Elegy for the Disappeared

Though no word called me, I looked again. 

Each wave of supposition hammered against the black wall. 

Sometimes meaning, like an expiration date, is blurred. 

Then emptiness takes a bow, extending its invitation. 

Like that interval between the performance and the bravos. 

What was there before it dropped away? Was there ever anything beyond this lingering, felt presence? 

Erosional debris piles up in a rift valley. 

As the world pours into me, I pour into the broken word. 

Suggestions, you come to realize, will be dispensed in installments. The poor and the brutalized. A prayer bruise. 

If letters act as synapses, you become a neurotransmitter, conducting the message between them. Trans latus. Carried across. A form of translation. 

But what detonation blew these letters apart? 

Caesura: a gap between words. Mind the gap. 

Yet it’s precisely what’s missing that beckons us. 

When we read, what transpires but a yearning between letters? 

The b is all that’s left of bitterness. The p introduces pain. 

Like opening the door only to be handed a summons. 

Where the house previously stood, now a wind blows. 

Though its first and last plank held, the bridge plunged into the ravine. Given up, left behind with a terrible longing. 

Or thrown overboard and drowned in the middle passage. 

The p and b are testaments of survivors. 

The bodies of letters lying apart from their trauma. 

Cells on opposite sides of a wound draw near and begin to merge. Phantom limb. Though what is absent speaks. 

As I imagine what is nowhere to be found, my own substance grows porous, my life more elusive. 

A glyph, a provocation, and you respond. Art blossoms in the mind. Hey abyss, you still don’t possess all of me. 

Bringing about this call and response. 

How to cure a phantom limb with a mirror? Let yourself see what is there.




Copyright © 2020 by Forrest Gander and Kay Rosen. Originally published with the Shelter in Poems initiative on poets.org.

About this Poem

“Looking at artwork for an exhibition at the Tang Museum, I was struck by the image of Kay Rosen’s installation, ‘Phantom Limb.’ I paused as it came to me that the first and last letters of ‘Phantom Limb’ were all that remained of the two words, and so the artwork acted out its subject. Such enactments are exemplary of Rosen’s work. In February 2020, from Petaluma, California, I wrote to Kay Rosen with a draft of the poem, asking for her blessing, which she gave. Between the end of February and the end of May 2020, as my mother died and as the COVID-19 pandemic cut us off from each other and killed more than 100,000 in the United States alone, the rawness of my sense of absence  was overwhelming. In every line of my poem after the first, words containing the P and B of Phantom Limb recur. The stiffly juxtaposed sentences refer to forms of loss, and the boldfaced letters intensify our feeling by connecting each line to Kay Rosen’s artwork.”
Forrest Gander

“A phantom limb describes the sensation of a missing limb, as if it were a physical memory of loss. Contradiction between presence and absence also happens in the words: ‘p’ and ‘b,’ inverted letterforms, are present in the written word, but not pronounced, as if the words were spelled ‘f-a-n-t-o-m l-i-m.’ The work can remind us of what and who is missing.”
Kay Rosen