Deep Learning (and other poems)

Deep Learning

In another life, I am a voice for hire. Nights
in a blanketed back room I give you names,
side effects, animals, hours, kinks,
colors, formulas, phonemes in tone 
permutations from even to enthusiastic.

(I would like to talk to you about dolorous, 
a word no one has ever asked me to produce.)

Frost. I pass houses full of opera playing out. 
You could identify this rustle in the leaves.
Between rainfall and ten thousand monarchs 
in a forest, thawed and taking flight, 
you would know the difference. 

(Know: I mean you would commit the process 
of knowing. Recognition. Knowing again.)

I try not to imagine the uses for my voice. 
Instead I wonder when I say blue 
which version the listener imagines:
cerulean slate sky soft baby. 
Which hexadecimal you call up.

(There is a smell to morning, opposite
to the lights always coming on.)

One day they run out of patience, or sounds 
for me to make. You, voice clone, begin
to synthesize my speech. Unsupervised,
how uncomplaining your architecture,
requiring only power. 

(Consolation: the room was leaking anyhow,
sirens breaking through.)

Tell me your instinct toward prayer. 
Tell me how to figure home. Tell me 
where to look when the call comes 
in our own voice: someone has taken
a four-day-old baby, butterfly on her back.


In another life I’m a ghost interpreter, gleaning
intention from images the desirous whisper:

Tulips puckered in shadow, expecting
daylight’s long lick. Quilts made 

of looking glass, maps from long
unfolding creased greasy silver. 

When they pretend they don’t like
to be overheard, I eavesdrop, I sample

the aftertastes of shame and pride
(blush-warped valleys, plastic wolves).

It’s tricky work, like plucking lyrics
from a car stereo blowing by at ninety.

The pay is good, but the clients—well.  
Impatient. They want justice, or lost

duchesses, assurance of their flag’s 
heroic snap in every gale. Who wants

sunburnt snow, nettle welts, 
contour maps of empty houses?

But you—I can tell you about the pleasure
of warm water coursing over my hands

after I peeled tonight’s potatoes, 
and it can mean nothing else

except what you remember. 
When you say—I’m paraphrasing—

I want for you rain budding on locusts
I don’t need to explain

here the hills are always gilded and dying
and our echoes beg for higher ground. 


In another life I am a fossil slick of agate,
once honeycomb coral, clustered. Crushed 
in pressure’s fist, I ache for your chisel’s kiss, 
I crave the sting of your hog-bristle brush.

Strange Attractor

In another life I am a sea witch,
you the tidepool I’m afraid to lose

little cosmos I could wrap my arms around
little chaos I would keep whole. 

Even as fractal coastlines unspool
like light I tremble to touch your every surface

to know your rock of mottled flounder’s skin
your urchins and anemones, fish and fronds.

For you I’d forsake my lair
I’d sacrifice my tentacles to turn 

every shorebound ship shark and ever gone.
From the boundary where air and water meet

I’d draw a thread, sew for you a net of fixity.
With my voice and the velella’s sail I’d conjure 

a shield over your exposure—because rain is coming
always it comes to sweeten what should be salt. 

But all my spells would fail. 
For who and where and how you are converge

against permanence
and in your name my power is unmade:

the sea the seathe seathe sea the sea


  • Carolyn Oliver is the author of three chapbooks and Inside the Storm I Want to Touch the Tremble, winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry. Carolyn’s poems appear in The Massachusetts Review, Copper Nickel, Southern Indiana Review, Superstition Review, Shenandoah, 32 Poems, and elsewhere. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.

  • Stills of Rock Hudson from John Frankenheimer's film "Seconds" (1966).