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Joan Larkin reads at Haverford College

After my father died, I read Cold River by Joan Larkin, a book about dying, parents and friends with AIDS. I remembered looking up at the stars sleeping in a sleeping bag with my father. I remembered visiting the Ridiculous Theater playwright, Georg Osterman, in the hospital; there was a group of us there and we were laughing. Georg had an alien looking fungus on his right foot near his ankle with neon colors fanning out like a mushroom you’d find in the woods living on a rotting log. Georg was funny full of jokes like he always was and we all spent the here and now with him laughing. The next day Georg was dead, one of many countless colleagues and friends. There is a poem in Cold River that captures what the AIDS era was like and what it taught those of us who survived: be happy in the moment, and what is a poem, but that? A moment of happiness shared with a friend. I’ve typed out the poem below.

Sonnet Positive

Nothing is life-or-death in this slow drive
to Vermont on back roads—lunch, a quick look
at antiques—though he does bring up his grave
and wanting a stone. The road curves; we joke
about the quickest way to ship ashes
to England and whether he ought to have
himself stuffed, instead, like a bird. He flashes
me a glance that says it’s okay, we can laugh
at this death that won’t arrive for a while. We pull
over. He’s not actually sick yet, he reminds me,
reaching for the next pill. His bag’s full
of plastic medicine bottles, his body
of side effects, as he stoops to look at a low
table whose thin, perfect legs perch on snow.

On November the 9th I went down to Philly to hear Joan Larkin read at Haverford College. She read from My Body, published by Hanging Loose Press, selected poems from three previous books, and she read some new work as well, starting off with a timely slimy one called Fang-tooth Snake-eel. Ladies and gentlemen, Joan Larkin. Enjoy.

I think every poem (every bone) in Joan Larkin’s My Body is honest; she is perhaps the only confessional poet who doesn’t have a perverse one (bone or poem). The truth sets us free simply by seeing it when words are clearly written; even an awful mistake once understood can be forgiven and embraced if we don’t run away and hide our heads. The truth is, you have to look. Her confession is our confession, the poems of Joan Larkin are a mirror that she holds up. The three poems below are also on the Vimeo.


The sky cracks along
a branch of sycamore: its fault.
The sidewalk, split in jigsaw-
puzzle pieces by the roots,
lifts, oblique to itself.
The foreground—leaves and bark—
collapses like a sinkhole
while the sky’s crazed blue
bulges like heavy crockery.
Everything seems to have two
sides. I could be wrong.

My Body

Throat puckered like crepe,
right hand throbbing with arthritis,
right hip permanently higher than left, right leg shorter
after years of books slung from one shoulder.
One breast smaller, both sagging like Grandma’s
shriveled around the nipples,
upper arms lump, veins in legs varicose,
back freckled from sunburn when I passed out on the beach
in 1964,
face creasing, still breaking out, hairs bristling from bumps
I didn’t start out with,
nose pitted, burst capillaries on nostrils,
two extra holes pierced in the left ear so I’ll never forget
those months with Sido—thank God I refused the tattoo,
two vaccination scars,
shoulder stiff from fracture in 1986 when I fell on a stone
floor at Cummington,
skin dotted with—what? moles? age spots? melanoma that
killed my father?
sagging belly, testament to fear, dieting, birth, abortion,
years of fighting booze and overeating still written in my flesh,
small cysts around labia, sparse pubes—not yet like my head
full of grey that first appeared the year I had two jobs and
Eyes needing bifocals now, no good for driving at night,
still blue and intense, tired but my best feature—
or maybe it’s my hands, strong, blunt, with prominent veins.
Lungs still wheezing after years of asthma and smoking,
all of me still full of groans, sighs, tears,
still responsive to the slightest touch,
grief and desire still with me
though I hardly ever have reason to close the curtains,
naked fool for passion—
and wonder if I’ll live alone the rest of my time in this body—
my old friend now,
healed and healed again,
still walking and breathing,
scars faded as thin silver signatures.


In Tamilnadu
where it’s still morning,
where the mixed scent of
burning rubber, incense
and excrement hasn’t yet
heated to a thing you sweat
through your feet and tongue,
where day is beginning to burn
through the neem leaves,
a long string of men
snakes along a dirt route, chanting
and in their center like a gold bead
lofted on their shoulders
a man sits in a painted box
its canopy dyed bright yellow
and he, too, is clothed yellow
and his upturned face to the sun
is smeared with turmeric:
a man the color of saffron grain.
He’s leaning back in his high seat
and you see from your safe distance
his stiff posture and open mouth.
You stare as if you’ve never seen the dead:
Francis in his smeared bedding,
your father a waxwork
freakish in mortuary rouge,
all the young men in varnished coffins.
Each death its own strangeness,
a gold face tilted to the light.
Yet common to all. You’re
in this moving line. And he is,
the one you carry, the one you praise
and want to spare.
The line jolts forward
Jaya, jaya, Shiva Shambho
toward the wood and fire,
and you breathe the scent
of everything alive.

My Body is published by Hanging Loose Press. You can check them out here:


Joan Larkin’s website:


with Joan Larkin at Michael Lally’s 75th birthday party

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