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Sam Rasnake

Giving Birth to the World

Theaters of Silence

Knowledge. Perception. Recognition.

Giving Birth to the World


– after Agnès Varda

Inside every person is a landscape
of highways, the sea, old apartments,
abandoned houses, sidewalk cafes,
trees standing against the winter blue
of hopeless skies. Life’s a contradiction.
There’s a thin hope, a dream – then
we’re swallowed by a this is what
I want kind of living. And we know
nothing but now – There’s a path
we follow, and though we pass opening
after opening, we never leave the trail,
following it beyond the thinned edge
of everything we see – and disappear.



– after Chantal Akerman

“Today is a large canvas,” Mother would
say. Many faces look out at me – but it’s
a stranger who has been living my life.
That seems an awkward shift, but I’ve
only known exile. Life inside a box.
Yet, I must have doors and hallways –
and real time passing through my body.
It’s all fragmented, but the broken bits
I piece together into something whole,
recognizable, finished. At least to myself.
It’s my self-portrait. I title it Chantal.
I can see the end. I always could,
even if no one else could see it.



“In the time before…”
– from Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor

When the ex-legionnaire dances at the end of
Denis’s Beau travail, the moment is electric –
a barrage of energy, a dance for his life, maybe,
or death – breaking free – the first real moment
the man has ever had – in tune with the planet,
in tune with his body, his weakness, his deepest
sins – and fear, most of all – nothing matters but
the dance, and he’s consumed by it – so when he
vanishes, mid-song, down the stairs leading to
a hot Djibouti night, we know the future past – or
think we do: in Marseille, he made his bed, he lay
down – his gun and guilt and whispers – a vein
throbbed in his arm. Someone is always watching.

– after Claire Denis

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Theaters of Silence

            …constructed boxes where things run away
            from their names. – Octavio Paz

1. Untitled (Sonnet with Pent Oak and Cloud) c. 1954

            collage = reality
                        – Joseph Cornell

Wind and pent oak tango
a cold May song – I’ve never
seen these clouds before,
don’t know their names,
so I carve out a place and
stand to wait – The view
goes on for miles until
I’m inside a Cornell box

His hands, delicate but
strong, worked me inside –
A bird, a spool, a photograph –
And the glass helps – I can’t hear
the Sirens now – I’m home and
home is where the pen is


2. Either/or, Both/and, This/that

            – after Sand Fountain, ca. 1950

There are times when I am sand,
fitting tightly against the walls –
sometimes I grow or wait

I can also be the sifter, a grinder,
or gatekeeper, allowing this one
access, stopping others, flooding
all openings until the world – and
it’s a world if I say it is – is filled

The back wall – torn, overused,
layered in forgotten lives – is
an anti-mirror – only taking in,
giving back nothing – seeing all
without the need to understand

The broken glass is my deepest
regret – all blue and jagged,
deadly with its razored edges
of an unforgiving past

When the lid – a worn map of
Europe with its tongues & fields
& narrow roads – is closed,
I sleep – I’m going nowhere
When it’s opened, I sleep on
Someone is dreaming me


3. Self-Portrait

            – after Time Transfixed, 1966

My dreams are threads
of smoke and silence,
a world I can never touch
though I reach my hand,
though I reach –

The path, always marked,
if I pay attention,
if I lift my eyes –
And I have the time

Everything in the world
(This world, is it?)
moves slowly, little more
than a flutter here and there,
a flutter –

Slowly my words change
Their sounds, their colors,
textures, glances, whispers,
like fingers certain, then
uncertain, disappear –

All the muted shouts of
glory that must be close by,
like mouths in a silent film,
cry out, but no one hears,
no one –

The door shuts


4. Unmailed Letter

                        – after Toward the blue Peninsula – for
                       Emily Dickinson, c. 1953

Note taped to poem: I’ve been observing your project – art cutups, everyday objects, and discarded things, things that say nothing, say everything, say something – creating beauty from the air. But that’s the way it is with end results. All colors & faces & background noise – a solemnity of burdens is the phrase that comes to mind – give a truth I feel in the marrow.

Something is missing Something
must always be missing What we
do not have, what we cannot say,
what we are not, who we’re not –
There must always be a hole, so
the nothing that is and that is not…
(I must have been reading Stevens
or watching Rivette’s artist at work,
hiding the one perfect painting no
one will ever see) …why we didn’t
go or how we couldn’t stand or when
we couldn’t recall (and we do that on
repeat) – the voyages we never begin,
all the cages we never break through

define us


5. “In the half-light”

            – after The Human Thermostat, ca. 1960s,
           (J. Cornell) andCantos I & II” (E. Pound)

So I move from island
to island – I leave
the boat unmoored,

wanting the drift to
take it beyond
these thick banks,

a forest cave
and mountain, beyond
the clouds over

blue – My life is hot,
a red smolder, waiting –
I can’t stay, but

will – The ambers &
pinks & greys call me –
like a panther’s yowl,

their voice, all steamy
and perfect: “Home
is out there”

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Knowledge. Perception. Recognition.

                   Art has a will of its own.
                   – Helen Frankenthaler

1 Healing                  

                   – after Yishay Garbasz, The Number Project

There’s not an inch –But it’s only a number.
Names mean nothing. Who am I? … the only
question to answer. It will take a lifetime of
maneuvering all barbed fences meant to keep
you there and never here – of my body – and
your mother, gone now, couldn’t look at the
number on her arm, could not carry the weight
of all questions, the winters in Poland too cold,
the hate too hungry, the ground too small – she
had it cut away so she could know who she was
– so you branded your own flesh A2867 – your
arm, so you would see it, you would know who
she was, who you are – a darkness you carry
into the light of your own eyes opening to your
world – one you know – this is me – my bones,
my soul, my burn, my body – and not an inch
that’s not political. A flame, a blade, the smells
burning deep into me, and when it healed, it
healed and healed – I stood, I walked. No fences.
Not before, not after – The I I’ve always been.


2 Erota

                   – after Out of one, two (symposium), 2016, by Jenny Saville

Motions of the body – in slashes of red & pink &
violet over lush muddles: a face a breast a hand
a thigh – all rhythms of the primal need, of lives
that burn out of control – we wrap ourselves in

the other as if tomorrow were a living thing, a beast
coming for us – so we grind and grind until we are
the only matter in this universe of seamless night –
a dot, a center, the aching – a beauty that

defines itself beyond words, and this is it…
I work in a fever to get it down, to tell it before
it all slips away from my taste, my fingers
and eyes, from the sounds of this living


3 “…the weight of empty in my hands”

The body is broken, and tears
won’t save me now – I know
running doesn’t work, giving in

is not the way – I must find all
the pieces – I must – as if my life
depends on it, and it does – as if

the bruising, the whispers, all laughter
were out to end me, and they are –
I’ve a mouth with something to say –

I will say it – to the wall, the path, any sky –
These are my words – They belong to me:
I keep my fugitive heart in a secret place

so no one can take it from me – I keep it–
Sometimes, when I’m alone, I take out
my heart, hold it in both hands to feel

the pounding, pounding against fingers –
I let the sun burn down, let the moon follow
its cool, clouded arc – I put back my heart

into its box of feathered dreams –
My hands flinch – I keep my heart
I keep my heart I keep...

                   – after Tête de femme #2 (2019), Mickalene Thomas


4 Voyages

                   – after Celacanto provoca maremoto (2004-2008),
                   Adriana Varejão

the sea takes us into its beauty,
into the darkness of an infinite
truth : a journey east is always
east : two things comingled : two
worlds, one world / two seas,
one sea / two bodies, one body :
here we love, we live, we die on
this membrane of something
words can never get to :  
meaning, art is what cannot be
said, what cannot be touched
though we reach for it as in the
quake of endless dreams


5 This

                   – after Crow Song by Andrea Kowch

In a field of crows
I’m free. The body
endures all weathers,
and this house, worn,
timbers rubbed with
the purest words, is my
dream of the world.
No need for an exotic
elsewhere of people
crammed into boxes,
no longing for the latest
of the latest, or clocks
to punch or lines to hold.
I’m calling life to me
where I stand in wind,
in dusky sweeps of cloud
over a field of crows.


6. A Vast Brilliance

                   At times, something happens and I stop dreaming.Mirror (1975),
                   Andrei Tarkovsky, dir.

If we turn away,
            nothing exists:
something, then not –
            One moment life begins –
And the next? It’s gone.
            When no one is there,
the mirror refuses
            to speak, gives away nothing –
feigns, instead, the truth
            as reason. If I don’t look
into the glass, then,
            nothing is real. All the lights
reaching out go dark,
            and the darkness is everything –
two halves, one whole.
            If this is dreaming, let me
wake in darkness –
            if it’s waking,
let me sleep.

                   – after Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity
                   (2009), Yayoi Kusama

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Sam Rasnake has published work in WigleafPoetsArtistsThe Drunken BoatSouthern Poetry Anthology, Best of the Net, MiPOesias Companion, Bending Genres Anthology, A Cluster of Lights, has served as a judge for the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, University of California, Berkeley, and was the editor of Blue Fifth Review from 2000-2018. He is the author of Cinéma Vérité (A-Minor Press) and World within the World (Cyberwit). You can follow Sam on Bluesky or Twitter @SamRasnake.

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