Poet's Sampler: John W. Evans
Introduced by Campbell McGrath
May 1, 2008
John W. Evans is a poet with an “enthusiasm for landscape” and a love of language rooted in socio-cultural specificity. His poems spring from and pay homage to particular places, much as the classical Greek nymphs (among them the Pleiades, catalogued in “It Is the Earth Turning That Lifts Our Shores from the Dark”) were bound to a specific sacred grove or mountain spring. But Evans’s landscapes, which range from Bangladeshi sweatshops to Romanian cathedrals to Chicago bowling alleys, are neither classical nor pastoral, and he navigates them as a socially engaged, image-hungry twenty-first-century observer. His poems are rangy and ambitious, and along the way they tackle a variety of traditional forms, working a few new wrinkles, such as the crossbred villanelle/pantoums of “Two Bengali Riddles.” “Windows Update” is a prose poem in the tradition of James Wright and Robert Hass, meshing social reportage with a narrative of psychological self-analysis that recalls C.K. Williams. And “Cow Market,” with its elegantly enjambed syntax and casually disguised rhyme scheme, resembles one of Elizabeth Bishop’s meticulously observed travel poems.
Calling Evans a poet of witness does not imply that he is afraid to implicate himself or get his hands dirty. But even while decrying the ills of postcolonial exploitation he avoids rhetorical posturing. In “The Five-Dollar Shirt,” available on bostonreview.net, a fire in a third world shirt factory may be an instance of economic imperialism, but Evans’s allegiance is to the “choir of loss” left in its wake, the suffering and joy of real people. Neither an advocate for a particular social agenda nor a prosecutor of language for its purported crimes against humanity, John W. Evans is not a “political” poet in the sense in which that term is most often used today. He is instead, and admirably, a humanitarian poet. I find his poems to be skilful, lyrical, subtle, and honest, and admire how deeply he drinks from the wellspring of compassion. If there is a guardian nymph set to protect those waters, let us thank her for looking the other way as this far-wandering poet quenched his thirst.
It Is the Earth Turning that Lifts Our Shores from the Dark
The wind steadies the loose end of a scarf,
the spell of the wind
steadies our enthusiasm for landscape—
bread-white hills smothered in winter
and the tops of trees plugged with light and wind—
their leaves, by the handful, expectorating soot—
Main Street whistles another twelve bars of silence:
No cars today / No deliveries / No wind—
In the deli a man turns down the thermostat,
turns out the hinges of the display-window
glass dulled with a pollen of pale steam—
It is the precision of rock and bread and honey,
your crosses of sunlit sooner-or-later,
how you await the apocalyptic apostolicism of wind—
It is the sun in the trees retreating from the wind—
Maia, Electra, Taygete, Alcyone, Celaeno, Sterope—
Merope, gummed in twilight, still bright
as wind blossoming
in the center of the Earth—
One held low to the ground with bamboo and sticks.
One that spits mucous through thick lips
gabbling the wet mud. One roped to bricks.
One run double through the ring in its nose and bound at
One not much bigger than a goat, the last to sell if it sells
at all, standing by itself at the edge of the pen
where children tear out grasses
to test each other—hold out fingers, pull back, hold out
laughing all the while. One on an impromptu stage badly
as the chatter of numbers reaches its peak.
One or more than one way to want one thing.
One group of men leading away their prize, whipping its
back and ribs, one circling all sides to point the way to town,
following the longer route, eager to be seen
walking slowly up and down
the busy streets where men call out, “How much?” and “Have you seen
the one before, just a little smaller, and you paid so much less!”
One time of day when the sun gets caught in heavy silk,
darkens the crisp pleats, and the need to impress
gives way to hunger: first oily rice and beef, then buttery,
One kitchen where a woman grinds spices all day for a feast.
One kitchen where a woman would not so much as kill a
One afternoon, if you walked from house to house
you might wonder at the rope so tightly tying down each
Two Bengali Riddles
I am black as coal—but cheap.
Before I die, they bundle my arms and fists.
They never kill me in my sleep.
My flesh whitens in a sweet mist
while the old men gossip and play dominoes.
Before I die, they bundle my arms and fists
thrash out my body, skin, and seed for crows
to carry deep into the mountains.
While the old men gossip and play dominoes,
I surrender my bitterness. The field fountains:
autumn sun beginning to withdraw,
to carry deep into the mountains
flood waters from the summer thaw.
I only over-flow. I approach no limit like the
autumn sun. Beginning to withdraw,
I am quickly set aside. I know no apogee.
I am black as coal—but cheap
enough to start again. Because they respect me,
they never kill me in my sleep.
I wobble on three legs. I sing.
I can carry anything.
I am easily ignored in the spring,
when I am crowded by my siblings,
most rare in the winter frost.
I can carry anything
for a price, or just you. A few pennies, that cost.
My back is covered in priceless art,
most rare. In the winter, frost
slows the motion of my heart.
Those who work me often die even though
my back is covered in priceless art.
In your country, I am a novelty—too slow
and you may think my methods crude.
Those who work me often die even though
your government could send medicine, aid, and food.
I wobble on three legs! I sing!
Though you may think my methods crude,
I am easily ignored in the spring.
The Indian bowler stares out past the stadium wall where men dance wildly, shaking out the green-and-crescent flag. Rubs his arm, wonders at the angle of release, why the ball did not jump in the air, off the seam, what this one moment will say about his career: a body leaning down, bowing as the ball races out. We, too, are dancing. In the small cement room, around the computer and bed covered in netting, through the small hallway where there is no fan, out to the clearing of paddy. At the small store, I buy a bottle of Coke to toast the victory. Iqval’s friend leans toward me, smiling, and repeats his question. Planes overhead continue their sharp climb, dim as torch-lights, turning north to Katmandu, maybe, or Europe. Across the field, someone cooking rice turns up a kerosene lamp, yellowing the bamboo reed thatched on his roof where mosquitoes retreat, waiting out the new smoke. No, I don’t believe in God, and thinking he did not understand, I repeat it: A long time now, I don’t believe in God. He stands up, stretches his arms back behind his chest, says something quickly in Bangla. Then he asks if I know that the Bible is Windows 95 and the Koran is Windows 2000? It has so thoroughly updated and replaced its predecessor, it has fixed the errors, it does not crash as often, it sells everywhere. With a flourish: it is the latest and most advanced operating system. Meaning: how can I, American, harbinger of modernization, teacher and translator of English, deny such progress? I, who brought the video disc from the store in Dhaka, because it was not available here? But Iqval tells him, sharply, to be quiet and no one says anything more. As we head inside for tea, I map out my strategy to never see any of them again. Iqval’s mother smiles as she pours our cups, and I take several biscuits, soaking each until it liquefies, grainy and sweet. When I leave, Iqval apologizes and then his friend must, too. But all I can think is how in America it is snowing, and when I step on the plane in three weeks, this world will fall away like rubber chocks. How the tires will burn at takeoff. How temporary everything feels, how self-congratulatory, walking through town toward my campus gate as the frustration swells its bell-tone resonance and even the night buses, packed to the brim and running express, stand idle.
America, let the leaves that brush your blacktop
fall against themselves and make shapes in the tar,
sulfurous sepulchers of the downtown frieze.
America, you are the eagle impaled on the flagpole.
America, I love you except in practice.
You need no anthem, no chorus, no shoulders to lift your
or sheets to trail the bow, the Sound full of pinfish, all the
bullshit about boats, divorce, and solitude.
The Five-Dollar Shirt
I wake up late on the 80 Express and there it is,
the harsh tang of tar, cement, and sun
that burns up the corner of Irving Park and Sheridan,
fully registering Chicago, though it could be the outskirts
of Dhaka. How strange it would be
to see men doing that work where it was only women
under wide canopies for hours
each afternoon in tight, perfect rows,
loosening brick broken in a small furnace
that spews its smoke across the open market,
black and sour as coffee, a smell you learn to love
because you love what it is a part of,
because it travels, years later, better than a picture,
the associations more vivid and immediate
and easier to confuse in other cities.
Sorting the furious revisions of waking up,
bold details neglect their context
just enough to synthesize a city
beyond the lights, more mud than paved road,
where old buildings cool the dust and sweat and stone,
and prostitutes pick through what’s left behind
at the market, what won’t be sold, their faces
washed in village clay. Thick branches over-hang
that summer. Row upon row of mangoes
pop across the tin roofs at night
to be gathered by men in crisp linen calling out
the way to market, to my friend’s chicken farm
rattling cheap wire, sour feces and ammonia,
unmistakable among the few houses that graze the land,
betraying no uneasiness at their disruption.
The rustle of trees and ripe husks call out their
brief signal, code of prayers every morning
while I drink tea in the lean-to shacks
where boys sell fresh pan, their tins
damp with lime paste to dab along the gum-line
so the betel nut’s slight narcotic whir
staves off hunger for more work, loosening teeth
from the swollen, wide-mouth smiles of women
on their high, neat piles, rallying to finish the job
as though their city only needed one reconstruction.
Like Tagore’s gold boat through black clouds rising,
waiting for the smile that drifts closer to the coast
where golden paddy stacked to the brim
can be taken away—but there is no space
for both the self and the season’s work,
the river Meghna rising each year to meet
the steel gates of Kamanchar Industrial Area.
Turning back workers every day
with all the quiet force of no choice
except return, work more, work again, at daily
work that attracts many, its few vacancies
are as precious a commodity as the “double-tuff,
high-quality cotton tee” whose costs translate poorly
in brochures and mass appeals. No second coming
could reveal the mystery of stitches so far
from the locked fire escape where young women
crushed against each other like a desperate medieval army.
The owner worried they’d neglect the machines
if he did not lock them in. He piled bananas and bread
for each to break at her leisure. Narsingdi,
whose handloom shops outnumber the mosques
by a factor of ten, twice again the households with gas.
Those who heard the screams collapsed the barrier,
only to increase the number of dead. Try
calming nine hundred people
afraid for their lives. Two hours of screams,
impossible heat, the force of bodies, the momentum.
One dead for each minute the fire burned.
The soul arranges this space in several acts.
Beyond the Dhaka road, early sun
closes the coastline like a paper sleeve,
hems a slim bone out along the sky
where farmers, knee-deep in floodwater, gather
bundles and thrash rice beneath the harvest sun.
Children begin the walk to rural schools.
Calls to prayer overlap like bolts of bright fabric,
stitching the air with music, meditation, or moments of duty,
while songs of moyna counterpoise the songs of men.
The heaviness of rain presses throughout the village
where people live longer than in the city,
where progress needs no hand to settle its motion,
finds no reason to adapt the imperial lie
that any work is part of something noble
and large whose limits angle toward constant revision.
Because in the capital, seven weeks later, workers protest
and the factory reopens. Salaries the same.
Nothing changed. The triumph of the five-dollar shirt.
Who walked home that night?
Whose legs could carry from that place?
Who left that fire as life continued its surfaces,
to a room of mud and reed to count the number
still sleeping, exhausted, black from lifting bodies,
lifting brick? Who chalked up to management
ignorance, illiteracy, the crooked legs, skin peeling black,
the need to work tomorrow, counting out bills,
breaking rocks, rolling cigarettes, pulling rickshaws,
wondering at the price of things? Who
bathed in arsenic well water, said nothing to husband,
family, beside another house where eggs and fish
began the mourning ritual? Who walked to the storefront
doctor who sells sleep without dreams?
Whose habits devastated our capacity for regret?
Who complemented the cook’s superb meatloaf,
walked past the embassy, comforted by whispering
some small imagined detail? Who spoke furiously,
full of invective, a prophet welcomed with open arms?
Who preached to a choir of human loss, consumed by grief,
guided by wailing as they paraded home in silence,
the moon dark as a cat’s eye above the city?
Who filled with regret, shamed at the clear hollow of feeling?
Who named the day and encompassed its ruin?
Late autumn in Iaşi, the end of growing season, grapes
dusted with mold—
Sugar in the skins—
From this one branch that reaches in every direction,
a canopy of leaves
withdrawn like bank notes—
One hill, then a ridge, and beyond the ridge
Patches of field without pasture—
Heuristic heroics of the great slow windmills
dialing the sun, stockpiling wind—
Where the land percolates acid into grapes,
pears and apples,
chestnuts good for worry-stones—
Quilt of mums. A garden—
May 01, 2008