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  • The Word You’re Looking For, and: Nocturne, and: Layered Pigments
  • Janice N. Harrington (bio)

The Word You’re Looking For

    What’s the wordfor the kind of loneliness that can feel like swimmingunassisted in a foreign language, for the very first time?

carl phillips

You have made me think that there are other kinds.Say, strolling by oneself through a tallgrass prairiewhen everything is distant or beyond the eye,that moment when a redwing trills a tag of notesand then unanswered goes by. Or maybe the worryof colored pencils over the paper’s tooth, an empty pageand thus hungry, like the sound of my father’s pencilswhen he drew. I heard that hushed scraping once, sharppencil points scurrying back and forth, the friction of his breathagainst a cardboard canvas similar to a poet’s breathover a keyboard. Could that sound servefor loneliness? Low, soft, pushed out—breath planed, filed—against an emptiness, but maybe on that imagined pagethere are a few words, words that have no breath as yet, butonce spoken, they’ll take any breath, a sigh, a whisper,an erupting shout. And reading the words aloud, isn’t that—the act of tucking your words into another’s breath—a kind of loneliness, a kind of theft?If words must be breathed again, again—say these!But some loneliness in that—right? Some searching?That’s what I say anyway. Lonely—what you can’t get rid of,what comes like breathing, or the scrape of a colored pencil, ormaybe the damn pheasant that burst now from a stand of bluestemto break the morning, to startle my heart into a faster beat, to make [End Page 124] my heart loud in my ears, then quiet, quiet enough to hearthat it’s just me and these extravagant grasses—I seethrough slanting, and arcs and buttresses, but not beyondor over them: green, and sun-lifted, reaching, but not toward me. [End Page 125]


Once, the child held his hand,and they walked down the pathand into the night, to the outhouse.His T-shirt shone moon bright,the child beside him, little satellite, little meteor.

Little meteor. And in the dark, I listen.If it rains, I’ll shut the window.If your breath comes like rising steam,I’ll know that you are riding a nightmare.I’ll push my heel against you or worrymy hand against your back, some motionto say, It’s not real. Come back. You’re safe.

You’re safe. The stars listen,gathering and making from our discordstheir deep silence. If the gods listen,they hear only the ping and ping of brief lives.They veer away or, perhaps hungry, draw close.

Draw close. Beside the Boulware Traila woman watches bats wing and flit their precisions,diving to snatch iridescent bodies, a lint of meats.Bats are not blind. Some see quite well. Somesee only ultraviolet. Some use no echolocation.Vision has its continuum. Blindness invented,assigned by those seeing what they choose to see.

They choose to see. She was once a child happy and unafraid.Her father’s skin was a part of the night, a stratospherethat starry remnants struck or keeled against, that flaredinto light, or heat, or shimmers of dust. Love does the same, [End Page 126] though she didn’t know it then. The child followed,holding tight. He had returned home, their equinox,their solstice. She followed, shining, holding his fingerslike kite strings. Little comet, little meteor. [End Page 127]

Layered Pigments

    White pines, deer,    three crows in flight, and in a craze    of pastel strokes—a waterfall.

Holding his canvas, I listen to the water’s slip, the beatof hooves against matted duff, the cawing crows.I see his labor and the flames that burned it all: the drawingthat hung once on our basement wall, a phantom imagein my mind, inside a frame he built himself.

Sadness, why do you mutter? Why are you here?A Black man drew and sorted light.He made Waterfall...


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pp. 124-128
Launched on MUSE
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