Provisions #7: “repair a world or build / a new one inside my body”
Meditations in a crisis on poems by Solmaz Sharif, Pablo Neruda, and Cameron Awkward-Rich.
In “Provisions,” three poetry readers reflect on a poem they’ve been holding close during this difficult time.
I WAS 11 YEARS OLD the summer my big sister came home with Tracy Chapman’s first CD. To this day, when I hear the opening notes of “Fast Car,” I feel like I’m overhearing someone else’s music, remembering a memory—not even mine—rather than an event. A decade earlier, when our family left Iran to live in the United States, I was only a toddler, barely aware of anything outside our home, and she was already a six-year-old kid, homesick for one world and navigating first grade in another. Periodically, over the years, she’d fall very hard for something—an album, say, or a way of dressing or talking—and I’d take note of her tastes as markers on a path to being cool. “Fast Car” was like that. She’d grow moody and quiet at Chapman’s wounded, rueful refrain, “I had a feeling that I belonged,” while I, not really knowing what her silence meant, merely had a feeling that I’d had that feeling.
That same song appears briefly in Solmaz Sharif’s extraordinary poem “Master Film,” set in 1988, the year “Fast Car” was released. I share a few of the poem’s touchstones: the song, of course, and also the basic contours of an immigration story. But beyond those glancing connections (both of which give way to just as many differences), I’m drawn to the way the poem, like Chapman’s song, summons intimate feelings over vast distances, both spatial and temporal, measuring the pain those distances have inflicted. Perhaps I turn to the poem now because the pain it conjures can also feel like contact, and it’s contact I crave: with a sister I haven’t hugged in four months, with parents whose home we haven’t entered—and when will we?—in much longer.
The distances in Sharif’s poem are diasporic. At the poem’s outset, the speaker recalls herself at age four, living in Alabama. Her family has come from Iran to live in the United States, and her parents are out of sight, trying to make a living:
. . . my mother mostly gone
and elsewhere and wondering
about my dad, my baba, driving a cab
in Poughkeepsie, lifting lumber in Rochester, thirtysomething
and pages of albums killed,
entire rows of classrooms
The speaker sits on her “great grandmother’s lap.” From there, she thinks of her mother, who is nannying and attending school; her mother thinks of her father, working a thousand miles away; behind her father loom the ghosts of a generation of classmates, halfway around the world, killed in the Iran–Iraq war. The child sits at the center of concentric circles, each rippling out farther from her position, each growing fainter, until the last, which reaches Iran, dissolves into absence. Snug in her great grandmother’s lap, she is “singing” her mother “home,” attempting, via the magical thinking of childhood, to cinch those circles tight.
The child at the center of the poem cannot really know what the father out along its edges is feeling. But his soundtrack, “Fast Car”—a young person’s song that is also a weary song, a song about both leaving a life behind and making a new one, a song about the cruel optimism of American life—gives us some indication. Memory here is shifting and itinerant; each of the poem’s geographic points locates a vantage from which the family’s experience will look and feel different.
Sharif’s title, “Master Film,” suggests that behind that diffuse array of selves and perspectives there exists an authoritative account—indeed, that the poem itself might be that account. But when that father, “downing Bud Light by the Hudson / and listening to ‘Fast Car,’” is recorded by a friend—his image delivered back to his family—the poem reveals itself, in its second half, to be not a verifiable record but something more vital, a living archive of feelings otherwise lost: “my baba on VHS / interviewed by a friend in New York, his hair / black as mine is now.” A “thirtysomething” father and his grown daughter are brought together, with the help of a taped interview, in a dreamlike present tense that exists only in the poem.
The film is at once a record of distance and a form that makes intimacy possible. The poet and her father meet in each other’s absence; their meeting becomes a kind of melancholic presence. If that father’s hair is now (in the moment of the poem’s enunciation) gray, there on the tape it was still “black as mine is now”; the grown child and her young father meet as peers. There, too, on the tape, he sees the young daughter from whom he has been kept apart. The same friend who would bring the VHS tape to the young girl has brought her photograph to him. In the poem’s final lines, she looks at him, decades ago, looking at a picture of her—and the experience for both of them, then and now, is rending:
and on the video our friend shows baba a picture
of me and asks how do you feel when you see Solmaz?
and baba saying turn the camera off then
turn off the camera and then
can you please look away I don’t want you to see my baba cry
I have tried teaching this poem a few times, and I’ve discovered that I can’t read these lines aloud without my own eyes filling with tears. In answer to the question, “how do you feel when you see Solmaz?”, the father can give only his refusal to answer. His refusal becomes, in the poem’s last, unitalicized line, his daughter’s refusal, offered to us. That refusal is the measure of what must be denied in order for the poem to live.
MY CALENDAR has been blank for four months. In March, after the shelter-in-place order was given for Ohio, my journal entries, to-do lists, and daily schedules stopped. Though the days in quarantine have not been empty, I’ve been unable to bear keeping records of the time. What would they be but catalogues of panic and rage and ceaseless domesticity? Every entry would start the same way: People are dying; the remainder would be a tally of homeschool lessons, college papers, and recipes. The only reminder I’ve left myself, a task still undone, is a sticky note on which I scrawled write a will before calling my brother to ask if he would care for my son if my partner and I died.
During this time, I’ve returned over and over to “Keeping Quiet,” Alastair Reid’s translation of Pablo Neruda’s poem “A callarse.” The poem opens with a simple collaborative instruction —“Now we will count to twelve and all keep still”—and proceeds to describe the revelations that might be found in communal quietude. In the first weeks of quarantine, as traffic slowed outside and my family stayed inside, it seemed the whole country had entered the collective stillness Neruda describes as being “without rush, without engines” in a “sudden strangeness.”
In these past few months, we have left our house so little that animals ventured closer. Wrens tucked dried grasses into the wheel wells of our car, seven deer appeared one morning on the lawn, and a pair of robins built a nest in the leafless Rose of Sharon outside our back door. In April, my son and I watched from the kitchen window as one of the robins sat in the nest through two nights of freezing rain. “Do birds ever get lonely?” my son asked. I said I didn’t know. Two weeks later, the robins suddenly disappeared, leaving behind three bright blue eggs. We read that birds will abandon a nest that is unsafe for their babies, even if they’ve already laid eggs. In our confinement, we’ve become more watchful of pain we’ve caused and pain we’ve felt, like the fishermen in Neruda’s poem who “would not harm whales” and the “man gathering salt / who would look at his hurt hands.” We wondered if the robins left because of us.
The stillness summoned in Neruda’s poem is not rest or ease, but a space for deep attention to disquiet, a silence so transformative that even wars might stop. Neruda writes:
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving
and for once could do nothing
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and threatening ourselves with death.
I first turned to the poem in search of solace as schools and offices closed, but with each rereading I’ve understood better that the poem’s quiet does not directly parallel the abrupt suspension brought on by the pandemic. Instead, the poem offers an urgent portrait of what could happen if people would listen to the unrest that quiet makes audible. As in Neruda’s poem, the disruption of quarantine offers people the opportunity to “understand ourselves” and pay attention to the brutal inequities in this country that the pandemic and protests against anti-Blackness have so plainly laid bare. When I read the poem again now, I see a vision of the true reckoning that is possible in this country as the history of undeniable cruelty and pain is exposed in hospitals, street corners, viral videos, statistics, and best-selling books—an inventory of the ways people are “threatening ourselves with death.”
Now, my neighbors are gathering again in backyards, in bars, and in pools. They say they want to return to normal, they want to get back to regular life—but normal was never safe for everyone, and the regular lives of some have long made the lives of others unsafe and insecure. Even the robins know not to return to the nest they abandoned. Surely, by now, they have built a new home in stronger branches. At the end of Neruda’s poem, the reader is not returned to the past or snapped out of silence. Instead, the speaker “counts up to twelve” again and leaves the reader alone in the stillness. I too want to be quiet, to pay attention to the rumble of each other’s sadness until we are all truly changed by it.
— Robin Beth Schaer
CAMERON AWKWARD-RICH’S “CENTO BETWEEN THE ENDING AND THE END” has graced my bedside for over a year now. I fell in love with this poem when I first encountered it months ago as a feature on Academy of American Poets’ “poem-a-day.” I copied it by hand onto a torn-out sheet of notebook paper and taped it to the wall beside my bed; it’s the first thing I read when I wake. A cento is a collage poem comprised entirely of lines by other poets, and in a “queerly brimming” gesture toward his kin, Awkward-Rich explains—in a note that accompanies the poem—that he sourced his lines from works by literary heroes and loved ones, “[a]ll of whom have made for me a world and for whom I wish the world.”
Lately, I’ve been sitting with the words of abolitionists Derecka Purnell and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who invite us to imagine not simply the absence of the carceral state, but the presence of life-affirming systems. In the tender patchwork of Awkward-Rich’s cento, I find a similar invitation to imagine a place where the speaker and their loved ones are alive and well—a world of Black, queer, trans, marginally gendered thriving. When the speaker describes the “choice” to “repair a world or build / a new one inside my body,” I catch glimpses of an abolitionist future: the possibility of a new world cultivated through care. In the gathering of beloved lines, Awkward-Rich makes anew from what has been, creating another world where this one ends by picking up the pieces already there. We already have everything we need.
This poem’s title encourages me to recognize the difference between “the Ending” and “the End”—that the ending of this world is not a totalizing end to all life; rather, the ending of the world as we know it is an active engagement, a necessary condition for the creation of a new world in its wake. Like other acts of abolitionist imagination, Awkward-Rich’s cento is a study in what can be reconstituted from what already is. In this moment, when I struggle to visualize what a world without policing looks like, I turn toward the communal space of this poem. I read the lines and think of Ruth Wilson Gilmore speaking of freedom as a place, abolition as geography:
it is like the world
when I call out
all my friends are there
everyone we love
is still alive gathered
at the lakeside
On a recent webinar, Angela Davis stated that trans people offer a blueprint for abolition, as we’ve already shown the world how to abolish the gender binary—a system that cis people previously couldn’t imagine their lives without. When I hear someone I love call me by my name, I feel something close to freedom—something like “the body whole bright- / winged brimming.” In a world predicated on anti-Blackness, racial capitalism, Indigenous genocide, and gendered violence, the lives of trans people—especially Black trans people—point us toward futures where we are all alive and free, a world without prisons, borders, or police.
Abolitionist Mariame Kaba speaks of hope as a discipline; each morning that I wake and read this cento, I feel more closely attuned to an abolitionist present and future. To riff on a line from Toni Morrison: These days I try to do what I can from where I am. June was Pride, and the queerest thing I did all month was write letters to queer kin incarcerated in Texas. I have no way of knowing if my pen pal has read my letter—I won’t know until I receive mail back. In California, I joined thousands virtually across the state calling on the governor to grant mass clemency to people incarcerated in his prisons and detention centers. I water my houseplants, call my loved ones, and drop off ingredients and meals for friends from a six-foot distance. “Sometimes you don’t die / when you’re supposed to,” and today I am alive and feel that another world is possible. Today I choose care, again and again, as a way of building another future. Beloveds, bloom how we must—“wild / until we are free.”
Kamran Javadizadeh is an associate professor of English at Villanova University, where he works on the history of poetry and poetics. He is the author of Institutionalized Lyric (forthcoming, Oxford UP). His essays have appeared in PMLA, Modernism/modernity, and elsewhere.
Robin Beth Schaer is a poet and essayist. She is the author of the poetry collection Shipbreaking. She teaches creative writing at Oberlin College in Ohio.
Laurel Chen is a queer/trans/migrant writer from Taiwan. A Kundiman and Pink Door fellow. They are currently earning their B.A. in ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley (Huichin Ohlone Territory).