My grandmother lived on a cliff on an island and the walls in her front room were the color of bone, the color of the soft underside of certain mushroom caps. They were stark and alive in an earthly way. Two windows faced east and the wide-planked floors were painted a salty blue. At sunrise, light slid over the ocean and into the room, then speared it with a burning rip of peach, the day entering full force. Another window to the right of the bed faced southeast toward town. The curtains were white, thin, and the wind moved all through the room.
The room was charged. The curtains were not erotic, though they drifted in the wind like nightgowns. The heavy bureaus were not erotic, and when the drawers were pulled open, always with effort, they smelled of mothballs and dusty linen. The walls were bone. The floors were blue. They were not erotic. Something moved through this room, wind or ghosts or both. The room was charged with a presence I’m not sure I’m meant to name nor could if I wanted to. I have known no room so intimately lit by dawn’s entry.
Dawn burned in, and one morning a lover in the bed said, “Look.” Neither of us was all the way awake. And we turned toward each other, this was when we were new, and we pressed against each other. Maybe it was the ghosts that whispered yes, yes, now, right now, while you’re fleshed and ready, while you still cast shadows, now, yes, an urging from another world, touched by dawn’s rose fingers. We heeded it. And we slept again and woke when the morning was real.
The house is gone. My grandmother, too. But there are moments, in between sleep and wake, when I am in this room, and I see the windows and those white curtains, the dark weight of the bureaus to the right, a closet space in the left corner of the room doored with an off-white piece of cloth. And then my eyes begin to adjust. The bureaus burn away like fog in sun. The windows seem to be pulled up and away, as though on strings, and my own wide desk comes into view. The closet retreats through the wall, and bookcases appear in its place. Two windows descend to my right, overlooking no ocean. The eyes adjust; the edges get revealed; the blur comes into focus. Read More
In our column Poetry Rx, readers write in with a specific emotion, and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match. This week, Claire Schwartz is on the line.
I find myself distracted these days—mostly by the violence of the news, which streams in circles. I want to engage thoughtfully, but it’s difficult when everything is “breaking” and urgent. Do you have a poem for this age of terrible information? I want to do what I can in solidarity with those who are putting everything on the line, but I get overwhelmed by the width and scale of injustice. I’d appreciate any help you can offer for narrowing in and focusing my efforts without tuning reality out. At the moment my world is spinning, and I just feel helpless.
Can’t Do It All
The influence of one poet upon another is neither simple nor singular, but a matrix of experiences, of other poetry absorbed, adapted, smeared, blended, and spat out. I’m going to take a close look at the work of one extraordinary new poet, francine j. harris, whose highly original poems demonstrate a wide range of influences absorbed and put to new uses, or to old uses in new contexts. Harris is a black woman whose upbringing and adult residence in the city of Detroit are major subjects for her poetry. So are the subtle and overt manifestations of racism, especially against black people, in America. She’s also a formal and verbal innovator, bringing together elements of the experimental and modernist traditions in American poetry with aspects of performance poetry and the confessional lyric. From all of these strains, it’s easy to draw lines back to harris’s forerunners, but it’s also startling to see how, by combining them, she’s created powerful new poetry for our time.
In many ways, harris is an exemplary contemporary poet. If contemporary poetry has a hallmark, it is variety: the best poets of this period are neither experimental nor traditional, neither formal nor free, neither political nor aesthete. A formalist, a confessional poet, a protest poet, a love poet, and more, harris is a skeptic about the possibilities of language to effect change and create bridges between individuals. Her best poems demonstrate the breadth of what a contemporary poem can be, making her an ideal case study in how the work of older poets, and contemporaries, is exerting influence on new poetry.
Sometimes it’s only in the work of a newer poet that we can identify the achievements of the older ones. The marks of a wide array of poets, from e. e. cummings to Robert Hayden to Lucille Clifton to D. A. Powell, appear in harris’s work. And there are plenty of others in the mix as well. Read More
In times of chaos, we turn to narrative. Throughout the tumult of the George W. Bush years, the preferred palliative for the demoralized left was Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing—a political drama about the lives of White House staffers in the administration of Josiah Bartlet, a fictional Democratic president played by Martin Sheen. The show, which originally aired in the late nineties and early aughts, depicted a world in which government could serve as an engine of good, an instrument of change. Across the series, the staff brokered peace in the Middle East, dreamt up free college education, and unraveled the gordian knot of entitlements like Medicare and Social Security. In the wake of 9/11, as the U.S. was contending with the specter of domestic terror and gearing up for an unpopular war in Iraq, the show’s viewership tilted toward seventeen million.
The storyline I found most compelling as a young, aspiring author was about the presidential speechwriters. Throughout the show, Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) sequestered themselves in the darkened catacombs of the White House, armed with nothing more than legal pads and Bic pens, testing out snatches of oratory on each other as they sought to draft a comprehensive narrative about America. “Tonight, what began in the commons of Concord, Massachusetts,” President Bartlet intones in a campaign speech, “as an alliance of farmers and workers, of cobblers and tinsmiths, of statesmen and students, of mothers and wives, of men and boys, lives two centuries later.” It was this heady idealism—the notion that America itself was merely a story, a fragile narrative continually authored by each administration—that led me to see politics as a noble calling, a redoubtable vocation. The depth of my fandom revealed itself in ways that were oblique but no less shameful. Throughout college, I festooned the walls of my bedroom with the same framed “Don’t Tread on Me” flag that Seaborn keeps in his office and, on weekends, I recreationally performed critical exegeses on the rhetoric of presidential inaugurals. After watching the 2004 Democratic National Convention, during which Barack Obama delivered a speech that had an elegance rivaling anything Aaron Sorkin had written, I wrote an effusive fan letter and shipped it off to his senate office in Chicago. A few weeks later, a staffer called and suggested that I apply for an internship, which led, somehow, to me spending the next several years in Illinois, toiling first in Obama’s senate office and later in the headquarters of his presidential campaign. As an intern in the correspondence department, I was fairly low on the totem pole and had exactly zero sway in shaping the candidate’s agenda. Instead, my job involved wading through thousands of letters from ordinary voters, an epistolary tangle out of which I gleaned a national longing for a different kind of leader, one who could connect the bloody doldrums of the nation’s past to the hopeful arc of its future. After long train rides home to my garden apartment on the north side of Chicago, I binged-watched episodes of The West Wing, often falling asleep to the DVD menu’s soaring orchestral theme.
Now, in 2018, that time of my life seems lacquered with the same gauzy-edged cinematography as Sorkin’s televisual fantasia. Eventually, I abandoned my aspirations to be a presidential speechwriter and enrolled in an M.F.A. program for creative writing. In retrospect, it seems a slender mercy to have escaped the political arena before the presidency devolved into the blustering Twitter volleys of our current mogul-in-chief. But over the past several years, The West Wing has made a swift and surprising comeback. Owing in part to the convenience of Netflix, the show had been enjoying a resurgence among younger viewers, who weren’t yet born when the series first aired. “The West Wing Weekly,” a podcast devoted to rehashing episodes and extolling the virtues of the Bartlet administration, garnered two and a half million downloads by the end of 2016. So seismic was this revival that earlier this year rumors began circulating about NBC possibly rebooting The West Wing, with Aaron Sorkin wrangling his old crew to serve as a foil to the Trump White House.
Last summer, I learned that these new West Wing fans, or self-described “Wingnuts,” along with the original Aaron Sorkin faithfuls, were planning to commemorate the show with its first-ever fan convention in Bethesda, Maryland. There would be panel discussions about public policy, a West Wing Trivial Pursuit night, plus a mock state dinner. When I showed my wife the event’s Kickstarter page, which was soundtracked by the show’s triumphant theme, she said, with no small amount of grief in her voice, “Please tell me you’re not thinking about going.” Read More
In touch, sound, and smell, dawn gives a sense of triumph. It’s a golden feeling of awe and optimism: trumpet blasts and peachy whiffs and caresses. It’s not always so. There’s another side of dawn, a side that has nothing to do with hope or gold. There’s the dawn defined by dread, when your eyes are open too early and the light turns gray and mustardy.
This is the dawn when you’ve been awake all night, when the fanged and hungry muskrats of insomnia have chewed the corners of your mind. They’ve spent the night whispering lies about the small pink blotch of skin on your chest that will bloom into cancer and seep through your flesh and into your heart, or reminding you of every false, infuriating word your father said, or giving you a close look at the soundless black abyss that waits for you.
This is the dawn when you’ve been up all night drunk, on drugs, a lunatic. The taste is sour. It is stale. It is the rotting tang of summer dumpsters. It tastes like sucking spilled whiskey from the sleeve of a wool sweater. It tastes like things you want to forget about yourself. It tastes like the amoxicillin you drank as a child to cure the infection in your ear. It tastes like dust, like desiccated residue, like skin and shit and heavy, metal particles that linger in the air. It tastes like regret. And it tastes, too, like fear.
Toothpaste doesn’t help, or it helps only a little bit, because the taste is not just on your tongue, but down your throat and in your belly, coating your lungs, lining the sick, wet crannies of your poisoned guts.
The taste of fear comes from the knowledge, as the sky begins its shift, that you have murdered this next day, one that hasn’t even lived yet, and no mouth-to-mouth will bring it back. What have I done? Read More