Hi everyone. Well, another year is drawing to a close. How did you find 2012? For me it was by & large, I don’t know, fine I’d say in the way of personal appraisal. While I am honestly loathe to complain given the richness of my life, at the edges of that bounty I sensed something amiss in the room of the year, a cosmic disarray or a void in my body, pervasive gloom unchecked by splendors. Maybe that resulted from the usual incitements—another malicious electoral charade, the daily abasements of resurgent bigotries, the swelling American gulag for the vulnerable, generalized petty meanness, vicious exploitations, privilege & blindness, endless war, failing health & breaking hearts of friends, dear things thwarted, the word ‘WORK’ strobing over a picture of the earth. Capital then, & as always.
But yo, I’m not, finally (or entirely I should say) an economic determinist, living, as I do, for the permanent mysteries of what will not reduce, their truth being both the plainest thing, & blurry. Whereas our situation is entirely clear. Voldermort deposited the pieces of his soul in several objects to resurrect his wretched body later. I’m typing this up on a Horcrux now (“my Foxconn laptop”—Anne Boyer). Unlike the Dark Lord, the people lost inside each thing & thought this room contains will not get back the bodies or the time they have lost. Nor will you.
& perhaps my gloom’s been big because, inside of my feelings, a novel (to me) sensitivity has opened by caring for a child all the time & I haven’t yet learned how to manage its extensiveness. A general vigilance that supplements worry for critique & celebration until those latter two, as ecstatic utilities, dim in the practical tedium & ferocious love familiar to parents (& readers of contemporary poetry. Ha Ha.) Demystification? The keening of precarity, heard this year without adrenaline, & gifted by the baby? That’s on me. My old Libra scale & its measure needs to be discarded & replaced by something larger. Beyond the valley of sweet & severe. No big deal. The years ahead are promises, still.
& Wait! This is merely my tiny psychic life, wee raindrop in the super storm, penny in Blue Ivy’s trust. By which I mean, my god, I don’t want to sound hopeless (that’s for suckers) or cynical (“Cynicism is the playground of the middle class” as I was recently reminded by Amiri Baraka by way of Keith Tuma’s great new book On Leave.) Those fires out there & in here have a meaning. I wanted more to share the way in which the limits of a year & the limits my thought are intertwined.
In my mind’s eye I keep seeing Radio Raheem. He’s making the church & the steeple of the world by folding the tent of his polarized hands. Prayer. But not shy of the fight. Happy New Year in there! Here are some of the songs that shaped my time.
2012 was, as all years now are, a great year for pop songs on earth. I’ll gloss over a few of them here before moving on to some older songs that had special meaning for me these last months.
Two summer suns: one of blockbuster fiat, the other induced through viral magic.
Niki’s “Starships” showed up feeling good about its chances. Ready to own the whole season.
Then, arm & arm with Justin Bieber “Call Me Maybe” sauntered out of Claire’s, left the mall, & like a bacillus in a sealed Cabriolet, infected the globe when JB dropped the top, & Carly Rae became our summer Lenin. (Are Cabriolet’s still a thing?)
For real though you don’t know badly I wanted to pull off that sentence above once it occurred to me to do so. & I did it. I feel happy about it you know?
But not nearly as happy as people felt about that Cary Rae song: exhilarating joy of those videos, that common exuberance, everyone singing it for everyone else, as if to suffuse the whole universe with that. No dour equivocation, no resistance, just transcendent liberty arrived at by way of frivolity’s disguise.
There’s so much to say about why it’s so great, like how awesomely dialectical it is that a syncopated song takes its subject to be the heart skipping a beat, the dazzled slightly incoherent lyrics, their nod to summer’s savory & sweet (“hot night/wind was blowing”), love at first sight all winsome anxious & courageous, the world-making light a new crush shines down on you, an actual sun above the beach. Literal then, when she sings, “it’s hard to look right/at you BAY-by.”
I’m listening to it now & I can feel all that again. I fell for it in April, by September we were (without acrimony) “over”, (or, “we needed a break”), but now, after a few months apart, the gooseflesh starts pimpling my arms & this smh smile takes over my face, expressing disbelief that such transport found art & resilience enough for its truth.
This is not to give short shrift to our other polestar, Niki Minaj’s “Starships.”
Awesome the way it consolidates, distills, becomes crystalline, its swag & transparency one. Through it you can see the beams of integrated marketing bouncing phone to phone, feel, in its gemstone, a great army massing, interstellar Escalades hovering above Ocean City, dropping bottles of Bud Light on the bathers.
Just like those leaflets that flurry before the bomb drops. Then boom, it fucking hits, as radioactive on a mid-day walk for me as it is for peak hour at Karma.
Some people seem bothered by this but I like Niki’s thing of being, on the one hand, one of the most ferocious MC’s out there, & on the other, a totally canny pop operator, suggesting some synthesis that’s always just over the horizon. It gives you something to look forward to.
“Fuck who you want & fuck who you like.” ”Fuck your boutique sensibilities” she means. “I’ve got everything you need right here!” She’s being generous I think, amplifying the songs grand designs on the summer. Why be coy? “It ain’t trickin’ if you got it.” Nothing’s missing from this song. Whatever’s not there at first blush will come out over time through refraction.
In summer the sunset is so deeply pink because Niki’s pulling the strings.
Or, sometimes they’re orange. They’re Frank Ocean.
The whole miracle of Frank Ocean this year. As it was with Christ so it is with Frank. We need apostles & some time to put a testament together. I don’t have the space for that here.
Quickly though, an anecdote: Paul & I were at Kinko’s printing some books. One of us started humming “Thinkin Bout You.”
Moments later we heard someone whistling the tune, grinned at each other, then searched the store for the source of our echo. For what seemed like an inordinately long amount of time we couldn’t find the person who was whistling. The longer it went the giddier we got, “where the fuck is that coming from?!” looking harder finding only workers bent to reproduction. We finally gave up, & the whistling died. We were kind of deflated. Later, we heard it again, & there she was, smiling, emerging from behind the counter whistling the cascading verse as wordless birdsong. We were redeemed.
Back to our thing, the two suns above our Tatooine, & now some small moons in the orbit of those bodies.
The manic thunder of French Montana’s “Pop That.” Drake’s great there, nice to see him find a way to do work on a Rick Ross sized record. His melodic suavity can drown in those sometimes.
Memory of Sarah laughing in perplexity over the name French Montana, of she & I negotiating the middling waters of Demi’s “Don’t’ Want To Break Your Heart,” never loving it or hating it exactly. Memory of singing “Titanium” together. Memory of her turning me on to some overlooked pleasures: “Hurt Me Tomorrow” by K’naan. Memory of my basic feeling for her– “god I fucking love this person.” Unmarried, we renew our vows in pop.
That Gotye song was a knife. Slinky & minimal. A balm for the maximalism du jour.
It felt tragic though. Eye-for-an-eye. Intimacy really a conspiracy theory; we’ve been lying to ourselves, & to each other, all this time.
Pink’s “Blow Me (One Last Kiss)” was part of a bouquet of songs that jacked up prestige rock for its best bits, vacuuming out the false pretense of difference. It took the groove from “Float On” & expanded it out to meet romantic liberation for the weekend & for good. She fucking killed this on an otherwise lackluster VMA’s. (Except, once again, Frank Ocean)
Sometimes it’s just like “thank GOD for Pink.” Don’t sleep either because when she’s through that body of work is going to be an ageless compendium of what’s possible in pop, & how to get it done, like Bernadette Mayer’s list of poetry experiments.
Again, on the prestige rock jack move side of things, Fun. (Jesus that period. C’mon guys.) did something novel by soldering this dorky sounding Don McLean verse to the best Arcade Fire song ever. Can you imagine the charge you’d have gotten from that record when you were fourteen? Long term I’m unsure about the fate of its heroics. Graduation party canon? Or something less. A spring fling.
Finally on this line of thought there was “Everybody Talks” by Neon Trees.
Shameless faux-Strokes slapstick, the vocal especially delirious, downtown cool burlesqued, truth achieved by embodying the now hyper-parodic. This phenomenon finds its perfect theory at the end of Lisa Robertson’s The Cabins. You can read that here.
Why do I take such pleasure in seeing these moves carried off with more craft & abandon in the big tent? As predictable & old as all outside. Chris Nealon writes:
“but my dream of a renewed culture is not one where
Joni Mitchell smacks down Belinda Carlisle
It’s more like, she takes her hand
Like she says, Belinda lay down your cares.”
Best then, despite my inversion, not to reproduce the snobbery Chris undoes so warmly. Chris’s meaning of course is much larger. One day to say to everyone “lay down your cares.” One day to have a way to really mean it.
Ok then what else? Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Getting Back Together” making all these circles so as to draw them out & break them. Diggy’s “Do You Like It,” a sugar rush from April. That song marked the end of the winter for me. Elle Goulding’s “Lights” some kind of suicide thing? Following fireflies into the afterlife? I never quite figured it out.
Can’t even begin to fuck with “Gangnam Style.” Too much content & complexity in that to open here.
Kanye’s “Way Too Cold” still one of, if not the, top hip-hop song for me.
The first day I heard it I wrote: “A record as mean as Bob Gibson, as hard as Grace Jones, cold as Nico & sleeker than yr phone transformed into a whip that bangs en route heaven & glows like LCD in the daylight (a great pleasure). Good luck 2012. Here’s yr Everest. “Fuck around & get embarrassed” for real.” I was drunk as shit when I wrote that. Maybe not Everest exactly in November. Mt. Rainer.
Also Kanye & GOOD Music’s “Mercy,” reaching mid-summer saturation point, choral blaring from car’s through a long daylight saving’s time twilight.
Another nihilist nursery rhyme from Ke$ha,“Die Young.” All the YOLO nights in all the YOLO songs becoming one night as they aspire & fulfill their singularity ambitions. Last call. Thinking how, way back, when Jay’s “Do It Again” came out, who knew its refrain (“12 am on the way to the club” etc.) would be the nightlife party clock until we’ve made new times.
Adele’s “Skyfall” dressed in up in 20th century glamour.
The sound is old Hollywood. The lyrics disturbingly prompt. This is no mere coincidence. But first–little couplets on money & subject formation (“I know I’d never be me/without this security”) about the internet (“where you go I go/what you see I see”). This song is the 20th century as prophet, come back from the dead to say “I told you so,” grand & ominous as ever. Meaning, we knew back then what was coming, meaning the whole song is about environmental disaster, meaning locally, Hurricane Sandy, meaning broadly, ecological apocalypse unfolding—“Skyfall is where we start/a thousand miles & poles apart/where worlds collide & days are dark.”The song makes a pass at solidarity as logic of redemption, or the lyrics do something like that. Adele’s vocal & the strings say something else.
So then things from other years, that shaped this one for me, things returned through good luck (radio still so magical for this), or resurrected like cicadas, after many years away, through the virtues of a deeper integration. Also, those things I had yet to discover, “new to me” & out of time, changing what I thought I’d known before.
Thinking over, & remembering, “Just Like Heaven“’s children. “Freak Scene,” Lois Maffeo’s “Valentine” performed by Small Factory, the version I remember best. No nostalgia in this, but instead a family tree, it’s silhouette branching to picture the best years of Robert Smith’s hair. I bet he kept mascara & a notebook in there. Maybe, in the day, a pack of tweets. Even this last generation’s Cure revival stuff doesn’t do him justice. He’s a no-shit great artist. Check out some interviews with him on YouTube. An insightful, intelligent person.
Finding this other Carly Rae Jepsen song “Tug of War.” Though just a few years old it sounds late 90’s, a belated background thing that could have been played during some poignant moment at the Bronze.
Going back to “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” for its general excellence but mainly that sequence where he says ‘bath?’ with startled desire & moans, exasperated by temptation. Then the compromise/punch line: “Cool. But I’m leaving my pants on.” The funny charm bracelet of words on its wrist—‘fruit cocktail’, ‘Joni Mitchell’, ‘affliction’, ‘bubble bath, ‘going with someone’. That last phrase, demure & young, made tonally true by the effervescence guiding what is an ‘adult’ infidelity caper. But that’s the fucking genius of, well, see below.
Memory of Paul & I getting drunk & deciding that Prince still convincingly ultimates history. Memory of he & I getting drunker still. Making ever larger claims for Prince. Ontological hubris. Prince proofs out the soul. Prince is the plane of our soul’s aspiration. Prince is the always-already of heaven. Memory of the next day’s hangover. No recollection of discursive lines that led from point to point. A vague sense though of having ‘figured everything out.’ It seems like a joke, & yet the conversation haunts me.
Getting heavily into Freeway’s “What We Do” again. Peak era Roc-a-Fella record from when everything was coming so easily to them. Jay finding spectacular homophones in slang & dialect “Bullets breeze by you like you in Tiana-mane/cause I gotta feed Teana, mane.” That old Roc Nation Econ 101. The year when I really only listened to this crew. What year was that? Then it starts. The endless walk through one’s personal monument park. Preserve preserve preserve! Destroy destroy.
This song “Sun” from a Nick Jr. show that Viv loves, Bubble Guppies. The tune’s a psych pop knock off that, at the very least, matches any 60’s genre-exercise act that’s supposed to be hot. Bests them if you ask me. One can learn the basics of the solar system here, no drippy poetry: “Neptune’s cold / Mercury’s hot / but Earth is just right.” Or it used to be. Dude from Fountains of Wayne writes the music for the show, & several of his pieces are terrific. Remember “Stacy’s Mom?”
& Now that I see that I’ve typed “Remember Stacy’s Mom” I’m feeling like, wow, this is getting kind of long. I’m not sure I’ll soon find a more natural limit so I’m thinking I’ll… pauses, flips through stack of poems, deliberates between self-indulgence & brevity… two, no, three…I’ll read three more.
First, one more thing from 2012.
Setting up a gig for Franklin Bruno’s Human Hearts. I get some promo stuff, a link to their new record over email. Franklin’s song writing talents are refined & really moving. One piece, “Cheap Sunglasses” draws me in first with its melody & shuffle. Franklin’s vocal is great. Is he giving us some Morrissey here? The lyrics, precise, draw me in further. I listen to it seemingly hundreds of times.
The lyrics describe a person whose relation to their drug-store shades & friends are the same, both are treated with a cold disregard:
Now you think you’re in some movie
you’re deflecting UV rays
but you really need protection
from the penetrating gaze
of the lovers you’ve abandoned
& the friends that you’ve abused
like a pair of cheap sunglasses
that you don’t care if you lose.
I too love cheap sunglasses. Profligately cop them down at Target. So I process the metaphor in personal ways–What if I love my cheap sunglasses truly? Try desperately, fervently never to lose them. Still the dearest pair gets lost. I didn’t mean for that to happen! How could I have been so careless? What if, knowing their fragility, I take good care of them, the best care I can take, & still no matter what I do they fall apart. What then?
It’s unbearably bright this afternoon.
Penultimate song, the name of which I’ll get to in a bit.
First, downtown Oakland. On Telegraph. Wow what a street! I’d never had the chance to walk there before. The mountains & the movie marquee. The little split river thing with Broadway. After breakfast feeling good. Sunglasses on. Going to take the 12th St. BART across the Bay to SFMOMA. Kevin’s invited me to see his play rehearsed. Julian’s going too & we’re to meet in San Francisco. A happy day.
On my way down the station stairwell I get mugged. What to say about a mugging? It’s entirely ordinary. Nothing special about the form of it that happened to me. Scary & a little traumatic? Of course. Did it suck? Hell yeah. Who wants to get robbed? But taking by force is the operating software of the world. Our situation is entirely clear.
Right. On my way down the BART stairwell. A voice from behind me—
“Hey man! Hey! They said you’re up here trying to start shit with people, up here harassing people, trying to start fights.”
I freeze in confusion, having spoken to no one all morning, say to him “What?! No man!” Feeling slightly stunned by this I stop.
In the moment I’ve paused he’s moved on down the stairs. He’s in front of me, blocking my way. Takes his forearm & pins me to the wall & the rail. Says, “What do you got?”
Not sure what I say exactly then. Tell him I’ve got money. Take out my wallet. Weirdly for me it’s full of cash. Sold some books in Portland, & the poets there thoughtfully raised some funds to help me with my trip. He takes that. I get the wallet back.
Then he says “Gimme your phone.”
Now I’m genuinely panicked. All the phone numbers, maps (I have a cripplingly poor sense of direction), notes to poems. I don’t care about ‘the phone’ as such but I feel terrified of losing what it holds.
I start pleading with extravagant weakness to retain my baby monolith the ghost world of which is so crowded, the living & the dead, the global city’s endless concourse & I’m begging for it, begging for my Foxconn Horcrux as if he had threatened to rip out my heart.
I’m convincing I guess. He lets me keep it.
“Don’t call the police,” he says. The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. I just want to get across the Bay, meet Julian, & go see Kevin’s play.
Then he says, strangely “Hey I heard you were sex-o, bro.”
Heart-racing, dumbfounded by this weird remark I’m like “What man?! No no. No man.”
I have no clue what the fuck this means. Sex-o?
Him again-“You sure?”
Me—“Yes! Yeah man!”
& then finally, “All right. See you later.”
He gives me a fist bump, & races up the stairs.
On jelly legs now, down the stair well. Fumble at the ticket machine. Down to the platforms where I look at my phone. Does it help me make my way across the Bay? Yes & no. I don’t see the fine Millbrae print in my directions, & board a Bay Point/Pittsburg train that goes the other way.
Finally seated then thinking only of the mugging. Not paying attention to anything else. Thinking of CA Conrad’s “Mugged Into Poetry.” Will I get a good poem from this? Thinking what in the fucking world is a Sex-o?! Thinking maybe a contraction for Sex Bozo? A Sex Clown? Do I look like a sex clown somehow? What would that be? Thinking of how effective his strategy was. Confusing me & getting me to stop by way of these bizarre accusations. Sophisticated thinking. Worked pretty well on me! Still trembling some but calming. Realizing I’ve been on the train for a while. We haven’t crossed the Bay. Hearing the conductor say “next stop Lafayette.” Checking the wall map & seeing I’m fucked.
I get off & text Julian I may be late. Xe calls me & I tell the story for the first of many times. Dodie notices later that the details aren’t stable from telling to telling. & she’s right. It seems very New Narrative somehow! In an emergency, what one thought or meant to say & what was really said become confused. One’s later narration is distorted by the desperate mind where thought & wish & speech have lost distinction. The residual keep of it is glitchy.
Maybe in that way like poetry too in a time of surveillance & crisis.
Off the wrong train. Standing in…Rockridge? No, something else, Bay Area friends please correct this. All around me California sunshine. I find this silver rectangular pillar to hide behind & smoke. Don’t want to be seen defiling the pristine BART platform. This thing I’m hiding behind reminds me of the transformers that blew up in lower Manhattan a few days before. Aurora Borealis blue. Eruptive camera flashes that produced instead of modified the dark. I do have my sunglasses on. To my… left? (poor sense of direction again) a graveyard on a hill. Plain crosses in the grass. I board the train that goes to San Francisco.
I meet Julian whose sympathy helps. Meet our friends at the museum. Everyone taking exceptional care, being sweet to me after the mugging. Go to Kevin’s play. What better relief from my dumb troubles than a masterpiece by Kevin. Bohemian glamour & wit & intelligence. This particular piece is a revival. It concerns Jay De Feo, her epochal work ‘The Rose.’ She has a retrospective up at the museum. I even get to join in the rehearsal. I play Bob Kaufman standing in for someone else.
The play concludes with the entire cast singing Bette Middler’s “The Rose”:
It’s the heart, afraid of breaking
That never learns to dance
It’s the dream, afraid of waking
That never takes a chance
It’s the one who won’t be taken
Who never seems to give
And the soul afraid of dying
That never seems to live
In that Kumbya moment I was thoroughly recalled. Pop lined my cloud with its conciliatory stuff. Not silver this time but urgent red. While singing that beautiful song on that stage with so many friends I remembered how to live that afternoon.
“The Rose” itself provides a map.
Of course I’ll forget & then I’ll have to learn again. I am, perhaps, forgetting even now.
A Saturday. High autumn. Long week of only child care & writing. Nice nights with Sarah. A good week though I’m pointlessly restless. Can’t believe how vanilla I feel. As if I wasn’t always. So this disbelief is new life achieved through something understood earlier, but poorly.
What did I think my prior more prolific nightlife had made me? Pasolini? I’ve always lived just six miles from where I was born, see my mother weekly, am monogamous & generally happy.
I spend the morning up-talking wonder (feigned) for Vivian, surveying a duck pond & counting their number, blowing dandelions, cooking chicken nuggets, watching butterflies drink & singing things by Brain Wilson for her while leaves shower through the patchwork sun & shade. Pacified, I play some Michel Buble in my headphones & chain smoke while she naps.
So yeah, the last song. This Michel Buble tune I heard one day on the easy listening station. “Haven’t Met You Yet.”
While he lacks the sexual ferocity of a Harry Connick Jr. or the spangly charisma of a Manilow, Buble has a fine set of Wonder Bread pipes, & I was feeling that last Christmas record he did.
The song of his that I’ve been listening to is different. Piano marches along, piccolo trumpet dances by. It’s a Beatles pastiche. It wants to be “Penny Lane.” & it is. In the same way that, you know, Barack Obama is a communist.
Why do I love this song so much? Listened to it as much as anything this year. The lyrics, eh, you could do a kind of Berlant trip on them if you wanted to I guess. It’s an optimistic record, promising the world to an as yet unknown beloved. Rom-com montage stuff. Before the meet-cute.
The production is a mess. Red lined muddy gloss. George Martin would’ve thrown up on the board at Abbey Road. I understand why I might like it a little, as a lark. But I LOVE it, pour it into my system each day like a drug to which I won’t develop any tolerance something lights up in me finally, what? I keep begging my affection to give up its secret discourse. No substantiating argument’s forthcoming.
Each year in music is a cabinet of wonders. When I peer in the one whose open doors read 2012 & find this Buble song I’m surprised. Not from shame or from an edgelesness emerging in my taste. I’ve loved pop & easy listening all my life. It’s a mystery to me. I simply do not know how it got in there.
“It’s just a good song,” I’ll declaim with a shrug that means to say “you make that work that has been given you to make.”
Madrid & Athens burned that day, the way love goes through substance, so as to consummate its character until there’s nothing left of the forms that meant to render it impossible.
Pasolini really loved his mother too, & she him. Eileen Myles says somewhere that love had kept him brave. Maybe gave him what he needed for Salo.
Late afternoon I’m staying in. Drink three beers with Sarah. Our two suns have set & then its night on Tatooine, where, no matter how embarrassing, it seems I started out. I look down at my hand & see I’ve written “STORE” in blue ink to remember—the songs & the stories find their kindling when you get here.
From “Things the Baby Likes (A-Z)”
Tell-Tale Heart Apparel from the Techno-Gothic Future: In the chest of new cadavers the heart beats a little while longer, alarming the nanobots that swirl about its chambers. They fly from the mouth of the recently deceased & set to work on the body, gathering hair, flakes of skin, & bits of organ which they weave mid-air into a garment of runway-ready fashion, always the most advanced thing, far ahead of next season, & of this they make a gift to the bereaved. Once this process is complete, the beating heart affirms its peace by playing Derrick May’s “Strings of Life” as it slowly decomposes, filling graveyards with the giddy insistence that oblivion is just like champagne.
Ulrike Meinhof: An eighth-generation clone of Ulrike Meinhof with deep Luxemburgian modifications is traveling in a bioluminescent submarine flanked by a battalion of mermaids. The umpteenth quasar blast from the Government of Souls explodes against the armor of the vessel, which spills blood, pitches wildly, & yet, because it is a ship of endurance, like disease, it refuses to succumb. Benji the cyborg submarine captain, raises his shirt revealing a tramp stamp as grand as a basilica ceiling, glowing & morphing with cartoons & graffiti, lifting the war-weary spirits of all the brave beings on the ship.
Unlivable conditions: As if they were the astronaut in 2001 heading right for the heart of the monolith Ulrike & her crew travel on beneath the Perignon-bright sea, & could hear Derrick May’s “Strings of Life” at every moment, for it was the very ocean through which they were moving. Life & non-life had collapsed into each other, which touched off a wild celebration on their boat. They could feel the truth of that collapse when they kissed.
Underwater castles: They kissed & sailed like that forever. The Government of Souls had been destroyed. They passed submerged castles & gated communities rotting away in the light.
Dana Ward is the author of This Can’t Be Life (Edge Books). Two books are coming out in 2013—The Crisis of Infinite Worlds (Futurepoem) & Some Other Deaths of Bas Jan Ader (Flowers & Cream). He runs the Cy Press Poetry @ Thunder Sky reading series, & co-edits Perfect Lovers Press with Paul Coors. He lives in Cincinnati.
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