A thrice-yearly magazine of poetry, fiction, essays, and reviews
Guest Editor Shane McCrae: A Special Feature
This morning, I visited Marianne Moore’s last home, on West Ninth Street in New York City. Of course, by “visited,” I mean I stood outside the front door for a few seconds and took three pictures of the plaque beside it—“35 WEST 9TH STREET • LAST HOME OF MARIANNE MOORE (1887-1972) PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING POET, BASEBALL ENTHUSIAST AND LIFELONG NEW YORKER”—before a person who works in the building began to approach the front door from somewhere unseen deep inside. Then I scurried across the street and took four pictures of the building itself, and then I left, wondering which of the nearby buildings were new, and which Moore saw—wondering, that is, how much of the history I could see was historical.
When I was soliciting poems for this issue of West Branch Wired, I was thinking, as I often am, about history, and which poets among my contemporaries were likely to have a prominent part in it. I don’t pretend that my choices were exhaustive—there are other living poets I might just as well have chosen—nor can I be sure my choices were correct. But I think these four poets are among the best poets writing, and they represent three generations of poets—two of the generations prior to my own, and the generation after—so together they cover a lot of chronological ground. And they are all producing, right now, this second, some of their most exciting work. Each of these poems represents, and suggests, a different approach to poetry, each implicitly makes different claims for poetry, and for these very reasons they testify to the wide range of the poetry being written by American poets today. But they all have this in common: regardless of how prominent the roles their authors will play in history might be, the poems themselves are locally immortal, locally unending, as all well-made lyric poems are, because they are inexhaustible, never revealing themselves fully to any single reader, no matter how many times they are read.
Shane McCrae is the author of several poetry collections, including Mule (2011); Blood (2013); The Animal Too Big to Kill (2015); In the Language of My Captor (Wesleyan University Press, 2017), which was a finalist for the National Book Award; and The Gilded Auction Block (2019). His honors include a Whiting Writers’ Award and an NEA fellowship, among others. He is a contributing editor of West Branch.
ease came. Dis-
who am I
going to be I
asked. Whom does one
ask, you might
ask. Are you
still alive there,
reading these words,
is the beautiful air
still shoving its
hale says the nurse,
holding my hand.
Try again says
further away. Try
harder. Do you
remember what it is
to try. Do you
remember when u took yr
first breath. You are there
says the voice
on the speaker.
Did they raise the
volume or raise
their voice. It’s
cold. I can’t
remember why it is we
love. I can’t remember
why it is we
breathe. One more time,
says the monitor,
let’s try living here
one more time—
how will this time
be different I
ask, what are
my reasons, what are
my duties, where
is the rewritten
rulebook…Then my crow,
began to appear. He is
I want to say but
my throat is
narrowing, vocal cords
slipping. The walls
are wings now. The ob-
his beak. The lit up
monitors gazing at me
or unkindness—& when he flaps his wings
I will dis-
appear I think—no,
when I hear their sharp wind
all this will
go. I will be wild again,
I will be taken in.
Please try again
he says from the
booth. We need
you to wager
on us again. We need u to
invent god like a razor
& have him slice open
all this nothingness around us,
we need to watch it
lay before us,
slain. We need wins &
losses. The walls which are wings
shake a little now,
as if all of us
in this drama are
inconsolable. The booth
chokes though I realize it’s
from the only
try to breathe again
the voice clearing its throat says—
can it really have been
crying—or u will
never be here again
it whispers, though it seems
an order. Fascination
fills the empty room. All the sterile
implements & cables
gleam. I do not want
to bear witness
anymore I say. It is
impossible. There is no
story. But the eye
of my raven in the
booth, behind the partition,
takes a bite out of
my voice. It does not
blink, it does not acknowledge
the passage of
time, it just peers &
overgrows me with layers of
till I’m bodied again,
till I’m thick, & it’s saying
you are in history dear child
you are only in history,
you are not in time,
& you’re not getting
out. Not yet. Not
in time. You
have to return here
right now & watch it all dis-
out, the hum pleads.
Out of the future I ask
trying to rise. No,
out to the future it murmurs
Then hope smiles
its wry smile—
stay in touch, it is
saying, stay in touch
babe. I’m here
for u. I’m always
going to be
here for you.
Jorie Graham is the author of fifteen collections of poetry, most recently [To ]The Last [Be]Human (Copper Canyon Press, 2021). Her new collection, “To 2040“ will be out in the spring. She teaches at Harvard and lives in Massachusetts.
The nurse says I have vertigo, and I
reflect on every song I’ve ever heard
about falling. Once, I had a fascination
with etymology, so yes, I know
that fall comes from the Old English feallan,
which means to fail, drop, decay, or die.
In my mind, failing, dropping, or decaying—
hell, even dying— might be preferable
to what I’m—far too quickly— feeling now.
The fall was public, as falls always are.
Of course, in front of twenty high school freshmen—
around me, voices hazy like a chorus
of hapless barflies belting out the oldies.
I’ll let you in on something: years ago,¬
I dreamt of falling from a New York high-rise
window, like that old musician’s son.
Or maybe I just leapt, one of those girls
who seem to come cascading from the clouds.
Last night, we drank two lagers each. You gave me
a bag stuffed with your favorite strain of weed:
“I bet that if you smoke this, you’ll hurt less.”
You called me lovely in Vietnamese.
We took turns tracing each other’s noses, cheekbones.
I watched you lift your beer with your left hand—
You said, “I read online that lefties die
before everyone else.” How did I sense
that death will likely have you before I do?
I make a pact with God not to obsess
about my latest health catastrophe.
No, no, I’d rather think about the Nissan
you steer to Joshua Tree to make your films.
If, yesterday, you fried or poached your eggs.
How long you’ve had that retro baseball cap.
Your hand around an overflowing glass.
Alexis Sears is the author of Out of Order, winner of the 2021 Donald Justice Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2022, Cortland Review, Rattle, Hopkins Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, Northwest Review, and elsewhere. A native Californian, she lives in Los Angeles.
is turning on its own. The dog watches it from across the room. She knows that the door will swing open and that nothing will enter. It happens every evening at about this time. And she knows that the people will come back a little later and accuse each other of having, once again, left the door open, and Good God! The dog could have gotten out! But she hasn’t—she’s across the room, keeping her eye on the door, as she always is at this hour.
Cole Swensen is the author of 19 books of poetry and one of critical essays. A former Guggenheim fellow, she’s been awarded the Iowa Poetry Prize, the SF State Poetry Center Book Award, and the PEN USA Award in Translation, among others. She divides her time between Paris and Providence, Rhode Island, where she teaches at Brown University.
It arrives again, a tapatío Sunday.
Sitting in sombras, the Village piper contemplates
an honest death, full, a music that penetrates
a soul once given to fears it now tolerates.
The piper must see the benevolence the day
allows, how it turns upon a debt he must pay.
Plaza sand becomes a vibrating string, sign
that fashions a first harmonic of secret rain—
nothing as simple as the flourishing and grain
and temper of voice that tends a sovereign domain,
nothing as rigorous as a once broken line,
nothing as fertile as the piper’s own design.
The twilight belongs to this hymnal presence,
to the frequency of a rhythm given by chance.
The piper would close the book on such dissonance;
Jay Wright‘s most recent book of poetry, Transfigurations: Collected Poems, gathers work from his seven previous collections. Two volumes of selected plays, The Dramatic Radiance of Number and Figurations and Dedications, appeared in 2022. The recipient of many of awards and honors over a long literary career, Wright lives in Bradford, Vermonth.