John Francis Istel

Leaves of Words

My stoop descends to a Brooklyn sidewalk.
I commute through a carnage of trash cans.
Sanitation scattered them hollowed be they.
It’s September and summer leaves in a hurry.
Gingko trees last night walked off and wed.
Now shed and fumble and spill bulbs and stink.

Smacked flat to pavement lie torn pages.
Leaves from a wet Webster’s dictionary.
Leaves white-veined and bus-exhaust black.
Leaves slacked and damp turning back to paste.

Oh, where do the words go. Words stuck in our throats, words
turned to grass. Words not street swept nor yet forgot.

My F train sighs high over 9th street.
Steel cranes toothpick city’s cocktail.
Bobbing dipping up the morning.
They drink their drink from skeletal towers.

Sunlight jumps up stretches and starts to jog.
Shimmies Pathmark’s parking lampposts.
White concrete cupcakes needled by gray poles.
Shadows spread dark in half-moons around.

My subway car enters its last tunnel.
Shadows go feral bare teeth and bark.


Author’s Statement On Beauty

Beauty, like many Western concepts and ideals, has a built-in binary that I often find myself resisting. Similarly to right/wrong or good/evil, “beauty” and “ugliness” divide the world into impossible categories filled with the worst of humanity’s predilection to judgementwith the real world spattered between. If the role of art is to help humanity see the world in new ways then that reader’s or listener’s or viewer’s recognition, their encounter of art as reality-made-new is beauty made manifest; it lies not in the object that inspired the reaction. I feel Walt Whitman sensed humans in the dawn of the Scientific Age felt compelled to similarly divide and conquer and he refused to go along. Living was beauty defacto, by definition. Somehow it seems right he spent time snapping photos during the Civil War, a literal symbol of the rending that reality endures when subjected to binaries.

Recently, I’ve seen TV ads for a Star Shower Motion laser that promises hassle free holiday lights to beautify your house. Beauty for $49.99. Of course, it’s a kitschy beauty, but one person’s kitsch… It’s also exactly right: a spectral array of light has no boundaries.

The best recent dissection of Beauty I’ve encountered is the film American Beauty. It features dueling images of beauty: rose petals scattered over the body of a naked nubile blond female teen versus a white plastic bag swirling around and around over a wet, windy sidewalk on a video made by an obsessive teenage boy.

My poem “Leaves of Words” is a homage to urban beauty, to the unexpected and spectral, the extravagance of the everyday. It’s also a nod to the president of our Brooklyn poetry past, Walt Whitman, who should have the last words (emphasis added):

“All beauty comes from beautiful blood and a beautiful brain. If the greatnesses are in conjunction in a man or woman it is enough…the fact will prevail through the universe…but the gaggery and gilt of a million years will not prevail. Who troubles himself about his ornaments or fluency is lost. This is what you shall so: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency … “


John Francis Istel has written about the arts for The Atlantic, Elle, The Village Voice, Mother Jones, and elsewhere. His poetry has appeared in New Letters, Off the Coast, Up the Staircase, and his stories have been read in Weave, WordRiot, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Brooklyn Free Press, Rappahannock Review and Soundings Review. He earned an MFA from New York University, where he also taught; lives in Brooklyn, where he curates The Word Cabaret, a reading series in Red Hook; and teaches on Manhattan’s Lower East Side at New Design High School.