Provisions #5: “tarnished, / problematic, and certainly uneven—a we”
Meditations in a crisis on writing by René Ménil, Ari Banias, and Andrea Rexilius.
In “Provisions,” three poetry readers reflect on a poem they’ve been holding close during this difficult time.
I FEEL MOST BLACK AT THE CENTER OF A GARDEN. For a short time, that garden was in my old backyard in Brooklyn, where organic kale and beets grew marvelously, bean pods shriveled on their vines, and the clay-heavy earth surrounding my beds glittered green with bottle shards. More often, it has been at the Morgan Family Farm in Florida’s panhandle where, for an entire summer, I painted watercolors to Alice Coltrane on the porch in front of my grandma’s fig tree.
Intimate contact with the earth and the ways it sustains life aids in my healing from colonial wounds. Colonial power is anchored in exploitations of land. This includes a methodic severance of our experience of land from the practice of care it offers. “A literature is taking shape,” wrote René Ménil in his 1948 piece “Let Poetry Go,” as he walked his colonial friend through a visualization of his native Martinican landscape, where the evening sun “[lit] a campfire at the base of tree trunks sleek and no-doubt Sonorous.” Before the journey could conclude, Ménil’s colonial friend “[leaves] silently, embarrassed, on tiptoe, by an opportune path.” Faced with the description of a not-yet-colonially-subjugated land, Ménil’s colonial friend experiences the imposition of silence and embarrassment.
Relatedly, I feel shame and incoherence in the presence of certain robust ecosystems—universities, hospitals, Dillard’s, the streets of any suburban subdivision after dark. In the United States, these spaces maintain their centrality through exploitation and violence, and existing within them often requires reproductions of violence in which land and what it bears become the means by which we subjugate one another. I consider the purple-tipped asparagus in my shopping basket. Picked where? And at what cost to whom? When I receive the earth in this way, I’m pressured to understand concern for my own survival as in tension with my ability to resist the exploitation of others.
Another practice of survival begins in the language light builds across Ménil’s forest floor—through attention to what might disrupt my fluency in the languages and tools of white supremacy. A literature builds in the particular un-greening of mission figs, made surreal through the fruit’s internalization of time and light, measured in color and water, in the years of days my grandmother turned compost and applied water to the roots. Measured in her belief that I would hold them one day. A literature takes shape in my hands, cold in the intergenerational dreaming of soil, where time metabolizes through both horizontal and vertical horizons.
Like many, I question what values I’ve internalized through colonial systems. This other language—this old, old literature that continues to take shape through amorous contact between bodies—offers me a collaborative practice of survival in which the value produced binds me to others with affection rather than violence and disregard.
That summer I spent painting in front of the fig tree, my grandma had been dead 12 years, and I could feel her as finely as the soft grey hair she swept into the utilitarian bun of a woman who woke each morning to mind land. I imagine there was—is—an exponential power in the care-taking relationships in which her desires for a future resided in the intersections of the human and non-human, our shared desire to live and support life.
LAST WEEK I ATTENDED A SHIVA for my friend’s father, who at 90, passed away from respiratory failure, just a few weeks after a bad fall. Unlike so many who are currently dying alone in hospitals or nursing homes, attended by medical personnel sheathed in identity-erasing PPE, my friend’s father was able to die at home with his wife and my friend by his side. The family sat shiva with the help of Zoom; more than 100 people attended from homes scattered across the globe. We could not bring food, hug, or hold hands with the bereaved. But we were able to find connection in shared loss, in the rabbi’s prayers and songs, and in the recounting of stories in celebration of a long and extraordinary life.
Like the prayers sung during the shiva, Ari Banias’s “Some Kind of We”—the opening poem in his debut collection, Anybody—has recently brought me comfort. The poem begins with the false allure of consolation: “These churchbells bong out / one to another in easy conversation / that wants to say / things are okay, / things are okay— / but things, / they are not okay.” Our world is definitely not okay, and in the poem, the speaker admits he cannot trust the churchbells with their grandiose and generic promise of well-being. Instead, he finds a more mundane reassurance in the knowledge that in almost every apartment and every house, there resides somewhere a stash or two of plastic bags. In this imperfect commonality, Banias locates a kind of solace. Though synthetic and toxic, the ordinary plastic bag says something, not about separateness and isolation, but about our connection to each other—that we exist as “tarnished, / problematic, and certainly uneven—a we.”
Here in Tucson, the morning trains call out to me like Banias’s churchbells. I once loved the long drawn-out sound of the horns as the trains passed through town, producing their reliable music. But today, I hear their thunderous repetition as a harbinger of danger. I do not trust their insistent commerce, their call to movement and capital, no matter the cost or the death—all of which echoes the brassy propaganda of the president’s daily briefings and Twitter feed. Now, even the memory of the horns feels threatening. Banias’s “not okay” was our now, long before this paused and shuttered present.
In the midst of our quarantines, I, like Banias, ask myself: What reminders do we have of dailiness and ongoing life, of our connection to those we cannot touch? I, too, have a stash of problematic plastic bags, not unlike my neighbors’ or my friends’ a few blocks or a few states away. On my walk this morning I witnessed the saguaros’ insistent May blooms and a pair of quail scuttling past with a new brood of chicks. Two days ago, I spoke to a student living alone across the country about a poem. Last week, while gazing into that grid of tiny Zoom boxes, I listened to friends and family speak of life and loss, and felt the common we of our mourning, our tears, and the long reach of our love.
EARLY IN MAY, I ASKED ANDREA REXILIUS to send me an audio recording of her poem “Afterworld” so that I could listen to it on my ritual walks. Though she lives nearby, we’ve obeyed distances since the pandemic arrived. Having her voice in my headphones while wandering the neighborhood is a way to bring her close to me. I wanted to amble through this oracular poem, to enter its soundscape and measure the edges of its precinct with my movement.
It takes about six minutes to listen to the recording, which resembles a descriptive index of selves, vegetal and animal:
. . . a creamy amber yellow self with a
lime throat constricted; a semblance of ash
in the month-of-the-ash-self; the growth of
grass, the first witches of the year, the first
bees; a creamy yellow self swallowing pond
stones to tenderly sprout a stock of the new
self; a golden flower self; a fire revelation
self of being the birth-tree, the silver fir, the
unborn sea; the unborn . . .
Here are the many selves we inhabit, the ones we lose, or get lost in, or loosen from our wrists like a balloon. Even though there’s something elegiac about a record of names—like a bede-roll of the dead to be recited for solemn remembrance—this poem isn’t simply a static registry of selves to mourn or celebrate. There’s a vibratory motion here. It travels far back (through our present Anthropocene) to reach some primordial place of molten earth and first growth. Still, it’s not only made of backward glances. “Afterworld” also glimmers with the flares of a future place, alive with its own first greenness that emerges after a calamity.
It comforts me how “Afterworld” becomes a spell in the ear. With its syntactical repetitions, its recombinations of colors and images, the poem attains the rhythms of incantation. Who knows if anything is enacted or protected, but I sense that part of the self will be vouchsafed every time I listen to the poem through the tumult of this present moment. After all, the poem is governed by the “after.” The after world of this poem isn’t some familiar and heavenly hereafter into which we would be saved. Rather, the after world is a weird vision that an oracle might offer, foreshadowing new life:
. . . a light orange self in the semblance
of abysmal fields at night; a scarlet red self
with a yellow throat which supplies a carrot
orange self an olive green throat; an avowed
self; a self as new sentience
No punctuation mark closes this poem that opens up into possibilities beyond our time.
Saretta Morgan lives in Phoenix, Arizona. She is the author of the chapbooks room for a counter interior and Feeling Upon Arrival. Recent work can be found in Triple Canopy, The Colorado Review, and Academy of America’s Poem-a-Day. She is at work on Alt-Nature, her first full-length collection.
Samuel Ace is a trans/genderqueer poet and sound artist. He is the author of several books, most recently Our Weather Our Sea (Black Radish), the newly re-issued Meet Me There: Normal Sex & Home in three days. Don’t wash. (Belladonna). He teaches creative writing at Mount Holyoke College.
Carolina Ebeid is a poet who holds a PhD from the University of Denver, and has won fellowships from CantoMundo, the Stadler Center, the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Lannan Foundation Residency. She helps edit poetry at The Rumpus.