Everyone who left us we find everywhere.
It’s easier, now, to look them in the eyes—
At gravesites, in bed, when the phone rings.
Of course, we wonder if they think of us.
It’s easier, now, to look them in the eyes,
Imagine touching a hand, listening to them talk.
Of course, we wonder if they think of us
When nights, like tonight, turn salty, warm.
Imagine touching a hand, listening to them talk—
Hard to believe they’re capable of such coldness.
When nights, like tonight, turn salty, warm,
We think of calling them, leaving messages.
Hard to believe they’re capable of such coldness—
No color, no pulse, not even a nerve reaction.
We think of calling them, leaving messages
Vivid with news we’re sure they’d want to know.
No color, no pulse, not even a nerve reaction:
We close our eyes in order not to see them.
Vivid with news, we’re sure they’d want to know
We don’t blame them, really. They weren’t cruel.
We close our eyes in order not to see them
Reading, making love, or falling asleep.
We don’t blame them. Really, they weren’t cruel,
Though it hurts every time we think of them:
Reading, making love, or falling asleep,
Enjoying the usual pleasures and boredoms.
Though it hurts every time we think of them,
Like a taste we can’t swallow their names stay.
Enjoying the usual pleasures and boredoms,
Then, they leave us the look of their faces
Like a taste we can’t swallow. Their names stay,
Diminishing our own, getting in the way
At gravesites, in bed, when the phone rings.
Everyone who left us we find everywhere,
Then they leave us, the look of their faces
Diminishing, our own getting in the way.
How did you come to write this poem?
I confess I don’t entirely recall. I know it was one of the first poems I finished after completing my third book, Dialogue for the Left and Right Hand. Writing is always a struggle for me, especially after a book is done. I remember, dimly, that I’d been reading some of my handwritten notes and fragments, and the sentence, “Everyone who left us we find everywhere,” seemed like a good sentence with which to start a poem. But I don’t remember when it occurred to me to explore the challenges and opportunities of writing a pantoum—probably after I’d written a quatrain with lines that seemed to merit repeating. All pantoums must develop that way, no?
How did writing this poem affect your recovery?
The poem doesn’t pertain to a specific experience of recovery. Between 1987 and 1996, the year the poem was written, my father, brother, and mother died. Certainly the poem, in part, grapples with that sequence of losses, and the way such losses leave deep impressions. In retrospect, the structure of the pantoum—the insistent recurrence of its lines—seems like the right form for the way lost loved ones keep “turning up” in memory. Of course, had I been aware of that, I would never have written the poem.
Can you tell us something about your process of writing that helped this poem come to life?
I tend to “construct” poems rather than write them—that is, I generate material in the form of fragments, scribbles, lines or stanzas that go nowhere—then reread them and try to make something of the passages that show some promise as language. “Everyone Who Left Us” certainly developed out of that process. The other day I heard a friend describe writing a poem in one sitting, starting with a first line and then simply—simply!—following the verbal cues to a more or less serviceable first draft. I seethed with envy.
Who are your favorite poets or poets new to you whom you'd recommend to others?
Well, the usual suspects in the English: Shakespeare of the sonnets and the great, introspective monologues (really, meditative poems in and of themselves); Keats, Dickinson (who loved Keats); the modernists except 90% of Pound (love that 10%, though). First hearing Eliot read out loud by my high school English teacher made me fall in love with poetry. I recently had the opportunity to write about W.S. Merwin, which re-introduced me to what I like and don’t like about his poetry. Decades after everyone else, I’ve just gotten around to reading War Music, Christopher Logue’s “account” of Books 1-4 and 16-19 of the Iliad. It’s as astonishing as everyone has said—every rift packed with ore, as Keats said poetry must be—and page-turningly readable. What took me so long? I hope it will not take me as long to read the other parts of this project which took him from 1962 until 2005. He died in 2011; I don’t know if there are any posthumous volumes forthcoming. I hope so.
What are you working on now?
My fifth collection, Clangings—a book-length sequence of poems comprising a single dramatic monologue—was released this month from Sarabande Books. I wrote it in a kind of white heat in 2009 and 2010. The speaker manifests the thought disorder known as “clang associations”–mental connections made between dissociated ideas through rhymes, puns, neologisms, and other non-linear speech, occurring frequently in schizophrenia and mania. I’m no more schizophrenic than Browning was the Duke of Ferrara; and the book, I hope, isn’t a fictionalized or versified case history. The clinical premise allowed me to write in a new way—more irrationally than is characteristic of my work.
Now I’m mainly trying to figure out how to write poems again. As I said, it’s always a struggle.
STEVEN CRAMER's new collection of poetry is Clangings (Sarabande, 2012). He is the author of four previous collections: The Eye that Desires to Look Upward (1987); The World Book (1992); Dialogue for the Left and Right Hand (1997); and Goodbye to the Orchard (2004), which won the 2005 Sheila Motton Prize from the New England Poetry Club, and was named a 2005 Honor Book in Poetry by the Massachusetts Center for the Book.
Steven’s poems and criticism have appeared in numerous literary journals, including The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, The New Republic, The Paris Review, Partisan Review, Poetry, and Triquarterly; as well as in The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poets, The POETRY Anthology, 1912–2002, and Villanelles (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series, 2012).
Steven has taught literature and writing at Bennington College, Boston University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Tufts University. Recipient of fellowships from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, he currently directs the Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge. His new collection Clangings is available at Sarabande Books.
His poem “Everyone Who Left Us” was anthologized in After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events (Sante Lucia Books, 2008).
Bogger’s note: A friend recently died, someone with whom I worked for several years, but hadn’t seen in subsequent years. She was bright and gregarious but progressively overcome by a demon. She died of a drug overdose earlier this month. After I heard the news, I thought of this poem, and as I read it, Steven Cramer’s pantoum drove home this point: The longer you live, the more people you know and love die, and if you are lucky enough to be one of those who continues to wake up each morning, then you must carry the responsibility of grief. Thank you, Steven Cramer, for helping me bear the grief through another day.
–Tom Lombardo, Editor, After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events .