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Historical Intimacy

August 2021

When I was in a weeklong poetry workshop with Billy Collins a chunk of years ago, he looked at a poem I was working on titled "Sex with Amelia Earhart." He said it reminded him of his poem "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes" (which appears in his collection Picnic, Lightning).

The two poems both have a title intended to give a little shock. Collins uses a lot of allusions to Emily's poems including well-known lines from them. His poem is more romantic and less sexual than mine, but I imagine both poems would gather around them the same criticisms: sensationalist and maybe even misogynist. I know that both of us thought about that and both of us disagreed with those appraisals. I think we both thought of them as love poems. Male poet imagines a romantic relationship with a female inspiration from the past.

In an interview on Fresh Air, Collins said "I mean, I actually at one point, when there were so many books out about speculating particularly on Emily Dickinson's sexuality, you know, was she lesbian, was she celibate, did she have an affair, I was driven actually by all of that curiosity and speculation to write a poem called "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes," in which I attempted, in a kind of playful way, to put the matter at rest by having sex with her."

I showed both poems to another poet, Kristin D'Agostino, and she suggested there might be a prompt there .Create an intimacy between you and a historical person. Imagine a conversation or romantic encounter. "Intimacy" can occur at many levels. I did some searching online and it seems that some psychologist list four types of intimacies: emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical. Only one of those involves touching.

That was the writing prompt for this month's issue. Choose your person and select the type (types?) of intimacy. It might be a conversation over coffee, or a passionate weekend. So many possibilities.

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.

for Hopi Chief Dan Evehema 1893-1999

Thousands of miles from your mesa, I walk this garden.
Earth Mother
Indigo up to my knees will make dye.
August makes black dye sunflowers bow their heads.
Sky Father.
I brush tulsi, "holy basil" used in Ayurveda, perfuming the air.
You knew these squash, corn and beans well.
You knew the prophecies and tried to reveal them to us.
Masaw, guardian spirit, here in the burdock's plumes
that sends purple wisps into the hot wind
bringing change to us, but not to you.
Tonight, I will return here under the Moon.
Kachinas, invisible but felt, have something yet to teach me.
After harvest, before winter, we will dye new kasaya to wear
So many gods.
So many ways to pray.

Lianna Wright

Schmoozing John Lewis

We could have been brothers
Both dirt poor
Both from places named Troy
Except, yours was in Alabama
Mine in New York

We could have been brothers
You, a Baptist minister
Me, an alter boy
Both spending time with chickens
Except, I saw my little hens
Only on the weekends
When we would visit Grandma

We could have been brothers
Just three years apart
Both War babies
Except, you were Black
And I am White
Even if, as Maya says,
"We are more alike
Than unalike"

We could have been brothers
Both getting into trouble
Except, I organized the poor
Of Albuquerque
Never walked an Alabama bridge
With Martin Luther King

We could have been brothers
In some ways, we were
Both unable to ignore
What threatened to destroy
That, which we hold dear
Compelled to join the fight
We first took up
When we were only boys

Frank Kelly


I have tried what seems a lifetime to understand the two of you.
Brooding silently and alone like a barn owl, Nathaniel,
while Herman rages, Lear-like, only to regain his own assuredness
once again, briefly, and once again.
Like brothers bleeding truths differently,
you clasped hands.
How I wished I was in the dells below Mt. Greylock with you
to see the genius break through,
not lost amid the sunlight piercing meadow grass
that so pained your eyes in the morning.
The two of you, elbows joined in sharp admiration and wonder,
matched by your shared agony born of sublime recognition
that you'd dismiss at summer's end
even though it refused to quit you.
I didn't know, at sixteen, driving to my own carnal initiation
in a Berkshires cabin atop Mt. Greylock,
that so many years later I'd be in your thrall,
returning to it evermore, and not to hers,
though we'd groped and fumbled our way
to whatever I'd hoped would last,
a different transcendence I'd recognize
as sublime in a different way.

Rob Friedman


I’m not attracted to men but
those armpits
finer than prayer

kind of piqued
my curiosity. I’m dead,
he said, so you’ll have to
do the honors

yourself. His eyes
bore right into me
as I undid first one button
of his workman’s shirt

and then the others. It was
an overcast morning in Brooklyn,
a scent of the docks in the air
as I guided his hairy

arms out of their long sleeves,
and raised one arm over his head
in the manner of referees
and prizefighters. A stevedore

gave us a disapproving scowl
as I grazed the nest
of his armpit with my nose. I stopped

around there, waiting for him
to sigh or moan or
spur me on, but he was
still dead. So I undid

the father of free verse’s belt buckle
and unzipped his fly
and I assumed
that what he assumed

was that I’d go all the way,
and maybe I would have if
I was a better poet.
But instead I ended the poem

too soon. I should have kept going.
It might have been different
from what I supposed
and luckier.

Paul Hostovsky


Cavernous being penned behind diapers
and aprons in a stone-washed kitchen,
emotions locked behind grinding teeth
doing backflips behind limpid eyes.
Goddess of the utter numbness
of being, you could not be contained,
life flayed you awake, made you face
its quotidian exactitudes.

Words tumbled like ripe olives
from your tongue in the moon-slotted
night of your soul, demanded egress
from the caged tempest of your being.

Like tense knotted cords lines
caused sweat to pop from verbs,
sparked fires from nouns, silence
pressing down like daddy’s boot.

We could have been lovers, you and I,
broken shards of being sparking
from live wires as hurricane winds
drove us into enfolding seas.

But antipodes of time and mind
kept us apart, sent us whirling away
into our own Saharas, dry as the Siroccos
blowing flames across the world.

Robert Miller

with apologies to Etienne Maizcorena

He must be here, among aspen. I want his secret
of the owl – the bird in the tree, too high on the trunk
for the tallest human to reach with knife or nail.
Did E.M. carve it, or inspirit it there? Did he
use a ladder, or stand in the saddle of a very steady
horse, to carve it? Did he migrate his sheep
through this part of the Sierra? So long dead now,
he travels spirit-wise. His carvings of wild creatures
so full of life, sketches of deer, fish… He must
know the owl – or did I imagine it? High-altitude
hallucination: an owl inside a tree – or is it
a cat? the carving’s details ambiguous. Feline
or fowl? E.M. must have the answer. But how
will I know him? We speak different languages….
A whisper to the breeze. And there he is,
hard-worn boots flattening delphinium in bluest
mountain bloom. Gaze fixed, he’s so intent,
he hardly notices I’ve joined my gaze to his. The owl.
Aspen leaves vibrate, electrified above their
normal quaver, the way angels must sing above peaks
of ice. That quiver of air, inspiration. The owl
is there, alive, all-seeing – until it sinks
motionless back into the parchment bark of tree.

Taylor Graham


This August day,
I read that it is the anniversary of your death,
now fifty-nine years ago

You were 36,
I was just a boy thousands of miles away,
but I remember

thinking that I
could have saved you from all of them
from yourself

from the addictions
and the uncertainties that brought you down.
We would live

at the beach
isolated from all ot it, reading, writing, talking
day and night

nothing to distract
but the waves counting out the time, the sand
always being changed.

I was too late.
You couldn't wait for me to rescue you.
I still feel a connection.

Your films and photos,
of course, but now more to your writing.
You were writing to me.

Charles Michaels