansive sentence. -Amie Whittemore

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