Poetry We Admire: Blueprints


In 2021 I fell in love a handful of times, with friends, with books, with instructional rock climbing videos. One of those books was Esther Allen’s 2016 translation of Antonio Di Benedetto’s Zama (1956). The story follows a dejected and morally irredeemable Spanish colonial officer named Don Diego de Zama. Zama occupies a remote station in Paraguay in the late 18th century (then the land was not Paraguay, which wouldn’t be founded until 1811). All but forgotten by the crown, he spends his days in a stupor, anticipating a return home he is certain is his due.

The book, written “to the victims of expectation,” found me at the right time. When I could count myself among those it was dedicated to. At the tail end of an extended and difficult period of isolation, here was a novel which did for me what so few others have chosen to do. “To say, to [my] hopes: No.” And how possible might we become once we allow ourselves uncertainty. Through Allen’s masterful translation, Benedetto’s words offered me my present at a time when nothing was easier than deferral and reminiscence. 

Zama was, in short, a blueprint. Revealing what has happened before, what can be done. And don’t be fooled by the John Hanning Speke vibes of the latter half of the trailer — Lucrecia Martel’s cinematic adaptation of the novel is its own masterpiece, as well.

Blueprints. The word calls to mind Anna Atkins’ cyanotypes, Light Falls by Mark McKnight, Caravaggio’s Seven Acts of Mercy. Like a trail of crumbs, they follow who we follow. Blueprints are the texts our guides have left behind. Something between suggestion and instruction, the world as it is and the world as it could be made. It’s a relation-to-time thing, meaning it inspires a certain reverence, meaning it’s impossible to think about comfortably for long.

I think about how many blueprints are out there waiting to find us, who are waiting to be found. This January, as time’s texture is changing once again, in a new year, in new lockdowns, I hope the poems selected here can help a blueprint or two find their way to you, just a little faster.


i settle for anything that will make my lungs erode, settle for the thought of xamar of galkayo or garissa, or any number of places my grandfather darkened days in

from "exit strategies"

by Asmaa Jama in The Poetry Review

“exit strategies” caught my eye first for its structure, something between a braid of couplets and a prose poem. What struck me most about the poem was the internal tension the piece created between truth and uncertainty. The poem gestures at events it doesn’t always feel obliged to explain (“we do not talk about the way I wrote out and burnt the verses that mention heaven,”), and here what I like best about it — its confidence that what the poem’s audience need learn from it, we will.

If I am responsible

It is for everything

from "Student-Athlete's College Recruitment Guide"

by Michael Chang in New Delta Review

I have a soft spot for poems which reject endings and condemn nuance, and Chang’s poem is that rare piece that does both. The piece’s title positioning it as a blueprint for acquisition, “Student-Athlete’s College Recruitment Guide” steps just as readily into the field of loss as it does that of holding, troubling whatever sense we may have had of the independence of the two.

how good that feels when you wake in the middle of the night,

the worth of that unexpected gesture like a lover

who cleans out the dishwasher filter without 

being asked.

from "When We Say It's the Little Things"

by Martha Silano in Image Journal

It can be easy, in the din of living, to forget that with which we are familiar. Aspects of our surrounds can become textureless, so omnipresent we forget they’re there for any explicit purpose at all. There are those blueprints, of course, which show us how to make something new for/of ourselves — in Silano’s poem, instead, a movement towards the familiar, and so, against forgetting.

“Make that shape again.” She said, and so I did.

“Now let it change,” she said, and I did—

from "How to Hold the Heavy Weight of Now"

by Dana Levin in American Poetry Review

Like an Annie Baker play, almost, how Levin’s poem moves, through the self, from the quotidian to the transcendent. Just as in Michael Chang’s poem the title suggests to the reader the idea of a kind of holding, the text itself less undermines than it does complicate this notion, revealing what transformation might be possible in our letting go.

On the shore: weeds tall as sunflowers, yesterday just tiny things, now bending beneath the weight of their own extravagance.

from "The world will be made while"

by Jess Kadish in Kissing Dynamite

As Martha Silano’s poem reacquaints us with the familiar, Kadish’s poem motions toward its own form of related, though not identical, discovery. “Last summer I swam in a lake down the road from where I’d lived for years. I never knew it existed, yet there it had been the whole time,” And what a joy it can still be to find, in the world we thought we knew, just around the corner, the opportunity to discover it anew.

Benjamin Bartu