I came to poetry relatively late in my life. When I decided to leave my job teaching middle school in order to enroll in an MFA program, I left behind a pension plan, health care, a house, and the small, independent music shop my husband and I had owned for over 20 years. And, frankly, the prospects of finding any sort of financial success or recognition as a poet are not good. Granted, the world seemed like a very different place 15 years ago, but that choice was not, even then, a wise fiscal decision. It was, however, one that changed my life and improved it immeasurably in all of the intangible ways that sustain us essentially. I have been, without question, unusually fortunate, and still, I would describe my present economic circumstances as rather bleak. To have little financial security in middle-age is very different from being broke when one is 25. Most poets live humble lives, I think, and maybe that is by temperament or design, or maybe it is just a necessity. To receive this fellowship is very, very wonderful. It provides not only economic support in a moment of great need but also no small amount of artistic validation and encouragement. It permits me in some way to honor again my own decision; it reminds me that this is the right life for me to be leading.
from The Poems for Walter Benjamin
And just as the medium obeys the voice that takes possession
of him from beyond the grave, I submitted to the first proposal
that came my way through the telephone.
The handmade copper phone of Austria's last emperor & the telephone
of Franz Josef. A stark Soviet-era switchboard with the buttons
of an accordion, all of its connections laid out neatly in rows
of black & white. Cranks & fiber optics. The ornate horn mouthpiece
of an operator from 1892. At The Telephone Museum this morning,
I am the only visitor. A quiet Sunday late in the summer season.
Yet, the matron, as ancient as the equipment, guides me dutifully
through the displays, throwing a switch to call up an illuminated hologram
of a statue--where is the original?--honoring long distance.
When she sends power into the frayed, paper-coated cables
of the city's original exchange, the massive matrix begins to hum & click
& whir. And a long minute later--delight!--the rotary phone
beside me rings. For Benjamin, the technology is heroic.
For it has prevailed, he says, like those unfortunate infants of myth,
who, cast out into the shadowy wilderness of the back halls, surrounded
by bins of soiled linens & gas meters, emerge … a consolation
for loneliness…the light of a last hope. The home's benevolent king.
In a novel by George Konrad, a man attempts to explain to his daughter
why he has had so many lovers: when the clothes come off, he tells her,
everything is discovered. And, he goes one, it is, in the end, discovery
we want. Though wouldn't even the most inventive among us find--
after so much disrobing--simply more of what we already know?
Shall I celebrate the counterpoint? The nearly infinite revelatory potential
of a bolt of heavy silk run through the fingers of the able seamstress
or the sensuous curves of the first desktop telephone--its molded
black handset recumbent in a pair of slender chrome arms. Meaning,
once I fell in love with a beautiful voice passing through the wire.
I remember the drop of it, a man talking about something he'd read,
turning to a page with an audible rustle & breath, whispering, Listen.
These are the lines that haunt. It's not that the skin has no function,
only that the tongue can play so many parts. At seventeen, I was haunted
by those protagonists who had no interiors. Someone asks the hero,
What do you really think of me? The hero's cold reply: I don't. In a month
the phone has sounded only once. On the other end, a pre-recorded message
playing in a language I'll never understand. Tomorrow, I think, will be
a good day to wash the floors, though no one will visit. Solitude: liberation
from even the expectation of being seen. Everything I do I know I do
for myself alone. Still, I'm thinking of you just now. Perhaps you'll call.
It's a silly, outdated sentiment. Where is the glass case to hold it? And,
beside it, what shall we write? Oh, something human, something grand.
Kathleen Graber has written two collections of poetry: Correspondence (Saturnalia Books, 2006) and The Eternal City (Princeton University Press, 2010). The Eternal City was a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the William Carlos Williams Award. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Rona Jaffe Foundation and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. She has been a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University and an Amy Lowell Traveling Scholar. She grew up in Wildwood, New Jersey, and still owns a home there.
Photo by Lawrence Graber