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   Jacket 34 — October 2007        link Jacket 34 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Benjamin Paloff

Four poems:

The Four Great Inventions of Ancient China
The Poem is a Magnetospheric Eternally Collapsing Object
Seneca on the Natural Fear of Death
Seneca on Friendship

This piece is about 4 printed pages long.
It is copyright © Benjamin Paloff and Jacket magazine 2007.

The Four Great Inventions of Ancient China


We might as well be talking about ceramics.
In the race to build a more perfect fire, the team
with the stronger heat-shield wins. I used to think
our orders weren’t worth the paper they’re written
on, but then I turned page after page across millennia.
Only to say “I could now walk into fire as if to a wedding.”


Just now we were in Rome, and now we’re in Xinjiang Province.
Without the compass this would not be possible. Experienced woodsmen
carry two compasses: people lost in the wilderness often come to distrust
the one they love. A strong argument for polytheism. To whom
do I report the driver’s unattended baggage, his suspicious behavior?
Greetings, I say, to the last resplendent soul to leave what had been this town.


I won’t stick my chest out before someone else’s firing squad
just so history might say I passed that test. That’s no way
to live. Gunpowder speaks for itself. To be alive at this party
you have to be conscious of your breath. I am party-conscious,
and you are not. Thank goodness we are both breathing,
my arm cast across the bed and over your body,
and I am waiting to be told what it is I feel under my arm,
a tap-tap not unlike the near-hopeless rhythm of someone
signaling from beneath infinite rubble. It may be my heart.
It may be your heart. There is infinite rubble on the news.
There are infinite contexts in which an open heart is not
nearly a good thing, contexts I do not nearly wish to name.


The diagram of a Siamese standpipe. The red scare
quotes. The Boy’s Book of the Sea. The pay
dirt. The way a semicolon looks like a comma
with a very small idea. The way that man
from Shanghai seems to know everything
about flowering trees. I, too, wish to know
everything about flowering trees.

Note: The last line of “Paper” is Georges Bricusse, a station chief in Belgian Congo, quoted in Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost (Houghton, 1998), p. 123.

The Poem is a Magnetospheric Eternally Collapsing Object

The day is more radiation than matter, the black hole a sign
for what is not allowed. A public service announcement
alliterates me something about the homeless heartbeat
of a healthy child, and it reminds me of the monstrously tall
principal of the Union Avenue School, who explained addiction
as a continuous striving after initial experience, which diminishes
dose by dose, like all matter and all experience. Like the troublemaker
he threw into the chairs stacked in the concrete alcove
behind the auditorium. Like the deserving of it. And the chairs
keep collapsing, like timecards and money, which stand in for
and then move forward when plotted against what, for the sake
of convenience, which we are willing to pay for, we call time.
Like the memory of the texture of a blanket bought cheap
and the light on the playroom wall the first morning I woke my mother
to tell her I saw a figure she did not even pretend to believe.
Like that figure, so massive it generated fields that still waver
between my preservation instinct and the gravity of that dawning.

Seneca on the Natural Fear of Death

The hardest part is speaking truth to beauty, begging
the forgiveness of photographic traces, the noise
of separation. If only I could have prevented forest fires, now
I would demand satisfaction. Abstinence begins at home, Mr. President.
If only I could go on belonging to this detritus: the neglected claim
in the low Sierras, the cypress that breaks the sidewalk
under my office window, the obituary of the last housewife
to buy aluminum siding from Rodney Dangerfield,
before he went into philosophy. In 1931 she was an ultrafemme
prostitute in Berlin, seventeen years old, making pictures.
Because love in the age of mechanical reproduction
is also mechanical. Don’t tell me what it conquers.

Seneca on Friendship

No pressure, Lucilius, but I hang around this life
to see how you’ll fare against the monstrous appetite
of the hippocampus and the flimsy outboard called “Rescue.”
By the time you learn that ideology is a question
of how you deal with unauthorized personnel, it’s too late.
I cannot help being larger than your life. As the path
from the sea carries you through the low mountains
and another pre-electrified night, it’s all I can do to hold back
the need to take you down. I’m watching you now,
upright and small, never to lose your way.

Benjamin Paloff

Benjamin Paloff

Benjamin Paloff is a poetry editor for Boston Review. His poems have appeared in Diagram, Gulf Coast, The Modern Review, The New Republic, The Paris Review, A Public Space, and elsewhere. He is also the translator, most recently, of Dorota Maslowska’s Snow White and Russian Red (Grove Press, 2005) and Marek Bienczyk’s Tworki (Northwestern University Press, 2008). He teaches Slavic and comparative literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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