The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish

The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish

by Joshua Weiner

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At the heart of Joshua Weiner’s new book is an extended poem with a bold political dimension and great intellectual ambition. It fuses the poet’s point of view with Walt Whitman’s to narrate a decentered time-traveling collage about Rock Creek, a tributary of the Potomac that runs through Washington, DC. For Weiner, Rock Creek is the location of myriad kinds of movement, streaming, and joining: personal enterprise and financial capital; national politics, murder, sex, and homelessness; the Civil War and collective history; music, spiritual awakening, personal memory, and pastoral vision. The questions that arise from the opening foundational poem inform the others in the collection, which range widely from the dramatic arrival of an uncanny charismatic totem that titles the volume to intimate reflections on family, illness, and dream visions. The virtues of Weiner’s earlier books—discursive intelligence, formal control, an eccentric and intriguing ear, and a wide-ranging curiosity matched to variety of feeling—are all present here. But in The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish, Weiner has discovered a new poetic idiom, one that is stripped down, rhythmically jagged, and comprehensively philosophical about human limits.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226017150
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/20/2013
Series: Phoenix Poets
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 64
File size: 959 KB

About the Author

Joshua Weiner is professor of English at the University of Maryland. He is the author of The World’s Room and From the Book of Giants and the editor of At the Barriers, all published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt

The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish



Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-01701-3

Chapter One

    Rock Creek (II)

    Cutting a way through stone
    to see what's there, not
    how things appear, earth-blood,
    without style, never
    at rest, what settles in it
    read on the surface
    ripples meandering
    forward eddying back
    swirling turbid intricate plaits of
    water from the bottom rising
    turning upside down
    striking bank before
    returning to stream center
    original current
    indifferent to the play of light
    crystalline ideal forms
    a static lie, rather
    as Leonardo saw
    a motion resembling hair
    "one must take five days
    to place water in a picture"
    while a splash erupts
    into corona, its rim
    breaking into spills
    of droplets like the secret
    structure of rainfall
    scalloped edges of water
    joining water in common
    coil spawning vortices
    streamlines detaching
    as they hit fluorescent storm-swept
    traffic cones glowing
    shedding eddies
    rushing faster by
    tightening gorge
    transmission as one
    flow drives another
    motion altering force
    driving that motion
    like Coltrane stretching
    tight vibrato
    incremental shifts
    of pitch & tone
    the place it's going
    unknown excited
    viscous harmonies
    continuously born/
    devoured, cascades
    of smaller scales
    circulating airstreams
    "the unregarded river of our life"
    an overflow of "meanings
    with no speech"
    as prisoners of
    flooding cells in protest
    each drinking
    eighteen bottles of water
    in an hour. And the breath,
    preaches one man
    having heard it from his father,
    "the breath moved
    upon the face of the waters,"
    while another speaks
    ex-con/activist, wry
    observer at the crossroads,
    how "the system is hustling

    * * *

    Not a river of history
    like the Patawmack—
    big muddy highway
    Washington dreamed
    would connect the capital
    to a bountiful interior
    budging west, make him rich
    and keep the money moving
    "to bind all parts together
    by one indissoluble band"—
    the founding's first boondoggle
    "designated by law for the seat of Empire"—
    No, Rock Creek's histories
    converge as branches
    braiding like scoubidou
    a single spiral knotting
    that children weave to hold their keys
    it makes just one boundary of the verdant valley
    where L'Enfant walked in great coat
    surveying space
    so every homestead of the nation
    would feel the influence of its streets
    radiating outward
    and slaves hew trees to open them
    metabolize sardines and salt pork
    to pry up stumps, haul, and cut sandstone
    for buildings housing classical
    moral sentiments that shan't
    stop the flow of profits.
      Neither Rome, nor home
    Rock Creek is a passage
      where Whitman wanders
    after dispensing fruit syrups—
    "good and strong, but innocent"—
    mixed with ice water
    to young men missing limbs,
    thirsty, coated with murk & sweat
    in the Patent Office hospital.

    * * *

    The 9:30 Club is not named for a time
    but a place it used to be, 930 F Street,
    now in a building on V, once broadcasting
    1120 on your radio. Inside, my son plays drums
    in a band with other nine-year-olds
    trying to rock the judge's panel, 11 AM, a Saturday.
    And the parents are pumped, pulling for their kids
    on stage, a discrete loud screening
    of their own projections. Is it strange
    to hear children play their parents' music,
    the history of styles like scarves claimed
    from an old trunk that's never put away....
    "They lend me a problem with the language,"
    Fugazi, twenty-five years ago, "But still /
    I was caught with my hand in the till."
    Up the street at Howard
    Don Byrd's Blackbyrds'
    "Walking in Rhythm" hit big,
    but it's "Rock Creek"—"Doin' it in the park /
    Doin' it after dark"—that laid down a track in '75
    for Eric B. & Rakim, Big Daddy Kane,
    Grandmaster Flash, Massive Attack,
    the gold spinning still, the chorus
    floating with Jay Jones' flute
    on a current sampled
    by a cloud precipitating
    the next good sound.

    * * *

    Oak, tulip poplar, beech & laurel
    holly, dogwood on the hills,
    sycamore, red maple, wet,
    tolerant, all along the floodplain
    through steep ravines, gentle
    sloping hills, grassy meadows
    and the stretch of rapids
    south of Military Road,
    the Secession War captured in a street sign
    now as frenzied commuter route
    where 20,000 years ago
    nomads sharpened fluted points
    for caribou, elk, moose,
    black bear, mastodon & mammoth;
    the spring-fed tributaries
    feeding into open stream
    are sewer lines underground,
    silt & sand choke off
    the creek mouth at Whitehurst Freeway
    where ships ran up to P Street
    from Potomac's crowd of masts;
    and grist mills—Lyons, Deakins,
    Parrott, Peirce, Columbian—all
    ran out of time to grind; and Benjamin Stoddert—
    milliner, first secretary of the navy,
    who bought up land to create the capital—
    now names the kiddie soccer team,
    an elementary school: in limbo,
    neither remembered nor forgotten.

    * * *

    If Rock Creek is a passage
    what will I find there
    in its leaves & pages, legible
    by moonlight, having passed by
    the White House of future poems,
    its sentries at the gates, silent,
    pacing in blue overcoats, stopping you
    not at all, but eyeing you with sharp eyes
    whichever way you move—
    Whichever way
      you move, with me now
    from hospital to hospice of the creek,
    the pallid face of wounded
    light your way; and in the air,
    the moisture on the lip of the secesh boy,
    his fine large frame, patient
    mute survivor of the butcher's shambles,
    his arm tossed on the departing amputation cart....
    Little he knew, poor death-stricken boy,
    the heart of the stranger that hover'd near,
    talked to him a little, but not much,
    moved closer, held his hand,
    and moves now in creek shadows,
    searching, fluid & firm ...

    * * *

    There's the cavalry camp on the hill
    & fixed pitch droning
    of an Ozark juice harp, its tart
    plucked notes opening melodic
    overtones bring to mind
    parted teeth & metal tongue
    vibrating freely, whiskey-wet
    mouth resonator!
      So refreshing,
    these hardy, bright, intuitive
    American young men; experienced
    with all their youth, their vocal play
    moves one more
    than books.
      Bloody pieces
    of muslin fill buckets by
    one who follows me, I carry him
    wherever I go, his great dark eyes
    with a glaze already upon them
    the choking faint but audible
    in his throat; and the surgeon who
    left him, without prospect, to death
    he must yield the field, and forget.
    And the population of the army
    bedded in the makeshift wards
    is more numerous than the whole
    of Washington; some thirty or forty
    such collections, each holding
    seventy thousand men, I use them
    as landmarks in my rambling outside
    the district of wounds, sickness, & death.

    * * *

    What will I find there, then,
    if Rock Creek is a passage,
    the crown of haze
    around the moon
    like stardust inked around
    the gunner's nipple.
    veil'd, abstracted, dark
    columns moving through the night
      and I stand, unobserv'd in the darkness
    and watch them long, my own
      charged with the intimacies
    of the ward. But when I join
    the soldiers along the creek
    or defending the capital behind earthworks
    acres of felled trees, hewn branch barriers
    with sharpened points, they invite me
    to declaim poetical pieces,
    read the Bible, and we play an amusing game
    called the game of twenty questions.

    * * *

    If Rock Creek is a passage
    what will I find there
    below terraced bluffs
    overcasting intemperate
    fall freshet conveying
    fragmented stone tools of the Algonquin
    quartzite, slate, jasper, flint,
    past Teddy Roosevelt
    pounding down a routine
    rough cross-country jaunt
    overtaking Quincy Adams
    "listening to the singing of a thousand birds"
    along beds of shallow
    estuary out to sea....
    In the mind's perpetual
    playback, the boys & I
    stand a stone's throw from Peirce Mill
    performing tashlikh on Rosh Hashanah,
    "casting off " our sins
    in the body of breadcrumbs
    tossed into the stream—
    we try to track them
    out of sight, alert to
    blueback herring plucking some down,
    with no lids their eyes are always open,
    like God they do not sleep,
    they do not avoid the net,
    "nothing is exhausted if it returns to itself "
    as rich veins run
    without celestial fallings from cloud
    nor collected lake dropping down,
    so it is living water, exploiting
    its own nature.

To be preserved in the seed that never falls nor changes. A dream. Whereas, from the surface of silence, under the pressure of river wonder that moves through the green heights, the old woman in the parking lot of Giant grabbed me by the arm on my way to the car, four bags of ice in hand for the school football team. A warm September Saturday, the bags begin to drip. What does she want? She can't open the back hatch of her van, the electronic key, it's not hers, it's borrowed, she's just been evicted. Her muddy brown eyes are enormous. I can see the shadowy mounds of domestic debris in the beat up oatmeal-colored van. Does she need to buy something? Some food? No, she has recycling to drop off, she has to drop off her recycling, how do you open the back? The ice is dripping, the cubes are fusing in their melting. Her fragility & panic gripping me, I lay the bags down on the warm tarmac and show her how the key works. She takes the key and tries to open the door. She can't do it. I show her again how the key works, you just press it there, hold it. The hatch opens, and I lift it up.

She'll never be able to reach that high to close it herself. She takes the key and practices opening the doors and locking them while I grab some empty bottles to carry to the bins—Not those! she yells at me, those stay! Okay, which, these? No, not those! Okay, these? No, no, no, no! I just want to finish, to help her and go. Where is she driving to? She stares at me. From the plastic bags, a stream of ice-melt is running along the contours & cracks of the blacktop, picking up grains of dust and carrying them away....

    A passage, and what I find there—
    swifter moving water
    increased by rain.
    Coarse-toothed box-elder leaves
    vessels in the current
    passing through reflections
    ruffling on the surface
    some submerged like thoughts
    you hardly know you're thinking
    they're moving too, and others
    still dropping have yet
    to reach the boundary.
      What did
    the furniture maker find there
    between oak & poplar
    shading the western ridge?
    As a boy, he'd go out looking
    for coon's bones, bones of the vole,
    mouse, rat; feathers
    of gnatcatcher, bunting, bobolink, jay.
    "We're like animals," he'd think,
    "we come and go; and you never know
    what you're going to find."
    On his walk that May 22, 2002,
    he could hear passing cars
    along Broad Branch in the distance;
    that's where he found the bones
    of the Bureau of Prisons intern,
    Chandra Ann Levy
    of the San Joaquin Valley,
    the scandal of her disappearance
    forgotten after 9/11. Soon
    maps of Rock Creek replaced
    maps of Afghanistan on TV
    and cadaver dogs searched
    wild flower & trout lily,
    butterfly weed & spice bush understory
    and they found more bones than expected
    near Grove 17.
      Ingmar Adalid Guandique,
    the immigrant from El Salvador,
    grew up in a hamlet
    outside San Miguel, in a family
    of poor farmers of cotton, rice, & corn.
    He worked construction in DC
    and his girlfriend waited tables
    at Cactus Cantina, where we go sometimes
    to escape the luxury of our own kitchen.
    When he killed her, if he killed her,
    the one he didn't know, did the sound
    of water cascading over boulders and merging
    with traffic noise echoing through the ravine
    join sound of the Rio Grande
    he swam across to Texas,
    drops of river finding a way
    into the canal of his open ear?
    Was it the hex
    the mother of his boy put on him
    when child support dried up?
    Or was it the culminating course of
    killings that started with his father,
    pressed into joining leftist guerillas
    fighting military junta death squads
    backed by Reagan in the 80s,
    his father one of 75,000 killed in civil war,
    dumped on a country road that flowed
    backward to the proxy wars
    of kholodnaya voyna? "The vision
    of all that happened with my daughter
    being out there in Rock Creek,"
    said Susan Levy to a reporter,
    "the skeletal remains. It is there still
    in my mind." Among cinnamon fern & wood roach
    I too and others see them
    not far from where I find myself
    walking along the creek, and the adobe house
    Guandique grew up in, with a roof
    of tree branches, an open cooking pit
    in the middle of a dirt floor, mixing spores & fungus
    outside ancient Piscataway wigwam,
    & the beatings his mother gave him,
    & the man who married her,
    not his father, who lay unburied on the road
    (and who found his bones?) whether or not
    his son is guilty, far from the deep loud long
    accusing rumbling roar I hear
    of zoo lions at sunset
    from across Duke Ellington Bridge.


Excerpted from The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish by JOSHUA WEINER Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments One Rock Creek (II) Two “The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish” Florida: Schoolboy on Break First Walk after Cancer Things To Do While You’re Here Winter Commute The Winter’s Tale Rock Creek Hikmet: Çankiri Prison, 1938 Three Cyclops Notes

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