Ready For Their Close-Up -

Curated by Suzanne Lummis


The American Heritage dictionary defines close-up as:  1.  A photograph or a film or television shot in which the subject is tightly framed and shown at a relatively large scale. 2.  An intimate view or description. 


Three Poems from Best American Poetry 2003  


Citizens, this will not do: when I put a search on “poetry” and “mystery” a porn site tops the list.  Or at least it looks to be that – I didn’t click.  What info appears suggests there may be an X-rated model out there working her way through college under the alias Ms. Poetry Mystery. 


That’s always the way of it. Many want to appropriate the idea of poetry, its charged aura, its mystery – or else they just like the word “poetry”.  But few want to support it, or read it.  The cheap phonies. 


After that list came many sites offering poetry books and mystery novels.


I’d had in mind some reference to this: the abiding mystery around which so many poems revolve. Poets touch upon it, gesture towards it, but, wisely, almost never try to solve or resolve it, the way the mathematician, physician or private investigator strive to solve the equation, diagnose the problem, or crack the case.  


Poets survey a realm of mystery I hardly know how to name.  I can only say it has to do with the oddness of life on earth, the fluid and shifting nature of perception, one’s own curious fantastical existence, and the confounding, unaccountable existence of others.  (And it seems others do exist because often when I dial a number a voice speaks out of the receiver – hello?) 


The current Best American Poetry, guest-edited this year by Yusef Komunyakaa, holds many poems of mystery, but it was one by the great poet of the Midwest, Ted Kooser, that gave me the idea to pursue this theme.  "In the Hall of Bones" speaks to the very thing I’ve been describing (or touching upon, or gesturing to).  It’s one of these wonderful poems whose purpose unfolds suddenly in its last lines.


The poems by Philip Levine and Brigit Pegeen Kelly seem not only to the broach the areas of consciousness and perception but also the mystery of the writing process.  In his author’s note Philip Levine tells us that he’d begun this quietly affecting poem in order to describe “a joyous gift in a lonely time,” invoking “the Havana I’d known one summer fifty years before…but another series of nightly walks intruded & darkened the poem: those taken years later in the old working class barrio of Barcelona during the terrible Franco years.” 


The way a poem-in-progress can shift from its assigned place to some other, without our foreknowledge or permission – now that’s a mystery.


Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s "The Dragon", while seemingly set right here in the physical world, may be the most unearthly of all – and it grows stranger with each reading.  It haunts. And it explains nothing.  Kelly’s author’s note says only that, “…the most significant aspect of the revision process involved letting go of the elaborate frame I had constructed,” implying at one time the piece had been book-ended by material that would have tipped us off – that this was a dream, or it was imagined, or a witnessed event, or a metaphor for something, or… 


I put a search on “bees” and “carry – carrying” to see what I could turn up.  I learned about all kinds of well-named bees – cellophane bees, sweat bees, digger bees – but nothing about bees that can carry a snake.  At least I didn’t turn up a porn site. 


Some mysteries are best left unrevealed.   

- Suzanne Lummis

"Answer Like a House Burning Down"

Painting by L.A. artist Rachael McCampbell


Ted Kooser



Here we store the reassembled

scaffolding, the split, bleached uprights,

the knobby corner locks and braces

that held up the mastodon’s

bag of wet leaves and the ivory

forklift of its head. Over there are

the planks upon which lay the turtle’s

diving bell, and the articulated

rack that kept the dromedary’s hump

from collapsing under the weight

of its perseverance. And here is

the basket that held the clip-clop

pulse of the miniature horse

as it dreamed of growing tall enough

to have lunch from a tree. And then

here’s man, all matchsticks, wooden spoons

and tongue depressors wired together,

a rack supporting a leaky jug

of lust and worry. Of all the skeletons

assembled here, this is the only one

in which once throbbed a heart

made sad by brooding on its shadow.


Philip Levine



The young woman sewing

by the window hums a song

I don’t know; I hear only

a few bars, and when the trucks

barrel down the broken street

the music is lost. Before the darkness

leaks from the shadows of

the great cathedral, I see her

once more at work and later

hear in the sudden silence

of nightfall wordless music rising

from her room. I put aside

my papers, wash, and press

to eat at one of the seafood

places along the great avenues

near the port where later

the homeless will sleep. Then I

walk for hours in the Barrio

Chino passing the open

doors of tiny bars and caves

from which the voices of old men

bark out the stale anthems

of love’s defeat. “This is the world,”

I think, “this is what I came

in search of years ago.” Now I

can go back to my single room,

I can lie awake in the dark

rehearsing all the trivial events

of the day ahead, a day that begins

when the sun clears the dark spires

of someone’s God, and I waken

in a flood of dust rising from

nowhere and from nowhere comes

the actual voice of someone else.


Brigit Pegeen Kelly



The bees came out of the junipers, two small swarms

The size of melons; and golden, too like melons,

They hung next to each other, at the height of a deer’s breast

Above the wet black compost. And because

The light was very bright it was hard to see them,

And harder still to see what hung between them.

A snake hung between them. The bees held up a snake,

Lifting each side of his narrow neck, just below

The pointed head, and in this way, very slowly

They carried the snake through the garden,

The snake’s long body hanging down, its tail dragging

The ground, as if the creature were a criminal

Being escorted to execution or a child king

To the throne. I kept thinking the snake

Might be a hose, held by two ghostly hands,

But the snake was a snake, his body green as the grass

His tail divided, his skin oiled, the way the male member

Is oiled by the female’s juices, the greenness overbright,

The bees gold, the winged serpent moving silently

Through the air. There was something deadly in it,

Or already dead. Something beyond the report

Of  beauty. I laid my face against my arm, and there

It stayed for the length of time it takes two swarms

Of bees to carry a snake through a wide garden,

Past a sleeping swan, past the dead roses nailed

To the wall, past the small pond. And when

I looked up the bees and the snake were gone,

But the garden smelled of broken fruit, and across

the grass a shadow lay for which there was no source,

A narrow plinth dividing the garden, and the air

Was like the air after a fire, or before a storm,

Ungodly still, but full of shapes turning. 



Read Los Angeles Poet Dinah Berland's letter reflecting on Kelly's poem.


The Best American Poetry 2003, from Scribner Poetry, is guest edited by Yusef Komunyakaa and the series editor is David Lehman.



Ted Kooser was born in Ames Iowa, 1939, and has published eight collections of poetry, the most recent being Braided Creek (Copper Canyon, 2003), a conversation in short poems with poet and novelist Jim Harrison.   He is also the author of Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps (University of Nebraska Press, 2002).  He’s a visiting professor at the University of Nebraska.



Brigit Pegeen Kelly was born in Palo Alto, California in 1951.  Her books of poetry are To the Place of Trumpets (Yale University Press, 1988) and Song (BOA Editions, Ltd., 1995).  She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.



Philip Levine was born in Detroit, Michigan, 1928, and – after establishing the famed writing program at FSU – now teaches one course a year at New York University.  His most recent book of poetry is The Mercy (Knopf, 1999).  In 2002 the University of Michigan Press published two of his prose works: So Ask: Essay and Conversations and a paperback edition of The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography.



Ready for Their Close-Up Archive

Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach