An Opening

(on poetry, Emily Dickinson, & Jack Spicer)

I became interested in poetry because it was interested in the nature of reality. I used to play this game when I was little where I’d close my eyes in the middle of the school day. I’d follow the shapes and lights that appeared then try to write down what I remembered when I was “back” in the world. A few times I was sent to detention for doing this. I stopped participating in class. My teachers told my parents I “tuned out” or “fell asleep.” I wasn’t asleep. I’m not a person who likes to sleep either. In detention I’d play the same game until eventually I became so obsessed, I asked my mother why we have no control over what we see when we close our eyes as opposed to the real, physical world that is there when we open them.

She didn’t have an answer. I don’t think she found the question interesting either. And maybe it wasn’t. But for me, I preferred thinking about that than who to sit with at lunch. Knowing there may be something bigger than the world gave me less anxiety. Or at least pointed to the possibility that what we see may not be the only thing that’s real, even if science could explain that the neurons in the visual system send signals to the brain, thus producing the effect I was mesmerized with. I did eventually learn this. And still, it didn’t satisfy me or answer my questions.

The first American poet I read was Emily Dickinson. We had to memorize and recite at least twenty lines of verse and I stumbled upon her, entirely by accident. I was flipping through my textbook and somewhere toward the back were these lines:

This World is not Conclusion.

A Species stands beyond—

Invisible, as Music—

But positive, as Sound—

The poem goes on for sixteen more lines after that. I blanked on them when it was my turn to recite. I remember my teacher trying to console me because I was a neurotic perfectionist even then. I remember feeling embarrassed. Although, there was this other part of me that was almost called into being by the experience. A part of me that knew I had forgotten the poem after the first four lines because they impressed me so much. Because I’d never seen language arranged that way, or language that considered the same things I did.

I couldn’t get over Dickinson then and I still can’t. In a few lines she’d spoken to hours of what most preoccupied me. There was optimism and mystery. There was music. There was the world after the world, and something definitely happened to me that week in 1997. Dickinson found me right there, in my middle school classroom full of people I didn’t like, and—not to diminish or overstate this but—gave me a new confidence about being alive solely because she had been.

I do think the right people are looking for us at all times. They don’t always find us, but this has happened to me more than once. Somewhere at the beginning of college, maybe my freshman or sophomore year, I was walking through Angell Hall at the University of Michigan and found Jack Spicer’s Poetry As Magic Workshop Questionnaire printed on blue paper, peaking under the door of an empty seminar room. I was on my way back from a film lecture and wandering. I don’t know why I picked up the stapled pages. Probably because they were blue. Maybe because they said “poetry.”

I’ve looked for the right poem (like I’ve looked for the right song to play on repeat) my entire life. I’ve wanted to know why things happen and how they do and yet all the ways in which poetry has found me are somewhat inexplicable. Poetry isn’t containable. I’m not sure it’s here to teach us any one thing either. Poetry has allowed me to get closer to the questions I’m most interested in, without letting me be foolish enough to think there’s one way, one answer, an answer—you know what I’m getting at. Poetry is above bullshit. It’s not interested in our trends and insatiable opportunism, which let’s face it, are everywhere now. They’re right there as soon as you close this tab and look at Twitter. The didactic onslaught of language. Trying to make some moral claim or sell you on something. Poetry is not didactic. It’s not here to convince you of anything. You’ll recognize it as a turn in the mind, not a lesson.

In the summer of 2015, when I was going from doctor’s appointment to doctor’s appointment to find out what was wrong with me (and they never did find out), to see why I couldn’t get out of bed without having a panic attack almost daily, a stranger I’d met at a reading on my first book tour sent me the Jack Spicer poem below. We didn’t know each other. We’d only talked at the reading then followed each other on Instagram. You know the story. We all have these types of people in our online lives. In any case, when this poem found me, it was like Dickinson saying, “This World is not Conclusion.” It was like finding that questionnaire in that hallway all over again (and somewhere on the third or fourth page Spicer says, “Invent a dream in which you appear as a poet,” and at the end of this poem he says, “I am thinking that a poem could go on forever”). And you know what, I took both of those literally. And maybe they gave me permission to begin a real life.


Psychoanalysis: An Elegy
Jack Spicer

What are you thinking about?

I am thinking of an early summer.
I am thinking of wet hills in the rain
Pouring water. Shedding it
Down empty acres of oak and manzanita
Down to the old green brush tangled in the sun,
Greasewood, sage, and spring mustard.
Or the hot wind coming down from Santa Ana
Driving the hills crazy,
A fast wind with a bit of dust in it
Bruising everything and making the seed sweet.
Or down in the city where the peach trees
Are awkward as young horses,
And there are kites caught on the wires
Up above the street lamps,
And the storm drains are all choked with dead branches.

What are you thinking?

I think that I would like to write a poem that is slow as a summer
As slow getting started
As 4th of July somewhere around the middle of the second stanza
After a lot of unusual rain
California seems long in the summer.
I would like to write a poem as long as California
And as slow as a summer.
Do you get me, Doctor? It would have to be as slow
As the very tip of summer.
As slow as the summer seems
On a hot day drinking beer outside Riverside
Or standing in the middle of a white-hot road
Between Bakersfield and Hell
Waiting for Santa Claus.

What are you thinking now?

I’m thinking that she is very much like California.
When she is still her dress is like a roadmap. Highways
Traveling up and down her skin
Long empty highways
With the moon chasing jackrabbits across them
On hot summer nights.
I am thinking that her body could be California
And I a rich Eastern tourist
Lost somewhere between Hell and Texas
Looking at a map of a long, wet, dancing California
That I have never seen.
Send me some penny picture-postcards, lady,
Send them.
One of each breast photographed looking
Like curious national monuments,
One of your body sweeping like a three-lane highway
Twenty-seven miles from a night’s lodging
In the world’s oldest hotel.

What are you thinking?

I am thinking of how many times this poem
Will be repeated. How many summers
Will torture California
Until the damned maps burn
Until the mad cartographer
Falls to the ground and possesses
The sweet thick earth from which he has been hiding.

What are you thinking now?

I am thinking that a poem could go on forever.