Margaret Levine, “A Man I Knew”

It feels more than a mere obligation to be with family over the holidays. But even calling such relations “necessary” sounds like a feeble attempt at description. Regarding family, a primal consciousness is at play—Antigone must bury her brother, despite the law and its consequences, because her brother shares in her own creation. Not simply “flesh and blood,” but this “flesh and blood.” One might begin to think family matters dictate to the gods, not the other way around. A sense of being, anchored in what is natural, lending itself to the origins of convention: a name, an identity, a recognition of possession.

"A Man I Knew" (from Poetry 180)
Margaret Levine

has a condo

a maid who comes
every other week

kids who won't

are on the dresser
they float forever

like a boat

None of my fancy talk above seems adequate to describe being estranged from one’s own children. Kids who won’t [visit] / are on the dresser / they float forever / like a boat. The sensations evoked: being lost, adrift, drowning. Some essential part of you floats over you like a dream; you can’t access it, you’re not even sure why it’s necessary, you only feel pain. What we have been told is necessary has been tidily dispatched in the first few lines. There’s a condo / a maid who comes / every other week.

Many of us have grown up with this sort of parental rhetoric. Attend to your needs, make sure you’ve got a roof over your head and an income. If you have any other needs, go to church. This hardly seems adequate in the face of missing one’s own children, and is certainly not adequate for understanding why one would have children or miss one’s own children in the first place. Love is a commandment as well as a strange and complicated realm where a picture on a dresser says far more than a condo or cleaning service. The holidays are difficult for many us because we’re dealing with a materialism so thorough it has lost the ability to articulate its own needs. Some “float forever,” visible but gone.

Robert Lax, “herds of dark crea tures”

Like a moonbeam, “herds of dark crea tures” descends, syllable by syllable itself.

But it begins with looking upwards, only able to discern the smallest shapes of dark in the moonlight. There are birds in the sky, hundreds of them, but sight isn’t really how this is known. Fluttering sounds, maybe smells, a taste in the air, the feel of a great movement above—every other sense “sees” in dim, reflected, nearly flickering light.

 Herds of dark crea tures / gath er, and the senses gather into awareness:

"herds of dark crea tures" (h/t Lindsay Choi)
Robert Lax

herds
of
dark
crea
tures

gath
er
in
the
sky

moon
lights
their
manes

Lax gives every syllable a line to great effect. Just as the creatures gather, just as our senses gather, the mystery of what is actually occurring is preserved. If the Word was present at Creation, it is plausible that primordial chaos consisted of utterances, of syllables, with which it could articulate and create. What’s funny is that some syllables are fully formed words. Are the ones we think lacking—are they words of another language? How does language make sense?

Herds of dark crea tures / gath er in the sky is an attempt to grasp an experience. Details are given as details are noticed: the progression of a mind is on display. A picture, though, has to already be assumed in order to understand what is occurring. One could say putting ink on paper entails a similar mystery. Even though paper is bright, the scratchings on it won’t make sense until they are assumed to be put together for the sake of communication.

The mystery is motion. Moon lights their manes—these birds are gathering and will go together. But where will they go? They’ve got manes like horses, and in their way, they roam free. In order to grasp a sense, we have been taught not just to look for order or things resembling order, but definite purpose. We believe sense has a knowable end, that things must be put in their proper place in order to be understood. Lax seems to think otherwise. Those birds, like horses, have spirit. They go as they will. They are observed by one who carefully notes how he himself observes.

Franz Wright, “The Wedding”

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)
Franz Wright

As in heaven
all are smiling
at you, even
those
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”

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.

(Fig. 1) Brad Cleaver, “Home Sweet Home.” 2018. Sawdust fired stoneware and steel.

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.

(Fig. 2) Brad Cleaver, “Home Sweet Home” (side view).

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.

Brad Cleaver, “Only Fools Rush In (II).” 2018. Sawdust fired stoneware and steel.

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.

Brad Cleaver, “Be Ready For The Jolt.” 2018. Sawdust fired stoneware and steel.

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. “Only Fools Rush In (II)” 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.

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 sentence speaks itself. 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.