Tragic, that the dreamers of the city never leave the provinces. Comic, that the provinces are just where they belong. No one plays the violin too well.
The prose poems of David Keplinger celebrate an imagination that springs from the gut, from the flittings of the mind. Both connection and disconnection appear line by line, leaving the reader breathless with surprise, feeling something before mentation kicks in.
David Keplinger is the author of nine collections of poetry: Ice (forthcoming, Milkweed Editions, 2023); The World to Come (Conduit Books, 2021), winner of the 2020 Minds on Fire Prize; Another City (Milkweed Editions, 2018); The Long Answer, New and Selected Poems (Texas A&M University Press, 2020); The Most Natural Thing (New Issues, 2013); The Prayers of Others (New Issues, 2006), which won the Colorado Book Award; The Clearing, The Rose Inside, selected by Mary Oliver for the 1999 T.S. Eliot Prize; and Another City, winner of the 2019 UNT Rilke Prize. His work has appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, and American Poetry Review, and has been translated into several languages and included in anthologies in several countries. He has translated Jan Wagner’s The Art of Topiary and Carsten René Nielsen’s World Cut Out with Crooked Scissors and House Inspections. His awards have included fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as support from the Soros Foundation, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the D.C. Council on Arts and Humanities, and the Danish Council on the Arts. He has also received the Cavafy Prize from Poetry International, the Erksine Poetry Prize from Smartish Pace, and the Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Society of America. Keplinger has taught in the MFA program at the American University since 2007. In 2022, he was named the University’s Teacher/Scholar of the Year.
from: The Most Natural Thing (2013)
Enormous, Yellow Sky
I hunted mushrooms before I was born, under the two dimensional plane of this sky. How fine to exist in the head before the head crowns from the body. These were the woods where one meets the deer, the goddess in disguise. Her symbol: what’s hidden would like to be known. She led me to a banquet in the clearing. “Soon no one alive will remember the eighteenth century,” whispers father at the table. “One day this too will be a fairy tale,” says mother from behind her carnival mask.
From its pellet-like source, the universe widens. Our car broke down near the fairgrounds that winter. There I once saw the World’s Tallest Man, harrowed by his ankylosis, his knees like liquidy magic eight balls; he sat in a chair waving at us. Then he rose as if climbing a rope. Five o’clock, just about dark. The tow truck arrived. It cranked down its hook on a chain. It hoisted the bumper, lip of a fish, almost vertical. All together we climbed in the truck. The father, the son, the quiet driver.
You must hit to the jaw, my father says. I know his hands ache in their taping, and mine do, too. As a young man in a bar in Barcelona he was hit from behind with a bottle and fell into his attacker’s arms, who cut him in the face. We must hit to the jaw, he says, and when it’s my turn the bag is still swaying. He’s seventy three years old. He holds his hands in protection, up high. He’s filled with these crazy expressions: Hit to the jaw; keep up your guard, and punch hard; don’t think you have forever.
From farther and farther away, my mother’s voice grows louder in the memory. I may be suckling her breast; then I’m running through a fire-bombed city. Blood pours through the neighborhoods in capillaries. I hear the voice much louder than the mortar fire. It’s in the language of attackers, made of bullets and money. You’re all that’s left on earth, the voice is shouting. You have made one thoughtless error. You’ll have to stoop to enter heaven. Look at you, you’re Krishna, dressed in perfect weather.
from: The World to Come (2021)
That your shoes are two fish, a school that moves by the singular will. That the body is here, but elsewhere, too. That there exists a body of wind, one for you, one for the city, the country, the planet. That there’s one wind moving all of this just so. Even the bride in the white wedding gown. And the groom in the charcoal suit. The beautiful car that’s waiting for them. The vast night.
The First Person
I could hardly stand to be a body before God scrapped me as I was and started over. This happened many times. Once I was much taller, like a walking cliff wall, but the heaviness of having fists and breasts and a penis and knees and a womb and feet, with veins like cottonwood roots, bore me down. I had to be burned up and begun again. Another time I was very small. I could fit into a tiny hole along the Euphrates. I had to stave off the wolf spider, God’s beloved, who questioned me with three eyes. Alone in the world there was only the river, and no one to wash their long hair in it.
The Name of God
When it falls into deep water, a newt will sink straight to the bottom, perfectly still, spread eagle, until it rises back and hits the surface breathing, swimming with its very natural, easy strides. The word we have is newt, and this is strange, I have noticed how the water oddly suffers, it has no choice, I don’t know what to call this, but feels a word has entered it.
In Sassoferrato it is the ultramarine that holds the idea of Mary, looking down at her hands, that captures the spirit of her prayer. It is a painting about the sea in love with the mountain crest, just as the mountain crest grasps how it will never know itself like the sea knows it. The sea at Carmel was similar, it surrounded the glass windows, and at night I heard colors like a musician does. My mother was dying. She was more pain than body then. And when the body receded, and then the pain, just after, slowly, what was left was pure crystal, blue salt: It was Sassoferrato who associated this color with the mother, the force of love that cradles and crashes over the thing, until it is the thing.
Each name is called up to the blackboard. Each child holds the chalk against the mouth, a miniature tusk that has just broken through. It is a little painful, learning how to think about such things. The teacher will wait as long as necessary, until even the slowest is finished, and each comes away with an identical sum.
The snap of a harp string can signal the end of a society. A man begins to walk for no reason like an ape. Life becomes a succession of instructive monologues performed in dim light. Woodsmen chop away the only forest using axes from the early Holocene. Tragic, that the dreamers of the city never leave the provinces. Comic, that the provinces are just where they belong. No one plays the violin too well. The professor is frequently wrong about things. When the doctor arrives, it’s always the wrong daughter who runs to fetch him to the hall.
Low now in the troposphere, super-cooling nucleates the smallest particles of rain. What is it that is forming but has not yet fallen on our lives, to be shoveled, to be patted into blocks, like harsh words? What is this snow but old snow, returned from old storms? Love of my life, it will blow in with its ghosts out of the fallen empires, still in uniform, as now the first flakes seem to gather, along our window ledge, into the makings of an epaulette.
Angels and Wounds
A play called “Angels and Wounds,” by David Keplinger, that goes on for years and has no curtain, where the author plays one of the parts. In some scenes it is the wound in him that sees the same wound in the other. What is re-enacted is an old disaster. In some scenes it is his Angel that addresses the other’s wound, or it is reversed, and he is the wounded one, drawn to the Angel. Codependence casts its green light on the stage. There is hardly any dialogue except the sound of silverware, bottlecaps, slamming doors. But in some scenes, the Angel in him engages the Angel in the other. It’s the same play his parents put on, and he plagiarized everything.
The tick strides my bicep and hides in the shadowed hind leg of my tattoo of The Tyger. It lives off the Tyger tattoo for more than half my life, then it walks across my shoulders to the other arm, for the other half, and gorges on the Lamb. For the first half of my life, when I was drinking, I felt the lack; an ache; an emptiness I had to fill. For the second half, when I stopped drinking, I strove to be more emptiness than body. The problem then was surplus. How I would whine and bleat, to end my having. That too, quieted. The tick is moving toward the bare interior. It knows it has to die. There are no images or lights. We are coming to the end, when I will say a few words.
The World to Come
The warming has started. In the North, the dogs have grown so thin their bones show through. In the South, the parks lay flat as wet tablecloths. In the East, no more flying violinists. Instead there will be death announcements hammered onto the kiosks again, and the shoppers, their thin hair sprayed into saurian horns, dark henna red, will carry their bags to the meat shop as always, the bread shop as always, the Bull’s Blood shop, as always, as always to the shop that sells the white cabbage. In the West, at the Automat, Edward Hopper’s solitary customer has taken off a glove.
The Third Person
One must speak of the eternal self in the third person only. The eternal self stood beneath the olive trees that wagged their branches. It lived off sunlight, once, and the gloppy impasto of rain. The eternal self once had hands and a face; eyes and a mouth. But snails ate up the grass. Then the sky; the sun. Until there was no world. No light. The body, invisible. All that remained were birds who knew how to fly at night, and snails and insects—instead of words that speak of an eternal self. Instead of the work of the hands.
from: The Seven Spheres
Whatever comes to life must learn to be fast. Whatever approaches death must learn to be slow. Whatever grows and goes forward is a student of the fast. Whatever stays in stillness is the student of the slow. On Mercury you have to go to school for that. There are classes hugely popular, taught by roaches, as well as courses few attend, taught by stones. When I finally jumped on that planet and held on for dear life, spinning with my legs draped off the edge, a stone advised me to fall far behind, drop out, be quiet, and try not to succeed. Always it’s the stone to show you freedom, like Mercury, unalterable and dense, but faster than anything.
Saturn is the most beautiful place, and its rings are composed of shards of what will happen. One of the shards is the book about the bear whose mother is waiting for him on the moon. One of the shards is the grip of a whole fist on my finger. One of the shards is my fist, gripping a finger. One of the shards is hair, black hair. One of the shards is a theatrical bow, with the bounce of the healthy spinal jelly. One of the shards: a painting of the St Severn cathedral. One of the shards is the ice of the morphine. One of the shards is the Keats read out loud, in front of the death mask, in Rome. One of the shards is the Keats read out loud, in front of the life mask, in Hampstead. One of the shards is a name. In fact, there are many names, which can’t be spoken but only shine, for nothing but to shine, following with ease the natural law.
from: The Long Answer (2020)
Only the Marvelous is Beautiful
By the time they knew the galaxies were accelerating, I was living in the small town with the Russian spires a hundred years in the past, spending my time at the Café Goethe, writing so fast in my notebooks I can’t read a word of it in memory. Then Freud was just born in a place called Pribor, south of there, as Shor came up with his quantum algorithm to solve the modern sphinx riddle, involving the integer N and its prime factors. But I was already in the eighteenth century by then, and falling back quickly, until the town was just a field full of scythes and gleaners speaking a protolanguage too spare to understand, and I was as small as a neutrino in my serfdom, floating through the identical days.
No one speaks the name of Luis Buñuel. He prefers to be nameless among the crowds in the shadow of the Empire State Building. The Republic has fallen. The war is a giant gorilla climbing the right side of his brain, waving off reasonable ideas like small airplanes. Lorca is dead and is buried on a hill in Grenada—Buñuel, if anyone, can know such things— with a bullfighter and a schoolteacher. Lorca is himself, of course, and Dalí is the bullfighter, of course, and Buñuel is, of course, the schoolteacher; and each of them, in their own way, has gone underground. Dalí has died the death of popularity. Buñuel has chosen the slow death of silence. He will leave for Mexico by the end of the decade, but for now he sits in a shabby diner on Lexington Avenue, cutting with his knife and fork (he always uses two hands, for he will always be a European) through the sunny side yolk of an egg, which stares right back at him, not even flinching.
A Movie Scene
Elegantly I dance down to the patio. The crowd widens to make space for me. How welcomed one feels in a movie scene, how careful the other dancers are, how they know who is the star, how happy the women swinging in white dresses in the revolving doors. Everything pushes away in a lab in equal proportion; so many things that irritate, under the best conditions, produce a lasting beauty. But if this were really the Thirties, like the rest of my family I would be a ragman, I would know how to ride a horse and flatbed, how to read the look of irritation in the faces when they saw me coming, as they stepped out of the way, I would know many other things than the things that I know now.
“Only the marvelous is beautiful”
When “marvelous” began to mean “splendid,” sometime in the twenties, to be splendid was merely to glitter, from splendidus in the Latin. André Breton never used the word in English, I suppose for its association to the spleen. My mother was not a surrealist but she loved things that glittered, from the twenties, especially. Why should I weep, I ask you, over this pair of opera glasses she kept in her curio cabinet, the minuscule, gold binoculars I never once saw her lift to her face.
In Renoir’s great Luncheon of the Boating Party, in every direction on the canvas, forming an asterisk, the male gaze seeks a trajectory. The lines continue beyond the canvas, through the square of the gold frame, through the floor of the gallery, straight into mantle, each line like the ties securing a conquistador’s galleon. The sand has always received such ropes, which are also sent up through the ceiling and through the west and east corridors, leading across Washington D.C. to the other great The Boating Party, Marie Cassatt’s, which is on water, the boatman looking down along the line of the oar atop the gunwhale. But his sight gets caught in the green sail: as the woman, dressed in a full gown buttoned at the neck, gazes into the wind, toward something just out of focus, a century or more from now, so that I get the feeling of an imposition, my staring clearing indecent, how none of this has anything to do with me.