Days are where we live

content note: police violence, grief

(I appreciate when other folks provide content warnings on their writing so will strive to offer my own going forward.)

Last month marked many grim anniversaries in our indoor year of pandemic-time. I biked past Lincoln Hall with its marquee reading ONE YEAR DARK. I listened to Indoor Living by Superchunk a lot, and I made daily attempts to claw my attention span back from the phenomenon of pandemic-induced wet-noodle brain: I read poems and novels and one very outstanding novel by a poet that contains a dedication to one of my many outstanding coworkers.

It's an honor and a pleasure to think about poetry and how it can live online for a job these days. I still believe that poems can be useful as well as beautiful, that poetry is for everyone, that it is a fine art that can happen anywhere, made as it is of nothing but language in intimate relation to time.

And so here is a poem about time that has been kicking my ass six ways from Sunday: "Not This" by Olena Kalytiak Davis.

Published the better part of a decade before our indoor year, it's a perfect distillation of how time has passed for me in this long strangeness. Folks I’ve read it to or quoted it at across Zoom windows have remarked on its prescience. "What a year, it sucked / it flew" indeed. It reminds me of some of my favorite other pieces of media about time: a song by the Books, this speech by Paul Ford that remains one of my favorite-ever essays on and about the internet.

And the part that truly floors me in "Not This" is:

i raised my kids, they

grew i lost two pasts–i am

not made of them and they

are through.

Have you ever seen such a portentous line break as that first one? Anything could happen to the precious "they," in this formation. I am thinking (today, all week, perpetually) of every child who didn’t grow: Adam Toledo, who lived in a neighborhood I biked through every day for the 5 years I worked at the food bank, whose life was taken from him and his loving family when a Chicago police officer murdered him in the street. Ma’Khia Bryant, murdered this week in another midwestern city. Saying their names is a way of bearing witness. Two pasts lost.

Pasts can be many and simultaneous, seeping up into the present like groundwater. Any tragedy, any trauma can reemerge in your body. There's a striking image for this in Mairead Case's book Tiny:

Once, Tiny went to a birthday party and the horror of mourning lowered around her head like a hood. She hadn't expected it. It blocked out the streamer colors and all of the sound.

Grief happens when you're severed from a significant thread - a loved one, a place, a belief. A loss of the past, of something that forms you. I love this poem (and Tiny) because they refuse to make time tidy. They’re documents of life and love emerging reshaped from lost eras. What is the future? Not this. I've begun quoting a sign my friend saw in a coffeeshop where we stopped on a bike ride:

The future is where we'll hold each other close about the feelings we've moved through in the present.

Another beautiful grief-but-not-just-grief poem (which, like "Not This," was recommended by a coworker) is Ross Gay's "Burial." I haven't read much of Gay's poetry although his Book of Delights was a blessing to the early months of my indoor year. Wow oh wow to "the nation of simple joy," to the transformation of a body's end into a juicy plum's blossoming and beginning and taste.

My father's birth mother died last week; another complicated grief. When we are together around a meal, my family holds hands and my dad says "We are all connected." The connection is more than blood and more than presence. It's everything. Having just joined the happy ranks of the fully vaccinated, I'll hug my family and be comforted about the pasts we lost this year.

May those who've left the living rest in power; may their memories bless us and their names sing out for justice.

In solidarity and sorrow,

Erin

PS: the subject line is from my problematic college-era fav P. Larkin if you were wondering.

A map of the present

About staying blessed.

Everything, as my erstwhile pal the spam horse once said, happens so much.

Three weeks ago I left my beloved job at the food bank for an exciting opportunity at the Poetry Foundation. This was perhaps the hardest choice I've made in my career, to leave a team and a mission I cared about so much and make a leap of faith into an institution that's in the midst of profound uncertainty and transition.

"Poetry keeps people sane," one of my food bank work friends said. A bold claim, but one that's proven true in my experience. Poems ease transitions and provide maps for the mind to follow in difficult moments.

Not having any formal belief system, I have nonetheless come to trust deeply in the idea of blessings. And what an auspicious thing it was when another coworker sent me, in the final hours of my access to my gcfd.org email address, Lucille Clifton's "blessing the boats."

I'd wanted to send a poem of gratitude and good wishes to everyone I worked with but then I got overwhelmed at the idea of picking one. It was a delight and an honor to be reintroduced to this beautiful poem that I first heard when Ruby recited it at Other People's Poems ages ago. A blessing.

Here is what I believe about blessing: it's an extension of goodwill in some direction. This poem extends a tide of safety and kindness from the speaker to the "you," innocent, beloved and anywhere. May you have a safe journey; may you keep your innocence and your tender heart. As I took my final commute on the bus and two trains home from the Food Depository, I reread these lines and let them bless my journey into what isn't known. The large future, yet "beyond the face of fear."

Here is what I believe about the future: it's impossible to predict and painful to try. We have only the present moment in which to open our wholeheartmindbody or harden it away. At another recent time of great transition and celebration (it was the retirement party pictured in this amazing story about someone very important to me), someone read Mark Strand's "Black Maps" to honor the moment. It's one of the best depictions I've found in poetry of mindfulness, present moment awareness, or whatever you want to call the practice of accepting that this moment is all that can be known.

What I wrote down, listening to this poem being read by someone I've never met but with whom I share a teacher and mentor, was the fourth stanza:

You can walk

believing you cast

a light around you.

But how will you know?

How do any of us know our own light? We just do. We just walk, float, ride, sail beyond the face of fear, rising with the breath into the presence we share, this conscious moment. Being the best we can, striving to deliver blessings.

"Black Maps" is the longest poem I've even attempted to memorize during the pandemic. If you want to join us at Other People's Poems tomorrow evening and see if I manage to keep it all in my head, just reply and I'll send you the Google Meet link. OPP happens monthly on the first Monday starting around 6:30 pm Central.

Be well, stay blessed, keep casting your light into this world.

yours -

Erin

The generosity of endings

Let the old year burn!

A year is an arbitrary unit. But as this uniquely universally miserable one comes to a close, I'm thinking often about cycles, and beginnings within endings. An old college friend and lovely poet tweeted a phrase on a New Year's Eve more than a decade ago that I always remember around this time of year. The internet remembers its precise punctuation for me:

A burning could be a celebration, an exorcism, or a clearing of space. Of course I am also, often & always, thinking about trees. How the scrub burns so the tall hardwoods can thrive in the sun. How traditional indigenous firebuilding practices can mitigate harsher wildfires, and all the related things I learned reading Braiding Sweetgrass this summer. Here is a tree poem that sets these cycles up just right, to me: “For Allen Ginsberg,” by Dorothea Grossman.

The part that rung in my head like a struck bell was "the generous death / of old trees." How a death can be generous: a giving of form and foundation to the organisms yet to take root in "the red powdered floor / of the forest." I know I am saying the same thing I said about other tree poems back in Early Quar, but the cyclical nature of trees becoming soil remains a wonder to me. There's a beautiful passage in Braiding Sweetgrass about how the soil in an old forest is much richer than anything humans could fortify. And "generous" is such a surprising and precise word for dead trees. I aspire to generosity. It hadn't occurred to me until I read this poem that letting go of things that no longer serve you — moving a cycle forward, letting the old year burn, allowing your old self to wither and die — is itself a generous act. I first came across "For Allen Ginsberg" quoted on Mariame Kaba's Twitter; I'm guessing she was thinking of something similar but wiser.

Of course I recited this tiny poem into my webcam at the most recent OPP and of course I heard someone recite another poem that gave me that same struck-bell resonant feeling, that sense of "Yes, of course, things are precisely like that, thank you, poem, for saying so." The poem was "A Children's Story" by Louise Glück. I love the good onomatopoeiac verb of "rattling" for the small princesses and the playful alliteration and repetition of "no conjugation in the car, oh no" and the absolute childlike clarity of "Despair is the truth." To me the "children's story" is the story of the journey from despair to hope and back again. It's a cycle that seems more familiar in 2020 than ever before. And it’s true what they say in the poem, “Nobody knows anything about the future, / even the planets do not know.” And so we all move forward into the unknown, with certain words to light the way.

So as you let the old year burn, I'd love to hear what you're hoping for, what you're reading, and/or anything you'd like to say. I miss everyone and I miss the good pastime of Book Yelling.

Warmly yours,

Erin

The far side of revenge

Anxiety and occasion

This will be short. Everything feels fraught two days before the consequential election, and my nerves and concentration are shot, as maybe yours are too. The last couple months I've been thinking of a very good poem of anxiety, "Wanda in Worryland" by Wanda Coleman. She writes "i have been known to imagine a situation / and then get involved in it, upset, angry / and cry hot tears." How many late nights have I spent imagining a situation and getting deeply involved in it?

As an antidote to all this upset, I recently remembered a poem I first read probably 20 years ago in a magazine named after it - “Doubletake” by Seamus Heaney. It's one of those soaring, hopeful numbers that I often have a tinge of reflexive cynicism about. I just decided to call them "Occasion Poems": the ones that get busted out to mark something momentous and ceremonial. But in this constantly momentous churning time, I reckon we all need a dose of ceremony, a sense of the truth that:

…once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.

I really feel like I heard Barack Obama quote this poem once. It seems like something he’d do. Anyway I will be out here clinging to hope and also to my dog, awaiting a rebirth into justice and peace.

Take care. I mean it.

Yours,

Erin

Let there be light in my house

& also, a video reading next week

I'm not going to shut up about Black lives mattering and I'm going to keep featuring some brilliant poets of color in these emails. I read one poem and one collection lately that gave me that gasping, top-of-your-head-taken-off, walking-around-with-your-whole-heartmind-open feeling.

The poem in question gets its titular Kendrick Lamar track stuck in my head. We love our nation’s Pulitzer-winning rapper. The track is GOD, the poem is "Self-Portrait as Kendrick Lamar, Laughing to the Bank" by Ashanti Anderson. The line that catches me in my tracks (still, and I've read this poem dozens of times) is:

I've noticed that good people must die

to let there be light in my house.

So much is happening here - God and Genesis and goodness. And even noticing: an ideal verb of observation, one that I think of often in my daily life. (Notice the pace of your thoughts. Notice the space your breaths take up as you meditate, as you walk, mask on, around public spaces). Here the speaker may or may not be complicit in what must be going on. I take it to mean — no matter what, our suffering is bound up in that of others. That none of us are free until we all are, that we are each other's harvest where it counts the most.

And a whole collection of poems intimately concerned with Godliness, goodness and complicity — and with intimacy itself — is A Fortune for Your Disaster by Hanif Abdurraqib. You may recall this author from last month's Black Joy Poetry Playlist right here in this very email newsletter, which included him reading the prose poem/lyric essay/striking piece of writing that is "Defiance, Ohio is the Name of a Band."

I'd like to thank my dear Empty Bottle Book Club for giving me a needed kick in the pants to concentrate on reading a whole book of poems for the first time since the pandemic began. When we discussed this book on Sunday afternoon someone said it seemed so prescient that it was as if the poems were appearing on the page especially for these times, even though the book was published last year and surely written before even a glimmer of the terms "social distancing" or "novel coronavirus" existed in the American public's eye. Still, lines like “& I guess loneliness is another type of debt” will ring through my ears as I mask up, stay six feet away from my friends and neighbors, and keep going.

But back, briefly, to God. There’s a series of poems in A Fortune for Your Disaster that share the title “It’s Not Like Nikola Tesla Knew All Those People Were Going to Die.” Like most good poems they’re about a lot of things — including playing God and puncturing the concept of history’s great men. “Everyone wants to write about god / but no one wants to imagine their god / as the finger trembling inside a grenade / pin’s ring,” this poem begins. “Faith, weaponized,” I wrote in the margins. Blind faith — believing beyond evidence that you’re in the right — that’s a dangerous force. I don’t want to quote more from these poems tonight but I do want you to read them. Reply and let me know what you think. (You can help me figure out this whole Substack situation.)

And now, self-promotion

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