Emily Dickinson, “Good to hide, and hear ’em hunt!” (842)

Good to hide, and hear ’em hunt—immediately, I hear fear within adrenaline. A declaration of “good” that’s scared but tries to project bravery, presenting us with a peculiar darkness. Like a kid playing hide and seek who’s hid too well, proud of his cleverness but risking that his friends stop looking.

I think one has to recognize this darkness while noting that Dickinson’s first stanza does seem to go in a more playful direction. Better, to be found, / If one care to, that is, / The Fox fits the Hound. “If one care to [be found]” and “The Fox fits the Hound” steer the poem away from the terror of being hunted and torn apart, the feeling that this is the only way you could have value. Both lines allow you to think you have control (you can make it so you are found) and you are needed for more than bullying (“fits”).

What, then, to do with my initial impression? This poem moves from “Good” to “Better” to “Best” too easily, as if it were hiding something itself. Good to know, and not tell:

Good to hide, and hear 'em hunt! (842)
Emily Dickinson

Good to hide, and hear 'em hunt!
Better, to be found,
If one care to, that is,
The Fox fits the Hound —

Good to know, and not tell,
Best, to know and tell,
Can one find the rare Ear
Not too dull — 

The second stanza, with Best, to know and tell, indulges a temptation: maybe this poem is exclusively about writing. When I first saw the poem, I thought it a statement of esoteric practice. Hide your true teaching for those who hunt, but make sure it can be found. Let the “Hound,” the hunter, be completed by your teaching, the “Fox.” Test your reader, find the rare Ear / Not too dull, and you can convert the hunter to your ends.

I now feel that’s too facile a read. What’s important about writing—what makes consideration of esoteric practice so interesting—is the struggle to communicate behind every word, every attempt. It’s both good to hide and hear them hunt and good to know and not tell. You could say these are obviously the same thing: your not-telling precipitates the hunting. But they’re not the same thing—hunting means you’ve left clues, pointed a certain direction. You’ve pointed to yourself. To simply not tell is to make a decision about what is completely off-limits, at least for a time.

The conflict between leaving clues and not telling a soul anything are the fundamental struggle at the heart of being a writer. It’s true there are technical considerations, like making sure your scenes have life, that you don’t use cliches, avoid adverbs where you can tell a story, etc. Ultimately, though, everything is about what you want to try to say. No wonder it is “better to be found”—without some indication of what you are trying to say reflected back at you, you have no idea if you’re communicating or not. “Best, to know and tell, / Can one find the rare Ear / Not too dull” is less about testing a reader and more about a reader testing themselves. There are readers who want to hear you for who you are. They’re going to hunt, and in a way, no matter what, you are hidden. Even your most direct comments about yourself don’t quite mean what you think they mean. Esotericism, from this vantage, has the potential of being a radical version of this problem. A writer has to write in order to know what she’s saying. A writer has to write in order to know what he’s saying. Building an elaborate hidden teaching could be an attempt to give process and form to overwhelming emotions, observations, and convictions.

from Kwame Opoku-Duku’s “3 Poems”

This, from Kwame Opoku-Duku’s “3 Poems” (2016), paints the richest of scenes almost imperceptibly. I didn’t realize in how many ways it works until I copied it down into my journal and started making notes. It begs to be declaimed—the righteous keep moving forward is a truth meant to echo. It is to be your truth, but it comes from the strangest of oracles, [A] 90 yr old woman wearing a tee shirt that read: it is what it is.

3, from "3 Poems" (from Hobart)
Kwame Opoku-Duku

3.

the righteous keep
moving forward
i heard it from
a 90 yr old woman wearing
a tee shirt that read:
it is
what
it is

A 90 year old woman wearing a t-shirt, telling herself or someone younger that “the righteous keep moving forward,” brings to mind a protest or march. I can’t help but imagine a sunny, hot day in the city with a mass of sweat and humanity getting tired of chanting, tired of dealing with police, trolls, and thugs, needing water and food. And then this 90 year old saying move on, get this done, send this message.

It doesn’t matter if she was at the supermarket, though. She’s 90 and vocal that you don’t stop pushing no matter what.

You don’t stop pushing despite your own doubts, if justice is on the line. (A desire to not harden into a cruel ideologue, an ability to admit guilt and make amends, has to be conceived as moving forward).

The funny thing is what she wears. A tee shirt that read: it is what it is. A friend and me, growing up in Jersey, encountered a large number of frat-boy types who had jobs or roles involving leadership. More than one would say “it is what it is” when something awful or disastrous was happening in order to wash their hands of the matter. Obviously, I think it’s significant that the oracle of this poem wears this slogan. “It is what it is” in the hands of a douchebro is an invocation of privilege, another way of saying “I don’t care unless you force me to.” “It is what it is” upon someone who has survived and perhaps even thrived in adversity is a statement of resolve. The world may change for better or worse, but her willingness to see things through, her character, do not change. “The righteous keep moving forward,” indeed.

Sappho, “I asked myself / What, Sappho, can…”

Not long ago, while discussing Marion Bell’s “Austerity,” I spoke of being radicalized by love in contrast to going mad on account of it.

That feels like a distinction which can stand, “radicalized” versus “crazy.” But then there’s this slight complication: no matter what, being in love pushes one to see the world in crazy ways. You’re not completely mad, but you’ll pursue a line of thought so deranged you’ll need a Charm Person spell cast on yourself to stop (a professional Enchanter doesn’t come cheap, either). I know in previous years having crushes made me so very superstitious. Everywhere I went, I thought I saw magical signs that everything would work exactly the way I was imagining.

Seeing coincidences as an expression of some primal truth is only one self-deception. Another is seeing perfection in far too many places. In the fragment below, how many have “everything,” assuming Sappho wants affection returned from a beloved?

[I asked myself, / What, Sappho, can…] (from Poetry)
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

I asked myself

What, Sappho, can
you give one who
has everything,
like Aphrodite?

I count two instances of desiring unreal perfection. First, Sappho wants to know what she can give “one who has everything.” That “one” with everything can be thought perfect.

The second instance comes from the peculiar grammar of this translation. What, Sappho, can you give one who has everything, like Aphrodite? Most of us would read this as saying Sappho wishes to give as Aphrodite can give to the beloved. The way “like Aphrodite” hangs at the end, though, makes me wonder if Sappho conflates her beloved with Aphrodite herself. Aphrodite, after all, is not just any goddess, but one most desired. It does seem like winning the heart of someone who may not immediately fancy you is no less than winning a literal god to one’s side.

Sappho places divine and human perfection entirely outside herself—I asked myself / What, Sappho. It’s almost like she’s rudely subtweeting herself. Her fragment shows, I think, that she understands the ridiculousness of the conceit. “I’m in love with you because you’re perfect; I’m in love with love because it’s perfect; I have to be able do something about this.” Everything about the framing makes no sense, but this is how it feels when one isn’t getting the attention one wants. I don’t understand why I’m neglected—they must have everything. I don’t get why no one loves me—love itself must be self-sufficient. We’re one sentence away from Sappho’s persona exploding into tears.

I don’t remember exactly when I ditched my superstitions about love, but I did. A lot of my growth—and admittedly, I still have a lot of growing to do—had to do with realizing that where we both were in life counts for a lot. There is no “one who has everything,” like as if people are entirely defined by their possessions once and for all. There’s being engaged in a specific task, working for certain purposes, having particular friends and interests. You may not fit into any of that, and that’s okay. It’s just hard to see that “everything” as it really is: nothing. You’ve got to value yourself and where you are, and that means not trying to fit that valuation into any sort of scheme.

Lorenzo Thomas, “Flash Point”

It’s hard not to be angry nowadays, and I know many of us are accused of having low flash points ourselves. Wikipedia: The flash point of a volatile material is the lowest temperature at which vapours of the material will ignite, when given an ignition source. We’re told not to explode, to calm down, to not indulge panic. We’re told this by people who actively manipulate us, perhaps because they don’t want to hear anything which could make them feel guilty, or worse yet, because they want literal crimes against humanity or war crimes to continue.

So anger, in our present circumstances, can be knowledge fully realized. Knowledge with the right emotions, so to speak. Still, the consequences of this aren’t terribly helpful, no matter how righteous our fury:

Flash Point (h/t @finedistraction)
Lorenzo Thomas

This useless clairvoyance
Is embarrassing
What good is it to know
The motives behind manners

And worse, the so what stares
Of those upon whom you manage
To inflict this wisdom

There is more space
Awaiting exploration
More clouds of gas
That need their picture took

This useless clairvoyance / Is embarrassing / What good is it to know / The motives behind manners—anger reveals the actors in our world for who they truly are, but it’s also, you know, anger. It is embarrassing to know and live with the knowledge that produces it, however genuine it is. Anger eats away at one and is not immediately a “good.” Can it actually be used? Or does it just embitter?

The second stanza seems to resolve these questions. And worse, the so what stares / Of those upon whom you manage / To inflict this wisdom. Sure, you’ve got exacting knowledge of how society works. But you’re angry—you’ve exiled yourself without realizing it—and this body of knowledge primarily helps you justify your own misery. You think you shouldn’t be miserable, but then you think anything is better than agreeing with them.

Now you’re alone and no one wants to hear you. They’ve heard your lament before, they may have gone through the same process as you. What you’re running up against is larger than any specific injustice. Conventionality, which can be thought to be human society, is suffocating. We all think the same on account of lack of oxygen. If you’re not sensitive enough, you’ll accidentally steal someone’s air, i.e. bother or harm others. How do you find the space to do or say anything?

We turn to space itself. There is more space / Awaiting exploration. The cosmos is more in line with what the ancients called “nature,” as in “the nature of all things.” Perhaps true wisdom can be found—not just an insight here, a pain realized there. Maybe divine principles can be discovered which would enable us to transcend anger. Only, there seem to be vapors which could ignite in space. More clouds of gas / That need their picture took—maybe an integral part of being wise is learning to bear witness.

Marion Bell, “Austerity”

A delightfully awkward love poem, combining the evasiveness of playing it cool with the repetition of searching for the truth. The result isn’t just a strange but elegant eloquence—there’s a potent message about America today. Still, I want to speak exactly like this poem, in tones casual, profound, and funny:

Austerity (from Slow Poetry in America; h/t Ryan Eckes)
Marion Bell

look i get radicalized by love
like any normal
American

i wouldn't turn you into a wife
i'm a person you know
and the conditions are weird
the naiveté
even of my knowing
i wouldn't turn you into anything

i get radicalized by love
and by austerity
and by work
by austerity and by work

it's easy to get radicalized just by paying
       attention to experience
i would write to you
in the naïveté of my knowing

look i get radicalized by love / like any normal / American. “Look” alone contains quite the puzzle. “Look,” I want to assert myself, say something with finality. I can resolve this situation, so I’m going to speak, um, apologetically. I’m… sorry I’m in love with you? In my defense, love radicalized me. It didn’t make me crazy, but devoted to a cause—this may not make me a normal person, but it sure makes me a normal American.

Yup. You heard that right. I’m amazed you’re still listening. I just said pursuit of my own self-interest—I mean, yeah, there’s some loving and caring involved—is pretty much of the same rank as raising money for an orphanage about to close.

I guess I have to start clarifying how this works. Alright. I’m radicalized, not crazy—i wouldn’t turn you into a wife. I assume you can see my humanity and my suffering—i’m a person you know / and the conditions are weird. You can see how little I know! Take me as I am—naive, maybe even innocent. the naiveté / even of my knowing / i wouldn’t turn you into anything.

The first two stanzas project pure, unadulterated coolness. Not “cool” in the pejorative sense adults use to try and prevent kids from imitating their peers. This is way more powerful than impressing some kids at school—it’s complete command of one of the most difficult social situations. In an awkward quasi-apology, there’s a plea to be loved. It feels confident though it speaks vulnerability. There’s an offer of possession and exclusivity that proclaims itself as anything but. You can say it’s trying to be honest though “the conditions are weird.”

So that’s it, right? Not quite. If you don’t know anything, how’d you get radicalized? i get radicalized by love / and by austerity / and by work / by austerity and by work. I get radicalized by, um, everything. Austerity—severity, deprivation. It isn’t really the opposite of work, though it is presented as such here. Plenty of people don’t have and must work to abnormal, deforming extremes.

But because of the awful, sheer bullying ignorance of contemporary American political rhetoric, if you’re suffering through austerity, you’re assumed a thief. You’re trying to save something, but according to people who watch television and YouTube all day, you are supposed to have nothing. So you must be stealing! If you have a job and have financial troubles, again, you must be trying to steal. The only people incapable of stealing are those who already have. The rich can be trusted, are capable of virtue, are worthy of love.

In the face of this, how can anyone not be radicalized by this crazy country? I know parents who look down on their kids because their kids are poorer than they are. We’re literally a nation that can’t afford love.

This love poem changes. Knowledge means reevaluating priorities. Radicalization means staying true to the cause. It’d be nice to be loved back, but no matter what, I plan on staying busy. Experience brought me here, to you—it’s easy to get radicalized just by paying / attention to experience. I fell in love. Now I gotta say, I gotta go to work. i would write to you / in the naïveté of my knowing.