Joyelle McSweeney is the author of ten books of poetry, stories, novels, essays, translations, and plays. She has won The Pushcart Prize, The Fence Modern Poets Series Award, and The Leslie Scalapino Prize for Innovative Women Performance Artists. With Carmen Maria Machado, she was the guest editor of Best American Experimental Writing 2020. With Johannes Göransson, she co-edits the international press Action Books and teaches at the University of Notre Dame.
Read today’s poem at BOMB: “Two Poems by Joyelle McSweeney”
Bio and Poems at the Poetry Foundation
“Kingdom” in The New York Times Magazine
“Joyelle McSweeney’s Poetry of Catastrophe” in The New Yorker
“A Poetry Reading by Joyelle McSweeney in conversation with David Baker and Kendra Sullivan”
Hi, I’m Alan May, your host for The Beat, a poetry podcast produced by Knox County Public Library. Today we’ll hear a poem by Joyelle McSweeney. First, though, I wanted to let you know that we’ll be returning in April for Season 2 of The Beat, which will feature work by Ashley M. Jones, Linda Parsons, Amelia Martens, Erin Elizabeth Smith, Matthew Wimberly, Monica Mody, Bernard Clay, Andrea Carter Brown, Juan Palomo, and a few others. We’ll also be listening to contemporary poets who’ve recorded poems by some of their heroes of yesteryear. If you haven’t already, subscribe to The Beat in your favorite podcast app, or sign up for notifications on our podcast page at pods.knoxlib.org. Joyelle McSweeney’s latest book is Toxicon and Arachne, which is two books in one volume. In Toxicon, the poet depicts her body as a toxic host to a child who'll be born into an equally toxic world. The second book, Arachne, deals with the loss of McSweeney’s daughter who died just 13 days after being born. Here’s the poem “Death Styles, August 14th, 2020, for River Phoenix” by Joyelle McSweeney.Joyelle McSweeney:
for River Phoenix
What I’m waiting for: someone to shout instructions from the sky
through some barely imaginable instrument.
I’ve cleared out all my hearing for this
but no voice comes. I’m hiding in the tiny yard because I’m thronged with
people, laundry, dishes, sub-functional computer equipment, weeds,
animals, mold, and a virus wrapped around the planet like a tumor
wrapped in veins. It should be exciting but it’s dank as a cape.
What I want is to be snatched out of this place.
In the theater of my brain I run the blockbuster. You’re a professor,
archaeologist, and detective, a bad mentor. In the opening scenes you
teach inside a rolltop desk. I see myself in you when your hair is
disarranged to indicate disbelief and incomprehension, something rolling
from the sky. Comprehension arrives like a boulder, train, snake, soda
siphon, lady in diaphanous dress or wrapped in cellophane, secondary
racist caricature. Even a child has to make his face plain for you to read it.
For a scholar you are dumb.
But then, love’s dumb as a spoon, hate’s both a dull blade and a sharp
one. Eat up
with your baby spoon and your baby blade.
Both you and me wear a bob, but when you are a man it is blond.
I want another baby to waste my time on. To stuff its mouth with my time.
To unreel that eternal Bataillean matinee…
I could pick up the phone and…
Forget the movies.
I am having an at-home experience.
Beauty regimes, cleaning regimes: I have none of these.
I sit in the backyard and evade my re-spons-i-bilities
…but this is also fantasy. In fact I spend hours on the phone convincing
AT&T to beam their signals into our house, and also to take our signal out
again, up to their unimaginable servers. I bribe them with time, humor,
money; nothing works. It’s like one of those gas heaters in a British spy
novel: each morning I wake to feed the slot with coins.
I’m having a hard time with the celebrity baby news on the Internet today.
Because I am an idiot. And the babies of celebrities do not die? Or they
have enough money and time to keep trying
till one stays all day.
The backyard is just a skinny nub of lot and it’s grown with weeds like
where they found the Black Dahlia.
I’m on hold, so I have time to daydream and read abstruse texts.
It’s like the old medieval joke about the miller, his daughter, and the comet
that crashed through, incinerating everything.
What did you name her. What was her name.
Back to the movie: there’s a young man trailing behind you on a train and
it’s River Phoenix.
He’s another blond, your son, lover or double, and no matter how many
times you cut the bolt or flip the switch like a dream he still hangs on.
I’m tired of this scene. And I don’t want none of it
—except the bob and River Phoenix.
“like a dream he still hangs on.”Alan May:
That was Joyelle McSweeney reading her poem “Death Styles, August 14th, 2020, for River Phoenix,” which was first published by Bomb magazine. Look for a link to the poem in the show notes. You'll also find a link to McSweeney’s poem “Kingdom” which recently appeared in The New York Times. McSweeney is the author of ten books of poetry, stories, novels, essays, translations, and plays. She has won The Pushcart Prize, The Fence Modern Poets Series Award, and The Leslie Scalapino Prize for Innovative Women Performance Artists. With Carmen Maria Machado, she was the guest editor of Best American Experimental Writing 2020. With Johannes Göransson, she co-edits the international press Action Books and teaches at Notre Dame. Look for McSweeney’s book Toxicon and Arachne in our online catalog or call us at the Reference Desk at Lawson McGhee Library. Also look for links in the show notes. Please join us for Season 2 of The Beat, beginning in April.