Best US Poetry 2016
Self-Portrait on the Street
of an Unnamed Foreign City
The lettering on the shop window in which
you catch a glimpse of yourself is in Polish.
Behind you a man quickly walks by, nearly shouting
into his cell phone. Then a woman
at a dreamier pace, carrying a just-bought bouquet
upside-down. All on a street where pickpockets abound
along with the ubiquitous smell of something baking.
It is delicious to be anonymous on a foreign city street.
Who knew this could be a life, having languages
instead of relationships, struggling even then,
finding out what it means to be a woman
by watching the faces of men passing by.
I went to distant cities, it almost didn't matter
which, so primed was I to be reverent.
All of them have the beautiful bridge
crossing a gray, near-sighted river,
one that massages the eyes, focuses
the swooping birds that skim the water's surface.
The usual things I didn't pine for earlier
because I didn't know I wouldn't have them.
I spent so much time alone, when I actually turned lonely
it was vertigo.
Myself estranged is how I understood the world.
My ignorance had saved me, my vices fueled me,
And then I turned forty. I who love to look and look
couldn’t see what others did.
Now I think about currencies, linguistic equivalents, how lopsided they are,
while my reflection blurs in the shop windows.
Wanting to be as far away as possible exactly as much as still with you.
Shamelessly entering a Starbucks (free wifi) to write this.
JENNIFER GROTZ was born in Canyon, Texas, in 1971. She is a professor at the University of Rochester and assistant director of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. She was named director of the recently established Bread Loaf Translators' Conference. The author of three books of poetry, most recently Window Left Open (Graywolf Press, 2016), she has translated works from the French and Polish. Her most recent translations are the novel Rochester Knockings by Hubert Haddad (Open Letter, 2015) and Psalms if All My Days, poems by Patrice de La Tour du Pin (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2013). This is her fourth appearance in The Best American Poetry.
Of "Self-Portrait on the Street of an Unnamed Foreign City," Grotz writes: "Ut pictura, poesis: as with painting, so with poetry, the saying goes, and perhaps this is why from time to time poets, like painters, use the exercise of the self-portrait to practice seeing. If either the poet or the painter is lucky, sight leads to insight. In this unabashedly autobiographical poem, I use a shop window on a busy street in Warsaw, not a mirror, to view myself, and though my poem aims for truthful perception, I think it renders what, I'm convinced more and more, poems are meant to achieve, that is: registering what it feels like to pass through time."