Issue 24: Alice Fulton

Coloratura On A Silence Chosen
From Many Expressive Systems

I did a year of reticence theory and learned

falling is noisier than flowing,

a waterfall is a stream changed to ovation,

silence is the voice of glacier blood,

the dark white that lives

between the lines. Rest ice.

The white bow on the coachman’s whip.

The velvet backing on the frame.


White noise is sonic silence.

That’s why I did a dissertation on applause.

My survey encouraged all beholders

in their reckoning frames

to inspect ovations

at their leisure and confirm

in which part of which emotion

the praise conserved in

such collisions took place.

We studied those who clapped

with hands held high

so all could see them fawn

and those who brooded,

sitting on their digits.


If you are silent about your pain they’ll kill you

and say you enjoyed it.

And they’ll kill you if you speak up.

Consider the stormborn applause for Stalin.

Acclaim has such momentum.

There’s a need for salvo stays.

The first to stop will be shot!

Unconsciousness begins

with white noise, a static roaring in the head.

If your hands burn afterwards,

it is militant quietude speaking.

At home in his dacha, Stalin had no carpets.

He wanted to hear the footsteps approaching.


When truth is replaced by silence, silence is a lie.

We are studying

the ways that solitude cures loneliness.

Students, don’t sit at such a distance. 

I want to hear your minds groaning

as the trees do on a bitter night.

I read something corrosive in your silence

that scares me stupid. Though fluency seems glib

as a babblebrook in spring.


We are exhuming silence considered for this moment

         to be made of earth.

The preferred method requires a toothless backhoe

         followed by small scrapes

till hush fragments appear: Because. my.

         Next we need a crew to pedestle

the remains. Brook. is. fluent.

         To dig a trench, show the edges

and sieve the ground

         for bits: I. know. ’tis. dry—

A difference in compaction signals a disturbance

         decades past. Because. my. Check the icicles

for lineation. Brook. is. silent. Long buried

         silence resembles rock shards with the power to cut

what’s solid or dense. It. is. the. Sea—

         When only the largest quiet is exposed

and moved the project’s called a symbolic lift.

         And. startled. at.  It means the quiet is

figuratively in a new place but literally split.

         Its. swelling.  It isn’t pale like a cow bone

exposed. I. try. to. flee.

         It’s dirt colored and hard to identify.

To. where. the. You have to put your tongue

         to it. Strong. assure. me. Silence will stick

because it’s porous. Is. “no. more. sea—“

         The tongue will stick to hush.


I have invented a new genre. That of silence.

Isaac Babel. O babblebook in spring.

When you cut the nice-nice

what oozes out?

Sugar foam, pastel curdle howls.

The ecopoet composing an ecologue

on global warming while

eating a hamburger.


I was meditating to the silence of a bell

at rest. After the carillon, this bell

kept sounding. This stilled bell

spoke to everything

around it there being

a constant rubbing

between its metal

and the elements. It

resonated with ambient

sounds and made a constant

low tolling. There was a constant

tamboura between

the bell and say the garden, 

a vibration vibration 

sensors could amplify.

Because the bell

is always ringing.

Its repose is silence-like

but it is not

silence. It is

ringing. It is rung

by your by

any presence.


A chirpy bird, a carpenter bee,

the roofers’ hammering, the gruffness

of the mower, the mild

crash of crockery and cupboards closing,

a droning jet, the scrape of mouse

and crepitus of keyboard clicks.

Why would silence exist?

There is nothing

in the nature of

things that requires it.


He always made an awkward bow.

The silence at the end

should be heard

as the sound of held applause.


Reticence must respect the limits of its user.

Begin with a typical brute

algorithm that lists, categorizes, ticks off,

eliminates, then represses predilections.

Try the procedures by which ordinary people go about 

being modestly rational. Are you a leaper or a plodder?

Do you thirst for redundancy or newness?

If the choice yields the full latitude of a radiant instance

you have it made. There’s something

about a closed universe where your quietude is

waiting. That’s what I was given

to believe. Change the soul and see

how strategies change to meet it. Then change the rain.

Nobody, not even the truth, has such slant hands.

Please slap me if I get too Zen.

Sir, they said, M’am, your silence is waiting for you.

To be praised by it was to be tasered by honey.

[Italicised lines are quoted from Zora Neale Hurston, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Emily Dickinson, and Isaac Babel.]

Doha Pillow Words

The invitation arrived in the mist

and I didn’t know how to say no.

I’d had no no practice and I was afraid

my no might be abrasive.

I needed a decorative negation.

      Just say I have to go pull my groceries home on a sleigh.

I needed a pillow word, a concept from Japanese poetics:

a phrase that is a set piece without much meaning,

which also happens in ancient Greek. The wine-dark sea.

      Say I have to go out into the fields of learning,

      I have to look into Chapman’s Homer.

Pillow words are a form of silence. Time has gutted them.

They’re linguistic fossils.  Lace trimmed yawns.

      Say I have to look for a word

      crappily adapted to my own catastrophe.

They’re figures of speech that always cushion certain nouns.

      Say I have to consider why “Autumn mountains”

      always modifies “moving colors.”

Moving means touching, colors that can make you cry.

Ornament can be important.

      Say I have to think why Mina no wata,

      marsh snail guts, always modifies darkness. 

As linguistic sizing, pillow words

are sometimes left untranslated.

      Say I have to go untranslate some

      pre-fabs, ready-mades. White noise.

Under the militant screws of too much meaning,

I have to whisper shh.

Originality can be draining. Please give it a rest.

      Say I’ve reconsidered my wine-dark cognition project

      and I’m going to fill my fill with cheap bubbly instead.

The way dweebish poser prats trying to be cool

spangle their language with right? a tic

that fishes for agreement but meets resistance

from listeners thinking wrong. Like like, a word used with abandon

where there’s no comparison, like

you know, a phrase assuming empathy where none exists.

      Say I have to you know go feed my like peace foundry, right?

When you’re heavy-headed, when you need to secede,

there is this rest ice. A cushion word

placed beneath a suffering

can comfort. Some contain little songs.

In the treetop. When the wind blows.

      Say I have to go listen to ambient chill music.

      It comes with lullaby instructions.

“Not fast, with tender expression.” The cradle will fall and –

darkness darkness, be my pillow.

      Say I have to tie a white bow on the coachman’s whip.

Is that a soporific drink – like a white zombie?

Or the one who carries a coffin with him everywhere?

The one who looks liturgical. With jangling golden wings.

      Say I have to consider the radiance.

Habits develop a dynamism of their own, a centrifugal force,

and the edge where everything happens is undermined.

      Say I have to go listen to the pitter-patter

      of snowflakes in the Arctic desert.

I was in the yes habit, a word that locked me in the mist of this

barren rayon murmurous damask unbelustered slush.

Where I was nothing more than sullied colorwheel putty,

less and less. Because yes is docile, so tailwagging

a word. While no is a devouring host, the hex-

agonal blast of a stop sign in the rush.

      Just say I have to go theorize semiotic scroll notation,

      the emergence of maize culture film footage, 

      and snorkel-aided computation.

      I have to go worship ground-figure reversals,

      find the camphorwood box

      where Millicent Todd Bingham stored Dickinson’s papers,

      land a kissable tomboy sinecure

      and make nonnegotiable demands.

But first I have to go pull my groceries home on a sleigh.

I have to research the word no. Its very existence troubles.

After I said it I felt the best I’d ever felt

while feeling bad. When I glanced out the window

the wind was listening. And the dawn was sampling.

Summoning A Freshening

Firstness, be merciful

to animals raised in the dark.

Time’s minions.  As I am

gimpy. Time’s chattel. Lumpen.

As a bullet travels faster than its sound,

let compassion travel.

Though hierarchy be hardwired, dismantle it.

Undo otherness. I pray you.

And by praying you, I create you.


Let the next be restful as the velvet

Backing on a picture frame.

After major sparking, matte.

Let art spin a likeness for loneliness.

Let it be company. With stuff in it.

Let it wreck the wrecking ball.

Unleash the living

from my haunted dead.


As color is sifted through a prism,

soul is strained through world.

The quality of mercy falls

like small caliber raindrops

on the place below: the slaughter-

house between the farm-to-table.

The classic kitten studies.

Time == was it == mind == was it ==

marbled me with knowledge.

Not like a steak that’s tragic flesh.

More embossed end paper.

Because knowing without going

through the suffering you know

is a mortal form of ornament,

the fizz of shape.


Sidereal force, bestow mercy

on the innocent. Nudge compassion

please toward them.

As plates under an ocean can

shove continents, vast array, you can. 


Just past midnight on December 31st

I’m waiting for the other ball to drop.

But everything happens only once

when time’s the boss.

The difference between time and music

is music can repeat. Dissonance seizes

our attention: doors slamming, earth moving

machines. As it pleases time

to wipe clean everything

we’ve touched,

of the inexpressible one

cannot say too much.


I ask for absolution though I am as-is:

damaged, has-been, dissed. I was

guided by duty in the great things

and the small. There was this self-

flagellating map, this grind

of a cartographer being

flogged inside my head.

I traveled by diligence.

Give me my walking papers.

As long as I’m alive I’ll institute myself

and give thanks each time I rise. 


I don’t ask for trophy travel.

          Alarums and excursions

tire me. Sailing to Byzantium

in search of spicier jewels I might fail

to find my present wealth.

When explorers searching for Cathay

chanced upon this continent

          they tried to bribe or slash

a passage through or navigate around it,

thinking it an obstacle, not thinking

how immense == how home it was

          to others there before.

          Before that thought

takes flight let me be on it. 

          Though I am tardy,

          ailing, affronted, raw,

let me recognize not colonize

the gift that bright exalts me now.

Alice Fulton's latest poetry book is Barely Composed (W. W. Norton, 2015.) Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry Review, Poetry,and many other magazines. The Ann S. Bowers Professor of English at Cornell University, she lives in Ithaca, NY.

Copyright © 2020 by Alice Fulton, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.