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The Bridge

That there are things that can never be the same about
my face, the houses, or the sand, that I was born under the
sign of the sheep, that like Abraham Lincoln I am serious
but also lacking in courage,
That from this yard I have been composing a great speech,
that I write about myself, that it’s good to be a poet, that I look
like the drawing of a house that was pencilled by a child,
that curiously, I miss him and my mind is not upon the Pleaides,
that I love the ocean and its foam against the sky,
That I am sneezing like a lion in this garden that he knows
the lilies of his Nile, distant image, breakfast, a flock of birds
and sparrows from the sky,
That I am not the husband of Cassiopeia, that I am not
the southern fish, that I am not the last poet of civilization,
that if I want to go out for a walk and then to find myself
beneath a bank of trees, weary, that this is the life that I had,
That curiously I miss the sound of the rain pounding
on the roof and also all of Oakland, that I miss the sounds of
sparrows dropping from the sky, that there are sparks behind
my eyes, on the radio, and the distant sound of sand blasters,
and breakfast, and every second of it, geometric, smoke
from the chimney of the trees where I was small,
That in January, I met him in a bar, we went
home together, there was a lemon tree in the back yard,
and a coffee house where we stood outside and kissed,
That I have never been there, curiously, and that it never was
the same, the whole of the island, or the paintings of the stars,
fatherly, tied to sparrows as they drop down from the sky,
O rattling frame where I am, I am where there are still
these assignments in the night, to remember the texture
of the leaves on the locust trees in August, under the
moonlight, rounded, through a window in the hills,
That if I stay beneath the pole star in this harmony of
crickets that will sing, the bird sound on the screen,
the wide eyes of the owl form of him still in the dark,
blue, green, with shards of the Pacific,
That I do not know the dreams from which I have come,
sent into the world without the blessing of a kiss, behind the
willow trees, beside the darkened pansies on the deck beside
the ships, rocking, I have written this, across the back of the
sky, wearing a small and yellow shirt, near the reptile house,
mammalian, no bigger than the herd,
That I wrote the history of the war waged between the
Peloponnesians and the south, that I like to run through
shopping malls, that I’ve also learned to draw, having been
driven here, like the rain is driven into things, into the
ground, beside the broken barns, by the railroad tracks,
beside the sea, I, Thucydides, having written this, having
grown up near the ocean.

—Lisa Jarnot

Elizabeth Willis reads and discusses Lisa Jarnot’s “The Bridge”

Transcription of Commentary

I love this poem. I love its curiousness: the things that it finds curious and the fact that it moves with such curiosity through the world.

It seems to me a deeply American poem in a lot of ways, though what Americanness is is not easy to say, and the instability of that meaning seems to me an important part of it.

I think what’s American about the poem has to do with its stance, which includes an almost overwhelming ambition for greatness, and a profound humility and fear of not being up for the labors that the poet, like an ancient hero, has been called to do.  It’s the way the poem inhabits its vulnerability and still goes on to reach for something beyond it. The way it wants to feel something both intimate and collective, to belong to something and someone and at the same time to maintain the clarity and authority of self-determination.

All of this is happening in the context of these spectacularly commonplace points of contact: someone sneezing in a garden, two people kissing on the street, a flock of birds, the zoo, things that are broken or falling or trapped. It’s not an ideal world. But there’s an intimacy that’s shared with the reader, that opens onto something marvelous about the experience of being human.

There’s an underlying imperative here to fulfill the immense potential of the poem. And the poet isn’t given the space to do this, she has to make the world of the poem, to say the thing that only she can say, to fulfill the assignment that she has been given in the night, as if her life depends on it, as I think it does. And that assignment seems to touch on every aspect of relation, of social and domestic life, of the history of poetry and the history of this country, which is still being written, and which like that of the Peloponnesians who appear at the end of the poem, is at war, with the world and with itself.

The poem is considering what survives and what is momentary, what lasts and what the poem has the opportunity or responsibility to represent.

There are relational patterns that survive, there is poetry that survives, but also a history of violence, which means, among other things, that the task of the poet, to create something counter to that history, is undiminished.

The poem is looking at all these forms of relation, how we think of ourselves among others, or in relation to a significant other, within history, among other species, under the sky in which one person might see the kind of god that counts the sparrows and others the seven sisters of the Pleiades.

I think this is a poem about being in the middle of a larger narrative account, including the fact that any understanding of our place comes from the accounts of others and that, in some sense, what we experience as reality is always being bridged in this way. It’s as if we’ve arrived in the middle of an argument or treatise with all those “that…” clauses—but those clauses deliver is completely personal and non-legalistic and slippery and true… that there are things that can never be the same.

We begin in the middle of this human situation of living here in a body that’s time-bound among materials that are time bound, with the knowledge that everything, even our selves, our domestic and biological environment is constantly changing, mutable, unstable. And next to this is placed the fact that there are things that don’t change and that we are powerless over, including the circumstances of birth, the imperfect and unfinished scrawl of our lives, all our capacities as well as our limits.

I love the way Lincoln appears unexpectedly in a way that undoes the oversimplified heroics of national history. What does it mean to look at the fear and failure that are obscured by mythology—and to do so without giving up on the concept of a social good? What does it mean to look at all of history past and present as part of the same erroneous and flawed composition?

I think “The Bridge” is saying something about American identity and what it means to be an individual within a work in progress, which is what any nation or coalition or relationship is, and what it means to be an artist in this culture, fully alive to the complexities and disappointments and possibilities of what that might mean.

The poet herself is a kind of bridge figure, mercurial, moving between visible and invisible realms, past and present, curious and elusive and alive, not the first or the last of her kind. She’s making a bridge of words that begins on one shore and ends on another, from Oakland to ancient Greece, writing and rewriting these layered histories in a declaration of love and of allegiance, to something that is both smaller and larger than the national.

Lisa Jarnot, "The Bridge" from Ring of Fire.

Copyright © 2003 by Lisa Jarnot.

Reprinted by permission of Salt Publishing.

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Elizabeth Willis (1961- ) is the author of six collections of poetry, most recently Alive: New and Selected Poems (2015), finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Address (2011), winner of the PEN New England/LL Winship Prize. Willis has also edited a volume of essays entitled Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place. In 2012, she received a Guggenheim fellowship for poetry. From 1998-2002, she was Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Mills College. From 2002-2015, she taught at Wesleyan University, where she served as Shapiro-Silverberg Professor of Creative Writing. Since 2015, Willis has been on the permanent faculty at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Photo credit: Tom Fitzsimmons.

Lisa Jarnot

Lisa Jarnot

Lisa Jarnot (1967- ) is the author of four full-length collections of poetry, including Some Other Kind of Mission (1996), Ring of Fire (2001), Black Dog Songs (2003) and Night Scenes (2008), as well as many chapbooks. In 2012, City Lights published Jarnot’s Joie de Vivre: Selected Poems. Jarnot is the co-editor of the the anthology An Anthology of New (American) Poets (1997), and her biography of poet Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus, was published in 2012. Jarnot works as a teacher, writer, and freelance gardener and is a founding member of the Central Park Forest Nursery. Photo credit: Joan Beard Photography.