Ilya Kaminsky, “Question”

On the one hand, I cannot relate to Ilya Kaminsky’s “Question.” I have not experienced war or a trauma like it. I cannot begin to imagine the slow rebuilding of one’s sanity after an explosive, bloody shock, only to be literally scared to death again.

On the other, I think of Virgil’s first words of the Aeneid, “I sing of arms and the man.” How a meditation on man and the violence to which he devotes himself entails the question of empire. I don’t much like the phrase “toxic masculinity,” but it has a certain aptness when trying to understand why the current alternative to, say, the liberal international order is a combination of fevered conspiracy theories, vague assertions of will to power, and a sense of tradition so incoherent it would render any true priest or prophet speechless:

Question (from Poetry, April 2018. h/t @spoofyaf)
Ilya Kaminsky

What is a man?
A quiet between two bombardments.

Most try to define manliness as virtue, typically leaning on courage. Without courage, there can be no glory or acquisition or possibility of defense. Kaminsky’s challenge is razor sharp. What is a man? asks a man to be present and alive, not a sacrifice already made, a man in memoriam. Now courage, moreso than wisdom or moderation, is what people say it is. Glory, acquisition, and defense are manifestations of courage being useful for a given political order. It is a virtue more than willing to bestow the title “man” on the dead, and perhaps only the dead.

A man, in Kaminsky’s telling, must at least live between two bombardments. He is that, a quiet between two bombardments. He is only known in peace. This again begs the question of why centuries of thought and propaganda have defined man as only a warrior, to the ridiculous extent of making Christ a martial Messiah when he taught and practiced turning the other cheek. I suspect a phrase I used above, the “possibility of defense,” can do far more work in outlining a psychology of politics. That one needs honor and glory to make courageous self-sacrifice seem worthwhile to a citizenry is only one proposition to consider. Another I feel inspired by our incredibly noisy age, where noise attempts to mask our inability to communicate. That noise in some cases speaks a deep insecurity, and “manliness” is the pre-political notion onto which that insecurity latches. If one can’t feel one can stand on one’s own—if fear of others, loneliness, alienation, a lack of self-confidence defines one’s life—one might doubt whether one could ever stand up for himself, should stand up for himself. In which case, “manliness” is a projection. Everyone else should demonstrate courage, not allow their pain to get the better of them, be the hero story others need. Everyone else should be able to throw bombs, endure abuse and violence, cause abuse and violence. Maybe this will help grow an empire. Maybe it will also prove that man is no better than his worst fears.

Jennifer Chang, “Ceremony”

For the last few weeks, I’ve misread Jennifer Chang’s poem. I’ve been reading the last stanza consistently as “I had love. A blue kite untwisting the sky” instead of I had a love. With “I had love” in mind, I confess I missed the possibility that this was about a death. I almost felt like the poem could have been about a wedding.

Maybe (to be really generous to myself) I was subconsciously trying to see how our sense of love and loss works, how exactly both are tied together. I don’t think it’s as simple a formulation as “love includes the possibility that it will be lost” or “loss can only be felt because of love.” My misreading, I think, points to something more complex: What if you could see the whole of love in loss, or the whole of loss in love?

Ceremony (h/t @themoneyiowe on Twitter)
Jennifer Chang

I can't say which
cloud cut open
the hill. Or why,
walking, I can't
reach the sky. Virginia
is not east.
          The hill
gives no slack, no
shade, so I rise
to light. I am quiet
and won't
squander words
to make what's 
false true.
          I had
a love. A blue 
kite untwisting
the sky.

An upward march does no favors for articulating what is immediate—I can’t say which cloud cut open the hill. Or why, walking, I can’t reach the sky. A sense of numbness, of distance emanates from these lines. This already feels like a ceremony performed for the dead. But there’s an otherworldly reaching at play here, too. Clouds cleave the hardest realities; we’d like to reach the sky and it almost feels like we’re doing so. I don’t want to posit a facile interpretation and say that feelings of loss and love are impossible to distinguish. But it does seem language reaches in trying to find the precise distinction we might need to make sense of our own lives.

Virginia is not east—no, it’s onward, upward, into a space where grief or something entirely other can dwell. The worst happenings seem to coexist with the highest possibilities. But what is highest? Ascension only gives a direction, not a location. The hill gives no slack, no shade, so I rise to light. I struggle, I ascend, but where am I? I am quiet and won’t squander words to make what’s false true.

I’m in a space defined by loss. No words will bring back a beloved. I rise to light in acknowledging the immensity of grief, in playfully reaching with their memory. I had a love. A blue kite untwisting the sky—around the axis of a kite, the sky itself is no longer immense, but opened, unlocked, untwisted. With this poem, I started by wondering how love and loss relate, and now I find one, just one, peculiar thought about that. Love does have a playfulness specific to it. It does not ease loss or suffering or regret, but can let loss be an opening in which those remembered can be treasured, against the hardness of it all.

Goethe: “When a landscape is described as romantic, this means that there is a tranquil sense of the sublime in the form of the past, or, what amounts to the same, of solitude, remoteness, seclusion.”

Earlier in the week, I woke up early, started reading and writing, and then felt down. I pushed myself to go to the bookstore, where I did more reading and writing, talked to a few people, and had some coffee. I felt much better. Driving back, I wondered what had happened: Why did going out feel so much more different than staying in? Why did staying in feel so limiting?

I think there’s something more than purely personal reasons at work. I wonder about what I want whenever I travel: not just to learn through sightseeing or feel free throughout the day, but hear from someone else about where they live and maybe make new friends. You could say “that’s just you,” but I suspect that expanded sense of travel describes the best memories of many of us: a feeling of freedom translating into learning something new, and that in turn becoming so much more. In that case, “going out” and “travel” both bear a close relation to wanting the most out of life.

I’ll concede that part of me feels this to be hedonism. A quiet hedonism, sure, but certainly hedonism when compared with others’ lack of means and suffering.

I guess there were times with simpler joys? Goethe speaks below of “romantic” landscapes, landscapes containing stories, worlds unto themselves:

When a landscape is described as romantic, this means that there is a tranquil sense of the sublime in the form of the past, or, what amounts to the same, of solitude, remoteness, seclusion.

If these joys were simpler in one sense (no coffee, no driving, no air conditioned building), in another sense they feel wholly beyond my comprehension. Goethe holds that when a landscape is described as romantic, this means that there is a tranquil sense of the sublime in the form of the past. “A tranquil sense of the sublime” indicates a calm completely engulfing one who witnesses the awesome power of nature. That power may best be described as terrible: it slowly reaches over and covers walls, occupies and isolates what could be fit for human dwelling, buries the biggest cities. “A tranquil sense of the sublime in the form of the past” is the sense that not only your existence, but all of human history, is a drop in the ocean of time. —Cliché, I know, but the enormity of what you’re seeing is Goethe’s central focus. You’re calm because you can only bear witness.—

That is not all you feel. Solitude, remoteness, seclusion—out here, with the landscape and its story, you are made alone. This sense can’t really be shared; even the most natural friendship reaches across social bonds to find authentic moments. There is a mysticism at work here that makes the only true traveler a wanderer. Someone could reject society and journey outward to see themselves against only the natural world.

It’s strange to think, in my wishy-washy idealism, I’m asking for less than Goethe. Maybe that’s laziness: I don’t need to see an old-growth forest consume old cabins, the extreme landscapes of the Poles, or the wonder of outer space. But it may also be the realization that a drop in the ocean contains infinities of its own. I’m still not entirely sure why I felt better going out, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just me.


Goethe. Sketchy, Doubtful, Incomplete Jottings. New York: Penguin, 1998.

Goethe: “When we are called to learn something great, we at once take refuge in our native poverty and yet have still learnt something.”

When we are called to learn something great, we at once take refuge in our native poverty and yet have still learnt something.

– Goethe (from Penguin’s “Sketchy, Doubtful, Incomplete Jottings”)

I’m ambivalent about corny quotes promoting the value of education. On the one hand, they suck. They’re not the same as making music with a tinny piano or skiing downhill at terrifying speeds. Nor do they give you knowledge of facts or approaches which could shut down people who are all talk and advance a debate or an inquiry.

On the other hand, these quotes are very necessary. You’ll be in a classroom, witnessing attention wander toward oblivion. You’ve got to say something, and you can’t just shout “Wake up!” unless you want to destroy any credibility you have with people. (I guess you could do this if you wanted to be a coach, but that says a lot about coaching in America, none of it good).

So this quote could go two ways: 1) we retreat into our “native poverty” when confronted with greatness, somehow staying immune to it. In other words, we stay losers and learn that much about ourselves. 2) when we try to learn something great, we can only begin from our “native poverty.”

Those two issues, in turn, bring about at least two others. First, for myself, there’s how I act, that if I try to learn about things pronounced great, I show a pronounced tendency to return to my “native poverty” and write utter crap (that reminds me, I have to revise everything on this blog sooner rather than later). Second, there’s our extremely online social media age, where it feels like everyone (except me) is photogenic, telegenic, excellent at public speaking, interviews, self-presentation, and responding to others. Their “native poverty” cannot be fairly called that—they have a skill for self-expression I want. The greatness they seek, to be heard, authentic, inspiring, and eloquent, is not a false greatness, but could be incomplete in some cases. Saying the right thing or promoting thoughtfulness are not the same as preparedness, polish, and confidence.

Greatness may have to challenge your “native poverty” without breaking you. “To learn something great,” then, is about opportunities revealing themselves. It’s not as simple as telling yourself to “take them” or “make something of this thing called an opportunity.” In some unspecified way, they have to speak to you, and then you speak them.

Trilussa, “Happiness”

Maybe I’m not a good writer because I’ll fixate on an image, letting it use me instead of learning how to navigate it. I’ll start thinking about someone, and then we’ll be in the park together, sun shining brightly. Then in Paris visiting museums on a gray, damp day, finally New Year’s Eve toasting with family at a small party. All this will blink in my head between the cereal and snacks aisle, where I have to make a decision alone. Do I want to buy a value-size bag of knockoff Honeycomb for snacking and/or dinner, or do I want to be classy and buy the kettle-cooked sea salt & black pepper potato chips?

Ah, happiness. It feels like a bliss had in the briefest of visions, an end that human life barely touches on, only promising fulfillment. Bees drunk on pollen don’t have to think as far as that. Maybe I can relate to them while acknowledging their superior happiness:

Happiness (from The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry)
Trilussa (translated by John Dowd)

I saw a bee settle
on a rose petal.
It sipped, and off it flew.
All in all, happiness, too,
is something little.

I saw a bee settle on a rose petal. It sipped, and off it flew—what’s curious to me is “off it flew.” It did not sip, savor, reflect, experience the entirety of la dolce vita, then move on with nothing left. It sipped, knowing what gave it happiness and goodness, then moved to the next flower post haste. It did not need to reflect because the product of reflection was built into it.

But all the same, it wanted to move on. The rose was just one moment. Maybe it wanted to put together the goodness of those moments—each individually good, the sum total happiness. No, that’s the wrong thought, for the bee doesn’t concern itself with that theme the way my pathetic imagination does, with happiness as ephemeral being central. It builds from concrete goods in each moment, each experience happy in its own way. Should we then assume its whole life to be happy and good? All in all, happiness, too, is something little—I bought the kettle chips; knockoff Honeycomb is too sweet.