Two Philosophers Go to the Bathhouse; How rivers meet river; The Affair
By: Aisha Down
Two Philosophers Go to the Bathhouse
for Yifan Wu
Everyone naked. The waters prickling at the seam
of skin and sky. All bodies are a reflection of starlight,
then of distant golden lamps. Somewhere in the brush,
a very fine joke is being told, and a woman laughs.
There is the problem of dinner. In the hush, the crackle
of snow melting on hot granite, the flint and gas
of winter sky. There is the problem of bodies.
One wants to consider diffusion—or is it transfiguration?
how the sulfur and iron of the springs smuggle
themselves into the blood, under the tongue,
tracing flame and mountains into the willing flesh.
One wants to consider the round hips of the serving girl
bearing Cretan wine, but runs into a contradiction:
this isn’t ancient Rome. Socrates said to Plato:
I cannot measure anything, and of the beautiful,
I am simply such a measure as a white line is of chalk—
which is immaterial to the copper flush of her cheeks,
or the ocher bloom of cancer on a lung, or trucks
rusting off of the highway to Albuquerque, or even
the honey-fed girls now swaying into the hottest pool,
sweet barley malt on their breath. In this life, too,
we have spleens. We have parents and they die.
In the bones of a merchant-traveler who starved
on the basalt plains of Iceland, there was chromium,
sulfur, salt from the table of a whorehouse in Istanbul.
Sometimes I remember the rain leaping down toward
the shivering frogs, twelve centuries ago in the garden
of that monastery in south Yunnan. Radish shoots,
oil lamps, and all your silken, ridiculous letters.
Sometimes I remember the Ithakan tavern where
we played chess and I lost three sheep and all four
of my humours. And the waiter, with that fine rump
of charred ox. Plato said it once, friend, but it is
for us to repeat it: how each man, horse, and bath
is a flicker of the eternal, how the broth and chalk
of our flesh cannot help, again and again, but carry us.
The shape of flames in the night has lasted
so many fires, the shape of hands in hands,
so many lovers—this argument could last
four or four hundred more philosophers—and we flare,
are swept across rains and stars and years.
How rivers meet river
Each morning, your life woke like a life.
It is how rivers meet river, how the dark-hatted man,
ahead on the road, gives you one amber glance as you pass.
Each morning, your life came apart in a shiver of birds.
Each morning, you had been finished
and steam rose from your broken crust, gold.
It was like this with lovers: you gave at the roots,
and down to the roots you were known.
It was like this even alone.
At first, it was nothing: such a short time,
so many things left unsaid, like griefs,
like scraped knees, like afternoons
by the creek in the blue of early childhood.
Things were as they were: desire was desire.
Mouths were roses, hands were suns,
you burned, you fed me meat and marzipan,
and I came gentle, and I ate and ate.
Did we waste it? Could we do otherwise?
Many hours we slept, many hours waited,
many hours we forgot ourselves,
played dice at the table of the feast.
Many hours we wanted it all to be over,
to be apart and alone again: sifting
through the wreckage for coins and watches,
trying to figure out what it all could have cost.
It overflowed us. It was wider than noon,
wetter than night, greener than wheat.
Even with our hands full, we took all it gave us,
Even as our bellies burned, we ate from its palms.
The days came and we couldn’t pay for anything,
we offered our mornings, then our silverware,
then our children, our roosters, our deaths.
It took them. Then it took more.
We drank, we ate, we slept. We trembled
listening to the thieves in the night:
ransacking the town, banging the bells,
dancing among the dogs, the broken altars.
The years came and came
and we couldn’t pay for anything.
Aisha Down is a journalist who lives in Sarajevo and investigates organized crime.
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press:
How long have you been writing poetry?
I’ve been writing poetry for as long as I can remember--but maybe I first grew serious about it when I became a copyeditor for the Cambodia Daily, in 2016. I’d work on poems in the mornings before going in to edit the newspaper.
Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
That’s a funny question: when I was little, my Dad would recite poems to me on the long drive home at night. We lived far out of town in the mountains. They’re not the sort of poems I love now. They were more motivational poems: “The Things That Are More Excellent,” by Watson, or Desiderata. But I loved them when I was a kid, I even memorized them myself. They made me feel part of some larger, older tapestry of being.
Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
I read a lot of work in translation. Maybe this is because I also have lived outside of the US for many years, so I usually speak to people in their second language or mine. This also affects my ear. I’m drawn to interesting grammatical structures, meanings that come through . I love Czeslaw Milosz, Jane Hirschfield, Robert Hass and Derek Walcott.
Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?
I like to wake up in the morning and write. When I started, I used to read poetry first and then write, and I used to set aside the time in the morning. I had to write every day. Now it’s easier for me to just write anywhere: coffee shops, park benches, my desk.
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?
I often feel like the voice of the poem tells me more about where to go than the form. For me, the voice carries the poem better. And then the voice contains the poem’s grammar (how does the poem think, what does it suddenly remember in the middle of the night, when is it smug, when does it interrupt itself?), and then the grammar can ask for line breaks, sonic emphasis, rhythms and such.
Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
I would venture that that’s a lifelong thing. I wouldn’t say I’ve found mine. It’s more that with every (good) poem I write, I find another part of myself that I can accept and integrate: here is how I am conversational,
here is how I am drunk, here is how I am wise, here are my thoughts about thievery and nudity and olive oil. Assuredly those positions change, but I like to think that a voice comes when we integrate them in the moment.
Maybe voices come throughout your life.
What is your editing process like?
Difficult! I like it when poems come out mostly right the first time. Maybe I have to change a line or two. When they don’t, I’m often lost. I know that there’s growth here: I want to say it’s about my own relationship with the things I struggle to say, or the things that are messy and have a lot of sides to them.
On those messier poems, the ones that don’t come out, I visit and revisit them because I love one line or section, which reaches to somewhere important to me. On the next visits, I often change everything else in the poem. This doesn’t always work. I explain too much, I make the poem about something else entirely. I make that one beautiful section mean something, or relate to something, when maybe it should mean nothing at all. Finally I give up and move on.
But then out of the compost, something wonderful can sometimes emerge, long after expected.
When do you know that a poem is finished?
I’m not sure anything is “finished.” But poems can grow to feel solid, structurally sound: you knock on them and they aren’t going to fall over. Then you can paint and repaint them a few times, or not, if you want.
Other times they have something beautiful in them, but they can’t stand up on their own. I think it’s still worth working on these. Some never stand up, but they provide the soil for the next thing.