John Murillo’s “Variation on a Theme by Elizabeth Bishop”

Thoughts on loss and shame.

Variation on a Theme by Elizabeth Bishop

Start with loss. Lose everything. Then lose it all again. 
Lose a good woman on a bad day. Find a better woman,
then lose five friends chasing her. Learn to lose as if
your life depended on it. Learn that your life depends on it.
Learn it like karate, like riding a bike. Learn it, master it.
Lose money, lose time, lose your natural mind.
Get left behind, then learn to leave others. Lose and
lose again. Measure a father’s coffin against a cousin’s
crashing T-cells. Kiss your sister through prison glass. 
Know why your woman’s not answering her phone.
Lose sleep. Lose religion. Lose your wallet in El Segundo. 
Open your window. Listen: the last slow notes
of a Donny Hathaway song. A child crying. Listen: 
a drunk man is cussing out the moon. He sounds like
your dead uncle, who, before he left, lost a leg
to sugar. Shame. Learn what’s given can be taken;
what can be taken, will. This you can bet on without
losing. Sure as nightfall and an empty bed. Lose
and lose again. Lose until it’s second nature. Losing
farther, losing faster.
 Lean out your open window, listen:
the child is laughing now. No, it’s the drunk man again
in the street, losing his voice, suffering each invisible star.

from Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (Four Way Books, 2020)

This is the second poem in John Murillo’s recent collection, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry. It’s a remarkable collection, full of riffs and homages and elegies, critical and musical all at once. This poem, too, is a riff — it’s riffing on a theme of loss written first by Elizabeth Bishop in her seminal poem “One Art,” which begins:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

What a loaded way to begin a poem, and full of such craft. The straightforward statement that takes up the whole first line, a statement that makes the reader go art of losing, what? Or mastering loss, why? But then Bishop clarifies. She hangs you there on that first line, keeps it in the same sentence as the two lines that follow. If things are filled with the intent to be lost, then maybe it’s not your fault. So you, reading this, you say okay, it’s not my fault, okay. But she doesn’t close the tercet with that. She closes it by saying that the loss of something is no disaster. Why? Because loss is so prevalent that maybe it’s part of the destiny of anything that’s lost — an object, a person, a life.

And so, picking up on Bishop’s theme, Murillo doubles down. Look at his first line:

Start with loss. Lose everything. Then lose it all again. 

There’s so much I love about this line. The first thing I love is how abrupt it is. How it insists immediately on the universal. Earlier this week, I was talking with my workshop group about a Danusha Laméris poem I’ve written about before, and how it begins:

No one wants to talk about the hilarity after death.

We thought about how the poem would be affected if it didn’t begin with such a universal statement (I mean, it literally says No one wants to talk about), but ultimately we deeply appreciated the way in which opening with the universal was itself a kind of subversion, since so often we are taught that it’s the specific that leads to the universal, the way an editor once told me: you have to make sure your reader’s two feet are on the ground before you jump them up to space. And though I ultimately agree with such a statement, I now wonder why the universal is also not thought of as the ground, rather than, well, the universe, which is perhaps what Murillo is teasing at. Start with loss, he writes. And who doesn’t know what loss is? We are each there with him. 

And so I love Murillo’s insistence there. And I also love, on a craft level, his introduction of three’s — as in the threefold repetition of the word (or a variation on the word) loss — which works in so many ways. It works first in an allusory way: Bishop’s “One Art” is composed entirely of tercets, or three line stanzas. And it works in a rhythmic way. In other words, repeating a variation on the word loss is the underlying craft work that allows this poem to feel like a riff, to feel improvised. Murillo does this three times in total throughout the poem — these lines comprised of three insistences on loss. It happens a few lines later:

Lose money, lose time, lose your natural mind.

And then a few lines after that:

Lose sleep. Lose religion. Lose your wallet in El Segundo.

These lines might seem just like improvisations on the idea of loss, but they function rhythmically as kinds of whatever-the-fuck-the-opposite-of-speed-bumps are. What are those Mario Kart things? Zoomy zooms? Speed makers? These lines zoom you ahead as a reader. They propel you with the thrust of their staccato rhythm. They impose loss in your mind and they drive you further and further into the deep and passionate darkness of it. It’s a masterful act of litany. This poem is a litany of loss, but it knows that if it is not varied in its accounting of loss, it will lose you — the reader — to the abyss of something else. And so Murillo plays with rhythm. He elongates it, shortens it, offers loss in three quick bursts and then pulls away to a different verb — find, get, open — before bringing you back to loss again. 

Part of me wants to dwell on each and every sentence within the lines of this poem. I am moved by their specificity and their vulnerability. Some lines just astound:

Measure a father’s coffin against a cousin’s 

crashing T-cells. 

But what I find even more remarkable are the ways in which Murillo toggles between such specificity and such — as I mentioned before — universality. These are kinds of a-ha, holy fuck moments:

Learn to lose as if

your life depended on it. Learn that your life depends on it.

Learn what’s given can be taken; 

what can be taken, will. 

These moments offer the reader not just a way of seeing, but a way of living. They ask us not to just notice loss, but to learn to lose. There might not be hope here, but there is certainly a sense of presentness. Living by way of acceptance. We are alive because we know loss. It might be painful, but to pay attention to it is one way of feeling assured of your own heartbeat, and the heartbeats of those around you.

What’s interesting is the way in which Murillo’s poem takes the conceit of Bishop’s poem and elevates the stakes. Bishop’s poem alters these recurring refrains that losing isn’t hard to master and that such losing won’t bring disaster. It’s a moving, permissive poem. It forgives us our grief, especially over the slightest things. But Murillo’s losses are not slight. Love is lost. Money, too. Relatives are lost to prison, diabetes. There is a critique of privilege here, and the privilege afforded by race. Bishop is concerned with lost “door keys,” a “mother’s watch,” “three loved houses.” These are losses of mundanity and privilege, yes, but most certainly the latter. Murillo’s losses are wider, all encompassing, and yet simultaneously more specific. Black Americans are 60 percent more likely than white Americans to be diagnosed with diabetes. Current statistics suggest that one out of every three black boys will be imprisoned, while those same statistics suggestion the same outcome for one out of seventeen white boys.

And that is part of the mastery of Murillo’s poem. It is at once immensely relatable — Start with loss — and yet immensely specific. It reminds me of a poem by Marcus Jackson — “Pardon My Heart” — which riffs as well, repeating that phrase, Pardon my heart, as the heart navigates specific situations and universal feelings:

Pardon my heart if it ruins your party.

It’s a large, American heart and has had

a good deal to drink. It’s a pretty bad

dancer — too much feeling, too little technique.

Later, Jackson writes:

Pardon my heart if you have to kick it out.

In some ways, Jackson’s poem serves as a kind of foil for Murillo’s. Murillo’s poem assumes the loss in everything (and it is less assumption than truth), while Jackson’s poem hopes for forgiveness, and, as such, hopes not to have to experience loss. But I think what unites both poems is one word jammed into a single sentence within a single line in Murillo’s poem:


This, to me, is the moment that makes Murillo’s poem a kind of transcendent phenomenon. It elevates Bishop’s theme of ordinary loss and relates it to a more devastating theme, that of shame. Loss on its own is a devastating feeling, but shame — the shame of feeling left out, the shame of feeling that you are the cause of such loss — is the feeling that, when added to loss, brings you to your knees. Shame is what makes loss move from something you can manage to something that stays with you, and subsequently ruins you, every waking day of your life. By placing such a word in the middle of a line, Murillo enacts the ordinariness with which shame enters a life. It is, in a poem full of short sentences, the only sentence that is one single word. 

Shame makes loss unbearable. I would argue that it is the worst of all emotions, because of the vicious cycle it enacts in each of us. We feel ashamed for something we perhaps should not feel ashamed for (or should), but we are ashamed to admit our shame, and so we hold our shame close to us, day by day, until we are lost, and someone experiences the loss that is our loss, and, most likely, attaches some kind of shame to that loss. Yes — each of us, in each of our various states of shame, cause others to feel ashamed for our loss. And so the cycle continues. We are each wounded on the surface and also in ways that even the most visceral of emotional surgical maneuvers cannot seem to fix. And we carry that, and others carry that, and so we carry it together, and it is called shame, but to unburden it feels scary and sad and too, too much. And so we carry it. We carry it together but don’t know we carry it together.

This is why I love today’s poem. Maybe we should start with loss. Maybe we should see where it gets us. I love, too, how Murillo does not discredit Bishop’s poem. He doesn’t say you got it wrong. He says you wrote your loss, and this is mine. It is different, deeply, but we begin in the same place.

To begin in the same place. To start with loss. To not start, as we so often do, with everything that is not loss, which is to say: everything that is not universal. Maybe we should start with the universal. Show me someone who has not known loss and you will not be able to show me anyone. Today’s poem ends with each invisible star. That, too, is something universal. Invisible stars: everything that has been lost already, the space between all the stars we see, each dying to begin with. Yes. Above us all — invisible stars, dead things, the space where things once were, a space at once specific and universal. Such space is a specific thing we can each gaze upwards at, and yet a universal reminder of something else. It reminds me of how my mom once told me look up at the sky and know we are both looking at the same sun and moon. As a child, such a statement moved mountains for me. When my mother was gone, when I did not know where she was, when there were days and weeks and months I did not see her, I looked up, and hoped she was looking up, too. When did we lose this deeply specific universality? We are creatures of loss. When did we lose that?