How to Interrogate an Archangel (New England Review) Behind the Byline: Elizabeth Austen


                      a brief and strange species
                                            —W. S. Merwin

the day begins in disarray you ought you should you must
you must you must you must     the bees will not

be stilled     what stitches mind to body     who cues the unraveling
if it’s true we’re infused with something not found in doorknob bird or bee

why am I confused about all the important things     crows
trampoline the power lines from house to house     they don’t care

who runs the world     I gape at the sky     color of sunflower
color of blood     the world is not as I have believed it to be

I find no vantage      no long view across even the surface
peristalsis propels the worm into darkness     electricity

animates the lamp     the leaf drinks at the top of the tree
I understand none of the beautiful things     the sparrow bathes

in dirt     I don’t know why     the birds do not ask themselves
or each other how are we to live     they do not ask us to love them

This Morning

                                    Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
                                                                            —Theodore Roethke

It’s time. It’s almost too late.
Did you see the magnolia light its pink fires?
You could be your own, unknown self.
No one is keeping it from you.

The magnolia lights its pink fires
daffodils shed papery sheaths.
No one is keeping you from it—
your church of window, pen and morning.

Daffodils undress, shed papery sheaths—
gestures invisible to the eye.
In the church of window, pen and morning
what unfolds at frequencies we can’t see?

Gestures invisible to naked eye
the garden opens, an untranslatable book
written at a frequency we can’t see.
Not a psalm, exactly, but a segue.

The garden opens, an untranslatable book.
You can be your own unknown self—
not a psalm, but a segue.
It’s time.

Originally published in Pontoon 7: an anthology of Washington State Poets


                          The beginning of wisdom is in getting things
                          by their right name.

—Chinese proverb

Ear. Nose. Eye.
We teach every child
to point and name.

The child goes to school,
learns “he” is the norm,
“she” the grammatical

variant. When the place
between her legs is left
unnamed, what lesson

does the child learn
but that what she discovers there
doesn’t quite exist

(except to be washed, face averted).

Eventually she’ll find
the dessicated,
reticent Latinates—

the language and labels
of diagnosis
and prohibition—

a linguistic burka, rooted
in pudere: be ashamed.
She’ll find the dysphemisms

of juvenile slang—
metaphors of confused fascination—
geographic euphemisms.

(Might as well call it Australia.)

Quarter of a million words
but not one with the raw
authority, the accurate—forgive me—

mouth feel
of the thing itself. So taboo
as to be nameless,

that place all human aching starts.

–Elizabeth Austen

The final line is borrowed from Li-Young Lee’s “Self-Help for Fellow Refugees.”

You’ll also find my poems online at The Writer’s AlmanacVerse DailyBellingham Review , Toadlily Press DMQ Review.

34 thoughts on “Poems

  1. I stumbled onto your website after coming across your poem “Humans”–it’s the first poem I’ve read in a quite some time that speaks to something deep within me . I love your deliberate simplicity with the images you create and look forward to reading even more of your work.

    I too am a writer, It’s all rather new to me and I haven’t had anything published since college but have been working as an actress and collecting layers and pages for the past several years.

    Thank you.

  2. Corina

    Thank you for so beautifully and charismatically clarifying that. I can see, taste, and feel exactly what really happened. Makes much more sense this way, doesn’t it? Lovely writing…As usual!

  3. Rebecca Truman

    I came across your site as I was on the Richard Hugo House website. This poem is absolutely beautiful! You are truly a master of your craft. Your well-chosen words are so delicate and alluring. Each line is more intoxicating than the next. You are an amazing and talented artist. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. Daniel Smith

    Listened to your reading at Allied Arts in Yakima Sunday and was very moved, especially by your “Women Who Go Alone” (hope I got that right) poem. You mentioned there was a link somewhere to the poem online. I’m hoping that’s still accessible – Googled it to no avail. Cheers

  5. Laura

    I heard your poem On Punctuation read (on the radio) this morning and LOVED it. I can’t wait to share it with my 16 year old daughter who struggles with run-on sentences when she writes papers for school. You are brilliant!

  6. Verna

    Saw your poem, “On Punctuation,” on The Writer’s Almanac and loved it. I forwarded it to the ladies in my little book club–we’re all English teachers–and they were amazed. I looked up your website and “This Morning” has me so excited that I’ve pasted it in my journal as inspiration. It makes me want to become my “own, unknown self.” You are quite the writer, Elizabeth! I’m going to order your new book–I’m your new, biggest fan.

  7. alessandra

    hey there ol’ pal,
    spent a few with you and a cup of jo. great way to start the day…the girl who goes it alone is so alive in my memory. the astonishment at you, still in my muscles, up there – untethered, on the catwalk of the margo jones. i’ve never stopped being impressed.
    break a leg with every dress,
    & always love,

  8. Gabrielle Edison


    Hi. I saw and listened to your reading at Innisfree, Boulder’s wonderful
    poetry-only bookshop, this past June, and had the pleasure of meeting you
    briefly … Suzanne’s sister, Gabrielle. I have been having a bit of a love-affair with your poems from Every Dress a Decision, and sharing your work with some friends. Would you do me one favor by telling me the form that you are following with “This Morning”, using the basic repetition of the 2nd line of each stanza as the 1st line of the following stanza?

    Thanks, and hope you are quite well.
    Gabrielle E

  9. Gabrielle Edison

    OK, upon further readings, of course I see many repetitions of lines, and have not found the form — yet — in my resource books or online, so will patiently await your reply!


  10. Hi Elizabeth,
    I just wanted to say hello and tell you that I heard “The Girl Who Goes Alone” today on KUOW. I loved it and it impacted me deeply. I write an outdoor blog called JabberWalk and one of the things I’m very interested in is fear and the outdoors, especially with respect to women. Would you mind if I shared the poem in it’s entirety in my blog? With full credit and links, of course.

    Regardless, thank you so much for this piece and all your work!

  11. Hi Elizabeth,

    I have been a fan of your work for a while and am very happy that you have been selected to be Washington’s new poet laureate. Your chapbook ” The Girl Who Goes Alone”, helped me understand what structure and economy of language means in a poem, and showed me that you could tell a complex narrative in a straight forward way. I also wanted to say that the content and subject matter helped me grow as a human being.

    These poems are wonderful! I love the music of “Untitled” : it has the organic, kinetic feel of individual speech while reading beautifully! “This morning” has a kinship of reserved form and feeling in that is both exquisite and powerful.

    I would love to ask you a personal question about poetry, but if you aren’t interested I understand. I thank you for everything that you have done for the written word.

    1. Elizabeth Austen

      Hi, Robert – thanks so much for your message. I’m glad to hear about the ways you’ve connected to the poems – that means a lot, as I’m sure you can understand. I’ll email you directly about your question.

  12. Katherine Charters

    Elizabeth Austen,

    Today I hiked alone for the first time.

    I returned home and listened to “The Girl Who Goes Alone” and melted with joy because it so accurately represents what we outdoorswomen experience everyday. The computer even wants to correct the word “outdoorswomen,” while it’s fine with the word “outdoorsmen.”

    As an aspiring poet myself, I celebrate your poetry and appreciate your mission as poet laureate. Thank you for spreading words so gracefully and intentionally.

    Katherine Charters

    1. Elizabeth Austen

      Hi, Katherine–
      My apologies for this tardy response. How was it to hike on your own for the first time?
      Thank you for your message, and for letting me know how you connect to my poem. (Your anecdote about “outdoorswomen” — ah, the ingrained sexism even of spellcheck!)

  13. salishan

    Last night at WICA in Langley you opened the door for me
    into a secret about language when i heard you say the hearer is
    half the word and the other half is the poet’s singular invitation
    to join in the incarnation of a poem together. Thank you

  14. James Duff

    Elizabeth, i am hoping to meet you at The Goldendale Library tonight @ 7 PM …i am a poet late bloomer…just starting out ..getting a website very soon. Thanks …i Love your poems.

  15. Savanah

    Dear Elizabeth Austen,
    I am Savanah. I am 13 1/2 years old and a poet in process.
    I started to write poems in school, when I discovered it came kinda naturally.
    I was wandering if you could give me some tips on my poems, please.
    Here are a couple.

    Upon a bed of roses
    A maiden weeps;
    Upon a bed of roses
    A maiden prays;
    Upon a bed of roses
    A maiden sleeps;
    Upon a bed of roses

    O thou the wild beasts await,
    The wild stallion
    Stands proud over the sun stained valley;
    Big muscles ripple beneath coat of gold so sleek,
    O thou sun stallion awaits so proud!

    O the begger man sits
    on the curb so cold
    For he is talking to the rain
    His strawberry sorbet red face
    is held upward
    so soft petals of rain
    land on his cold face
    For he is talking to the rain
    He is talking about hope
    and what love is.
    He is talking about his old life
    how he misses his wife
    For he is talking to the rain.

    Thank you for reading these. Looking forward to hearing from you.
    ~ Savanah B

    1. Elizabeth Austen

      Thanks for your message, Savanah. I’m glad to hear you describe yourself as a “poet in process.” I’ve been writing my whole life, and still think of myself as a “poet in process” too. I think the best piece of advice I can give you is to read a wide, wide variety of poems. Read to fall in love with other voices, and read to find out what’s possible with words. Most of all, keep experimenting with your writing, keep discovering what you can do with sounds, sentences, lines, rhythm.

  16. Carol Scrol

    Hi Elizabeth,
    It was great to hear you read your poems at the Jefferson County Library in Chimacum. You expanded my understanding of how the poet “performs” the poem to connect with the audience. You most definitely achieved a connection because I can still hear some of your words in my mind.
    P.S. There was an “error” message on the WSPL Website when I tried to send a message to you. Hope you get this one.

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