By Way of the Throat by Cameron Quan Louie

8 mins read

The poems I prefer to read are by writers who have been dead for at least fifty years. The poems remain venomous, but the writers don’t care if you put them in a tank and feed them mice, or sever their heads with a shovel and cure their bodies in tequila.

The poems I prefer to read are salted and sealed in plastic and sold for $1.99.

The poems I prefer to read do not build to sense, but out of it.


The most frightening and beautiful clothing anywhere in the world must be the bird skin shirts of the Yup’ik. Annie Dillard writes about how the Yup’ik people thread a caribou tendon through the beak of a single bird and fly it like a kite. This kite-bird attracts others, which are netted and skinned and woven together into a parka. The word “parka,” from the Nenet language, means “animal skin.”

The poems I prefer to read are neither the living birds nor the finished parka, but the perfect sinew of the caribou, pulled out from the spine and legs and wound through the solid beaks of confused birds.


The poems I prefer to read are sorry.

They are sorry for imagining the deaths of birds and they are sorry for doing nothing but being poems. They are sorry for eating out instead of cooking leek fritters, and they are urgently sorry for ceaselessly wanting more sex, though they make do just as well without. Poems are all urgent, and the most urgent poems are all apologies.


The poems I prefer to read are exactly like the driptorches of wildland firefighters. One holds the torch above dry grass to let the fire out, and in so doing, keeps the fire in. That the fire is both a fire and a liquid is not the point.

The poems I prefer to read are engraved into a golden disc, then chucked out into space past the edge of the solar system for no one to hear. That no one hears them is not the point.


The poems I prefer to read are minimum essential coverage. They plan for nothing less than catastrophe. They should always be free. They are, themselves, catastrophic. They take measures not to avoid catastrophe, but to plan for its inevitability. They are hard to explain. That taking measures against something inevitable should always be free is precisely the point.


Once, carried away in the making of a new hiking trail in Colorado, I hacked and hacked at a thick root with a mattock until it was nothing but wet thread, pulped white in a shallow hole. When someone told me that the trail was no longer going to pass through my root but around it, the thought occurred to me that perhaps I had killed an entire tree for nothing less than the pleasure of hacking at a root.

The poems I prefer to read contain a darling or two that have been spared.


Must there always be a rule? Is it symmetry? Beauty? The poems I prefer to read create the rule only with the intention of giving it up as soon as it begins to feel sure and true and sensible.

The poems I prefer to read are a meander. A sinew of water winds toward and away from itself, eventually into a paradox of straightening. The name for what is left aside is oxbow. And so it yokes the poem to its wandering.


The poems I prefer to read are cow knuckles and blood, ground into the dirt floor and covered with mint.

Take a deep breath and see if you cannot still smell the knuckles and blood over the mint. Would you call this incense?


The poems I prefer to read have endings that are so predictable you can encounter them in exactly the same way that you encounter your own naked body in a bedroom mirror as you change your underwear.


The poems I prefer to read are stretched out on a Catherine wheel. They must survive for days after being broken, and they must reckon with the terrible logic of the spectacle.


The poems I prefer to read are all suspended in water. Dead poets are the whales around which each of us must paddle our little boats or be splintered by a sudden breach.

Where does poetry come from? One of the largest dead whales says (you already know):

the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE

the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE


Whales have long backbones and ribs the size of a small garage. They have no bones in their tales.

For a moment, imagine what it would be like to have no bones in your feet. The poems I prefer to read are like those feet, bent disastrously under the weight of your body as you reach out for a rail, a table, a chair. The person beside you.


A whale’s heart is 640 times larger than a human’s. Whales receive sound through the throat—the throat, from which it passes to the ear. A whale’s lungs can hold 5,000 liters of air.

Imagine the syllable. Imagine the line.


The ECHO, by way of the THROAT, to the EAR.

Have you been paying attention to your breath? Why would you, your body does the breathing on its own. Whales, on the other hand, must always breathe consciously. For this reason, a whale can never fully fall asleep, resting only one side of its brain at a time.

The poems I prefer to read are what the whale hears in its throat while it is half asleep.

CAMERON QUAN LOUIE is from Tucson. He received his MFA from the University of Washington. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and he received the McLeod-Grobe Prize for Poetry in 2017. He has interned at Wave Books and was a Multiplying Mediums Fellow in 2016. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Inter|rupture, Duende, The Gravity of the Thing, Sonora Review, Hobart, The Spectacle, and jubilat among others. You can find him at