From the Department of Tortured Poets

Sung J. Woo
5 min readFeb 14, 2024
via Stable Diffusion, prompt “the tortured poets department”

Since today is Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d share some misplaced passion from thirty-odd years ago: Vintage poems from my college days! Most of these, I believe, were written during my time at Wells College in Aurora, NY, where I deigned to take their intro to poetry course. Deigned, because I had to fight tooth and nail to get approval from the administrative powers-that-be at my alma mater, Cornell University. Back in 1992 when I signed up for this class with the wonderful Professor Bruce Bennett, very few (possibly none) Cornellians chose to academically partake in the offerings by our tiny neighboring college across the lake. Most of the traffic went the other way, but ever the contrarian, I demanded my “semester abroad” at a women’s college. (Mostly it was because I already had very good friends there, but my advisor didn’t need to know that.)

What is it about poems that lend themselves to the matters of the heart? To quote the ever quotable Forrest Gump, they go together like peas and carrots. (And Jenny and Forrest, of course.) I wish I could say I remember writing these, but I don’t. But oh, the hurt, the pain, the anguish! It’s all right there, in verse. Who was this man-child that felt so much? I haven’t a clue anymore, and I think that’s a good thing…

(Note on the image: I was planning to use Microsoft’s Image Creator (which leverages DALL·E) for a graphic to this post, but it turns out that the phrase “the tortured poets department”, the title of Taylor Swift’s upcoming album, resulted in this denial of service:

Design couldn’t be generated. Something may have triggered Microsoft’s Responsible AI guidelines. Please change your phrasing and try again.

It’s probably because the word “tortured” is disallowed. Which means Ms. Swift has neutralized the AI beast. Is there nothing she can’t do?

I ended up using the open-source AI tool, Stable Diffusion, which, as you can see, created something completely bizarre. Is that like a robot in a beekeeper suit, reading a book, with his…friends? Your guess is as good as mine.)

Anyway, now I present to you, five poems from thirty-two years ago, in all their agonizing glory.

Heat

They sat across the bar
Thick smoke clogging their views.
But he saw her looking at him
And she saw him looking at her.

They laid in bed together
No smoke, no booze, no nothing.
Last night
She was pretty from afar
And he was a stunning stud

But this morning
She was far from pretty
And he was, at best, a dud.

Embrace

When she hugs him
in front of his door
her chin over his shoulder
her hair stuck on the corner of her lips
for a moment her ear is against his ear.
She wonders what he’s hearing
because she herself hears nothing
but his ear brushing past her own,
a pure, physical sensation.
She wants to hear something else
maybe it is forgiveness
but it just is, as if it were
just meant to be.

When she hugs him
in front of his door
his hands in his pockets
her hands behind his back
flat and wandering,
he wonders what she’s feeling
because he himself feels nothing
but her hand over his back,
a pure, physical sensation.
He wants to feel something else
maybe it is hatred
but it just is, as if it were
just meant to be.

Then suddenly everything is clear
when she listens hard to the silence
the nothing, the simple lack.
She balls her empty hands
and suddenly everything is clear
when he feels her knuckles on his back.
Her knife, he thinks, her knife,
she found her knife in my back.

Eyelashes

April twenty-second
and it’s snowing.
That’s upstate New York you say
or something like that.
I’m trying to forget what you say
as our footsteps flutter
the snow on the ground.
I’m trying to forget a part of me
that dreams of you.

I’ve always liked your face
though I prefer the side view
for it shows me your eyelashes
long and full, curled at the ends.
When you blink, when your eyelids
descend like the night and arise —
for a second those eyelashes say
Come here. You’re mine.

I’m looking at you now.
The snow is falling
evenly, everywhere
on your eyelashes, too.
It’s going to be hard
to forget you.

Chase

When you ran into her at the restaurant last evening
your hand reached out and tried to get
anything. She smiled then, momentarily surprised
then turned quickly back to her man
and that’s when you knew the future like the past.
That night, after the prime rib had satisfied them both
after the dessert and the splash of coffee
that’s when it was decided, the look between them
words unpassed, nothing but gestures for the rest of the night.
In the morning, you saw them together, walking side by side
steps together like a pair of metronomes.
You remembered walking like that with her, in eerie rhythm
you remembered her breathing next to you
and as she passed you without a glance, you remembered the fair
where you and she were chasing pigs in mud.
She wiped her forehead
covering the only clean spot on her face.
Will you marry me, you said to her, holding
the pig you caught between your chest and your arms.
She looked at you and called your bluff and
before she could say the cliché in the clichéd moment
you felt the hooves of the pig digging into your chest
and with the loudest oink you’ve ever heard
it jumped out of your arms
into the air
as if of wings, you thought
it almost had wings
like you almost had her.

Vacuum

1

My mother gave me the hose
it’s nothing, she made it herself
fed me through it when I was very young.
She said Go, do your duty
be a vacuum.

2

Mandy had her own vacuum,
or so she thought.
It was sucking someone else’s rug.
So she picked me up and used me.
I was there, and I had no attachments.
I was lonely.
So I was her vacuum!
Or so I thought.
When it came time to unzip
my bag
she said she didn’t do that.
So I kept on, said nothing
(after all, vacuums can’t speak, we can only hum)
until the bag burst.
She left
as the dust settled
everywhere
on the table, the bed, on me
it was snowing black.

She returned with an attachment
a bloody heart with a gaping hole
bigger than the heart itself,
with bristles and everything.
She told me You are so much better now
you’re wiser, you can suck more
aren’t you happy?
(I wasn’t, but vacuums don’t have feelings)
I said Yes, that’s fine, thank you, just stay here —
but she was gone
leaving her footprints
a mess,
tracks in the black snow.

3

So I had a new plan.
I turned myself on
and let myself go
like a firehose too full of water.
It worked
I caught the hem of Mary’s dress
sucked it up with everything I had
and I wasn’t going to let her go
ignoring the motor’s scream.
Overheating.
It wasn’t long until I fell off
and she walked away.
Who could blame her?

4

I’m a vacuum.
I come with my own attachments.
I suck up dust,
dead skin, dead bugs,
the dead.
I’m nothing, just a vacuum.

--

--

Sung J. Woo

Novelist (Skin Deep, Love Love, Everything Asian), essayist (New York Times, Vox), occasional traveler. www.sungjwoo.com