Mudlark Poster No. 75 (2008)

Five Poems by Erin Lambert

Koudelka’s Turtle | Carnival: A Study of Two Sisters | Debut | Forgiven
A Letter to Nietzsche & the Committee for Sanity & Integrity in Humankind

Erin Lambert is the author of RESOLUTION, forthcoming in November 2008 from Finishing Line Press. Her poetry has appeared in Mudlark before, Poster No. 44 (2003), and in many other journals too, such as Blackbird and Conjunctions. She is currently an assistant professor in the School of Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication at James Madison University.

Koudelka’s Turtle

after Josef Koudelka’s photograph, Turkey, 1984

One could find them as sincere as the edge 
of the river where the water bends, then recedes 
into earth as the night into the distance.

But when I find the compositions cruel,
I also remember you, Koudelka, behind the lens
where, I tell myself, you staged coincidence.

Still, you are not here, not with me by this river
where the sparrows bathe each morning, 
though you have lived in poor towns like this one 
where so many despair, afraid 
everything they’ve come to matters 
as much as these sparrows, will be remembered
as often as the land by the water. 

Which, in either case, is to say not enough, 
but one must see things as a tree to understand the land 
has always been something taken — by elements, 
by empires, and by the very people 
fleeing both — but only the grass and this 
morning’s air can hold the value of a sparrow. 

These things I keep in mind when I consider 
your photograph of a turtle on its back, legs stretched 
desperately into day, and gazing up a rocky incline 
the way I saw several people in Sienna 
stare up at Saint Catherine’s head; it was severed 
to rest as a relic on a white silk pillow, and she 
appeared menaced in death as if her final thought 
had been of a toothache. How each person petitioned 
her to relieve him of the hole he labored to mend. 

Like them, your turtle stares at the slope of the hill 
when its conflict is in its position; 
the weight on its back will only help to keep it down.

I once told myself that after taking this picture, 
you gently rearranged the turtle’s composition until 
it lay across the incline where it could grasp enough 
momentum to change its own perspective.

Then, given the loose terrain, I could see 
after just a few steps, it would have slipped and rolled 
onto its back again, prostrate to the open air 
as if giving up each kick to encourage a predator.

So, I thought, you may have had a point of keeping 
everything as you found it. Then, years later, long 
after leaving that turtle upside down, perhaps 
when winding back the film in the very same camera, 
you realized nothing remains untouched, not even 
the head of a saint still harboring her final vision.

But no, Koudelka. You did not. You are not one who waits 
to see anything, which is why, after taking this photograph, 
you turned that turtle over and carried it with you 
a meter or so beyond the edge of the incline until 
the ground became soft with leaves where you set it down.

You knew once it sensed itself level and unrestrained, 
it would release its vision from its shell and crawl away
from that hill; just as you knew to look upon this world, 
to see it as it is, is to change it, enough to let it go.

Carnival: A Study of Two Sisters

after Josef Koudelka’s photograph, Moravie, 1968

Derived from the removal of meat, carnelevare, 
it also means Moravie 1968, where two sisters
are seated at a simple wooden table, its emptiness 
spread before them as an absent feast. 

Maruska, her elbow on the table and fist on her hip, 
would like to pull the trigger. She knows this much, 
and since she has known for quite some time, 
her faint grin never falls away, even when peeling an onion.

But her younger sister, Mila, who leans to the right, 
would like to persuade her to poison. When she mentions 
her calculations — how long it will take the crushed 
holly to dissolve — she flushes, her pulse becomes erratic, 
and a glow emerges from the heavy lines in her palms. 

She’s a small woman with a limp, who rotates her left hand 
clockwise over her right knee, habitually 
reaching for its pain, and believes she knows the better way.

Though she cannot bring herself to name it, Maruska 
hears in Mila’s movements each vital turn 
of her own life slip into the damp courtyard below.

So a pall spreads between them like a coffee stain, 
these sisters who share the same desire for a man and 
an unresolved scheme for how best to take care of him.


I must admit none of this is accurate. 

The man is already gone. He sat here once
with Maruska before those yellow marigolds 
wilted in their bowl, but he meant his love 
much less than a silk shawl, which is to say 
it was as inevitable and as permanent as breeze or dust. 

For if we look closely, and we must, there is still 
some movement in the mirror above Maruska’s head 
which means to turn our attention outside of the frame
and lead us down several sparse roads to Mikulov. 

As if the man’s departure were fixed there
to hang over Maruska as a thick, flecked aura
of loss, the way so many empty chambers become 
dispersed through dough, then preserved in bread. 

Turn away from this. It is too sad to consider 
as it is still too much for Maruska to remember. 

Which is why she joins her little sister to partake in 
the absence of their shared feast at this simple table 
in Moravie, holding a grin in place of a gun 
as that red dog, crouching (almost imperceptibly) 
by Mila, licks the short, dry arc of Maruska’s shadow.


We, who have inherited all things 
named after the weight of disappointment 

by the strained voice that troubles winter,
once stumbled onto sleep we thought sound

for the hope we held would soon awaken.
Even water knew what propels us

would not lie in our wake, that long white haze 
of ‘has been’ gone by; just as tomorrow’s 

skies will foster doubt, peer into each terror
stalking our minds, unaware of the glory

they are said to contain. In the end 
we could choose to forgive even this 

if only to leave our blameful, broken 
cities by way of wind above the sounds 

of foo and mür as one breath, sealed within 
three cadences of rain on wooden steps

down familiar streets of soft departure.


That we will see the stranger was ourselves 
is not for me to say, but I can say 

everyone’s solitude will be undressed 
at that moment until we are without 

regrets or one haunting grief in which we 
believe we pushed anyone — ever — away.

Easy, then, to loose the reins that dragged 
our mules of violations over pocked,

unforgiving landscapes because we find 
what we have always been: without a stone.

Perhaps we may stand together in silence
before letting each mistaken thought 

of separation pass, and make our debut
as a story of the sun and a ring

of violet clouds over a bridge of starlight
where nothing — unlike the countless scripts

for fallen lives that play themselves cruelly 
forgotten — could possibly be tragic 

once the cells are empty, and the warden 
and the criminal, together, go home.

For we know should we believe again 
in failure or in shame, that fitful sleep 

will still be temporary as all deceit 
and every beginning of this world.


Those fortunate to witness how water brings itself 
to an end in the golden sheen 
scrawled through the center of a river — in even 
the green aura of ailanthus — may recognize the legends 
contained therein of every minor prophet to come; 
and those who lose everything ever trusted 
& known, & just when desperation comes to clear 
its throat, look up into the worn down branches of winter 
(where all things are as blue silk & silver stitching) to see 
soon what comes will hold in place the nest & the leaf, 
will also find in this delicate fabric why the willow drew 
the map to all migration: to hear the gentle diction of mercy 
born itself beyond our shallow clearings, beyond husk & stone.

A Letter to Nietzsche & the Committee
for Sanity & Integrity in Humankind

We could exist one hundred, forty-seven years in service, 
but this committee would still manage to say nothing.

And if, as Nietzsche gleaned from the irrational gulf 
between blame and regret, we can only experience 
ourselves, then I am also writing to inform you 
of my immediate need to be excused indefinitely 
before a contract is drawn and conferment of a title begins.

Because I cannot comply with policy; I still believe in a
shared ligature of minds, the possible light of unanimity.

Point being, I understand that you, Mr. Nietzsche, 
were speaking of perception, that life is in the mind
but we have infected ourselves with ego: that zephyr, 
which carries distinction and alienation, is consumptive. 

Even you, sweet unknowable Sir, crumbled in its pocket. 

So I ask that we may create a new mindset 
fashioned after the polite agreements between 
frost and glass, at least study the mediation of rain.

There could be one thought by which we cease 
all accusations, another to relinquish contempt 
for the unexplained; for it is we who turn our fields 
fallow and bring every root release 
from the dirt’s memories of drought and wars.

So I implore you, Fellow Committee Members:

See here, the hands by which all is made forgiven;

here, the sky unburdened, now possible

and here, the sparrow and the threshold.

Acknowledgment: The Josef Koudelka photographs, Turkey, 1984 and Moravie, 1968 are from JOSEF KOUDELKA, published by Thames and Hudson in their Photofile Series, New York, 2007.

Copyright © Mudlark 2008
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