In the Beginning, There Were Only Probabilities

I guess the HIV- and AIDS-inspired poetry I heard today generated the idea for this one. Miz Quickly‘s prompt was to write about luck, good or bad, and I decided to walk the balance beam between the two. (Or, maybe one foot firmly planted in each, aha!) Rest assured: this is not a true-to-life situation, though I’m sure it could very easily happen to people. And if it ever happened to me, I definitely do not think I would be this vicious. I can equate that waiting for test results with quantum physics in the abstract; in the real world (and given this poem, what is the “real world”, anyway?), I’d be shaking right with him on those chairs.

The title is a quote by physicist Martin Rees, and I love this quote. It has the right amount of religion and science that the awe of quantum physics ought to inspire (as Niels Bohr suggested).

In the Beginning, There Were Only Probabilities

In quantum mechanics, the idea of Schrödinger’s cat
is that the cat is simultaneously alive and dead,
poisoned or irradiated in its box. And two universes
(torus-shaped, immeasurable) bleed together inside

until you open it. We are also always in two states
waiting for an outside observer to tell us
what we don’t trust ourselves to know. It’s like this:
sitting at the clinic on hard teal leatherette cushions

while the clock clicks its tongue and I am
flipping the National Geographic page by page.
You are biting your nails. In one potential universe–
and here, I can unfold a glossy chart full of graphics

to explain this– a chemical machine plays marbles
with your blood, knocks loose a few antibodies,
and the nurse’s plastic wand will come up POZ.
In the other, the inverted world you hold up

to examine in light, there’s no such things as
consequences. You don’t want to tell me which of you
forgot the condom, who was so T’d out of his mind
that even the thought of transmission was sexiled,

miserable on the stoop as mislaid ideas often are.
And that’s fine; I accept many things. For example,
in a closed system, entropy increases. Probabilities
always, eventually, add up to 1. You can tell me

he didn’t look sick, that normally you’re so careful.
Schrödinger’s cat is doomed whenever that first atom
splits, and leatherette creaks when you start
shaking, even though the room feels warm. This is

the longest twenty minutes of your life, but also
another life: one bullet-dodge, one crucifixion.
Look, the hard part is perceiving both at once.
Even our best scientists have no good explanation.

Snooze Button

Oh hell, one more, why not. This is a combination prompt for Adele Kenny (who is exhorting readers to write about “dawn”), NaPoWriMo (where the challenge is to write something that you would never say to a boss, loved one, etc.), and We Write Poems (the prompt being to write about your first thought when waking). This happened last week, and it’s a pretty dashed-off version of events, but I just wanted to do one more bit this evening. And with my alarm clock misfortunes this morning, I suppose it’s been on my mind. Ta for now!

Snooze Button

I dreamed I was playing cards with my boss
and my brother, and I called my boss a cheater,
which led to a sudden change in career
for me. And my brother was on my side

(yes he definitely was not allowed to play that
when he did), but it didn’t help much.
Then, it was all a sudden violet light:
dawn beginning to breathe on the window,

nodding the new snowdrops awake. And me,
too, still pissed off at my subconscious.
What good is beauty when you start out
irritated? You close a wound with needle

and thread, not this brand-new-morning crap.
That’s what I would’ve said, anyway:
until there was the broad sight of your back
turned away from me, curled like a boat hull

washed up on my sheets. You sleeping
and me, possessed. Now and then a beam
does reach in to wave away the steam.
The night phantoms give way to a floodplain

poured from caramel, laid out next to me,
a map without boundary or name. That is
something to get behind, a thing to press my
lips against until it stirs to life.

A Quantum Prayer

Sometimes you have to just dump some words out and see what happens. This is for one of Donna‘s prompts, to use the following nouns (pilfered from lines she’s been writing in February) in a poem. Deep breath:

snow, sky, day, sun, shadow, mango, summer, shimmer, season; desire, faith, something, hours, knots; map, land, compass, points; dung beetles, starfruit, hijabs, uncle, thumbs

I fiddled with one or two, but managed to get them all in, I think. The other two prompts – to use the verbs, and to use one line as the headwords down the spine of a poem – will follow and be (I hope) easier. This one led to a gumbo poem where everything floats next to everything else in their shared juices. But you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, yeah?

Last night at the poetry workshop, we talked about poems of ideas, which this definitely is. There’s not a lot of concrete guidance or establishing shots to invite the reader in, and I apologize for that, since (in light of the assortment we read/discussed) I think those are definitely both my strong suit and my reading preference. But I do like to have the expansive thought balanced carefully on top of the lush image; I want my poetry to shoot the reader like an arrow from a well-described bow. And that got me thinking about contrasts and coexistence, which glommed this piece together.

(I hope Donna eventually releases those mysterious poems with all these words, because I suspect they work much better than this one.)

A Quantum Prayer

If I’m going to have faith in something, I want it to be
counterpoints, the idea that each object has its shadow
stitched along its outline. Give me a shimmer of depth
to trace with an outstretched thumb.

But if I’m going to have one desire as well, let it be
to lay down in my negative adverb. “Not”s and “never”s
cover us like hijabs: yet we are still there, underneath.
I’ve spent hours being and unbeing at once.

I believe in the fade of season to season, the sucked
mango in summer giving way to a map of snow.
But I want to blur the days together, compass them
into one simultaneous sky.

Let the living crawl with dung beetles, and let the dead
gnaw on starfruit. Let our aunt and uncle deities descend
to stride the land. Let us know annular eclipse, half-dark
sun pierced like a listening ear.


This weekend has come to an end far too quickly, and I am rather dismayed. But I suppose, as with all things, I will get through it. DVerse was asking for work that deals with growing up and caterpillars and change and all kinds of things. In fact, a couple months ago I wrote a little musing poem about moths, which never saw the light of day, that was specifically about adolescence and change and all that. Serendipity! So, I thought I might as well toss that out there as my offering for the prompt, and then go weep for the upcoming week. Ugh.

Also, “aurelian” is an archaic word for a butterfly-watcher/collector (also called a lepidopterist). So cool.


I have saved the better part of my envy
for the polyphemus moth, who grows from
beauty to beauty without even noticing;
but in an easy pocket I also keep

sugarcubes of mercy. Now and then
your path is crossed by bigmouth caterpillars
bursting through their own lime-green shoulders
with adolescence. Remember your own

and take pity, escort them to the overhanging
rhododendron or the potted fern. Who never
wanted a palm to lift their young dozens of
ungainly feet? And who never saw their own

angularity in the mirror, gave themselves a name
bitter to the taste? Carried caterpillars bristle
with thanks. Good fortune is when we find
something we can destroy, and we choose

not to. The polyphemus moth is a redhead prince
trapped in his armor, a crack-voiced spirit of leaves
and shapes that scatter underfoot at night, but
two months from now, he will tap furred wings

against the glass. You must open the window
so he can die his blessing. I have painted
all my envy onto the back of this moth,
two round purple spots on brown velveteen:

but the youths nod great heads with forgiveness,
caroling around town. If you catch one, let him
lay his body across your palm. Then release it,
like you do the idea of yourself as a child

when you have climbed out of a hard dun
coffin, and turned to see there’s nobody there.

The Rock Murmurs to Sisyphus

First full day of work in two weeks = this day was downright interminable. But I made the time to hang at the cafe for a bit and do some writing in response to Donna’s prompt at Poetry Mix Tape: the idea is to write the confession of a natural object, or to talk about a canonical character’s relationship with a non-human entity. Being an overachiever like I sometimes try to be, I tried to fuse the two together, and actually ended up with two different poems. This first one leans heavily on Camus’s interpretation of the myth of Sisyphus: the heroism of struggling against fate, and the antiheroism of struggling against what you deserve (thereby digging your own hole deeper, perhaps). I think the rock gets kind of a bad rap though.

Speaking of struggling against heavy weights, I rewrote this one about six times, which is why it took almost the full week to post. Then, of course, I had the second idea and got it down within the last hour. Go figure.

The Rock Murmurs to Sisyphus

You don’t begin to know a man until you can tell
his sweat from his tears. He is a man of toil, and
you can taste the bitter spark of it, rhubarb blade,
apple seed, all the poisons that are secret kin.

But tears. The first salt comes from devotion,
the knowledge of your own power; the second comes
when it is wasted. Here is this man compelled limb
by limb to strive, to show off, to conquer, until

his water dries into white flags on his face, mine.
Small surrenders to the almost of victory. And
still he rises again, burned by flickers of hope
deep beneath his brow. Don’t blame me: why

would I want to shatter that? My downhill roll
slaloms around his dreams: I want the sunrise too,
and feel its cold denial. But I bear no grudges.
No judgments. Only the miracle of round rock, all

gravity and equal and opposite reaction. Who else
deserves the curses of a man broken to nothing?
I will take them, keep them next to his strength,
and I have learned how to go on, just go on.

Cathedral Heights

One last poem before dinner! (I really have had very little to do today.) This is for Donna’s prompt of remembering a place earlier in a relationship and thinking about what it must be like now, so naturally I chose DC (where the Fellow and I met). I have some good memories of his apartment from this past spring/summer, before he moved. Maybe this is a bit more fanciful than reality, but at least it’s more pensive and colorful than the other two today.

Cathedral Heights

Someone else, no doubt, rises every morning now
to lean on the windowsill with their cereal bowl,
gazing at spires painted dawn-apricot, dawn-rose.
Do they have an old boxspring squat on the floor

or do they sleep in a proper bed? Does steam still
complain from each radiator, and white paint fleck
from each door? We could make a science of staying
two steps ahead. The landlord came in scrubbing

not twelve hours after you’d vanished north
for my sake. You, still peppering the walls, you
whose hairs notched the sink, whose warmth was
tangled in precious pitted sheets. Why do we starve

save for a beautiful eastward view? And for traffic
humming five floors down in time with the hourly
bells who sang with curved tongues? Once I awoke
wrapped around you and felt like the breathless maple

nodding just outside, green and full of suspended
disbelief. Who else is laying down a blessing now
on those tired wooden parquets and that cracked tub?
Do they ever watch the old pilgrims come and go,

waiting for the downtown bus? On summer nights,
do they open their screens? We gaze southward,
which is to say, we look back in time. We see this
and feel older, and prouder, but not too proud.


Craziest week ever at work so far. But I just have to make it through to the 20th, and then I can escape the city and go home for twelve glorious days. Can. Not. Wait.

This is half-for a prompt at Poetry Mix Tape. The idea is to use the weather to reflect something you’ll never forget, but the weather has been nothing much lately except for cold and somewhat gloomy. (My kingdom for some snow!) Rather than isolate a specific memory, this one is kind of meta, I guess. Will try to write another once the work stops flying at my head like a series of beanballs.


I don’t need the constellations
to remind me of my own mythology,
how I — and you, and everyone — have been
created, day after day.

Instead, my holy book will be
the city in winter, on a bare evening
when its bones jut and show through
dust-brown skin.

Two half-lit skyscrapers kiss
like the memory of every kiss.
Cars shatter through freezing puddles
and slip away like loved ones.

And the carolers under brittle trees,
the men and women in overcoats:
we’ve been all of them. We all ring
recognition on our faces.

Tonight is the first night
grass cracks beneath squirrel feet:
in my own time, I too have searched for
so many scraps, to stay alive.


Well, first and foremost… I swore up and down I would never get a Twitter account, but wouldn’t you know it, that’s just what I did. So you can find me at, a handle which I was utterly baffled was not taken. (Don’t look up @josephharker, because that’s someone else.) I’ll be using it solely for poetic purposes: a heads-up when there’s a new poem here, when new issues of Curio come out, if I find something worth sharing, if I’m at an event and want to give updates, etc. I promise no naff fluff stuff! So, follow the account if you want, and we’ll see how this experiment goes…

This is a musing sort of poem. It got super cold overnight here in NYC, and I was thinking about some old flames in my past. We Write Poems asked for a life poem, which is very general; this is one infinitesimal piece of mine. (But at least I finally got to work in that honey-with-a-bee-inside image I’ve had rolling around for months.) I might do another sometime soon, but I think this will do for now, with the freezing weather and all. I’ll have to come back to this topic. For now, I kind of like the folding in of winter imagery, vaguely sensual imagery, insects and simple things, mythology, and my beloved city into the batter.


The things we Philadelphia boys did to keep warm
when that beaver moon dragged its whitewash brush
across brick-face murals and bleary lights: we made
our own fun. You never learn the right way to kiss,

only how to kiss this mouth and how to kiss that mouth.
I wanted to be a winter-night anthropologist, trading
trinkets of affection for lessons in a culture wrapped
with quilts and smooth skin. Teach me how to waltz

with Cher ghostly on the TV screen, breath showing
in the candled apartment. Fiddle with the pilot light
as the snow piles up on Locust Street. Extend
a bullet tongue, and hide it where I can only find it

using the sense of touch, on these nights when
Capricorn is flapping its meaty tail, cracking the sky’s
useless mirror. What I needed was a man like Orion,
striding the horizon: piledriver arms and rough chin

but still brought low by a scorpion nipping his heel.
Back then, we all dreamed big. Celestial, even.
We rubbed sticks between two palms for fire
and gnawed the city in the dark. Now I feel older,

and not much wiser. I still hunger for sweetness
to thaw my mouth. The other day at the market,
I bought a jar of honey with a Midas bee suspended
inside. Jumped in a lake and turned it to gold. And

I thought with icicle fingers, that’s us boys.
When I get to the bottom, I’ll swallow myself whole:
those crooked legs stuck in everything I miss,
those bent wings too stubborn to know when to quit.


I promise I didn’t mean to write a depressing poem! It just happened, guys, sorry about that. This was intended for Donna‘s prompt, inspired by Marty McConnell, to tell the seven kinds of (insert emotion here). I guess “heartbreak” was what I had in mind, but I was so busy trying to get kooky with imagery and work in Biblical allusions that it just ended up being miserable rather than deep and complex. Not intentional, but I hope it works still.


A heart withers on the vine when winter comes,
glassy-eyed and temperamental; and I know
winter. I know how, if you dig out the heart’s cellar
and tug the arteries loose

what tumbles out freezes before it hits the ground.
Spit in Alaska and you get a thread of ice, and
this is not unlike the puffed consonant of steam
in a well-wandered desert:

in both cases, something precious must be mourned.
Fill up the heart emptied of its virtue, cored
and tossed to the birds, with tales of its sins.
I know what it means, to be

reminded of my failings. To watch them circle
like pacing panthers around my walls. It still snows
in the desert: I could never catch the snowflakes
on my lying tongue. It is hard

to speak the truth after staying silent so long.
The throat crumbles some mortar from the lips
with the first shout, with the open hand,
with the midnight trysts

under streetlamps with steamed breaths.
There are things that, when discovered, take
hypodermic needles to the heart, sipping blood
and giving back poison

that makes the heart forget the root. Here,
in the desert, is the only place where it is easy
to garden in winter. The ground gives, shifts.
And in the end, just the door

slamming behind me is enough to tug the vine
loose completely, until it hangs from my chest
like a scarlet rope, announcing, here there is nothing
left to destroy. I know

what a withered heart looks like: leather and
feeble frost, a carved slab of kiln-fired clay. At night,
deserts become hushing seas: the heart floats,
tangled in someone else’s freedom.


Yes, I voted.

I’m sure there will be much hubbub tomorrow about the election, so for now I just want to post this poem, which took five hours of agita to write. We Write Poems wanted us to absorb another poet by osmosis, and since I’ve been reading Aimee Nezhumukutathil, I wanted to write in her style; the trouble is, I think I like her so much because I already try to write in a similar style. Her book Lucky Fish is full of poems that deal with family and love and personal history, set against a backdrop of particular geography and curious things in nature, all of it bound together with a unique folklore and some truly beautiful phrases. (She also does a lot of quatrains and enjambment.) My first attempt was intensely personal, and I am not ready to share it; the second was decent, but then I realized it was eerily similar to one she wrote. So the third time’s the charm, I guess…

I’m not thrilled with it, but it will do. Now I have to get away from the computer and typing before I put my head through a wall.


We wander to Chinatown hunting for metaphors,
as they are known to collect in the alleyways
downtown. If you feed lysergic acid to a spider,
it lays out its alleyways in this crazy-web

according to some eightfold plan we cannot
begin to see. But moments grow thick and heavy
along its paths: the toothless amputee working
her mouth with saliva, blackbirds rushing upward

from skewers of salt octopus heaped on a stone,
your hand in my hand, rough and slick at once.
We buy the glimmer of kindness in small boxes,
and love in red netted bags. Old women mutter

marriage charms over colorful fruit. Rambutan is
convinced out of its furred envelope so we can
work down to the core, while one dragonfruit,
a Christmas comet heavy in the hand, is sliced,

revealing a pale disappointment of grey flesh.
And you spear fresh mango with a plastic fork,
holding it up so I can take a bite, pepper sauce
creeping over my lip, your slow, peculiar kiss.