Thanks, A Guest Post by Sheila Black

When the quarantine started, I felt ashamed of my initial reaction – which was relief. I’d been commuting every other month between home in San Antonio and work in DC. I’d ridden so many planes; I was out of Synthroid but too busy to make the doctor’s appointment, my taxes were overdue, I owed just about every friend I had a phone call. Like everyone, I was terrified, but for the first time in a couple of years I was also “at home.” I found myself waking hours before dawn – to watch the morning, and the sunflowers in my backyard- volunteers all—grow, grow taller. Never had the spring seemed so green and full of life to me. Not for years had I been constrained to observe it this way—the whir of cardinals in the wisteria, the fierce-looking grackles hovered protectively around the fig tree, even the pregnant skunk who had taken residence under my deck. Why had I not seen these things?

Ostensibly, I was waking early to write poems, but no poems came. Instead, I stared out at the yard, brooding about now and before. It occurred to me one thing about now is that we are living through a terrible trauma nested in a larger still vaguely inconceivable trauma. We have the pandemic and beneath that we have global warming. I said to an old friend that this was
what made these times different, but he said even back in the forties, when he was a boy, people were talking about just this. They weren’t using phrases like “climate change,” but they were speaking and writing about the trauma of industrialization, this new way of life that was not in tune, not sustainable. He said “We have never lived outside that anxiety.” And I thought about my own anxieties – losing my job, playing for healthcare, credit card debt, and beneath that the truer more generalized anxieties — how there be so many cars on every road, how can we all have cell phones we throw away after a couple of years–what does it mean that people in China poison themselves mining “rare earth” so I can hold a new cellphone in my hand?

Now my city is slowly opening, though there is no particular evidence that the virus numbers are going down. The governor of my state, Texas, sees more danger in letting the economy fail, and the Lieutenant Governor has actually threatened to sue my city if it tries to delay. When I go to my local HEB, I see crowds—even more people than usual–but everyone is wearing a mask. When you go through the checkout line, there are new flimsy Plexiglas shields erected between you and the cashiers, but all around, up and down the aisles, the workers are moving—stacking cans, helping customers. Just as the mining of rare earth in China supports my cell phone, I would not be able to quarantine without the work of these people, our so-called essential workers; who do the jobs that are the least well paid; yet are the ones most exposed, expected to bear the burden of risk. Some of these people will die so I can stay home. Recognizing this is yet another nested trauma inside the trauma of the pandemic, the trauma of global warming.

In a recent Financial Times article, Arundhati Roy said we must see the pandemic moment “as a portal.” At 4 am when I wake up, I go outside, because, for some reason, going out into the yard has become my new routine. I don’t pretend I’m going to write a poem anymore but I still brood about poems and poetry. Can a poem ask the questions to unlock the terrible gap between our immediate need and how we want to live? Part of me fears the depression that is coming, has come, will only lead to further racism and economic inequality, more of the brutality already endemic in the US, the world; part of me thinks we might make some correction—in what we use, in the contracts we make with each other and even with the planet. Part of me thinks we still have time.

Watching the yard, I realize another feeling now that I have finally stopped moving – an almost jilted sadness. After all we have done to the planet. the planet has finally turned against us—the virus, the outside, grown hostile through extremes of weather; except that it does not feel that way, not at all, when I sit in my garden—tender buds on branches, small pockets of silence that fill endlessly with birds. This is one of the most beautiful springs here in Texas I can ever remember, and the beauty is as real and palpable as the grief and isolation all around. I hear of a friend’s husband in the hospital with Covid-19; another poet friend, who lost her mother, quickly, unexpectedly, unable to say goodbye. I am not sure what language we will find to describe our new precariousness expect that I think it will relate to our old precariousness. Perhaps out of this pause, this collapse of what we know, we will be better able to see and articulate where we were before or confess that where we were had the quality of dystopian fever-dream long before the pandemic arrived.

Of all the poems I have turned to in this time, the one that has most resonated with me is a poem W.S. Merwin wrote back in 2005 – called “Thanks.” It is officially a poem about “Thanksgiving,” and if there was ever a subject that would seem to lend itself to lies or empty sentiment, it would be that one, but Merwin skirts this. His is a poem for desperate times, of desperate times, and yet he delivers a vision that is not despair.

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you

Their mouths full of food, these people race out to give thanks. These nameless people, who seem helpless in the face of their actions to maim the planet, nevertheless to go out to speak their gratitude. Merwin seems almost to argue that our rapacious hunger is the other side of the coin of our potential wild generosity, imagination; in short, that we must face what is the worst in us in order to bring out what is the most capacious, transcendent. The poem ends:

with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is

One would expect a poem about the potential end of us in the planet to make one feel desolate or dead inside, but Merwin’s poem does the opposite. Once you read it you may feel a little weepy, but you will also—if you are like me—feel gripped by a strange energy, a kind of exhilaration. In this radical juxtaposition of apparently contradictory thoughts and feelings– the joy of the world in the midst of dread of/for the world – I think we arrive at what Arundhati Roy means by portal—we cannot discard or lie about what brought us here; but we can look at it nakedly and, in that naked regard, we can perhaps begin to imagine or reimagine our world on the other side of this trauma, which is not small, which is not something that can be explained away or dismissed or mediated but is the mystery of how we live now— of how we keep living.

Guest Post, Sheila Black: Personal/Political

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the political and the personal. When I was in graduate school, getting my MFA,  my poet friends and I professed a slight scorn for poetry that was too or only or merely political.  We spoke of the need for the individual voice, the lyric, the arena of mystery where a thing could not be defined by politics alone. We spoke with a what I now recognize as typical graduate school over-earnestness about how poetry had to exist in language first, as if language itself were somehow beyond or antithetical to the practice of politics.  This now seems to me terribly naive, sign of  a privilege we didn’t know we had.  Now that I am older, and living in the America that is our America now, it seems to me, on the contrary, that everything is political, and yet the vexed crossing of the political and the personal still stands.

Everything is political.  Everything is personal. This is both true, and untrue, and perhaps the more relevant question is how do they come together? What can we do as persons to speak out or engage in politics; more precisely, how can we do this without losing the distinctive strata of experience the personal gives us?

Recently, I read an article by Isreali philosopher Yuval Noah Harari in which he made a useful distinction.  He said the important task was to look at what was real, and he pointed out how much of our power, our politics come from our capacity as humans to devise collective fictions. He goes on: “The best test to know whether an entity is real or fictional is the test of suffering. A nation cannot suffer, it cannot feel pain, it cannot feel fear, it has no consciousness. Even if it loses a war, the soldier suffers, the civilians suffer, but the nation cannot suffer. Similarly, a corporation cannot suffer, the pound sterling, when it loses its value, it doesn’t suffer.”

I thought of this last week when I saw that President Trump’s approval rating had risen—apparently, for there seemed no other conceivable reason, because he dropped a 22,000 ton bomb—a bomb so enormous commentators referred to it with almost unseemly glee as “the Mother of all Bombs,”—on an Isis training camp in Afghanistan.  And, a few days before, he launched a major airstrike against Syria in retaliation for President Assad’s use of chemical weapons. The airstrike was large enough to make those on the scene feel “the heavens were falling,” and took out a few airplanes, a couple of runways, while not in any real sense impeding President Assad’s ability to wage war against his own citizens. For these acts, Trump was more often than not praised by major media “for finally acting presidential,” “showing the world he could be decisive,” and “demonstrating leadership.”

Track the suffering:  15 were killed in the Syrian airstrikes.  The bombing in Afghanistan killed an estimated 94.  Between 321,358 and 470,00 people have died in Syria’s civil war to date; 1 2,394 US soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001; over 26,000 Afghan civilians have been killed  during the same period, with estimates of total Afghan deaths due to war-related violence or events related to the war rising as high as 360,000.

These numbers suggest the outlines of the “real story,” but for an American writer far from the actual battlefields over there, they leave unsettling questions.  How do I bear witness?  How do I take repsonsbility?  Their suffering is not the same as mine.  Am I qualified to speak of it?  Where does my personal intersect with this political?


Here is a story from my life:

When I was a young child, and first went to school, I was relentlessly mocked because I had crooked legs due to a genetic illness. Every day at lunch ,a group of boys and girls would surround make fun of me, and dare me to run across the playground, which made them laugh because I could not for the life of me 1) run fast or 2) run in a straight line.

I had one friend, a girl called  Nicky, who was as outcast as I was, though for less desirable reason. Nicki was thin and scrawny with mousy hair that looked as if it had been cut with nail scissors; she stammered when called on and burst into tears easily when frightened.  When the group of kids on the playground got tired of making fun of me, they made fun of Nicki. Over the course of the year little-by- little I became bolder. I spoke back. I became good at telling tall tales, making jokes. I was still scorned, but ever-so-slightly less so.

One day a popular girl who had long been one of my tormenters took me aside. She wanted me to play a trick with them on Nicki. I was to ask Nicki to go with me to the edge of the plaground, our usual spot, under a large plain tree, where we sat and played with people we made out of seeds and grass. And there the others would jump out and frighten her.

I don’t actually recall the exact mechanics of how this was to work, but I do remember what happened. Nicki ended up facedown on the playground, sobbing as the others surrounded her and prodded at her with sticks. It is a blurred memory and one that, when it comes back to me, always, these fifty-some years later, makes me flinch.  But the point is this—when it came down to it, I wanted to belong, more than I wanted to be true to my friend. I felt myself weak and I wanted to be strong, and I wanted this badly enough to behave just like any other playground bully.

I remember one other thing too. After a few weeks, the other kids got sick of me, and left me with Nicki again, and we resumed as we had before, sitting by ourselves at the edge of the playing field, eating our lunch and playing with our makeshift grass-and-seed dolls, but I don’t think it was ever quite the same as before.

This small story is, of course, not in the slightest “political,” nor does it on the surface have much to do with bombs in Afghanistan or airstrikes in Syria, but there is a kind of affinity, for what is my story, after all. if not an allegory of power or the longing of even the weak to seize it and be strong? It suggests, too, how suffering and cruelty can result from that longing or how little there is in the world to defend the most vulnerable.


The personal and the political. One thing they share is both are in some degree made of stories, stories in which it is always hard to parse the lie from the truth.  In her remarkable lecture, given on winning the Nobel Prize, “Every Word Knows Something of a Vicious Circle,” Romanian novelist, Herta Muller, like Yuval Harari, concerns herself with the difficulty of telling our fictions from “reality,” truth from lie.  She  writes of this problem as one bound up in and also, perversely, only able to be solved through language itself—the process of thought, speech, and, especially, writing. The essay begins almost tenderly:

DO YOU HAVE A HANDKERCHIEF was the question my mother asked me every morning, standing by the gate to our house, before I went out onto the street. I didn’t have a handkerchief. And because I didn’t, I would go back inside and get one. I never had a handkerchief because I would always wait for her question. The handkerchief was proof that my mother was looking after me in the morning. For the rest of the day I was on my own. The question DO YOU HAVE A HANDKERCHIEF was an indirect display of affection. Anything more direct would have been embarrassing and not something the farmers practiced.

Muller parses how words or discourse give us ways of expressing through indirection true or important things about ourselves we won’t or can’t simply say.  How would her mother ever declare “I love you” except by asking the question about the handkerchief?

Yet Muller’s essay quickly darkens. She grows up and works in manufacturing plant. There, she is approached by an agent of the Romanian Securitate.  He uses a variety of tactics  to appeal to her, flattering her first, then abusing her, all with the intent of persuading her to become an informer, spying and reporting on her colleagues at the factory. Muller refuses, and almost instantly finds herself an outcast.  Lies are spread that she is a spy. Everyone knows this is not true, but everyone is afraid.  Her best friend refuses to let Muller into her office: I can’t let you in. Everyone is saying you’re an informer.

Her desk is repossessed, her status stripped away.

Even if most of us have not lived thought such terror, we have experienced situations where the words around us became suddenly a lie, or where we do not know how to assert our own truth in the presence of what seems an overpowering mandate to think or be a certain way.  Or where people or words actively betray us.

Once cast out, Muller spends her days sitting on the factory staircase, reading the dictionary for she has nothing else to do.  Painstakingly, she learns all the words that have to do with stair: “HAND is the direction a stair takes at the first riser. The edge of a tread that projects past the face of the riser is called the NOSING…nosing and hand, so the stair has a body “ In finding the story words tell of the objects around her, she sees how they can create another world—not quite the world; yet a truth of the world:

Whether working with wood or stone, cement or iron: why do humans insist on imposing their face on even the most unwieldy things in the world, why do they name dead matter after their own flesh, personifying it as parts of the body? Is this hidden tenderness necessary to make the harsh work bearable for the technicians? Does every job in every field follow the same principle as my mother’s question about the handkerchief?”

Mueller is fascinated that it is precisely in the slippage of words, their materiality which has an affinity with, but is not the same as, the materiality of the world  that provides words with their curious capacity to see inside or to reform or remake one’s relation with the world, even in the most desperate of circumstances:   

The sound of the words knows that it has no choice but to beguile, because objects deceive with their materials, and feelings mislead with their gestures. The sound of the words, along with the truth this sound invents, resides at the interface, where the deceit of the materials and that of the gestures come together. In writing, it is not a matter of trusting, but rather of the honesty of the deceit

I love the phrase she uses here: “honesty of the deceit,” for when I think of writing, both as a political and a personal act, it is the imperative toward honest deceit that catches me the most. Often, when I write a poem or an essay, and I try to include something I have seen, I am always conscious of my failure, the way in which what I write is  never quite the thing itself. At the same time, I know when the deceit is most honest, the words catch something that is true in a lyrical and political way about experience. Often this occurs when I am furthest from being strong or in control, but rather when my vulnerability is most acute, when the only means I have of bridging the gap I feel between myself and what is around me is through the materiality of the words themselves.

In finding herself under a dictatorship, unable to speak in a way that would be believed, Muller becomes obesesed with writing, with studying, simply, the words for things:

.what can’t be said can be written. Because writing is a silent act, a labor from the head to the hand.I talked a great deal during the dictatorship…Usually my talking led to excruciating consequences. But the writing began in silence, there on the stairs, where I had to come to terms with more than could be said.  I reacted to the deathly fear with a thirst for life. A hunger for words. Nothing but the whirl of words could grasp my condition….

This week when I read of Trump’s newly enhanced presidential mien, and saw the stories about the war that might be coming, and thought about how powerless I—and most of us—feel, and how the language of the public arena itself seems to defeat our efforts to change or mend or heal what the wounded world is doing around us, I thought of Meuller’s speech, and the notion of words as a way of filling the gap, their  honest  deceit, or that they, through their matter, will somehow penetrate or pierce the consequences of the fictions we live by each day.  Muller writes:

The more that which is written takes from me, the more it shows what was missing from the experience that was lived. Only the words make this discovery, because they didn’t know it earlier. And where they catch the lived experience by surprise is where they reflect it best. In the end they become so compelling that the lived experience must cling to them in order not to fall apart

You could mull over what this means for a long time, but I think what I take from it—is simply this, only in the words can we hold the distinction between what is real and the unreal ideologies that make up so much of our lives at this moment. We can remember that it is only persons who suffer and, more, we can without deliberation or foreknowledge begin to trace what is missing from the lived experience of our time.

Guest Post, Sheila Black: Beautiful Voice


Photo by Octavio Quintanilla

“I have a beautiful voice.”


The other day I was at a reading by U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera at Palo Alto College on the Southside of San Antonio where I live. The Poet Laureate was standing before a room of students, some high school, some in community college. The room was slightly wary but also alert, and he was reading a poem, a poem about the flowering of all things, and then he stopped and he said: “I want to give you a gift today. Here it is,” and he paused and seemed to dance backward a little. And then he said, “Repeat after me—everyone, everyone: I have a beautiful voice.”

There were some nervous titters, and a few people half-heartedly said the words, and the Poet Laureate said, “Again,” and then he said, “Say it again. I have a beautiful voice.” And finally, everyone in the room repeated the words. And the Poet Laureate said, “It is very simple that idea, but it is the hardest thing in the world to believe.


I have a beautiful voice. Sometimes I think that being a writer or trying to be a writer is like suffering continuously through a low-grade case of the flu. You worry if you are good. You convince yourself you are good. You read over something you’ve written, or you read something someone else has written—something clever or beautiful or surprising—and you think maybe you are not so good after all. A couple of things I have observed—no one who is serious about writing ever entirely believes they are good or always good. Writing is deeply perverse. You can work very hard at it and get almost nowhere; at the same time, sometimes you toss off something that is at the very outer edge of what you can do with almost no effort at all.


The other day I was driving across town with a poet friend of mine. He is fairly young and usually projects an air of almost irrepressible confidence, though his poems are not confident at all but strange, dark, and vulnerable. Suddenly, in the middle of some remarks about his experience with his publisher, readings he’d done, he shook himself slightly and said, “So really, do you think I am any good?” and his voice cracked at the end, the way mine does, exactly the way mine does when I am asking just this question.


I have a beautiful voice. Except often I don’t

Sometimes I spend a Sunday piecing through old scraps of poems I’ve written. The ones that didn’t quite make it. I want these scraps to be better than they are. Because often they are bad, full of “dark” and “dream” and practically gloopy feelings. Not quite the level of “happiness is a warm puppy” or “sorrow is a needle in my heart” but close. And yet, and yet, if you are a writer you never entirely give up the ghost. I have a beautiful voice. And somehow I will trick it into coming out.


James Tate—the late great James Tate said this about writing a poem:

I know I am not alone when I confess that I have stared at a blank sheet of paper for hours, day after day. Why? Why is it so difficult? Because I want to travel to a new place. Not only do I want the language to be new, I also want the ideas to be new. I want the whole world to be new! We know that that is impossible, but desire is not rational….

The poem is like a very demanding but beautiful pet. It says, “I want this. No, I don’t want that. Now I need this, and more of that. But I don’t want any of that,” and so on. Corrective moves. Wanting both truth and beauty, the beauty of language in pursuit of truth.

I once met Mr. Tate. It was 1985. Reagan was delivering the first State of the Union of his second term on the television set above the bar of the café where we sat… Was I ever so young? The publishing company I worked for had hired Tate to edit a collection of poems for children. I was along as the editorial assistant: My first business trip. I was an awkward young person who loved writing with a queer and dislocating passion, though I didn’t even call myself a writer then—but James Tate, I knew him, often reciting lines from “The Lost Pilot” under my breath: “My head cocked against the sky/I cannot get off the ground.”

We ordered vodka and tonics, which seemed louche and daring to me—it was only 2 in the afternoon, and he moved like a man in a fog, with great precision and a kind of wariness, which seemed odd in someone who was not then so old. But then he spoke of his wife at the time—I think she was Swedish or from some northern place—and his way of describing her gave me a sudden courage, so that I began bombarding him with questions about poetry.

Was it hard? Why was it so hard? How did you know if what you were writing was good? How do you begin?

He answered as best he could. He said you could not have any kind of plan. He said you would never know anything for sure. He said in fact the most difficult thing was the enforced idleness—he lifted his glass, “that necessary indolence,” he said or something like that. I thought he was being hip, and I laughed, but now I know he was just speaking the truth.


Cruel fact: when it comes to writing, more work does not mean a better product. Cruel fact: when it comes to writing, having a plan or a purpose is almost the very worst thing you can do.

Gertrude Stein said it like this: “you will write… if you will write without thinking of the result in terms of a result, but think of the writing in terms of discovery, which is to say that creation must take place between the pen and the paper, not before in a thought or afterwards in a recasting…”

Writers have a million different strategies for dealing with this. Most of these have to do with devising methods of working that somehow do not feel like work.


I have a friend, Louis, who keeps a daily journal and has for years. Just notes from the everyday. When he tired of what he is writing, he pulls from the preferably not too close past. He pulls out one of these many notebooks and randomly selects phrases. He focuses on some small section of his past, a period from which he usually claims to remember not all that much.

“What kind of name is Dr. Dre?”

“She was bored by the Picasso exhibit, Lydia said.”

“That white gazpacho Clovis made was terrific! Get L. to get that recipe.”

He will write. He feels as if he is on a subterranean journey though the world as it is, yet distanced and made strange by his faulty memory and these real words, which he recovers traced on the page, no longer part of a narrative he knows.

Another friend, a woman I’ll call K, writes her poems by eavesdropping assiduously. It helps that she lives in a large city where it is possible to overhear both the most vivid banality and also the dread secrets of lives, a city where people exist cheek-to-jowl but are practiced in the art of pretending not to notice.

She sits in a café or on a park bench, and she simply writes down word for word, or as close as she can get, whatever scraps of conversation float her away.

“Get away from that thing!”

“Are you born into this foolishness or what?”

“I know now what it feels like to wake up and be a person who has lost everything they ever owned in a stupid apartment fire.”

Out of this, she crafts elusive lyrics in which the scaffolding of what was said is all but gone; yet she claims she needs that touch of the real. These words people said when they were not thinking.


In times when the muse feels distant and opaque—those flu-ey hours when nothing I write or can imagine writing feels new or fresh enough, there are a few writing exercises that have helped me. One of the best—gifted to me by the poet Carrie Fountain—is so simple it sounds idiotic, but it works. Here it is: Take a sheet of blank paper and fill it. One page, beginning to end with anything at all, even just one word.

Another is simply to read something and copy its structure or simply respond to it. A text I have used often, again from my friend Louis, is a letter Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo. I will quote just a part of it:

Painters — to speak only of them — being dead and buried, speak to a following generation or to several following generations through their works. Is that all, or is there more, even? In the life of the painter, death may perhaps not be the most difficult thing.

For myself, I declare I don’t know anything about it. But the sight of the stars always makes me dream in as simple a way as the black spots on the map, representing towns and villages, make me dream.

Why, I say to myself, should the spots of light in the firmament be less accessible to us than the black spots on the map of France?

Just as we take the train to go to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to go to a star. What’s certainly true in this argument is that while alive, we cannot go to a star, any more than once dead we’d be able to take the train. So it seems to me not impossible that cholera, the stone, consumption, cancer are celestial means of locomotion, just as steamboats, omnibuses and the railway are terrestrial ones….

Ah, Van Gogh!. What letter was ever more trenchant and beautiful? There is a story I love about Georgia O’Keefe when she lived in West Texas. Every evening, she and her sister would walk out into the plains. Her sister would shoot at tin cans set up on fences while Georgia stargazed. Georgia said there was one star that shone with a peculiarly bright and watery light. “I got six paintings from that star,” she said. I have gotten perhaps six poems from this letter of Van Gogh’s. Why does it grip me so? Because it thinks of ordinary things—things around us like air—in a way that feels utterly radical and also liberating. Yes, the stars are far away. Yes, there is the fact of that distance and that it is uncrossable, but perhaps not or not so much as we might think.

Photo by Octavio Quintanilla


At the end of his reading at Palo Alto College, someone asked the Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera how he felt when he learned he had been named the first Latino U.S. Poet Laureate. Herrera hesitated a moment. “I thought about that whole beautiful voice thing,” he said. “It was heavy, like a wave.” His hands swept across his torso as if illustrating a flame passing down through his chest.

“That’s how deep it goes,” he said.

I have a beautiful voice.

The dead reach the stars.




Guest Blog Post, Sheila Black: A Terminal Activity

Sheila Black

The other night I was sitting in a late meeting, which was called a “Happy Hour,” though it was not especially happy, since no one but me ordered a real drink, when someone began to say “What we really need help with is our methods of assessment, a handle on our goals and outcomes.”

These are words I hear not infrequently in my day job.



The last is often referred to as “continuous improvability,” which always makes my head ache a little.  Often these terms refer to social programs; but equally often they refer to stuff closer to home: writing, reading.

“We need a strict outcomes matrix driven by shared standards of accountability,” someone will say, and everyone around the table will nod.

One might hope Poetry World altogether different, but we live in a time when production and improvement and method and outcome are so in the water that we drink them in without even realizing it. I grasped this the other day when someone asked me for advice about assembling a poetry manuscript, and I gave them my two cents—all sound practice, tried and tested notions, but half-way through I realized I wanted to say something much closer to “Every new work of art uncovers a new form,” or “You should always be trying to write a poem you are unable to write, a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise you’re merely imitating yourself, going nowhere, because that’s always easiest…”  In other words, advice that would be more like a poem, a poem defined as a person speaking to a person out of some kind of necessity, the need to speak at the edge of things:

We are gong to dance
It is going to be lighted
It is going to be lighted
It will blaze.
We are going to dance.
Something bird-like is coming.
Bird-like tracks will be about the place.
We are going to light this unclean house.
It will blaze, blaze.

These are not lines by a published poet; this is a Yuma song, translated by George W. Croyn in 1934.  It is an outcry, a public chant from a culture and a time when poetry was woven into daily life; a way to respond to the nightmares all people are prone to.  I glanced at this poem briefly after giving my advice to my unnamed friend,which had all been about “poetry contests,” and “judges,” and “assessing your audience” and the craft of making the poems better, smoother, sleeker, less shameful, less shambling.  Which, too often, is the same discourse I have about my own poems.  And so I wanted to write or to ask—what is below or behind that, what space do I want the poem, the poetry, or even writing in general, to occupy in my life?

In my case, the answer mostly took the form of negatives:  Not simply speech, not simply a reporting of emotion, rather a reflection, but not one I can see into, or determine the shape of ahead of time. A kind of map, but a map that is deliberately not intended to lead me anywhere—at least nowhere fast.  A kind of anti-continuous improvement plan—a country of wandering, much like the French word “errer” which sounds so much like error that it has always made me conflate the two—to wander as if in error, with that kind of urgency and feeling of almost anguish.

Berryman, who I quote above, said it like this: “The serious poet should seek to explore the ‘sources’ of these global nightmares—and to explore them not just in poetry, but in person. Poetry is a terminal activity, taking place out near the end of things.”

I want to stop and think about this a little.  It is hardly a remark one need accept full bore.  The end of things, nightmare?  A person might well ask, but why? Why not a poetry that is more humane, or more focused on happy continuous improvement type things?  Why so much darkness, John?  And yet on some deeper level, I know there is a truth to what he is saying—simply, that we don’t need poetry to be one more cog in the wheel of days; we need it for the core of days, which too often is a place of darkness—though also, perhaps because of that darkness, of intense light.

A few years ago, my life fell apart. I didn’t get a job I thought I was bound to get—one where I was an interim employee—and thus wound up with no job at all.  A friendship ended badly. Words like “betrayal,” “confusion,” “misapprehension,” phrases like “How could you not know?”  and “What were you thinking?” Around that time, my husband almost died of a freak blood clot in his leg that travelled to his lungs. He came back into himself more slowly than I would have wished, and sometimes with a gray stunned look like rare china that has been painstakingly mended, but still shows a crack. All of this is easy to summarize, but not so easy to live.  At times in the middle I thought 1) I will not survive; or 2) do I want to survive?  I could not tell if it helped or hurt that I knew how utterly common this all was—peoples’ lives melt down, blow up, disintegrate around them all the time. I was not sure I would recover, but I did, and what helped me most in that period was reading.

That year as everything came crashing down, I tore through Roberto Bolano’s huge novel 2666.  I read books of poems, one in particular by Melissa Kwasny—Reading Novalis in Montana.  Often I alternated between the two–poring over of Bolano’s forensic descriptions of murder and mayhem in a fictional city called Santa Teresa (based on the real Ciudad Juarez 40 miles from the town I then called home) or repeating  under my breath lines like these from Kwasny’s book:

The true philosophical act is the slaying of one’s self,

Novalis wrote, and died, like Keats, before he was thirty.
They have left me behind like one of their lost.

There was amazing darkness and light in both these worlds, and something more—these writers were saving me by describing things of the world that had never been spoken precisely that way before. I was in a zone where I felt too much, in too disordered and even acute a fashion; I needed fresh sources, new means of framing who or where I was.

The consolatory power of poetry and prose can be difficult to convey because, on the surface, what is consoling about a reading that does not sugarcoat anything, that does not speak for the hope in anything, but merely, rather—I cannot say only—for the thing as it seen most truly and pungently through the writer’s eye and heart.  And yet it is precisely by bringing “new news” that these writers helped me reengage, begin again:

But to give up on things precludes everything.
I am not-I, Novalis wrote. I am you.

During that hard season, they served as my spiritual advisors, and a strange pair they were.  Often, when I was at my wits end, I would think, “What would Roberto do?”—or “What would Melissa do?”  They never gave me the kind of advice I gave my poet friend.  Roberto said “Go on a road trip with three of your most dissolute friends. Look for the poet whose books have all vanished and gone out of print.  Move to the farthest most dangerous city you can find.  Live in a room you paint blue and write down for a year just what people around you actually say.”  When I asked Melissa, the answer came: “Sit under the mulberry tree in your front yard and listen.  Try to build a nest with what you have in your kitchen. Dig a hole in the ground and tell it your secret; feed your voice into the soil, then cover it up again.” Chance, randomness, wildness, listening. trust—these were all the elements of their work that could not be arrived at through any matrix that could be universally applied. No application to craft alone, no rational approach to building a career. Their writing was too large and strange for that.

Indeed, here is what Bolano said on the subject:

It’s true that a writer’s country isn’t his language or isn’t only his language…. There can be many countries, it occurs to me now, but only one passport, and obviously that passport is the quality of the writing. Which doesn’t mean just to write well, because anybody can do that, but to write marvelously well, though not even that, because anybody can do that too. Then what is writing of quality? Well, what it’s always been: to know how to thrust your head into the darkness, know how to leap into the void, and to understand that literature is basically a dangerous calling.

I like this idea that the form of the art is determined by the form of the life, the person within—or as John Keats wrote in a letter to his brother, affirming what had been by any standard “outcomes and goals measurement” a most unlucky life, yet transcendent in his breathing of it: “Call the world if you Please ‘The vale of Soul-making.’ Then you will find out the use of the world.”