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Timothy Liu


The Other Language 

Nothing on the pages
can articulate what we did
not trust. Last night, a dog
with your face spoke to me.
My eyes were closed,
the heavy balls of dreams
sliding back and forth
in their separate cells
like synchronized swimmers,
each tacit movement a gift
we did not share, that dog
talking in a language
that does not belong to us.




I sit in the square, listening
to the beggar's cup filling
with gold teeth. A woman kneels
at the curb, cleaning a virgin
she has kissed into brownness
while her children dig up forks
from a window box.
                             All morning,
not a bird has landed near
the seeds I have scattered
on these stones. Only laughter
in the distance where young men
walking in threes vanish behind
an olive grove.
                      A flutter of wings
and the world is finished.


Vox Angelica

I sing to a breeze that runs through the rafters.
A woman skins a snake. She turns
but not enough for me to see her face.
In the sink, the peelings have begun to pile up
in a mound the color of dirt.
She hears the oil hissing on its own
and thinks of throwing something in-
ginger, garlic, chopped rings of green onion-
but doesn't, lets the oil brown
until the smoke rises
and fills the dark corners of the kitchen.
The birds tonight are louder than ever
perched beside a river of flying fish.


The sweat on her feverish face
dissipates, flying upward
to God as she clings to the shoulders 
of death, her feet touching
neither heaven nor earth.
They say death has a nobility of its own
but all she could hear was weeping-
not entirely a human sound
but a sound as if made by a machine
that played again and again
like a tape she could not erase.
She tried to explain the sadness,
the leaves changing to a color
she could no longer describe.


The hour of the Bible is dead.
Neither dirt nor flowers
can keep her body warm enough.
Driving from the service,
I keep my hands on the wheel
as if steadying myself
the way silence holds each word in place.
I imagine lying down next to her
as earth is sprinkled over our eyes,
our mouths filling with dirt.


The angels are singing
in the shadows of the house,
night a black cat sitting on my chest,
claws extended toward my face,
the scar on my body
a witness to that place where the world
had once been opened, muscle
and blood. How a vision
pinned me down until my scream
reached two worlds
on both sides of the glass.
Everything happened twice
in the cat's eyes,
the slow engine of happiness
seducing me back to sleep.


The words I speak I cannot revise.
All art is an afterthought,
an attempt to interpret a dream
that by its nature is perfected,
the bed unmade, and me almost late
to my next appointment where more of me
must get cut out. The horror
of getting beyond the skin,
the small white aberration that I dreamed
would not grow back, not enlarge
to fill my entire conscious body.
I think of how the mystics read
by the light of their own bodies.
What a world of darkness that must have been
to read by the flaming hearts
that turn into heaps of ash on the altar,
how everything in the end is made
equal by the wind. 



      -from Vox Angelica, selected by Guest Editor Ocean Vuong

PROMPT: Surrealism is "a 20th-century avant-garde movement in art and literature that sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images." In Timothy Liu's "The Other Language," we have a dog with the face of the speaker's object of affection. In "Patience," a beggar begs next to a woman "cleaning a virgin" next to her children excavating forks "from a window box." In "Vox Angelica," the speaker sings to the breeze while a woman "skins a snake." Each of these poems meditates on a specific subject via association: these images placed side by side are mysterious yet, somehow, ring true. Like a single note of a song you know you've heard before, but not quite sure where or how or when.

Try your hand a surreal poem in which you by placing images next to one another that speak to the subject and to the self via association rather than logic, narrative, sound, etc. It's easy to write nonsense when working with surrealism, but if you focus on a particular subject and probe your imagination and the images that repeatedly emerge from the imagination, you'll eventually find your way. Take your time with this one. Think small. Even if the poem ends up being a little longer like "Vex Angelica," think in small chunks like Liu does. Don't force it. Don't be weird for the sake of being weird. Let this poem sit in your consciousness all week if you have to, and see (and enjoy) what connections come.

BIO: Timothy Liu's Luminous Debris: New & Selected Legerdemain 1992-2017 will be published in 2018. He lives in Manhattan and Woodstock, NY.

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