Shannon Elward

introduced by George Kalamaras

"Every Language We Ever Loved": An Introduction to the Poetry of Shannon Elward

The poetry of Shannon Elward is a joy to behold. She’s a poet of the body, a body integrated with the mind. Imagine if Federico García Lorca and Muriel Rukeyser had a child, and that child loved and fought with her sibling, Jack Spicer. Now you’re getting a little closer to Elward’s sensibility.

Breathing. Breath. Breathed. Come into a Shannon Elward poem and conjugate the breathing tree that is the spine of knowing. Crack open that spine and there are the astral planets of desire. Say the words "scar" and "prayer" backwards three times within "a fur-lined moon." Know that the "fur-lined moon" is a "possum-moon" and that "there is an alphabet of the dead." Say "there’s ‘a tidal wave of dusted diaphragms’" each night into the dent of your pillow. Say your name. Say my name. Say the names of all the body parts hidden inside a sliver of saliva. Examine a "stuttered history— / lost in the bottom of the gut." It is there that you’ll find Elward’s rendering of a "third lung" waiting for you to breathe it, to breathe through it, and to have it metabolize and reorient your way of knowing the tongue you use to uncover the world.

This is not Elward’s first appearance in print, but almost so. And given the beauty of her work, I find that fact astonishing. "I would like to tell you you’ll love slant and caesura," she says in her remarkable forthcoming debut, Third Lung Breathing. Her poems in that chapbook inhabit the slant-ward words and purposeful pauses of our lives, reminding us that "This is every language we ever loved." Elward gives us a book that is itself a "third lung," inscribing into the reader’s body a new way to breathe. She creates poems that become complex organs of knowing, with a strangeness as familiar as, "The hole in your bone         [that] knows your name—        knows every name."

I have had the privilege of reading Shannon Elward’s truly remarkable poems for many years. From the first poem of hers I came to I knew there was a birth birthing a birth in the labor pain of what I might call let-us-use-language-to-come-anew-unto-the-world. Enjoy this regeneration. Enjoy this feast. Breathing. Breath. Breathed. Read her poems and conjugate the enormous world they inhabit, the complex reciprocity of "watered grief" nourishing what she calls "the thesaurus of the body."

—George Kalamaras




                                                                                         Last night, possums worshipped                
                                                                             the dead.          They were all pine
                                         and breath—all liver
                                                                 and skylark.               Last night,
                                                                                         possums worshipped the missing tooth—                                                                          absence

                                                     of a fur-lined moon.
                                         When we dance                    beneath rusted shells,

                             we lie about everything
                                                     except prayer                          and scar.

                                         To scar:                       recoil
                                                                               against tired bone.

                 Pray your left foot, broken              
                                                     against brick. Speak

                                                                                         ancient accidents                 
                                                                                                                 of pinewood

                                                                                                          piled on snowdrifts—
                                                                 every grey-lunged dirge.                        Howl

                                                     at the possum-moon.
                                                                 There is an alphabet                   of the dead:




There’s a third lung buried
                             somewhere beneath the surface of lava—                                                                        

                                         thirteen breaths
                                                     from every collar,
                                                                 every paved field
                                         of watered grief.

                                                                             When we breathe,        we forget
                                                                 about ghosts:
                                         generations of language
                                                                 lost in the body—

                                                     in stuttered history—
                                                                 lost in the bottom of the gut.


                             Give me sand-filled letters               burned
                                                                 in ancient wounds.

                 Douse your sternum.
                             Submerge your right hand
in melted hieroglyphs.         
                                                                             A primordial death—a dance of forgetting—     
                                                                 of curl your skin.
                                         A tidal wave of dusted diaphragms.

                                                                 What if love was a synonym
                                                                                                                           for appendix?




Come back to California, come back to California every map-maker, every map-maker is pleading to James Alexander.

—Jack Spicer

Dear Ben,

Nobody writes poems about Churubusco—not the way Jack wrote Fort Wayne. Indiana is Churubusco: chronicle of misplaced sea turtle. All Oscar Fulk and 1898. All scotch and inverted shell. Fort Wayne is please come back.

Churubusco is blurring longing into a two-dollar grilled cheese. Is the Ramble Inn: a name that scorns every foot urging through every fictional crosswalk. Fort Wayne is lost in fields of salt and sound.

In 1949, Churubusco had police officers and thirteen transparent sea monsters. Jack had please and come back. Maybe Oscar lied, like poets do. The three are unrelated. Fulk Lake isn’t sea turtle. Churubusco isn’t longing. Fulk Lake is full of please, but not Fort Wayne.

In 2015, Churubusco is love for an upside down tavern sign. Al’s 33 Club is just a stuttering of scotch and phonetics—all V sounds stuck in the current of my throat. I can’t speak come back.

While you’re paining love letters on driftwood, I’m breathing Oscar Fulk and diasporic sea turtle. Churubusco is please. Fort Wayne isn’t come back.




Dear J,

So maybe they were right.               The sidewalks do breed
                        earthworms after all. I tried
                                    planting those lilac seeds                 in the space between—
                                                in the space between all those chalked hearts,

            but the oxygen here                         is lacking touch.

                        Where are you going            after Columbus?
                                                After all those anarchist-dandelions
                        have started the resistance                         of winter.
            Where do you go when breath isn’t white?

                        I’m working on a paper that argues           the sensual
                                                                                                      nature of old buildings                
                                                in that part of Columbus
                                    where we both lost hours                          of beating blood.
                        I’m creating a theory                       
                                    that will uncover            our frozen left wrist.
            I’m writing an alphabet based on breath.

                                    You should know           about oxygen—
                        how it lingers in brick and bone—
about my breathless left palm             and the space between hearts.




for Michael Burkard

One language, August. 
One letter. One blood vessel.
One esophagus, August, and one syllable.
One photographer August, and three women
with eyes aflame.

One body, August,
accustomed to night sweats. One word burnt
in your retina. One plane ride. 
One car. One body
that wasn’t yours, August.
One collar lying limp against damp skin.

One lip-twitching August. One too heavy
lid. One syllable mispronounced,
August, and one very white wall.

Three women, August—
three women unclothed.
Showing their swollen veins. One flash,
and one pupil sobbing.
Three women with tongues.
Who did not speak. Who closed their eyes
in the car. Who doused their blood in light.

One woman with hair falling mid-breast.
One woman with a leg wrapped
in another’s skin. One woman
who refuses sight.

August, my left eye is tired
of vocabulary, and my eyelid insists
on twitching to the pulse of midnight.
My eye that is freckled, August. My freckled
eye that the doctor keeps measuring in unspoken speech.
The freckle that I wish I could feel

but can’t. August, my eye doesn’t cry. August,
the women have swollen veins.
The language is more than blood. 
The freckle. August, I can’t see.
That eye, I can’t name.




Evening equates fever of the lip. A kind of tightness that sways upon skin and leaves sound silent. The city in the background is less symphony and more distraction of your lover's lavender face. Her presence may be enough to fight any hard syllable that mistakenly moves across your collar. Be careful with that, I'm learning about the language of my left wrist. My studies show it may be deceitful.

If voice is more like hardened sternum, more like lightning-tipped fingers, then what are we to do if the ending feels incomplete? These days I walk with a body that fabricates enough clay to paint color to love. I keep thinking there is a line I’m missing here—something between space and glottal stops, something red that pains my eye in silence.