We asked two poets to exchange work and create
interpretations of each other's poems. Read the original texts and new
interpretations, and then get the poets’ commentary on the process.
Hum by Dobby Gibson
I awoke locked inside this contraption,
no room to turn around in the cockpit,
not an initial mission beyond making do,
so that when I first radioed for backup
only my own thoughts echoed in the squelch.
They became my trusted companion
as I grew old enough
to see newspapers turn into antiques,
antiques into lifestyles,
lifestyles into prisons of tasteful disrepair,
all the while the lessons of my predecessors lost
do you have to clean up after making soap?
I have washed this machine in joy
and washed it in shame.
I‘ve looked a beautiful woman in the eyes
and refused her invitation to dance.
I once built a fort out of snow
and learned that even honesty is temporary.
I have drunk too much wine and learned nothing.
At night, when the windshield darkens
and that strange state again comes over me,
I drift from the present and into the great past,
back to a time before there was a man
to believe the moon was a man,
or a lone bone to comb a child’s hair.
Back before there was a single secret among the
or the rains washed the earth
and left it sexed,
with water everywhere and no one
yet lucky enough to suffer thirst.
Before there was another stranger
to pat me gently on the shoulder
in that way that let’s you know you’re loved
but also being quietly asked to go.
Having Borrowed the Self from a Future Weekday by Amanda Nadelberg
Forget the country has a moon—
a moving photograph of the time
sensation we’re after, a fact settled
massively into replacement, curtailed
from brotherhoods onto a graph of metals
and meteors plucked for a killing sky.
(Goodbye moon and physical montage!)
Constantly there were changelings, and it
was wonder to believe, and it was doom,
reporting hideous muddles rolling out from
the monuments. (Just turn the knob of the
radio down to quiet the whirl.) Among honest
mistakes in the brambles I found a new word
for nothing. In the carefully measured dream
compartments they were testing machines and
distance function as if routine occupation
of a living space could alter the creation
of a real live life. At the distinguished
lake (stars in the presence of clapping
in a country with trees) I learned; but to
ask a question on one’s way out the door
is proof of such dishonesty and if we were
women in the Fifties, we’d exercise our necks
like we meant it. But enough about everything,
we should wear more scarves at night. Drape
the world in automats and recall our mothers,
As ever, the scenery planted day,
a vast coordinate of charts clinking
against their sure frailty once the
body’s mended. One could hear the
beach from the beach parking lot
and patience was being made over:
get the thing out of the jar, because
place pertains to ideas of nothing
or train stations, cue I’m sorry
I had to leave you, it was
messy out the window.
Delphine and the beehive in
coincidence, about which I
knew nothing, were the defining
proximities of an arid space—
they just come, how country
became a whole system of
landscape ethics, children
concocting selves out of
A pleasant cure for absence
turns bygones toward abduction.
The midline of a body calls
the family unit, it’s unclear if
Bonaparte meant anything
by revolution, thoughts filled in
with months of constellations
and indifference, frivolity
as the coachman’s ear delayed.
Almost western in the evening
we tended seasons patiently:
a home with a foyer of thistles
and a formidable front door
memory was a gait as constant
as presence in the age of the
vernacular. Under the house
a letter for god in a hand that
wind understood. The day
turned accordingly gray; you
must be a house back then
before known to me as this.
Of all the words
I’ve fallen in and out of love with,
occupied and banished,
I haven’t regretted one.
Not catacombs or marquee. Not intelligentsia.
I’m only 40 and already
I can’t believe
how long a life can last.
In the empty factory,
the night watchman sits on his stool
and watches the night,
watches his watch.
His jacket, hung from the hook,
is the other version of himself,
the one still forced to stand in corners
and contemplate the wrong he’s done.
Sometimes it can get so quiet in here
that my own breath
feels like an invasion
I have to fend off,
even though holding it
provides no rescue.
Language is everything.
It’s the sparrow’s tracks
melting in the snow,
the little tyrant’s fist
striking the map table.
The only expectation
is the expectation for more.
That is our silent birthright.
That is our noisy, endless war.
Among the few things I know for certain about
poetry is this: an Amanda Nadelberg poem isn’t going to benefit from me doing
much more than stepping aside. It won’t be enhanced by being translated into
the same language in which it was written. And it’s definitely not going to
be improved by re-contextualizing in a blousy re-interpretation. As you’ve
likely already discovered, Amanda’s poems are fully sufficient
demonstrations, panoptic and indivisible, and nothing could be more foolish
than to attempt to re-express one of them; nothing a surer recipe for
disappointment than to relegate one of them to raw material for one’s own
And yet the inescapable fact remains that
Amanda’s work does engender my own. We’ve exchanged work for several years,
and I’ve seen it with my own eyes. The interesting thing about this exercise
was being forced to be so awake to it. I have to be honest: I’m not sure I
liked that. Wakefulness is not an ideal state in which to write a poem. In
this case, Amanda’s poem’s Napoleon references, along with its decidedly
swimmy Frenchiness, got me thinking about Elba, and the pavilion on the
Briars, and with that I was off and running. Soon — and only for a while — I
forgot about Amanda’s poem, as is necessary to write a poem. Because in order
to write a poem, one has to forget that anyone else in the world has ever
thought to do something as preposterous as write a poem. But now here all
four of our poems are, on a tin-cans-and-twine conference call, and for that
Nothing has been willingly remade here. No
animals were harmed in the making. It starts without expectation and ends
without forgiveness. It’s a fool’s festival. It’s a two-car parade. So please
pity the poor drivers who never get to throw candy, who never get to wave.
Beyond a graph of enthusiasm, it gets muddy how
this works. I printed a copy of Dobby’s poem and for a few weeks I took it
everywhere—to the beach and the market and the kitchen table and the living
room and the other rooms in the house. I took it to Long Island (twice). It
kept me company during the State of the Union address and the Packers vs.
Bears game and some movies and a little bout with Nintendo. This carrying
around was an absolute delight because I love Dobby’s poems (and this poem)
and I entirely admire Dobby himself and his super sharp thoughts and the
righteously helpful ways in which he pushes me and my poems to do better.
(What I mean, I guess, is that I’m glad to have the opportunity to converse
with my friend in a structured manner beyond our ordinary correspondence and
sharing of youtubers.) I remember starting to try to say what “Hum” says. I
started in a notebook and then I wrote a little on the back of his poem, and
then I wrote a little in a Microsoft Word document, and I tried to say what
Dobby had said, again but differently, and again and differently more,
sometimes not in the same order, and sometimes certainly unrecognizably
similar: I looked at Dobby’s poem until I had something to say and I said it.
And then I put some of those different things near each other and tried to
fill in what seemed to be absent from the lot. I read Dobby’s poem more, and
sometimes I counted things and considered his beautiful equations of syntax
and emotion, and sometimes, meaning one time, I wrote “the national” beside
his poem and then did nothing. I spent a lot of time staring at his poem,
wondering about time and lost lessons and situation. Some of the time I was
writing my version of his poem there was a “holy shit” kind of moon outside.
Some of the time I was writing it I remembered things Dobby and I have talked
over, like about other poems by each of us, so I found myself sometimes also
responding to halves of conversations that are missing from anything particularly
present here, but things which, nonetheless, seemed pertinent on this
occasion. When it approached a kind of completion, I rewrote my new poem by
hand on a piece of paper to try to find the misheard things and/or mistakes.
Then I started reading Dobby’s poem and my new poem alongside each other and
again to see how I’d thrown my ball into the mix of order and mess while
orbiting a beautiful poem by a dear friend (who is terribly nice and
is the author of Polar (Alice James
Books, 2005), which won the Beatrice Hawley Award; Skirmish (Graywolf Press, 2009); and The True Ghost Is a Nameless Thing (forthcoming from Graywolf
Press, 2013). He lives in Minneapolis.
Nadelberg is the author of Bright Brave Phenomena (forthcoming from Coffee House Press), Isa the Truck Named Isadore
(Slope Editions, 2006) and a chapbook, Building Castles in Spain, Getting Married (The Song
Archived at http://lit.konundrum.com/poetry/gibsonnadelberg_trans1.php