Archival Features, Poems

Rick Barot: “The Poem is a Letter Opener”

In celebration of the arrival of the Spring-Summer 2010 issue (v5.n1) of Poetry Northwest on newsstands and in mailboxes, we offer you this instrument of opening by Rick Barot, exclusively online.  “I wrote this poem during an autumn residency at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire,” notes Barot.  “Prior to the residency, I hadn’t written a poem in many months, perhaps close to a year.  And so my mind was full of half-thoughts and half-images and half-possibilities just waiting for some galvanizing energy to give them coherence.  There was a rocking chair in the studio, and I spent nearly all my time in that chair, rocking and reading.  On the day I wrote the poem, I was sitting in that chair and opened up Bill Knott’s book of poems The Unsubscriber, a favorite book.  Immediately I came across the page that had this as the first line of a poem: ‘The poem is a letter opener.’  I closed the book, knew instantly that Knott’s line was the title of a poem that I wanted to write, sat down at the desk, and wrote the poem in one breathless go.  I remember finishing the poem and saying out loud, ‘Thanks, Bill.'”

The Poem is a Letter Opener

and it is the letter that is answered
or not answered, held first by the uncle
who sorted it on his graveyard shift
in the postal service warehouse,
after which it became the postman
going from box to box, each box
a particular face like a dog’s, the dog
that is also a poem, its eyes dark
like the water in a well, its fur smelling
like grass that is also a poem, green
and exclamatory in spring, later
turning the color of rubber-bands,
which are also poems, holding
together the pencils, the tip-money,
the small stone in the sling-shot right
before it takes flight, the stone that
looks like a tiny skull, granite like death,
a piece of the night left in the middle
of the day, which is also a poem,
starting with its whisper campaign
of morning light, the light touching
the clean sidewalk, the light touching
the sign in the window that says
“No Crying Allowed In This Shop,”
the sign itself a poem, like the dusk
that comes like a cowl around us,
to the sick uncle, to the thieving uncle,
to the uncle who sleeps in the day,
his sleep careful as a tea ceremony
or a poem, a poem that is old and full
of days, a poem like an old china
plate that is the color of time, the dusk
having its supper of fog and people
walking through the fog, the fallen
leaves in the parks like strewn credit
cards, which are also poems, like
the typewriter writing the letter
one little tooth at a time, one love at
a time, in our city of paper and crows.

Rick Barot has published two books with Sarabande Books: The Darker Fall (2002) and Want (2008), which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards and the winner of the 2009 Grub Street Book Prize. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including New England Review, The New Republic, Poetry, and Virginia Quarterly Review. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Stanford University, and the Artist Trust of Washington. He lives in Tacoma, WA.

“A Poem is a Letter Opener” appears exclusively at Poetry Northwest Online. Rick Barot’s “Song” appears in the Spring-Summer (v5.n2) issue of Poetry Northwest.