These poems are a selection from Sam Taylor’s Nude Descending an Empire featured in this issue.

An interview with Sam Taylor in this issue.

Sam Taylor’s Nude Descending an Empire from University of Pittsburgh Press


Sam Taylor’s poetry in a previous issue.

Sam Taylor’s website


“Infernal” at The New Republic

“Jataka Tales” at Agni

“The Book of Endings” at Poetry Daily

“The Book of Revelation” at Verse Daily

Three poems at Pank


Contributor Notes

Sam Taylor

Sam Taylor

Sam Taylor - Nude Descending an Empire

The Book of Poetry



A friend, in Thailand, helping to build straw bale homes

was riding with four Buddhist monks on the back of a truck

piled high with musky bales. “I love water buffaloes,” she burst out

in broken Thai.  The monks laughed.  I guess that is

a strange thing to say, she thought, but insisted.

“No, really, I really love them,” trying to unfurl herself

clearly, practicing the Zen Garden of making conversation

with only a few words.  “They are so beautiful, so strong.

Don’t you love them?”  But the monks just kept laughing.


Every traveler in Southeast Asia has her own story

of tonal confusion: the same syllable spoken different ways

becomes four, six, seven words.  In China, Ma

means mother, but also hemp, horse, scold—depending if

it is flat, rising, dipping, or falling.  Sometimes context helps,

as when ordering food:  No one is likely to confuse

“I want to eat” with “I demand an ugly woman,”

unless one is dining in a brothel, and even then “I want eggplant”

though mistoned “whirlpool shake concubine twins”

is likely to produce only strips of sauce-smeared nightshade.


Everyone in China wants to know what you do.

It’s not easy, even in English, for a poet to say that.

When they asked, I said first, “I write,” wo xie,

or sometimes, after I had learned the word, “I am a poet.” 

Wo shi shi ren.  Often, I was met by puzzlement,

strained foreheads, awkward laughter, Chinese people

glancing at each other for cues, uncertain how to react.

Not so different really from the response in America.

“A poet” I’d repeat. Wo shi shiren.  Then,

“I write poetry,” trying to make the most

of my minuscule vocabulary.  “I write books of poetry.” 


Wo shi shi ren: literally, I am a poetry person.

Wo means I; ren means person, or man.

Near the end of my travels, someone told me

shi—which is pronounced “sure” and means poetry

in the high flat tone, as well as the verb “to be”

in the falling tone—also means shit

in yet another tone.  So, all along I must have been saying 

I am a shit man.  I write shit.  And repeating it. 

A shit person.  I write books of shit.  Understand?


To be—poetry—shit.  Something fitting in how these words

were assigned the same syllable, the same address.

Later, looking the word up, I discovered for each tone, shi

was ten or twenty words, a whole apartment complex

sharing one mailbox.  Corpse, loss, world, history, time, stone,

life, to begin, to be, to die, to fail, to be addicted to,

rough silk, persimmons, raincoats, swine, long-tailed marmot,

clear water—all crowded into the same syllable—sure,

sure, sure.  It was also coincidentally the word for yes.

So, perhaps I had said something else entirely

I thought of all the combinations I might have said.


I am a shit person.  I write life. 

I am a death person.  I write being.  I shit history man.


I history being person.  I write time.  I write books of failure,

books of corpses, books of loss, books of yes.


I am a being person. I write to be. 

I am addicted to being a man.


I write books of shit, books of clear water.

I am a poet.


It seemed all the world could, even should, have one word

for everything—table scales, taxis, bicycles, stones, cities,  

time and history and death and life.  It was all shit.

It was all poetry.  As for my friend, she found out later

water buffalo was a variation of the word for penis.

So, “I love penises” she had confided to the Buddhist monks,

the truck jostling, the potholes throwing her knees

against theirs. “I really love penises,” she had insisted,

looking into their celibate eyes.   “Penises are

so beautiful, so strong.   Don’t you love them?”


Since the syllable for monk is also the syllable

of my name on fire in a world of loss, I will answer.  Sure,

I love penises and water buffalo and the smell

of wet hay, and vaginas and sautéed eggplant and concubine twins,

and I want to tell the Buddhist monks, and the Chinese bureaucrats,

and the official from Homeland Security

who stopped me in customs to search my computer, and my mother

the Szechwan horse: I am a shit man writing books of stone

and the clear water has failed, but I am addicted

writing yes in a city of corpses and swine and persimmons,

here at the end of history, now at the beginning of time.





Be worried.  Be very worried.

says the cover of Time Magazine

but the next month it says

The Truth about Soccer Moms

and I hold my head like a beach ball

under my arm, ready for the next challenger. 

Because we are living in a disposable world

and I am a disposable word.

Also, mascara has nothing to do

with the destruction of Madagascar

my good hard working people.

My love I am swimming to you

through these yellow flags, nipple tassels,

and confetti, like a sperm on Red Bull

in the cross-hatch of anovulatory mucous

paddling toward the faint outline

of our son, in a shooting gallery

of the future. Given current conditions,

it’s probably best not to fertilize

for at least another 500 years. Meanwhile,

let us find new centers of feeling:

the grounded shrimp boat, the card catalog,

the man in the cement mixer, paused

at a crossing, talking on his cell phone

to the third daughter of his second marriage,

as a train passes bringing a half day’s mountain

of light to the city. At least it still looks

like a strawberry someone is playing

on a violin, to someone else stringing

windows on a necklace of

distance.  And am I doing anything

worth the mound of coal lighting my heart?

I am watching the snow fall

into the abyss, blanket the earth with blue dusk,

or on to my love’s tongue.  When morning comes,

grandeur rises from the crevasse of mist

only to exhaust itself trying to cross

these prairie towns.  Madagascar

has nothing to do with the scar on my heart

or with the destruction of Madagascar.





I have given up meaning, order, religion, but there are still constellations:

Your cunt.  Your cunt and the sun.  Your cunt and the sun and your face and the table. 


Your cunt and the moon and the sun and the street.

I travel these pathways again and again, Tuesday at noon and Thursday at dusk,


with a little song, a song and a jig, with laughter and sorrow.

I raise the cup to my arm raising the cup.  I raise the cup to your cup


and to the cup of snow and the chalice of earth in the hand

of a crippled God who cannot raise a cup.  Because he cannot,


I raise the cup to your arm raising the cup, and to the forest

of your arm showering its scents on an undeserving and hostile world.


I raise the cup to the impossibility of living—have you found it otherwise?—

and to the moral imperative of dying


and to shaving with a dull blade in the fountains of Madrid

and to the black sky that will cover us with pitchfuls of dirt


and to bouquets of frightened voices for sale in a clown’s hand

and to my baby sister awake in the night like a sculpture of milk.


I have given up meaning, but there are still constellations:

the cup and the cup and the cup and the cup


and the stars falling into a black mug that no one will drink,

and me falling into your body these hours appointed by no God


and the moon and the sun, and tomorrow, and your cunt, and today.

And not your cunt, but your face.  And not the moon, but this tear.


And not the street it carves, but a life.  And not a life, but a cunt

telling a story to the face of the dark.  Saying: Listen, come here.


And not on Thursday, but Today.  And not in the Spring, but the Summer.

Not the Summer, but the kitchen.  Not in the kitchen, but the warm bread. 


Not in the bread, but the fingers and the tongue.

Not in the tongue, but the song, in the elegy sung


And not the elegy, but each thing we did not know was loved. 

And not love, but two bodies in Winter.  And not the song, but the song.




Note:   The word “testimony” comes from the Latin root testes, which meant both “testicle” and “to bear witness.” Some etymologists explain that men once bore witness, or swore, with their hand upon their testicles. “Cunt” is a Middle English word of good stock that did not become the most taboo and obscene word in the English language until the eighteenth century. It was used, for example, by Chaucer. I align myself here with feminists who believe the vulgarity of the word reflects a violence toward women, the body, and sexuality and who seek to reclaim word and thing in a spirit of praise.






Cannot unfriend you.


Never post too often

every stupid thing

they are

doing cooking eating

every half hour.


When they post, they mean it.


They say things like:

Drifting through diagonal ice clouds.




How beautiful the horn of the Brooklyn park ferry

and the man in oversized black shirt and pants

on a sweltering day, running to catch the 5:35

to make the wake of a child he played flamenco for

in a hospital, which is his ordinary job, stopping short,

at a loss now, as the boat’s white wake pulls away.




Ten years now, even in purgatory,

like bending to pick up a penny

dropped in line at the bank.



When your friends join their ranks,

your own circle of friends

of friends expands

to encircle all the earth.