you are in the diode archives fall 2010



19 Poemes Elastiques: rubberbands around my heart

                                               after Blaise Cendrars

1. Tower

I was eating an orange in front of the Orangerie

When suddenly—
it wasn’t my birth
it wasn’t a Metro strike
or the taxidermized animals
in the Natural History Museum coming to life
or the Seine flooding, water whistling
though the stacked bones in the Catacombs
or Jim Morrison rising in Pere Lachaise
whiskey bottle in hand

it was you
it was the Eiffel Tower
it was sex

                   O Eiffel Tower
I didn’t give you my umbrella for nothing
I didn’t leave my son’s stroller in your elevator
to leave & never come back
I didn’t write 2 novels with you on the cover
not to dream of you
when I sleep in a bed damp with sex

In Florida, palm trees are you
In Pennsylvania, rusting derricks
In Wisconsin, cell towers
In the Gulf, offshore oil platforms, blazing with light

the way fireworks, zodiac signs, arabesques exploded up your sides
in 1929
when you were the world’s tallest
advertising sign CITROEN

You are my spine—
the one smashed to dust & then
made whole

You are my gallows—
if I am ever hung for
my crimes as I should be
liar that I am
unfaithful daughter
of an unfaithful father

I have climbed other towers
I have eaten escargot in Windows on the World
on a table that—later—
fell burning
from the sky & took my waiters
with it

But you stand
But your elevators
still rise to the sky

Tower of towers, World Tour Tower
Paperweight, thermometer, desklamp
souvenir tower

I am, was born, hope to die in your


2. Poemerie

The door of my poem shop opens
on the boulevard
Its display windows
square cut diamonds of light

Listen to the accordions
Listen to the Bal Musette
& know you have stepped outside time

The typewriters never heard anymore
in the world clatter here—
Everything black or white
but still burning burning

On the corner, workers
from the night shift drink
red wine at a zinc bar
as if this were 1956 & I
were just being born
bloody, squalling, by the Canal St-Martin

From time to time
a car passes through the Arc de Triomphe
on its way to great victory
or to commit an infamous crime
Today is film noir
Today is Belmondo
Today is France under the old new management

& my American father
drives a vast American car
with fins like sharks
down the Champs-Elysees
& takes his sleeping bastard child
from the arms of her French mother
who is walking, always walking, by that same canal

The mother who is France
who is the winter sale at La Samaritaine
the airbrakes squealing at the Gare du Nord
the old aerodrome that survived the war

a girl & a maid & a whore—maybe
though one raised by nuns
who might have raised me—
in this Marcel Carne film version of my life—
near the Hotel du Nord
to no good end at all

& my life would have been—
a cigarette in the dark
a glass of vin ordinaire

sad, maybe

but French


3. Portrait

I am asleep
I wake up
I write all this down
I write “Cathedral, possibly Notre Dame?”
I write “No such thing”
I write cow & you are one
I write knife &, by god, you are bleeding
                            or I am
I write cock—because I want one
                            inside me
as much as my mother did

For France without sex
is my body without thighs
I write “ass”
& it’s your ass
It’s yours, reader
It’s yours, lover

Who doesn’t have one, after all?

Or I could be genteel &
         say the “ass” belongs to
my fiance, not to you

Just as I could say my mother
         was a milkmaid
         or a midwife
         not a woman with good tits, a nice ass

Or so I am guessing since my father slept with her
when he was married to someone else

Me, I was born in thanks to a knife
the Eiffel Tower the corkscrew
looming overhead
Christ dying on the cross
in 1000 nearby churches
even on the afternoon I was born
It gave me a taste for blood

Watch out—
I have ink left

I could cut your throat


4. Dance

Call me a wandering Jew
since my mother was one

No place for her in Paris
parents deported
she & her sister left at a convent
me, in turn, given away to a new life in a new land

But once sent on my way
I found I could not stop moving
continually coming & going

I became a woman who flies above
the world
gazes, disconnected, from a tiny window
at the blue or green or white below

Even the news doesn’t interest me anymore
Dance of disaster
Dance of daily deaths
intercut with the failed marriages
of those famous merely for being famous

But even those who fly

One day, I will pirouette
Turn on one toe
Come down
from the clouds

If I die
If you die

I will smell it
the way I can smell


5. I Have A Body

I am wearing skin not
                                  just clothes
Never mind the wrinkles in both
it is Glorious, this having flesh

body wired with the most sophisticated sensors

my upraised palms are scales that weigh
the truth of everything

I can feel how much you want me
just by touching
my lips to the small of your back

O yes

Everyone else in line for the morning reveille
steps back, leaving you
the lone volunteer

The sun undresses us
clothes fall to the floor
until we are only our skins

Nothing in this universe ever stands still

Outside is the river
I can hear carp slapping, spawning
in the shallows

body on wet body

I love you too


6. Hammock

There is one on the porch
of this cabin on the Wisconsin River

There was one in the house
in Florida where I grew up

As a metaphor—
the hammock is not cotton or nylon net
but the curve of the earth
between where I stand & France

My future always my past

I sit today on a river that on early French maps
is spelled Ouisconsin

& read Apollinaire

Of whom Cendrars writes
1900—1911 for 12 years the only poet in France”

dead 92 years
& voila

still, he lives

Am I that alive?


7. Carnival

This year I was in Montevideo
it was carnival—
Mardi Gras

& I was writing of France

Foolish me—always my heart
in another country

But I was not the only one—
everyone in Uruguay is an immigrant
or refugee or transported slave
or their descendent

all dancing through the streets
of the Ciudad Viejo
to the drums of the candombe
to the Desfile de las Llamadas

I bought a copy of El Pais Uruguay &
in it were the futbol scores—Penarol, Nacional
& the reviews of the murgas—
which group sang the most
satirical lyrics

All printed on the front page

next to the latest casualties from the latest wars
& a picture of the First Lady of France
herself a singer

Even in South America, the world brought me
the foolish beauty of France—
wrapped in newsprint
framed by the names of the dead


8. Siren

It is a song
It is static
Tour Eiffel as radio tower
television tower
cell tower

In Rene Clair’s film
Paris Qui Dort
the city is frozen
by a mad scientist’s invisible ray—
every human paused, midstep,
like a stopped watch

Only the watchman at the top
of the Eiffel Tower
& the passengers on an aeroplane
just making a grassy landing
move in the morning sun

The silence total
except for the phonograph they steal
& take to the top of the tower
to dance in their equally stolen fur & pearls

The film moves
but the world below is
as a B & W photograph

A soundless world

Not like now—when the Spanish King
snaps at the President of Venezuela,
“Por que no te callas?” Why don’t you shut up?
& it echoes on Youtube
as downloaded ringtones
Shut up Shut up Shut up

Weatherunderground promises
“A fair day for Paris”
but in this new century
I smell hellfire
I smell war

There is no future but the past
No, no scratch that

I am going to send this stripped chassis
of a poem on a long trip
by snail mail, by sea
to you in Uruguay

Let it be the future

Let it arrive—
infant Moses in papyrus basket—
on the doorstep
of a new world


9. Journal

It’s been decades since I thought of you—
not since I married then abandoned a husband
who was a Methodist minister
         who saw you even in Star Wars
         thought pop songs on the radio
         were about loving you

My life has changed since then
except what hasn’t. I am still the same
I wanted to become a writer
I still do

Here are the books I’ve published
shelves of them

For me, each one is about me
thinking about you

what a life
shipwrecked, shellshocked
Everything sunburned
skin splitting like an orange

My books hurt just looking at them
none the paradise, the peace treaty
I longed for them to be

Today, I spent a sad damp morning
thinking of dead friends
& writing in my journal
reading the Times online

the whole world ends up crucified
in the morning paper

arms spread, wing spread, spread eagle


You’d think another airplane was
         falling from the sky

but it’s you
it’s me too


10. Breaking News

Alabama Evangelist Gets Life For Dead Wife in Freezer

Mobile, Ala, May 20, 2010—

An Alabama evangelist who
authorities say
terrorized his family while preaching at revivals
has been sentenced to life plus 51 years
for killing his wife
& storing her body in the home freezer

Hopkins, 39, showed no remorse

The Asst. District Attorney called Hopkins
“evil of the worst kind”
She said he taught his eight children things about Jesus
the Bible tells us are not true

Found poem, Associated Press


11. Midnight Express

The life I lead
is designed to keep me from suicide

Everyone else leaps
throws themselves under iron wheels
in a universe of ambulance sirens
& sad last calls in all the bars
on this planet

Get thee behind me, Satan!
I have an accordion!

I have music
when poetry leaves through
the screen door like a stray cat
like a lover who came for the night
without so much as a toothbrush

I have blood
microscopic bits of human tissue
under my fingernails from clinging
to the ones I love
when the tsunami tried to suck them—
time & again—
into the black
salt that is no earthly sea

But I don’t know any more. I don’t
understand what you are saying
Is that a poem? That last one?
Is that the tiny thing
a camera & a phone?

I was born in a great city
rubbed raw by war
My son was born in a town
so quiet
I can hear my neighbors dreaming
He is 12 now & tall
How could he have ever come
first into
then out of my body?

If I told you the story
of human reproduction
& you weren’t human—
you’d laugh

I no longer read books from libraries
dead Dewey Decimal world
This poem will be the last
I write with a pen

Bon Voyage, books I have written

See how you like
being alone—unloved—
in this world



I am torn
I grew up in Florida
I have smelled the stench of paper factories
seen the pus yellow discharge in rivers
Seen the perfect rows of trees
soldiers at attention
waiting to die

But Uruguay is such a small country
Botnia, Finnish paper giant, invested
40 million euros in that factory in Fray Bentos!
More than a million euros for every Uruguayan!

No matter the new President, Mujica, wishes it otherwise
no matter I do

He is never going to shut that paper factory

No matter the Argentinean piqueteros blockading
the bridge, closing the border
No matter the small print
on the Treaty of the Uruguay River
No matter any ruling by
the World Court in The Hague

For 150 years, an earlier factory in Fray Bentos
sent enough tinned beef
across the ocean to feed the British army
as it built an empire
fought two World Wars

So I ask—

1. If there were no rations
would armies still march?

2.  If there were no writers
                              no readers
would we still need paper mills?

For 2, the  answer is yes—
the world needs its boxes
its touchably soft toilet tissue

For 1, as well, yes—
Armies march

                            & eat what they find


13. At the Crossroads

4 houses sleeping
in the sun
an old dog, fur knotted like a bathmat

Dare to shout
Pirouette on toe
Movement color light
melting on my mouth
like chocolate

me, translucent
in the dusty street

Love, you said
I didn’t know how to open
my eyes

But here I am—
blinded by the light


14. Tricolor—& the sun

only the sky over Paris
never the Seine

all the paper
the bureaucracy requires
even in this digital age
to decide if I am a citizen

My mother’s blood—
giving birth to me by cesarian
Her mother pricking a finger
on a needle the morning
of her deportation—
the only blood she shed in France
which so neatly outsourced
the murder of its Jews


coming to America
crying until my eyes
were swollen shut

the thin sheet of paper
declaring me


the color of my
American father’s eyes—
my American mother’s were hazel
but so sad
they looked blue too


& if there is a third flag for me—
Uruguayan bandera with stripes of

blank as the page before I stained it
with these words

as the ocean
on the nearly empty beach

No red, no blood shed here
yet by me or mine

Only a yellow sun
with rays like a lion’s mane
& a cartoon face
staring, wide-eyed

at the future


15. Les Vampires

November, 1915 found the walls of Paris
plastered with posters
of a woman’s masked face
question marks wrapped around her neck
like hangman’s nooses
Qui? Quoi? Quand? Who? What? Where?

Les Vampires
Feuillade’s silent serial
starring the great Musidora in skin tight black
as Irma Vepp—as thief & murderess—
her very name an anagram of vampire

Every turn of plot
really about death—
male actors disappearing from the serial
to die as soldiers in the trenches

Every plot twist
really about sex—
Every scene
really about desire—

Why else would Phillipe Guerande, crack reporter,
pull a tiny gun on Irma Vepp
only to find she has stolen his bullets?

All he wants is Irma Vepp
All we want is Irma Vepp

To peel off her tight black body stocking
To be her when she stabs a banker
through the heart with her hat pin
& throws his body off the moving train

All Phillipe wants is
not to live with his mother
not to be the one too weak to be a soldier

For once
to be the one grabbing Irma Vepp
around the neck in the Apache Dance
their breath, their tight, hot chests
the bellows of the accordion

For once
to be a naked with a naked Irma Vepp

For once
for her to escape & take him with her

But all he gets for being good
is a single bed, night after night alone

In the final episode, The Bloody Wedding
Irma Vepp dies
a bullet in her  heart

& leaves Phillipe to his life as a reporter

Better to have been stabbed by that hat pin
Better to have been thrown from the train
Better to have been gassed at the front like Apollinaire

Better to be a poet, liar, thief of words,
than a reporter—
16 million dead in WW I—
responsible, in the end,
for all the world’s unpleasant


16. A Life in Titles

Home Is France, 1956
Falling to the Sound of My Mother’s Voice
We Step Quietly into the Future
I See God in the Movies
My Life is a Silent Movie
Things That Have Escaped Me
Grief in Paris
Last Poem


17. Rock ’n Roll

has a Hall of Fame
and in it
Buddy Holly’s high school diploma
a very skinny pair of Dylan’s jeans

Never mind—
turn the radio on
turn the stereo up
let’s go for a drive with the bass cranked
as far as it will go

Rock is the music of America
It is the best thing I have found here

I live in a town where Otis Redding’s plane
plunged into a cold deep lake
& still the music plays

Take that, Edith Piaf!

In the next life, no pens only drum sticks
In the next life, sex, drugs & an electric guitar


18. Constructivism redux

Black & white & red
no need for other colors

I think about sex all the day
I think about you sometimes
I think about God more often

The earth is full of molten magma
The sky is full of snow

Everything—through my eyes—grows
dimmer, less in focus
even with trifocals

if the print is big enough
if the art is sharp enough

I feel the knife edge like the old days
Hear the breath of both humans & machines
Feel you trace a tongue along my spine

I gave birth the way my mother did—
split wide open

See me? Dressed in black like Irma Vepp
Qui? Quoi? Quand? Who? What? Where?

Wet nurse for future poets
Engineer of student souls

See? In arabesques writ large
an accordion of sky

My portrait


19.  Every end has a beginning

I have seen the Seine pushing hard
against its stone quais

but I am not there, not yet

I have walked along the Canal St-Martin
crossed a bridge, looked

into that oil slick water
for a past unmarked by any stone

My passport says I’m still there

I have waited, bundled, on a platform
at the Gare du Nord

for a stranger to take me in her arms
Mother taking me from mother

Twice, I waited until they came to get me

then I decided to be born

not yet,
but soon  


Jesse Lee Kercheval’s most recent books are Brazil  (CSU Poetry Center, 2010), which won the Ruthanne Wiley Memorial Novela Award; Cinema Muto (SIU Press, 2009), a collection of poems about silent film which won a Crab Orchard Open Selection Series Award, and The Alice Stories (U of Nebraska Press, 2007) which won the Prairie Schooner Fiction Book Prize.  This year, she is living in Montevideo, Uruguay.