A CLOSER LOOK: Eric Pankey

photo by Clare Atkinson-Pankey

Eric Pankey is the author of seven books:  For the New Year, which won the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, Heartwood, Apocypha, The Late Romances, Cenotaph, which won the Poetry Award from the Library of Virginia, Oracle Figures, and Reliquaries.  A new book, The Pear as One Example: New and Selected Poems, is due out from Ausable Press in spring 2008.  His work has been supported by fellowships from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts, and The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.  

Eric Pankey was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1959 and lived until he was eighteen in the Kansas City suburb of Raytown, where he attended the public schools, where he had the good fortune of excellent teachers who encouraged him in the written and visual arts.  He enrolled in 1977 at the University of Missouri at Columbia, with the hopes of attending its famous journalism school, but found himself drawn to both the English and the Education departments and ended up with a degree in English Education 1981.  While at the University of Missouri, the poets Marcia Southwick, Larry Levis, and Thomas McAfee taught him and suggested he apply to the Iowa Writers Workshop.  At Iowa, between 1981 and 1983, he continued to work with Levis and Southwick, who were visiting professors, as well as with Donald Justice, Marvin Bell, Stanley Plumly, Henri Coulette, and Gerald Stern. While in graduate school he met his future wife, the poet Jennifer Atkinson.  After completing the MFA, he and Atkinson married and their daughter, Clare, was born in 1986.  For three years he taught high school in Marion, Iowa, and then was hired to run the MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis, where he taught for nine years, until he and Atkinson were hired to teach at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia in 1996.  Pankey is now Professor of English and holds the Heritage Chair in Writing at George Mason University.  A selection of poems by Eric Pankey:


Chekhov writes of a man
who loved gooseberries so much
that little else mattered.
His devotion was simple,
complete, yet involved loss,
the way the lack of foliage
in the midst of winter
allows the mind to imagine
the abstraction of a line.
In the story, as now, a sudden rain
taps the window.
As we both sit up reading tonight,
the light from our individual lamps
sets us apart,
the room somehow larger
in the evening's diminishing clarity.
Months from now I will remember
everything I did not say tonight
—how it is possible to love,
how the air at the beginning
of any season smells the same,
the sky different
only in the number of birds
cutting the frail arc of blue . . . .
Once I believed that in touching
there was a language that outlives loss.
But now, as you turn out your light,
I am glad I have said nothing
and have instead lived
in another's story for a short while.
I could say I am happy
but I know what I am feeling
is no more permanent
than the narrowness of a road
where it becomes a point on the horizon,
and if I walked down that road
the trees on either side

        from For the New Year (Atheneum, 1984)


A columbine's clear violet after noon rain.

The ditch of a creek we'd followed here,
muddy water stippled with shadow.  It is 1966.
On the bank, a carp, or what was left of one,

covered with a glow of flies.  Green, gold,
a momentary body of light
lifted as he turned the fish over with a stick.

The exposed flesh was flat, white,
raw as wound.  Unearthly.
Or too much of the earth:

the dull texture of clay, the dust white of lime.

To satisfy me, he pushed it over the grassy bank.
The heat was visible on the rank air,
rising against a drift of daisies.

I followed the fish downstream until it caught on rocks
—pale jutted limestone, and the slow water
worked its gill.  Opening, open, as if that would help.

        from For the New Year (Atheneum, 1984)


Whatever empties the feeder
comes and goes without my knowing.
There is little satisfaction
in their names or the songs I've stopped
listening for.  The birds that come
come in spite of me, are welcome
to rule the yard and its one tree,
to pick and scavenge the little
I've left them.  I stood among them
once.  The morning after Halloween
I broke open a frozen pumpkin
against the trunk of the maple
and chickadees and cardinals
and even a cedar waxwing
cleaned out the three jagged fragments
of their hard white seeds.  Once I walked
along a river's marshy bank
pulling a canoe through the shallows
and all the sounds were water sounds:
the reeds swayed by wind, the wet call
of the killdeer, the heron's blue stealth.
Above the quick cut bank, sparrows
broke the air into flight like rain.

I believe the birds no longer
sing their one song of alliance.
If the hummingbird works its way
through the damp dust of evening,
if the black sweep of a crow's wing
or the jay's miserable crying
sends the other birds scattering
I am unaware.  I feel the earth's
pull and cannot even look up
to see the nests in the winter limbs
or the hawk circle its hunger
above the rain-washed riverbeds.
Now in my dreams if I fly
flight is more like a falling.
I used to wake to their songs once.
I would listen and I would hear.
It was that simple.  What I heard
wove a wreath in the air.  I lived
beneath it like a happy man,
as if there were nothing, nothing but air.

        from Heartwood (Atheneum, 1988)


The day my father came home, blood still wet
on his beige overcoat, the gash broken
open across his nose, raw and steaming
as he entered the house, it was Christmas Eve.

''I put the car in a ditch,'' was all he said
as he raised his hand to touch his wound, but didn't.
He was half-drunk and stood there like a child
needing help with the buttons on his coat.

I remember the water and soap, my hands
rubbed red as I worked the heavy fabric,
but the stain held fast, a splotch of brown
like mud outside where rain had worn away the snow.

Slumped on the couch, he talked himself through his sleep.
And as he slept, I drove from store to store
looking for the exact coat and when I bought it
I didn't have it wrapped.  I even thought

of putting it on and stopping somewhere
to get dead drunk for the first time.  I didn't.
He was half-drunk, which meant he'd wake easily
the next morning and remember enough

not to say a thing.  He'd wake with crusted blood
along the ridge of his nose, with his coat
thrown over him as a cover and know
I'd given it to him and that it was not a gift.
        from Heartwood (Atheneum, 1988)


If the world is created from the Word,
What can I hear amid the noise of that one
Assertion and all that rattles and diminishes

In its wake:  the mockingbird's trill and grate,
The sluice and overlap where the creek narrows,
The dragonfly needling through the humid air?

And what will I hear when words are no more?
I cannot hear you now, ash-that-you-are,
My beloved, who in your passion and error,

In what was your life gave life to me,
My life from the life of your blunt body
That is no more.  If I believe that Christ

Is risen, why can't I believe that we too
Will be risen, rejoined, and relieved
Of the world's tug and the body's ballast?

We are asked to testify, to bear
Witness to what we have seen and heard,
And yet our hope is in the veiled and silenced.

I take comfort in your silence,
In the absence of the voice that voiced your pain.
The body apart from the spirit is dead

But that does not mean the spirit is dead.

         from Apocrypha (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991)


The eyesore on the beach was torn down.
The charred half-rafter hanging over
The gutted, broken frame and rubble
Fell last, fell as it should have fallen,
Undercut by flames, unsupported,
First.  In three swipes the crane's shovel drove
The house down and raised cold cinder smoke.
The seagulls, mewling their childlike cries,
Pulled themselves into lumbering flight,
Outward from the pilings and then back,
A haphazard, elliptical chart,
Outward from the pilings and then back.

He wanted to know she wanted him.
He wanted her to want him, to know
She wanted him without his asking,
Without hinting or soliciting.
To be wanted was what he wanted.
The ruined formula of his want
Was that he wanted.  How could he know
What influence, what small coercion
His expectation had on her want,
The purity of her missing want?
He believed it to be missing, although
In this somber farce, how could he know?

This will be his home: the foundation,
The stairway, the framed-in walls open
For now on all sides.  The rooms seem small,
The halls narrow, too narrow to pass
Through together.  When the doors are hung,
Perhaps, when the drywall and clapboards
Are hammered into place, perhaps then
The space will not seem so closed. The plans
Denied limits: luminous white lines
Opened the field of blue they enclosed.
He prefers the abstract design to this:
A place to live, a room for each need.

        from Apocrypha (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991)


They spent a long time on the temporary structure,
Until the edifice, framed by cross planks and ladders,
Seemed a graph of idealized details: the corbel's bent
Disfigured figure, the flawed soldering on the stained glass,
The spade-like spear points and stone crosses.  The scaffolding's
Grid, wobbly underfoot, stood sturdy enough to last
The disassembly.  Each stone marked for the reconstruction.
Each ornament heavy with its function and excess.
A lintel next to a gutter, a statue's doomed niche
Sideways beside the cornerstone, seraphim and saints
In the quiet chaos before recongregation,
Set down for the time being in a jumble on tarps.

        from Apocrypha (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991)


Halfway home, he comes to the field's edge:
Deadfall, goldenrod, a moulder of uncut hay,
A rose-thicket hedgerow skirting the verge,

And beyond it, a decline into a ditch
That part of the year fills as a creek,
The water slow, moving beneath a smirched

Surface of algae and islands of leaf rot,
And the rest of the year, this: a dry furrow,
A nest of roots beneath the shale outcrop,

The cutbank steep where the curve sharpens.
The crab apple on the other side shimmers
As frost catches dawn and the day opens.

Bent, buckled, a snarl of dead and green wood,
The tree, he knows, is the tree he planted
And left to the will of suckers and bindweed.

What he has forgotten is the way over,
And as he struggles through the tangled thorns,
The sun, still cold, consumes him like a fever.

        from The Late Romances (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997)


It gets dark while they talk.
The vaporetto, almost empty,
Crosses the water.  Revs, then balks,

Bangs against the landing stage.
As a rope creaks taut, she stops
Midsentence: the smudged vestiges

Of balconies, alcoves, and arches
And the running lights, drawn like oxgall,
Marble on the canal's inverted S.

He sees for once what she sees,
And seeing it, as through her eyes,
Knows her heart, or so he believes.

The loose, unraveled braids of the wake
And opaque green of the flat surface
Are rubbed up argentine as dusk

Deepens the canal.  Domes and spires,
A string of white party lights,
A bridge's underside, and belltowers

All blur on the water's reaches,
Unfurl and glissade from berth to berth,
As the slack rope unknots and releases.

        from The Late Romances (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997)


All sleight-of-hand trails the dross and clutter
Of the unseen, clumsily like an anchor,
Barely concealing its means as it deceives.

What else can be made of signs and wonders
But close readings and a display of awe?
What is left when the waited-upon is fulfilled?

After the standoff Jesus conjures a trick.
Should such an act be enacted knowing
The next and the next will be demanded?

Of course, he one-ups himself, causes a fuss,
And the story plunges headlong to finale.
And then encore.  Above, in the Sienese heat,

A pair of ravens patrol the parapet.
Washed linens flap on the clothesline.
A shadow bisects the curved blade of the Campo.

As if in confirmation of a miracle,
The twisted olive bears the wind's history,
A gnarl that hinders the brisk disorder,

Renders it as the unmoved here and now.
Skittish pigeons clatter up in the air.
Into shadow.  Out of shadow.  And then back down.

And no one, not even God, lifted a finger.

        from The Late Romances (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997)


In the split-open breast of the lamb,
He fails to read the deity's will.
With his stick, he pokes at the carcass.

He nudges the wreckage of ribcage
Aside as if the Truth were concealed
In the sealed-off chambers of the heart,

In the intricacies of marrow
Or the maze and switchbacks of the bowels.
He sees what he always sees: the past,

The unattended moments festered,
Bloated with all that was left unsaid,
Images haunting abstract spaces.

He stares at the cracked shoulder socket
And parses out its function and flaw.
By the time he glosses each sinew,

He has butchered the sacrificed beast
And makes a feast of his misreading.

        from The Late Romances (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997)


Words are but an entrance, a door cut deep into cold clay.

I say, A late sky flagged with jade; ice on the pear blossoms.
I say, A thrush of cinnabar in the lily's throat.
Behind each assertion, each gambit, I could place a question mark.

Behind each question, a residue of longing, half-assuaged,
An argument of brine-edged light the moon, your stand-in, doles out,
Grain by grain.  Behind each question, a hook blackened with rust.

Begin with a clay bank, a chill wind's insufflation.
Begin with thumbflint, a fever, some sticks to fire the kiln.
Are words but an entrance?  Words are but an entrance.

        from Cenotaph (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000)


Wherever possible, avoid predication: the night sea, the dark river, this rain.

As in a dream, where the door opens into a cedar grove, and the haze conjures a screen of sorts onto which an ill-spliced film is projected, and the words, poorly dubbed, seem mere trinkets in a magpie's nest, let each object be itself.

Objects a magpie might hoard.

:The blown dusk-smoke of flies above the sacrifice: The flames inlaid and lacquered: The horizon, a single graphite line on rice paper:

Revelation is and will remain the subject:  ''Behold, I come quickly: hold fast that which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.''

The moment present and full: thyme-sweetened honey, a New World of Gold, quick with what made it.

Let distractedness be an isthmus connecting the day to day, dazed with the fume of poppies.

Let the daydream, dimmed by slow rain, skip like a shuttle through the loom's scaffolding.

Let the rain rain all day on the slate, a province of rain, gray as the stone no longer quarried in these hills, gray as the pigeons tucked in the eaves:

The rain, the dark river, this night sea.

            from Cenotaph (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000)



The constellation Virgo harbors a black hole at its center, but tonight I see the moon, ordained, a basilica of salt, mouthing its one secret like a saw-whet owl, and all that might be culled, collected, and classified beneath it, named as a disposition of objects, as a taxonomy, an order, a genus, or subject matter, is smeared with this salvaged and chalk-dry light, this fine-grained and corrosive distillate, this heirloom dust that gathers on the pearl button of the glove, its little satin noose.


When I said, ''But tonight I see the moon,'' I did not tell the whole truth, for I have not even looked outside, but have relied on the conventions of memory, and with a word or two the moon, like a body under siege, wears thin outside my window, the moon forages in the attic, the moon is hauled up like a broken whetstone from a well, for that is what I do with a word or two: avoid scrutiny, avoid measuring the lead weight of my own heart.

        from Cenotaph (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000)


Beyond the traceries of the auroras,
The fires of tattered sea foam,
The ghost-terrain of submerged icebergs;
Beyond a cinder dome's black sands;
Beyond peninsula and archipelago,
Archipelago and far-flung islands,
You have made of exile a homeland,
Voyager, and of that chosen depth, a repose.

The eel shimmers and the dogfish darts,
A dance of crisscrosses and trespasses
Through distillate glints and nacreous silts,
And the sun, like fronds of royal palm
Wind-torn, tossed, lashes upon the wake,
But no lamplight mars or bleaches your realm,
A dark of sediment, spawn, slough, and lees,
Runoff, pitch-black, from the rivers of Psalms.

        from Oracle Figures (Ausable Press, 2003)


I will always love this light: the brayed clarity of gypsum,
        the cool kiln-glow of amber,
No longer liquid, not yet stone.

And the green shutter creaked by a breeze.  And, across
        the courtyard, the laundry pulleyed in,
Echoing a song of rhymes: toll, coal, squall, straw, strewn . . .

And the table set with a vase of lavender, the table level on
        the shim of a closed matchbook.
And the sleep easy afterward, the heavy sleep of the body
        unencumbered by dream or memory.

My body cradled in the luminous idleness of your own.

        from Oracle Figures (Ausable Press, 2003)


The notebook—benedictions and burlesques, wishes and whatnot—is full and
The door, ajar, will slam shut when another door is opened.
                                                                                               So much
        for the confessional mode.
I have three parallel scars that run across my lower back and no notion of what                 caused them.
Uncertain of the when and the why, this is the point where, by convention, I out             the window
As if the pine, poplar, holly, dogwood and the gravel-filled creek bed below were,
        in fact, a refuge.

        : :

The night-fog was like lampblack on curved glass.  I drove down into the valley
        and was covered,
Then up again into tree-laden ghost-dark, the pitch and grainy green of the forest.
My eyes closed for an instant.  Two deer, stark in the headlights, stood,                             gravity-freighted,
Then flew—apparitions, eidolons, messengers—bright antler-tips white gold.
                           My eyes opened
To the shimmy and jar of the shoulder's rumble strip as I plunged back down into             fog.

        : :

I finger each memory as if it were a prayer bead, but each crumbles as salt to the             touch.
I look at my hands and count a paper-cut, four calluses, a blood blister.
                    So much for the epic mode.
All day I make offerings to the shades, wrest whatever clues they cleave to.
All day I make offerings to the shades, steal what would be given freely if I were
        a shade.
When I come home, my dog lifts her head—not to greet me—but to confirm I am             the one who left.

        : :

''I was driving late, and sure I was drunk,'' George said, drunk and animated, as he         recalled the story,
''And there he was, huddled in the middle of the road and I couldn’t stop and the car         thudded
Over him.  I killed him, no doubt about it, but the police said he had been robbed,             and beaten-up
And badly, and left there in the middle of the road for dead.  I finished
        him off.''
                      George took consolation
In the back-story, in all that was never in his hands to change for the better
        or the worse.

    from Reliquaries (Ausable Press, 2005)


Ten years ago, I followed a lizard
Through a grassy, ruined amphitheater,
Quick as quicksilver,
But green, not silver.
    The lizard darted,

Skimmed, froze,
    Shinnied, insinuated like flame,
A pinpoint of pulse and flash.
    The lizard knew
The Etruscan wall's cracks,

    The downspouts,
The stone that blunts the plow,
    The mortar's and stucco's flaws.
The lizard dwelt in a present
    That extends, elongates, thins

Into a filament of consumed air.
    I followed the lizard
From brick chink to olive grove,
    Poppies to straw,
To sand and loam.

    I knew, for a moment, the balance
Between the intimate and the infinite,
    A word and what it reckons.
The sun on the hilltop
    Flared upon the thousand thistle seeds,

The thousand virtues,
The thousand minerals,
The thousandth of a second
It takes the lizard to taste the moment
And change course.

    from The Yale Review


A silver crown of flies turns above the mare's head.

Her ears twitch, each on its own, at the least touch of wind.

Fire burns us all, but some more slowly than others.  Than the next.

The sky, reflected in a tire track's blank and stagnant water, is poker-faced.

If a thing can be thought it can be invented.  Go ahead and say it:

The bodies in the mass grave look like bodies in a mass grave.

You are embarrassed for them: the entwined limbs, this one facedown

In the crotch of that one, that one's skirt hiked up to her armpits,

The haphazard, unseemly tumble of it all.  

Like you, I am dismayed how the unthinkable is always thinkable.

Like you, I am in the midst of a long convalescence.  You would like to redress them:

Comb the girl's hair.  Cover the boy's gouged skull with a cap.

The mud and blood are interchangeable.  Horseshit dries in the sun:

Grainy, sage-tinged oats, savory like a shovelful of turned earth.

        from The Iowa Review



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