Alexander Long

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is the author of Light Here, Light There, published by CRpress. He is also author of Vigil, published by New Issues. Long is an assistant professor at John Jay College, C.U.N.Y.
Side note: CRpress was founded by Ryan G. Van Cleaves, which if you've been reading Big Toe Review for a while you already know that's a sacred name around these parts. Please check out all their wonderful titles at

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Still Life with Sisyphus Smiling


There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.




And later, Camus writes that we must imagine Sisyphus

Happy.  The emphasis is mine

                                                     and is, most likely,


All wrong.  Maybe Camus felt

                                                       the stress



On happy, a trochee

                                   uprooting a myth, shifting


A degree or two my conscience, my tolerance

                                                                                 for a poem


And the abyss I seem to always slide inside it….


The same abyss Celan claimed was meridional, absolute,


And nonexistent,

                                a vain internalization

Of immortality, he says. 






But if we were to witness Camus and Celan shake hands,

                                                                                                      how awkward


Would it be, and just what would they say to each other?


Would Sisyphus and his rock ever come



Which of them would say


For once let’s have him be all at the top, singing

To the hard land and the strong sea, not

                                                                at the bottom muttering


Fuck.  For once, let’s have him overlooking Oran,


Morocco to his left, Sicily to his right, the Mediterranean



Behind his squinted, sun-flushed eyes,

                                                             the way a memory


Of childhood does…. 


Which of them would say Amen, Brother?


Neither, of course, but this is a poem that overlooks the abyss

For once, perhaps, where almost anything is possible,


Where myth shifts and Sisyphus stands

                                                                       on Venice Beach at sunrise


While the strung-out hooker asks if she can shoot

                                                                                        up first,                   


You know, a little bit of ecstasy before the next

Shared little fix, which shames neither.


But maybe the abyss is here, in California,

                                                                           2 p.m., November 17, 2005,


Where Sisyphus for once feels the rush of that hour

And groans

                     Oh fuck,

                                   and is astonished

                                                                   by that ecstasy

                                                                                             of falling

And the pleasure it brings,


As she walks away, counting

                                                     her cash.     


Still Life without History



I offer this because I can. 


I’m American. 


But why can’t I make out a single word of what this it is,


Why do I feel more lost than a t-shirt

Of Ernesto Guevara I saw hanging


In a boutique off Aldstadter Ring, where Kafka

Snuck a smoke before Hitler and Stalin


Tried to erase the names of the streets?


Praha loosely translates into threshold,


And those who were there are here now

In something I can’t compose, whose motif


Is what they’ve lost,


This it I’m not permitted touch,

But want.


Some sing to the star that burns

The first snow no one can mark. 


Others listen a long time


For a deeper translation that knits itself

Into the stubborn weeds along a riverbank


Where an elderly couple gathers water

As snow fills the space of the long yield


Still others call hope,


Until History appears on its chestnut mare,

Dressed in the state-issued drab-green coat and hat,


Chewing an unlit cigar, filing its report:


What they hear is History itself, a joke that no one gets—

Even the teller, the one who cries with laughter.


He tells the joke over and over and over


Until those listening catch on that the joke is

There is no joke, but only moments


Of stars shining, brief flickers to sing to.


Until the joke, in fact, becomes a song the state accommodates,

Something as forgettable as water music,


As water.  This water I can’t touch. 


What does it feel like to sing air fissioned

By an accident called History? 


I’m American.  


How do you compose water

Sliding through your hands, fire sung to,


A body here, a song there,


There, in the mouth of a schoolgirl

In a city once called Pripyat, a village once called Raduga:


It’s December, 1989, and she taps her foot on the cracked asphalt,

Bored with singing to herself.


She waits for the sign to hoist the flag, 


Only there’s no one to give the sign,

Nor was there ever a flag agreed upon.


And though her feet are numb and her nose runs,


She doesn’t know when to give up,

When to raise the flag that doesn’t exist


Yet.  And all I see in this moment

Is that there’s no one to call her back


To the chores of pickling cucumbers, no one to punish

Her for skipping the piano lesson


Her father saved and saved for;

No cucumbers, no piano, no teacher, no music.


How is that?  That can’t be, can it?


I mean, I hear something.


Still Life with a Grain of Rice



I used to like the way things went together:


Chopin and Auden; apocalypse and abyss;

Given and give in; disgust


And discussed.  Chopin’s


“No. 3 in B major”, at the end,

For instance, how he reaches


As far as he can across the piano

With both arms—as if hearing himself


For the first time—


Like Icarus, maybe.


I used to think I’d love

To plunge like that


And be done with it.


There must be something

In me that refuses


To die, I pray.


But, Auden’s Icarus stares down

At the indifferent ploughman and all


His shares he needs to live on,

Which make his lord richer




If I were there, in that Brueghel,

I’d turn away, too, from something


Amazing—a boy falling

Out of the sky—because I did,


In fact, do it. 


Early September, 2001,

And I had nowhere to get to.


I wasn’t in New York.


A gorgeous day:

The sun shone


On the television,

Through the high windows


Of my bedroom where

I confessed an important failure


To no one:


Don’t look, don’t care.


I was eating a bowl of rice

With teriyaki steak


For breakfast.


I licked the white fork clean

And wanted more


While someone fell out of the sky

For real. 


And then another. 


I turned up Chopin and licked

A grain of rice I’ll never


Write a poem on




All I’ve wanted since is to sail

Calmly on.


And I do,


Letting the dead down.