Astrology is fake but poems are real

Astrology is fake (as the humorous astrology column on the dearly departed website the Hairpin always began) but Cancer season is here, which means my birthday is right around the corner, which means I will break my self-imposed rule of not writing about the same poet twice on this email list because I do whatever I want for my birthday.

For some reason poetry and astrology go together - the popular Twitter account Astro Poets is run by Dorothea Lasky and Alex Dimitrov; more than one reading series I've attended has introduced people by their signs. While I don't put much stock in horoscopes I do understand the appeal of various different practices for developing cosmic and sweeping narratives, whether it's astrology or tarot, folklore or fanfic.

Lately I have been expressing my feelings by loudly declaiming some stanzas of Mary Ruefle's "Provenance" at things. I'm ready to declare "Provenance" the Official Poem of Cancer Season. This poem is cosmically upset, and so am I. (And here's Mary Ruefle— and Dorothea Lasky— previously on this email list.)

Before we get into how "Provenance" is a perfect gem, I present for your consideration An Incomplete List of Things I Have Cried About During Cancer Season:

  • A bag of tasty salad greens but some of them were slimy

  • Rock music's #1 drummer Janet Weiss leaving Sleater-Kinney

  • The inevitable yet sudden demise of my favorite houseplant

  • Not having enough coffee

  • Having too much coffee

  • Having just the right amount of coffee

  • The mere existence of dogs

  • Every lyric on the new Bill Callahan record, more or less

  • How dang long it takes to make a quiche

  • Ridiculously sexist popular attitudes towards incredible athletes (the USWNT, Serena Williams)

  • [gesturing vaguely yet urgently towards the country's borders, the White House, and the climate, while hissing] whatever the utter fuck this shit is

All that is to say that "Provenance," an essential masterwork for someone experiencing outsized emotions, begins in childhood and leads us on a journey through our most childish yet authentic feelings. I can't find a clean copy on the internet so here's the scan I took from my copy of Trances of the Blast to help me memorize it.

Where this poem really begins to hit me is "I did not want to give her anything"— that affronted sense of justice, articulated in crisp words that assertively refuse to be contracted ("did not" vs "didn't," where a previous line uses "can't"). Whom amongst us doesn't carry some childhood affront in the psyche's back pocket? Something you loved and were forced, for reasons you did not understand, to release, as the speaker releases her beautiful horse Aurora to the dimly recalled classmate?

Once Aurora's departure is mourned with the Biblical-sounding language of "together and on one day" the poem transitions into the dark night of a fairytale:

And so I have had to deal with wild
intractable people all my days
and have been led astray in a world
of shattered moonlight and beasts and trees
where no one ever even curtsies anymore
or has an understudy

Aside from reminding me of the last track on the aforementioned Bill Callahan record, this "world of shattered moonlight and beasts and trees" places me exactly in the dark world of Russian fairytales, where Vasilisa the Beautiful must travel the black night to find the Baba Yaga beyond her fence of skulls like in that one really rad illustration.

The next stanza answers the sensation of betrayal and loneliness (which is how I read the "understudy" — you'll never have another opportunity to be you, and no one can do it for you) with another act of creation, a slightly spooky one. We're all entitled to retreat, once in a while, to "the little room / in my face." By writing or drawing, collaging or dancing, we can answer our despair with creativity. Failing that, we can breathe, be with the breath, and make a friendly, accommodating little room to be creative when we're ready. And we can play: something from childhood that, it's all too easy to forget, people need at all ages. Making something can be play, and it can be healing. It can be enough just to try it.

And then I won't ruin the final stanza for you, because it's so ideal for loudly declaiming that I want everyone to experience it in their own way and time.

I hope you enjoy "Provenance" and my birthday month as much as I intend to enjoy my birthday month. Despite everything, there's joy. Thanks for reading, send me your favorite birthday poem (or anything).


And Now Some Postscripts With Stuff I Sell and Do:

  1. I've still got some copies of Baseball's Dad for the dads and dad appreciators in your world. Use it to fan yourself while you sit in the heat at a baseball game.

  2. My friend Emily and I are planning a quarterly reading series in my basement! Save the date for Basement Life #1 on August 18, and reply directly if you're Chicago-based and interested in reading work of any genre, that day or in the future.