NEA Literature Fellowships

James Kimbrell

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(2017 - Poetry)

"How to Tie A Knot"

If I eat a diet of rain and nuts, walk to the P.O.
in a loincloth, file for divorce from the world of matter,
say not-it! to the sea oats, not-it! to the sky
above the disheveled palms, not-it! to the white or green oyster boats
and the men on the bridge with their fishing rods
that resemble so many giant whiskers,
if I repeat this is not it, this is not why I’m waiting here, will I fill the universe with all that is not-it
and allow myself to grow very still in the center of
this fishing town in winter? Will I look out past the cat
sleeping in the windowsill and say not-it! garbage can,
not-it! Long’s Video Store, until I happen upon what
is not not-it? Will I wake up and BEHOLD! the “actual,” the “real,” the “awe-thentic,” the IS?
           Instead I walk down to the Island Quicky, take a pound
of bait shrimp in an ice-filled baggy, then walk to the beach
to catch my dinner. Now waiting is the work
I’m waiting for. Now the sand crane dive-bombs the surf
of his own enlightenment because everything
is bait and lust and hard-up for supper.
                           I came out here to pare things down,
wanted to be wind, simple as sand, to hear each note
in the infinite orchestra of waves fizzling out
beneath the rotting dock at five o’clock in the afternoon
when the voice that I call I is a one-man boat
slapping toward the shore of a waning illusion.
Hello, waves of salty and epiphanic distance. Good day,
bird who will eventually
go blind from slamming headfirst into the water.
What do you say fat flounder out there
deep in your need, looking like sand speckled with shells,
lying so still you’re hardly there, lungs lifting
with such small air, flesh both succulent and flaky
when baked with white wine, lemon and salt, your eyes
rolling toward their one want when the line jerks, and the reel
clicks, and the rod bends, and you give up
the ocean floor for a mouthful of land.

(originally appeared in The Cincinnati Review)

James Kimbrell has published three volumes of poetry, The Gatehouse Heaven (1998), My Psychic (2006), and Smote (2015),  and was co-translator of Three Poets of Modern Korea: Yi Sang, Hahm Dong-Seon, and Choi Young-Mi (2002). The recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a Whiting Writers Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, his work has appeared in magazines such as Poetry, The Nation, The Cincinnati Review, and Ploughshares, and in annuals such as Best American Poetry and the Pushcart Prize antholgies. He lives in Tallahassee where he teaches in the English Deparment at Florida State University.

Photo by Michelle McFatter

Author's Statement

I am a poet, a husband, the father of four children, the human of five dogs, the professor of an amazing group of graduate and undergraduate writers, and am still more than a little astonished a few weeks after the phone call informing me that I was among this year’s NEA fellows. How wonderful to receive affirmation on this scale, and to be a poet in a nation that upholds the artistic ambitions of its citizens. I’m currently at work on a new volume of poetry, tentatively titled Flea Trap, and though this will be my fourth volume of poems, writing is still very much a labor-intensive process for me that requires patience, a high tolerance for temporary disorder, and time away from my other roles and duties. My sincere gratitude to the judges and staff at the NEA for providing me with this opportunity; my chief aim now is to make good on the investment and encouragement I’ve been so fortunate to receive.