The Poem We Start Starts Us, as We Start Forth

So I’m thinking of how I want to run hounds through the woods

     in Arkansas, maybe, or Tennessee. And I’m thinking


about a Konso grave in Ethiopia marked by carved wooden effigies

     representing the dead and their wives—even the enemies


they have killed. And I’m thinking about class last Thursday,

     how I told my students I often need to cut the first stanza or two


of my poems. How the poem is always in search of itself. And how

     I need to trim the warm-up, the throat-clearing, as my words hunt


for what they want to be and how. I’m thinking about John.

     He’d say the poem starts here, where I find a bobcat dead


in the blowdown, slice it open, and read the remains of a coyote

     pup in its entrails. How what has partially passed through us


is where things begin because we can only begin in the middle.

     Bailey’s leg dragging behind her with cancer. How her


Springer Spaniel body—caught in mid-step—is moving toward

     something beautiful as music of still water in a sassafras hollow,


though I pray that quiet does not come soon. How we are all

     partially eaten by air, the moment we gasp for it from the womb.


Words continue to catch in our throat, remind us of that first

     reaching, the whining in our whelping, even though we think


ourselves human. So much for the birth of a word in the cavity

     of the chest as it comes upon us, unto our tongue, like the hackles


along a dead crow’s throat. And I think of Dan tonight. How I’d

     thanked him weeks ago for the Juan Ramón Jiménez book—


only now to find his inscription. The ink dried from the moist birth

     canal of his November 3 hand. I want to begin where his loving


words leave off. I want to begin healing in the emptiness

     if my neighbor dog Bailey loses her leg. I want to cut off


the first stanza or two, or the third or fourth—all that drags

     these words down—to see where the lines really want to go.


Ray used to say we only find the poem as we end it. And that’s

     where we should begin the next draft. Who will I be


the next time I am born? Or, maybe, not who but what?

     Or in the next poem I am birthed into or through?


Will my earlier lives be cut away from the cosmogonic egg like war

     enemies whose effigies lie beside me on the hill, or stay


like dried chunks of yolk blotched here and there with dark spots

     of my not-yet-knowing how to give unto the stinging places


of my tongue the push and pull of the whirl? Will I limp,

     lugging my words and all their faltering ways? Will I run


the woods’ moonlit swamps with hounds, sniffing the ground,

     baying loudly, through Arkansas or Tennessee, or Indiana


corn, or even Ethiopia, marking the paths I take, lifting a leg

     over the scent of what I’m chasing and trying to tree,


perhaps longing to become?


This poem was first published in the Summer 2019 issue of the North American Review and appears in What My Hound Dog Is Scenting Through the Sloughgrass Is a Way of Scenting Me. Read Janine Harrison’s review in Open Space.   


George Kalamaras


GEORGE KALAMARAS is former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014–2016). He is the author of twenty-four collections of poetry—fifteen full-length books and nine chapbooks—as well as a critical study on language theory. He is Professor Emeritus of English at Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he taught for thirty-two years. George and his wife, writer Mary Ann Cain, have nurtured beagles in their home for nearly thirty years, first Barney, then Bootsie, and now Blaisie. George, Mary Ann, and Blaisie divide their time between Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Livermore, Colorado, in the mountains north of Fort Collins. Watch George Kalamaras with the Mikautadze Dance Theatre perform Hound-Dog Beautiful: Poetry and Movement.

Photo: “George and Blaisie” by Beth Blake