One thing I’m struggling with in relationships—well, more than relationships—is feeling adequate. Believing “hey, I got this” and not collapsing into a puddle of anxiety seems a small thing, an eminently normal thing. It shouldn’t be hard to believe, right?
I think Wright, in the small, crystalline sentence below, captures exactly how complicated an air of positive expectation is. He brings us to a wedding and focuses on a moment that one most wants to treasure, where everyone wants to be happy for you and is. As in heaven all are smiling at you—
The Wedding (h/t @TomSnarsky)
As in heaven
all are smiling
at you, even
who know you.
“In heaven,” loved, accepted, and celebrated no matter what. That last concerns the part of The Prodigal Son most of us skip over, where the father who is ecstatic that his son has returned throws a party. He is then berated by one of his sons who has been loyal longer: “Where’s my party?” The wages of sin is death, but justice as its own reward may not suffice for any of us. In other words, it’s perfectly reasonable to want to be celebrated.
Celebration is not a matter of flattering someone, giving empty, manipulative praise. At a wedding, you’re being celebrated because you are giving love, not merely receiving it. Inasmuch as you have faults, a history of actual inadequacy—all are smiling at you, even those who know you—others radiate warmth toward you not thinking you’ll change, but knowing that you can be trusted to be beautiful for someone else and the family you both create. No repentance required, because you are trusted to achieve the weight of the expectation. You’re trusted to love because in a way, you’re living what you want. It sounds strange to call it an obligation upon you (though it is) as much as a gentle but enormous commitment.
This is really a very complicated set of expectations and commitments, with a rich palette of emotions. A whole series of joys and regrets and hopes and changes. And I think what I’m getting from Wright’s poem is this: if you want to be more optimistic every day, this is what would underlie that. This is what you need to feel normal or adequate. Not true love, not a wedding itself, but a part of you, a structure, you can recognize as celebrating and trusting you. I hesitate to call it “self-esteem” because that’s just the beginning of understanding how to set expectations for yourself and judge your progress. As in heaven, indeed.
Bradley James Cleaver, “The Aftermath”
a Senior Thesis Exhibition in the Gorman Building, University of Dallas, Irving TX.
November 28, 2018 – December 6, 2018.
Of pain, one wonders if it is separable from reflection. I spent most of November in a daze. Initially, I got back from a conference and found myself applying for new jobs and furthering my research. I wouldn’t say I was euphoric, but I was happier and working harder.
And then, I made a mistake: I started thinking. In this case, thinking led to the question of what progress looked like. I wasn’t sure, so I started wondering about what felt like progress. Applications and research don’t feel like progress, but approval from others and accolades do. I can’t say I spent too much of November chasing either, because it was far too easy to indulge regrets, e.g. the times I could have been better and gotten more.
Regrets linger. I don’t know if they always remain like a nuclear blast, but Cleaver’s work challenges us to wonder otherwise. His show consists of 8 ceramic nuclear bombs, each wearing its firing. I treat each as potentially containing the full narrative of the nuclear age—not only Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the development of the H-bomb, the Neutron bomb, ICBMs, rocketry, and anything else one may consider relevant. His palette of reds, browns, oranges, blacks, and a chilling chalk white is decidedly limited and very effective. “I’ll Be Waiting on the Banks of the Jordan” [not pictured] looks at first glance like a missile with bones for fins, but with peg-like ornamentation and a metal latch, calls to mind a meat locker. Reds, pinks, and white swirls place slaughter front and center, and I do wonder what this world would be like if every weapon had on its surface a reminder of its actual cost.
It’s a gruesome piece which this viewer felt strongly pushes the notion that pain, however universally experienced, is always personal. One might think I am just making this up, as we all know people who seem blissfully ignorant of the pain of others. We also know people with whom we struggle to communicate our pain, not because they’re not trying to be receptive, but because they simply can’t understand. Cleaver’s meat locker, carnage-reminding, heart-muscle-resembling rocket stands as an omen: those refugees whose children are being tear-gassed on the news are not just images on a screen. Their pain does not exist in a vacuum.
I spent a lot of time with “Home Sweet Home” [Fig. 1 & 2]. Immediately, one is drawn to how it is split, as if the bomb split upon impact with the earth [Fig. 2]. That is certainly a conventional explanation, but the coloring upon the casing may have more to say. A streak of orange upon one face extends upward, surrounded by cloudy white stains, looking not unlike a rocket launch. The juxtaposition of upward striving and downward collapse is striking, even though these are narratives specific to and expected from a rocket.
I do think it can be dangerous to conflate one’s personal pain with mass slaughter for a number of reasons. In this age, the goal of most media is to get a reaction for the sake of attention and advertising dollars. The quickest way to get a reaction is to encourage people to think their feelings and way of life are at stake in every event, to the absurd degree that one can actually think if the poor aren’t starved or those fleeing a war zone aren’t persecuted, one will be in danger. Ben Shapiro says something to the effect of “facts don’t care about your feelings,” then proceeds to twist every fact so baldly and blatantly it is nothing but a matter of his audience’s feelings. He makes quite a bit of money doing this—I’ve seen quite a few evangelicals wearing his t-shirts and his rhetoric, both of which I have no doubt will be used to indict us at the Last Judgment.
In all of Cleaver’s missiles, but “Home Sweet Home” especially, we’re looking at pain as a process. There are ambitions and aspirations—creating a union, a family, reaching beyond oneself. And then there’s failure, which no word can adequately encompass, because a word has to be uttered by an individual speaker. When a family fractures, the pain involved is something different for each member of the family. No one with any sense would think nuclear devastation is being equated with the anger, fears, and regrets of failed relationships, and yet it isn’t hard to note key parallels.
The subject of each piece can’t help but be heavy, but each has a different weight. Especially harsh is “Only Fools Rush In (II).” It draws attention to its fractures and dents with its metal stitches and ghastly white color. It’s hard to look at, as I thought it a bat beaten into a baseball, so bright white because it was so damaged.
This stands somewhat in contrast with “Be Ready For The Jolt,” which has no fractures but appears a perfect, smooth canister. With caramel browns on the surface, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a Starbucks brand can of espresso. But even a rich surface of those browns, velvety reds, and traces of orange doesn’t hide one affected area. As one walks around the piece, one finds a deep bruise of purple and red, vaguely resembling a heart. Does “Be Ready For The Jolt” quietly express the same as “Only Fools Rush In (II)?” Am I witnessing a timeline of pains experienced? The conversation these pieces engender lends itself to sensitivity to different types of pain, without diminishing any but appreciating the full weight of each. “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” speaks to exceptional brutality visited upon a person. One can clearly see this in a vein of never again while noting the anxiety of other situations, including those prior to the visitation of violence.
“Only Fools Rush In” [not pictured], of all of Cleaver’s pieces on display, most resembles an explosion with a severely warped face, an emphatic bright, fiery orange, and thick black in abundance. I felt it, for myself, to be a fitting conclusion to the exhibition. The part like an explosion and smoke on one face resolves into a field of white, for once not a terrible, bleached color, but holding a pattern not unlike that of galaxies in astronomical photography. One could say I’m lying to myself about what fallout actually is, but after surveying the other works, I think I have a somewhat better notion of how fallout operates.
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)
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,
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.
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?
BuyingJean 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.—
Milosz, Czeslaw. A Book of Luminous Things. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996. 160.
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)
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.