Expedition; Ghosted; Housewarming
By: Joseph Byrd
It isn’t clear
which Solo cup of
ouzo turned the
river dark as we
talked till twilight.
In that fallen apse on the
far side of the Columbia
we’d peed hours prior
at a rest stop called
Dismal Nitch where
Lewis and Clark held
tight just before reaching the Pacific.
I should have done what you’d
said you didn’t want when we
shared a queen-sized bed that night.
You may as well have shaken
hands with me afterward
like a salesman
resting in the
doneness of his
deal. Did I forget to tell you?
I rose in the
wee hours, our motel’s balcony draped in
puce from what had
risen since holding tight in the cove of that
bed. You looked dead.
I knew peace would come.
But only after forgetting to tell you what
discoveries I’d make should your
corpse have been
No matter; two
weeks are years of time.
I have breathed an entire
sky, hoping not to
keen at what it means to
hear you not. I am no
torch. I have been no
loon of this summer’s
long-walked wondering; this heat that can
repeat the noise of “Whose am I?” as I
chew on my cheek when I think of what I have
wished to say to your
silences. There are so many.
I have held myself steady, readied. I have
known what open-hearted anesthesia can
be. And there are no
doors in me anymore that you could
knock on but for what slips sharply off the
shelf beneath my breath—that place where
all the wondering rests, embarrassing
gewgaw of these thousands of
hours of minutes since I last heard you say
yes, since I knew you would be
here to hear without this
falling, this forcing of me to
undress all the words I’d
hoped to wear with you.
How you could say
anything! And how
everything now is
saying nothing again,
again. I am afraid to stop
writing this. It will mean
so much, when it
I remember our unmowed lawn
gutted with gopher mounds and dandelion sod
our mailbox choking with bills from all the
spills we took down the basement stairs together.
I remember how our bedroom broke from waiting too long.
We had names for what it meant to drain beauty.
Our songs sounded better with blood.
And remember what you’d pray before bed?
Where, O where has my little god gone.
I can say things that stop traffic, too.
I can feel you wanting to yell a question into me.
But I cup your mouth as it melts, begging you to
stay at this thing called steeping, to drink me until your
throat folds into a fucked Fahrenheit.
There are ways that a man cannot love until he is
completely seen through. I do not mean clarity. I mean how
memories mustn’t be allowed to laugh, how a
sidewalk can crack when no one is watching
how I will still let you come, lurching toward my
back door, knowing what will happen to this house
if you open up its architectures again of no, thank you.
Please split me in two from cornice to porch. Please put your
hands over our hearts as I sing O say can you see through
what I tried to build around myself, surviving life with you.
Joseph Byrd’s work has appeared in The Plentitudes, DIAGRAM, Aji, Long River Review, The Ravens Perch, and forthcoming work in Fatal Flaw, Resurrection, South Florida Poetry Journal, and PROEM. He was in the 2021 StoryBoard Chicago cohort with Kaveh Akbar, was an Associate Artist in Poetry under Joy Harjo at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and is on the Reading Board for The Plentitudes. He happily lives in Oregon, about 20 minutes from Multnomah Falls.
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press:
How long have you been writing poetry?
Since I sat there surprised in 4thgrade as they delivered an orange-frosted Hallowe’en cookie to my desk, and I asked what it was for. I’d forgotten that I’d entered the school library’s poetry contest. And I won! I still feel that same surprise every time I have work accepted. And I do tend to forget that I submitted stuff, too. I’m kind of lucky that way.
Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
Yeah; it was Dickinson (“If I can stop one heart from breaking...) and my maternal grandmother had pasted it in an old photo album she’d made for me when I was 4, filled with magazine cut-outs of roosters and pandas and kittens and cowboys. That same grandmother hid my grandfather’s later letters to my dad, begging for a picture of his son. That grandfather had left when my dad was 4 years old, too. The ironies of a family, and that being the first poem I remember, aren’t lost on me. Might be part of why I write; to stop one heart from breaking.
Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
Kaveh Akbar, hands down. I open anything of his and I want to write! But especially in Pilgrim Bell, I can’t read “The Miracle” or “Mothers I once was” enough times. It’s not an overstatement to say it changed my life, working with him at StoryBoard Chicago. Jeff Alessandrelli’s stuff (his book Fur not light is a knockout) is like a walk down Hawthorne Street at night, with all the good things that creep out and come say hi. And Kurt Mikhael (@partyteeth on Instagram) has a zine (Thank you. Sorry about the world. Good luck.) that has been traveling everywhere with me now since July. He has a way of saying things that feel like the laundry list of your dreams, enumerating what you can’t believe someone else has named so clearly, and which includes the stuff you actually need to wash: your stale ideas of who you thought you were, and your inadequate sense of just how tender and vital the fabrics are that hold all of us together.
Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?
I grew up in a dance studio and ended up at the Eastman School of Music, so discipline and drama were in the water. It’s part of what works for me, that there isn’t a day where I’m not writing, not experiencing the big feels of music and movement. That’s not me trying to sound interesting or excellent. I’m just lucky that I grew up with no choice, that I had to show up somewhere, and get some art done. Transitioning from the stage to the page has had its challenges, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to sneak to my notebook, with whatever book happens to be at hand, and start writing. No costumes, no rehearsals, no audience waiting for me. Well, there’s a totally different kind of audience, right? One that can bring and breathe poetry wherever they go: on the bus, or on their phone, or at a reading. It’s magic, how permeable this art can be, and how present.
How do you decide the form for your poems? Do you start writing with a form in mind, or do you let the poem tell you what it will look like as you go?
It depends. Sometimes, it’s form first, and in its way, that helps what comes. Sometimes, it’s a disaster, and emptiness is form (but form sure doesn’t feel like emptiness).
What is your editing process like?
Actually, I sleep with it. Partly because my wife is my editor extraordinaire. And partly because I don’t trust what I see with my eyes. I have to wake up again, and hear things fresh, and get them into my body, which means my family laughs at me as I carry around a poem on a piece of paper and let it sit in different places around the house. Almost like an animal skin that needs to dry in the sun, so things can get taut and colored and toughened.
When do you know that a poem is finished?
When I think “I’ll never be able to write again, after this one.” And of course, I do write again. But that feeling, creatio ex nihilo (which isn’t really a feeling at all; more of a familiar place that seems to become a slightly more reliable geography as I age), that’s what does it for me: I know I’m finished, and I know I’ll be starting again, somehow.