Cusp: Poems

Entre chien et loup — between dog and wolf. This French colloquialism for twilight informs Jennifer Grotz’s debut poetry collection, Cusp. A winner of this year’s Bakeless Prize for poetry, Grotz explores the peculiar territory of middleness — neither dark nor light, not quite familiar but not fully unknown. It is a place with its own dangers, its own knowledge: road signs in a French tunnel remind drivers of their headlights in the temporary darkness; a scratchy recording of the last castrato highlights art’s uneasy coupling of inspiration and artifice. Personal, thoughtful, inquisitive, and introspective, these poems reveal Grotz’s varied influences, from the “quilted fields” of west Texas to a jazz club in Paris, from a sexy rodeo rider to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is the dizziness of the foreign and the strangeness of what’s all around that gives Cusp its energy, its vitality, signaling the arrival of a distinctive new voice in American verse.

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  • Format: Paperback

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780618302468

  • ISBN-10: 0618302468

  • Pages: 80

  • Price: $12.95

  • Publication Date: 08/17/2003

  • Carton Quantity: 50

Jennifer Grotz

Jennifer Grotz

Jennifer Grotz's poems have appeared in Tri-Quarterly, Ploughshares, Black Warrior Review, New England Review, Best American Poetry 2000, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in poetry and MA in english at Indiana University in 1996, and completed her BA at Tulane University in 1993. She has received grants and scholarships from the Oregon Arts Commission, Literary Arts Inc., the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the National Society of Arts and Letters. She is also the author of Not Body, a limited edition letterpress chapbook, published in 2001 by Urban Editions. She teaches English and creative writing at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers and at the University of Rochester, where she is associate professor.
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  • excerpts

    Between Two Road Signs in Northern Territory

    Allumez vos phares the road sign warns as I enter the tunnel, where nighttime

    robs the day, speeding nighttime.

    A kilometer later a sign will remind me

    Vos phares? but for this instant, litter scrapes and flutters across the ground and I am thinking of the exit into daylight,

    it fools me every time, sunlight a harsher seduction than the gleaming eyes of cars rippling behind.

    Overhead lights stream geometric shadows that could be pines. In the center of the tunnel

    where entrance disappears, I have no choice.

    The story is the same backward and forward

    so the story is not the point. And the tunnel whispers go down, it whirs and hums. It is the projector’s hiss,

    the seat that reclines. I drive deep into the now of the tunnel: after the light behind recedes

    my dashboard glows, intricate, boxed in glass.

    I dare not interrupt, I spend my fire . . .

    The Floating World

    The huge quick bursts of light grow like time lapse photography and dissolve into darkness and embers trailing into black water.

    I will find you here, sudden as fireworks blooming above the river, the light rail blurring through the empty street,

    past the grand hotels along the waterfront, where you stand momentarily breathless amid brass and thick carpet, I know this,

    while bellboys rake the vast ashtrays, stamping the hotel insignia on white sand.

    Amid the corrosive rain of fireworks, I wonder who would ever leave you.

    Who could bear to bloom and fade from you? Earlier in sunlight we found a demolished building between two skyscrapers.

    A boom truck, yellow and toy-like, balanced on the collapsed floors, everything coated with the fine pink dust of crumbled brick. I know an anchor

    must be here, amid the world floating with all its lights and teases, the carnival spread out like a strip mall along the river, the highways

    forming concrete orbits, tracing the many paths we’ve taken to arrive.

    The parking lot off Burnside fills with the Japanese woodblock of the King of Hell

    surrounded by his Attendants. The anxiousness of people waiting for the bus.

    Finding now is the cult of the floating world, but now we are so poisoned

    and drowsy from perfume and fear. Even my body behaves like a question increasingly impatient at no answer. I am the firefly catcher in the woodblock

    where my mistress in her starry robe holds a fan and paper lantern with two crooked pinkies as I lunge for the veined night sky

    with hand raised to grasp—moonlight’s clichéd now— at the haloed black insects, five of them lazily floating.

    The Last Living Castrato

    Difficult to believe, a knife ensures the voice, soprano notes proceed intact while chest hair and beard accompany the new lower octaves, the voice expanding

    beyond sex, limited only by lung. And now whole operas composed for castrati are abstract and unperformable, now whole species of off-humans who

    were sacrificed for air, for air sinking and rising in their throats, are extinct, now facsimiles reproduce for our ears what is digital mastery,

    bleeding soprano and countertenor. Except for the brief miracle of Edison’s recording: the last living castrato’s voice brimming through

    static and hiss. Technology at its beginning and old-school opera at its decline, that cusp between where a voice spanning five octaves sang

    to give us proof of the voice, and of how we doctored it to make it more whole, to widen emotion’s aperture. He held it

    in his mouth. Audiences would beg for the aria to be sung over and over, interrupting the story, which was only

    an excuse for the voice. The voice is how, rising, rising, so as to dive, and he held it in his mouth releasing

    our cruel sacrifice, our gratitude to hear it fall, driven to where the voice takes us: silence, applause.

    Map to Light You Can Call Blue

    Where crows gather in military V’s to stitch the unhealable wound of sky.

    They spiral into Lake Ransom Canyon before dusk, their cries echoing on caliche, abandon.

    Start here, where fields of cotton mop the caprock dust that released at your birth.

    The oily road leads you to wildflower graves, then back to this dust suspended in the sunset at your feet.

    Will this much dust be miraculous, splintered earth in air? When it settles, wipe it off the car hood as if this weren’t Texan desert but what will seem impossible, what will never stop astonishing.

    Spangled. Purple. Ruined.

    I want the words to get me back to you.

    The crows ruin my entrance. They sing their spangled ohhhs until the purple night makes foamy ash of you. Because I cannot stop you, I let the sunsett envelop you.

    But now the desert and the canyon are lunar surfaces, and you are unforgivable.

    When will you turn suspicious? New one, is it enough to love the alien land and not to know later you will love a man this way, grasp his arm as terribly as thisssss terrain resists gathering you up?


    Leaves in Lubbock curl into dark hands, fall into yellow grass, but the desert reasserts itself every season. Because October is not the time of dying, because everything is tentative planted in dust, flat land packs itself tighter. Where the most alien thing to imagine is water roaring underground through the pumps of the Ogalalla Aquifer, a sky turns powdery and bright.

    Under this light we huddled at the pond by the concrete underpass with muddy string and carrots to lure crawfish.

    Unpredictable, unaware of season, the minnows darted, changed direction like the roaches swimming across sugar packets in the hatchback parked next door stuffed completely except for the driver’s seat with trash. A lake of old cereal boxes and junk mail, crusty towels and fast-food cups pressed against the windows.

    I have defined my landscape by its shapes, the family car’s four doors ajar in the driveway like a cruel piece of farm machinery, or my friend who listens to Mahler with long pieces of stiff paper he folds up or down to make a skyline for each symphony.

    But what of a fish in water, more abstract than music, yes, soundless until caught, then frantic and vowel-like?

    What of its ceaseless stare—but I must stop because the fish belongs where it is supple and limbless.

    Biologists argue over what makes a school: two or three or as many as form a three-dimensional shape.

    In fall, the dying fits in: I picture the pond dribbling into the packed mud and grassy edge.

    The hatchback holds this shape, and shape is this tentative— it has gaps and tiny spaces, never filled— while the fish is smothered in water, its skeleton flimsy as plastic price tags, and that is terrifying, or am I looking all wrong?

    Copyright © 2003 by Jennifer Grotz. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Available Resources

Related Categories

  • Format: Paperback

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780618302468

  • ISBN-10: 0618302468

  • Pages: 80

  • Price: $12.95

  • Publication Date: 08/17/2003

  • Carton Quantity: 50

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