Paul Hoover presents us with prophets, men seeking dialogue with God. His portrait in “To the Choirmaster” brings forth the brutal honesty in trying to talk to the supreme being. Habbakuk tries to reason how his own existence is justified: does he merely take up space? It’s a cruel line of thought, but Habbakuk eventually reaches a more positive conclusion, declaring “I am a space taken, and my absence will be shapely and of a certain age, in the everlasting.” He reasons that spaces are not nothing, as spaces are homes, places to live and breathe. Still, one can see his bitterness and pain in those very words. It may be good to be “a space taken,” but this sounds awfully reductive. He will be absent, leaving a certain “shape” in the everlasting, but his significance is questionable. He will grow older, be of a certain age, but will he ever fully be himself?
A prophet confronts being abandoned; the love of God is not simply about justice, but the very possibility of justice. We sense the depth of his feeling, we attempt to understand how he feels neglected. Do we do the same for the obese woman who used to wake up our whole house by starting her Subaru at 6 a.m.? The one who has committed suicide?
Apartment 75 (from poetryinternational.org) Katia Kapovich The obese woman who used to wake up our whole house by starting her Subaru at 6 a.m. has committed suicide. Snow hangs like a set of unlaundered sheets in the windows. When I walked into her seventh floor studio, the standard lamp was still on, but could only light itself, refusing to interfere with the dull dusk of the interior the police had already searched. For the first time, I felt an urge to look at her face and perhaps to see something more distinctly than the triviality of neighborhood permits and the mystery of suicide allows, but her features were shut down without offense. I only remember a chair missing its rear legs, shoved up against the wall for balance.
Nowadays, I’m on a bit of a crusade against using the words “better” or “worse” to describe people’s pain. I had no idea until recently that a standard line in Holocaust denial was to assert that the Soviets were just as bad as the Nazis—the very notion of comparison allows one to dismiss innumerable atrocities. Literally, people trying to say of the suffering of millions “it wasn’t that bad” or “you can’t really tell the difference between X and Y.”
A more serious approach starts with being specific. No one would want to go through what Habbakuk goes through. While his conclusion about being a most necessary space himself feels earned, I can tell you from experience it can only provisionally satisfy. You need all the wisdom you can get–all the things which sound like wisdom–in order to remember who you are moment to moment.
We try to relate to Habbakuk, and in doing so, we come to understand some part of his pain and his problems. The obese woman who has killed herself has closed off access to her pain and her problems. She has declared her pain incommunicable. It was a ghastly, relentless torment that could tear any of us apart. She doesn’t owe any of us an explanation. We’ve made the world hell, such that the mere appearance of snow reminds of our filth and our hiding of the truth: Snow hangs like a set of unlaundered sheets in the windows.
Kapovich’s poem is one of a handful of poems which I revisit if I want to cry. I suspect the power of the poem comes from how it meditates on light. You can’t really see light the same way again after reading it. “Unlaundered sheets” hanging in the windows–how light streams after a suicide. Life as tainted but also messy. Love and sex and nightmares and isolation, all mixed together in how one sees. “Filth,” which I used to describe this mess above, is somewhat the wrong word. It can let you dismiss this mixture, pretend like it doesn’t belong. You have to remember that you too are dirt and ashes.
When Kapovich describes walking into her studio, she expands on what light means: the standard lamp was still on, but could only light itself, refusing to interfere with the dull dusk of the interior the police had already searched. There’s a lamp, sitting lonely, only lighting itself. The room, with its “dull dusk,” refuses to acknowledge it. The imagery calls to mind a tomb with an eternal flame standing that much brighter by contrast but not illuminating anything else. Here, it feels like Kapovich had to look for the light of the lamp, that it almost got swallowed by the “dull dusk.”
This second description of light goes hand-in-hand with invasion. Kapovich is in the room, searching. The police have searched. The obese woman is merely an object. In death, we want to learn something about her, not to reverence her, but to make her useful. We use each other for knowledge, and in doing so, we’re cruelly exploitative. If the police find a specific reason for the suicide, everyone can dismiss the obese woman’s death for that reason. If some genuine insight about what ails us is found, no justice is available for the woman.
The image of a lamp standing alone, a light unto itself, almost seems parody until one reflects on what one wants to find after a suicide. It isn’t parody, as it leads Kapovich to think about what light truly matters: For the first time, I felt an urge to look at her face. It’s so hard to come to terms with how incredibly selfish we are. We’ve got to explore grief in order to remember why we grieve. We have to cry to remember that people deserve love. It’s just insane. If I’m tempted to blame a world devoted to violence, a world of conquest via industry or arms, Kapovich will not let me take that way out. She herself wanted to see something more distinctly than the triviality of neighborhood permits and the mystery of suicide allows. We know people can be deeply miserable in all times and all ages. We know we have to reach out, be more sensitive, show kindness above all. And we know it will never be enough.
To learn to truly respect individuals may be the only serious end of human living. Her features were shut down without offense—we have completely objectified her, taken away someone who was once breathing and living and making noise. We made her completely docile. All our notions of community and happiness and ways of truly living failed, as they led to this. They taught her survival was a matter of work, which she did. When she killed herself, others did the work to make her death inoffensive. Her survival entailed feeling abandoned while alive and forgotten in death. This is society, pretending we are useful when we’re not. When we’re not supposed to be useful. I only remember a chair missing its rear legs, shoved up against the wall for balance—what good is a world which pretends things aren’t broken? What good is a world where human beings can’t be allowed to hurt, can’t be allowed to find wholeness or peace?