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Lewis Warsh

Reversible Destiny


Will everybody (‘this train is out
of service’) please get off? There’s
another train right behind this one.

You can see it from a distance, an
outline of what it really is, an allusion
to something I don’t even know

about, or want to admit. Some nights
I’d give anything for a casual embrace.
Meet someone on subway or street

corner & live together forever. It doesn’t
hurt to laugh but sometimes my side
hurts when I walk too fast.

I can see you in the distance, eyes
cast downward as if lost in thought.
Denying something, I sometimes

think, is the same as admitting
it. I admit you into my thoughts
without even trying. You enter, as if you were

part of the air I breathe.


Here’s the city, any city, take
any city. Maybe every third word
is someone’s name.

The river is calling you in abeyance.
You leave the impression of being here
when you’re gone. What I mean

is that it’s smooth sailing in fair
weather, if you get the picture.

A hospice? That was deliberate.
It came into the rhythm of invention
through years of transgressive behavior.

Sorry if my hair was unruly.
I’m in cloud territory now when
every day is different.

Do our flashbacks intertwine?
Well, we know some of the same
people. We carry each other inside
like figurines.


She bangs her fist on the table
but no one hears. The jilted lover stands
under a canopy in the rain.

An ocean-like mass of blue passes
over the city, a narrow line of light
at the edge of a cloud.

Maybe the subtle repetitions
(is that your hipbone?) will carry
some new emotion, like a sonnet

by Petrarch written to someone he
never met. A coat of arms over
the door with a star inside a box.

A weak link in the system, with
names for days.


There’s nothing to do but return
the way you came. You have the feeling
that if you think of someone the person
might die. Hopefully, no one will ask you
where you’ve been. No one will look
surprised when you refuse to acknowledge
the guest of honor. A harbinger of what you
think you know, like the tail of a comet.
The people on the street murmuring
into their walkie-talkies. Shells on water,
lights of stars. Morse code of some ultimate
getaway to an island of your own.


I  write to you on Watchtower stationery.
I write to you — invoking the abyss, murky & territorial.
I write with tongue in cheek of the pleasures
of circuitousness. I write with the intelligence
factor at work: protest against circumcision!
A homework assignment: walk down a crowded street
     & call out
someone’s name. If a person turns around
& says — ‘were you calling me?’ — get married
immediately. I write to you from the balcony
of the darkened theater. Now I’m going
to describe the way you look from a distance.
Maybe I should let the words speak for themselves?
The ghost of the dead animal can’t speak
     for anyone.
I write to you with a sense of privilege
     that has nothing to do
with class. I write to you with the scum
of the sewers swirling at my feet. A train enters
the station, I feel the wind in my face.
I write to you from a stump on the side of
the trail. Finish this sentence: I’ve bitten off more
than I can ______ .


The guy pointing a gun against the side
of my neck was sucking on a lollipop. To
talk out loud about what you’re feeling
precludes the idea that someone will understand.
Talking to yourself defeats the purpose of
being alive. Only the ego thrives in solitude.


Think of all the beaches
where you almost fell asleep
San Remo, where they were playing
American music

At four in the morning
the B-girl lights her cigarette
before dawn approaches
no one is talking

A stolen second of air
opaque icons plunging over the promontory
nonbiodegradeable plastic jetsam
a body awash with gloom

Before dawn approaches
before dawn comes conveying pleasure
falling in love with time
I make you this world


Many warm-blooded creatures can’t conserve
enough heat to survive in the extreme cold. It’s hard
to live without sunlight. Only a few species
can live in the arctic desert, among them the moose
& the lemming. Sometimes the sun comes out
for only a few minutes. Animals have trouble
reproducing in this climate. A sudden August freeze
can eliminate whole generations of young seals or entire
herds of baby caribou.
                                     The leaves are different shades
of brown & green. They soak up the light or
sway uneasily as the lengthening shadows begin
to fall over the side of the mountain. The leaves
are pitted against a background of other leaves, yet
the shape of two leaves are never the same. Nature
defies sameness. Someone rakes the leaves into
a black plastic garbage bag or they congregate at
the trunks of trees. It’s like in the poem by Shelley
where the wind scatters the leaves over the earth
(hectic red). There’s still some snow on the side of this
tree, lost in shadow. It’s April, & the snow on the trunk
of this tree hasn’t melted.


There’s always a question: can
you kill someone by denying
love? By taking away the desire
to live,

by resisting pleasure?
In a trance, I saw people ambushed
outside the Hilton
I saw a room with walls closing in

Everything that was left unexpressed
passes through me, a ghost opera
with synchronized sound
& colored neon


Remember the way
the members of the cult
drank eagerly
from the cups
of Koolaid. Their bodies
were discovered under a tent.
No one escaped.
Remember the shootout
in the airport. A country
that was no more than a shape
on a map. A litmus test,
the tears of a clown,
a car disappearing over
an  embankment. No
one survived. Remember
the members of the cult
who swallowed Koolaid
laced with cyanide. Their
bodies discovered under
a tent.
the families of the diseased.
The bankruptcy court.
The tracks of my tears
playing in the background.


Retreat is advisable
but don’t look back
an object lesson in jouissance
a sense of oneness

Retreat is to the north
over acres of ground glass
a paper thin ledge
surrounding the mountain

Don’t wait for the water
to reflect who you were
framed photographs wiped
free of lint on a daily basis

A shrine to the mother, the
father, the twin
drapes opened & closed
at complicated intervals

Canned laughter piped in
over the sound of people
fucking, low level jet lag
a peninsula devoured by clouds


‘You don’t need to work hard if you want
to succeed.’

‘Hard work never got anybody anywhere.’

‘It’s not as if you have to marry the first
girl you meet. Play the field as long as possible.
If you make love to one new person a week
you’ll have a better sense of what you want
in a long term relationship. Or if, on the
other hand, a long-term relationship is of
any interest at all. Possibly playing the field
forever is the best bet.’

‘Never settle for anything less than what
you want. If you can’t have what you want, it’s
best not to have anything.’

‘Don’t write with a pencil if the point
is too sharp.’

‘I know these trees have names but I don’t know
what they are. Hemlock? Is this a hemlock? And
flowers. Flowers are beautiful. Today the dog hid
in the shed under the house & didn’t come out
when we called her name.’

‘Today I drove down a road with hills in the distance.
And trees. It was hard not to think of other roads,
houses, trees. Places I’ve been before coincide
with places I am now.’

‘Never go back to a place where you lived before.’

‘If you think too much you never do anything.’

‘Expect nothing from others. When you need something
take it. Get ahead without recourse to violence. Don’t get
attached to other people. Learn to be self-reliant.’

‘Don’t punish yourself for thinking that you hurt
someone else’s feelings.’


I make you this world out of boxes
an escaped prisoner, no, but the artifice swells
it catches me at midnight
as I answer the call

it presents me with fake bravado
a frogman gliding under the hull
I make what’s left of a world scored
like an opera under rain-drenched windows

& listen to the thud of steps down
occult pathways, into rooms
that resist decipherment where
an angry doctor tenders his scalpel

over the desiccated body of a girl
fished out of the river
a scratchy record from the fifties
vacuuming a glass laced with brine


The story is about two women who were in love
with the same man.

It was an evening in late April, when nothing was expected
of her.

The story is about a woman who was married to a man,
& a second woman who was in love with both of them.

If you act unaffectionately, maybe she’ll grow to love you
(in her way).

The story is about a woman, & the man who didn’t love
her, who loved a second woman who had died.

I have to put on my glasses to read the caption beneath
the frame.

The story is about a woman & a man who were once married
& who meet on the street after being estranged for several

We sit in a restaurant with our backs to the wall.

The story is about a woman who lied to a man.

Nurses & orderlies pass through the hallway in a constant

The story is about a teacher who falls in love with his

Once on a bed there were two bodies filled with life. Now
there’s only coffee stains, & the wash of autumn.


the Fatty Arbuckle scandal
of 1931, a girl smiling
at the camera as her skirt
was blown up by the wind

This life of petty crime
is almost human
acts of anonymous heroism
women with safety pins

Mutual respect for something
that never happened
laser-generated simulacra
the trappings of common dread


When the tension mounts. When the highway turns
left out of longing as if it was a city in space. Not a metaphor,
as in ‘I’m taking the next train out of town.’
If you lose something, maybe it’s time to leave.
If you lose at cards & owe someone money maybe
it’s time to get out of town.

A woman is waiting for him in an upstairs window.
A woman is sitting in a nightgown knowing he won’t come back.
A woman in a story is dissolving in words.
The tears are her words. That’s what I’m reading.
They spill out of her bloodshot eyes onto the page.
When I draw the letter P I think
of the curve of her spine.

When I link two or more letters together in space I see
her eyes. The tension is too much for old people.
An emergency service vehicle is on alert.


He was standing in a doorway with the curse
     of beauty on his fingertips
I could hear my daughter’s voice
      talking into a machine
Read a book about Mesopotamia
Orion’s belt
A great city springing from sleep
An airless space where smoke billows
     from a faulty exhaust cylinder
Was this love, or that, cold as the night
     when the sky grows dark
That one turns into another or that sounds
    grow higher as they grow near
We were walking through the door, slowly, I
    heard your key turning in the lock
We float out past the reef, & the rocks,
     & the tops of mountains
     buried beneath the sea
I want you, in a room with walls
     & ceilings that block out the light
I want you, I heard myself say, as if
    you were in someone else’s arms
& I was that person

18        template

Some days
    ‘as far as the eyes can see’
An expanse of acreage
The story of knowledge — from door to door
A harbinger of what you think
     you know
Like the tail of a comet
The gauze curtains, the people on
     the street
The walkie-talkies, the headphones

There was a time when you
    were speaking to someone
& the sense of beauty — a heart-shaped
    pill — was taken for granted
It was evening, & dusk was gathering
On the edge of the horizon
We skirted the issue by unbuttoning
    our blouses
In the company of old friends

Think of all the beaches where you
    almost fell asleep
Listening to the radio
San Remo, where they were playing
    American music
A painting of a woman reclining
     on a couch
A scratchy record from the fifties
Shells in water, lights of stars

There’s nothing to do but return
    the way you came
You have the feeling that if you think
    of someone the person might die
Hopefully no one will ask you where
     you’ve been
And no one will look surprised
When you refuse to acknowledge
    the guest of honor
Morse code of some ultimate getaway to
    an island
All your own


A magician waves her wand
& we’re off on our travels
to whatever disturbance the
landscape has set in motion

The coldest day, an invective
a story without synopsis
if only you had constructed
a lagoon or a phantom

How long can we savor
the decisiveness of sublime omission
a miniature world inhabited by actual people
real fairy tales, but no sex

There’s a reason why sleep
is the same as being invisible
but the clouds look cherubic
from the tops of old houses

The circus freak threatens your girlfriend
oak leaves mushroom into pine cones
muffled hammering behind the bedroom door
no one answerable except me

Lewis Warsh, photo Katt Lissard

Lewis Warsh, photo Katt Lissard

Lewis Warsh’s most recent books include Reported Missing (2003), Ted’s Favorite Skirt (2002), The Origin of the World (2001), Touch of the Whip (2001), The Angel Hair Anthology (co-edited with Anne Waldman, 2001) [see Jacket 16] and Debtor’s Prison (in collaboration with Julie Harrison, 2001). A double CD of a live reading of The Origin of the World was produced by Deerhead Records/ Ugly Duckling in 2005. Lewis Warsh is editor and publisher of United Artists Books and Associate Professor in the English Department of Long Island University in Brooklyn.

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