Archival Features, Poems

JASON WHITMARSH: Three Histories

History of Televison

We learned lately that everything ever shown on television had been staged, even the news, even the documentaries and Welcome Back Kotter. In reality, the things that had happened had happened in slightly different clothes: Wider lapels, or skinnier ties, or a more reflective sheen on her sequin dress. No camera, we were told, could ever have picked up those sequins.

History of Love

Most poems since 1776 include the lines “it was snowing and it was going to snow,” although only Wallace Stevens in 1917 got it exactly right. Since 1776, I have caused you heartache, I know, except for 1995, when we were in Chicago and happy in a way that was both fragile and fast-paced, like we were outrunning some terrible collapse. Wallace Stevens was dead and all around us, mostly in the nonsense of the car alarms, the snow plow on Lake Shore Drive, the lake itself with its waves frozen into place. Ice means: this is no permeable surface. You will not sink and drown, but neither will you be enclosed.

History of MacGyver

MacGyver, aged 17, escapes a locked car using a toothpick and a can of aerosol. MacGyver, aged 8, plunges twelve stories into a dump truck. He emerges unscathed, carrying a nearly translucent umbrella. MacGyver, aged fourteen months, establishes contact with a friendly behind enemy lines using a pacifier, an English muffin, and a Glock. MacGyver, in utero, counts his possessions: ten soft fingernails, a fine, potentially braidable hair covering everything, any number of already vestigial parts: the muscles of the ear, gills, the tail bone, the tiny appendix.

Author’s Note: Over the last two years, I’ve written more than twenty histories, including ones about the blanket (invented by my grandfather), the envelope, board games and game shows, the Rolling Stones, and paranoia. I stumbled into the form after reading a lot of Kenneth Koch, especially his New Addresses (“To My Twenties,” “To Psychoanalysis,” “To Some Buckets,” and so on.) I loved the idea of having a secure point from which to start–a dock on an otherwise inscrutable sea. All the histories are prose poems, a form that is at once absurdly open and overly deterministic, particularly with respect to tone. At best, the prose poem is like a slow-motion film watched on fast-forward: the movements are normal, but there’s an underlying tension to the proceedings. My favorite of these, “The History of Love,” quotes my favorite line of poetry–as beautiful and haunting a statement as I can imagine. The poem is mostly an ode to that line, a line it has no chance of fully containing. (I’m thinking of the alien’s blood in Alien, eating through the ship, floor by floor. Stevens might disapprove.)


Jason Whitmarsh earned his B.A. in mathematics from the University of Chicago and an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Washington. His poems have appeared in many literary journals, including Yale Review, Harvard Review, Ploughshares, and Fence. His book, Tomorrow’s Living Room, won the 2009 May Swenson Poetry Award. He lives in Seattle with his wife and children.