Two Poems by Elizabeth Willis
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SELF-PORTRAIT WITH IMAGINARY BROTHER
after Willem de Kooning
Eventually the “imaginary brother”
becomes a wife or a lover, a daughter
or a wife. A “Woman Sitting” (1943)
is sitting in the middle of a war.
The breast that is showing
does not appear to be loved.
It lives in a society of thieves:
no hands. Even the pink lady
isn’t pink, she’s a head full of teeth. Now
it’s 1948. Painters may not be trembling,
but the world is. A secretary
turns over like a piece of furniture,
her paint running upward impossibly
from the face. She’ll do anything you say.
OIL AND WATER
In the painting was an ocean, as in the voice a history.
What was the woman picking up as she turned?
I filled the bathtub with water. I stocked up on wood. I thought about the spark
that sets the oil on fire, the fire that turns the water into steam.
It was more like sailing than sleeping. An eye adjusting to the dark.
A picture giving up its face.
Paper. Scissors. Water.
This is what the work is like.
A story climbs the stairs until its shoes will never dry, until there is no way to
If you were sleeping in the doorway. If you had lain down in the tunnel. If your
feet were wrapped in plastic.
If you saw the water like a green, unpeopled train.
If you heard the clatter of a canefield.
This dirty blue, this travertine. This almost-snow.
Dear Lorenzo of Texas and of Vietnam.
It’s impossible to say what will last until it’s gone.
Dear Paul of the elaborate Russian dream.
I’ve been trying to catch your eye, but you’re too busy kicking out the sun.
On film, the tower was an interruption. The axis of a shadow.
A hole into which another world was pouring.
I watched you watch the screen.
Dear mother of intention. Dear face in the clouds.
Dear Shelley of poetry.
Dear Lorca, you are king of the forest.
Your forest a dream made of air.
Dear city of defenses.
Dear Emma of anarchy.
Dear David on the pier.
Dear Barbara of the Genji.
Dear shipwrecked George.
Dear auburn water of the basement.
I tried to call you.
Dear girl in the bakery, you should be in school.
The shore is curatorial.
A drawing erased without the bitterness of friendship, without the gesture of a
The symbol of disaster is mechanical. A fan, a reactor, a bomb.
It is not, as in a watercolor by Hiroshige, a hand composed of water reaching
toward you as you run.
In the ocean is a painting, as in the page a voice.
To those who don’t know we are drowning, the ocean has nothing to say.
Elizabeth Willis's most recent book is Alive: New and Selected Poems (New York Review Books, 2015), which was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize Finalist. Her other books of poetry include Address (Wesleyan University Press, 2011), recipient of the PEN New England / L. L. Winship Prize for Poetry; Meteoric Flowers (Wesleyan University Press, 2006); Turneresque (Burning Deck, 2003); The Human Abstract (Penguin, 1995); and Second Law (Avenue B, 1993). She also writes about contemporary poetry and has edited a volume of essays entitled Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place (University of Iowa Press, 2008). A recent Guggenheim fellow, she has held residencies at Brown University, the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, and the Centre International de Poésie, Marseille, and has been a visiting poet at University of Denver, Naropa University, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She has been the Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Mills College and the Shapiro-Silverberg Professor of Creative Writing at Wesleyan University and currently serves as Professor of Poetry at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.