Poet Of The Week

Taije Silverman

     May 13–19, 2013

Taije Silverman’s first book, Houses Are Fields, was published by LSU Press in 2009. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in PoetryPloughshares, Agni, Harvard Review, Five Points and many other journals. The recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship in Italy and the 2005-07 Emory University Creative Writing Fellowship, as well as residencies from the MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, she teaches poetry and translation at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Philadelphia.

If Then

I had not had enough of the counting of names,
nor of naming the hoops full of air. Which is why
I pretended to be thinking about the past
when my husband reached for my hand across
the length of the bed. It was a small distance, but scale
is a tricky thing. It was an antique bed, but when

we sleep we leave each other completely. Stop expecting
so much from cause and effect and start expecting desire
to shrink like the incredible shrinking man,
which is to say like an improbable hero who can escape
through holes in the screen of a basement window. Stop
expecting. If blue, then poppy, if cloud, then baby,

if wreck, then all night long. If your husband
were not your husband you could meet him in a bar
shaped like a tiny secret library and over sweet red wine
and raisin-studded biscuits, say Don’t speak to me and don’t
write to me and disappear from my body
, because
he would have asked you what you truly want and you

would not have known, body that you are. You,
who can barely conjugate the verb disappear
in the language your husband might speak if he were not
your husband, improbable hero, if roof made of clay
then light rain on the arches, then the shadow of Neptune
as tall as the castle’s first floor. Easy, he’d say, so I’ll disappear.

But if you then climbed onto his motorcycle
and rested your chin on his shoulder while he sped
down a side street, he would begin to sing loudly
like a child in a chorus. What you truly want
is to be the covered distance. By you I mean I. By you I mean I
had not had enough, I had not had enough, I mean nothing

but that I had not had enough. I name each of the hoops
after changes in weather and the idiosyncrasies
of former lovers, but no hoop knows to come
when it’s called. They roll down the hills around town.
They’re making a game of my hunger for counting.
They’re waiting for the fire breathers and the docile lions.

–Originally published in AGNI 74 (2011).

Tell us about the making of this poem.

Two Decembers ago I wrote a poem a day for ten days with a few others. Each day someone would post an assignment; in one, we had to respond to a line from someone else’s just written poem. I responded to Mary Biddinger’s “A Tiny Poison Eye,” which begins with the lines: “You see, I had enough of all the rocks. / Of the counting names, and naming hoops / full of air.” But I hadn’t had enough. I was newly married and had arrived alone in Italy for a Fulbright. Being newly married and alone in Italy aren’t complementary experiences. I spent my last two decades playing out a pretty romantic version of love–love as doomed, love as Can’t-Be-Sated. Longing as the end goal. Mary’s image of counting names and naming hoops brought that version of love to my mind. You know the line by Robert Hass: “Longing, we say, because desire has to do with endless distances.” I was looking at the Venn diagram for desire and love, wanting to map out where they overlap and cease to overlap.

What are you working on right now?

I’m trying to finish my second book. Maybe three quarters of the way there, maybe I have no idea. Much of it is about translation, how meaning floats and sulks and sleeps around the words that convey it. When you ask someone to disappear in a foreign language and then have to really think about how to conjugate “disappear” to mean you disappear instead of I disappear or we disappear, your wish to make them disappear enters a larger field of meaning. Or maybe a less … mowed field of meaning.

The poem “If Then” belongs to a section of the book about desire, and how desire can inflate into a castle or a crazy bear, and about what inflates it. The last section of the book I’m writing now isn’t about desire. It’s about the distance between our house and the toddler playground, which seems to be more or less the same distance between earth and the moon. It’s about the slapstick routine between fear and happiness that’s camped outside my house. About the mysterious and mute everyone else who doesn’t exist in the bear and castle.

More immediately I’m working on a poem about Beowulf! A medieval lit professor at Penn asked me to write something for an event she calls “Old English Live,” taking inspiration from a section in Beowulf called the Fight at Finnsburg, in which people with hilarious names kill each other in a mead hall. Mead hall fights have never been my go-to for poetic inspiration, but I’m getting really into the compounds of the language. Wonder-hard weapons. The body as a bone vessel. Heartbane. Nightbale. Fiendgrief.

What’s a good day for you?

I wake up to the sound of my husband singing Swedish pop songs in falsetto to our baby. The only music the baby loves more than Swedish pop singer Lykke Li is hip hop. The opening of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” makes him grin like a drunk, and sort of violently rock his body back and forth. Any day that involves a dance party between the three of us is a pretty great day. I feel so weird, so unlike myself in saying this, but every day that I’ve woken up and lifted the baby into my arms has been a good day. Sometimes I teach badly, write badly, don’t write, get in fights, but then it’s still Christmas morning and I’m a kid, coming home to him. The happiness of it is … I don’t know what. Unseemly? Hormonal? Miraculous? I’ll take it, I take it.

So you don’t live in Brooklyn. Where’s home for you? What’s it like being a poet there? As Jay Z might ask, Can you live?

Yup. Philly’s an odd place–it’s tough. It (we? they?) won the World Series a few years ago and everyone celebrated by breaking shop windows. To express joy, they (we?) pump fists at passing cars. It’s a militantly unpretentious city, though access to culture here is easy and impressive. There’s a Bill Viola installation hidden in an art school on Broad Street that makes me feel as if I’m coming and going from the afterlife. Last week I heard John Williams play Bach on guitar and tonight I’ll see a play about Billy Holliday and Frank O’Hara. It’s not Italy. It’s not beautiful here. There’s an astonishing collection of litter outside our front door. Empty Dr. Pepper bottles in the forsythia planters, someone’s soaked gym bag in the hydrangeas. Last week our doormat was stolen and replaced with a ripped one. It’s South Philly. But at sunrise lately the telephone wires along our side street look like that golden road in the fairy tale that you have to walk down for years in order to reach the castle. You should title this interview “Castles.” Or “Jay Z: A Modern-Day Beowulf.”

Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

I lived in Brooklyn for about six months, more than a decade back. Fort Greene. I had what my landlord called a one bedroom because my bed fit in the closet. The bathtub had a skylight above it, which is also something I expect in the afterlife–I guess down the hall from the Bill Viola installation. I’d moved to Fort Greene from Manhattan because my boyfriend had broken up with me and I’d lost my job. Brooklyn felt shockingly human. Buildings I could see the sky over. A park at the end of my block. People sitting on stoops without their ambition. On the other hand, a friend from college lived a block away from me, and he no longer had one of his eyes. Someone had come up behind him with a hammer while he was listening to headphones. And my ex-girlfriend was also attacked by a stranger in Fort Greene, a few years before I lived there. Her face was covered in blood. She asked some stoop-dwellers if she could go into their house to call the police and they said no.

I think Brooklyn might be unrecognizable to me now. You know that character on the television show Girls who looks like a terrible squirrel? That financial planner who suddenly marries Jessa? The show lost credibility for me when he came on, because I didn’t believe a character so conservative and money-driven would choose to buy his all-white-décor high-rise condo in Brooklyn. When I mentioned this to a friend, she said I haven’t been to Brooklyn in a while. I’ll be curious to come back.

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?


Last awesome book(s) you read?

I like Natasha Trethewey’s new book a lot. Its honesty is ruthless but loving. And the remembering in it is full of gravity and plainness, no nostalgia. I like how she’s structured her last two collections into this conversation between different scales of history.

I like Laura Kasischke’s last book too. The bluntness of her transitions floors me; she takes continent-sized steps, and without warning or ceremony. Reading her poems I feel like one of the angels in Wings of Desire who hangs out in the library in order to hear everyone reading at once.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the thundercloud flowering plum in the back
     yard and the one petunia on the neighbor’s deck rail,
     names of trees I don’t know, the arrival of mail
And what I don’t remember of my dreams these days
     you should mix into a broth and put on rocks,
For every baby the texture of lips inside me as good
     belongs to

If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.

Oh. It seems I don’t have time. I don’t even have time for the Whitman mad libs. Time is like a small moth in this house.


On Wednesday I will see my father.
He was a dodger
of the draft, pretended to be crazy and jacked
up tires on motorcycles for money during college. He never robbed
anyone or he lied and told me he didn’t but the sin
of lying to your daughter trumps robbery, even stealing a pen
from Hemingway’s desk won’t pass for love
of history. He must have come to visit me in Brooklyn.
It would have been a year after Biggie
Smalls died.

Why Brooklyn?

To do research on a little known masterpiece collection of poetry entitled Mr. Koo and Other Girls.