Last night I watched Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life.” A friend had urged me to see it because she sensed a strong affinity between what it is reaching and yearning toward and the questions and metaphors running through my most recent book: God, death, the beyond, the within, birth, the need to believe in some kind of order— some underlying current and the idea that it is carrying us toward a meaningful purpose or end.
The film is broad and beautiful and vague, lyrical and oneiric, longing and angry and forgiving. And it allows its narrative to live within powerful gestures. Images of the universe find gorgeous echoes in those taken at the human, cellular level. Sea life hovers and sways, intercut with dreamy hallucinations of a family afloat and adrift. At one point, a dinosaur hurries across a stream to stomp its foot on another, feebler dinosaur’s head. The dead and the living that grieve them traipse across wide wetlands to encounter one another briefly.
The flaws in the film also manage to say something about ambition, belief in the first person “I,” about the will and the need to know and the limits of our ability to do either.
Why am I starting this first blog entry here? I guess because I found myself enlarged by Malick’s undertaking in a way that feels similar to what a book of poems can do when I find the time and space to sit down and let it. And this week-long visiting “bloggership” seems like as good a pretext as any to find that kind of time and space and to track it somewhat. I’d like to reflect on a book a day, with no particular agenda and no endgame other than to answer back to some of the voices sitting on my shelf waiting (in some cases, for quite some time) to be picked up and heard.
As a poet, Gay is so nimble, so honest, so able to sing sweetly, so alive with love and wonder, that when he turns his gaze toward all the dark doings we live with and by, he takes on an amazing kind of authority. He can tell me anything and I trust it. More than that, I feel it viscerally even as my mind steps, word by word, into the logic Gay’s statements mete out. I guess what I’m describing is one version of the romance that unfolds between a poet and reader. And in the best of cases, it’s not merely a matter of pleasure, but of dancing toward the pitch of urgency and truth alive in the poet’s lines.
Gay’s truth is so brutal and necessary. We ache, he reminds us, for who and what we have become. And we hurt ourselves, one another, the world, the future constantly. These poems speak to America (“Honeybunny, for you, I’ve got a mouthful/of soot. Sweetpea, for you, I always smell/like blood.”); to a collective unease that, here, afflicts citizens with conditions like “Cartographer’s Syndrome,” or “The Burden;” to the hateful version of every self that does nothing or worse “watching the weak and small/and innocent not getting away.”
The book unfolds in one long breath, which is always a choice that fascinates me. Gay has chosen to avoid section breaks, perhaps because the work he’s doing is not about containing or confining—or even cataloguing or classifying—so much as moving in and through his material, blurring the divisions between one mode of experience and another. And so not only do we get the stark facts of loss and damage, but alongside and within those things, we also get an unfettered kind of joy. We get wrath alongside praise, deception alongside solidarity, and a buoyant unselfconscious hope cropping up again and again alongside elegy.
I was reading the poem “Say It” which opens with a roomful of people dancing to Barry White, letting all that audible joy in and out, unselfconscious, free, alive with “glee and goof.” And I remembered the first time I met Ross Gay. It was the tail end of a dance held on last night of the Cave Canem poetry retreat in 2004. The crowd had dwindled down to the eight or nine of us who didn’t have to wake up and catch a flight in the morning, or those who had stopped caring about having to do so. The music coming from someone’s stereo played on, and we let ourselves stay caught in the gladness of still being there in the rapt, reverent, joyful space poetry had all week been creating. I don’t remember what song it was that brought everyone back to the dance floor, where we danced like happy children, alone or together, eyes open or shut. I remember Ross Gay’s huge radiant smile and how his dance became a kind of journey taking him all around the perimeter of that room, a wide loop with no end-point, so that he circled the space again and again, drawing the others of us in with him, until we were a kind of collective train going not forward but inward, silent but beaming with light, life.
I want poetry to be that, to lead us to that place, to sweep us up, even when it speaks of things that hurt to hear. I want poetry to be what Ross Gay calls “the heart inside the heart/cracking its shackles.” The thing we sense and go out of our way to praise.