Jesse Breite, native of Little Rock, Arkansas, currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with his wife, Emily, and their two kids. Jesse’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Rhino, New Orleans Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Tar River Poetry, Ruminate, Anglican Theological Review and many other journals and magazines. He has been featured in Town Creek Poetry and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume V: Georgia. Breite has read for The Decatur Book Festival and The Georgia Poetry Society. His poem, “Space Odyssey,” was featured downtown as part of Elevate Atlanta 2012, and he has been a finalist in book prizes from The Texas Review Press and Red Mountain Press. FutureCycle Press published his chapbook, The Knife Collector, in 2013. He was also an associate poetry editor for The Kentucky Review and Good Works Review.
Breite started collaborating with Atlanta Composer Michael Kurth in 2015. Since then, he has written libretto for three of Atlanta Composer Michael Kurth’s scores, Magnificat, Tenebrae, and Miserere, the latter of which the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed in March 2018 and recorded in 2019 on the ASO’s album on Michael Kurth’s works, Everything Lasts Forever.
Currently, Jesse teaches high school in Asheville, North Carolina, but has taught high school English for eighteen years in Chicago, Baltimore, and Atlanta. He has served as department chair, published on teaching practice in EdWeek Teacher, and has been awarded multiple summer study grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Mercer University.
"CONTRITION" — PRAIRIE SCHOONER, SPRING 2013
My father doesn't understand—
why my sister puts a needle into
her bloodstream to feel feelings.
He is of old St. Louis, its slow alleys,
its crawling river. Pistols, he gets,
and Budweisers, what burns under
the hood of a Ford, but not this fine
specimen of hypermagical continuous.
Dad sees things plain and stubborn,
not with my distant, simple eyes,
not with Mom’s grave regrets.
I want to write the story easier
than silence, in the soft language
of greeting or fridge magnets, so even
grandparents and cousins can get it.
I see students every day. I wonder
where their easy, logical choices
will lead them. I drive the roads
to work in Atlanta. They’re beaten
shit-brown and hard black. They’re ready,
I think. I hear the hurt in Mom's voice.
Dad says, please, I don't often talk about it.
And Jane, she is the poorest of spirit.
This, I tell him, is what it means to be blessed.
"THE KNIFE COLLECTOR" — NASHVILLE REVIEW, SUMMER 2013
Monday night, I sprain my ankle
playing ball. And I keep playing.
At my place, my foot swells brown
around the heel, black in the toes.
Mom calls. Her voice is afraid.
My sister hasn’t come home in days.
Last time, they found her
emptied car before picking her up.
At three a.m., I wake up, take a piss,
feel blood stutter through the lumps
in my bruised ankle. Back in bed,
my foot throbs like a dying fish.
The log of my body writhes over
a dull fire spreading nervously.
I curse until it eases, enough
I dream of my father
and his knife collection. Each one
with a smooth handle—whale bone
or steel, bearing alien monograms.
He sits on a squeaky, wooden chair,
chews Red Man, hones a warm blade.
He spits and says, keep this here fine,
and you won’t even feel it go through.
THE KNIFE COLLECTOR, FUTURECYCLE PRESS — NOVEMBER 2013
“The Knife Collector is one of the most striking first collections I have read. His poems are clear-eyed and, often dreamlike, as they carry the reader through landscapes half-familiar while igniting something deeper than memory. Indeed, Breite’s work depends on the elemental just as much as it does biography—this is not a mere collection of anecdotes, but a poetry that works for all it can give, a set of truths made more believable and more significant via a masterful blending of the real and the mythic.”
—William Wright, senior editor of The Southern Poetry Anthology and author of Night Field Anecdote
"BLUE JAY" — TAR RIVER POETRY, FALL 2013
He sits out on the fence—the ole fat-bellied
sheriff of the backyard. He don’t mess around,
dressed to serve, protect, take shot
at squirrels, barricade their nut-hungry paths.
O bird, save us from bugs: eat the termites.
Drive off hovering dragonfly, goonish mosquito.
Dive at the mailman who offers only bills.
Save mama from her libraries of worry.
Keep pop from his beer-bubbled smugness.
Steal my sister’s smoke. Stave off the cancers.
Bathe in the rippled cement of our hearts.
Lead us far from the moon’s gravity.
Forgive our mispronounced passions.
Let us not fail our oracles, our loan checks.
Fly up the pine and croon to Moses
of stony hearts, strung minds, marbled soul.
"CRAZY MARY & THE SHARECROPPER'S SON" — CRAB ORCHARD REVIEW, 2016
Maybe she thought that easy line—
Whatever you want to do is alright with me—
was for her, Mary Woodson White,
perhaps it was for her—the one who walked
into Al Green’s Memphis mansion,
to find her sometime lover on a Friday?
Maybe it was because four months earlier,
“Let’s Get Married” shot up the charts,
and she waited for a parallel lyric,
something more than the skinny shirtless man
pulling a fantasy gun on Greatest Hits ’75?
Whatever moved her, it must’ve been
a torrid spell—only got by scalding grits
flung on his back while he settled in a warm tub
and by a bullet, right then, to her own head—
and it must’ve been hell enough to drop him
to his knees at his sharecropper daddy’s church,
to raise him up in the Full Gospel Tabernacle
for the rest of his free-born days—how
the last words she wrote—The more I trust you,
the more you let me down—became the one
note he could never choose to give up.
"HELM" — TERRAIN, MAY 2018
"LIFTED" — NEW ORLEANS REVIEW, 2018
"FISHING THE CADDO" — RUMINATE, WINTER 2019
We never owned a boat, but we dreamed
of boats when we dipped our hands
in the river. My father taught me to stand,
to gaze into water. On the banks
we waited for something, but it wasn’t a boat.
We knew that it went into the water,
that it would come out, that the black Nissan
truck drove hard, snarled on the route.
Dad flipped his wrist, taught me to throw
a little tooth with invisible line
to invisible water, that it could grow weight.
The spears we held gave us a language
we wrote in the air. As we sat, Dad pulled
worms from dirt, fit them to the hook.
If you set it right, he said, there is no pain—
not for the worm, not for the fish.
When I stuck my fist in the whiskery cage,
the crickets sang my skin alive.
And still we waited—what we pulled
from the river was the river—liquid muscle,
speckled with our fingertips. Some fish
transfigured in the sunlight. We held them
as long as we could before giving them back.
"ABSTRACTED STOOD" — RHINO, APRIL 2020
“and for the time remained stupidly good” - Paradise Lost, Book IX
Always a pause before the dazzle
after the brink, a blank.
The thing that awes you, stuns you,
plants the wow in your mouth.
Always the space before what comes,
departs. The line is where
you sign your name. Threshold,
your choice. The fruit
you juice—what curls your tongue.
Say what you saw, saw what you can
right down through the eye
of the wood, the pith of the trunk.
But it’s lost as soon as you find
the beauty of beauty’s invisible
bridges. Call it the wind
that hides you, the breeze
that forgives. Call it the sky blue
sky that proceeds, finishes
through feeling, hinge of
the marvelous—what opens
what closes. Call it the woman’s face—
the one you love or the one
you hardly know, that leaves you
before what happens next.
MAGNIFICAT BY MICHAEL KURTH, 2016
Libretto Excerpt by Jesse Breite
And now, my breath breaks on the name of God,
to seek, find, redefine the broken time.
I delight the loam, the long, cold-cracked road,
where I am ever-born and tendril-sweet.
Recall my life, old ringed world,
my blood-red Lord bright in these limbs
and flourishing still.
Libretto Excerpt by Jesse Breite
Movement V., starting at 15:35
I stood alien at the crossroad,
unjarred my mouth,
held forth my hand, but none knew my name.
How I grew weak, touch-broke and needful
under the hurt-tree.
My eyes raked the pavement for scraps
My bones unbuckled and leaked.
My heart bled vinegar.
None read the sacred verse of my skin.
None unsaddled my sorrowful limbs.
MISERERE BY MICHAEL KURTH, 2018
Libretto by Jesse Breite
You must first look past
the little corpses, the useless limbs,
the clown-faced fools
who wear your name, the calcified
pressures of shame.
You must stage the terrible romance
over your eyes, cut out
the tongues of the poor,
unsee widows, orphans
dropping coin into kettles.
Stuff the shorn heads with silver—
silver tongues, silver eyes,
silver-sweet hellos and goodbyes.
Reach your hand in, brush against God-flesh.
Tear the freshly broken bread.
How can you account
the cost, looking back before you scry?
How can you doubt
your own satisfactions when the sun
drops like a circular
saw into the earth’s tired face—
its keen blades searing the great rolling eye?
Gimme the broke skin,
metal thorned wrist and foot,
blood volcanic wound-core—
its purple tongue-swell,
the hurt curtains draping
the face with sweat and gore
Gimme the flesh filleted by cheers,
the wood turnt on the horizon,
the cut wet stuck to these fingers,
the ooze of adoration lost,
the shame-murmuring shadows,
the heartless fist of angels,
body wretched of all feeling
Gimme the sinister air,
the voice emptied of its
gravelly depths, the buzzed-
grass burnt hill,
the prickled skull spotted red
and achey with lack