HomeAboutMastheadJoin POW ListserveDonateArchive
Kevin Prufer


Kevin Prufer
Potential Energy Is Stored Energy

When the bomb tore through the train,
it cut the first-class cabin into halves.
Inside, the wealthy travelers mostly died,
though here and there
                                 one cupped his bleeding ears
or looked around,
                          confused. Where the car had split,
snow blew in,
                     capping the upturned drink cart,
a lady's coat, the dying porter
                                           who smiled
up at the sky.


                     Such constellations
blown-out windows make,
their million shards sprinkled over snow.
                                                          Such filigree
where the hot glass sank
                                     and cooled--


For hours,
               the bomb knelt in its suitcase, half-aware
of the thrum of wheels on tracks,
                                                the churn and tip
when the train turned
                                or, following the river, cut west
along its banks,


and the dying porter thought about his son.


For hours, its little heart had ticked
                                                   on its rack
above the ladies' heads. It heard the old men
playing cards,
                     the rattling drink cart.
It dreamed about a plume of smoke,
the second when the casement cracks
and up to the Lord with the splinters
                                                     and the glass--


Snow fell on his face and melted there,
snow in his hair,
                        covering his lapel--and his only son,
how he felt his heart beat through him
when he cradled him
                               or helped his wife
to bathe him in the sink,
                                    the heat coiled in the infant's body--
it was years ago.


Dear Lord, dear Lord,
                                the bomb kept saying,
curled in its suitcase like a prayer,
                                                 muffled on its rack-


And the baby in the bath was burning up with fever,
so they soaked him there, filled the tub with ice
and smoothed his hair. Oh, beautiful
                                                     black-eyed baby,

his wife was singing,
                              while she stroked his cheek
and the doctor never came--


                                          Dear Lord, I give this to you:
each lady's black felt hat, each full glove.
                                                           I give you coats
and shards of frosted glass that decorate the first-class cabin's
perfect ceiling.
                      I give you books and cards and windowpanes,
the men who dream behind them--


                                                    And the heat inside the baby--
he recalled it now as down the thick snow fell
and covered up his eyes--
                                     he was ungodly hot, a burn
no ice could draw.
                           He won't last long like this,
his wife was crying,
                             but still they bathed him--


and when the heat tore through it,
                                                  the ceiling split
and crashed into the floor. The derailed train
tipped and buckled,
                             curled and died. And in its final moments,
the doomed bomb smiled--


I give this to you, Lord,
                                  in a wisp of smoke, in splinters
scattered in the wind and love.


The porter
                slept where the train had wrenched apart.
His son,
            pinch-faced, stayed in the sink, grew hotter still,
and could not breathe.
                                 Oh breathe, breathe, his wife was saying,
while the great unmelting snows concealed his eyes,
and up to the waiting heavens
                                            this black plume rose.


In 1981
            in a hotel gift shop outside Phoenix, AZ,
a little girl stood by the postcard rack, turning it gently.
It creaked.
                She considered a picture of the desert, then
looked around for her mother,
                                           who was elsewhere.
She gave the rack a firm push so it spun
gently on its axle,
                          smiled, pushed it again,
and the postcard rack wobbled on spindly legs.

And soon she had it spinning
                                          so quickly the cards
made long blurry streaks in their rotation, gasps of blue
for sky,
           yellow for sand, and then faster,
the girl slapping at it with her hand,
                                                    grinning at me,
and then a single postcard rose from the rack, spun in the air
and landed at my feet,
                                 a picture of a yawning canyon,
and then another, handfuls of postcards
rising from the rack,
                              turning in the air
while the girl laughed
                                and her oblivious mother, at the other end
of the store, bought a map or a box of fudge,
and then the air was full of pictures
                                                    all of them shouting
Phoenix, Phoenix, Phoenix,
                                       twirling and falling
until the empty postcard rack
groaned once more, tipped,
and crashed through the window.


There ought to be a word
                                      that suggests
how we're balanced at the very tip of history
and behind us
                     everything speeds irretrievably away.

"It's called impermanence,"
                                        the little girl said,
looking at the mess of postcards on the floor.
"It's called transience," she said,
                                               gently touching the broken window.
"It's called dying," she said.
                                         It was 1981
and the clerk ran from behind the counter,
                                                             stood before us.
The girl smiled sweetly.
The postcard rack glittered
                                       in the sun and broken glass.
He turned to me and my face grew hot.
I couldn't help it. I was blushing.


In 2009, my father lay in a hospital bed
gesturing sweepingly with his hands.
                                                      "What are you doing?"
I asked him. "I'm building a church," he said.
"You're making a church?" I said.
                                                 "Can't you see?" he said.
He seemed to be patting something
in the air, sculpting something--a roof?--that floated above him.
The hospital room was quiet and white.
"What kind of church is it?" "I'm not finished."
"Is it a church you remember?"
                                              "Goddammit," he said. "Can't you see I'm busy?"


It was 1988 and I stood in line for my diploma
and my father took a picture
                                          that I've lost now.
1984 and there we are
                                  around a campfire I can't remember.
It was 2002
                  and his cells began to divide wrongly, first one
deep in the wrist bone, then another
                                                     turned hot and strange,
deformed, humpbacked and fissured,
                                                      queer and off-kilter,
one after the other,
                             though no one would know it for years.


"It's called dying," the girl said,
                                             while the postcards suspended
in the air like a thousand days.
                                             I reached out to touch one,
then another,
                    and all at once they fell to the floor.

Then the clerk said
                             I was paying for the window,
where were my parents,
                                   and who was going to pay
if I didn't know where my parents were?
                                                          And the girl
smiled from behind the key chains
                                                  and her mother
pursed her lips at the far end of the store.
                                                             The window
had a hole in it through which a dry breeze came.
The postcards shifted on the floor.


Years later,
                 my father was still making a church
with his hands.
                       "They do that," the nurse said,
patting his head like he was a little boy.
                                                          He was concentrating
on his church, though,
                                 his hands shaping first what seemed to be
the apse, then fluttering gently down the transepts.
He sighed heavily, frustrated,
                                           began again.
"Can I bring you anything else?" the nurse asked.
"No," I said. "Thanks."
                                  "Are you sure?" She watched him
tile the roof, watched his finger shape another arch.
And then it was much later.
                                        He'd fallen asleep.
Outside, snow covered up the cars.


"It's called forgetting," the girl said,
                                                   while the clerk
watched me and I blushed. "Until there's nothing left."
And a breeze entered
                                through the hole in the window.
"And then you're out of time," she said,
                                                         and shrugged.
Some of the cards were face up on the floor:
                                                                 two burros
climbing a craggy slope,
                                    the grand canyon like a mouth
carved in the earth, a night-lit tower like a needle.
                                                                        I was sweating now,
but I couldn't speak.
                               And then I was running from the shop,
past the fountain and the check-in desk,
down the tiled hall to the hotel pool,
where my father lay on a plastic beach chair,
                                                                reading a book about churches.
Sunlight flecked his chest.
                                      His hair was wet from swimming.
"What's the trouble?" he asked.


       his cells were thick and soupy,
clotted and aghast.
                            Then they were spinning
through the air.
                       And it was 1986 and rain
drummed on the roof.
                                Or it was snowing, years later,
in Cleveland,
                    his hands working the air
while the nurse stood in the doorway and sighed.
                                                                        Wind and sun,
a bright day, a lovely day
                                     to lie by the hotel pool and read
about how men spent lifetimes building them

and never saw them finished.


Love Poem 

No money
and the mailbox grew wet and empty-hearted
in the rain. No money

and the ambulance's great red eye
lit someone else's
sleeping street.

They made me leave the hospital
and come home
where, moneyless, I looked out the window, into the rain.

You were empty, asleep and untouchable
in your hospital gown. Emptily,
the nurses walked past me,

their sympathetic heels chipping the linoleum.
That bruise where the IV goes
was round as the absence of a coin,

and you, asleep, the tube in your throat
both terrifying and
I don't know what to call it--

broke? Without money,
the world stops, the world's great cities
close their eyes.

Then the heart goes dead no matter how they pound it.
Without money, I keep driving
the long road from the hospital

cursing the nurses who touched my arm so gently,
said, "go home now, there's nothing you can do."

it's so much easier to talk about money,
to spend myself inside this poem.
Wake up.

You've slept and slept while the rain came down.
Say something, anything at all.
Open your bankrupt mouth.

                           -from Churches


Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

Poet and editor Kevin Prufer was born in Cleveland, Ohio. He earned degrees from Wesleyan University, Hollins University, and Washington University. His work, which has been praised for its elegiac attention to the banalities of the contemporary United States, includes Churches (2014), In a Beautiful Country (2011), a finalist for the Rilke Prize and listed as a 2011 Notable Book by the Academy of American Poets, and National Anthem (2008), named best poetry book of the year by the Virginia Quarterly Review. Other collections of poetry include Fallen From a Chariot (2005), The Finger Bone (2002, reissued 2013), and Strange Wood (1997). A bilingual edition of Prufer’s poetry appeared in Germany as Wir wollten Amerika finden: ausgewählte Gedichte: zweisprachig (2011), selected and translated by Norbert Lange and Susanna Mewe.
Prufer edits the journal Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing; other editing projects include Until Everything Is Continuous Again: American Poets on the Recent Work of W.S. Merwin (coeditor with Jonathan Weinert, 2012), Dunstan Thompson: on the Life & Work of a Lost American Master (with D.A. Powell, 2010), New European Poets (with Wayne Miller, 2008), Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems (with Joy Katz, 2006), and The New Young American Poets: An Anthology (2000).
Prufer’s many honors and awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lannan Foundation. He has received three Pushcart Prizes, awards from the Poetry Society of America, and the William Rockhill Nelson award. He is a professor in the English Department at the University of Houston and lives in Houston with his wife, the artist and literary critic Mary Hallab.


Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

A Review of Kevin Prufer's Churches by Jeremy Bass, first published at Waxwing

Much criticism of contemporary poetry in recent months has focused on its apparent lack of relevance to modern society. The New York Times recently published a debate addressing the dubious question of whether or not poetry “matters.” While the tenets of that argument are beyond the scope of this review (not to mention the validity of such a reductionist proposal), it does offer a useful context in which to read Kevin Prufer’s new book, Churches: in a world in which the daily intertwinings of work, domesticity, and interior life are punctuated by a seemingly never-ending stream of horrifying images flashing across our TV and computer screens — journalists beheaded, bombing campaigns designed to degrade and destroy, widespread and unchecked institutional racism, political and corporate corruption — how does poetry create a space in which the personal and, for lack of better words, the civic and political, intermingle with and respond to each other in way that is authentic to that lived experience, that finds resonance in the imagination and enters the realm of music through lyrical utterance?

“There ought to be a word / that suggests / how we’re balanced at the very tip of history / and behind us / everything speeds irretrievably away” (31), Prufer writes in the title poem from Churches, and it is Prufer’s obsession with articulating this precarious position that drives his sixth volume of poetry. In Churches we find bombs dreaming of God, avalanche-covered bodies speaking from beyond the grave, narrators from unspecified post-apocalyptic futures recounting stories of our impending destruction. In many ways, Churches is the natural extension of the project Prufer began in National Anthem and pursued in In A Beautiful Country. These are more expansive and intricate interweavings of story and myth, fragments of history and prayer, intensely focused on the point of convergence where the civic and political meet and overlap with the personal.

Churches establishes its structural and thematic commitments from the first section of the book’s first poem, “Potential Energy is Stored Energy”:

When the bomb tore through the train,

it cut the first-class cabin into halves.

Inside, the wealthy travelers mostly died,

though here and there

                                    one cupped his bleeding ears

or looked around,

                             confused. Where the car had split,

snow blew in,

                      capping the uptuned drink cart,

a lady’s coat, the dying porter

                                              who smiled

up at the sky. (3)

“Potential Energy is Stored Energy,” like many poems in this volume, uses the juxtaposition of different stories as both a structural and a thematic principle, alternating between descriptions of the blast, the bomb’s prayers to God, and the story of the dying porter’s infant son in an almost cinematic fashion: “Dear Lord, dear Lord, / the bomb kept saying, / curled in its suitcase like a prayer” cuts to “And the baby in the bath was burning up with fever, / so they soaked him there, filled the tub with ice / and smoothed his hair,” which in turn gives onto “each lady’s black felt hat, each glove … and shards of frosted glass that decorate the first-class cabin’s / perfect ceiling” (5). For the moment, this is Prufer’s signature style: sequences of fragmented stories and monologues torn apart and then sewn back together again, islands of disparate experiences bridged by the space between them, so that in a single section of a poem he can write about the death of his father and depict a future torn apart by war and human neglect:

(Asleep in your pajamas, asleep in your bed at home where they told you

rest, rest now, asleep by the waterglass and the pillcup, asleep while the sun

sets and the street goes quiet and in the yard the weed grow high


and that boy and I walk the once-blasted landscape where now the moss has

covered up the burned-out stumps, where now the birds returned at last,

where now our town’s collapsing into bent rooftops, beetles, woodsmoke.)


          (“I Am Knocking at Your Window,” 53)

Perhaps more importantly, this fragmented delivery establishes a mode in which we are always poised on the edge of discovery, synapses firing as the strands of story shift into place, as alert to potential linkages as the poet must have been when he discovered them for the first time.

Churches is Prufer’s most cohesive volume to date, and so it might be easy to overlook how capable he is of different sounds and forms. Sometimes he recalls Frost, as in “Love Poem,” where the dream-like, mythic images of earth-bound missiles shooting out from the moon are conveyed in loosely rhymed, iambic rhythms, cut over cascading lines:

I thought I’d set my weak pod there

                                                        and walk among

our swiftly burning trees,

                                             the unripe fruit

that sizzled on the ground.

                                            It was a lovely moon

we used to sit below,

                                      the moon that burned the city down

and set the fields aglow,

                                          moon that glittered hotly

while its great guns fired.

                                          It was an angry moon

that made me miss you so. (9)

Other times, and perhaps more often, he bears resemblance to Whitman, the insistent pulse of syntax unfurling over long lines:

We bury the body or we leave it on a ledge to the darkness, we tie rocks

          around its legs and sink it in the sea, we put it in a bag and throw

          it from a cliff, we remove the indifferent entrails. We remove the

          brain, piece by piece, through the nose; we sew the eyelids shut;

          we sprinkle it with ochre;


we stuff it with fruit; we stuff it with gold; we sew inside it wine and

          aromatic spices, a beloved family pet —


so do we make of the emptiness of the body a vessel for the meanings we

          impose upon it …


           (“Inside the Body,” 43)

What is so beguiling about Churches is the sheer intoxication one feels reading poems that are at once alive with consciousness and imagination, yet steeped in death and destruction. How else to say it, that we enjoy the description of murdered and buried children? “In troubled times, a man might offer up his child for mercy, firewood, venison. // Those parsnips grew best among the fists of buried children. // And how the peeled onion resembled the soft face that gave it life” (15). Prufer’s command of line and syntax and the precision of his choices in diction create poems that are beautiful and terrifying at the same time, as pleasurable to read as they are disturbing to comprehend. His employment of tone is also essential to the almost perverse pleasure we feel reading Churches. The playfulness with which he handles his materials, the swift alternation between prophetic and matter-of-fact, humorous and horrified, keeps these poems elastic and surprising. “How I love a cool Sunday morning / high above the park / after a rain,” Prufer writes in “Sunday Afternoon in the Park”: “If I could, I would jump / right through this window” (46).

The poems in Churches are composed of materials that, in lesser hands, could become prescriptive and moralizing. But what makes these poems so ephemeral and tough is the way Prufer lets his stories and subjects speak for themselves, eluding any attempt we might make to reduce them to their constituent parts. In their lack of finite meaning we are left to make those meanings and morals for ourselves; these poems mirror a world wherein the concrete particulars of the drama are clear but the overall purpose is not. It would be a mistake, of course, to view Churches as a mere instructional manual for writing effectively about the events of the modern world. It is, at its core, a work of art, and the skill and technical subtlety that build that work of art are immense and deeply satisfying. It sidesteps completely the question of relevance, offering an irrefutable answer in its place.

      A review of Churches at American Microreviews and Interviews

      A review of Churches at The Cafe Review


Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading


           Interview with Prufer at The Paris Review

      Audio interview with Prufer at New Books network



Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

                    Multiple readings by Prufer

Click here to buy Prufer's books

Kevin Prufer

Enter supporting content here