Nancy Naomi Carlson

Calder’s Menagerie

Duchamp called them mobiles
early crank-driven works
of kinetic art, perhaps descended
from prehistoric peepal leaves
amusing an infant strapped
to a bent-backed mother

gathering berries and grains,
or the tintinnabulum of ancient Rome
that belled wanton-eyed deities—
not yet evolved into symphonies
of parts balanced by fragile wires,
charged by your touch or breath.

Lyrical inventions, Sartre said
of his friend’s later creations—
flowers that die when motion stops
like Paleolithic vines frozen
and locked into their s-shapes in open-
mouthed Ice Age caves

or this high wire act on homespun
thread outside your window, suspended
like Calder’s “Spider,” black disk
and cantilevered legs playing dead
until you tap tap on the pane,
and it twitches once like a blink,

before turning back into sculpture
the way tomorrow’s quarantine days
morph into days already passed—
reminding you to throw open the sash,
let in the new autumn air, let it play
your heart like an aeolian harp.

An Excess of Dreaming

It takes an effort to summon
the sacred bird of invention—
go slowly, with caution

as Montaigne warned
against getting mired in the liminal
space between visible and not,

citing two cases as proof:
Gallus Vibius, gone mad
from obsessing on madness

and the convict pardoned
on the scaffold, struck dead
by his own wild imaginings—

and some nights I’ve let that bird
preen her feathers at my pillow’s edge,
leaving several in her wake.

I’ve tried to wean myself
from an excess of dreaming,
but my good intentions equal

what Aquinas might have called sloth,
bothered more by too much
sleep than drink,

and Einstein might have praised,
as things restrained return in force.
Late to rise, I’m also late for bed,

maybe waylaid by a waxing moon
or a word or phrase shooting past
white space like a star. 

By Any Other Name

Spanish approximates my rose with “rosa”
and likewise in Portuguese, but she blooms

to “roos” in Dutch, “ruusu” in Finish,
and in Hindi to “bulaab ka phool.”

“Rozi” in Amharic, “woz” in Creole,
the French ones ripen to « rose » itself,

lazing in guillemets: sideways
double chevrons favored by Josephine —

guillemets derived from « Guillaume »
meaning « William », just as the Irish

strew Erse with « Liamóg » from « Liam ».
Like geese, they work in pairs,

borrowing what’s said by someone else,
faithful, for all we know, to dying words:

Dickinson’s “I must go in, the fog is rising.”
Duncan’s “Adieu, mes amis. Je vais à la gloire.”

They adorn translations, like the jewels
Napoleon looted from Luxor.

Mismatched—one open, one closed—
yet they make no sense without the other,

like long-married couples—of one mind
for what gets walled out or in:

“We love the things we love for what they are.”
Don’t rend them asunder

through malice, mistake or sleight of hand:
they shall be unbound—“nevermore”!

Nancy Naomi Carlson, winner of the 2022 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, twice an NEA translation grant recipient, and the Translations Editor for On the Seawall, has published twelve titles (four non-translated). An Infusion of Violets (Seagull, 2019), her second full-length poetry collection, was called “new & noteworthy” by The New York Times. Her co-translation with Esperanza Hope Snyder of Cuban Wendy Guerra is forthcoming from Seagull Books in April 2023.