November 15, 2016

Picking mushrooms at the edge of dread

The shock of the recent election can't be ignored. I've spent the past week in grief. Still, "the sun shone / as it had to" on the half of the country that's terribly afraid for our future. I look to people and words for comfort.

I find comfort in my family, a bunch of brilliant, funny, compassionate people. My brother texted me earlier this month asking me to write something about a particular poem he loves for his birthday, which is Thursday. I'd never read the poem, "Separation" by W.S. Merwin, but here it is:
Your absence has gone through me 
Like thread through a needle. 
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

An image of connection - stitching something - illustrates separation. It seems right to talk of the absence of someone loved as a palpable thing with a color, something sewn into the fabric of life. There's a transition between the simile of the first two lines and the assertion of the third that makes the poem work: it moves into action. The threaded needle is in motion, stitching through everything. There's no need for the poem to continue, to point out examples of this color: you find it for yourself. Part of the meaning of the poem is its stopping cold like this. It's a refusal that creates space for the reader to bring their own experience in.

My friend Rose shared a link to "What Kind of Times Are These" on Twitter as we reeled from the election results. It also ends in a refusal that makes space. Its particular refusal is buoying my heart a bit, now.

Unlike the Merwin, which is an image that could be anywhere and everywhere, this is a poem of a place. It's a lonely, desperate place, a "ghost-ridden crossroads" where a mass of people "the persecuted" have gone to vanish into shadows. The short "e" sounds in "edge of dread" punch up the menace: they sound like something collapsing. The speaker tells you "this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here". This line captures the unreality I've felt since my country elected a reality television misogynist xenophobe to represent us in the world. These are the shadows of our own home. They're not someone else's but ours. But the place in the poem is a place of resistance in the midst of uncertainty and dread. It's the type of place I want to cultivate in times like these.

The poem refuses twice to tell you where this place is: "I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear." It resolves with a sideways answer to the titular question. These are times where "you still listen" — times where we can still reach each other, even if the way we do so isn't immediately clear. Muddled times, but not entirely hopeless. 

Reading this poem reminded me that Adrienne Rich refused to accept the National Medal of Arts as an act of protest against broadening inequality. She speaks of "the power of art to break despair." This is one among several powers we need now. And I don't know what comes next, but I have to believe we can listen to each other, hold close the people we need, and find a way to resist despair. 

Sending you light and fortitude,

PS: I'll be reading at Wit Rabbit on December 6th at Quenchers Bar starting around 7 pm. I'd love to see you there. 
PPS: Happy birthday week, Jack Watson. Thanks for recommending some Merwin you like. You're my favorite brother ever.