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Listening In

The Poetry of USC

Series editor: Chad Sweeney

For our third Listening In let us swing south and sunward to listen in on the poetry workshops of the Ph.D. program at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Students featured here have signed book deals in recent years with Alice James, Fence Books, Oberlin College Press (Field Prize), New Issues Press, and Black Lawrence Press. A remarkable record of achievement, yet not surprising when we consider the lyric range of voices in this brief sample where the new and the ancient tremulously coexist, where first-sight and memory seem/seam into one sonic texture. USC's vibrant Ph.D. program offers a dual emphasis in Literature and Creative Writing with full-time poetry faculty Mark Irwin (featured here), David St. John and Carol Muske-Dukes and visiting poets such as Adrienne Rich, Robert Pinsky, Eavan Boland, Mark Doty, Carolyn Kizer, and Mark Strand. The exciting poetry produced at USC is further evidence of what can arise when this much talent gathers in one time and place. We've set the launch of this Listening In to coincide with the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books spread out across USC campus, April 21-22, 2013.

Mark Irwin

Landscape Tapering Toward Infinity

The washing lifts in the wind beneath clouds. Each shirt or towel

gestures like a sentence beginning. Many times I have failed

with my body. August and the peaches fully pronounce

their yellows and reds, beginning to dissolve from outside

in. The washing lifts in the wind. The uneven song

of beginning. If you came this way in spring you would see

wind over clothes a freedom. I've been waiting a long time

in the sun. Inside the peach, flesh yellows to red

seed. Have you glimpsed the end? It's like the beginning

only with a full view. The sentence means more as it

continues. Now windows in nearby houses turn to water, flooding

the yards and streets, while laundry lofts, blows, and trees float by in the wind.

Open House

The realtor is whistling through the spacious rooms.

Everything's so new—floors, carpet, paint—as if just created.

There are cookies on the Plexiglas tray, coffee and tea.

There are flowers on the mantle. She wants us to feel at home.

A puzzle of a forest, unassembled, lies on an end table.

We pass a small box to each other. The last one

sets it down. Inside is a model of this house. We

all peer down a long way to see. Now a child lifts

the roof off. Inside are figures just like us. Our breaths

make clouds. This is the way our lives start. This is the way they go.

Originally appeared in FIELD, Fall 2010.

Stacy Gnall

Shadow Play

Your hands


to the tune

of an elk's


and me, curled

like a bass clef

in bed:

we fill

in the blanks

of night.


come together

like braids.

Hocks ache

in growth.

The pelvis'

punctual spate.

And ease

is a shadow.

And shadow is



An antler

at water.

Already I'm

an animal

you don't


Elizabeth Cantwell


I am sitting beneath my car. Watching the dogs. Watching the dogs wag their tails, the dogs that have tails. The light is red and I am watching the light for when it turns green. Watching the bubbles rise over my head towards the surface of the water. If everyone else can smile at the sunset then I. Don't think twice about that shadow passing over. The grand piano squats in the intersection. The light turns green. The audience rustles like algae. After I play a few chords, the dog sitting in the aisle barks his approval. Sometimes I look down at the keys. Saltwater drips over the ivory. Sooner or later everyone devolves.

amaranth borsuk

Dear Drawn

I climb all night with you on my back,

then turn to offer you half my éclair.

I've found no clarity here, but ease

in shifting my joints. I'd like to show you how

I pull myself apart.

Between one dream and the next, I count backward:

dwa, jeden, you, my passport to doubt.

In twill or in two, still I introgress, a kind of hiding from,

this double exposure. These days I'm always of two

mines. I color more deeply than ever, double-struck.

I've found a use for the twine: mastered the twofold fugue and bind.

My dual plea: be phantomed if you like, but please

be felt. We fold in our desires, like buried rhymes,

till each expires.



Brandon Som


Of Babel's moon, I have notes. It was a marked card. It lit a chandelier out of an acacia. The trowel glinted with it. Crickets were out, too, and, as if they sightread stars, settled in to leg-kick song. A light wind blew seed into the web between tines of a hayrake. A soldier stood letting his horse drink well water from his helmet. The moon trembled in it. There was nothing forsaken about it. It simply issued a shadow while burnishing a surface. This morning, I read that when returning from a trail, Thoreau knew he had had visitors by what was left behind: a wreath of evergreen, a name in pencil on a walnut leaf, a willow wand, woven into a ring. Its path not without disruption, the moon, in its orbit, tethers and tethers again. The morning of the funeral, my father dressed my grandfather: from the eyelet, each button, new to full; the tie's knot loose as if it had swallowed a small bird.

Amy Newlove Schroeder

One Night Lions Came into My Yard

two females, outlined in black marker

two cubs

I was lying in my white gown

sweat under my breasts

hand between my legs

one male with his lazy mouth

the lions circled the lawn, their huge heads

wheat-colored, even in moonlight:

the grasses of my education—staves—

bent so easily

                      under their feet

from The Sleep Hotel, Oberlin College Press, 2010, winner of the Field Poetry Prize

Andrew Allport

The Papermakers

Art older than Christ, its rags more colorful,

its watermark two hands open to receive a gift:

a piece of silver, a blank check, the universal sign

for alms. During the weeping, the hand-wringing,

wet pages began falling, leafing through saturated air

curling around survivors' arms as they wilted

under the white heat of the sky dome.

In the exposed roots of the oaks, in the rigging of boats

sunk in their berths, upon the archipelago

of rooftops, an endless supply of fresh sheets

tiling the muddy water, delicate flagstones

offering the solace of the idea of disaster

as a clean page, a baptismal current of paper,

God's great pulpy torrent ripping,

running bodies through a sieve of cyclone fence.

So we pinned the first page to the first found:

art older than Christ, finding something

to write with and on at the insistence of the dead.

Mark Irwin's seventh collection of poetry, Large White House Speaking, just appeared from New Issues in spring of 2013. His last three books are Tall If (New Issues, 2008), Bright Hunger (BOA, 2004), and White City (BOA, 2000). He teaches in the Ph.D. program in the Creative Writing & Literature Program at the University of Southern California.

Chad Sweeney's recent books of poetry are Parable of Hide and Seek (Alice James) and Wolf's Milk: Lost Notebooks of Juan Sweeney (Forklift Books). He teaches in the MFA program at California State University, San Bernardino where he edits the lit journal Ghost Town. (

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