A Body of Poems

by Jesse Lee Kercheval


The poet travels light
& washes his clothes
in the hotel sink
A woman in DC tells him
she saw him in NY
& he was wearing
the same clothes
He is in Wisconsin now
& he is still
wearing them

Childhood, a plane we
board in our pajamas,
fly over an ocean
to arrive in a country
where no one speaks
our language

Which country?
Which language?
Which mother?

If you have 2
you can never have both
But then all are divided at birth. All mothers, all children
Divided at birth. God always. Us always

if we could stop moving
if we could stop talking Arms could catch us—
                                hold us tight again

We could hear God’s voice
our name or our mothers calling

What keeps you alive in a
                new century

the same old bitter


Happy endings are still

I want a beginning
I want grace

I want to learn to count
                                to 100
in 7 different languages
learn scales on
my daughter’s violin

I don’t want to learn all of
to learn anything
                that has a purpose

I already know

God is in the building
                in the hall outside
                this room


At night I remember
my life as a French Jew
                in another life
                in a land I never left
                in an army transport in a strange woman’s arms

From Chapter 4—in which I am 51

What life does not have us?

This is not the beginning
                not an end
not even the middle
                properly speaking
unless I live to be 102

already, the course has been
laid down
like flower beds
like whores going to bed to sleep

                Do I have, have I ever
had a vestibule?

By class, by height
                please form perfect lines

Write in a disciplined hand
the X of a disciplined mind


In his introduction
my friend uses the title
of a poetry manuscript
sent in the mail—
Good Enough
By The Supreme Being

I hope you know I am
a bit tired of this, God says
in the first poem

& who isn’t? I want
to answer. After all these
years, I’m more
than weary—I am
bored. Armageddon
calls out like
a good game of Bingo


Isn’t this us?
The ones drinking coffee
with creamer? Why
can no one remember
the milk? Out the window
I can see the barn
where the university
keeps cows

I took my children
to see the one with
the porthole in its side
the cud moving past
the little window
like green socks in the dryer

What would it feel like
having a window
in my side? Does the cow
mind that we stare?
Would I take it as
a complement?

Or is my writing
just that—window/peep show

When I wrote a memoir
my husband said,
You honestly
think no one is going
to read what you
write there

Which wasn’t true
I did. But not any
one I knew. Strangers who
lived in towns with
better bookstores
Strangers would know
everything about me—
not my friends
not my family

Would the cow
be embarrassed if
it were cows, not
people staring?

Or perhaps perhaps—
none of this is true

I am not in Wisconsin
a woman with two good children
one very bad dog
sitting in a poetry reading
given by a man who
says he almost died
on the plane here

Small plane, he says,
very windy
                It rose & rose—then


Sometimes I think God
in love with us

In love like you do
with a puppy

In love like a mother
does with her

The puppy turned dog
child grown up
love changes—
or does it? I love
a dozen people now dead

Standing outside
time, does God
grieve? How many
dead can he remember?

I told my son about my death—
this was in a dream

He said I would come back as a bird
or come back as something
made of aluminum

Though, sometimes, he said
we are reborn to embody
a virtue—
Charity, maybe, or Grace

We were on a school bus
when we got off, God
was waiting
as he always was
in the place
that had always been home


After seeing
men & women
without skin in
The Human Body,
my daughter said,
“Don’t the people
in the lobby
look way

JESSE LEE KERCHEVAL is the author of eleven books of poetry, fiction and memoir. Her latest are the poetry collection Cinema Muto (SIU Press, 2009), which won a Crab Orchard Open Selection Award, and The Alice Stories (University of Nebraska Press, 2007), which won the Prairie School Fiction Book Prize. Her novella, Brazil, which won the Ruthanne Wiley Memorial Novella Prize, will be published by the the Cleveland State University Poetry Center this spring. She is the director of the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin.