“What I have been thinking about, lately, is bewilderment as a way of
entering the day as much as the work. Bewilderment as a poetics and
an ethics…. It cracks open the dialectic and sees myriads all at once.”
My grandmother, Sydelle, died yesterday at 4am. So I am going to write about her for a little bit, if that’s okay with you? I’ve never met anyone else named Sydelle. She was not given a middle name. Since she fell in love with her husband at 19, she has been called Spook. He told her, I love you so much it spooks me. It stuck.
As a young child, Spook contracted polio, leaving her left leg dwindled and her foot much smaller than her right. One day she went swimming and when she came out of the water she collapsed. Polio. When I was a kid, I misunderstood the story and I thought you could catch polio in lakes. When I swam back to the shore, I would place my feet on the pebbles and push off against them to make sure I could still walk. She had a profound love for Jonas Salk because he was able to spare others what she went through and lived with every day. A body that was constantly rebelling against her, a body that, as she grew into middle and then old age, kept her bound to a chair while her mind travelled. It was almost impossible to get her to talk about bodily pain because until last week, it never stopped her from finding ways to feel like she was fully participating.
She was the first woman in her neighborhood to wear pants. Her favorite color was always brown. Brown. She read the NYT cover to cover every day with a towel spread over her lap so as not to cover her in ink. She would call me and surreptitiously quiz me about current events, what my favorite New Yorker article was this week. She told me how grateful she was to live long enough to vote for a black president. When I was a child, she took me to The Met at every opportunity and walked me through the Impressionists. Those were her rooms. And if you went with her, they became your rooms, too. My childhood bedroom had Matisse and Magritte posters because she made me feel like I couldn’t leave the museum (or live—I was histrionic) without versions of my own.
She loved the crust of bagels but not the doughy middle, and would scoop the bread out of the bagel and pile it on the side of her plate for the birds or, if we were visiting, the grandchildren. Outside of every window at which she sat were numerous birdfeeders. She would write letters about the different finches and blue jays, the turkeys that slept in the tree. The snowdrops that popped up in spring to signal the thaw. The single, mangled peach tree that was eventually struck by lightning.
While she wasn’t a poet herself, she shaped my poetics. Since I can remember, she’s told me, “I’ve never been bored a day in my life.” She meant this as a philosophy toward embracing the world. If you’re really engaging your senses, then how could anything ever be dull? Lyn Hejinian writes, “Poetry comes to know that things are. But this is not knowledge in the strictest sense; it is rather, acknowledgement--and that constitutes a sort of unknowing. To know that things are is not to know what they are, and to know that without what is to know otherness. Poetry undertakes acknowledgment as a preservation of otherness.” Spook taught me this well before my amazing college professors introduced me to Hejinian. While grounded in a chair, she continued to live a life of activation. Stein writes, “words have the liveliness of being constantly chosen,” and I believe that Spook applied that to everything she encountered.
And everyone was invited. Most of my closest friends have met her because she always wanted to talk to everyone, to host. As a child, I’d crouch in the garden with friends eating warm cherry tomatoes or explore on our hands and knees attic crawl spaces. Then we’d return to Spook and relive the adventures. In my twenties, she even hosted a poetry reading for my friends at her house, on the back porch. She constantly asked if you had everything you needed. Her last words were, coming out of unconsciousness for the last time, “Has everyone had enough to eat?” Yes.
The Poetry Exercise I ask you to participate in today is simple:
1) Write a brief letter to someone who has shaped your poetics/philosophic view.
2) Send it.
At the bottom of this post, I am including links to a few elegiac pieces that have been published in online journals, which will hopefully introduce you to more poets and publications. I’m going to post below a poem by the New York School poet, James Schuyler, who wrote many poems sitting in a chair, looking out the window. I think it captures the wonderment:
A chimney, breathing a little smoke.
The sun, I can't see
making a bit of pink
I can't quite see in the blue.
The pink of five tulips
at five p.m. on the day before March first.
The green of the tulip stems and leaves
like something I can't remember,
finding a jack-in-the-pulpit
a long time ago and far away.
Why it was December then
and the sun was on the sea
by the temples we'd gone to see.
One green wave moved in the violet sea
like the UN Building on big evenings,
green and wet
while the sky turns violet.
A few almond trees
had a few flowers, like a few snowflakes
out of the blue looking pink in the light.
A gray hush
in which the boxy trucks roll up Second Avenue
into the sky. They're just
going over the hill.
The green leaves of the tulips on my desk
like grass light on flesh,
and a green-copper steeple
and streaks of cloud beginning to glow.
I can't get over
how it all works in together
like a woman who just came to her window
and stands there filling it
jogging her baby in her arms.
She's so far off. Is it the light
that makes the baby pink?
I can see the little fists
and the rocking-horse motion of her breasts.
It's getting grayer and gold and chilly.
Two dog-size lions face each other
at the corners of a roof.
It's the yellow dust inside the tulips.
It's the shape of a tulip.
It's the water in the drinking glass the tulips are in.
It's a day like any other.
James Schuyler, from Freely Espousing
Steven Karl, “& I Dragged My Sister’s Feeble Body Up The Mountain”
Suzanne Scanlon, “Desire: An Elegy”
Sarah Blake, “Sometimes I Think I’m Finished”
Brian Foley, “Sixteen Moments of Silence”