Tishani Doshi, “When I Was Still a Poet”

When I was still a poet I used to dream of rivers—I would like to be dreaming of rivers right now, instead of floating from insecurity to insecurity, wondering if I have anything to say that can be of use. Being a poet I take to speak optimism: one can be loved and accepted, one’s life can flow into something greater, one can be natural and nurturing. All you have to do is accept your creative power:

When I Was Still a Poet (h/t @kavehakbar)
Tishani Doshi

When I was still a poet
I used to dream of rivers.
Flowers had names and
purpose. Small birds
the shape of scars
made nests of braziers
of sky. Now that I
have given up,
afternoons dry
as raisin skins scrub
by. Thieves approach.
Dogs bark. Love springs 
from dirt like carrots.

Our poet is no longer a poet, though. Flowers had names and purpose—the ridiculousness of this is acknowledged. Still, the ridiculous can be powerful, transformative. Small birds the shape of scars made nests of braziers of sky: a creative power made scars fly—not necessarily away, but into places where the sky itself could give warmth.

All of this has changed for the speaker, and I can’t help but think about my own situation. I want to be creative, producing more. I don’t want anyone’s particular regard or disregard of me to affect my feelings, and certainly not my purposes. To be a poet is to be a maker who appreciates making. If this sounds more noble than useful for oneself, that is exactly the case. Utility, at a broader level, concerns the feasibility of one’s ambition, not just making money or getting attention. The trouble is that in making, one depends on some value for one’s efforts. Nothing happens in isolation, and the hidden cost of trying to speak while not being heard collapses into frustration. “Water from stone” feels less a miracle, more an imperative.

Now that I have given up, afternoons dry as raisin skins scrub by
. A more realistic perspective means dropping the expectations one has for one’s labor. Truth be told, there can’t be any. You just have to hope you “scrub by,” maybe show some gratefulness for being able to breathe another day. If this sounds like it’s on the edge of despair, it absolutely is: Thieves approach. Dogs bark. The world is a bleak and nasty place, and it hurts everyone, whether they have expectations or not. But one may have learned something from trying to make. Love springs from dirt like carrots. There is something real, nourishing, and strong even in the dirt. To take proper note of it is to step away from the activity of poetry for just a moment, seeing something earthly and ordinary for what it is.

Jean Follain, “Buying”

Elixir—the word just sounds tempting, I guess. I dunno, as it also sounds like a cough syrup brand. Still, it does no good not to hope. Maybe it wouldn’t just give me longer life and better health, but make me look better. Not only would I entertain larger prospects of success, but the chances that I’d be remembered—become an image on which people wanted to dwell—would increase.

“Buying” challenges the very idea that I know what I want. She was buying an elixir / in a city / of bygone times—Follain tells a story of a woman of an era which has been almost entirely erased. She indulges a cure, a power, that might as well be magic. One can surmise this sets her apart from her fellow citizens, but what does it have to do with us?

Buying
Jean Follain (tr. Heather McHugh)

She was buying an elixir
in a city
of bygone times
yet we should think of her
now when shoulders are as white
and wrists as fine
flesh as sweet
Oh, vertiginous life!

[Y]et we should think of her / now when shoulders are as white / and wrists as fine / flesh as sweet—from the woman long ago buying an elixir, the poem suddenly crashes into the present. Her buying an elixir does not sound half as creepy as our thought of white shoulders, fine wrists, sweet flesh. She bought an elixir and had an appetite; we seem to be nothing but appetite. Why should we think of her at all?

You could also say that if we do think of her in any way, we do so based on our desires. Maybe we craft those desires into ideals—perfect colors, perfect proportions—but our hunger still underlies the whole project. This would indicate that if this poor woman of the past wanted to be remembered in any way, that wish is caught up completely in our crude imaginings. Oh, vertiginous life, indeed.

I take “Buying” ultimately to be about trying to get some kind of reputation or fame. It has a lesson, one more subtle than “trying to get famous is the same as making a demonic wish.” We can surmise the poor woman didn’t really know what she wanted from the elixir. If she knew what she wanted, she would have done something more precise (this, to be sure, is not to blame her). We know we need a reputation and respect to function in society, not just have a legacy. If we’re precise about what we want to obtain—what we want to do, make, or give for it—we can sidestep at least some dependence on others’ whims. If what we possess is useful and others are in need of it, we can be visible for however long and not exploited. —I would only add, as a word of caution, that being useful and actually being needed are two entirely different things.—

References

Milosz, Czeslaw. A Book of Luminous Things. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996. 160.

Carol Snow, “In”

I regret not introducing you—okay, I gotta be honest, myself—to more diverse forms of art. Experimental forms force me to be more free with my thinking. More associations, but also more which must be passed over in silence. It’s not about being exactly right in interpretation, but simply trying to understand what could be at stake. Below, you’ll note that I decided rapid-fire association was productive for entering “In.”

“In” sits with four other poems, seemingly linked to them. For now, I want to consider it in isolation. I cannot quite picture myself saying the stones: their qualities in relation… occurs… like shock, occurs. But I have said plenty of things under my breath that were more tone than sense, and often when feeling pressured or anxious I scramble words. Shock does not entirely rob us of speech—

In (from EPR)
Carol Snow

the stones: their qualities in relation — ō — I mean to say — occurs;
like shock, occurs — is located

Stones. In the yard; large as mountains; beside and inside rivers. Toys and obstacles and symbolic of permanence. Qualities: dull or shiny, colorful or gray, hard enough to hurt, hard enough to create a sound, perhaps an echo. ō: not just a long o, but how I’d pronounce the Greek letter Omega.

the stones: their qualities in relation — ō — I mean to say — occurs. “Their qualities in relation.” The diversity of stones among stones, the sameness of stones in a typical setting. You look them over, and then oh, you’re stunned. They are not what you thought they were. They evoke pain and death far too easily; they’ve been slung; if time proof, they call to mind injury from what is timeless. Why would divinity, of all things, hurt one?

A provisional conclusion. Part of us is stone. Stones cause us to react and emit a sound. Our aspirations might as well be stone idols, holding us in contempt. Perhaps they are livelier than we are.

In the second line, back to flesh. like shock, occurs — is located. Stones can be worn away. Their qualities can occur. But flesh shocked—that’s us. We’ve located ourselves. What makes us most unlike stone, being able to be shocked, can make us still as stone when shocked. We are worn away. We “occur.” We speak.

What drew me to talk through “In” was Kay Ryan’s majestic “Erratic Facts,” which envisions the slow processes of geological time causing rocks to resemble eggs. In the hardness of loss, a hope. Time does not merely soften, but gives ground for rebirth. “In,” by contrast, captures the chaos and arbitrariness of shock. At moments we think we have found something lasting, we discover quickly how dependent we are on what is relative. The voice we give injury, however, can begin a new path.

Sappho, “And I said / I shall burn…”; Xenophon, Memorabilia III.11

The willingness to make a sacrifice—And I said / I shall burn—is an attempt to bribe the gods. I assume the fat thigh-bones of a white she-goat would be set aflame for persuading a goddess to charm a beloved on one’s behalf.

Poor goat. It becomes the victim of a tangle of problems belonging to human being. You want attention from someone on whom you’re crushing. You see them as beautiful and wish you could be worthy. Since you have projected onto them, made them part of your fantasy, it makes perfect sense you would turn to prayer and sacrifice. Whatever we call “love” is intimately tied up with “belief,” and a dysfunction peculiar to each can set into either. Below, Sappho envisions a burning as she burns white-hot herself. What if the goddess does not respond in kind; what if her desire changes, proving to be far less than the prayer—

And I said / I shall burn…
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

And I said

I shall burn the
fat thigh-bones of
a white she-goat
on her altar

If you really want something, and you pray about it, you risk the expectations put into that prayer completely transforming your personality. Sure, it’s relatable, as it happens to all of us. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t serious. The central concern is that an awful lot of resolve is thrown into what could be a whim. Pretty soon, the beloved is an abstraction, the need for justification of your prayers and feelings swallows other priorities, and one’s other physical, mental, and emotional needs might as well be smoke rising from an altar.

Knowing how fast asking “Am I loved?” becomes the very essence of one’s physical existence, I propose looking at another classical text. In Memorabilia III.11, Xenophon’s Socrates, moved by the report of a woman whose beauty surpasses speech, actually visits her. This is most unusual behavior from Socrates, as handsome rich young men do not seem to be the primary focus of what transpires.

Socrates wonders how this most beautiful woman, Theodote, takes care of herself—not only is she dressed finely, but her whole household does not want. She replies “if someone who has become my friend wants to treat me well… he is my livelihood.” You may be asking yourself, at this juncture, what on earth the trials of a courtesan have to do with our need for any attention from a crush. They get all the attention they need, no? They don’t go crazy feeling unwanted, do they?

Socrates presses. Does Theodote have any consistent way of making “friends?” Does she have contrivances, hunting nets? Theodote is too honest to answer that her beauty and fortune are actually some sort of skill. She begins asking how she can consistently hunt friends. In a discussion which endorses what one would call procurement or “pimping,” Socrates sets forth two lines of thought which may be thought contradictory. First, he speaks of giving pleasant benefactions often while listing Theodote’s “nets:”

“And what sort of nets,” she [Theodote] said, “do I have?”

“To be sure, one that is indeed very entangling: your body,” he [Socrates] said. “And in it a soul, through which you learn both how you might gratify with a look and delight with what you say; and that you must receive with gladness one who is attentive but shut out one who is spoiled; and that when a friend is sick, at least, to watch over him worriedly, and when he does something noble to be exceedingly pleased by it along with him; and to gratify with your whole soul the one who worries about you exceedingly. I know very well that you understand how to love, at any rate, in a manner not only soft but also well intentioned; and as to the fact that your friends are best for you, I know that you convince not only by speech but by deed.”

“By Zeus,” said Theodote, “I, for my part, contrive none of these things.”

(Memorabilia III.11.10 ff.)

In recommending that Theodote attend to the soul, whereby she can “gratify with a look [expression]” and give “delight” through her speech, show gladness to the attentive but shun the spoiled, care for a friend when sick, praise him when he does noble things, and “gratify” with her whole soul someone who truly cares for her, Socrates seems to contradict his next bit of advice, which features a strong element of “play hard to get.” Before we look at that next piece of advice, two things leap out from this passage. Socrates seems to be describing what philosophy is for him in practice. It can be called medicine for the soul, an endorsement of genuine nobility, and most pleasing for someone who worries about eliminating their own ignorance.

Further, while Socrates’ rhetoric already assumes Theodote does not know these contrivances—his “I know…you understand” is really a polite way of saying “you ought to understand”—this is a good description of how to get someone in your life who wants to be better and treat people well. Friends and partners should pay attention to your body language and facial expressions, listening carefully to your words and not just hearing what they want to hear. You want someone who recognizes that being attentive is important, not someone who takes you for granted. There should be honesty—being able to admit one’s own problems and having openness to real celebrations, not just milestones. This list of considerations is very far from “play hard to get” or melting a goat on an altar for the sake of someone’s heart. This does mean learning to respond to someone else’s genuine concern with love and trust, one’s “whole soul.”

Yet not much later, Socrates says that she would most gratify a partner by giving to “those who are in need” (III.11.13). He clarifies this by saying that those who are filled with pleasures will not receive them kindly, but those who need them certainly will. So on the one hand, we have a picture of a virtuous friend or partner who can be trusted and loved wholly, and on the other, we have a picture of people who are manipulable by pleasure. The problem the courtesan has in making a livelihood is indeed our problem. How can we not be a roller coaster of emotion, ascending to idealism and collapsing into cynicism?

Xenophon is careful in his word choice. There are different contrivances for different people, but only some people can appreciate one’s soul. It is not a coincidence that Socrates’ earlier rhetoric employs the word “noble,” whereas the later discussion repeatedly uses the word pleasure. You want someone whose pleasure is ultimately you. In detailing what actually goes into finding love, Socrates shows that the attempt to use godly power to get a lover is about power more than love. Again, it’s something we all do, something we all feel we have to do. Finding someone who cares for you is a very different yet similar-looking process. You “contrive” in the hope that someone will care enough to “contrive” to win you.

References

Xenophon, Memorabilia. Translated by Amy Bonnette. Ithaca: Cornell, 1994.

Paul Muldoon, “Apple Slump”

Associations slump upon each other like apples about to waste.

Even in reading, decisions must be made or a sense—perhaps a feeling—is lost.

My anxiety lies in counting the associations, attempting to hold each as if it were the pearl in the field (Matthew 13:46). You make one, then another, then still another as you wander through words. The danger is not achieving wisdom as much as forgetting one’s own thoughts from a moment ago. Perhaps this suffices to restate the bounty-threat of snow in October:

Apple Slump (from Poetry)
Paul Muldoon

The bounty-threat of snow
in October. Our apple-mound,
some boxer fallen foul
of a right swing

waiting for his second to throw—
the sound, turn up the sound—
that mean little towel
into the ring.

The bounty-threat of snow in October—snow doesn’t only threaten the apples, for it is a “bounty-threat.” It threatens some good, and thus the poem personifies snow. Snow is a raider, a thief, ready to do you an injustice.

A slight frost falls on our apple-mound. The mound is red, flecked with white, half-buried in earth—an ugly bruise of ill omen. It looks like the face of some boxer fallen foul of a right swing.

Already too many associations, too many apples. Snow a thief, taking out of season; an apple-mound like a bruise a boxer receives during a match; the apples, tokens of an understanding not yet achieved. Three themes emerge. You don’t have to connect them if you don’t want to. There’s injustice (snow steals), perishability (apples rotting), pain (the boxer is in a lot of this). Those three associations recall a pretty specific fruit, one from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

I can’t stress enough that the convergence of these themes is a mere convenience for us readers. No such clarity exists for, say, the boxer, who has been hit hard and whose mind is a cloud. He reverts to habit, waiting for his second to throw. Maybe he wants to throw that mean little towel into the ring and surrender. More than likely, some other entity—his corner, the referee, the bell—does it for him. Only faintly—the sound, turn up the sound—does he hear a bell ring as he waits to throw… something, probably a punch.

Muldoon seems to be wondering about how moral reasoning is possible. You’ve been wronged to the point of trauma, your instinct is to hit back. Something in you knows to “do no harm,” that violence only begets more violence. That something might help hold you back. But it is not a product of your thinking exclusively, because to speak simply, you weren’t thinking. One might say that Christian morality explicitly excludes actions committed on account of ignorance from being sin. This is a cute theoretical position to hold, as people go to war because of the trauma inflicted upon them; they act out because. Speaking of redress of grievances or trying to assess the emotions involved or find the exact right course of action—these are all concerns after the fact.

“But if you just hit back, you’re an animal!” —Yes, and that’s no slight on one’s humanity.— The Edenic counterfactual, where man can weigh the consequences of immortality versus the possibility of real knowledge, is incredibly problematic to say the least. It underlies so many sentiments and thoughts in this time regarding right and wrong; it speaks too clearly to a privileged few who do not want. At its core, it assumes a set of conditions that are as mythical as a lost immortal garden protected by a sword of flame. Try walking through how you reached the wisdom you feel comfortable passing to another person. I guarantee you’ll have something of the same process as me. I’ve had to throw away much of my pride about the things I did right because I did them without really knowing what I was doing.