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Benjamin Paloff


I try to listen to my body—I do—but I don’t always want it to be listening to me. The invisible needle inserts itself surgically into the abdomen just as I am trying to leave the house. The dick becomes indifferent for my wanting it to care. There’s nothing poetic about it, no “snow / That came when we wanted it to snow.” As my children are playing me recordings of sounds they say my ears are too old to hear, I do hear—not entirely welcome, just barely bearable—the water in the shower stall, in a memory I’d forgotten, of showering with my mother and asking why the water turns white as it spills off the tips of her breasts. I, or what would become I, am three, and know as little about elegance then as I do now, another middle-aged cisgender man writing about the breasts of a mother he hasn’t seen, a mother I haven’t seen, in we don’t know how long. I didn’t ask for any of this. The same fly that had been buzzing against the south window is struggling now inside my bedside lamp. Winter fly, miracle fly: you think you’re better than everyone else, whereas I, lying back in bed, am content with the evening and the book and almost proud to have remembered that tomorrow is garbage day. What a thing to call a recurrence in one’s life. You, fly, are having a garbage day, too. You’re always objecting, but there is another way. Do you feel how the idea’s intrusion into the heart of the matter is yet another offering of anatomy? In the rumbling of bins being taken down like clockwork to the curb, I hear the storm that precedes the end of the world. Watching and rewatching your end, I know that ours will probably be inglorious, too. You know, we named the city at the center of this world to honor the brother of the man who was murdered by his brother.

That Our Actions Are to Be Judged by the Intention

Please understand, my expedition to procure you toasts and quince cheese met with thundering success, but on the return journey from the kitchen our ship was beset by pirates. All the dogs in the neighborhood were singing along to the ice cream truck. No one heard my pleas. That, at least, was the excuse provided at the inquest by these so-called neighbors, none of whom I have ever seen before. The street sweepers weren’t any help, either, turning the corners like oversized Roombas, not so much waking anyone up as reminding them that they had been asleep, as several witnesses attested, though the magistrate declared it inadmissible after the lead detective thanked them for witnessing. All my life I’ve despaired of witnesses, I never realized I had witnesses the whole time, and I’m so sorry about what you had to witness. We did agree to form a commission for later study. I maintain that my mission was flawed from the get-go: quince cheese bears no resemblance whatsoever to cheese, and I’ve no experience in any territory sufficiently vast to justify a robotic vacuum, though I acknowledge that if I did the need for one would be great. After all, Your Honor, what has this case really been about? How we’ve never stopped eating as we serve the realm and extend its domain, casting aside the husks of the souls that have sustained us. All I know is I had every good intention of paying my debt to the prince, but then there was that other prince. 

Of Sadness

As I approached my fortieth tack, I finally came around to where I’d been at half that time, when last I’d touched dry ground, which I know I’d quit deliberately, in smoke and mirrored show, to skip the void my mother’d left the younger me below. And so began my mourning, first, for the boy she’d cast to sea, and for all I couldn’t do for him, whom now I saw in me. And for all I still couldn’t do for us I’d wished my line had slid, but instead of letting slip the knot I held fast to my kids.

Benjamin Paloff's books include the poetry collections And His Orchestra (2015) and The Politics (2011), both from Carnegie Mellon. He is also the author of an award-winning critical volume, Lost in the Shadow of the Word (Space, Time, and Freedom in Interwar Eastern Europe), and of many books in translation. His poems have appeared in Boston Review, Conduit, New American Writing, The New York Review of Books, The Paris Review, and others. Twice a fellow of the NEA, he teaches literature and translation at the University of Michigan.

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