A recent recipient of a Guggenheim for fiction, Terese Svoboda is the author of seven books of prose, six books of poetry, a memoir, a book of translation, and a biography. Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet will be published by Schaffner Press early next year. Learn more on Terese’s website.
From When the Next Big War Blows Down the Valley: Selected and New Poems
©Terese Svoboda 2015
Baiyer River, Papua New Guinea
The road stops, not in a suburban cul-de-sac but where the bulldozer’s sunk. Thirty or so men mill at the wreck
in shorts and Coke or Sony T-shirts. They all have shoes and guns. Dirt from the plantesin seams their skin. The Hertz
rent-a-jeep is theirs, as far as we’re concerned. Last year a missionary, in terror or bravado, ran a roadblock and disappeared,
and he brought immortality to the valley — penicillin — which is why the road got this far, the only
reason. Soon-to-be-extinct butterflies ﬂutter in pools of urine by the roadside where they strategize —
for us, for anyone. The road must pay. Two men wear grass skirts, try to say our names, as the rest do not. Are they
less hostile because we’re their dinner? To eat means to exploit to all consumers. Beyond the misty range before us,
gold-capped mountains alchemize men wearing neckties and Levi’s into Cortez, astride big machines.
Meanwhile, because it is always meanwhile back at the pass for someone, all
these night-of-the-living-dead men strip the jeep, even take the contract and rip it up for rolling paper, which is when the If
this, then — hits home. Why us? Our T-shirts spell out outrageousness in their blankness.
We take off the shirts. If it’s not their road, whose is it? And why so dangerous?
—— Originally published in Virginia Quarterly Review
When the Next Big War Blows Down the Valley
Flame casts the overhang in shadow so no one can see anyone behind the clubs or sharpened sticks each has made for himself in the boredom of the many dusks when the spilt blood has dried or sunk into the red dirt at the bottom where food grows and women dance and trees promise drums and from where no one ever escapes but takes up the broken sharpened sticks and cuts rows into the freshened earth until all they remember of those from before is their small size, and not their own good luck.
——Originally published in Prairie Schooner
Slaughter of the Centaurs
Woods, glades, copses, massed oak, the vines of Atreus, trillium, dogbane, an excess of green, the insects cryptic with cold, green with a fine English mist which softens the streaks of blood glistening on the ﬂanks of the coarsely forelocked boys, none more than ﬁfteen, beardless, death catching them cantering, berets cocked, weapons not. See the tattoos on their chests, the mermaid’s swinging hair, the laughing snake? They went as we will. See the strong hooves still twitching? The warm earth, ravaged in reﬂex? But they were warriors, planted in their mothers’ wombs for nothing else, their beautiful tails curled around their wet bellies, lifted, so delicately, to fan the light. Brighter now, you can see boys in wrecked jeeps in camouflage. —— Originally published in Field
Mother burns on the other side of the bridge. Mother burns the bridge and is safe on the other side. Mother is not on the bridge when it burns. When Mother says burn, the bridge burns. We can't get to the other side the bridge is burning. Mother is the bridge that we burn. She is how we get to the other side. We can't burn the bridge without her. Mother burns and we burn, bridge or no bridge. She is the other side. Nothing burns the bridge, and then it burns. ——Originally published in Times Literary Supplement
My Mature Style
I light matches endlessly. Paris burns! The Eiffel Tower shoots blue gas! The lighter I find in my pocket, cold metal on a blue bruise, ignites the biggest fires. I get dogs and cats running, I get affirmation in black. My mother's heart keeps on burning. Mark the left ventricle her favorite, its system so silent and skilled, its blue the blues of exchange. —— Originally published in Salamagundi
As men, to try the precious unicorn’s horn, Make of the powder a preservative circle, And in it put a scorpion.
—— ]ohn Webster, The White Devil
A scorpion struts through the ring of powder then dies. In Britain, 300 years ago, the scorpion was certainly as rare as the unicorn but its death proved the unicorn lived. But had died, of course, its horn being ground to powder which is white like the white rhino’s, white like what the girl from Amsterdam’s licking off her mirror, and now the rhino’s rare. We think the girl’s alive. Then too, men pondered over the bones of the triceratops, labeling them the blasted dragon’s ears. And ground them for sex. It’s no wonder Mattel turns out a pink synthetic-maned unicorn to fetch the eight-year-old virgins, our best specimens. Or that it took Lincoln seven hours to die. That is, the twenty surgeons packed into the small dressing room could cut as well as ours but had no drugs. He was a rare man to proclaim emancipation, even under pressure, to free black from white even if that’s still a matter of myth. Such is progress: the scorpion rising on its many legs, coming to, and the unicorn spread before the roaring ﬁre where the Dutch girl lolls, empowdered.
—— Originally published in Boston Review
Once, living as a seal, I leapt the margins of waves into sunsets made green by lichen. You buy that? The tiny plants, the angle of the sun, the seal? Atlantic City tidies itself into the margins of waves nobody watches or they’d miss their dice roll. If you lichen on Facebook the box unlichens, living living on margins really singular for the green electricity that meets its demand, the seal no-friended on account of gamboling on lichen — it could be algae without the fuel — and myself an impersonator, a drop of oil in the shape of the surface gasping for what I can get, a sunset, a wave, a lorgnette to see the cards being dealt. I can swim into the sunset anthropomorphized or not, the margins set regardless of perspective, the seal sunk, the lichen changed into phosphorescence as if a wave goodbye. Adieu! the seal says with its tail, an extension of its waist. The waves okay that, the sun likes.