The Reading – ONLINE BONUS

Editor’s Choice: 2023 Sandy Crimmins Poetry Contest


1979, after Carolyn Forché


You haven’t heard this one, but we were there. In the bright ugly room

behind a row of bald professors. It was April, and sticky. The plastic chairs

sucked at our thighs. Some dignitaries led her to the podium. She was just

a girl-poet, with her long blonde hair and flowy clothes, and all the easy

romance of being not too old but enough older than us. After the Chair

introduced her, she spoke in a voice so low we all leaned in. I was in his house.

His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. Some pipes clanked inside the walls.

Outside, through the open windows, frat boys were shouting. We were on

the inside now. We feared the colonel’s spoiled teenage children. The dog,

the American cop show. And— Don’t write about a pistol unless you intend

to use it, we knew at least this from our professors—the pistol on

the cushion by the colonel’s thigh. The poet’s words were candy tumbling

from a table; then, her voice dropped softer: our tongues on the dried peach

halves. Oh, I can tell you this now,

There is no other way to say this:


Metaphor is a tool of the wicked.

Metaphor presses against your skull, your nose squashed to the glass. The

window was never meant to open. The architects made it that way. On your side,

the Chair is paying attention. His nostril hair flutters with each bated exhalation.

The girl-poet will become famous. On the other side, the scene is vivid. An ear

unfurls in a glass of water. The ear is disconnected from the mind. On the glossy

tiled floor, a scattering of amputated ears “to the ground.” Life is a series

of amputations. You are mute as a nun in church. The girl beside you, who

cries easily about ideas, weeps with shame.

How can we go forward in this future? How can we go on?

Karen Rile is the author of Winter Music (Little, Brown), a novel set in Philadelphia, and numerous works of fiction and creative nonfiction. She teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania and is the founding and chief editor of Cleaver Magazine.