Prime Number Magazine
is a publication of 
Press 53
PO Box 30314,
Winston-Salem NC 27130
Tell a friend about this page
Issue 41, July-September 2013
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
3 Poems
by Robert Okaji
Followed by Q&A

The Sky Refutes East and West

Here, the horizon lingers. 
The open eye, the mouth’s shape.

A hoop, the circle without iris. 

Does the screech owl acknowledge latitude and hemisphere?

The Semitic alphabet contained no vowels, thus O 
emerged as a consonant with a pupil, morphing into a dotted ring, 

and later, with the Greeks, an unembellished circle (which they

subsequently cracked open and placed at the end). The female lays eggs

on the remnants of earlier meals lining the bottom of her den.
If you listen at night you might hear the purring of a feathered

cat (the Texas screech owl’s call varies from that of its eastern cousins).

The difference between sphere and ball.

To pronounce the Phoenician word for eye, sing the lowest note possible,
then drop two octaves. They usually carry prey back to their nests.

Screech owls are limited to the Americas.

Coincidence and error, the circumference of other.

Dark Rain Ahead, Hummingbird

The black-chinned hummer buzzes my flowered shirt,
bringing to mind the letter H, its history of an inferior life among 

letters, and a Phoenician origin signifying fence.

An aspirate dependent upon others, or a line strung between posts,

even whispered, H does not contain itself.
Disconsolate or annoyed, the bird moves on.

Do names depend upon the power of symbols, or do they power the symbols?

In the 6th century A.D., Priscian disparaged H, saying it existed only to accompany.

Clouds shade the way.
The black-chin extends its grooved tongue at a rate of 15 licks per second.

Alone, the H’s voice is barely audible. 

Through the trees, across the crushed rock driveway and beyond the barbed wire

and chain link, I hear deadfall snapping under hooves.
At rest, its heart beats an average of 480 beats per minute.

Modern Greek denies its existence.

Say khet, say honor and where. Say hinge, sigh and horse. Say depth.

At Sunrise We Celebrate the Night’s Passage

And discuss not the darkness of crows, but the structure of phonemes
embedded in our names, the gratitude of old fences, of broken 

circles and extinguished flame.

Two weeks ago he poured wine and declared himself Dog.

There are roosters, too, who cannot crow,
other speechless men, and lonely burros guarding brush piles.

What letters form silence? From what shapes do we draw this day?

Light filters through the cedars and minutes retract,

as the bull’s horns point first this way, then that, descending
through the millennia, becoming, finally, A as we know it. 

With my tongue, I probe the space emptied of tooth.

Barbed wire was designed to repel, but when cut sometimes curls

and grabs, relinquishing its hold only by force or careful negotiation.
Symbols represent these distinct units of sound.

My name is two houses surrounding an eye.

Yours consists of teeth, the bull, an arm, the ox goad. 

Robert Okaji works in Austin, Texas, and retreats as often as possible to rural Medina County, where he once counted 34 vultures circling a neighbor’s hill. His wife considers him harmless.


Q. A recent book discusses the incredible, forgotten labors of Alice Kober that led to the eventual deciphering of Lineral B by Michael Ventris. Are you familiar with that story, and do you have a comment on it?

A. Yes. It’s amazing how disparate parts aligned perfectly in order for the deciphering to occur – from fires preserving (now that’s a change!) the clay tablets – the Mycenean custom was not to harden them – to the personalities and driven natures of Kober and Ventris and Evans. Combine that with the Herculean task of assigning sounds to symbols without knowing which source languages and grammatical intricacies to weigh, with considerations of culture and class, the difficulties of transportation and communication, and even a critical shortage of paper. The Riddle of the Labyrinth is a remarkable story, one that anyone interested in language would find fascinating. And it is gratifying to see Alice Kober recognized for the thousands of hours spent meticulously laboring at her table and providing the tools used to solve the mystery of Linear B.

Q. Do you have a poet outside the British/American canon who has been an inspiration or influence on your work? In what ways?

A. I’m drawn to what’s not said, to the unfilled, the indeterminate, to connections between distinct entities and concepts, to those dim lights revealing bits of the awesomeness of the ordinary. An early introduction to Francis Ponge allowed me entrance (or at least a peek through the shuttered window) into this place. 

Q. Why are birds so closely connected with letters and language in your poems?

A. To be honest I wasn’t aware of this. Perhaps I value the bird as icon, as personal totem? For most of us they exist on the fringes; we’re aware of their existence, we acknowledge them as part of the background, as white noise. But consider the incredible variables inherent to flight – gravity, lift force, thrust, wing shape, angle of attack. Think about their different song patterns, plumage, their placement in various ecosystems. And what better metaphor than a bird in flight (or grounded)? Of course in my neck of the woods that soaring bird is likely looking for carrion…

There’s not, for me, a bridgeless chasm between the peripheries of wildlife/personal icon and those of letters, language and numbers in our ordinary lives. Though we use numbers and letters constantly, we seldom look beyond their utility. Take a moment to ponder the complexity of thought required in creating memorable and useful graphic representations to depict syllables, words, numbers, sounds or abstract concepts, the sheer beauty of the results