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Issue 109, Jul – Sept 2017
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130


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Seth Michelson
Guest Poetry Editor, Issue 127, January – March 2018

​Seth Michelson is an award-winning poet, professor, and translator whose collections of poetry include Swimming Through Fire, Eyes Like Broken Windows, House in a Hurricane, Kaddish for My Unborn Son, and Maestro of Brutal Splendor. His translations of poetry include the books The Ghetto (Tamara Kamenszain, Argentina), roly poly (Victoria Estol, Uruguay), Poems from the Disaster (Zulema Moret, Argentina/Spain), Red Song (Melisa Machado, Uruguay), and Dreaming in Another Land (Rati Saxena, India). He currently teaches the poetry of the Americas at Washington and Lee University, as well as in a high-security prison for undocumented, unaccompanied youth.
Seth is accepting submissions July – September
Papá’s War Song
       for my son, Joaquín

Joaquín: bright blue starlight
traveled centuries
to sing from your eyes,
born in the flooded junction
of the Río de la Plata 
and the Los Angeles River, 
mestizo: part gaucho, 
part L.A. Dodger, red hair, 
dulce de leche skin, a Latin 
heartbeat: pum-PUM.
So please hear me, Quinito, 
when I say look both ways in life
then look some more,
because the local mobs, 
O they will come:
chanting beneath burning pitchforks,
and they’ll forgive nothing
as they strike
to take it all from you, mi Quinito,
against which your best chance
is a quick song 
and a hard right hook.


*from Swimming Through Fire
Cosmopolitical Fugue


Syrian immigrants smash on the rocks 
off Lesbos where Sappho sang Don’t shatter 
my heart with fierce pain, the line 
looping in my head as I wake from eye surgery:
the soft white of my right globe 
sliced open, leaking: the recovery room 
blurred red as I struggle to resurface 
from dark waters, listening to radio news: 
a Mexican immigrant is speaking Spanish 
from an apple orchard in Pennsylvania:
a mí me gusta la vida, hustle to pick: ten 
hours per day, six days a week, don’t even stop
to pee, es mi vida, O glossy fruit, 
harvest of dreams; take a break, dear reader, 
to lift an apple skyward till it gleams: 
juicy ruby, snug and certain 
in the world of your grip, what was once 
the picker’s now yours: sweetness 
torn into being, stacked and sold 
by farmers in flannel shirts, muddy boots,
who flip basketfuls onto roadside tables, 
apples spilling out like immigrants 
from dinghies flipped by rough surf, 
eyes stung by spindrift, two bodies
already swallowed by the salty roil, 
the rest slapping at its icy surface 
in smashed hope as they cry out:
the pain of shattered migration, 
hope a splintered dinghy, 
and the Mexican immigrant just now saying 
lo que te llevas contigo 
es solamente lo necesario
his voice so clear I see him here: 
picking apples from my IV stand
and tossing each burning orb
to a wicker basket across the room: fruit 
slashing through the space between us, 
red trails of celestial vapor, 
red as the surgeon’s first cut, our vision
flooded with seeing, 
so pick an apple, famished reader, 
and crush it between your teeth: its juice 
our prayer filling your mouth, 
​an invitation to hope.


*from Swimming Through Fire
A Crown for Sonia


My wife’s family fled Argentina 
a tiros de bala, los milicos
firing shots at them, bullets sizzling 
past their ears. Así the family, five in all, 
two parents con sus pibes, ran in tears, 
death be not proud, my wife was nine, her 
siblings littler. Behind, they left a dog, ferns
unwatered, plates in the sink, stuffed animals 
forever silent on children’s beds, forever. 
Here now, my wife’s mother, una brava 
científica, teaches cowgirls to swap 
shotguns for lives in cancer research, 
y mi suegro, a scientist, too, plays Bach on piano, 
explaining, note by note, Yo no fui un desaparecido.


Pausing long enough to explain, No, yo no fui 
un desaparecido, the white-haired man
in Buenos Aires slides a photograph
across the table: a young woman, nineteen, 
his only child, smiles up at me: ’76,  
a peace rally, she’s an activist, 
soon disappeared. Snatched from campus 
after French class, on her way to study Physics,
raped and tortured, he says, his voice steady, 
though I watch his lips tremble as he speaks.
And I want to fall down in tears, beat 
the air with my puny fists, but not him, 
he looks through me, teaches me how to grieve: 
the sun burning with white fire, each day, all year.


The sun burns white despite the season,
despite today’s gray, frigid sky,
despite the dead leaves scraping the sidewalk
like the scattered bones of a lost body.
And listless, always listless, the memories
of the disappeared: An old man tells you 
of his missing daughter, her gap-toothed 
smile, her dark green eyes, how her pretty clothes
hung in her closet until they crumbled,
fell like ash. And how he searched for her: bounced 
through churches, barracks, courts, swamps, and prisons,
forever luckless, forever empty, 
​seeking a ghost, a blank, a cipher. 
Everywhere I go, I think I see her.



*first three stanzas of "A Crown for Sonia," from Eyes Like Broken Windows
Bio
Seth Michelson is an award-winning poet, professor, and translator whose collections of poetry include Swimming Through Fire, Eyes Like Broken Windows, House in a Hurricane, Kaddish for My Unborn Son, and Maestro of Brutal Splendor. His translations of poetry include the books The Ghetto (Tamara Kamenszain, Argentina), roly poly (Victoria Estol, Uruguay), Poems from the Disaster (Zulema Moret, Argentina/Spain), Red Song (Melisa Machado, Uruguay), and Dreaming in Another Land (Rati Saxena, India). He currently teaches the poetry of the Americas at Washington and Lee University, as well as in a high-security prison for undocumented, unaccompanied youth.


Note
These poems represent my longstanding interest in global literary traditions of engaged poetry writing, and the curious compulsion in the United States of many readers to compartmentalize and/or qualify it as such. That is, I grew up in a wheelchair and on crutches, which somehow turned me to poetry very early in life, and I’ve also been fortunate enough to live in many places around the world since my youth. Consequently, I grew up reading and loving a global coterie of poets, for whom political engagement was often inextricable from their poetry writing. As a result, by the time I was a teen, I was cognizant of a (specious) schism in U.S. letters between certain domestic trends or fashions privileging a false apoliticism, and the concerns of engaged poetries from within and beyond the U.S. Ever since I’ve wondered about the causes of such schisms, as well as the possibilities for revealing if not overcoming them (if even necessary). Certainly politics writ large is not the purpose of the poetry of Pablo Neruda or Virgil or Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, for example, but it isn’t willfully ignored or eschewed either. Beautiful poetry can be written on any subject, including political outrage, and many poets both within and beyond the U.S. have been doing so for a long time, thankfully. My hope is for my work to join their conversations.


Q&A
What is your #1 pet peeve?
Bullies. As aforementioned, due to the specifics of my body, I grew up on crutches, in a wheelchair, in a full-body brace, in surgery, and sleeping in traction at night. That special privilege of living askance, or of enjoying a distinct perspective, taught me from an early age to recognize and try to protect the targeted and besieged. In more practical terms, it has undergirded many of my major engagements in life, including my commitment to translating feminist poets into English, and to working with immigrant communities. It likewise has led me, for example, to intervene to stop a gay-basher, to work with and for incarcerated undocumented youth, and to see an Argentine war criminal prosecuted and convicted for crimes against humanity. Scrawny bookworms unite!

What is your favorite article of clothing?
Do eyeglasses count? If so, then they’re my answer. I wear them every day, and I cannot see without them.

Which book have you read from beginning to end more times than any other? 
Great question! I’ll divulge one, as I think such books akin to a form of secret, holy fire sustaining the spirit. It’s España, aparta de mí este cáliz, by César Vallejo. Please read it. And whether or not you enjoy it, please feel welcome to share your reactions with me (sethmichelson@gmail.com).