Lying in State: Advice for American Poets

Photograph by the author.

for Seth

Listen I was born on a hill in 1986. / Year of the tiger, they tell me.
Can I ask you a question, Americans? / Does your life look at all like this?
Every now and again / are you summoned to visit a room?
And yes you say to the summoner. / I will read you a poem in the room.
In my youth
, you begin / and shortly the reading is ended.
But some nights you’re ambushed. / Some nights the room turns against you.
Anyone have any questions
, the summoner asks. / (Five gold teeth in his mouth.)
What advice do you have
, says a voice. / You know for American poets.
I was born on a hill in 1986
, you tell her. / Do I look like a man with advice.
She wears a gold ring on a necklace. / Her saddleshoe laces are tucked.
No your advice,
says the summoner. / What advice will you give us tonight.   




1)     You’re never going to prison for American poetry.

2)     I defy the police to come find you for any lines you’ll write.  

3)     God sent me to die in the backstreets, wrote Sergei Esenin.

4)     We might call this a terrorist’s line today. 

5)     I know a hundred ways to die, wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay.

6)     And listen god wants nothing to do with me.

7)     But I know a hundred ways to jail yourself here in America I’ll tell you a few.

8)     You could buy yourself a ticket to Cameroon.

9)     The second you step off the plane the police bludgeon you.

10)  They suck their teeth and rummage through your belongings.

11)  Such is their nature, they scheme up a story.

12)  Look at this gold the poet stole from the gold fields, they’ll say.

13)  This poet was bartering gold for guns and hollow point bullets.

14)  Next it’s the papers: American Poet Plots Assassination of President.

15)  He contrived to fire into the heart of our king, they’ll say. 

16)  And they’ll chain you up in darkness for thirty-one days.

17)  They’ll toss you in prison for seven years in your country.

18)  This happened to a poet last month in Africa while you were buying a scarf.

19)  While you were checking your hair in the mirror you hung in your poem.

20)  And besides you don’t need gold to get yourself guns you’re American.

21)  And I know a hundred ways to jail yourself on the cheap here in America.

22)  You could start huffing ether from torn-off scraps of your shirt, for instance.

23)  You could knock on your neighbor’s door in the midst of a three-day binge.

24)  It’s time, you tell him.

25)  And the two of you vandalize a wall all night for free.

26)  Write something on his wall.

27)  Write something on her wall.

28)  Isn’t that what your machine already tells you to do every day?

29)  You could write many lines that have landed poets in jail outside America.

30)  Our lives no longer feel ground beneath them, for instance.

31)  When Stalin read this line he summoned the police to his study.

32)  Drag Osip Mandelstam out of town by his scruff, he said.

33)  Nadezhda, O’s wife: Give us a man, the police say, and we’ll make him a case.

34)  And when they hauled O away she opened a trunk in their bedroom.

35)  Piles and piles of O’s handwritten poems.

36)  And Nadezhda commits them to memory when they sentence Osip to exile.

37)  Well the police came for me when I was blackout with my neighbor.

38)  We were vandalizing a wall in the false dawn in America.

39)  Whatever else we were writing, we were not writing American poetry.

40)  But often I dream of my neighbor and the life he’s living these days.

41)  Often I dream of Esenin swinging from a pipe in the Hotel Angleterre.

42)  I know a hundred lines I wish I’d written on that wall in the false dawn.

43)  I don’t want to build toy gunships for my nephew anymore, for instance.

44)  Or: god sent me to America to write my poem and die

45)  But I don’t wanna die, for instance, on American Airlines.

46)  Then the police said give us your prints and your shoelaces.

47)  So we don’t string ourselves up from the pipes, I said to my neighbor.

48)  In America the police let you smoke before they move you to real jail.

49)  (Remembering my astonishment when men spoke to me in real jail.)

50)  Like the law said: you may only speak lines you’ve heard criminals deliver on T.V.

51)  What are you in for, a man asked me.

52)  I was vandalizing a wall in the false dawn with my neighbor.

53)  You mean like kicking it over?

54)  No arrested for writing a few words on a wall.

55)  (Silence.)

56)  He laughs and shakes his head: you white people are fucking insane, he says.

57)  Poets, they’ll tell you the answer is stealing.

58)  Stealing is how you go to jail in American poetry.

59)  I see the jaw of T.S. Eliot’s skeleton clacking together and saying these words.

60)  They are false words and I defy you to go to jail for robbing a poet.

61)  The last way to go to jail for American poetry is you break the law of language.

62)  For instance: defamation of character.

63)  It’s 1982 and Ronald Reagan finishes his ash-heap of history speech.

64)  He turns to his wife while an ice cube melts in his drink.

65)  Any day I want now / I can say to the folks / at home in their living rooms.

66)  Tomorrow is the end of America.

67)  And history will prove me a shrewd man.

68)  It’s 1960 and the Times is raising money to defend Dr. Martin Luther King.

69)  Heed their rising voices, says the paper.

70)  And a policeman in Alabama, he takes the paper to court on charges of libel.

71)  9 to 0 the justices of the Supreme Court rule against the police.

72)  (Police later sue four black ministers and win $500,000.)

73)  You didn’t, say the justices, establish actual malice.

74)  What is the law of this word, this malice?

75)  In my life, I’ll quote Abraham Lincoln once, and when I do I’ll misquote him.

76)  With malice, toward none—a line I wish I’d written on the wall.

77)  So my advice is you buy yourself a ticket to Ronald Reagan’s grave.

78)  It lies in state if you must know in a museum with an airplane inside of it.

79)  My advice is you chisel your poem into the fuselage.

80)  This machine, for instance.

81)  Ronald Reagan murdered fourteen Marxists with his bare hands in 1982.

82)  Kills machines, for instance.

83)  And Ronald Reagan said I pray my wife never thaws out her grave.

84)  And America I don’t wanna.

85)  My advice is write your poem on a brick and throw it through Nancy’s window.

86)  Die on American Airlines.

87)  I know a hundred ways to die in American poetry I’ll tell you a few.

88)  We’re in China last year and your poem is called it’s time.

89)  The police of Hangzhou what harsh critics they are.

90)  This sad poem incites the Jasmine Revolution they write in your Sunday review.

91)  Incites subversion of state power is the conviction they deliver in court.

92)  Your wife and son are present during the hearing.

93)  He is a plump god in her lap and tying and untying his shoelaces.

94)  She is wearing your dead grandfather’s gold ring on a necklace.

95)  And even as they sentence you, your wife is memorizing your poems.

96)  Seven years the police will chain you up in darkness in your country.

97)  Seven years after you’ve already given them nine.

98)  And they will stub out ten cigarettes on each of your fingertips.

99)  And the name of your poem is it’s time.

100)  With malice, toward none, it begins.