In “Provisions,” three poetry readers reflect on a poem they’ve been holding close during this difficult time.
BACK IN FEBRUARY, thinking that my partner and I might, against my every sedimented instinct, board a plane for Texas to be among other writers at the annual AWP conference, I turned sharply, as if at the last minute, into the parking lot of a CVS far from home. I wanted travel-sized Lysol and zinc lozenges, and I wanted no one I knew to see my paranoid scuttling. The shelves, mind you, were still full. Around me, it seemed everyone was laughing, moving in that easy way that humans do.
In the end, we didn’t go to Texas. Just yesterday, my partner happened to dig it up, my trove of products that I’d hidden among her scarves like a squirrel burying acorns for the winter. I spend these days mostly in animal ways, pacing our three rooms, unbearably alert, and then napping in the mid-afternoon sun. In this way, despite the lengthening daylight, the leaves returning to the trees outside our window, it’s winter, again, now.
To remain something like human, to give structure to our days, my partner and I have made a list of rules: No working all of the time. No working none of the time. No scrolling in bed. Another rule: each day we’ll read poems out loud to each other until we find one, just one, that enters both of us and remaps our inner terrain. Usually, this means ten, twenty minutes of poems, and then off to work in our separate corners. On rare mornings, we read and read. Once inhabited by a poem, it’s difficult to let it go.
The last time this happened, we were re-reading Donika Kelly’s collection Bestiary. I’d read Kelly’s book when it came out in 2016 and loved it then, but now there was something newly propulsive about it. I couldn’t let us put it down. There always are/have been disasters that tear a hole in human sociality, this book of love poems issuing from a site of profound estrangement insists. Disasters of spoiled intimacy. Disasters of history unfolding, folding, unfolding still.
The speaker—black, queerly gendered, survivor of violence both intimate and historical—tarries with what disaster has made of her: monstrous, perhaps, more animal than girl. But this isn’t exactly a tragedy. Instead, to sometimes be only adjacent to human life forces (or enables) Kelly, her speaker, to develop new, precise vocabularies for intimacy—vocabularies borrowed from the birds, the minotaur, the sphinx, and the dogs “who make bearable all that you must / bear.” Given how figurations of black people as animal or animal-like have been mobilized to justify the ongoing history of black oppression, Kelly’s imitation of the nonhuman isn’t without risk. But given that everyday human structures of care and intimacy—the family, healthcare systems, etc.—are themselves sites of violence, I find it steadying to look around at the more-than-human world for reminders that there are other ways to live, even if only temporarily. “What you crave: distance”—from the violence of the human. “What the / [nonhuman] gives you: warmth.”
In Bestiary, winter—loneliness, isolating and reparative reclusion, coldness, hardness in all its registers, absence of (human) touch—ends. But disaster never ends. I can’t help but think of Kelly’s poems as my partner digs through the closet, unearthing my tiny cache. My tail twitching, twitching. Yes, we find new ways of living with what has been made of us. What we have made.
MY BACK ACHES from standing all day, turning the kitchen over to prepare for Passover. I place the year-round dishes into a box, stack the one-week-a-year plates onto the shelves, consider a continuous internal stream of versions of the same question: “Is ______ kosher for Passover?” I don’t have any g!ddamn dill. The victory garden is sprouting chard, kale, spinach, and herbs, but it’s all weeks away from being ready to use. Stock simmers on the stove while I seek my mother’s advice by phone: “The broth I was planning to use turns out to be chametzdik. What do I substitute?”
I’m in Baltimore; my mother is far away in Philadelphia. We should be in the same kitchen, bumping into one another, morphing into a back-to-back, multi-armed, multi-legged, red-headed being, like the first Creation in Genesis. We should be creating a tornado of parsley, vegetarian chopped liver, and far-too-salty saltwater. But the virus is spreading, and so we are apart. Because the healers are already so overworked, because there are already so many dead, because so many are so far from enough food for a feast, because there is a plague at the door.
Joy Harjo’s “Perhaps the World Ends Here” has brought me comfort in all times and places. This Pesach, her words are revealed anew. As so much feels terrifyingly uprooted, the table is a familiar shelter, “a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.”
The plague knocks at the door, zooms across town. Are we destined to tell a story of hope and liberation as the world ends? Document our despair one last year?
Suddenly, the answer is no. I read Harjo’s words, again and again. Until now, I received this poem as a lament, a remembrance of what was. Now I see, there is sustenance here: “The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.” She is and is not writing about the end of the world—for the world has surely ended time after time; our Native poet laureate certainly knows of the destruction of worlds. “We have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate terrible victory.” Perhaps this poem suggests that what remains at the holy altar of the table is what the world should stop for, that endings can yield new beginnings. That the worlds these beginnings yield depends on us. Time lengthens in the breath of the poem, eternity and the world’s end are woven into each other.
This year, the table is at the end of the world. This table, with teething babies and coffee stains, makes promises of that which can endure, and what is worth enduring for. The world is not coming to an end; the world stops at the table. The table is the whole world.
IN LUBLIN, POLAND, in 1939, SS officers backed a group of Jews against barbed wire and ordered them to sing to their execution. A man began a familiar tune: “Lomir zich iberbetn,” he sang. Let us reconcile. Nobody joined him. He improvised: “Mir veln zey iberlben.” We will outlive them. This new song caught. The SS commander ordered the Jews to stop singing. The Jews sang on. Even as SS officers charged them, the song swelled. We will outlive them, we will outlive them, we will outlive them.
I used to chafe at this story, which I learned in Hebrew school. It felt violent, mining the dead for hope—those of us not killed sanctified by the terror inflicted on others, a grotesque consolation. I think of this now when I hear people say hero, meaning: you don’t need sick leave, a living wage. Hero: you can take it. We can take losing you. Even the vocabularies of care most immediately available to us prime us, I fear, to understand certain deaths as acceptable, as a necessary sacrifice. When, following empire’s scripts, we say we are “fighting” the virus, that we’re “at war with an invisible enemy,” we are preparing ourselves to tolerate the deaths of “frontline” workers, of people who are incarcerated, disabled, black, brown, or otherwise denied resources, further authorizing the unequally distributed vulnerabilities under the alibi of common good.
Craving a language of true togetherness, one that neither looks away from the horror nor accepts what’s readily offered, I’ve found myself returning to “On Living” by the Turkish poet Nâzim Hikmet:
Living is no laughing matter:
you must take it seriously,
so much so and to such a degree
that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
your back to the wall
. . .
you can die for people—
even for people whose faces you've never seen,
even though you know living
is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
The physical constraint expressed here is not metaphorical: Hikmet wrote “On Living” in the 10th year of a 28-year prison sentence he served on charges of sedition for writing a poem that referenced a 15th-century rebellion against Ottoman rule. To take living seriously, this poem reminds, is not to hoard life-chances, but to nourish the life-chances of us all.
In 2018, after the shooting at the Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha synagogue, I found myself struck by a doubled grief: grief for the murdered and their communities, and grief that, in their grief, so many Jewish institutions seized on white supremacist constructions of safety, calling for increases in police presence and reaffirming a commitment to Israel—routes to even more death. In a last-ditch effort to mourn in community in a way that did not produce more mourning, I attended a vigil hosted by Jews for Economic and Racial Justice. We gathered in Union Square Park. It was raining. Someone I didn’t know offered me half of their umbrella. There were no police. We sang together: “Mir veln zey iberlben.” In that particularly distilled kind of living that love makes of loss, I experienced a glimpse of true togetherness; the words I’d resented for what had felt like a hollow affirmation of life now made way for full grief that swells like song—from us, then larger than us all.
Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016) and Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019). His writing has appeared in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Signs, and elsewhere. He is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.