171.1: Elizabeth Cantwell:: And I Picked It Up and Held It & Until & selections from Elegant Geometric Apocalypse 171

Elizabeth Cantwell’s poems defy the poet’s task of producing art. That is not to say the poems do not qualify as art; quite to the contrary. They are filled with subversion and dangerously figurative language. They approach beauty not through its representation but against its representation. “And I Picked It Up and Held It” varies on this theme: the speaker undoes everything introduced. Watching Hoarders becomes not the typical spectacle reality television offers: scores of voyeurs/viewers watching how consumerism and what Marx called “the fetish of the commodity” put people into a symbiotic relationship with needless possessions, disallowing them the impulse to just get rid of junk. Cantwell’s speaker not only understands this fetish, but seeks to bed with it by declaring: “I think there is a betrayal / in abandoning a thing.” Betrayal, of course, is the deepest circle in Hell, but what do we ever make of our own moral barometers when our lives are polluted with the need to consume, to possess, and own useless things that we inevitably “betray” by ridding ourselves of them because of their obsolescence?

With that said, Cantwell’s speaker does not bear the simple messages against the commodity. The example of James Cameron’s Titanic in the Gulf of Mexico is beautifully rendered, where seals inhabit the guilty ship of Cameron’s film like so many fish in a castle built to live inside an aquarium. The seals “drifting through the dining room” and “following each other down the grand staircase” depict a salient environment of what our limited fetish for things gives us: nothing in the grand scheme. Nature will make its own beautiful music of our obsolescence despite us. Cody Todd

And I Picked It Up and Held It

I am watching Hoarders because I understand

some of the impulse     I think there is a betrayal

in abandoning a thing     I once bought a used book I was afraid
to open because I could feel its commitment

to the other woman     When I was a child I wanted
to have a superpower that would let me touch

an object and see all the other people who had touched it
before     How could anything come into the world

without bearing countless sets of fingerprints
Without leaving countless pieces of itself behind

in other rooms or other worlds     A boy I tutor
tells me that after filming Titanic James Cameron

did not know what to do with the boat     So he
abandoned the thing in the Gulf of Mexico

where it quickly became overrun with seals     The transition
was organic     Seals drifting through the dining room

Seals following each other down the grand staircase     Seals
turning perhaps on an upper deck at the sound of something

confused and lonely just out of sight     There is one seal
who now believes himself an architect     Which part

of my body is the fingerprint     Hold it up to the light for me
so I can keep it out of the water     Keep it away from the ink


It’s not as though the cows were interested
in coming home. We had promised each other, for
so many years, that we would take turns 
& it would be all right. The mountains on the horizon
were not going anywhere. As I was typing it, I thought 
it was the cows come home to roost, but of course
that’s not it at all. Grass is plentiful & the spotted animals
with their velvet eyes could stay out in it until the autumn
comes down hard & brown around them. We had
promised each other time & we meant it. It’s just that
we didn’t think about the way the climbing tires out
your limbs. The way the trees around you really are on 
fire. The way the cows in the distance low & low & the 
rising smoke drifts up to shroud the moon & you turn to him
& tell him look, son, there’s the thing of beauty we’ve been 
telling you about
, & it’s there, all right, impossibly
glowing amidst all the crumbling hills, impossibly
waiting its turn.

selections from Elegant Geometric Apocalypse

we may perform monstrous
rules     we may hold on
to necessary flight

when walter pater parted
from his lover     certainly
our atoms charted
the space between them

the strange and
lovely problem of
bodies falling from these
numberless windows

certainly     his lover

passing into our cells
at night


i believe in the promised
largeness     i believe
we are left with a line
of meaning

nevertheless the
enigmatic fly
spends most of its
life with no clear

thematic truth     in
alarming pain     now an
elegant geometric
apocalypse approaches

even pythagoras suits up
to play


dinosaurs occurring one
after another like
beads on a necklace

strung in terror     the
gap between the titular
hero and the unraveling
of fluids     if you find

yourself in the
mythical late 80s/early
90s     laughter seems

the accident of the
globe is the history of


zoom in: burning birds
set beautifully in
motion     spiraling
into poetry’s trap

the city stayed in its
tent and wrote poems
for 1600 years     the city

was consciously
artistic     operating outside
the plot

zoom in again: nothing
resembles light
except a sonnet on fire
(mistaken for a bird)