Today's poetry for today's world

Lisa M. Steinman


Lisa M. Steinman is a professor at Reed College and a co-editor of Hubbub.  She has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Rockefeller Foundation.  Steinman has published three books about poetry: Made in America from Yale University Press, Masters of Repetition from St. Martin's Press, and Invitation to Poetry (Blackwell, 2008).  She is also the author of five volumes of poetry: Lost Poems, All That Comes to Light, A Book of Other Days, Ordinary Songs, and most recently, Carslaw's Sequences (University of Tampa Press).  






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carslaw’s sequences


                                                                  Horatio Scott Carslaw:  An early twentieth century

                                                                  mathematician who worked on divergent series,

                                                                  series of numbers that cannot be summed,

                                                                  or that do not add up.

                                                                  Dictionary of Science and Scientists


This could be a poem about Carroll, the sweet

vacant boy from my school.  His father had a dairy until

his brother fell from a milk truck’s open seat,

delivered to eternity, making Carroll more fragile

and precious in his milky skin.  One saw too the love

of fathers could be a dangerous thing.


Like Mirror Lake where I grew up skating under pines

and ghosts of south-bound ducks.  Or, above, the spire

of the church we climbed, lured by its converging lines

that got mixed with the trees and the skaters’ campfire

in the ungiving lake, deaf to the warnings of fathers

who thought of milk trucks, dire consequences, and loss.


I’ve heard of a town that found a new name on television:

Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.  The truth is they wish

to live forever.  They want fame, a worthy modern mission.

The consequence is they are famous, but also maybe foolish,

as I am lying here next to my lover, a cat buttoned between

us.  I’m wondering if the citizens of Pompeii composed


themselves, each night put their lives in order, for display.

The cat uncoils and rolls on his back — an Odalisque.


A mountain also rumbles at the edges of our city.

My mind drifts to cats and volcanoes, those grotesques

with which we live.  All night, my dreams break on unkempt

shores where sand crabs flip like bits of debris.  Or


I spend the night in a repair shop where nothing seems

to get fixed: no light bulbs, homes, forms in triplicate.

I’m afraid another world falls away during such dreams

of trivia, a world of burning bushes unrelated to domestic

chores or fire regulations.  It’s full of voices I can almost

taste.  Which shows the difference between the seductions


of need and the consummations of sense—prosaic, hard won,

common as rock crystal.  For instance, a young man surrounded

by loving aunts in the airport pretends to shoot down planes, for fun.

His body is twenty; his mind faltered somewhere and got grounded.

Aristotle says to live a good life a person must think.  I think

the young man’s life’s not bad.  We all live in a diminished world.


As planes bite the dust, the young man’s cheers fill the empty

air.  I try hard not to imagine disaster.  I am fond

of my life, though more and more I hear a quiet yes  when I

think of not living forever.  From Minnesota, and blond,

the pilot arrives early.  We all sprint for the exit together.

Back home, flocks of birds sit in the maple tree.  The cat crouches


below.  The birds chorus: milk and honey, milk and honey.  The cat

replies: milk trucks, laundry lists, truth and consequences.




Reprinted by permission of the publisher from Carslaw’s Sequences

by Lisa M. Steinman (University of Tampa Press, 2003). 





distant friends




That year we both lost fathers, even though,

natural aristocrat, you didn’t say so

while I spoke of nothing else.  For me


the world was like a country road running

between field burns gone out of control, turning

the air acrid and opaque with smoke,


and what I mourned—lost comfort or stove-in

safety, haven, or, more simply, the loving—

I could not say then.  Now, years later,


I wonder at you, seeming so able

outwardly, but underneath like a small bull

terrier wrestling with an intruder


or bone.  It still seems a kind of wisdom

to me looking back: such delicate tact or calm,

practiced loss dexterously plowed under.




Reprinted by permission of the publisher from Carslaw’s Sequences

by Lisa M. Steinman (University of Tampa Press, 2003). 


road work




Slowed in traffic, I see hills differ from place to place:

each mountain with its own discrete name and hair-pin turns, trailers,

wood smoke, although the road signs said there would be “no areas

for the next hundred miles.”  And these hills are so unfamiliar

my eyes don’t know where to look.  Outside the car window, a cat


conjures from movement its bird.  One mile back, an eccentric,

home-made sign said, “Caution.  Flager,” heralding the woman who

is leaning her head on her sign—Slow—in thought or exhaustion. 

Then her sign says Stop.  So we do.  We do not need the man who—

overheard at lunch—said he taught leadership to prisoners


on death row.  We don’t know when we’ll move on.  We’re like the week’s

personality test, blanks waiting to be filled:  “Anything

you can do _____:  a) you ought to;  b) would be appreciated;

c) I can do better.”  Meanwhile, the cross walk here feels obliged

to say, “Stop when occupied.”  And here I am preoccupied,


hoarding birds in flight, local color, public languages

in a place that looks like Egypt but promises no exile,

which would imply return.  This roadside for someone else might hold

horsy colloquies, contentments of cows, homecoming parades. 

Although at the Promised Land Truck Stop, a family huddles


near their dirt bikes as one man—son, husband—harangues his kin

about sloth; he’s screaming his direction-less, dirt-bike-riding,

it’s-all-wrong, hard-working anger.  I am appalled that I think

I understand how he feels.  Knowing just dampens my spirits,

as does the rain that’s coming on.  In the meantime, his family


is too under the considerable weather even

to look embarrassed.  Nearby, a shop advertises “Bullets. 

Three for one dollar.”  A sign, but of what?  I’ve gotten as far

as bad for birds.  Then the flagger waves, and I drive on under

gray skies so textured and vibrant, gray surely counts as color.




Reprinted by permission of the publisher from Carslaw’s Sequences

by Lisa M. Steinman (University of Tampa Press, 2003). 


Writer's Comment: Horatio Scott Carslaw was an early twentieth-century mathematician whose mentor worked on divergent series, that is, series of numbers 
that cannot be tidily summed (something that is a problem for mathematicians, but potentially a delight for poets).  Divergent series are a nicely untidy metaphor for the way we put together linguistic gestures and talismanic anecdotes as means of locating and identifying ourselves and of making sense of the worlds we inhabit; I hope the poems form a whole, something like a public space, albeit one conceived of as a patchwork of various languages and cultural sites that resonate with one another, raising such issues as how we define ourselves to ourselves and others; how we can or cannot use public languages to do this; how, most simply, we find things add up in 
multiple, fluid ways.



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