Word Machine

Episode 7: Robert Hass & Ada Limón

Sharks in the Rivers

Ada Limón

We’ll say unbelievable things
to each other in the early morning— 

our blue coming up from our roots,
our water rising in our extraordinary limbs. 

All night I dreamt of bonfires and burn piles
and ghosts of men, and spirits
behind those birds of flame. 

I cannot tell anymore when a door opens or closes,
I can only hear the frame saying, Walk through

It is a short walkway—
into another bedroom. 

Consider the handle. Consider the key. 

I say to a friend, how scared I am of sharks. 

How I thought I saw them in the creek
across from my street. 

I once watched for them, holding a bundle
of rattlesnake grass in my hand,
shaking like a weak-leaf girl. 

She sends me an article from a recent National Geographic that says, 

Sharks bite fewer people each year than
New Yorkers do, according to Health Department records.

Then she sends me on my way. Into the City of Sharks. 

Through another doorway, I walk to the East River saying, 

Sharks are people too.
Sharks are people too.
Sharks are people too.

I write all the things I need on the bottom
of my tennis shoes. I say, Let’s walk together

The sun behind me is like a fire.
Tiny flames in the river’s ripples. 

I say something to God, but he’s not a living thing,
so I say it to the river, I say, 

I want to walk through this doorway
But without all those ghosts on the edge,
I want them to stay here.
I want them to go on without me. 

I want them to burn in the water.


Robert Hass

They had agreed, walking into the delicatessen on Sixth Avenue, that their friends’ affairs were focused and saddened by massive projection;

movie screens in their childhood were immense, and someone had proposed that need was unlovable.

The delicatessen had a chicken salad with chunks of cooked chicken in a creamy basil mayonnaise a shade lighter than the Coast Range in August; it was gray outside, February.

Eating with plastic forks, walking and talking in the sleety afternoon, they passed a house where Djuna Barnes was still, reportedly, making sentences.

Bashō said: avoid adjectives of scale, you will love the world more and desire it less.

And there were other propositions to consider: childhood, VistaVision, a pair of wet, mobile lips on the screen at least eight feet long.

On the corner a blind man with one leg was selling pencils. He must have received a disability check,

but it didn’t feed his hunger for public agony, and he sat on the sidewalk slack-jawed, with a tin cup, his face and opaque eyes turned upward in a look of blind, questing pathos—

half Job, half mole.

Would the good Christ of Manhattan have restored his sight and two thirds of his left leg? Or would he have healed his heart and left him there in a mutilated body? And what would that peace feel like?

It makes you want, at this point, a quick cut, or a reaction shot. “The taxis rivered up Sixth Avenue.” “A little sunlight touched the steeple of the First Magyar Reform Church.”

In fact, the clerk in the liquor store was appalled. “No, no,” he said, “that cabernet can’t be drunk for another five years.”

Episode 6: Constantine Cavafy & Linda Gregg

Waiting for the Barbarians

by C.P. Cavafy

translation by Edmund Keely

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum? 

      The barbarians are due here today. 

Why isn’t anything going on in the senate? 
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating? 

      Because the barbarians are coming today. 
      What’s the point of senators making laws now? 
      Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating. 

Why did our emperor get up so early, 
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city’s main gate, 
in state, wearing the crown? 

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and the emperor’s waiting to receive their leader. 
      He’s even got a scroll to give him, 
      loaded with titles, with imposing names. 

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas? 
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts, 
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds? 
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold? 

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and things like that dazzle the barbarians. 

Why don’t our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say? 

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking. 

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion? 
(How serious people’s faces have become.) 
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly, 
everyone going home lost in thought? 

      Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven't come. 
      And some of our men just in from the border say
      there are no barbarians any longer. 

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? 
Those people were a kind of solution.

Alone with the Goddess

by Linda Gregg

The young men ride their horses fast
on the wet sand of Parangtritis. 
Back and forth, with the water sliding
up to them and away. 
This is the sea where the goddess lives, 
angry, her lover taken away. 
Don’t wear red, don’t wear green here, 
the people say. Do not swim in the sea. 
Give her an offering. 
I give a coconut to protect
the man I love. The water pushes it back. 
I wade out and throw it farther. 
“The goddess does not accept your gift,” 
an old woman says. 
I say perhaps she likes me
and we are playing a game. 
The old woman is silent, 
the horses wear blinders of cloth, 
the young men exalt in their bodies, 
not seeing right or left, pretending
to be brave. Sliding on and off
their beautiful horses
on the wet beach at Parangtritis.

Devereau Chumrau is an actor of stage and screen, with notable appearances in Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere at Sacred Fools in Los Angeles, Lynn Nottage's Las Meninas at the Asolo Rep, and appearances on television show including Dexter and Key & Peele.

Episode 5: Tracy K. Smith & Donald Revell


by Tracy K. Smith


 The earth is dry and they live wanting.
Each with a small reservoir
Of furious music heavy in the throat.
They drag it out and with nails in their feet
Coax the night into being. Brief believing.
A skirt shimmering with sequins and lies.
And in this night that is not night,
Each word is a wish, each phrase
A shape their bodies ache to fill— 

            I’m going to braid my hair
       Braid many colors into my hair
            I’ll put a long braid in my hair
       And write your name there

They defy gravity to feel tugged back.
The clatter, the mad slap of landing. 


And not just them. Not just
The ramshackle family, the tíos,
not just the bailaor
Whose heels have notched
And hammered time
So the hours flow in place
Like a tin river, marking
Only what once was.
Not just the voices of scraping
Against the river, nor the hands
Nudging them farther, fingers
Like blind birds, palms empty, 
Echoing. Not just the women
With sober faces and flowers
In their hair, the ones who dance
As though they’re burying
Memory—one last time— 
Beneath them.
                        And I hate to do it here.
To set myself heavily beside them.
Not now that they’ve proven
The body a myth, a parable
For what not even language
Moves quickly enough to name.
If I call it pain, and try to touch it
With my hands, my own life,
It lies still and the music thins,
A pulse felt for through garments. 
If I lean into the desire it starts from— 
If I lean unbuttoned into the blow
Of loss after loss, love tossed
Into the ecstatic void—
It carries me with it farther,
To chords that stretch and bend
Like light through colored glass.
But it races on, toward shadows
Where the world I know
And the world I fear
Threaten to meet. 


There is always a road,
The sea, dark hair, dolor. 

Always a question
Bigger than itself— 

            They say you’re leaving Monday

            Why can’t you leave on Tuesday?

Odysseus Hears of the Death of Kalypso

by Donald Revell

All their songs are of one hour
Before dawn, when the birds begin. 
I sing another. 
In helpless midday, at the hour
Even sparrows have no heart to shrill
Comes news . . . Suddenly, the unimaginable
Needs imagination and finds none. 

Violet ocean only nothing. 
Smoke of thyme and of cedar, 
Ornate birds, nothing. 
Even a god who came here, 
Hearing a sweet voice, 
Would find only old fires now, 
Brittle in the blackened trees. 

She was mast and sail. She was
A stillness pregnant with motion, 
Adorable to me as, all my life, 
I have hidden a cruel, secret ocean
In sinews and in sleep and cowardice. 
She forgave me. Once, she wept for me. 
Our child died then, and she is with him.

Episode 4: Rae Armantrout & Li Po

by Rae Armantrout

Quick, before you die,

the exact shade
of this hotel carpet.

What is the meaning
of the irregular, yellow

spheres, some

gathered in patches
on this bedspread?

If you love me,

the objects
I have caused

to represent me
in my absence.


Over and over

of houses spill

down that hillside.

might be possible
to count occurrences.



Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain
by Li Po
Translated by Sam Hamill

The birds have vanished down the sky. 
Now the last cloud drains away. 

We sit together, the mountain and me, 
until only the mountain remains.

Episode 3: Carl Sandburg & Cesar Vallejo with Guest Reader Yago Cura

I Should Like to Be Hanged on a Sunday Afternoon
By Carl Sandburg

I have often thought I should like to be hanged
On a summer afternoon in daylight, the sun shining and bands playing,
In a park or a public square or a main street corner,
everybody in town looking on and talking about it,
Newspaper extras spelling my name in tall headlines telling the town I am getting hanged.

And I smile to the sheriff and say he will be laughed at if the rope breaks
And he goes puttering, solemn, doing a duty under the law,
Feeding the ropes, searching corners, testing scantlings.

And before the cap is drawn over my head
And before my feet are tied for the straight drop
When I am asked if I have any last word to say before I go to meet my God and Maker;
I speak in a cool, even voice, fixing my eyes maybe on some dark-eyed mother in the crowd, a grown dark-eyed daughter learning against her.
I speak and say, “I am innocent and I am ready to meet my God face to face…”

I have often thought I should like to be hanged that way on a summer afternoon in daylight, the sun shining and bands playing.


Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca
by Cesar Vallejo

Me moriré en París con aguacero, 
un día del cual tengo ya el recuerdo. 
Me moriré en París ?y no me corro? 
tal vez un jueves, como es hoy, de otoño. 

Jueves será, porque hoy, jueves, que proso
estos versos, los húmeros me he puesto
a la mala y, jamás como hoy, me he vuelto, 
con todo mi camino, a verme solo. 

César Vallejo ha muerto, le pegaban
todos sin que él les haga nada; 
le daban duro con un palo y duro

también con una soga; son testigos
los días jueves y los huesos húmeros, 
la soledad, la lluvia, los caminos...

by Cesar Vallejo, translated by Paul Muldoon

I will die in Paris, on a day the rain’s been coming down hard,
a day I can even now recall.
I will die in Paris—I try not to take this too much to heart—
on a Thursday, probably, in the Fall.
It’ll be like today, a Thursday: a Thursday on which, as I make
and remake this poem, the very bones
in my forearms ache.
Never before, along the road, have I felt more alone.
César Vallejo is dead: everyone used to knock him about,
they’ll say, though he’d done no harm;
they hit him hard with a rod
and, also, a length of rope; this will be borne out
by Thursdays, by the bones in his forearms,
by loneliness, by heavy rain, by the aforementioned roads.

Yago S. Cura is an Adult Services Librarian at the Vernon branch of the Los Angeles Public Library in sunny South Central Los Angeles. He is a former N.Y.C. Teaching Fellow and A.L.A. Spectrum Scholar who also happens to publish the poetry, fiction, and prose of authors from las Américas in Hinchas de Poesía (www.hinchasdepoesia.com) with Jim Heavily and Jennifer Therieau. Along with Ryan Nance, he is the co-founder of the Copa Poetica (http://copapoetica.us), a three day reading series in Los Angeles on the rest days of the 2014 World Cup. His Spanglish blog, Spicaresque (http://spicaresque.blogspot.com), has had more than 58,000 visitors. Yago’s poetry has appeared in Huizache, KWELI, PALABRA, Borderlands, Lungfull!, COMBO, LIT, U.S. Latino Review, 2nd Avenue, Exquisite Corpse, FIELD, and Slope. His reviews have appeared in The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter

“Scotch Tape Releases X-Ray Power!”

--title of Oct. 23, 2008 article in Science section of the N.Y. Times

Devoid of purpose, porpoises trace the shoals.
Likewise, snipers always do their thinking in supple temples.
Even plumbers understand: natural gas mains quicken suicide allure.
And steaks: steaks don't understand na’fing but blanket sauce.
Photons create energy as they de-adhere, trust me, enough energy!
You can X-Ray your finger in the nimbus of the unspooling.
Byzantine charges don't alarm applicants with fetid credit.
They just slap them on like some caste patina, like lottosplooge.
You still haven't inquired as to the why, the what of this seedling.
This is a prerogative of unearned providence, a trophy-coated plaque.
It reads, Lies Sustain the Surely Seasoned Despite Surmise.
Maybe something I might make in my mind, a something short of nuance.

Episode 2: Louise Glück & Yusef Komunyakaa


Louise Glück

In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.
I think I should not be encouraged to grow
tomatoes. Or, if I am, you should withhold
the heavy rains, the cold nights that come
so often here, while other regions get
twelve weeks of summer. All this
belongs to you: on the other hand,
I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots
like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart
broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly
multiplying in the rows. I doubt
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term. You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
even in August, in early darkness: I am responsible
for these vines.

After Summer Fell Apart

Yusef Komunyakaa

I can’t touch you. 
His face always returns; 
we exchange long looks
in each bad dream
& what I see, my God. 
Honey, sweetheart, 
I hold you against me
but nothing works. 
Two boats moored, 
rocking between nowhere
& nowhere. 
A bone inside me whispers
maybe tonight, 
but I keep thinking
about the two men wrestling nude
in Lawrence’s Women in Love
I can’t get past
reels of breath unwinding. 
He has you. Now
he doesn’t. He has you
again. Now he doesn’t. 

You’re at the edge of azaleas
shaken loose by a word. 
I see your rose-colored
skirt unfurl. 
He has a knife
to your throat, 
night birds come back
to their branches. 
A hard wind raps at the door, 
the new year prowling
in a black overcoat. 
It’s been six months
since we made love. 
Tonight I look at you
hugging the pillow, 
half smiling in your sleep. 
I want to shake you & ask
who. Again I touch myself, 
unashamed, until
his face comes into focus. 
He’s stolen something
from me & I don’t know
if it has a name or not— 
like counting your ribs
with one foolish hand
& mine with the other. 

Episode 1: Robinson Jeffers & John Berryman

Rock and Hawk

Robinson Jeffers

Here is a symbol in which
Many high tragic thoughts
Watch their own eyes.

This gray rock, standing tall
On the headland, where the seawind
Lets no tree grow,

Earthquake-proved, and signatured
By ages of storms: on its peak
A falcon has perched.

I think, here is your emblem
To hang in the future sky;
Not the cross, not the hive,

But this; bright power, dark peace;
Fierce consciousness joined with final

Life with calm death; the falcon’s
Realist eyes and act
Married to the massive

Mysticism of stone,
Which failure cannot cast down
Nor success make proud.

Dream Song 1

John Berryman

Huffy Henry hid    the day,
unappeasable Henry sulked.
I see his point,—a trying to put things over.
It was the thought that they thought
they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
But he should have come out and talked.

All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry’s side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
I don’t see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.

What he has now to say is a long
wonder the world can bear & be.
Once in a sycamore I was glad
all at the top, and I sang.
Hard on the land wears the strong sea
and empty grows every bed.