Diane Seuss

Ballad, in Sestets

I would like to have better ideas
than the ideas I have. 
There is an idea I’m reaching for
but like a jar on the top shelf
and no stepstool, I can’t leap
to it. 

Whatever it is, I can’t leap to it.
I have been in large spaces.
Spaces too cavernous for ideas.
Too enormous, with rock faces,
cliffs and towers of sheer red

or enormous Virgin Marys, flying
buttresses, naves, transepts, rose
windows, chancels, stratospheric 
crucifixes, where ideas 
are snuffed out like altar

Snuffed and alone in cavernous spaces.
Alone, a misnomer. A word whose
definition I had to find in a dictionary.
Language comes hard. Silence corsets
me. In other words, I can’t reach it,
the jar

on the shelf, or climb the sheer face
of the rock stained red by sunset,
or corner and pocket the miniscule
priest. It’s beyond what I’m made of.
It matters how and where you are made, 
and what 

materials were at hand for the makers.
To say that I am alone is a misnomer.
Whatever I am, alone
doesn’t cover it. What I am, I 
am subsumed by it. It is 

to be without edges. To be a cloud
in a voluminous sky. I have been 
in minimal spaces. Closer to anthill
than cavern or villa. Or tucked inside 
the incalculable. A bead swallowed
by a whale,

sloughed-off sequin in a warehouse.
A jelly jar, a jar filled with pigs’ feet,
lost in the giant’s pantry.
Once there was a honeymoon.
The bride swang, or swung, out over
deep water. 

No bells rang or rung.
It was a honeymoon, a minor chord
tucked inside a philharmonic. 
It was cold and dark and wind and stars.
The closest neighbors were far.
They shone, 

they shined their headlights 
in the window of the shack, the hovel,
the villa, and delivered unto the couple
a loaf of bread still warm
from the kiln, from a witch’s oven,
and soft 

and golden-crusted and steam
rising from it like a blowhole blowing 
spray or a chimney or pipe 
blowing smoke, or a newborn birthed
in an icy field, steam spiraling 
from the gash

of its open mouth like it had just taken
a drag from its first cigarette 
and exhaled the smoke into the jar
of air, it’s inexplicable, 
there is no theory or idea or blanket
to cover it.

Ballad Without Music

I dreamed I wrote a book called Outside the Twat System. 
I dyed my hair to match the book cover.
There was a dinner before the reading in New York.
At the table sat luminaries. 
Famous, beautiful, handsome.
I don’t know where to put my personality.
Do I have a personality?
It was one of those dinners where the food is too expensive.
The food is too expensive but you’re starving.
At the reading someone famous yelled out a request.
It was for a poem about nipples.
I was wearing a skirt, out of character for me.
I think I’m supposed to feel delighted.
I do feel delighted but something lurks beneath it.
Something lurks like a frog waiting for flies.

Later, at the hotel, the bed was king-sized.
King-sized decorative pillows you had to move off the bed.
I placed them on the decorative chair.
Others have slept here, I thought, feeling squeamish.
Squeamish, but I was tired.
My purple hair splayed out on the pillow.
I should be lonely, I thought.
I could have been happily married.
Some people are happily married.
I thought back to two creeps.
Two creeps who gave me good advice.
One said you can’t prevent the unpreventable.
You can’t prevent the unpreventable but you can tolerate what comes.
The other said Diane, you are in danger.
You are in danger of becoming an artifact.

On the airplane the next morning I had a realization.
I am one of those as if personalities.
It’s as if I’m gregarious but I’m not.
It’s as if I’m an open book but my book is on lockdown.
I don’t believe this was always the case.
I didn’t start faking it until 5th grade.
In 5th grade I started borrowing my best friend’s clothes.
I realized beauty was a matter of income and opportunity.
In 7th grade I landed the hottest boy in school.
In 8th grade he dumped me and I peroxided an orange streak in my hair.
In high school I was pursued by the drama teacher.
He wanted me to act in his plays, so I did.
I acted, and my allegiances began to shift.
I switched lanes.
Whatever life was supposed to be, I was aiming for something else.

I aimed, but I stumbled.
I stumbled so often I got a permanent limp.
There was a life, and then there was an inner life.
There was an inner life, and then there was an afterlife.
There was an afterlife, and then there were ideas about the afterlife.
When I finally lived alone, I became a body moving through empty rooms.
I became a mind whose only encumbrance was exhaustion.
When I washed my hands, I shut my eyes.
Everything disappeared but my hands in warm water, scrubbing.
I wondered if this is happiness.
I can hear the furnace click on and off.
I can hear the wind try to spiral down the chimney.
I am a homeowner, mortgaged to the rafters.
Yesterday I saw a mouse, generally minding its own business.
I am writing a book called Outside the Twat System.


From the Author: In the last year, I have been exploring the ballad, writing some that conform more fully to the quatrains and rhyme scheme of the original form, and some, like these two, which veer exuberantly away from tradition while holding to the cyclical, ebb and flow of balladic storytelling. I like marrying vestiges of traditional form to hallucinatory or incendiary content. 

Diane Seuss is the author of five books of poetry. Her most recent collection is frank: sonnets (Graywolf Press 2021), winner of the PEN/Voelcker Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the L.A. Times Book Prize, and a finalist the 2022 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, Claremont Graduate University. Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, (Graywolf Press 2018) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry. Four-Legged Girl (Graywolf Press 2015) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her sixth collection, Modern Poetry, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2024. Seuss is a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow. Seuss was raised by a single mother in rural Michigan, which she continues to call home.