Yesterday the T.S. Eliot Prize in Britain was awarded to Roger Robinson for his collection A Portable Paradise. In 2018 it was given to Hannah Sullivan for Tree Poems. In 2017, Ocean Vuong, whose novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous garnered much praise last year, was awarded the T.S. Eliot Prize for his volume of poems titled Night Sky with Exit Wounds. We celebrate the three of them today. Let’s call it T.S. Tuesday.
Essay on Craft
by Ocean Vuong
Because the butterfly’s yellow wing
flickering in black mud
was a word
stranded by its language.
Because no one else
was coming — & I ran
out of reasons.
So I gathered fistfuls
of ash, dark as ink,
into marrow, into
a skull thick
enough to keep
the gentle curse
of dreams. Yes, I aimed
for mercy —
but came only close
as building a cage
around the heart. Shutters
over the eyes. Yes,
I gave it hands
that to stretch that clay slab
into five blades of light,
I would go
too far. Because I, too,
needed a place
to hold me. So I dipped
my fingers back
into the fire, pried open
the lower face
until the wound widened
into a throat,
until every leaf shook silver
with that god
& I was done.
& it was human.
An Extract from her Three Poems
All summer the Park smelled of cloves and it was dying.
Now it is Labor Day and you have been sleeping through a rainstorm,
Half aware of the sewage and frying peanut oil and the ozone
Rising in the morning heat, and the sound of your roommate hooking the chain,
Flipping ice cubes into a brandy balloon, pouring juice over them,
Ruby Sanguinello, till they giggle, popping their skins. The freezer throbs.
He has been beating a man he met on Craigslist, he has been dreaming:
Old New York, a James novel, a Greenwich Village Christmas,
A certain kind of frost in the Meatpacking District, and the smell of the carcasses
Dull with the tang of freezing blood beside the skip of the Hudson wind.
You have been thinking of the building opposite at night, the lights
Going off one by one, a diminished Mondrian, one ochre square
Where a woman undresses for the city, stroking her puffy thighs.
You hear him talking on the phone about you, his ‘petite innocente’.
All summer you have been eating peaches from the greenmarket.
Overripe in September they need to rest in the icebox, sitting with their bruises.
All summer you have been dreaming of Fall and its brittle confection of branches.
by Roger Robinson
It becomes clear to you
the night your father asks you
to wake him up to see
his favourite film on TV,
and despite cups of coffee
bright lights and company
he is asleep
with his dark rimmed glasses
tilted on his face
before the opening credits.
hearing the drag of his snore
and watching the uncomfortably
crooked angle of his neck,
you see him at nineteen,
taking care of his four brothers
and one sister and studying
for a scholarship while working
nights pushing dead bodies
at the local morgue, and he’s tired
but he can’t stop because he’ll
be the first in their family
to go to university and he can’t let them down.
he’s in class at Stirling University
wondering if he can afford the batteries
for his warehouseman’s torch
so he can study on the job tonight.
Nobody told him Scotland
would be this cold, and it’s
so lonely sometimes but he
has to pass these exams
or he’ll be out.
At twenty-two you’re born.
Your mother works the night shift
at the hospital, and he tries to read
between your two a.m. squeals
and he picks you up
in the hand not holding the book
and smiles and rocks you to sleep.
and working late five nights a week
trying to snatch a few promotions,
and somehow he thought
it might be a bit easier with his degree,
and he really needs
to move his wife and kids
into a place of their own.
And for the next twenty years
he battles on his job every day
just so you could be comfortable
and have the space to be what you want.
And then you know
that he’s never had much time for this
for rest, for sleep.
You prop his head with a pillow,
gingerly pull off his glasses
and stare at him
(first published in Out of Bounds: British Black & Asian Poets)
BONUS: JEREMY IRONS READS ELIOT’S THE HOLLOW MEN
AND ELIOT HIMSELF READS PRUFROCK
Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherized upon a table; Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, The muttering retreats Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells: Streets that follow like a tedious argument Of insidious intent To lead you to an overwhelming question … Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” Let us go and make our visit. In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo …