Po-Chop: Kathleen Graber: The Telephone


… once I fell in love with a beautiful voice passing through the wire.
I remember the drop of it, a man talking about something he’d read,
turning to a page with an audible rustle & breath, whispering, Listen.
These are the lines that haunt. It’s not that the skin has no function,
only that the tongue can play so many parts.


Kathleen Graber’s poem “The Telephone”—dedicated to Walter Benjamin’s fascination with the same apparatus in Berlin Childhood around 1900—captures the power of the human voice as it travels through a simple instrument that has been around for over 140 years. The phone comes alive and turns into an extension of our voice in the instant we speak into its small interior, even smaller and portable these days. And yet, while we live in the age of Smartphones, FaceTime, and Skype, Graber calls to attention—as much as Benjamin did one hundred years ago—the haunting quality of a voice on the other end: how it can grab us at a drop.


In these lines from her poem to Benjamin, the speaker could very well be sitting next to the man who reads from the book; we—the readers of Graber’s lines—could be sitting next to him or to Benjamin, sharing the “rustle & breath.” Graber knows how to alternate between lines that reminisce about the past and lines that hold this same past up to our ears until we are once again surprised. Every day we are startled by the ringing of the phone; and even with caller ID’s ruining the surprise factor, we are still amazed at the clarity of a voice that could be a thousand miles away. Graber’s revisiting of the technology that still serves the same purpose, reminds us that there is something sacred about the human voice—“the tongue can play so many parts”—meaning we should listen and be astonished the next time we pick up the phone.


“The Telephone” from The Eternal City (Princeton University Press, 2010)


More Kathleen Graber:

Buy The Eternal City at Princeton University Press

Read the whole poem at the NEA Writer’s Corner

Read her bio and more poems at The Poetry Foundation

Read an interview with Graber in The Browser

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