6.10 Tight Crop

Benjamin Aleshire

The subway handrails take the square root of—I almost say his—body. And already I’ve said more about myself than I can of another. An other. What am I, a cop? Maybe it’s the too-long sleeves without hands, shoulders hunched for trudging. Or is the factorial of poverty the poverty of our imaginations, multiplied against themselves—

The stairs resemble so many equals signs stacked up one on top of another, as if equality goes on and on forever until it vanishes out of sight. That it diminishes as it goes is a trick of perspective: everything depends on where you’re standing.

Take the bystander at the summit of the staircase: drenched in light from the surface world, texting obediently, backpack filled with laptop/gym clothes/ceramic water bottle/headphones I’ve seen in commercials/$280 in cash just because/vape pen/diploma/keys to the kingdom.

That I can know even from this distance that his haircut costs more than my monthly EBT allotment also says more about me than it does about him. Every photograph is a mirror, duh. And a curation. Look: just around the corner, just outside the frame, beyond the boundary of tidy metaphor, the secret police is stuffing someone into a minivan.


The first draft of this poem/prose poem came out in neat line breaks, and (thinking of the issue’s theme, ‘Divination’) used Tarot imagery in place of the math-y palette it begins with now. Tarot-ekphrasis as a method of translation felt appropriate at first: a high-contrast b&w photograph of a subway scene rendered as a Tarot card is interesting, but it felt a bit too expected, too on the nose, too poemy (the handrails were wands, etc etc).

So I rewrote it, dropping all that (along with the line breaks; why bother, these days, I wonder more and more!) in favor of math imagery. In a sense, math is the opposite of divination. But the more I thought about it, the more similar they seemed to me—different systems of calculation. It was that first line, the handrails as a √ symbol, that showed me a way to telescope out from simple ekphrasis into another level of meaning (inequality, class resentment, police violence, etc)—as well as interrogate my own assumptions. Because the image is so wide open to interpretation, there was something about searching a b&w photo for clues made me feel… very much like a cop. So I realized that the question, ‘Is this person perhaps homeless?’ isn’t as interesting as why I might assume so.

Ultimately, I tried to make a poem that would seem just poemy enough so the reader will follow along, dutifully experiencing its ekphrasis and vague intellectual angst or what have you, and just when the reader assumes all the metaphors will wrap up nicely into a bow, i.e. every photograph is a mirror, duh —the ending confronts them with a very direct reality check. Which I hope comes across as both refreshing and activating—
—Benjamin Aleshire


Benjamin Aleshire's poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Times UK, Iowa Review, Boston Review, Adroit, and London Magazine. An excerpt of his novel-in-progress, POET FOR HIRE, was featured at Lit Hub and the Poetry Foundation's blog, Harriet. In 2019 Ben received a James Merrill fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center, and the Words & Music Festival prize in nonfiction, selected by Nathaniel Rich. As a poet-for-hire, Ben's clients include Jimmy Page, Tracy K. Smith, Bernie Sanders, Sir Tom Stoppard, House of Yes, Princeton, and Shakespeare & Co in Paris. Ben serves as a contributing editor for Green Mountains Review.
Instagram: @benjamin_aleshire