In yesterday’s essay, I wrote in part on the difficulties of coming back daily from the noise, especially when it’s not just noise, but policies and public discourse that affect us greatly. It is noise that has us calling the offices of our elected officials, noise that keeps us up late at night to watch the welfare of our nation being challenged yet again. And then there’s last week’s ban on transgender people serving in the military (read here, here and here). It’s hard to keep up on this “presidential reality show” which is far from amusing because when the cameras turn off, the misery keeps rolling (or rather, tweeting).
I’ve been writing here weekly for the Kenyon Review blog for two years now, and while I know we don’t always get along as writers and poets and artists—we are, after all, human—there have been times, even in immense disagreement with each other over both poetics and politics (among other things) that I was grateful we can have these disagreements. This might seem like a simple statement. It is not. Let me explain.
My body has become an immense uncertainty. I’ve written about it before here on the blog, but there have been times, and without warning, that my left side goes numb. Sometimes it’s just my arm; sometimes it’s my hand, my arm and my leg, and I lose my balance. Often I power through it. There are different ways to manage illness, but the shape of my own is forever changing. At first I thought of it as a noise, as a distraction. And yet now I realize it’s fine-tuned how I listen. Because sometimes I’m in such bad shape it takes work to hear and even more to listen. I’m grateful when I “come back,” though every time I come back, I am changed. My ears are a little sharper. My priorities shift. I hold on a little tighter to what I thought intangible, metaphorical, out of reach. (It turns out, as the cliche goes, things really are not what they seem, but that’s for another essay.)
And there are days the pain is bad and I end up crumpled—in a crumpled shift dress with a crumpled face—waiting to meet my husband after teaching a workshop. He wants to call a Lyft to take us home, but I’m stubborn, and he comes to Grand Central so we can catch the 7 Train, this man who is not only my better half, truly, but someone who has such a range of both love and empathy that I once didn’t believe he was from this earth.
Once I told him this, he paused and deadpanned, “Well, you know, I am Canadian.”
Humor, too, does wonders when you’re working through noise on multi-levels.
A long time ago, I shared the poem—Nazim Hikmet’s “On Living“—that got me through so many rough days. These lines are worth repeating:
I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees—
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.
And now in 2017, even armed with these lines, I too am having trouble navigating my head through the noise. The noise we are forced to listen to, yet our civil liberties vanish. For now, I do what I can. I’m still calling my congresswomen and congressmen; I’m still writing letters. And still writing, period. And sharing what I read—sharing more poetry, in fact, than I ever have before, with an ever-evolving us.
And I mean us as both poets and poems. As creation and creating and creators. As a shaking up. As a something I can come back to.
Maybe you don’t feel part of us; trust me, I know that too. I am someone who enjoys prolonged periods of quiet and meditation, especially now that I’ve begun the Minhat Yehuda. And this is by no means a plea for “let’s all get along.” Rather, I’m thinking more of how the communal act of sharing poetry—especially recent poetry—has anchored me to the ground when I’m a little uncertain of my footing, of my balance.
These are rarely poems of comfort.
They are poems that break through the noise.
And they are poems that make me feel alive when I feel I am not.
“Life is short” begins Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones,” and again is echoed in “Buen Esqueleto” by Natalie Scenters-Zapico. Two poets in conversation. Two poets engaged with these troubled times. Life is short. I’ve read both to my husband, who is not a poet, who tells me, who tells me every night when he can see in the darkness the fear in my eyes, “you’re going to be around a long time.”
And to paraphrase, or rather internalize, Hikmet’s words, I have to believe him. Because living, I mean, weighs heavier. I have to praise that I even got a chance to be alive, to commune with the living, to reach a we and an us through the noise.
That we are here as poets and writers, that we create, witness, and respond to what we know and what we don’t, is a miracle, perhaps one we think we haven’t received yet.
I’ve decided to revive the old “mix-tape” form that has appeared here on the Kenyon Review; my own will feature and highlight poetry, with a little science and the occasional horse (okay, not occasional) thrown in. I can’t say how often I’ll be doing this, but I’d like to do at least one every other month. I’d also really love to hear what has moved you as of late, if you’d like to leave in the comments down below. . .
MIXTAPE 1: Sometimes You Choose Never
Tongue is back, has been back since early 2017, and has featured some fantastic work “dedicated to challenging borders and expanding our notions of form and translation.” I highly recommend Melissa Cundieff-Pexa’s “The Conqueror, 1956” as one of the best poems I’ve read all year; it opens with this note: “The filmmakers knew about the nuclear tests but the federal government/ reassured residents that the tests caused no hazard to public health.” This would be a fantastic poem to teach; I’ve added it to my own fall syllabus.
Give a listen to Safwan Khatib read his poem “Empire with a Harp Inside it,” which was selected by Safiya Sinclair as the 2017 Adroit Prize for Poetry. This is definitely a poet I’ll be watching.
Also, check out the poem “Ghost Walk After the Resurrection” by Chelsea Dingman, originally published in Sugar House Review and featured on Verse Daily; ever since I read it, Dingman’s words have been haunting me. A taste:
knowing it means nothing
to be splayed & broken
as weeds, as yellow buttercups
beneath the sun’s
Ever find yourself wondering what is the preferred color of harlequin bugs? Find out here.
Have you read the latest BOAAT? The whole issue is incredible. Highlights include: “Cloister” by Madeleine Mori; “Tantrum Party” by Philip Schaefer; and “After Three Beers My Tia Talks about the Border” by Alfredo Aguilar which ends with:
he once told me mami i’m going to cross the desert
or dig a tunnel & join you. i told him ni se te occura esa
estupidez. it’s sweet, but i’ll bring him over after
i get my papels sorted. no chingues, the first time i crossed
i crawled under a fence. my stomach was covered
with dirt. the stars were out. i don’t know if i ever rose.
Here are some poets to follow on Twitter: Natalie Lima (@NatalieLima09), Victoria Chang (@VCHangPoet), and Devin Kelly (@themoneyiowe). And check out their respective recent work in PEN Center’s Only Light Can Do That, Narrative, and wildness.
Lastly, Jennifer Chang writes: “Why I chose Never I’ll never know” in her poem “A Horse Named Never.”
If I were ever to get a tattoo, it would be one of these lines.
Maybe all of them.