About the Feature

The Interpreter

Photo by Pierre Jarry



Often, he stands behind me, slightly to the left,
Like a waiter in a jacket and tie: if I drop my napkin,
He retrieves it, drapes it over my chair.
He takes away my soup plate, brings the cheese. But on this day,
The interpreter of my thoughts brought
Something strange,
To which I was unaccustomed; he translated it
Into English for me. I’d ordered
Linguini tossed with tomato, penne with ham.
At lunchtime you could do that:
Half and half, you’d say,
And some days there’d be risotto, some days
Tortellini—I took my seat
Beside the window, leaned my book
Against a bottle of wine,
And though I’d taken
Only a few bites, the room
Suddenly was empty: no one
Was waiting for a check. Neither was anyone
Impatient to take my place. Tables
Had been set for dinner, silverware, napkins—outside,
The wind was silent.
Only when it met something
Other than itself, sand, the branches
Of a sycamore—


Some people hid themselves where they ate delicate food and drank fine wine, always in moderation.

Others retreated to the countryside; they carried flowers, scented herbs, or a collection of spices.

Cows, sheep, and pigs were driven into the fields, where the wheat was left unreaped.

Houses stood empty, fortunes languished!

Without thinking, often without effort or connivance, people took what had been left behind and made something.

3. Song of Ideas

Right above our heads
New stars are born.
New words occur
To us, whole poems.

What’s a dipper? It’s
A kind of spoon.
Above our heads
New stars are born.

Why live by day? In a blaze
Of sunlight everything
Above us fades.
I’ll show you stars
Above your head.

4. Song of the Wind

Another word for the interpreter,
Sang the wind, ensuring I was fed,
Is medium, the intermediate
Who speaks among the living for the dead.


I was reading Boccaccio. A new virus was discovered in Wuhan: within weeks, an emergency was declared by the World Health Organization.

Boccaccio wrote what Latin became in Florence. I’m writing in French and German. French: discover, emergency. German: new, weeks.

Keep your balance while putting your right foot in front of your left.

I never thought I’d see this moment in my lifetime, says a woman after the state legislature votes to change the Mississippi flag, removing the symbol of the Confederacy.


The person I was at the beginning
Found himself at a frontier
Drawn to be erased, established elsewhere.
There it is, no, there.
Remember eating in a restaurant? I remember often he stands,
I remember behind my bottle of wine
A window, its coincidence
Of the Gothic and the Moorish, the lattice-work—
I abandoned that restaurant quickly,
As if running away.
But I remember
The window as I might remember a person
Seen casually in a café:
He might have lived
Near us. He might have felt
A degree of friendship.
Did this happen in a foreign city?
Did this happen at all? When I saw
The window many years later, I wept
Because it seemed to say
I remember your parents.
This happened quickly.
Then it took time to write it down.

About the Author

James Longenbach’s sixth book of poems, Forever, was published by W. W. Norton last June.