NEA Literature Fellowships

Benjamin Paloff

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(2009 - Poetry)

The Four Great Inventions of Ancient China


We might as well be talking about ceramics.
In the race to build a more perfect fire, the team
with the stronger heat-shield wins. I used to think
our orders weren't worth the paper they're written
on, but then I turned page after page across millennia.
Only to say, "I could now walk into fire as if to a wedding."



Just now we were in Rome, and now we're in Xinjiang Province.
Without the compass this would not be possible. Experienced woodsmen
carry two compasses: people lost in the wilderness often come to distrust
the one they love. A strong argument for polytheism. To whom
do I report the driver's unattended baggage, his suspicious behavior?
Greetings, I say, to the last resplendent soul to leave what had been this town.



I won't stick my chest out before someone else's firing squad
just so history might say I passed that test. That's no way
to live. Gunpowder speaks for itself. To be alive at this party
you have to be conscious of your breath. I am party-conscious,
and you are not. Thank goodness we are both breathing,
my arm cast across the bed and over your body,
and I am waiting to be told what it is I feel under my arm,
a tap-tap not unlike the near-hopeless rhythm of someone
signaling from beneath infinite rubble. It may be my heart.
It may be your heart. There is infinite rubble on the news.
There are infinite contexts in which an open heart is not
nearly a good thing, contexts I do not nearly wish to name.



The diagram of a Siamese standpipe. The red scare
quotes. The Boy's Book of the Sea. The pay
dirt. The way a semicolon looks like a comma
with a very small idea. The way that man
from Shanghai seems to know everything
about flowering trees. I, too, wish to know
everything about flowering trees.

Benjamin Paloff grew up in Atlantic City and is a poetry editor at Boston Review. His poems have appeared in The New Republic, A Public Space, The Paris Review, and elsewhere, and he writes frequently for such publications as The Nation and the Times Literary Supplement. He received an MFA from the University of Michigan, his doctorate from Harvard, and was a Fulbright-Hays Fellow in Russia and Poland. He has translated several works from Central and Eastern European literatures, most recently Dorota Masłowska's Snow White and Russian Red (Grove Press, 2005) and Marek Bieńczyk's Tworki (Northwestern University Press, 2008). He is currently an assistant professor of Slavic languages and literatures and of comparative literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Photo courtesy of the author

Author's Statement

I regard writing (and reading, for that matter) as occasions for conversation, for an ongoing dialogue across space and time, between books and among friends, about who and what we are. As I think most writers would attest, it is the rare moment of contact--a letter, an email, a phone call--that reminds us of how our stock-in-trade is dialogue and not merely broadcast, that there is someone else on the other end of the line. It was especially gratifying when that someone was Dana Gioia, calling with confirmation not only that people were reading my work with enthusiasm, but that their enthusiasm carried over toward what comes next.

In Stanley Kubrick's 1955 noir Killer's Kiss, a positively magnetic Frank Silvera, told that money cannot buy happiness, asks, "Can happiness buy money?" Writing has given me a mostly happy life, but not an easy one. Debts pile up. Promising projects often have to be postponed to meet short-term needs. The support of the National Endowment for the Arts could not have come at a better time, when I have two manuscripts perpetually flirting with completion and another just getting off the ground, but no time to cultivate the attention necessary to move forward. The money makes that time. The encouragement spurs me to use it.