Live long enough and you’ll have a few if you’re lucky. Take me, for instance— when my son crossed the street and the car’s tires screamed and his body arced into a C. Or once in the doctor’s cold office when the air froze into a word.
Or maybe it’s a choice—your choice, the other person’s, doesn’t matter. You sit on the edge of the bed in the hotel room, run your hand over the quilted bedspread and wait for the answer. It’s not much really, not much that determines a life.
Maybe it was hot, I was out of work & the car actually started, maybe I didn’t even think to bring a towel, just drove & walked into the water, walked in & let my feet rise, floating in salt & seaweed, fishlike, minnows darting below me, maybe that’s why I got to lie like I belonged in a horizon of water smooth as the sky, a rich silk luxury of blue, early evening in Paris blue, the blue of the Comtesse d’Haussonville’s opera dress, not the way it was, trapped in fabric, but how Ingres painted it, the way it still looks even in the print in my room, faint ripples flowing smooth in reflection, the kind of blue you’d wear & your bank account would never run low or maybe if it did you wouldn’t notice, or wouldn’t care, that rich Comtesse blue ferrying me seaward, blurring the smells of suntan lotion & fries, the echoes of men loud on phones, into the holiday happiness of striped umbrellas & beach chairs & who knows, maybe the Comtesse herself sunbathing right here at Sandy Neck, floating in time, sure, just a day at the beach like any other day, maybe, the way if you didn’t look, you might think the water was just blue.
Jim Dahlberg was eating a bran muffin and reading The New York Times when he saw that Lucas Bloy had won the Joslyn P. Fish Award for New Conceptual Art. Jim put his muffin down. He wondered if there had been some mistake—not that he was an expert in the field necessarily. He wasn’t an artist, or a critic, or a scholar. He didn’t know the first thing about the Josyln P. Fish Award. He did, however, know a thing or two about the recipient. Lucas had been his nemesis.
Years earlier, Jim had entered a sandwich shop in Madison, Wisconsin. He was in his third year of law school at the time and had just completed a lengthy exam on copyright litigation. Whenever he finished a big exam he liked to eat a roast beef sandwich slathered in tangy hot sauce. It was, for him, a kind of joy. And so he was deeply touched when he saw that Joanne Neier—by far the prettiest girl he’d ever seen at Ralph’s—chose the same condiment. On the basis of this connection, he was able to score an impromptu date.
Featured Art: Portrait of Kaitlyn (2018) by Erin Dellasega
Each generation learns from the previous so said my mother who never left the house. She would close herself up in her bedroom for days, only to emerge in a wig and a dress made of paper on which she had sketched vague faces and landscapes with fat pieces of charcoal and spit. Once I thought I saw her in the street, a fur hat and hooped earrings, eyes vacant and no response to my call. Doppelgänger she would say later, like the thick-boned villager who helped load the trains with mothers and daughters and turned to the camera to swear it wasn’t her.
Featured Art: The Sacrificial Lambs by Brooke Ripley
The stores have closed early even though it is the middle of the week. The cathedral begs forgiveness, promises to open tomorrow. No reason is given. At an intersection, two women ask for directions to the town square. They only venture a couple of feet before they consult their phones, are given the same instructions: Walk down that street. It’s not like it is a large town. If this were a Western, there’d be tumbleweeds. Despite recent warnings of a thunderstorm, it hasn’t rained in over a month. Six years ago a 300-year-old bridge washed away for good. There have been three floods in seventeen years. The two women are still looking for the town center, stop in the middle of the street to look west, then east. And it’s clear they’ll never find the center even though all they need to do is look up. In the square, employees from a supermarket chain are camped out in booths. They carry trays of cubed cheese and melon that smells like cold cuts. It is too hot for cheese. The city is building a new wall to fight future flooding. Does it matter that the shiny metal gates rest against centuries-old stone? Back in the town square, a mime on stilts waves coupons in the faces of passersby, bends down to gauge their response. No one accepts the coupons. The supermarket employees suddenly appear at every side street, each dressed in a matching red shirt, ambushing anyone who dares get close, calling after them: Excuse me. Excuse me.
The octobered sky. The overarching evolution of your abdomen. The salutatious relove we do once we’ve forgiven our mommas. Let’s go arachnid and eat our mommas or ok we can just wrap each other in silk. O yes I am an aprilfaced king. O yes I am a uterus genius. O yes I bleed while I walk down Seventh. O yes & yes & yes I have made such a snow of your hands, an astronomy of your syntax, an ambulance of your eyes, and I’ve decided that I have no issue with meeting your mother next Tuesday. Wait. I can wear a green coat like Chalamet in Little Women or a red tie like a coach. I should practice my little voice in my little mirror hi my name is how are you impressive charming not at all o yes afraid
the day gathers up in a blonde geometry and we drive out to turn phantom on DeSalvo’s dock because we can because DeSalvo went dead and left his pond unattended so we come here and watch the moonback like maybe it might turn around and make us real to somebody sometimes I wish I could throw her up in the air and watch her spin forever she’s like yawning during the pledge and missing indivisible or picking scabs during catechism you see I am stupid as the weather when she says Please like a field waving itself into the blade when she rubs her thumb in circles in the middle of my palm I am honest to god adjacent to me or ajar there is no halo like leaving yourself ajar you become a room so danced it thumps violet or you become ready for another room to enter you back she is a room too asking me if this is alright like she can’t see my face already decided under this light we call our space juice because we drink it we pray for no spoon in the persimmon we sit down scared like substitute teachers we learn how to love with one hand and we scrape our backs on this wood like we’re rubbing off velvet or making the muscles in our traps to fight and we know this house is a gift even if invisibled
If my heart breaks loose and darts across a lawn—if, stopped at crossroads, my heart pries my ribs apart, takes wing through the open car window—if my heart gets away from me— help me bring it back. Walk with me, hedge to hedge, with a butterfly net, a baseball glove, a sauce pan. We’ll crunch over cicada husks, duck the sprinklers, race the coming dusk. When we spot it, cupped in a daylily or tangled in chain link, by then, relieved and grass-stained, we’ll be laughing and crying and the streetlights will be just starting to sputter above us.
Houses on a bluff; below them, off-limits to construction, a few acres of watery woods. A clear simmering of spring water glazes bright moss and gravel, slows to a bog, where a marsh wren reveals its single note. Slow growths of mistletoe on thick-gnarled limbs of elm and oak.
I’m here with my two wolves— my daughter and her friend, both twelve, who’ve tied to their waists lush tails. They prowl among the folded smells of leafmold unleashed by winter sun. They run, they fade behind trees. From the woods I hear long high howls.
Is it only make-believe? Each day, they feel an approaching metamorphosis. They’re at an age for trying things on: clothes, hair, such baubles that dangle from pierced ears, language fanged to affront their parents—whose worst fear remains the child might be no predator, but prey.
But these two wolves are at play. Are they too old for this? In Finland, my daughter tells me, teenage girls ride stick-horses, in organized events. It’s like dressage, except the living and too expensive horse is assumed into the girl herself. Spine and head convey
the rider’s attentive, upright carriage, while legs perform the horse’s measured moves. It’s ignorant to presume an animal will share a human’s feelings in a human way; just so, I can’t presume to think I know the nature of these wolves, or cultivated horses the Finnish girls become, as if to say
what’s best might just be something else than human. The houses crowding the edge of bluffs know nothing of these changelings, who bark and bay, wander the unruled ways of the leftover woods, and in becoming, renounce. Unless these houses breed them too.
There is always someone who suggests that his poems would be far better than yours if he’d only bothered to write them. What’s more, he would have handled the whole enterprise with more grace and aplomb than you ever did had he chosen to write those poems instead of making a killing in investment banking. And yet you keep going, even in the knowledge that the poems you are writing are not as good as his poems, the ones he didn’t write . . .
and, for that matter, not even as good as the ones you didn’t write. “Your poems would be better if you didn’t write them” is either a Zen koan, a quip by Yogi Berra, an insult, or just nonsense, which is why no one says it. I hate the idea that any poem written down is somehow inferior to a poem that does not exist. Yes, plenty of bad poems have been written, but out of all the poems that have gone unwritten, there’s not a single one I love.
I got an email from Tony just now though he’s been dead for a year and a half, and in the instant before my rational brain told me it was spam, I felt the thrill of seeing his name pop up in my inbox, the dopamine rush that he was writing me from beyond the grave. And when I clicked on his name to open the message, the body of the email consisted only of my first name followed by an exclamation mark (as though he was excited to be writing me) and, under that, a compressed link in the electric blue that indicated it was live. My giddy finger slid the cursor over it, to see what Tony was sending me—maybe instead of infecting my computer with malware that would harvest my data and require me to pay a huge ransom in cryptocurrency, the link would take me to a web page where I could find all the poems Tony has written since he died. I paused a moment and thought about what those poems would be like, but my imagination failed me. Then I clicked “delete,” and went into my trash and deleted the message again, which made me feel timid and puny, as though, like D. H. Lawrence and his snake, I’d missed my chance with one of the lords of life.
After you left the party someone’s dog picked a fight with the resident ancient hound and big human hullabaloo ensued followed by talk of infectious diseases, tricks for making perfect piecrust, the battle of Waterloo. Literature was avoided (too controversial), as was real estate (too dull). The Sanskrit scholar refused to recite a poem we yearned to hear called Remembrance of Songs of the Future. Everyone wanted to know the truth about you so I spun one tale after another about lost items, Cochabamba (remember the awful soup we ate every single day?), and the exigencies of soul retrieval. They toasted your future with pretentious cocktails while I sat on my heart to keep it quiet. Without you, my partner in all things stealthy, I couldn’t slip away early. Then it was late, dark and windy. I stepped outside to gaze into the vastness overhead and the cosmos was as it ever is— persistent and forgettable.
Featured Art: Peony – side yard by Kayla Holdgreve
In Tang verse classics, lonely wives rebuff the orioles that flirt amidst their flowers; they’d rather climb steep observation towers and, wrapped in tragic shawls atop a bluff, command a view of miles on miles of rough terrain uncrossed by human forms for hours than lean into the softness of spring showers, breezes, birdsong, and such sensual stuff. Or so the male bards of the Tang portrayed them when writing verses in a female voice; I cannot blame them for it. Simple boys, they merely wanted someone back at home to miss them in their absence, to upbraid them for being gone, to love them through a poem.
Walking around in Central London I find myself even browner than I remember feeling when I lived there three years ago before returning to Lahore
[and her kind shisham trees and the unkind eyes of strangers that make my eyes heavy with the second pair of eyelashes that grow over the first as I navigate her narrow sidewalks]
but London looks exactly the same— everyone seems hurried, busy rushing to someplace else, someplace better where suddenly, violently like snakes shedding off their skins they will blossom into finer versions of themselves.
Now at a roadside café I try to gather my self but I cannot feel anything.
Instead, I watch myself from a distance—an object clad in red pants, practical blue Toms, and wristwatch with a cluster of crystals around the dial
and I wonder how the faint London sunshine manages to erase me so efficiently, so completely every time
until one of those absurd motorbike rickshaws targeting tourists races by and the notes of a loud Bollywood song slash the air and I feel sudden, improbable delight, recognizing in the sound something I cannot name, but which turns me briefly into some body
and it slides into me the way a ray of sunshine slides perfectly, angularly into the dark patch on a windowpane
that all of London is a dollhouse and I am a doll in the dollhouse— a tiny object in the gloved hands of a woman in a factory, hunched over an assembly line
[now she wipes away the sweat on her forehead, now she imperceptibly stretches, the muscle in her back relaxes by a tiny degree and the ache recedes for a bit]
she glues me to one of the miniature sidewalks and I sit there forever afterward my wristwatch gleaming my new Nikes shining sipping a cup of tea with petite, manicured hands.
Looking back, perhaps I should have known— I mean, I had a crossing guard named Hope, and my third-grade teacher was Mrs. Schoolman—that life in Allegory was not as it seemed.
But of course in childhood the marvelous will greet you as the given, and the habitus of your natal genre accommodates even the extraordinary without interpretation:
The lady on the white mule, trotting through town followed by a dwarf carrying her purse, certainly inspired her share of wonder among the seventh-grade boys out for bagels at the Jewish Deli. And the knight seen galumphing after a beast with a thousand tongues (very Monty Python) prompted serious concerns among local parents, even an emergency assembly with the police at Everyman High. But no one ever thought to call in the exegetes.
If, in grammar school, we suspected the gym teacher (Coach Lust, an amateur taxidermist) and the art teacher (Ms. Seeley, a talking paintbrush) were having an affair, we didn’t think to say, “Aha, the marriage of soul and body!” We just wondered what they were up to in the custodian’s closet.
And when the snow fell, it was white as regular snow, sparkling just as cold and diamond-bright in the sun. That it spelled out the word INNOCENCE in the parking lot of the municipal building, made no difference to us as we threw snowballs, built igloos, went sledding, and peed our steaming names in gold behind the library.
In high school, my friend Boredom and I spent weekend nights wandering the town, keeping clear of Idleness and Vice who were always hanging around the Duck Pond of Despair, smoking weed and listening to The Dead. We roamed the satyr-haunted golf course and the foundling-littered park looking for something to happen to us that we couldn’t explain. But adventure in Allegory seemed in short supply.
So when we got tired of killing Time (even in Allegory, a victimless crime) we’d head to Music’s house and hang out, listening to records, poring over lyric sheets and album covers, pondering the mysteries of life and death, love and sex, Aqualung and Stairway. Later we confirmed our insights by telephone, which was otherwise useless except for getting busy signals from the universe and silence from unrequited crushes, which, in Allegory felt like having your whole body stuffed in a pressure cuff.
And if you fell in love it meant tumbling down a heart-shaped well, the result of not watching your step when AMOR walked by in a bright red sash and silver crown, with a face that no two victims ever described the same (and our sketch artists could only draw visions anyway).
From the bottom of the well, you’d watch the patch of sky above, an eye opening and closing, going from day to night and back to day.
And once they’d pulled you back up, blinking in the literal sun,
There would be more mornings, more dark pink of sun through closed eyelids. More people rolling over to check that the other was still there. The day they left the rover alone on Mars, most didn’t read the news and most of those who did didn’t read about the rover—a wandering machine supposed to last for only ninety days. But ninety days passed and still there were more mornings. People continued to wake up startled, to churn their ways through the covers to find someone. Some never did, in beds too big or apartments too small. There were more mornings for the rover too—thousands more— until everyone who wasn’t a computer lost count, until the rover made mornings the wrong metric altogether. Back then,
those thousand days ago, you’d wake up grasping for me in a panic that felt new each time. Morning always the same dark pink that Mars looks in that selfie the rover took just before it stopped responding. I’m sorry, I love you always the first things you’d say aloud until I stopped hearing the comma. Not something you needed me to know so much as a ping sent to a wandering machine worlds away, still listening for who knows how long.
White girl with the slender legs, I’ve been measuring myself by those yardsticks, trying to fit into the cocoon of your skinny jeans and make this butt a butterfly. White girl with the limpy locks—
angel hair—I’m running behind you on the track, watching your ponytail, a pendulum, swing back and forth and back again. I bet even the hair in between your thighs is smooth as thread, your knuckle frizz
a fine, fine filament. You fair thing! The way you stop to stretch, raising your arms without thinking, bending back without looking to see who’s behind you. O how I want you and hate you.
Or want to hate you. Or hate to want you. Butter-skinned beauty, I could swallow you whole and alive.
It’s 3:10 on Wednesday this past Wednesday three days ago I’d skipped the Next Steps and Check-Out sections of my team’s quarterly planning meeting to get Louisa to Bayview Park early for after-school surf camp she likes to pull her wetsuit on before they head down to Cole Point I get home in time to whip heavy cream we are going low-fat high-carb I mean high-fat low-carb I hear Isabel’s world history teacher on speaker begging the kids to turn in something anything by Friday when he lets her class out she comes to the kitchen she zips and unzips her brown velour sweatshirt with daisies embroidered on the pockets she asks me what I’m doing now and I tell her about my quick snack before my 3:30 debrief call I eat the cream with blueberries and pecans out back under our avocado tree I like the way the sun lands soft for my few extra minutes I choose between The New York Times Daily and my urban paranormal fantasy audiobook I can’t remember which I pick probably the shapeshifter novel that’s what I like when work is piled on I bring my bowl and spoon and mason jar still half-filled with sparkling water back to the kitchen Jacob has come home early wearing his navy tie he picks at the leftover cheese from my ranch salad I had wanted to at least wash the whisk before my call I hate it when people in this house leave the whisk in the sink it seems so delicate like it will get crushed under dirty dishes though it never has but it’s also nice to lean against the counter and chat about what was it bike riding at the waterfront maybe or defrosting salmon for dinner I thought you were in the bathroom he says and I wonder out loud why heavy cream tastes so much better in its whipped form when Isabel comes in shaking crying arms crossed her hair in a low ponytail strands hanging loose gripping two empty amber prescription bottles hair falling out of her ponytail all those strands and tells us she swallowed all the pills
Probably it wasn’t your childhood dream to be a camel on a cruise ship. And I’m guessing, given the choice, that mime would have preferred not to open for a Def Leppard cover band. I’m not the person I’d banked on being either. Worse for wear, this HazMat suit is chafing my mojo, and it’s been forever since any stranger offered to buy me a glass of wine. Would you still love the moon if I told you it’s dangling from a hangman’s knot? My joie de vivre is a solid six when aided by mood lighting. It’s Luciferian, right? To be given a body but no gift receipt. And just as diabolical to be nearing the finish line wishing I’d fought harder to have children. Yesterday, in line at Starbucks, I noticed the teenage girl ahead of me— effortlessly taut in those really short shorts, her skin, #nofilter flawless. People like to ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, but no one ever warns you there’s an expiration date on feeling beautiful. Probably destiny didn’t expect she’d struggle
with a sense of direction. I ignored the smoke detector, assumed its batteries were flawed.
My mother calls my relationship with my body anti-feminist. In other words, she’s worried I’ve binge-loved my way to emptiness. And it’s true I once equated the male gaze with praise, felt a certain power when my own glance detonated like a cherry bomb across the room.
I am moonlighting at the mall of consequences— look at those Victoria’s Secret mannequins being hauled out with the trash. As for my appendages, let’s say fire sale or epilogue or single-use supernova. The brightness in this? I’m almost never that woman now, the kind other women should fear. O lust, its biodegradable valor. O goat-sucker, Chupacabra heart. Didn’t I once maim a man into leaving his wife? Yes, I’m all blood sport when I dance. Hindsight is a love-bite, desire’s busted vessels. I have a history of getting what I deserve.
First, watch the storm gathering. On the map there is a bustle of white, so much like a twirling petticoat that spins faster and faster. When it gets big enough, the astronauts post photos. News outlets flash warnings. People clear supermarket shelves, hammer up boards, track down batteries. Outside, the wind thrashes.
Arthur. Bertha. Cristobal. And Dolly.
Use old names, like our grandparents’. Names that stick. That is why we began to name them: the old labels—just numbers—were not enough. We needed names to contain such catastrophes.
Why would anyone even live there? someone said after looking at photos of decimated islands. They are destroyed year after year.
We weren’t noticing the hurricanes. Here, we were scrolling and scrolling past black squares. Past Black faces:
The Children’s Hospital is hyperaware of itself —all this youthful sickness, sadness everywhere— so it dons cartoonish decor and displays of smiling families around every corner, in every poster, on every screen. It feels so forced, but I get it—no one wants to be known as the joyless Children’s Hospital.
I can’t decide if I’m reading poems in my daughter’s room in the Neurology wing to avoid or to embrace how I’m feeling about a doctor-ordered-5-days-and-nights stay with my 9-year-old without her epilepsy meds waiting for seizures to happen during a pandemic because we need to record baseline data over time to make future decisions and this is where we start.
I convince myself it’s not my feelings, it’s that they’re mixing sentimentality into the recycled air— pumping hastily wrought emotions into my daughter’s room because I can’t even read bad poems without tearing up— maudlin poems about dads dying, mooshy poems about wading into the ocean to die, high-and-mighty poems proclaiming they know what’s good for my soul.
I set my book down to get away from the words watching my daughter watching an animated movie— an anthropomorphic disguising of humanity’s beautiful flaws because just like with the children’s hospital decor adults repackage reality in colorful, shiny cartoons when they think children will be upset.
A character is ranting at the naive, altruistic protagonist: Life isn’t some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and your insipid dreams magically come true!
I wonder if the hospital is listening, smirking, as my daughter grins, snuggles closer, and disappears blissfully into a drawn-out song-and-dance number. For now, she is content and she asks me how I’m feeling. I smile back and lie, telling her I’ve never been better and there’s no place I’d rather be.
On the phone, Liz says she visited a guy whose death was scheduled for the end of June— same disease, a little further down the path. So he chose a day. So we hold each other through the phone line and wonder what it’s like to blink off forever. We can’t believe it. Like a housecat following a sunbeam’s toasty path across the kitchen floor, inch by inch until there’s nowhere left— and then? Later that night, in my sister’s kitchen, my kindergarten niece insisted she’d never lived anywhere but the house we were in. So I played along, asked her where she was before. She closed her eyes for one slow breath, then sighed and said in a flat tone, The Land of Nowhere. I asked her what it felt like to be there, and she showed me, prostrate on the floor, Just lying on my face in the sand.
It would’ve taken all the water tanks on all the roofs in New York City filled with whiskey, all the leaves in Riverside Park telling me how to proceed every minute of the day. I would’ve needed to punch through the self-induced coma, a blast so loud it would’ve popped the manhole covers on Amsterdam Ave. It would’ve taken all the trashcans on all the streets of the Upper West Side to hold the ashes of all the days I burned. There were words, turning toward the sun, but I left them at the bodega, among the plums and oranges, in a booth at Four Brothers, on the bar of the Gold Rail, where I waitressed and whirled in the coronal flames of young men’s eyes. I left them on stoops and in doorways, all the way up Broadway to the little shop on 123rd Street with Maggie and Tina to buy the Nefertiti necklaces for six bucks. I left words dying on traffic islands amid the beer bottles and candy wrappers and in the writing class where I would sit paralyzed, petrified of finding out who I wasn’t. And in the end I chose safety and had to bend every bone in my body to fit into that tiny chair.
Featured Art: When Lunches Synch Up by Mallory Stowe
In a shingled house at the edge of the Berkeley Hills—near campus with its bulletin boards covered in smeary flyers for an upcoming Angela Davis lecture and another of a white woman toting a machine gun, and close enough to the Greek Amphitheater that the roar of a concert reverberated through the thin windows—Jane Gardener sat with six other women at a kitchen table. This was a dinner party. She’d forced herself to go with the intention of socializing. Yet she couldn’t stop thinking about how, though Lori said these dinners were about learning from other women in the restaurant industry, her presence felt like a charity. The stench of feet persisted despite the hand-dipped incense wafting in the corner. How could Lori purport to care about food, yet burn out her nose with cheap nag champa?
All of them were restaurateurs, except for Eartha, the German woman Jane employed as sous-chef at Dîner, whom she had invited to help her survive the affair.
“Isn’t spending time with friends supposed to be enjoyable?” Eartha had asked. They weren’t her friends, though. Not really. Once, there had been more women in this coterie, some she’d actually liked. But, one by one, they had married and turned their attention to their home lives.
Rob won’t stop talking. There’s a word for that: compensatory. No. Comp something. Rob would be someone to ask. But I don’t want to encourage him. My electric lawnmower, on the other hand, is pretty quiet when I use it to vacuum up the little pieces in the fall. Except I can still hear Rob.
He’s got some kind of big dinner he’s doing, hundreds of people, money floating around, speeches about different kinds of humans, even different species that are called human. Or were; they’re gone now. And to what extent they interacted, as in mated, he tells me.
Next topic: he’s going to India next week. He says, “A couple of Indians I know complain it’s just too crowded for them.” “What’s the grass in India like in the fall?” I say. We’re each trying to make ourselves a vacuum.
At one point Rob says the word “excelsior,” which is not the first time lately. “It’s a favorite, meaning upward,” he explains. “Up is overrated,” I say, although I tell myself that all kinds of humans have found up to be better, for practical reasons. For instance, the Dennis someones. The Dennisors. No. That’s not them.
You are without age definitionally Ergo not confined to a single one. Not to quickly solving the cube Or standing in pee-stained underwear Eating microwave lasagna with a spoon Or diving from a cliff so swift you can’t tell Flight from impact Or feeling the heart leap with such fury You want to kill yourself but know Why bother? Not nailing Act III Or sweeping the temple steps Or thinking your shadow is a skein of spiders Or regrettable sartorial choices O what was I expecting Or going a bit bonkers with an aquarium Or running the anchor leg Or insulting the therapist Or crying mommy mommy all the way home Or not really having a home. The great path goes under ground Then emerges at a waterfall. Tiny fibers connect us all, Electrical wads nervous as car alarms. Don’t worry about the cherubim. Just walk right up to the elephant. That door marked Exit is also the way in.
When we talk of “environmental poetry” we are talking of a poetic genre rooted in traditional ideas of nature, a genre which, historically, elevates specific ecologies to invoke the physical and temporal proximity of the living, breathing world. In doing so, environmental poems have tended to prioritize a connection to the local, forging the bonds of intimacy with what can be held in the senses long enough to become reliably known—this forest, those cliffs, that river, these animals—and eventually defining what it means to be considered presently here.
I used to joke that Simone Weil could write, “It is better to say, ‘I am suffering’ than to say ‘this landscape is ugly,’” because she wasn’t a poet. Poets create images and metaphors that readers can recognize and make meaning from. But Weil means to move us past projection toward greater self-awareness and vulnerability and away from the aesthetic and moral judgments that destroy our world. Rather than become acquainted with our inmost selves, we ascribe our pain to what we believe is other and treat it as expendable.
While contemplating an Italian sunset in 1822, Byron couldn’t resist getting in a dig at his friend Shelley’s affection for the previous generation’s poetry: “Where is the green your Laker talks such fustian about? . . . Who ever saw a green sky?”1 The Laker in question is Samuel Taylor Coleridge; the meteorological observation drawing Byron’s ire occurs in “Dejection: An Ode” (1817), Coleridge’s anguished exploration of a damaged response to the natural world and the implications of this damage for his poetic vocation. It’s tempting to attribute Byron’s objection to the zest he takes in stirring things up generally, or to his intermittently vehement distaste for the Lake School of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey specifically. Yet Byron’s snarkiness on this point is far from idiosyncratic. Romantic era poetry frequently and famously evokes Nature with a capital N, but these evocations sometimes lead a reader to wonder if the devotion to the big picture comes at the expense of acute observation. More pointedly, the big picture seems less a landscape with a life of its own and more a portrait of the artist’s own ambitions. Nature is unmistakably present, even prominent, in romantic era poems, but what, or who, is it there for?
At an event I once attended titled “Landscape and Literary Culture,” Aimee Nezhukumatathil said something along the lines of, “The trees don’t ask you where you’re from.”
Lately, I’ve been asking myself why I rarely imagine my body, a brown woman’s body, moving through the natural world. It makes me wonder what I have internalized about ecology, about the borders between “natural” and “urban.” About access to green spaces and the bodies that are perceived as belonging within them.
Featured Art: Silk Snapper Wild USA, $14.99/lb by Rachel Ann Hall
1. Poetry is a trailer park on a lake that isn’t really a lake but a dammed river and not on the main channel but along a slough, a fraying edge of a body of water that draws some of us to buy a double-wide, rent a lot, build a pier, and dock a boat in the marina.
The dam “lets the water out” each winter, a phrase conjuring a bathtub whose pulled plug leaves a dirty trickle down the middle. This is a far cry from the face of the deep where light, sky, land, and creatures were spoken into being, yet even such a slough is mysterious, elemental, germinal.