this body / that lightning show (Video)


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  • [Music]
  • Hi, I'm Elizabeth Gross and I teach  Interdisciplinary Humanities for the  
  • Honors Program and also serve as the Colloquium  Coordinator overseeing those Honors Colloquia  
  • courses. And I'm very happy to read to you today  from my book, this body / that lightning show.  
  • It's disappearing into my virtual background-  but which came out from The Word Works Press in  
  • June 2019 and also features the amazing, amazing  cover art of my colleague Nora Lovell, also in the  
  • Honors Program. So I'll read a few poems from this  body / that lightning show and then I will share  
  • some of my other work with you. I'll start with an  irresponsible fragment of sappho, which there are  
  • several of these throughout the book.  I say irresponsible because while I do read Greek, 
  • much of the Greek is missing in the fragments of  sappho and in some places I've taken permission to  
  • fill in some of the blanks with  the words that I think belong there  
  • even though there's absolutely no way to know.  Fragment 20. On the stock brightness and with luck  
  • fate will take harbor in the black earth  sailors might lift in big gusts to dry land,  
  • might sail heavy things like when and  everything raining if this work dry land.
  • Antelopes of Thera. After the fresco  of Akrotiri Thera 16th century BCE. 
  • And this one has an epigraph also from sappho  but too small for me to translate in any way that  
  • changes the beautiful work that Anne Carson did.  Fragment 162. With what eyes? (and it's a question)
  • One, Atlantis or not accident in the  form of a goat discovered the city,  
  • famous unlucky the goat fell through centuries  and centuries of volcanic ash, archaeologists  
  • followed in all, Did the goat survive? Do  goats have the kinds of eyes that see color?  
  • Two, the only way to make something last  is to forget about it for a long long time.  
  • Three, we just bought a copy of the ancient fresco,  a birthday present for my father on a lark, the red  
  • orange sky rides heavy on white mountains winding  just over the antelopes laughing heads, hung up  
  • in the room days before mandatory evacuation, that  sky the only solid shape, Should we take it with us  
  • along with the insurance papers the family photos?  no leave it on the wall, that one must be my voice,  
  • my family didn't know the story, what they  survived, painted animals accustomed to loss.  
  • Four, 21.5 hours to Dallas stopped in our car, an  endless line of people waiting to run for our  
  • lives. Five, before Akrotiri spewed into the sea,  the citizens kept up their jewelry or whatever  
  • and fled their painted halls, if they died  in their ships no one knows about it. Six,  
  • then flood, then return, drive to understand what  happened here but keep the windows up, no one  
  • should breathe this, twisted trees choked by salt  water and muck holding up the unexpected chairs,  
  • boats, cars, the sky is the limit, tiny pyramids of  mold and dust piled up on all our picture frames,  
  • not one of them crooked, a hole in the ceiling of  my parents house the approximate size of coffin,  
  • me underneath thinking lucky, lucky, lucky looking  clear up to the blue plastic tarp and the light  
  • shining through. Seven, the strong black marks  around the antelope's painted eyes took everything  
  • in, as tree bark darkens after rain gathering depth  or as the eyes of a living deer recede wetly from  
  • this world into other quieter worlds caught by  surprise just after sundown which belongs to them.  
  • Eight, when I ran away to the archaeological  museum on a one-way ticket to Athens I met  
  • those Antelope's original eyes, the top  of the stairs, I wasn't expecting them  
  • I didn't know they'd been transported  from what was left of their island,  
  • wherever they stand they guard the house, shadowless holding up the walls, I stood under their gaze  
  • for a long time, except there was  no time, everything was protected.
  • This body. This body / that lightning show and  wide back window, that window box of dirt and  
  • last year's roots, that old saw waiting quiet in  the shed, that noisy mini-factory of hungers, those  
  • counting seconds before thunder, the television  remote on low batteries, the metronome, the practice  
  • of sight reading, the wind under the floorboards,  the hard rain pooling in the windowsills, the  
  • reddening of certain kinds of fruit, the handmade  bowl with fingerprints left in, the loud cicada  
  • dusk, all questions, the thread, the roped off border,  the string instrument played pizzicato and off key.
  • I'll read one more from, this  body / that lightning show,  
  • which although it came out in in 2019 is quite old  work for me. I had the pleasure of reworking with  
  • a very talented editor at the Word Works but  mostly these poems were completed in 2010 or 2011.  
  • And much of what was going on then in my work, as  you've heard a little bit already, is processing  
  • the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina here in New  Orleans in my own experience of evacuation and  
  • displacement following the storm. So this one  picks up in that story that after returning  
  • to New Orleans. Levy Return. The riverside is quiet  as a sleepwalker but overhead there is a racket of  
  • green parrots in the electrical transformer grid,  invisible except occasional ambassadors coming or  
  • going, but loud, either it's the warm that draws  them or the hum of power, are they still shut up  
  • in houses in their dreams? the new generation, all  wild now, not knowing they aren't from around here,  
  • late afternoons I walk the low ridge of the flood  wall, from the riverside the city is just wires  
  • crossing the sky, a bicycle riding the horizon,  horses running circles at the electric tower's  
  • base, let the light leave me in tall grasses  that sometimes appear when the river is low.
  • So now I'd like to read a few poems from Dear  Escape Artist, a chapbook that came out from  
  • Antenna in 2016. And it's very close to me because  it was a collaboration with a dear friend and  
  • very talented visual and book artist, Sara  White. We let her press print it and hand bound  
  • the edition, letterpress printed the covers. And  the work is also full of her gorgeous ink  
  • illustrations. I'm showing you a few of these in  places where it interacts with the text as well.  
  • So I'll just read a few  of these as well.
  • Dear Escape Artist
  • I was watching underwater for your last big  thing, I saw you pick the lock with the same  
  • frayed rope they tied you up with, was there a they  or do you do it to yourself? I'm always imagining  
  • a vein, perhaps this is something we have in  common, I wish we could talk it over, high up  
  • on a ledge, feet dangling, just to pretend we're  not holding on for dear life, dear escape artist,  
  • my research tells me there are at least three  ways to die in an escape or die performance,  
  • drowning, suffocation, falling, and occasionally  electrocution, but this was something else,  
  • despair? the word calls up a phantom couch,  the word is weak, there are times the mind invents  
  • a rescue helicopter and its ladder flinging out  to it like a tongue, just to get anywhere else.
  • Dear escape artist, I had a dream this morning I  was you, the trap was set, it was the kind of dream  
  • that feels continued from another dream,  mine or someone else's bleeding through,  
  • I was in a ferris wheel in black and white,  it was a famous movie, a theory of evil  
  • at the highest point, everything so still  below, paused almost, except a single kite  
  • whipping the gray air, it's hard to watch  the struggle as if its neck could break,  
  • the dots move slow on the ground, predictable  in circles, why not squash them? a man says,  
  • who is also me, I had to exit the  conversation before we started coming down.
  • Dear escape artist, lately I can't sleep at  night so I construct an elaborate escape,  
  • build it up in layers around myself like a wasp,  
  • I start with simple rope and then add chains, then  glass, a weighted tank with tiny holes drilled in,  
  • open to the tide that rushes in, all inside an iron  cave, suspended from a crane, draped in a blanket of  
  • bees, balanced at the edge of the world between  water and the nearer parts of outer space, the  
  • airless dark no one can breathe, I can rest knowing  there will be something to do with my hands.
  • (illustration for that one)
  • Dear escape artist, on the radio I heard about  a kind of shrimp that makes light with the snap  
  • of its claw, underwater launches a bubble so  fast it burns hot as the surface of the sun,  
  • can you imagine letting go of a whole star? I don't  know where the light goes, but it must be reflected  
  • somewhere, right? a floating plastic cup becomes a  sudden moon, Dogen says the moon does not get wet  
  • when it's reflected in the water, nor is the water  broken, but here the water is broken after all and  
  • any stupid thing can hang on to borrowed light  for a second or two.
  • Dear escape artist, tell me another story about the world,
  • I know what I see so make me doubt it,
  • what the audience remembers is the story you tell after, not the act, whatever they were looking at when they missed everything.
  • So I'd like to close by reading some more recent  works, some unpublished works. This first poem  
  • was written in the summer of 2019 when I had  the opportunity to teach at Louisiana Correctional  
  • Institute for Women through the Newcomb  College Institute and Operation Restoration  
  • Program. I was teaching interdisciplinary  humanities like a college prep course  
  • for students who were just  entering the degree seeking program.  
  • And yeah, so this poem came out of that  experience. Passenger Side Window, 
  • all summer the water is high, just underneath us,  where the highway skirts the edge of the swamp,  
  • the few trees farther out make v's of moving  water, where the current slowly wears them down,  
  • halfway between a living thing and  the ruin of that thing still standing,  
  • a few last vertical ambassadors between us and  nothing, I mean between your car barreling westward  
  • down the stream of the elevated highway and the  lake, I want to say something about this landscape,  
  • what it does to me to take it in and take it in  each week, never stopping to and from the prison  
  • where we teach, losing the light on the way back  in the tunnel of green before we hit the water,  
  • sometimes after we talk and talk, can't stop  as soon as we pass the last of the razor wire,  
  • we want to remember everything everyone said,  each rare human glimpse inside this place  
  • we're expected to forget because this isn't where  the story is or when, the story that matters is  
  • the past, what'd you do to get here, I can't deny  wanting to know, but I can leave it in your car  
  • with my phone, my wallet, my keys, my water bottle,  my hypothetical weapons, anything that doesn't fit  
  • in the clear plastic school bag I carry to  clear all check points, I open the glove box,  
  • you open the trunk, this isn't the story that  matters either, their lives do not go blank like  
  • the missing horizon where lake meets sky, other  evenings after we just drive, car radio scanning  
  • for its preset stations as I search my mind for  the words that might help us put away whatever  
  • we witnessed inside or understand it, somewhere  between what we can't know and what we can't say,  
  • one night the moon burns huge and orange like a  thumb over the camera lens through rare breaks in  
  • the trees, high and cool and bright by the time we  reach the swamp where we can really see, just now  
  • when I mentioned the moon, I felt a moment of  relief, like I bent the thing I meant to say into a  
  • metaphor accessible to anyone who's tried to take  a picture of the moon or explain exactly how the  
  • moon had changed them, impossible, inside the prison  the classroom is a classroom and the students
  • are students around an ordinary table  discussing what it means to be human,  
  • as if humanity isn't something outside this  classroom, they are asked to prove over and  
  • over with their bodies, even here lining up in  the hallway for the guards to pat them down,  
  • as you and I take our seats on the far side of  the classroom so we don't have to watch, and now  
  • if I were to mention the roses in the prison  yard everyone would read them as a metaphor for  
  • hope or worse, some thorned beauty of survival,  wrong, because these roses are real, intended  
  • by women most forget are alive, and if I were  to mention the birds tilted and soaring, wild  
  • and uncountable, would that image of freedom be  enough to free us? throw us back into looking away.
  • These last two are my only pandemic poems which  seem fit to share in this strange virtual format.  
  • So these are the newest. Housework, May 2020.
  • As the world narrows our dominion grows, finally the world is all women,
  • the home is everything, everything now,
  • keeping track of which vegetables are likely to turn next in the fridge, sweeping, and planting, and feeding, tending to elders by phone
  • the weariness we carry in public places too, are those footsteps  too close? and yet I find myself following the moon,  
  • usually I wouldn't walk at night, beep, beep,  a man says somewhere, didn't want to scare ya,  
  • he throws back one more warning wheeling by on  bike, watch yourself in this weather, the moon I say,  
  • but he's already turned the corner, by now perhaps  you've noticed I contradict myself, or perhaps you  
  • ran outside to gape at the moon over the cemetery  like I did, Penelope waited almost 20 years to see  
  • her household piled up with death, she ruled  quietly even as the plague of suitors infected  
  • the house, ate everything, meanwhile she orbited her  own life as a satellite so they couldn't touch her,  
  • where is the epic of her life indoors? like  us, her work was slowing time and grief,  
  • heading home the street lamp shines brighter than  the moon, churning with wings, it's May, I'm too late  
  • to shut out the lights to keep the termite swarms  out already warming through the house's seams,  
  • I watch from the porch as  darkness swallows the neighborhood,  
  • tomorrow I'll sweep their spent bodies into the  tub and down the drain, but I'll find their wings  
  • flashing back little scraps of light for weeks. 
  • This last poem that I'll read I just learned won  
  • the 2020 Words in Music Contest from the Faulkner  Society and Podunk Review. So that's very exciting.  
  • This was also a pandemic poem, one of the two that I managed in this time.  
  • And it's in a form called the guzzle persian  form. And actually it's my very first attempt at  
  • this form, so very exciting to win a contest.  (very first go) Okay, Guzzle at the End of the World,  
  • April 2020. Don't tell me you don't feel it  too, relief, something finally stopped all of us  
  • at once, like a whistle in the schoolyard,  freeze, on one leg balancing finally stopped,  
  • the clear green waters of Venice flowing  with dolphins and swans are just a fantasy  
  • glimpse of a post-polluted world, our  high emission flying finally stopped,  
  • experts say the mask I wear protects you more  than me, but they don't know the pleasure I feel  
  • not recognizing my own reflection in car windows  when out walking, that mirror gazing finally  
  • stopped, erasing my spring calendar I dimly recall  how many times I've wished to slow down time,  
  • not like this of course, now the future begins  somewhere years from now, when this suffering  
  • finally stops, one of my neighbors died, the rest of  us stood on our porches watching paramedics float  
  • around the purple house in their protective gowns  trying to guess whose breathing finally stopped,  
  • my concentration is shot, I'm not writing, I  can only read the things my students ask me to,  
  • soon I'll submit their final grades and this hydra  headed semester will be done, teaching finally  
  • stopped, alone in the house for months I lose the  sense of where my edges are expanding until I  
  • imagine draping these walls around my body like  a robe, all other daily dressing finally stopped,  
  • it was hours before Mr. James stepped out of his  purple house to say his nephew passed, relatives  
  • arrived, distant until a downpour drove them close,  the rain long passed when they're wailing finally  
  • stopped, on another endless video call, the birds  outside trigger my microphone to unmute as my days  
  • stretch on, screen-bound, indoors waiting  for someone else to finally stop the Zoom,  
  • I focus on my virtual backgrounds, dolphins light  moving against green leaves, aquarium scene, I can  
  • make parts of myself disappear by drinking from  a glass, reverse genie summoning finally stopped,  
  • I lost my job, not right away like so many I love  who are struggling now, but after quarantine I'm  
  • never going back to the work, the office I love,  our thoughtful planning finally stopped, from here  
  • summer is an unthinkable hot blank and yet I long  to leap for it, I try to explain to an internet  
  • friend that I don't have to be this Elizabeth  anymore, all that performing finally stopped.
  • Thank you very much for your attention in  my reading. I just read and read and didn't  
  • really talk about my work but my understanding  is there will be an opportunity for Q&A and  
  • yeah, I'd love to talk about anything  there. It's a real privilege for me since I,  
  • I'm a poet and have been a poet for  a long time but that's not my role  
  • at Tulane. To be able to share this other  side of my work with this community, so  
  • thanks again to the library and especially Amanda  for reaching out to me to participate in this.
  • [Music]