Billie Chernicoff: 'Gradiva,' a new poem from WATERS OF, with a closing note by Robert Kelly

[Reprinted from the original 2016 publication by Lunar Chandelier Collective]




She who walks 


the woman who walks 

that woman


the splendid one

unreal twice over 

thus real, who walks

with her sisters, 

the three who walk 

early, in the dew.


The dew, called

“what is it?” called


the teaching water,

drops of the night.


She who does not stride

who does not go dreamily

who is real, who walks

with naked foot 

who lifts her foot

and sets it down

sets her heel down 

in wet grass

she whose toes, whose

arch, the arch of whose foot

whose foot lifts

and flexes, whose toes 

press the earth

whose heel is firm

she who walks

walking ahead,

even of her sisters.


Across the wet field.

She who has risen early

who hears the owl

and the mourning dove.


She who lifts her skirt

who lifts the heavy cloth

the folds of

the stuff of her skirt

who gathers in her hand

the soft cloth of her garment

and lifts it from the ground

walking with wet feet and ankles

with cool feet in the dew.


With warm thighs under her skirt 

under the cloth, her warmth

as she walks, as she walks away

from chaos, history, obsession,

she to whom the walls of the city

are as mist. 


The rhythm of sisters 

rhythm of hips

deep socket of the back

the sway of hips

spine rising

from the cleft of her buttocks

her torso rising, uplifted.


Each step lifts her. 

It is a rocking

and a sailing

a moving forward

while hovering.


The unthinking acts of her feet

knees and hips, the hinges, the slip

the synovial fluency, the slip of

thighs overtaking each other

the genital slip, the smallest.


Unreal twice over,

therefore real, she walks ahead

of those who imagine

remember, deny

and pursue her,

who are perplexed

refreshed, comforted

pleased, vexed, shaken by her,

who confuse her with her name.


She slips away.

She balances,


moves forward.

Her gaze is a sailing ship.


Her foot on the earth

pleasures her, the earth

pressures her, answers her.

It is her pleasure.


The moist cloud

of her breath

and of the earth,

her own perfume

in her skirt 

in her armpit,

the perfume

of her sisters 

of the grass

even of her name,

all these are in the air.


The dew is in her skirt

her cloth, her clothes

her hem heavy with dew,

it cannot be helped.


That she is free of us,

free of our supplications

our promises,

free of our books.


Her wet skirt is her book.

She who resolves

absolves and reveals

wrings out the solvent

from her own skirt.

Her hem rains,

love doctoring love.


Our father the owl

our mother the mourning dove

our sisters the laughter of her sisters.


The sun and moon are in the sky. 

The morning star is in the sky, 

a wet flame. How pale the moon is. 

How at one everything is in her gaze. 


You walk with her 

wait for her

marry and abandon her. 

She heals the letters of your name.


You dream you are her only errand.

She leaves her footprints in you.


She who slips between columns

who advances, who rises

and walks on, splendid in walking.




[Note by Robert Kelly


What are we to make of such grace?


The great poets of the last half-century rediscovered for us the musical power of the poetic line, the actual line in an actual poem. Not a counted beat but a rhythmed tune, a muscular (the heart is a muscle) limb of sound. From the line we make music, and we shape lines by the silences between them.


We learned from Creeley and Duncan and Williams (for me, in that order) how the interruption of syntax indulged that deepest of all qualities of poetry, what Shklovsky and the Russian Formalists called ostranenie, its strangeness, its subtle or not so subtle difference from ordinary speech. From that strangeness our poets made music.


When I read Billie Chernicoff’s work, though, for all its quiet, tuneful suspensions of syntax over visual gaps, I’m conscious of something else at play. I want to tease out here, if I can, what that difference is. Or not so much difference (from what I and a million other post-New American Poetry poets are doing) as something added to that process, a different way the music is being used.


Provisionally, I think it is a mode of making visual. Look at the longish poem in the middle of the book, “Gradiva.” and you’ll find a scrupulously lucid description of the image of a “walking woman — which is pretty much what I take the Latin word to mean. That poem, its summoning of the image, is my clue to what’s fresh, very fresh, about Chernicoff’s work.


To say it as clearly as I’ve been able to think it, she’s trying to turn the hesitant, graceful movement of music into a visual apprehension of physical movement. The silences at the ends of her lines are not just rests in the musical score, rests in the measure, they are the geometric points that outline the shape of a person, or a Chinese bronze — it is as if the shape of the poem says: when you see this, know that there is a curve, a salient, a deep embowerment in what the sound of me is summoning you to behold.


Something like that. I feel it in the persistent visualization that goes on in Chernicoff’s work — things say look at me. Even when they seem to say touch or taste me, I see more the hand reaching out to caress, rather than the feel of bronze or flower beneath the fingertip.


In this sense, Chernicoff’s work is profoundly shaped by, part of, the visual culture we more and more inhabit. She casts the image on the mind’s eye — as poetry has always been doing, that’s what an image is — Brakhage’s eye-mage, Pound’s phanopoeia, all that. But Chernicoff’s process is not to cast the image by describing it in so many words, but by setting the name of it in supple motion in the silent air around the poem — we see the shimmer.


Something like that, again. I started out by noticing the grace, the dance-like suavity of her tunes, her sequences, especially the order of things she notices for us to observe or inhabit. Quiet, slow, unhurried as any object, the spectacles her poems unfold are sumptuous in their giving. 


The book’s title itself starts us off with just such a seen silence. The waters of. Of what? Of Babylon where we wept, remembering? Of Siloe, where we hold our tongues and meditate? The Housatonic that flows through her neighbor fields? Sea that washes all away? That of makes us see something, a place or word, just as so often the line will end, startling as a knock on the door. We hurry to open it to see who’s there.