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,


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.



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

Black is all colors at once

It's Juneteenth. It's a celebratory day in Black culture; I got to post some professional tweet content about it. And it's a strange day for white Americans like me to try and make a statement of solidarity and recognition. But I am trying to show up and say something, if imperfect, rather than rest on the assumption that people know what I believe and how strongly I hold it to be true. And so I am saying, again and again, Black lives matter. And: Black joy matters. I worry sometimes, as we hold space and try to understand what we cannot experience, that my fellow white folks see Black people as vessels of pain and not fully realized fellow humans, with all the wonder and absurdity that entails. And so I made a ✨ Black Joy Poetry Playlist.✨ It starts with a poem I can't stop thinking about and ends with an arrival from space. In between there are omelets, warm arms, a lifesaving folk-punk band, feelings and queerness, liminal spaces and play. And a shoutout to a very classic Frankie Knuckles bop that you'll have to find for yourself. Read, watch, listen:

OK. I hope you found some new poets or maybe rediscovered some old favorites there. Reply and let me know what you liked. Reply with anything. Keep being loud about defunding the police (fellow Chicagoans, join me to strive for CPAC, here's a script you can use to call your alderman about it) and letting everyone breathe in true freedom.

Yours in hope,

PS: As predicted I completely forgot to announce to y'all in last month's message that I made a very cute zine about Moomins and tarot. You can buy it, along with my other zines and chapbooks, right over here. All proceeds from the Moomin zine are going to Chicago-area mutual aid efforts for BIPOC. End of commercial.
PPS: I will give a free zine of your choosing to the first person who correctly identifies the Frankie Knuckles track mentioned in one of the poems in this playlist. My spouse (who owns all my zines anyway) is not eligible for this exclusive offer.

Corvids are the largest passerines

We've made it through another mass of time, together in our separateness. Poetically and otherwise, here are some things that are getting me through. I hope they'll provide some kind of nurturing soothing sensation for you too.

Oak galls and old trees

We held Other People's Poems on our webcams last month and we'll do it again tomorrow (reply to me for the link if you want to join one of my favorite monthly celebrations of words). I recited two poems that I found via various internet perigrinations, both of which feel very Of This Moment without being written for it. The first was Wendell Berry's "Stay Home," which would've been perfect for the title if nothing else even. (And I'm pleased to find it quoted in full in a 33-year-old event writeup from our beloved local independent paper, the Chicago Reader.) But it's a lovely, lively short piece about enmeshing yourself in nature. The old trees that move only with the wind and then with gravity are my favorite; I can almost visualize them sinking back into the earth, becoming loam.

And then I memorized another poem with trees in it, Stephanie Burt's "Advice from Rock Creek Park," because I find its opening lines oddly life-affirming in the sorta-Buddhist way of accepting the connection between all things. I like the oak galls because "gall" is a funny word for a feeling or a body part or a lumpy infection on a plant where a wasp laid eggs in it. And I find the ending a cryptically supportive reminder that people and nature rising up against ineffective and cruel leaders will always have the edge.

Japanese craft Youtubes

These are such a balm to watch. I love seeing people do small things with their hands with great care. Even better when there's barely any voiceover.

Birds as life and metaphor; bird information as unintended poetry

During the walks that are my chief form of entertainment and connection to the outside world, I've been paying increasing attention to birds. I picked up somewhere that the biological order of animals that includes perching birds is called "passerines." I feel a deep affection and wonder for this word; it just sounds and looks so pleasantly correct for what it is. And the birds are coming back earlier and more bravely into the world of less car traffic and quieter streets. A robin is building a nest in our front porch light. Crows and grackles line the rooftops on my dog walk route as a red-headed woodpecker goes to town on the catalpa tree at the corner.

A bird is a metaphor (for freedom, wonder, escape) and a bird is itself (each individual pigeon, goldfinch, heron, or horrible goose). I like the way birds tilt their heads and seem to consider your presence sometimes; I like knowing that corvids (the largest class of passerines) use tools and solve puzzles. Reading a birding guide I picked up at Open Books on impulse years back, I'm struck by the lyric quality of birding terms. Certain patterns of their sounds are called "scolding" or "flight calls" or "contact calls" and then the sounds that birders make to tempt them into view are called "pishing." And of course there are their names, in all their yellow-bellied, red-headed, full-throated pageantry.

All I am really trying to say about the birds is that they are a way, for me, of paying attention to the fact of being present in a given moment. To its suchness, which I think I stole from Pema Chodron.

Anyway, I hope you find a bird and listen to it. I hope you're well. I hope we all come out of this wiser and kinder to ourselves and all around us. Write me anything anytime.


PS - I'll be putting out a zine next weekend that I'm really excited about. I'm probably going to forget to write another email about it, so I guess follow me on Twitter and watch for details there. Sorry for encouraging you to be on one of earth's terrible social websites for any reason.

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