Erica Ehrenberg

introduced by Genine Lentine

Erica Ehrenberg writes densely infinite poems, their strangeness the strangeness of what is right before our eyes. I've been reading Erica's poems, listening to them on the phone, for over a decade, and still I am never prepared for what they hold. An astonishingly fine-tuned perception—psychologically astute, scientifically precise, metaphysically nimble—is in play in these poems. Her poems encompass massive scale shifts in the scope of a few lines, or a few syllables.

The temporal dilation I feel as I read Erica's poems brings to mind the art historian David Joselit's characterization of paintings as "time batteries," or "exorbitant stockpiles" of experience and information. But of what order is the information we find in Erica's poems? And how exactly did she come by this information? This is the constant question and miracle of these poems.

Phil Levine remarked once upon reading a poem Erica brought to our workshop at NYU, "I need to spend more time in Erica's world." Her sights are trained on what is almost too subtle to speak of, that which is, to borrow a phrase from Flann O'Brien, "nearly half the size of ordinary invisibility."

There's a deep sanity, at times a tectonic humor, in Erica's poems that comes from meeting discomfort so directly no space remains between experience, instinct, and language. When I say discomfort, I include joy along with grief; I say it in celebration of the inquiry these poems undertake so thoroughly into the hairsbreadth fit of our idea of living and of actual life.

—Genine Lentine




Bruno goes to the city of the night to plead for his possessions,
walking the streets barefoot catching his breath
at the sight of a pair of shoelaces dangling like a braid of hair
from a nail on a door in an alley. He is transfixed
by the smell of salt in the air, as if by the proximity of a woman's body.
The men sitting by card tables with glasses of clear
liquid smoking are all basking in it as though its new wave of freshness
had fallen over the city suddenly like snow.
A glow emanates from the whitest walls
and the foreheads of the children rushing through the streets
carrying messages. The moon is shining hard and close
and tracks him and strips him the closer it comes, his wrist
not only bare of his watch but made of a stranger's bones.




On occasion, in certain houses and shops, she'll see a man with the face of a fox. A blue truck comes through the town and twenty or thirty of them come down. The baker says they are building a mountain made of ice crystals reaching up into a cloud. On certain days she can feel the shadow of the un-built mountain rise over her bed-sheets. Even the shadow is jagged. Even the shadow is white.

She can smell them enter a room. When she is standing at the back of the grocer's peering down into a barrel of pickles, the entrance of one or two of them into the store makes her shiver as if something cold and wet like mucus had been pressed against her neck. She runs out the back door, through the pigsty, the mud up to her calves, out to the lot where there is an ice-caked refrigerator two local boys open and close in intervals, as if gathering water for a fire. Their clothes are soaked with the smell of meat.

As night falls, she stares into the air where there is now a thick conglomeration of stars in one quadrant of the sky as if the whole dome had been tilted. In the heaviest part, close to the mountain, the stars gather.

A procession down the street—the funeral of a pelican, whose body is laid in a wooden box, its legs folded, so thin it is only possible to see them where they cross. Certain inhabitants hide their faces. The mountain stays uncapped, full of crags, the sun pours into it.




My father is sent away from the city
and given a new name.
It makes him think,
"If I die, I won't know it," and he finds
that by sitting alone in a clearing
he can train himself to spill
out of his body, so that he will be less afraid
of being killed, or caught.
It's possible to be free even then—when an animal
is born, small and wet and crooked
in the black haze of the barn
he understands it as the landing
of another star loosened from its captivity.




To get to the way station where Bruno must fumigate
the rooms and wash the floors, he must find his way
through the part of the city whose streets were laid down
in knots, the windows on either side of a bent street
breathing on each other the steam of their showers
and the gust of a slammed door. Bruno sees two legs
dangle from a second story window, each foot no bigger
than his palm. In the relentless flash of a broken streetlight
Bruno sees the precision of a wrist as it darts
in the light, and the hollow of an ankle as voices
scatter into doorways. The way station is perched
between the city and the sea and must not only be empty,
but devoid of human presence. Bruno knows the lever
in the ceiling that lays each wall down on its side
as he soaks the house completely, his feet bare
in the water while the music
from the old part of the city
thumps its impersonation of pleasure,
its warning to scour the floor as if no foot
had ever crossed its surface.




For two weeks this has been going on and Bruno won't settle down:
he met her behind a counter where he slipped change
through a slot in the plexiglass for an allotted number of minutes.
She passed back a pre-punched card and he took it to a booth
with a door pleated like an accordion and sticky as a shower curtain.
Because of the extreme altitude of the town, his voice lagged behind
his mouth, and it felt to him that he would never be able to form
the words fast enough.
From a pattern of clicks that matched the tapping of her fingernail
he figured out that she listens in with a plastic device.
He knows she can hear him. In fact she is the one who late at night
lays down the wires to the towns below the tree line
angling them toward the seats of different governing bodies.
What is there for her to know about Bruno?
Only what he fabricates to confound her—
a childhood in a city with palm trees and dirty snow,
rooms without furniture in houses conjoined like twins,
despair so elastic it sounds like relief exhaled through the tapped line.