750: Ars Poetica

750: Ars Poetica

750: Ars Poetica


I’m Shira Erlichman and this is The Slowdown.

Before I was officially an American citizen I was termed a “resident alien.” To become an “American citizen” I had to be “naturalized.” Is an immigrant unnatural? Is an immigrant unfamiliar, and so, disturbing? Does the government’s language amplify humanity, or strip it?

We live in the balance between this kind of dehumanizing language––the dead rhetoric of the politician––and what I’ll call “little language.” I mean little like apple, candle, or comb––the stuff of everyday life. Little language is inherently intimate. It honors the blood and bone of its speaker, and the listener. It’s the language of nicknames, of preference and delight. Because it’s nuanced and personal, it reflects humans, not regimes.

To walk through any American city or town is to see monuments and street-signs devoted to people who have committed genocide. Murder hangs in the open air with a touch of ease. Poets know language can stand in stark contrast to structures of power and control. So we often wield little language in all its deceptive power. Its intimacy pricks and challenges authority. But perhaps most importantly, little language enriches those of us who are vulnerable enough to speak it.

Just the other day, my bodega dude called me “sweetheart,” as the handle on my paper bag broke and my goods spilled out. “Sweetheart! Here, one more, let’s try again,” and we tried again with a new paper bag, whose handle, of course, broke. “It’s okay, honey,” I said, “I’ll carry it like a baby.” I cradled the awkward bag against my chest––a joke that made him laugh. “Little language” makes “sweet-hearts” out of strangers. Risking affection, we make little the world.

In today’s poem every object is tender and full of history, just like every human.

Ars Poetica
by Valzhyna Mort

Not books, but
a street opened my mouth like a doctor’s spatula.
One by one, streets introduced themselves
with the names of national
In the State Archives, covers
hardened like scabs
over the ledgers.

Inside a tiny apartment
I built myself
                             into a separate room,
peopled it
                                      with the Calibans
of plans for the future.

Future that runs on the schedule of public buses, 
             from the zoo to the circus, what future;
what is your alibi for these ledgers, these streets, this apartment, this future?

In the purse which held—
               through seven wars—
                                the birth certificates
of the dead, my grandmother
hid—from me—
chocolates. The purse opened like a screaming mouth.
Its two shiny buckles watched me
through doors, through walls, through jazz.

Who has taught you to be a frightening face, purse?
I kiss your buckles, I swear myself your subject.

August. Apples. I have nobody.
August. For me, a ripe apple is a little brother.

For me, a four-legged table is a pet.

In the temple of Supermarket
I stand
like a candle

in the line to the priestesses who preserve
the knowledge of sausage prices, the virginity
of milk cartons. My future, small
change after buying necessities.

Future that runs on the schedule of public buses,
streets introduced themselves with the names
of national murderers. I build myself
into a separate room, where memory—
the illegal migrant in time—cleans up
after imagination.

In a room where memory strips the beds—
linens that hardened like scabs
on the mattresses—I kiss

little apples—my brothers—I kiss the buckles
that watch us through walls, through years, through jazz;
chocolates from a purse that held—through seven wars—
birth certificates of the dead!

Hold me, brother-apple. 

"Ars Poetica" from MUSIC FOR THE DEAD AND THE RESURRECTED by Valzhyna Mort. Copyright © 2020 by Valzhyna Mort. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.