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Timothy Liu: Two Poems

Such atonalities / caught floating through four centuries / in flagrant delicto bear witness

By Timothy Liu

For this week’s Poetry Tuesday we bring you “Elegy for a Suicidal Colleague” and “Midnight Mass at the Good Shepherd Church” by Timothy Liu. In these poems, Liu slips through streets, attends or refuses to attend a service, and meditates on the dead and their presence. To bring the dead to life, Liu does not provide many descriptions of their lives or persons, but instead focuses on the space that he himself is occupying, pointing to the dead’s abiding significance and pertinence to his life and world.



Elegy for a Suicidal Colleague


Sorry I didn’t make it
to your funeral. Of course
I was at my desk

rewriting, and yes, I kept on
looking up at the clock,
thinking I’ve got to get off

the phone and into
the shower, having promised
to read a poem of yours

at the service, you who’d
taken your own life and were
no longer with us although

it might seem you were,
your next book scheduled
for September, a book

I’d rather read than attend
another grim gathering
of those who seem to know you

better than myself. Besides,
a tree on my street groaning
under the weight of ice

came crashing down
on the SUV parked right
out in front, its roof

crushed like a sardine can
a kid had decided on
for batting practice, oil

oozing, the windshield
un-shattered though cracked
through and through, not a scratch

on my car though the road
remains blocked. Couldn’t help
but take it as a sign

that I should probably stay
put, focus my attention
on my own work. Besides,

you skipped out on the rest
of us first, won’t be there
elegizing one of us when we’re

put into the ground, won’t be
reading all of the books
that we the living have yet

to write. So forgive me
if I say it isn’t fair
to ask any of us to show up

at a service you didn’t
even want—explicit instructions
left inside an envelope

beside a charcoal grill
whose briquettes have turned
to ash. I’m glad I wasn’t there

when the door was opened,
glad for my car the tree missed
by inches, no telling what

I still might do if you hadn’t.




Midnight Mass at the Good Shepherd Church


The cello’s glassy tremolo soars above
the congregation, five voices pooling
at the chancel where a stained-glass

resurrection scene remains unlit, flanked
by potted Easter lilies—waxy trumpets
curling at their edges, powdery

anthers left uncut. Such atonalities
caught floating through four centuries
in flagrante delicto bear witness to

a prince stabbing his wife and consort
to death “in an excess of connubial
bliss” only to retire to his Crusader castle,

holed up with his madrigals for the last
two decades of his life, sixty miles east
of Naples. Hard to imagine what he

would have made of red-shift sirens
blaring down a Lincoln Center side street
past the Gourmet Garage’s shuttered

doors, black ice on the sidewalk
in a crazed scumble of winter boots
spelling out our Ave Marias—guttering

candles blown out in a solemn a cappella.