Paula Cisewski

Variations on Silence

Silence after traffic drone, after
a neighbor in the shared hallway
coming all hours home, after cicadas’

horny mayday reminding me—I don’t
know how—of the volcanic qualities
of hope, of ash making

eventually fertile soil at someone’s
current expense. After the Violent
Femmes’ final encore, a ringing

in the ears that never fades but gets
forgettable. A friend’s silence
can be so home-like, but then the insects

go mute. John Cage said, of course we will
never know complete silence,
and on a somewhat related note

I have loved some people
so hard I thought surely
they could read my mind.

In a remote cabin in the woods where a writer
I know once retreated to complete her novel
in solitude, she began to hear

an unfamiliar organic squeak in the dark
and it took a long time to identify the sound
as her own eyeballs darting around

in her own terrified head. To use
silence as some umbrella term, the way
I have occasionally used poetry I just now realize,

is deeply unfair, as are some kinds
of silence, the structural kinds,
that make a cage everyone

is both inside and outside, of course
some more than others. The resurrected
silence on summer evenings, after

my neighbor’s children have finished
singing front-porch, top-of-lungs
about a family god. How silent a god?

“Why want quiet/and then/keep
asking me that question” asks Joshua
Beckman in one of the books

I slipped from a shelf
in an otherwise vacant
house. Sometimes, as in

this case, the way one performs
or embodies silence is not so much
a problem of wanting

as a problem with (discipline?
privilege? distance?) matching
and variation. I’m now sure I assumed

too much too long all the while feeling
open as Rumi’s reed flute. Or worse: lived
in a silence that, as Audre Lorde

cautioned, won’t protect. But
the acoustics of the hollowness
amazed! What about the cozy

silence of a last standing cup when
one hesitates to leave? Whatever’s
in there, even nothing, is nothing
I haven’t already
drunk plenty of, and
anyway: this party’s over.



Paula Cisewski’s fourth poetry collection, Quitter, won the Diode Editions Book Prize. She is also the author of The Threatened Everything, Ghost Fargo (Nightboat Poetry Prize winner, selected by Franz Wright), Upon Arrival, and several chapbooks, including the lyric prose Misplaced Sinister. She lives in Minneapolis, where she teaches, collaborates with fellow artists and activists, and serves on the editorial staff of Conduit Magazine, Books, and Ephemera. Cisewski's work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Posit, Poetry Northwest, Salt Hill Journal, Bennington Review, the tiny, Tammy, Prompt, Vinyl, Brevity, Ping Pong, Eleven Eleven, failbetter, Revolver, and the BOMBlog. Her poems have been featured on Verse Daily and included in the anthologies Privacy Policy: The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics, 78: A Tarot Anthology, Rocked by the Waters: Poems of Motherhood, Rewilding: Poems for the Environment, and New Poetry from the Midwest.