One Poem by Alissa Valles

Alissa Valles Bomb 2

Anastylosis: n. Gk. reconstruction of a column or architectural edifice from broken or damaged parts


i All

All rhapsodes want it, to fold the world into a poem,
          reconstrue a world in salvaged scraps & bracketed sighs;
it is easier to say what a poem is than what a world,
          were-ald, man-era, a stretch of time measured for a man
& weathered by him, a course charted across the face
          of time & everything found or fished up along the way?
Surviving pieces, in their brokenness, a call to form



ii to say

Not what is now called representation; rather, voices,
          especially when addressed to others—voices addressing me
by name, positing my existence, for which I’m grateful,
          or even calling me into being, a differently-tongued creature,
neither an echo nor an enemy; voices weaving a fabric
          of sound tight enough to catch the wind blowing through it,  
perilous untamed, tugging you into the current of time



iii [my] tongue

The tongue moves cat-like between feral belligerence
          & domestic bliss, always the raw versus the cooked;
hence all the poet-wars, manifestos drafted in blood
          & pompous anathemas issued in Bookman Old Style;
quarrels sink their claws into time, voices crossing
          are sharpened on each other, so that the ‘nothing’ they
make happen, happens beautifully, unforgettably



iv to tell stories

Voices across the water towards dark, drunken students
          calling to the bankside from the bridge, commandeering
the city for their uses while we met, introduced ourselves
          & she told me her life. A face like a Greek papyrus portrait
with a graffiti moustache, her eyes black with scorn, lips
          a resealable bag, keeping safe the soul behind the mask,
her voice like a salt mine rustling with bats & cathedrals



v [and for] a man

For a man she will at times open her lips, her limbs,
          surrender her warmth, attentive to a need or fantasy,
yet subtly absent herself, shelter behind a made-up
          face, far from the scene of her performance; to me
she delivered her story, a nurse unwinding bandages,
          the surface pale beneath, a deckhand letting out sails
to billow in a breeze, unfamiliar words pick up speed



vi greater

I want this poem to be a map into her world,
          not just another mask; some call it repair or redress,
I say replevy—replenish your reality with her,
          make you grope for the end of the line, hold it taut,
lash it around you & fasten it with a knot. Not
          compensate for pain with mimicry, inflicting more,
but adulterate, disperse—let the air touch a scar




The sequence Anastylosis, of which “Fragment 18” is the first poem, was printed in a thermal paper edition for an art installation at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in Fall 2014. Its story, about a refugee (a friend) trying to find safety in the West, is played out again and again throughout human history. It is told here through fragments of Sappho that function as intertitles or signposts and point to a parallel narrative—Sappho was herself at one time an exile from Lesbos. The sequence is both an attempt to rebuild poems from fragments, and a portrayal of a woman’s fight to rebuild a world from ruins. In the installation, the pages, touched by the warm hands of gallery visitors, turned slowly black.

Alissa Valles is a poet and translator based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Verse, Poetry, Common Knowledge, Poetry International and elsewhere; her debut Orphan Fire was published by Four Way Books in 2008. Her chapbook Anastylosis, a collaboration with the art team Noot (Andres Ayerbe and Camille Leproust) was included in the 2014 show Unbinding the Book at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London. Her translation of the Polish poet Ryszard Krynicki, Our Life Grows is forthcoming from New York Review Poets in Fall 2017.

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