Poem: Variation on a Theme by Elizabeth Bishop

The remix, the allusion, the pulling something from the past, even when it doesn’t feel as if it’s your past, and making something of the moment with it. Riffing off Elizabeth Bishop, this chronicle of loss is not just a catalog of loss but a lesson: Sometimes we know who we are by remembering what we’ve lost. “Learn to lose as if/your life depended on it. Learn that your life depends on it.” And yet, it’s not pessimistic; instead, it’s a reminder — of how only the living can number their losses.

Variation on a Theme by Elizabeth Bishop

By John Murillo

Start with loss. Lose everything. Then lose it all again.
Lose a good woman on a bad day. Find a better woman,
then lose five friends chasing her. Learn to lose as if
your life depended on it. Learn that your life depends on it.
Learn it like karate, like riding a bike. Learn it, master it.
Lose money, lose time, lose your natural mind.
Get left behind, then learn to leave others. Lose and
lose again. Measure a father’s coffin against a cousin’s
crashing T-cells. Kiss your sister through prison glass.
Know why your woman’s not answering her phone.
Lose sleep. Lose religion. Lose your wallet in El Segundo.
Open your window. Listen: the last slow notes
of a Donny Hathaway song. A child crying. Listen:
a drunk man is cussing out the moon. He sounds like
your dead uncle, who, before he left, lost a leg
to sugar. Shame. Learn what’s given can be taken;
what can be taken, will. This you can bet on without
losing. Sure as nightfall and an empty bed. Lose
and lose again. Lose until it’s second nature. Losing
farther, losing faster. Lean out your open window, listen:
the child is laughing now. No, it’s the drunk man again
in the street, losing his voice, suffering each invisible star.

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet and lawyer. He created the Million Book Project, an initiative to curate microlibraries and install them in prisons across the country. His latest collection of poetry, “Felon,” explores the post-incarceration experience. In 2019, he won a National Magazine Award in essays and criticism for his article in the magazine about his journey from teenage carjacker to aspiring lawyer. John Murillo, a finalist for both the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Pen Open Book Award, is the author of the poetry collections “Up Jump the Boogie” (Cypher 2010, Four Way Books 2020) and “Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry” (Four Way Books 2020).

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