I meant to publish an old poem every other week or so, but just realized it’s been almost two months since I posted the last. Part of the reason is that I spilled water on my laptop, and no longer have easy access to very old poems.  But everything back to 2002 is still handy, so let’s carry on.

Much like “A Darkness Below,” this poem’s only problem is that it’s just not very good. In 2003, I was on the cusp of knowing what I was doing, but I wasn’t quite there yet.  Note the all-lowercase, which I couldn’t defend then, let alone now.  A lot of younger writers eschew capitalization for the love of E.E. Cummings (“Now that looks like a poem, even from across the room!”), but for me I think it had to do more with an aesthetic softening of the text — it’s hard to sound like you’re making large, arrogant proclamations from a meekly dotted, almost imaginary i, and grand was the last thing I wanted to be.  I felt then, and mostly feel now, that poetry should be like a whisper from the hindbrain, a ghostly incantation from somewhere beneath the self.  (And isn’t that grand?)  The lowercase letters seem more than a little silly now.

The bigger problem is that the melodrama in the middle — the blood, the fever, “we’ll breathe each other” — makes me gag.

But it was a melodramatic time.  If I were bipolar, my summer of 2002 would be considered my first manic episode.  If I were older it, it would have been a mid-life crisis.  That was the year I spontaneously quit my summer job and drove down to Miami to live with strangers in a house full of artists and Orthodox Jews.  I barely lasted a month there, but it was a month full of drama and ritual and new experiences.  Looking back, I think the only reason I took up the offer was to prove that I could do something so random — spontaneity to prove that the routine was indeed a choice.  I’m not an adventurous person, but I needed to know that I could be.

“Interstate” is the poem that the experience became.  As a memory-poem, for me, it’s the perfect distillation of that summer, particularly the last lines (if I believed in canibalism, I’d have saved them).  None of the images are references to anything specific — I don’t know where “san marcos” is, or what I really mean by “nueva” or the lice — but somehow their spontaneous appearances are fitting.

I don’t think it translates for anyone else, so it’s never been published.  A poem just for me.  And I think that’s a fine thing for a poem to be (which is why I’m posting old poems, I think, as an argument that value can be independent of publication).  Here it is:

Timothy Green


there were rhythms and shakes,
the gulf stream, the plunge

of a lure into saltwater.
there was the rowboat, the gull,

the relief of needing shade.
she said welcome to san marcos.

she said welcome to nueva, dear,
i’m bleeding.

welcome to this;
all this.

the fever tastes like rain, here,
she said we’ll breathe each other like air.

oh and your hands shake
like moss in the wind,

they slap at moths
and mouths and lice.

oh the devil wears a compass
and can’t tell time.

A Darkness Below

This poem is awful, so don’t bother reading it as if you’ll be able to take something from it — but it marks a key epiphany in my growth as a writer.  In 1999, we were all worried about Y2K and I was a freshman in college, still a biochemistry major, still thinking of myself as a fiction writer, if any kind of writer at all.  Spring semester, I took an intro to poetry class with James Longenbach, hoping it would spice up my prose.

As of April 8th, the day my records say I wrote this poem, the sum total of my poetry portfolio consisted of the 10 poems I’d written, one a week, for the class.  In high school there were a few poems written because I had to, but it had never occurred to me to actually try.  And I did try with those first 10 poems, but I tried a little too hard, or maybe just tried the wrong way.  I’d been writing them like stories, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, a plot that I knew I’d follow from the start.  One poem had a surprise ending, a James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock…” ripoff — but even in that poem the end wasn’t a surprise to me, it was something I’d planned on all along.

I guess it took two months to run out of ideas, because by April 8th I was tapped.  A poem was due the next day, and I had no idea what to write about.  Somewhere amid my frustration, I decided to just grasp at any childhood memory that seemed vivid, and what came to me was the 4th of July’s spent at my aunt’s cottage in Sodus, NY.  All I had was the dock and the fireworks on the water, but I ran with it anyway.  And halfway through the poem another memory lept out of the water — the split-second of panic when I was seven years old and got a fishhook stuck in my nose.  A traumatic moment, and then the embarrassment afterword of such a minor pain being so traumatic — the hook didn’t go through my nose, just poked a little into the flesh.

But that experience would have been lost forever if it wasn’t for the poem; I hadn’t thought about it in years.  And it all tied together with something else, something about growing up, being a little older each year on that dock, and how finally nothing is incredible anymore; everything’s muted with age, and sometimes that’s a good thing, but you lose a little something, too.  I had no idea these things were buried within me, but here they were, bubbling up on their own.

And that was the epiphany.  Poems happen on their own, you don’t force them into a form or pull them out like teeth.  You can just let them come.  James Wright didn’t sit down to write a poem about how he wasted his life — he was lying in a hammock on William Duffy’s farm, writing about it later, and suddenly that last line came to him, something bottled up that he needed to say.

So while this poem isn’t anything special, the experience of writing it was special — it’s really what got me into poetry.  This is the kind of thing that doesn’t happen in prose, not in the same focused and intense way.  It’s also the kind of thing that doesn’t happen in revision, and is why, for me, a poem is either successful or abandoned.  The big fish bursting out of darkness is all I care about.

Timothy Green


water black beneath the dock, reeds
grasping toward
stars, rasping
as the wind throws them

together in knots of tan, swaying,
ripening, thinning.
my hair thinning even as I splash
my feet in the pond’s dark

water. it sneaks up,
bursts of lavender, of pink and green. glittering,
falling. the ashes fall
in orange specks. fireflies sift

in distant clouds, blinking between
trees near the overgrown path
where i ran, fish hook
piercing my nose, an orange lure,

the taste of blood,
a liquid, red and glowing
as the searing

ashes that leave streaks in closed eyes,
still adrift in the wind.
those embers must look
like orange lures to the fish–a perch?–

lured from the black pond
and into that wind. a splash
near the splintering dock.
a gasp. ah! just a fish.

The Little Things, The Night

I have reams of writing (from back in the day when I wrote regularly), that aren’t published and never will be, but that are still meaningful to me.  In some cases they probably could be published if I sent them out, but I don’t care enough to bother, or just don’t want to.  In other cases, the poems aren’t any good, but retain a sentimental value.  Others are simply meta-poems — poems about poetry — which I’m always mildly embarrassed to find myself accidentally writing.

Anyway, since these poems are worthless sitting in a drawer, I thought I’d start posting them every once in a while, under the category “old poems.”  Everyone loves nostalgia, at least when it’s your own.  You’ll also know they’re old poems because I’ll list the date it was written and write a little something about it — why it has value to me personally, why it’s never been published.

Start big:  I think of “The Little Things, The Night” more often than any other poem I’ve written.  Lines and phrases from it echo in my head out of nowhere, maybe weekly, maybe more often than that, and if I think about it too long I start to cry.  I have no idea if the poem effectively renders the experience, or if the memory is just that emotionally charged.

Alone on an overnight shift, back when I was working at the group home, one of the residents was decompensating and knew it, so didn’t trust herself to be unsupervised in her room.  She turned in her razors and I put the house’s silverware in a locked box.  Middle-aged and very intelligent, she was the only patient I ever knew to have Dissociative Identity Disorder.  Two distinct alters, and co-morbid manic-depression on top of it.  Still a senior in college, I was completely unprepared.  She talked about emptiness and I told her baby steps, like an idiot: “Try to enjoy the little things…a cup of coffee, a cigarette.”  Never mention happiness to the depressed, let alone the tragically, justifiably, suicidally depressed…

We sat up for eight hours and she told me her life story.  Her first memory: raped by her father and two of his friends when she was five years old, lying wet with her own blood on the garage floor, staring at a crack under the door and waiting for them to come back.  Jesus Christ, this is a thing that happens in our world…  What can you say to that?  What can be said?

The result for her was a labyrinth of safe zones in her mind so necessary that they consumed their own identities.  A lifetime of meds and therapy, a perpetual holocaust.  For me, just the story alone became a hot coal of hatred — and then this poem, so meaningless in the face of it all, so utterly pathetic.

How quickly bleakness comes.  I might end up turning off the comments on this post; I don’t really want to talk about it beyond this mini-exorcism.  I thought briefly about including the poem in American Fractal — it would have fit the theme, complimented “Cutlery” — but it’s too old and raw and ugly.  Why publish something so powerless?


Timothy Green


what if you were trembling she says to her hands trembling
and what if your first memory was the cold

concrete was the pillow was the world was the trembling
jingle of keys but

you were still and still in it she says trembling her
hands the garage door the cold slit of light and

what if every time you closed your eyes you vanished
and so you kept them closed and kept them closed and

kept them closed like slits but you were still in it she says
and this time in the dark and this time trembling