March 30, 2020
When a friend asked me if there is an underlying theme to the twenty poems in my chapbook RELIC I said it was probably that when some things fall away during times of change, there is always something that remains. Maybe the theme is really a question about what persists, about what our through-line is from one era to the next. My father asked me the same question, and I dared say that I hoped the thing that remains is love. He is a retired professor of history, in many ways a two plus two equals four sort of a person, not one to espouse hearts and flowers frivolously. And he said yes, what else is there? And yes, it has been said before, but our need for love is very clear in the current moment. The big all-embracing kind of love — agape, mehta, whatever you want to call the understanding that we are interconnected and that we do not live and create in a vacuum. That loving kindness toward one another and ourselves should always be our North Star.
Before the shelter in place order was called I had arranged to celebrate RELIC’s release by Two Way Mirror (a small press directed by the wise and wonderful poet, herbalist, and musician Marina Lazzara) at an event at Bird and Beckett Books in San Francisco. Three other poets, Stephanie Baker, Ava Koohbor, and Mary Peelen, had agreed to share the bill, and there was going to be music by the marvelous Angel Archer. Baker is a talented horsewoman and elegant haiku-ist who practices (and ensures others practice) experimental performance, teaches reading and writing, and lives in one of the few collective artist residencies that still exist in San Francisco. Koohbor, who was born and raised in Iran, is a triple threat, a visual artist and musician as well as a poet, whose collection Death Under Construction sometimes reads like a mash up of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech and a Dadaist manifesto that uses language to eat itself. Peelen is a poet of supreme sense-making, one who faces down mortal fear, and deciphers galactic volatility and electron spin with equal relish, often in the ten couplet form she has perfected in her prize-winning first collection Quantum Heresies. Angel Archer are master soundscapers whose music you have surely heard before, if only in a dream.
I am sorry that the event has to be postponed until an unknown date, that it is a snowflake in the avalanche of event-loss caused by a rolling boulder of opportunistic viral infection. We can’t love the virus away completely, but we love-down its effects by bringing our attention to our health as a human collective. 2020 seems to already be a year defined by an effort at clarifying our vision, our understanding of our responsibilities to one another. I want to believe that as a result of this mess we will patch the cracks in our faulty systems that fail so many and make something better. This country has at times in its history managed to make such shifts, incomplete though even the best efforts to support all of our people have been.
I’ve been reflecting on a conversation about reason in poetry that I heard at an event at UC Berkeley. Lyn Hejinian shared a comment a colleague in the English department had made that “reason is always at work in poetry.” The subsequent discussion made think a lot about the difference between rationality and reason. I came to the conclusion that while to reason is to act, to range across a mental topography of the possible, the rational is posited as a fixed place that admits no doubt, no contenders to its hegemony. Systems created solely to bring about a result — such as cut-throat capitalism or a virus working to survive through proliferation — can be said to be, in some ways, rational. Corporate interests and the toadies who serve them are clear about their highest goal, profit, even unto the death of the Earth they are raping to get it. But systems that disregard consequences are not reasonable, because reasoning is a journey that admits multiple considerations at once, reasoning is a trip that considers cause and effect. Reason is at play in poetry because poetry admits an extraordinary range of contenders for its microphone. Poetry transmits the subtleties and anguish and glory and ugliness of the human experience with no other goal than to share the trip. Even the most madly surreal linguistic abstraction is an invitation to readers to get on the road of the possible. Let reason play in poetry, and harness it in the service of love. If you try to hitch it up to self-dealing and catastrophic greed, it will buck the reins every time.