Krista's Journal: The Perplexity of Poetry

January 6, 2011

When I re-listened to our Rumi show back in December, I was struck with new force by Rumi's notion of "the value of perplexity." Perplexity is a great word I'd like to use more often. It's something more nuanced than confusion; more substantive than anxiety. It describes the way many of us feel at this moment in time in the life of the world, I think, and also on a more intimate level at this time of year. We're making sense of what's been, reckoning with that, and also feeling perplexed (which is not the same as hopeless) as we look forward. I'm tired at the end of this year and I'm aware of that in many around me too. And the cold and snow of the part of the place I inhabit encourage an animal urge to get under the covers and close one's eyes. My interview with Elizabeth Alexander encourages this slowing down and peering inside, as well as seriousness and playfulness with words, and a different kind of reflection than all the popular "end of year" analyses and lists. I've become more and more aware, in my years of doing this program, of poetry as a conveyer of truths that cannot be captured in mere fact. Poetry, Elizabeth Alexander also reminds us, is one of the great ways we have to tell our stories, THE stories, of life. It is a carrier of questions to sit with. There is this question, for example, that ends her poem titled Ars Poetica #100: I Believe: "Are we not of interest to each other?" A question like this could be as powerful a tool as any we possess for reorienting our approach to each other in our private and public spaces. So was the question she invoked in a political moment, at the presidential inauguration in 2009: "What if the mightiest word is love?" As Elizabeth Alexander and I frankly discuss, these have been hard months since that historic and exhilarating day on the Washington Mall. But this, for her, makes that question more pointed, more necessary, not less so. I wonder if a discussion about poetry might be a luxury when the crises of our time for many are about basic matters of safety and survival — a job to go to, food to eat, medicine to buy, a roof over one's head. She comes back a question in a poem Gwendolyn Brooks wrote in a crucible of poverty and insecurity: "(C)ould a dream sent up through onion fumes/And yesterday's garbage ripening in the hall/Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms?" I have the feeling that we need poetry but sometimes without even knowing it. I've noticed how distinctively magnetic it is for us and our listeners when we draw out a Joanna Macy, or hear Wendell Berry, or now sit with Elizabeth Alexander. Poetic language is magnetic and humanizing in a class of its own. But I'm aware too that poetry also demands a quality of attention and vulnerability that other forms of language don't, which may be why we don't reach for it as often as we might. I've been reaching for it lately. And I'd like to share a few of the poems that have spoken to me at this turn of year. First are these two by Elizabeth Alexander. I asked her to read the first, which is actually the end of a long poem called Neonatology, about the birth of her first son. She put it together with the second, Autumn Passage, about the death of her mother-in-law. This loss unfolded in that same period as she was becoming a mother. Autumn Passage is on my mind today, as I have news of the impending death of the mother of one of my dearest friends. "Autumn Passage" by Elizabeth Alexander

On suffering, which is real. On the mouth that never closes, the air that dries the mouth. On the miraculous dying body, its greens and purples. On the beauty of hair itself. On the dazzling toddler: "Like eggplant," he says, when you say "Vegetable," "Chrysanthemum" to "Flower." On his grandmother's suffering, larger than vanished skyscrapers, September zucchini, other things too big. For her glory that goes along with it, glory of grown children's vigil, communal fealty, glory of the body that operates even as it falls apart, the body that can no longer even make fever but nonetheless burns florid and bright and magnificent as it dims, as it shrinks, as it turns to something else.

from "Crave Radiance" page 173 "Neonatology" by Elizabeth Alexander

Giving birth is like jazz, something from silence, then all of it. Long, elegant boats, blood-boiling sunshine, human cargo, a handmade kite — Postpartum. No longer a celebrity, pregnant lady, expectant. It has happened; you are here, each dram you drain a step away from flushed and floating, lush and curled. Now you are the pink one, the movie star. It has happened. You are here, and you sing, mewl, holler, peep, swallow the light and bubble it back, shine, contain multitudes, gleam. You are the new one, the movie star, and birth is like jazz, from silence and blood, silence then everything, jazz.

from "Crave Radiance" page 153 A few more poems. I've also been re-pondering Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower, that Joanna Macy translated and then read for us back in September: "Let This Darkness be a Bell Tower" by Rainer Maria Rilke

Quiet friend who has come so far, feel how your breathing makes more space around you. Let this darkness be a bell tower and you the bell. As you ring, what batters you becomes your strength. Move back and forth into the change. What is it like, such intensity of pain? If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine. In this uncontainable night, be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses, the meaning discovered there. And if the world has ceased to hear you, say to the silent earth: I flow. To the rushing water, speak: I am.

from "Sonnets to Orpheus" II, 29 Finally, a classic, Mary Oliver's Wild Geese. This is poetry, as my beloved producer Kate Moos (a poet herself) has pointed out, that has saved lives. "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

from "Dream Work" by Mary Oliver, published by Atlantic Monthly Press

Recommended Reading

Image of Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010
Author: Elizabeth Alexander
Publisher: Graywolf Press (2010)
Binding: Hardcover, 240 pages

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is a poet and professor of African American Studies at Yale University. She wrote and delivered "Praise Song for the Day" at Barack Obama's presidential inauguration. Her most recent book of poems is Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems, 1990-2010.

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