Printer Friendly

Levity & gravity.

This discussion was first presented as a panel at AWP 2013 in Boston.

... the sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness.

--Italo Calvino


by Hannah Fries

I'd like to begin with a short poem by Adelia Prado (translated by Ellen Dore Watson in The Alphabet in the Park), because it offers an image that will be useful to keep in mind as we explore the idea of lightness:
 From inside geometry
 Cod looks at me and I am terrified.
 He makes the incubus descend on me.
 I yell for Mama,
 I hide behind the door
 where Papa hangs his dirty shirt;
 they give me sugar water to calm me,
 I speak the words of prayers.
 But there's another way;
 if I sense He's peeking at me,
 I think about brands of cigarettes,
 I think about a man in a red cape going out
 in the middle of the night to worship the
 Blessed Sacrament,
 I think about hand-rolled tobacco, train
 whistles, a farm woman
 with a basket of pequi
 fruit all aroma and yellow.
 Before He knows it, there I am in His lap.
 I pull on his white beard.
 He throws me the ball of the world,
 I throw it back. 

Hold on to that for a moment, the ball of the world Prado has so deftly tossed ...

Our culture has a love affair with destruction. Every generation seems to stir its own soup of popular apocalyptic fears, which come in varying degrees of plausibility--pandemic, alien invasion, humanoid robots, nuclear war, climate change, you name it. And the entertainment industry has long exploited these fears--most pervasively in film--not to analyze their roots or remediate them or to offer constructive or redemptive alternatives, but often simply to capitalize on the drama of catastrophe. We experience this daily also in what the media feeds us in the way of news. What dominates is destruction: the heaviness of violence, poverty, greed, injustice, suffering, and disaster. Sometimes, when it all reaches a certain pitch, the weight of the world feels just too heavy to carry. Sometimes, when it comes to making art, such weighty material can be stifling, even paralyzing.

Finding balance can be a struggle. While as writers we may feel a moral obligation to confront and not ignore difficult and weighty subjects, we may also feel morally compelled to attempt to redeem or transform that darkness. And I firmly believe that this is where imagination lends its greatest powers--to creation, not destruction; to mending and building, understanding and redemption.

This is the kind of lightness I want to talk about today. Not sentimentality, which has its own form of heaviness, and not frivolity--but a lightness that takes into account the weight of the world and then works on it, transforms it, like turning a shard of glass until it catches the light just so. This, I would argue, is "the other way," as Adelia Prado writes in "Two Ways"--a slight shift in perspective such that the world becomes light and malleable, tossed back to God like a child's ball.

Of course, this is all easier said than done. Which is why I am grateful to have discovered Italo Calvino's essay "Lightness" from his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, which not only helps to define the concept of lightness, but also identifies certain craft techniques that can be employed to achieve it.

The primary image that Calvino uses to demonstrate his idea of lightness in literature is Ovid's image of Perseus with the head of the slain Medusa. Ovid writes: "So that the rough sand should not harm the snake-haired head, he makes the ground soft with a bed of leaves, and on top of that he strews little branches of plants born under water, and on this he places Medusa's head face down." It is the delicacy of this gesture that Calvino marvels at, the "refreshing courtesy toward a being so monstrous and terrifying yet at the same time somehow fragile and perishable." The passage in Ovid becomes even more wondrous yet: when the little sea plants touch the Medusa's head, they turn to coral; the sea nymphs rush to collect the coral for their adornments, bringing more twigs and branches to the horrible head and watching the amazing metamorphosis.

What is so suggestive in this passage, according to Calvino, is "the clash in images, in which the fine grace of the coral touches the savage horror of the Gorgon." In other words, it is the intensity of the contrast, beauty and delicacy in the face (literally) of such horror. Calvino goes on to compare Ovid's lines to those of a modern Italian poet, Eugenio Montale. In Montale's poem "Piccolo testamento," something tiny and subtle--"mother-of-pearl trace of a snail / or mica of crushed glass"--is put up against a hellish monster "with pitch-black wings who descends upon the cities of the West." And yet, in this most apocalyptic vision of Montale's, "it is those minute, luminous tracings that are placed in the foreground and set in contrast to dark catastrophe."

Reading these examples put forth by Calvino, I could not help but think of Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road, in which the love between a father and a son is put up against a horrific apocalyptic wasteland and the darkest possibilities of human nature. The delicacy of the characters' situation, the understated nature of their love for each other, and the father's reassurance that, yes, they are still "carrying the fire," provide the lightness that saves the book from unbearable heaviness. This is because, implicit in the terrible contrast is the question of whether there is some kind of incredible balance here, if in the fragility of that love there is a strength that stands up to the most unimaginable horror. "But how can we hope to save ourselves in that which is most fragile?" asks Calvino. Montale's poem, he argues--and I'd add McCarthy's novel--"is a profession of faith in the persistence of what seems most fated to perish, in the moral values invested in the most tenuous traces."

The lessons that Calvino draws from these observations are deeply important to me, as someone who at times feels the heavy weight of the world as a dangerous sense of paralysis that threatens to creep into life and art. In response to this feeling, Calvino writes:
 Whenever humanity seems condemned to
 heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into
 a different space. I don't mean escaping into
 dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I have
 to change my approach, look at the world from a
 different perspective, with a different logic and
 with fresh methods of cognition and verification.
 The images of lightness that I seek should
 not fade away like dreams dissolved by the realities
 of present and future. 

As Calvino indicates in this passage, the pursuit of lightness in its various forms does not mean escape, nor the denial of heaviness. But for me, it may be a saving grace; it may be a reason to keep making art.

War rages; we are cruel to one another; we are diminished by poverty and illness; we destroy the earth that sustains us. In other words, we will need all the lightness we can get if we are to lay down the Gorgon's head with the attention and tenderness of Perseus--and if, like the nymphs gathering the bits of coral from around the head, we are to construct, in the context of that horror, a thing of fragile and uncertain beauty.

The Gravity of the Living (and Three Kinds of Lightness)

by Alison Hawthorne Deming

Italo Calvino saw literature as a search for knowledge. What kind of knowing might that be? Not the knowing that calculates the speed of light or discovers neutrinos, not the knowing that lowers a pick-up truck onto the surface of Mars to explore for signs of life. Not the knowing that produces a diagnosis or a pharmaceutical product that can bring a person bent on self-destruction back to the will to live. Literature is some other kind of knowledge, though it does have to do with the will to live and the appetite for experience and community that keep us living. Calvino had confidence in the future of literature because he understood that literature consists of the knowledge that there are things that only literature can give us. One of those things, he wrote, was "lightness," a force that can remove the weight of living. "A lightness of thoughtfulness," Calvino wrote, not "of frivolity."

It's hard for me get my hands around this abstraction. What I've come to understand about this idea of lightness is that it can only be defined by the gravity of living, the weight of human presence. Lightness is the force that prevents us from being crushed by the weight of matter, the weight of suffering, the weight of political or personal inertia.

I want here to look at three works that exemplify this literary principle--and I want to do that in the context of a question. How are we to write about nature in the anthropocene, as our geologic era has been named now that human impacts have so profoundly affected the entire bio/geo/cultural condition of Earth. My task as a writer seems to have become circling around a set of questions: Can we get beyond the lament of having this knowledge; beyond the pieties that belie the injustice, violence and greed that poison our spirits; beyond hectoring and policing one another about our ecological sins? Can we define through art-making what lies between the gravity of this knowledge and the levity of what sustainability thinker Mitchell Thomashow calls "a higher state of human flourishing in the biosphere?"


Calvino defines three different kinds of lightness to be found in literature. I'll organize my comments around them:

i. "A visual image of lightness that acquires emblematic value."

John Clare is (as Carolyn Kizer has written and upon whose work I draw in this essay) the most neglected great poet in the English language. A poet of rural and village life, he was born in 1793 in the village of Helpstone--born five years after Byron, a year after Shelley, and two years before Keats. He outlived them all and wrote prolifically throughout his life. He wrote over 3500 poems. He was a landless laborer, son of a landless laborer. He became an agricultural worker as a child and was ridiculed as "the peasant poet"--much in the manner that today the rural cordelistas and repentistas of Brazil are demeaned as "popular poets." As opposed, I guess, to the serious ones. Clare was mocked for showing up in London literary circles wearing a country bumpkin's grass green coat. He was critically discredited for writing loving descriptions of common things in nature rather than speaking to the "appearances of nature more philosophically." He was well read--the Bible, Pilgrim's Progress, botany, astrology, philosophy. He knew the sonnets of Shakespeare, Milton and Donne, as well as traditional ballads of shepherds and songs of "gypsies" with whom he'd worked and lived on the fens of Northamptonshire. He suffered from an ailment known as "fen ague"--a type of malaria that was treated with opium and brandy. He suffered--probably from these treatments as well--from severe depression and delusional mental instability, which grew worse under the burden of raising seven children. He ended up spending over twenty-five years in lunatic asylums.

Clare suffered keenly from the destruction of the rural commons under the Enclosure Acts of Parliament that kicked villagers and cottagers off millions of acres of land where they had dwelled since the 13th century. Laborers lost access to ancestral lands where they had freely roamed and, to add insult to injury, were made to drain, level and fence in the land in service of the ruling usurpers. His poems mourned these losses and empathized with "those slaves by wealth decreed," who were forced to labor on the land toward their own exclusion.

And yet, in his work, lightness prevails.

Among Clare's works is a remarkable series of poems based upon his observation of birds' nests and nesting behavior in the wild. In today's environmental vernacular, we'd call him a citizen scientist, documenting with imagistic precision his field observations. But listen, in one of his shorter poems in this series, to how the image acquires emblematic value.
 From you black clump of wheat that grows
 More rank and higher than the rest
 A lark--I marked her as she rose--
 At early morning left her nest.
 Her eggs were four of dusky hue
 Blotched brown as is the very ground
 With tinges of a purply hue
 The larger ends encircling round.
 Behind a clod how snug the nest
 Is in a horse's footing fixed!
 Of twitch and stubbles roughly dressed
 With roots and horsehair intermixed.
 The wheat surrounds it like a bower
 And like to thatch each bowing blade
 Throws off the frequent falling shower
 --And here's an egg this morning laid! 

The poems plays at juxtaposing the black and rank spot in the wheat field with the fragile nest the lark has built there, the building materials and mottled eggs described with ornithological care. The poem has lift--in the ascendency of the lark that reveals the nest and again at the poem's closing enthusiasm. "And here's an egg this morning laid!" The evanescent wonder of beginnings. But the one image that I can't shake in the poem is this one:
 Behind a clod how snug the nest
 Is in a horse's footing fixed! 

The gravity lies in the image of the "clod"--heavy soil turned up by the passing of a workhorse in the agricultural field. But it is an image that stirs up the sense of lightness too that the bird's nest represents. A lightness not having to do with the lark's flight or song, but with the fact and fragility of a creature making such an unlikely purchase on the land. It is an image of both security and peril--when will the next horse's footing fall? And the resonance of this humble and precarious nest gives context and dignity, by emblematic association, to the plight of the landless peasant.

2. Calvino's second quality of lightness is lightness within the language itself: "a verbal texture that seems weightless, until the meaning itself takes on the same rarefied consistency."

For this, I turn to Calvino himself as exemplar. As a lover of folktale, fabulist and science fiction, new and hybrid forms, he became one of the greatest literary artists and innovators of the 20th century. He spent two years gathering folktales on assignment to seek the Italian equivalent to the work of the Brothers Grimm. The music and verbal texture of the tale seem second nature to him, qualities that inform his work in Invisible Cities.

Folktales and fairytales, my colleague Kate Bernheimer might say, traffic breezily in lust, incest, mass murder and mayhem--all in the guise of something made up that's really quite harmless, even for the children. There is something inherently innocent in the voice of the tale-teller, something trustworthy and light. Like girl scouts bonding around the campfire by telling ghost stories. They're scared. But they're giggling and drawing close together in the night. The verbal texture is light, but the subject matter is darker than the darkest night.

Calvino adopts this kind of verbal texture, to an end more metonymically tied to the historical and future situation of civilization.
 In the streets of Cecilia, an illustrious city, I met
 once a goatherd, driving a tinkling flock along
 the walls.
 "Man blessed by heaven," he asked me, stopping,
 "can you tell me the name of the city in
 which we are?"
 "May the gods accompany you!" I cried. "How
 can you fail to recognize the illustrious city of
 "Bear with me," that man answered. "I am a
 wandering herdsman. Sometimes my goats and
 I have to pass through cities; but we are unable
 to distinguish them. Ask me the names of the
 grazing lands, I know them all: the Meadow between
 the Cliffs, the Green Slope, the Shadowed
 Grass. Cities have no name for me ...
 "I am just the opposite of you," I said. "I
 only cities and cannot distinguish what
 is outside them. In uninhabited places each
 stone and each clump of grass mingles, in my
 eyes, with every other stone and clump."
 Many years have gone by since then ...
 One day I was walking among rows of identical
 houses; I was lost. I asked a passerby: "May
 the immortals protect you, can you tell me
 where we are?"
 "In Cecelia, worst luck!" he answered. "We
 have been wandering through its streets, my
 goats and I, for an age, and we cannot find our
 way out..."
 I recognized him, despite his long white
 beard; it was the same herdsman of long before.
 He was followed by a few, mangy goats,
 which did not even stink, they were so reduced
 to skin-and-bones ...
 "That cannot be!" I shouted. "I, too, entered a
 city, I cannot remember when, and since then I
 have gone on, deeper and deeper into its streets.
 But how have I managed to arrive where you
 say, when I was in another city, far far away
 from Cecilia, and I have not yet left it?"
 "The places have mingled," the goatherd said.
 "Cecilia is everywhere. Here, once upon a time,
 there must have been the Meadow of Low Sage.
 My goats recognize the grass on the traffic island." 

Here the cadence of the tale, the lilt of respectful salutations on the road, enliven the account of two lost travelers trying to find their way through one another's story. The world has suffered an "enclosure act," the old sense of the continuity of nature as home and solace has been replaced by a continuity of cities. Nature has been reduced to starving mangy goats and grass on a traffic island. Gravity abounds in the story and yet the travelers speak with a cadence and verbal texture of lightness familiar to all as a fairy tale--though here the story occurs in the post-once-upon-a-time period. Can the "continuity" of cities (a topographical image) replace the "continuity" of nature (an abstraction encompassing metaphysical and evolutionary connotations)? It's a heavy question. One may feel lightness in the irony as the valence, the verbal texture, of the word "continuity" shifts.

3. Calvino's third quality of lightness is represented by "a train of thought or psychological process in which subtle or imperceptible elements are at work, or any kind of description that involves a high degree of abstraction."

For this quality, I'll turn to a recent poem of mine that was published last year in the journal American Scientist. The poem was spurred by a narrative occasion--a visit to an uninhabited island in the Bay of Fundy to see the most endangered lighthouse on the Atlantic shore, the Ross Island Light. I went there with photographer Peter Cunningham, who has been documenting the slow collapse of the building for the past twenty years or so. We went near dusk to catch the good photographic light. We'd forgotten about the little pond on the island, a stagnant pond that was home to some ducks and Canada geese. Oh, yeah, and mosquitoes. Lots and lots of mosquitoes. Mosquitoes that feed most voraciously at dusk. There's no lightness in my telling you that we were, as we say, eaten alive. But the poem does another kind of work than simply recounting the story. And it was helped by science, in the spirit of Calvino who wrote that he "looks to science--in which all heaviness disappears." Only the female mosquitoes attack us for our blood. They do so because they need the protein to have enough energy to breed, a fact that caused a small bubble of empathy to rise in my mind and led to the poem.

Here telling a lie becomes a vehicle for lightness--and beneath the surface of the poem lies the abstraction of "the anthropocene" with all its concomitant questions about the appetite of human culture and our apparent inability to make the sacrifices required for the sake of the survival of others less fortunate than ourselves. I'll close with the poem.
 First came the scouts who felt our sweat in the air and understood our
need to make a sacrifice.
We were so large and burdened with all we had carried our blood too rich
for our own good. They understood
that we could give what they needed and never miss it. Then came the
throng encircling our heads like acoustic
droning with the me-me-me of appetite. We understood their pleasure to
find such hairless beasts so easy to
 open and drink.
We understood their female ardor to breed and how little they had to go
on considering the protein required to make
their million-fold eggs. Vibrant, available, and hot, we gave our flesh
in selfless service to their future. 

The Aftermath & Malcolm X

by Afaa Michael Weaver

For this panel on lightness, I have decided--after some rather heavy or weighty deliberations--to look at two older poems of mine, one entitled "The Aftermath," from my first poetry collection Water Song. The other is a poem entitled "To Malcolm X on His Second Coming," which was published in the spring 1999 issue of African American Review but which is not in any of my books. In looking at these two poems I found myself drawn to the idea of "place in poetry," which is to say the actual place that serves sometimes as the site of a poem for me as well as what place becomes in memory. There is the actual place, the place as construed in time, and the place as it varies with the accumulation of time and reflection. In the instance of these two poems, place also serves as the site of the past at the intersection of personal and cultural history. In that intersection, I have found the portal to what I experience as lightness, the chance to deepen my own humanity.

In the 1950s and '60s, the border between black and white neighbors was the broad space of Baltimore Cemetery for most of the stretch of Sinclair Lane. As a child I could look out at the glistening headstones from my bedroom window. Where the cemetery ends there is an overpass that forms a short tunnel for the freight trains I could hear at night, and just on the other side of that overpass there was Erdman Shopping Center, a place where black met white. The racial violence of the '60s came home to us as children when we went to the shopping center to buy toys from Murphy's Five & Dime. We walked home with bottles and bricks breaking and thumping behind us. One day a friend was caught alone in the space of the border and beaten badly.

However, time moved on, and the real estate practices that enforced segregation while profiting from it once again continued to move the borders between black and white so that in the 1980s, we lived in the white neighborhoods of the same working class houses that whites once owned. Men like my father, black men who retired from lives spent in the steel mills and other industrial jobs, gathered there to talk to each other, sometimes as they sat in their cars carrying on conversation from window to window while they waited to make extra money as hackers, or unlicensed private taxis.

"The Aftermath" takes this shopping center as the actual place for black retirees, while the retiree gathering spot for white workers was one I had to imagine. I wrote the poem in 1982, the year of my 31st birthday. After my mother passed away that summer my father retired. He was 60 years old, and as I prepare this presentation I am in the year of my 62nd birthday and know the limitations of the body that my father mentioned and which I thought were his indulgence of his love of storytelling and hyperbole. But the limitations are true, just as are the limitations of being young. The realization of this is what I would rather think of as lightness, as sometimes the realization of aging makes for a heaviness.

The retired men speak, and in their speech they make light of being older men. They tease each other into testing the limits of reality, the black men in their retiree gathering space and the white men in theirs. The connections between these groups of men in the poem are made over and at the expense of the objectified female body. In the second stanza the black men joke about their waning sexual vigor while eyeing young women and girls who pass by them.
 Now they pass their waiting time in huddles, conspiring to
cheat death with enthusiasm and courage, around an abandoned lot
cluttered with old cars, changing this part and that one for this new
one, whistling and gesturing to young women and girls, dropping wads of
money and credit cards to entice. "'Lil Bit. You would have a
stroke behind that young stuff. Your best bet is to lay your ass in the
shade and sleep." 

Such was the vernacular as I lived it and knew it from the southern patriarchs who were my elders in my family and who worked in Baltimore's industrial jobs. Had I been in active recovery from having been abused as a child I might have rendered this differently, but the more important matter is that I see now that there were other textures inside this world.

Lightness, as I see it, occurs in the fact of my recognition such that I can see how the hoped for racial lightness in the poem is both scored and subverted by gender trauma, and had I the chance to look even deeper at the men I knew at that point in my life I might have seen the scars of some of them from their own victimization by men, that same sex betrayal. The white men in the poem flirt with the young women and girls and joke as well, but when it comes to race they are the primary actors in the indulgence of white supremacy. I encapsulate all the moments of white racism I experienced with white coworkers in one refrain at the end of the third stanza.

"When they hired the niggers the country fell apart."

The poem progresses to where the two groups of men begin to socialize together at the end, drawing as I did on the story of how my father and one of his white coworkers grew so close together over the years that they took turns driving each other to work. The Bethlehem steel mill declined to where it was a fraction of what it once was and the roads to Sparrows Point were nowhere near as busy as they were in years past.

As a young poet I was trying to extend bright moments in America's ongoing drama of race and racism, to borrow from the term as used by jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk. These bright moments were stories I knew, friendships I made with white coworkers over the years and that I watched form between other workers from different places in the space of race in this country. They were bright moments like the ones my father related to me from his beginnings in the steel mill when segregation marked and separated to extremes to where, some years later, the same men who never spoke to each other became friends. There were those things and the contradictions, such as white coworkers who would not speak to me outside of the job.

The second poem is "To Malcolm X on His Second Coming." In the works for almost two decades, I have always thought it was about the role of Islam in configuring my response to the betrayals of race and racism. The Nation of Islam was a living presence in Baltimore. I was aware of the Nation before I was aware of Malcolm X. I listened to Elijah Muhammad on my portable radio, and it was appealing to me, even as I was cultivating my pious leanings while regularly attending the family Baptist church. If my mother saw me listening she would make me turn off the radio. She saw their rhetoric as hatred. Later I would understand that piety was rooted in a rage resulting from having been abused by a family member.

She said it was the message of evil, and the Black Muslims said the white man was the Devil. Enslaved African Americans were thought to be morally deficient and predisposed to criminality by slaveholders, while blacks looked at whites and wondered why God allowed such an insidious thing as slavery not only to exist but to be the basis for defining the good from the perspective of people who had broken basic laws of humanity.

On North Avenue the Black Muslims had a carry-out restaurant two blocks from Clifton Park, where we sometimes went for picnics on Sunday afternoons. In this restaurant you could buy fried fish sandwiches and the famous bean pies that were part of the brand of the Nation's cuisine. Elijah Muhammad preached that black people should eat to live and not live to eat. The newspaper of the Nation was The Final Call, and it was sold by men in suits and bow ties who always displayed impeccable manners in a formal English laid over the urban vernacular. People in the Nation of Islam had a distinct way of being, as if they were a culture inside a culture, and their defiance spoke to me out of that store on North Avenue and into parts of me that were damaged in ways I could not articulate. The actual geographic place of the poem inspired me. In that way I know the soul as place.

The Nation of Islam with its record of salvaging the lives of incarcerated black men formed an alternate masculine model for many young black men in the 1960s, or at least we thought so. When I was old enough to drive, I began the wayward behavior my mother and her peers described as "going for bad." Adolescent confusion for me meant being bad in order to break the apron strings.

Beginning with Malcolm X emerging from his grave, the poem progresses to show him surveying the landscape of Black America and being so disheartened that he begins to grieve deeply for Elijah Muhammad, the hero he later criticized for his affairs with young women prior to leaving the organization and forming his own, influenced as he was by his trip to Mecca, where he was able to observe and participate in more orthodox Islam.

His surveying of the landscape in the poem is counterbalanced by a narrative of a slave rebellion foiled by the betrayal of a young black girl who is herself the daughter of the man who owned her and has become the child mistress of her master, who is, therefore, a pedophile. The men she betrayed have been lynched, their bodies cut into pieces. From the grave the leader questions her.

"Liza, where your mind, chile?"

Mind as referenced in the poem is the residence of an authentic self, a black consciousness that has determined its healthy relationship to white supremacy. Again, as in "The Aftermath," the determinations of men struggling with each other are negotiated over the female body, although this time the male body is appropriated by power of white dominance.

When I made final revisions to the poem in 1998 and submitted it to the African American Review, I had begun working on my recovery as an incest survivor for a few years. Little by little I would be able to draw a new cartography for the sources of my anger and see this poem I have always called my credo as a place built out of self revelations. It is as if the poem is a major station in the network of illumination known as Indra's Net in Hinduism and Buddhism, the connectedness of lightness that occurs when a series of self revelations or moments of clarity lead from one to another so that the dim consciousness is filled with light. The light of sight alleviates the weight of experience and trauma on the soul. The process itself is lightness producing lightness. Place is being and becoming, and being and becoming are place.

Several years ago some letters written by Malcolm X when he was a child showed him to be a nerdy and sensitive little boy. When I heard this news, I had uncovered my own child trauma and was in recovery, so I could not help but see the transformation of that little boy into the Malcolm X we knew or thought we knew as a transformation scored by more trauma than he related to Alex Haley, who compiled his autobiography. I was deeply involved in the project of repairing the damaged child of my own memory, so I began to see the poem differently. This is not to say America's problems were obviated by my realizations about the most personal damage done to me as a child in relation to what I could now imagine happened to my hero. However, I was able to see those troubles differently.

Lightness as I have considered it in looking back over these poems and others of mine in recent years has come to mean the chance to shift the composition of the way things weigh on me such that there is a summary of that weight that feels lighter because it allows me to have another kind of hope. Personal trauma such as incest is universal, and the work of recovery from it brings the chance to share that work with people who are not black or black people who are not working class. I am allowed the gift of seeing another harder evidence of humanity, harder evidence that is itself lightness, the essence of which is light itself, the thing that behaves according to both the particle and wave theories of physics, which is to say it is profound and utterly without weight, the fact of which should encourage us to let go of gravity as much as we possibly can. What we see is what we imagine, and, together, what we imagine is our humanity.

A Broom, a Plate, a Table

by Katrina Vandenberg

In honor of Calvino's idea of lightness and Hannah's vision of it being the hallmark of a kind of poetry the world needs, I'd like to begin with a poem about one aspect of levity and gravity, by Richard Wilbur:
 A ball will bounce; but less and less. It's not A light-hearted
thing, resents its own resilience. Falling is what it loves, and the
earth falls So in our hearts from brilliance, Settles and is forgot. It
takes a sky-blue juggler with five red balls
To shake our gravity up. Whee, in the air The balls roll around, wheel
on his wheeling hands, Learning the ways of lightness, alter to spheres
Crazing his finger ends, Cling to their courses there, Swinging a small
heaven about his ears.
But a heaven is easier made of nothing at all Than the earth regained,
and still and sole within The spin of worlds, with a gesture sure and
noble He reels that heaven in, Landing it ball by ball, And trades it
all for a broom, a plate, a table.
Oh, on his toe the table is turning, the broom's Balancing up on
his nose, and the plate whirls On the tip of the broom! Damn, what a
show, we cry: The boys stamp, and the girls Shriek, and the drum booms
And all come down, and he bows and says good-bye.
If the juggler is tired now, if the broom stands In the dust again, if
the table starts to drop Through the daily dark again, and though the
plate Lies flat on the table top, For him we batter our hands Who has
won for once over the world's weight. 

As a poet, a lot of my trying to "win over the world's weight" has concerned the issue of death. My first book, Atlas, is largely about the hemophilia community, about half of whom contracted HIV from the blood supply in the early eighties, and especially my former partner, Tim, and his brother Greg. They were part of a Boston-based activist group, The Committee of Ten Thousand, pursuing a class-action suit against the pharmaceutical companies they believed had put profit ahead of safety, and so I lost not just him and his brother, but many of our friends. Most of the hemophiliacs of his generation have liver disease or are dead. There is also one narrative current in my second book, The Alphabet Not Unlike the World, that concerns my niece being the sole witness of her father's murder of her young stepbrother, and testifying at his trial. What are some ways to approach death and violence and injustice, other than to say that they are universal and unfortunate? How can a book about death and suffering be uplifting even as it acknowledges sorrow? I'd like to spend a few minutes thinking out loud about the poet of suffering as the juggler, and the tools that might be her broom, her plate, and her table.

1. A Broom: Contrast and the Imagination

My understanding of poetry was changed when I was given this definition of imagination: it's not an escape from the real; it's a penetration into what's actually real.

In the same way, lightness is not the technique of the optimist. It's not Pollyanna-ish; it is a trick, though not a dishonest one. Think of it more like chiaroscuro, the treatment of light and shade in visual art. For the light to contrast in a brilliant way--and this is why I think of lightness as not part of the vision of an unchecked optimist per se--there must be shadow. The poem must start with the premise that the situation is dire.

I was once in the Louvre on an evening near Christmas. Snow falling outside, and a great, nearly deserted hall of Renaissance paintings--all those Marys and angels and heavy gold frames, numbing in their alikeness--and in the middle of them was a painting by Caravaggio, of a gypsy fortune teller and a hip young man. The woman strokes his hand, and he gazes into her eyes thinking he's got the world licked, and he doesn't even notice the woman is taking off his ring. The painting looks nothing like the paintings around it; even if it weren't for Caravaggio's extreme use of light and shadow, it still would have leapt off the wall. The woman, it is said, was one Caravaggio had seen in the street. There it was, angels washing out around it, a penetration to the more real among us.

The moment lightness appears in a poem is often the moment when imagination is allowed to enter. Take the poem "Realism" by Czeslaw Milosz. Lightness enters the poem literally, with a moment of light, and when the poet begins to imagine: "Therefore I enter those landscapes / Under a cloudy sky from which a ray / Shoots out, and in the middle of dark plains / A spot of brightness glows." And though the poem could end respectably about six lines before it does, with the still life and "a broom, and two fish bleeding on a board," Milosz gives us one more transcendent moment at the very end of the poem, when the speaker enters the still life and becomes one of the Dutch burghers, and his song, this poem, soars up like smoke from a censer.
 We are not so badly off, if we can Admire Dutch painting. For that
means We shrug off what we have been told For a hundred, two hundred
years. Though we lost Much of our previous confidence. Now we agree That
those trees outside the window, which
 probably exist, Only pretend to greenness and treeness And that
language loses when it tries to cope With clusters of molecules. And
yet, this here: A jar, a tin plate, a half-peeled lemon, Walnuts, a loaf
of bread, last--and so strongly It is hard not to believe in their
lastingness. And thus abstract art is brought to shame, Even if we do
not deserve any other. Therefore I enter those landscapes Under a cloudy
sky from which a ray Shoots out, and in the middle of dark plains A spot
of brightness glows. Or the shore With huts, boats, and on yellowish ice
Tiny figures skating. All this Is here eternally, just because, once, it
was. Splendor (certainly incomprehensible) Touches a cracked wall, a
refuse heap, The floor of an inn, jerkins of the rustics, A broom, and
two fish bleeding on a board. Rejoice! Give thanks! I raised my voice To
join them in their choral singing, Amid their ruffles, collets, and silk
skirts, Already one of them, who vanished long ago. And our song soared
up like smoke from a censer. 

2. A Plate: Reframing the Question

Part of the reason levity is arresting when we encounter it in a poem about death is that we don't expect it. We expect: illness is sad, death is forever. But the qualities of lightness allow a writer to put the unexpected back in play. This is powerful, for those of us who want to talk about the human spirit, or for that matter politics or the degradation of nature--anything people have heard about so much they believe that they can predict what you will say.

Take this description by Calvino of the eventual death of one of the cities in Invisible Cities, Leonia. One can read the story of Leonia as a parable of first-world materialism, especially the acquisitive culture of the twentieth-century United States. But Calvino first subverts our expectations when he suggests that "Leonia's true passion is (not) really, as they say, the enjoyment of new and different things, (but) instead, the joy of expelling, discarding, cleansing itself of a recurrent impurity." The idea of street cleaners being "welcomed like angels," and their job being a "ritual that inspires devotion" and a "respectful silence" serves to bring more light to the way Calvino is presenting consumption.

Clearly, Calvino doesn't think that consumption is a good thing. The idea of all the whole world beyond Leonia being full of cities pushing their waste further out from their own city limits until "the boundaries between the alien, hostile cities are infected ramparts where the detritus of both support each other, overlap, mingle" is horrifying. However, by taking our dogmatic (and true) belief that materialism will eventually choke us in our own waste, moving us past a slogan like "Give a hoot, don't pollute," and reframing conspicuous consumption as a near-religious love of disposing of the past, Calvino's got us listening again.
 The city of Leonia refashions itself every day:
 every morning the people wake between fresh
 sheets, wash with just-unwrapped cakes of soap,
 wear brand-new clothing, take from the latest
 model refrigerator still unopened tins, listening
 to the last-minute jingles from the most up-to-date
 On the sidewalks, encased in spotless plastic
 bags, the remains of yesterday's Leonia await
 the garbage truck. Not only squeezed tubes of
 toothpaste, blown-out light bulbs, newspapers,
 containers, wrappings, but also boilers, encyclopedias,
 pianos, porcelain dinner services. It
 is not so much by the things that each day are
 manufactured, sold, bought that you can measure
 Leonia's opulence, but rather by the things
 that each day are thrown out to make room for
 the new. So you begin to wonder if Leonia's true
 passion is really, as they say, the enjoyment of
 new and different things, and not, instead, the
 joy of expelling, discarding, cleansing itself of a
 recurrent impurity. The fact is that street cleaners
 are welcomed like angels, and their task of
 removing the residue of yesterday's existence is
 surrounded by a respectful silence, like a ritual
 that inspires devotion, perhaps only because
 once things have been cast off nobody wants to
 have to think about them further.
 Nobody wonders where, each day, they carry
 their load of refuse. Outside the city, surely; but
 each year the city expands, and the street cleaners
 have to fall farther back. The bulk of the outflow
 increases and the piles rise higher, become
 stratified, extend over a wider perimeter.
 Besides, the more Leonia's talent for making
 new materials excels, the more the rubbish
 improves in quality, resists time, the elements,
 fermentations, combustions. A fortress of indestructible
 leftovers surrounds Leonia, dominating
 it on every side, like a chain of mountains.
 This is the result: the more Leonia expels
 goods, the more it accumulates them; the scales
 of its past are soldered into a cuirass that cannot
 be removed. As the city is renewed each day, it
 preserves all of itself in its only definitive form;
 yesterday's sweepings piled up on the sweepings
 of the day before yesterday and of all its
 days and years and decades.
 Leonia's rubbish little by little would invade
 the world, if, from beyond the final crest of its
 boundless rubbish heap, the street cleaners of
 other cities were not pressing, also pushing
 mountains of refuse in front of themselves. Perhaps
 the whole world, beyond Leonia's boundaries,
 is covered by craters of rubbish, each surrounding
 a metropolis in constant eruption.
 The boundaries between the alien, hostile cities
 are infected ramparts where the detritus of
 both support each other, overlap, mingle.
 The greater its height grows, the more the
 danger of a landslide looms; a tin can, an old
 tire, an unraveled wine flask, if it rolls toward
 Leonia, is enough to bring with it an avalanche
 of unmated shoes, calendars of bygone years,
 withered flowers, submerging the city in its
 own past, which it had tried in vain to reject,
 mingling with the past of the neighboring cities,
 finally clean. A cataclysm will flatten the
 sordid mountain range, canceling every trace
 of the metropolis always dressed in new clothes.
 In the nearby cities they are all ready, waiting
 with bulldozers to flatten the terrain, to push
 into the new territory, expand, and drive the
 new street cleaners still farther out. 

3. A Table: White Space, Juxtapositions, Cognitive Leaps, and Joke-Telling

Once, my husband and his poker buddies teased me by claiming that, earlier that summer, they'd shaved my cat one night while I was out of town.

"Sure," Steve said, going into detail about it--the "here, kitty-kitty," the cat on his lap, the shaving cream, the towel. I smiled politely; it was cute, but not really funny.

Rick, who had been listening all this time, said, "It made her swim faster."

That was funny.

Steve's joke retreaded ground I already knew. But Rick did something I once heard Matt Greening say that humor writers do: he skipped a step. Rick eliminated information and let my brain fill it in. In the end, what made me laugh was not what he said, but what I saw in my mind's eye during the mental leap: my cat frantic and bald, flailing her paws as fast as she could in an Olympic-sized pool. With the word "fast-er" he let me have it: he prompted the visual, but I filled in the story, I created the image, and that gave me pleasure.

I'm not the only poet who thinks about the ways poems and jokes are alike. Poet Cody Walker thinks about it. A former poetry student who went on to write for Prairie Home Companion has told me about it. John Berryman must have thought about it. Robert Pinsky does, too: he writes, in his essay, "Poetry and Pleasure," about the ways that poems are like jokes, songs, and personal letters--that jokes and poems share what he calls "an alert social texture." I like the way good jokes and poems are compact, rely on shorthand and association, skip steps.

How can a poem skip steps, and achieve levity? Not just humor, but white space. Juxtapositions. Cognitive leaps. And it doesn't have to be funny. Here is a favorite poem about dealing with grief and loss. It achieves lightness in the poem's last sentence, not only in Gilbert's making the box a bit lighter, but in a turn from what you'd expect:
 He manages like somebody carrying a box that is too heavy, first with
his arms underneath. When their strength gives out, he moves the hands
forward, hooking them on the corners, pulling the weight against his
chest. He moves his thumbs slightly when the fingers begin to tire, and
it makes different muscles take over. Afterward, he carries it on his
shoulder, until the blood drains out of the arm which is stretched up to
steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now the man can hold
underneath again, so that he can go on without ever putting the box

A postscript: last night I had dinner with one of the only two out of the twenty men I knew in the Committee of Ten Thousand who are still alive. The year after Tim and Greg died, the "Lazarus drugs" became available, a combination of antiretrovirals that have made my friend Rich's HIV levels undetectable. He has celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of his HIV diagnosis. He has been cured of Hepatitis C. He has four HIV-negative children, a successful and happy marriage to an HIV-negative wife, and a beautiful home in the suburbs.

We talked non-stop for six hours--about friends who had died, about the recent ACT UP documentary How to Survive a Plague, and the sudden lack of purpose and depression we both had to contend with when we were no longer living with the adrenaline that comes with fighting for your life, or the lives of people you love. We talked about survivors' guilt.

Rich printed out this copy of my talk for me at his office that day--he works in transitional care, bringing drugs from the labs to the patient population, and has cured thirteen people of Hepatitis C in the last year--and before he saw me, he read this. It turns out that every year he gives a similar talk at Duke Medical School, about reframing the meaning of a terminal diagnosis when talking with patients. How strange it was that we'd both, after seventeen years of being out of touch, turned our life's work toward the same question. I asked him whether he thought optimism made people live longer. "No, I don't," he said. "And I don't think it fights disease. But I still think we need it. In some ways, being diagnosed as terminally ill when I was 18 was the best thing that ever happened to me."

ALISON HAWTHORNE DEMING is the author of four poetry books, most recently Rope. She has published three nonfiction books, including Writing the Sacred into the Real. Her work has been widely published and anthologized, including in The Norton Book of Nature Writing and Best American Science and Nature Writing. She is Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Arizona.

HANNAH FRIES is Poetry Editor of Orion magazine. Her own poetry has recently been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and appears in many journals, including The Massachusetts Review, Drunken Boat, and Water-Stone Review.

KATRINA VANDENBERG is the author of two books of poems, The Alphabet Not Unlike the World and Atlas. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Bush, McKnight, and Fulbright foundations, and has held residencies at the Amy Clampitt House, Sewanee Writers' Conference, and the MacDowell Colony. She is assistant professor at Hamline University.

AFAA MICHAEL WEAVER is the author of eleven collections of poetry, most recently The Government of Nature (University of Pittsburgh Press) and Like the Wind, a translation of his work into Arabic by Wissal Al-Allaq. Also a playwright, he has received NEA and Pew fellowships, a Fulbright award to teach in Taiwan, a Pushcart prize, the May Sarton Award, and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award.
COPYRIGHT 2014 World Poetry, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Fries, Hannah; Deming, Alison Hawthorne; Weaver, Afaa Michael; Vandenberg, Katrina
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:May 1, 2014
Previous Article:Epithalamion.
Next Article:Hanging Out with Girls.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters