A CLOSER LOOK: Emily Fragos

In her original, compelling poetic voice, Emily Fragos takes us where we do not expect to go, but where we are so moved, so engaged, that we do not want to leave. We read and reread through the mysteries of her poems and feel their hold. Her erudition does not intrude, it enlarges; and it serves as a lens whereby she examines both the quotidian and the human with a piercing intelligence, and with humor. A few first lines can serve as an apt introduction to her poems:
The goal posts are off-kilter and the moon slides into my shoes

The old men with too much gamble in them

The arcade paranoiac hoists a trophy

The warm piss in a dead ear

There was the guy from Ronkonkoma who lived for Souvlaki

Those hermits in their caves with their violent, pleading loves
Emily Fragos is the author of three acclaimed books of poetry: Saint Torch (Sheep Meadow Press, 2017), Hostage: New and Selected Poems (Sheep Meadow Press, 2011), and Little Savage (Grove Press Poetry, 2004). She has edited seven poetry anthologies for The Everyman’s Pocket Library: Musics Spell, Art & Artists, The Great Cat, The Dance, The Letters of Emily Dickinson, Poems of Gratitude, and Poems of Paris. She has also written numerous articles on music and dance, and served as guest poetry editor for Guernica. Her honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, the Witter Brynner Poetry Prize from the Library of Congress, and the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. Her poems have appeared in Agni, The American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Harvard Review, The Massachusetts Review, The New Republic, The New Yorker, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, The Threepenny Review, The Yale Review, and many others. Emily Fragos has taught at Yale, Columbia, and NYU. She lives in Manhattan.

Appreciations of Emily Fragos poems:
Her subjects are strong and deep and very close to the nerve ends. She writes as though she’s speaking only to me, because she knows what I want to know.
— Charles Wright (Poet Laureate of the United States, 2015, introductory remarks at the awarding of the Witter Brynner Fellowship, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)
Emily Fragos’s poems are mysterious. Her songs make me confess to myself. In her poems, you find the God’s honest truth like wildflowers. Her poems are ferocious and saintly (you must remember, one saint, Saint Julian, murdered his mother and father, not a problem with Emily.) She is somehow self-born, which is
my way of saying her poems are unique, singular, necessary
wonder-full poems.
—Stanley Moss
These are the poems of a full-grown prodigy, spirit-haunted and profound. One reads this work to fathom the truth of the most unaffected clarities of the human condition, elegant, mere, savage in its simplicity. She attains the grace of accuracy, and brilliantly.
—Lucie Brock-Broido
Like Rilke, Fragos exults in her discovered awareness: I need the other / the way a virus / needs a host. Rather, she imbues, she infects all of us with the consciousness that there are no single souls: we are not alone.
—Richard Howard
Emily Fragos is a thin-skinned, tough-minded poet of this world. Her sensual sensibility is unrestrained  by conventional perceptual grids. Her poems take us by surprise. Fragos’s trust in language is fruitful, justified. No word she writes is an advertisement for herself. The out-going empathy which moves her even allows her moments in which persons, acts, things, and self are poised as if reconciled. We are enlarged by her resonant verbal imagination.
—Marie Ponsot

Poems by Emily Fragos
Selected from Little Savage, Hostage, and Saint Torch

The Sadness of Clothes

When someone dies, the clothes are so sad. They have outlived
their usefulness and cannot get warm and full.
You talk to the clothes and explain that he is not coming back

as when he showed up immaculately dressed in slacks and plaid jacket
and had that beautiful smile on and you’d talk.
You’d go to get something and come back and he’d be gone.

You explain death to the clothes like that dream.
You tell them how much you miss the spouse
and how much you miss the pet with its little winter sweater.

You tell the worn raincoat that if you talk about it,
you will finally let grief out. The ancients forged the words
for battle and victory onto their shields and then they went out

and fought to the last breath. Words have that kind of power
you remind the clothes that remain in the drawer, arms stubbornly
folded across the chest, or slung across the backs of chairs,

or hanging inside the dark closet. Do with us what you will,
they faintly sigh, as you close the door on them.
He is gone and no one can tell us where.  

Ponies at the South Pole                 
          (after a photograph, Scott Expedition, 1912)

They are quieter than quiet. They are colder than cold
can be imagined. They may very well be blind.

Their ears receive the last sensation, a tiny crumble
of nothing. Their oblong heads tilt toward each other.      
             . . . the end cannot be far writes the bungling,            
stubborn man in his battered white tent,

writes suffering, bungling man.


Here comes the sweeper of the square

With his dry, straw broom, and even the scuttling rats

And the pigeons, with their insatiable bellies,

Their ravenous mouths, have a place to go.

Every gold and crimson Mary holds her son,

Nesting, with his old man’s face, thin lips and sharp nipples

On a pale chest. Even the chained lie down in the dark;

Soldiers, sick of shoveling muck and trench, dream of resting

Beneath blankets of snow. The herder grips tight the squirming

Sheep and shears it down to its pink, quivering skin.

My Body

The body she needs me now to cut her food and feed her,
to bring the glass of sweet water, never sweeter, to her mouth,
dry and shuttered. Now it unfurls itself as mouth, fish wet
and bird ascendant to a higher branch, with the taste of peaches
on its tongue, and for a moment she is mine again. The body
she needs me to hold her hand in the antiseptic rooms, the pill-clicking
halls, the ill surrounding her with their ugly eyes surrounding her.
Needs me to massage her neck, her legs, her temples so filled with
ancient agonia. Her breathing is shallow now, more so than yesterday.
I alone can tell. She needs me to call her back. She grows evermore
distant, ever deeper, too tired to lift her head, her arms, to speak
the barest of words. I alone know what is happening. The body
she requires me now full force to her kind attention.

After Durer

As when icy illness ends that you never expected
     Could possibly end, and the terrified body, enveloped
In warm water, reposes, you could kiss every child on the hand,
     Every leaf in the forest, every stone of the wall. A low moan escapes
The mouth. Melancholia, the accompanying spirit, is departing with
     Her ratty wings and crusted eyes, her suitcase of rocks.
A shy, small creature steps trembling from the brush.

On Robert Walser
You saw a dwarf and imagined yourself dwarf
or the old, homeless hag, pushing her cart of junk.

You closed your eyes for days at a time,
groping along the village walls, tumbling into bushes
with an embarrassed gasp.

You adored the gentlewoman in her velvet riding habit 
and the chattering birds with faces like walnuts
and feet like twigs, so alive, alert, and active

in their birdie pursuits. Standing alone in your stale,
furnished room, you felt a shudder of feather
and the glowing air grew full, so close. To be alive

was wonderful, but to be small and to stay small—   
drop of water into the water.


We take buses everywhere together, careful to retrieve
what is left behind. Our stale room fills with abundance:

hats of all sizes, a fine silk scarf, books with curious marginalia,
black umbrellas, eyeglasses for the near- and farsighted, 

and even a grey parrot tethered to a stick. Hello, darling,
how was your day, he calls out to us, when we come home

from our chores at the immaculate glass hotel. We sip hot
coffee from thick white saucers while sitting on the porch.

We pray for the lost, when the wind rattles the windows
 or a big-bellied plane lifts the rows of silent people

into the night sky. We rise each morning with the sun from
our warm, soft beds. Let’s eat corn, our pretty boy sings.                        


Crossing in the wrong direction, we are quickly

Sealed off, directionless, earth’s blind villagers.

We follow the leader and the riverbank to its dried-out

Roots, while at the merest ruffle of wind, bird, leaf,

We hide ourselves behind the thick bodies of old trees

That have the tiny, sad eyes and the long, delicate lashes

Of chained elephants. We witness the quiet lives

Of fireflies, igniting themselves, their enviable wings;

The languorous butterfly climbing into the flower’s face;

And begin to be muted by our arrival at the inconceivable

Door as when the radiated wolves crept into the hunters’

Huts to be comforted and were comforted.

The Cellar

Under the locked grille, the animals are crying.

You hear them while you wait and when the bus pulls up,

Finally, and you get on. That was years ago. The cellar

Is given over to new shopkeepers, one after the other,

Who fail and are replaced. Even the selfish brother,

The crazed neighbor, the criminal in his cell, face of blue

Tattoos, has never allowed a living thing to starve

As you have. Who knows this except for you and the laughing

African with his padlock teeth and flashing gold key.

Lazarus, Come Out

The sisters are wailing, quite beside themselves with something new.
The pale Christ, lanky as a long-distance runner, seems half-amazed
at what he has done. Sitting up, the awakened one sees the immobile

face of the woman he mounted like a maniac, his body erupting in fever,
in abscess, for want of her, and is indifferent. He can hear the murmurs,
the jeers and coarse laughter on the roads and in the homes, the crush

of a slapped face, the unhinged bells, the dangerous, sullen gaps.
Suddenly visible are the closed faces of the doomers and the open faces
of the doomed, although he is a dark room, his tongue black and stiff.

Fanatics who worship the sun sever their arms as offerings
to help it rise; it rises, and the disinterred one, for a time, continues,
dancing by himself like a horse with its screaming, high-tossing head.

Beast of Burden

piled so high the legs buckle
hit with a thin stick whistled at
shouted at kicked with their heels

end me
on this earth with these humans
under a boiling sun in a world of rocks

remove the tower of wooden collar
studded with bells
from round my thick neck
so that removed
from all halters I may wander

let the dust blow me away
to long quiet roads
the clip clop of my feet
the only music I hear

or let me be gently led like the old
or pull the wooden carts of babies
and nothing more

Lord of the Ass
lay me down
unencumbered in your green pastures
for which they incessantly pray

the air cooling and petting the bones of my ears
brushing my skull
the still waters washing out
my braying mouth

Bach Fugue

Frees the horses from their mechanical bolts,

Keeps the fire from spreading to the sleepers’ floor.

The miming dancers in the wings (swell to great)

Begin their sly whisperings, their tired arms

Around each other’s waist. The old woman spoons yellow cake

Into her (celestial tremulous) mouth. Is capable of putting

Poor Gloucester’s eyes, glistening, back. Catches the jumpers

With invisible nets from their sad, night bridges;

Finds all those who have been lost to you. The great

Chords, once struck, can never decay.

Glenn Gould, Dead at 50

It is darker where I am.
I cannot tell, holding my hand
over one eye, if it is female there.

At six,
I multiplied endlessly
and began to feel close
to sacrifice.

The music took root
inside, like torture,
all tension, ritard, release.

It is in every part
of my body now, and there is not
room left for me.

I have burned
all my capes, got rid of my papers.

                                           Goyas Mirth


Can you hear them shrieking, the filthy witch and the crackly-
skinned insect, slurping potato soup and rising from the table of crusted ladles
to dance, damn it, leaping in midair, kicking grief in the fat gut.

Who stinks here?
It is I, Lord, reeking under these heavy, misshapen clothes.
The world waves a fan in front of its nose.
It is the cancer, it is the dying off.  It is I, your foul, offensive lady,
your mossy rock. I have a need to stop it, but I cannot.


Push your cart up and down the street. No one sees you, mémère, but you        
     are safe here
in Francisco’s wild drawing. Forget  the words, forget the worms. A dog scrap
     rolls under
the table, forgotten. The dog? You will lie with him soon.

Inventory of the Royal War Paintings
The warm piss in a dead ear.
The hamstring stretch of a leg

twisted under her, the strung hands
going numb. The fleeing girl’s

seared flesh, the shamed faces
turned away from us with grief

in their necks’ pulsing cords.
Muzzle the scurvy dogs! the soldier

shrieks, up to his knees in muck.
From the glacial, muttering fields,

here comes cretinous Death
in his grinning, black-cat mask,

riding a flying, red-plumed horse.
Catapults arch like vultures.

Théâtre de L’Odéon

I could not rise from the dark and go out into the cool,
night air of that beautiful city,

could not get on with my conniving, young life.
What had been smooth and good became impossible, slowly,

meticulously, placing one foot in front of the next,
so that legs, as if buried in snow, might inch along the river

and the alleys with the clochards and the cats,
and I might seem a bright young thing again.

All this before the shock of loss, the dying, who linger
with their weak bodies and blank faces,

and my own stupid share of human harm
inflicted upon the innocent,

and long before Time, that asp,
started laughing, laughing at me.


to rise
from the bed
to go into
the cold
to wait for
the one
who does
not come

to hear
the snow
your feet
to see
your breath
to feel
your heart
to look
then right
for the one
who is
who does
not come

to sit at
the table
to stare
at the door
for the
who is
who does
not come

to go far
the dark rock
to go deep
the cold sea
to look for
the one
who does
not come
*The poem is an interpretation of this single Inuit word.

the dark tree, the cold sea

although I know you can never be found
although I know that from the highest height
you cannot be seen you are not hiding
from me or are you is it how you look now
or maybe how I look now all these years gone by
places seen people met not knowing at any time
who I was or how others saw me or did not see me
and how are you wherever you are if I write you a letter
I’ll get no answer if I cry out to you to come in my final
hour you will not come but I will still look for you



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A CLOSER LOOK: Emily Fragos

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