Selection from Free Boat: Collected Lies and Love Poems
John Reed

Sent: Friday, September 27, 2014 3:56 PM

To: Alexis Hurley (

Re: Re: Subject: Disaster

Dearest Alexis,

I was born a lizard. Some animals are never juveniles, rather, they are small adults. They don't have memories, usually, but in my case I was born with memories of the Napoleonic wars. The memories weren't verbal: I carried images and gestures and body language. For ex.: an out-turned step as I stood in regard. My mother tells me now that she's glad I "lightened up." Lizards, as you're aware, are humorless. No jokes, no gambols. Many years later, as I floundered toward self-education at my wastrel college, confronted with the prospect of an unfilled "Natural Science Requirement," I researched and penned a substantial answer to the following question: "Do reptiles play?" They do not. Well, maybe some young alligators. With the alligator "babies," it was all about whether they thought the shovels that fed them were food, or might still have some food on them, or were just mighty nifty.

Why? Of what import is this? You may be tempted to inquire. But I do have my reasons, if you'll bear with me. I write to you in the context of our professional relationship, which, if it has seen more rigorous exercise, is on the cusp of a veritable frenzy of exertion. Not to discourage you from the enterprise, of course. I'm sure it will be quite lucrative. To whit: a book of poems. I should perhaps qualify the statement. A book of poems, by me, which I'm fairly sure I've written. As you know, during the last few years I've had my ups and downs. But it's been a rather productive period. In retrospect, however, not all of my accomplishments have been entirely singular. I have come into the knowledge of some various texts and influences that played directly into my course of productivity. You need not fear: I have no doubt that even if these influences do constitute antecedents to my divers outputs therein lies no legal exposure. 'Tis only on the order of full-disclosure that I present my discoveries—for the possible perusal of your attorney, who is, I have informed you before, quite distastefully fat (or so I imagine) and not someone who I'm prepared to interact with directly.

This would be the conflict, then: is this a book of sonnets I wrote, or is it, rather, a book of sonnets I stole?

If the former, it is a work that progressed quite naturally from my highly praised and awarded New Play by William Shakespeare. In a public sense, my New Play by William Shakespeare was the first of its kind, and an evolution in how we, that is to say we as a cultural species, view the legacy of THE BARD. But my landmark brainchild constituted a private breakthrough as well, and my gift for language flowed into poetry like a big wet river. The disappointments that I encountered during that chapter in my life (all of which I oh so duly overcame!) contributed to a subsequent work, a tour de force of seduction, meditation, and frightening insight. (This is the book of poetry to which you shall forthwith be so extravagantly treated—as if to a suburban sundae.) The questions about my origin (burning questions, I know!), played into this moment of personal instability (and sublime fruition), as did the flux of my, shall we say, "relationship status."

If the latter (hmm, to recap, a book of sonnets I stole): the "first draft" was borrowed from a Police Department evidence box, which preserved the sundry esoterica of a 1996 crime scene. Enough said.

Now then, I'll proceed to matters of more pressing urgency: what I would like in the way of production, which is to say the book itself (hardback, which should go without saying), is a kind of postcard format. I have a vision in my head of people giving my sonnets to their lovers, their ex-lovers, their friends. They can invite them to eternal bliss, punish them for their transgressions, or, well, as they wish. These poems do it all. Still, it will be a delicate matter to simultaneously indicate a "gift book" (subtle, subtle, we must warn the design department!), while at the same time maintaining the integrity of a well-published and eagerly anticipated collection of poems that's on the fast track to the most-coveted literary awards and prizes.

A question. The title, 47 Sonnets, presents a somewhat difficult problem in terms of awards submissions. I think the allusion to Berryman's 77 Dream Songs is obvious (perhaps we might even accentuate the passing of the torch by titling the work 47 Sorrows). Furthermore, 47 is the number most cited when people are asked to produce a random number, which is to say it is the least random number. Wonderful, wonderful, yes? But alas, 47 isn't enough in the way of poems; 48 is often the minimum number of poems for an award submission in the "book of poetry" category. How absurd! Yes, I know, what kind of a ridiculous artificial line is that? Forty-nine mediocre poems, or 47 breathtaking poems? How can the one merit awards consideration and the other be tossed aside? Here, I would allude to something I always say, counsel I bestow upon my friends and acolytes, counsel which you'll surely benefit from, "whadaya want, justice?" And yet this problem of too few sonnets, however absurd and merely indicative of the petty and dunce-ridden Poetry Establishment, has entirely possessed me. How might 47 sonnets be more than 47 sonnets? Since this morning, when I whipped up the last sonnet, I've thought of nearly nothing else—although I was interrupted briefly when I encountered an uncanny resemblance. My wife, you know her so you'll find this quite amusing, evidently has a doppelgänger in the way of a "webcam girl," with whom I had a surprisingly familiar rapport!

And that—with some élan, no?—brings us to the centermost line of inquiry of 47 Sonnets. Does this sequence of sonnets offer a glimpse of an adulterous man, or a man with an adulterous wife, or a couple in the stilted throes of monogamy? It's a good question. And if I had a good memory of the last few years I could answer it.

What do you think of 52 sonnets? We could still call the book 47 Sonnets, which rolls off the tongue so beautifully, and so elegantly references the Berryman. I suppose it's something of a betrayal, to call the book 47 Sonnets, and then include 52 sonnets, but it's a failing of a failed world. We'll just drop in a note with the awards submissions. "47 Sonnets consists of 52 sonnets." Doable, no? And as far as the reading public, they'll never notice.

"John," I can hear it already, "you simply must, must, provide readers with an accompanying essay that sheds light on matters such as these (i.e., the title methodology of a genius) which may indeed be of historical significance." Well I will here and now go on the record as stating that this sequence of sonnets will be presented without a word of facile explanation. I don't even want to tell people that these are sonnets, except perhaps in the title. And aside from a note on the rhyme scheme of the poems—and the progression from The Shakespeare Sonnet to an innovative 13-line sonnet of my own devising (probably my own)—I will not permit, the Lord as my witness, the distraction of any addenda to the text. And as for the issue of "the author as hero," I am much in the opposing camp, and I refuse to toss out my own biography as a justification for My Work, which has a far greater reach than the limits of my own life, as interesting and full as my life has been.

Vis-à-vis: a poem, very much like a human life, should stand outside of context–should bear its own weight as we must silently bear responsibility for our own lives. Paradigms of said integrity would be my own children, each of whom is staunchly a vehicle of fiery independence. There is Valerie, with her fist-stomping sense of what is right; there is Marc-David, with his willowy smile and freshly baked bread; there is Lee-Harvey, with his two goals a game (and always by a swift bump of the head); and of course there is Sirhan, my son from my first marriage, with his long eloquent letters (haha, though his mother has no such effect on me, I'm a sucker when he asks for money). It's imperative to me that the sonnets exert their own selfness, that they are put forth in a manner that warrants respect. They will be presented in order, with no interference, and, however commendably market savvy, any inclination to do otherwise, alas, is a deal breaker.

If I might, I'd like to now give you a preview of The Tome, as I have taken to fondly calling 47 Perfect Sonnets (another title variation).


Tire me with white lies and petty pretty 
complicity—we've never ventured far 
far from here, preferring civil to the city.

The summer streets don't smell of death, and tar
crossed avowals on mortar and concrete
are dusted away by hairspray and money.

The women walk fast, low cut and high cleat—
and men turn their heads, eyes sunken and puny.

Point to me, starlet, with newer good lies; 
watch my eyes receding, beady and dead.
Lie to me, lie to me, lie to me bride.
Gaze into the sockets of slime in my head.

  Palms to the temple, and alms to the flesh,
pray to the steeple the tender are blessed.

4 (adieu)

She comes like a wrecking ball in winter,
razing the old tenement and with it,
plink-plinking, she shatters your ice to splinters.
No one expects the foundation: the pit.
But you always recognized the ruins,
the crumbling walls, the painted hearts—you knew
it like a child alone will know to spin.
When you lie down, the weeds will take their pews,
and the white sun is too far to warm you,
and only the wrecking ball, your gray moon,
laps the empyrean for bloody dew.
And whenever she comes, she comes too soon.
And you will love her like the broken glass
loves the wind that blows away the ashes.

As you can see, I've pulled sonnets from the manuscript to include them in this email. Since I don't have access to a printer, you'll have to print and assemble your own copy of You're All Under Arrest (title variation). I do hope you understand that it's vitally necessary that these sonnets be read ON PAPER, and IN ORDER, sans distraction, first to last (though I will be excluding some sonnets, which are less vitally necessary, but are nonetheless of some weight to the serious reader; I imagine that by the time of publication, or soon after, all of the sonnets will be published or republished in venues of lit'rary repute and thereby available to my readership).

These first two "taster" poems (which tickled your senses, no?), like the majority of the poems in the sequence are about women—many women, sometimes 5 or 6 per poem. There are a very few poems in the sequence about men. You know: an old friend, a rival, etc., and not too often.

I suppose we might further describe another category—the category of poems about "we." I suppose, as well, one might endure a designated category of "wife," although really it's a subcategory of "woman," and when one is in a bad marriage (i.e., such as my first marriage), or in a loving marriage (i.e. my second marriage), all of a poet's poems are really about his wife, n'est-ce pas? And certainly, if she asks him, they are!

Ah, and yes, one might possibly propose "I" as a final category, but as in the "wife" category, it would be a bit like formulating a subheading of "sonnets" under "sonnets." I suppose there's just no getting around the fact they're all about me. 


Nobody loves me like my little loser.
She would lift me, love me were I less man
than the clenched fist and busted-up bruiser
and tearless deaf-mute Führer that I am.
She would love me if I let the luckless
in, let the little villain believe in 
all the suicidal wreckers of his 
rotten youth (and onetime glimpse of freedom).
Let the backhand swing and the frying pan
break the window and settle in the trash—
two stories thick with black bags and old cans—
that's there at the bottom of the airshaft.
My little loser doesn't ask for much: 
just to love me until I self-destruct.

Three more pages for the manuscript. (But hence! Yonder printer awaits!) And if you're keeping track of categories: the preceding three sonnets have been culled from primary category of "woman" and the secondary category of "we," and the two non-categories of "wife" and "I."

And now, tada, a word about rights. Or, rather, a word about rhyme, and then about rights.

The sequence progresses from a standard Shakespeare Sonnet, which is fundamentally iambic pentameter with the following rhyme scheme: ABABCDCDEFEFGG. Of course, variations abound, but that is the approximate structure of the first 20 sonnets of the full sequence of 69. Indeed, #20 is the last to do so, and one senses the poet positively chaffing at the strictures of the form. The middle poems of the sequence take up the slightly less metered structure of: ABCDEFFEDCBAA. (But be attentive: #25, for ex., is only 12 lines—it rather cleverly drops a line in the middle.) #34 evolves the structure, burying many of the rhymes, and allowing for a sonnet that retains its structural dignity yet feels more natural to readers, and is—and this is quite remarkable—a thirteen-line sonnet. (Did you know that in olden times Friday the 13th was hanging day? When Friday the 13th came around, everyone knew to gather in the public square for the executions.) The penultimate structure of my sonnets, as in #63, completely buries the rhyme scheme, although it is still present. To whit: ABCDEFAEFDCBA. (#63 does vary ever so slightly from that key, but is nonetheless indicative.)

And now, biography. It is very likely that you have already—well, haha, if you frequent the true crime circuits—recalled that versions of these sonnets were published in connection to a double suicide that took place in 1996. Hard to forget. Sonnets, ha, discovered at the crime scene! I can't really explain that, except to say that I often carry materials around in my head for some time before I write them down, and it's quite possible I published the poems in some minor venues that I no longer recall, and mistakenly believed I typed them up for the first time in 2008, twelve years after I originally wrote them. 


Come to me like tomorrow to a child.
Like the day is cradle, blue world below,
to the misty, tussled dreams, half wild,
of cherished seraphs in cloudy furrows.
Like the dawn will wake us to memories
yet unknown, waiting in our baby brows.
Our lives of snow to fall upon the sea.
Our little losses just the cheer of crows.
Wake me, my sweet, to our pinky bodies,
like newborn pigs in sacks of spiky wheat.
Like she is, she is, she is she: a tease,
an angel, and a laughing whiskey neat.
Wake me, baby, from this too too solid dream.
Exit the woman, and enter, the steam.

About my wife: I haven't been a good husband, but she doesn't love me. Ah, I see I should clarify. That would be my first wife; I used the present tense perhaps because the wound is a little fresh, but I do have a second wife, who loves me very much and is in love with me and, well, I find myself ready to employ the term "head over heels." It's—how should I say it?—an enduring love. And if I've given the impression that we're newlyweds, we're not—we've been married long enough, and we've been through enough that I have no doubt one of us will crawl into the grave after the other, looking for that withered hand to hold.

I suppose, however, that she isn't my second wife; technically, she would more rightly bear the appellation "fiancée," as we haven't yet subjected ourselves to the hurdles of contractual matrimony. And in that respect, while I call both of these ladies my wives, I would suppose that neither of them are my wives; one would be, technically, my "ex-wife," while the other would be, technically, my "fiancée." And they do resemble each other. So much so that when I see one of them from my window (they both come to visit me here), they have to walk all the way from the outer gate to the inner gate before I can certainly ascertain which one of them it is. Usually I have a pretty good idea, just by the way their hips move—but not always. And if there's snow on the ground that changes how they walk—so in that circumstance it's nearly impossible to know who I'll be led out to talk to. At the plexiglass, obviously, it all becomes rather clear—but there is a reflection on the plastic and if I'm at the southmost stall I have to be literally sitting in my seat before I can see through it. On that note, you should come to visit me sometime.

Suffice it to say that wife 1 and wife 2 may resemble each other outwardly, but in all other ways they are very different: the one is an ambassador's daughter, the other is a former stripper. Which takes me back to the suicide/suicide or murder/suicide, with which you may be apprised. S.S. Eleman, which is to say Dr. Eleman (not a medical doctor but a doctor of Philosophy), led his small life in the middle of nowhere with his lovely wife who may or may not have loved him (but with whom he had two children, Brutus and Judith) until one day he had a student named Natassha, who was very much a run-of-the-mill Natassha, but shorter with several additional cup sizes, and she ruined his life. Then he became addicted to a telephone call-in service, i.e., phone sex, and eventually met one of the "phone hostesses," who was also giving live shows that were quite expensive. He was astonished to find the voice matched the girl, and promptly cashed in his meagre retirement, and wrapped himself entirely in her and their mutual addiction to heroin. The rest, as we say, is history. Her name was Amen. And perhaps I should add that while she was of a fact flesh and blood, there is scant substantiating evidence as to the fleshy reality of Natassha, who Eleman wrote about and corresponded with, but who does not appear on his student roster, or show up in any way that signifies a breathing person. But of course, he may have just had a pet name for her, or with some instinct uncharacteristically cautious, employed a fictitious name. I suspect he was entirely loyal to his wife, despite his marital travails, and his supposed indiscretions were en vérité fantastical—and as such all the more tragic.

(China shop)

Ok, you didn't need to break something.
When people come into this china shop,
they tiptoe around, they oo and they aa,
and then when they walk out, they slam the door.
I spend my whole life sweeping up the glass,
rethreading crystals onto chandeliers,
trying to crazy glue the porcelain,
telling myself that it was just an accident,
and I'll crawl around and find all the gears
to reassemble the two grandfather clocks,
which maybe needed cleaning, and then I'll
fix the doorknob, which didn't even lock.
Tomorrow, I can reattach the sign.
John Reed is the author of the novels, A Still Small Voice (Delacorte Press/Delta), The Whole (Simon & Schuster/Pocket/MTV Books), the SPD bestseller, Snowball's Chance (Roof Books/Melville House), All The World's A Grave: A New Play By William Shakespeare (Penguin Books/Plume), and Tales of Woe (MTV Press); published in (selected): the Brooklyn Rail, Paper Magazine, Artforum, Bomb Magazine, Playboy, Vice, Out Magazine, Art in America, the PEN Poetry Series, the Los Angeles Times, Paris Review, Believer, Rumpus, Daily Beast, Gawker, Slate, Wall Street Journal, ElectricLit; current Faculty at The New School University.