Today’s post is a wonderful contribution from my friend and fellow poet, H.K. Rainey. H.K. and I have performed at poetry readings together, and she has visited—and transformed—my classes many times. She provides the following commentary and poetry for us:
A poem is the ripples created by the stone
as it disturbs the still surface of the lake.
Poems disturb us.
A poem is the spiderweb of cracks
on the stained glass window of the church.
Poems shatter us.
Poetry is the leaves
blowing from lawn to lawn, smothering.
Poems overwhelm us.
Poems are orchestrations
every sound melding together.
Poems draw music out of us.
To appreciate poetry is
to realize you are not enough.
Poems measure us.
To appreciate poetry is
to wrap your changing soul in its chrysalis.
Poems transform us.
To appreciate poetry is
to be broken again and again
in more and more devastating ways.
So why do we read poems
if they hurt us so much?
Why do we fall in love?
Every April during Poetry Appreciation Month, Poets are forced to examine the nature and necessity of poetry. In perhaps what is a grim prognosis of our artistic health, poetry and art is considered by many to be disposable. Unnecessary. Need proof? In struggling schools, it seems the arts are first to go. In classrooms, students no longer read whole books, and many students disdain the sections of the standards dealing with poems. Among the public, the pervading perception of “English majors” is a person who does not know what he wants, a person who cannot specialize in anything, a person who will not be useful in business. “English majors” are thought of as soft, emotional, weak. “Math majors” are thought of as analytical, useful, practical, and mentally tough. It has been a while, though, since a mathematician was arrested and jailed for crunching numbers (unless of course he was a fraudster or thief). Every day, though, countries jail poets and writers for their “ideas.” Why are mathematicians and scientists considered so much more necessary when it is ideas that run the world, sometimes destroying faith in science, upholding a myriad of both helpful and unhelpful ideas? In the human world, poetry and art were first. Cave paintings illustrated the human experience. Monks and priests theorized on many religious tenets. Lawmakers wrote laws to elucidate appropriate human conduct. Historians wrote about society’s advances toward science and modernism. Poets wrote poems.
Every poet knows there are words beneath our words. Just like there are things we say aloud but do not mean, there are meanings we do not say aloud. A poem is a physical representation of what your wife really means when you argue about the glass in the sink. A poem is a representation of the sharp ache you feel when your mother says, “I can’t imagine you having kids.” A betrayal, even though you never wanted any. A poem is the audible representation of the feeling you get upon not being invited to a party you never planned on attending anyway. A poem amends an interruption—giving voice to that sentence you didn’t get to finish. A poem is a tapestry that seeks to hide our basest and most terrifying emotions in images and sound. If you look hard enough, you can see your fears and weaknesses. A poem allows us to be honest—and also safe. To a point. If a reader doesn’t dig too deeply, she might think the poem she is reading is a simple image—a colorful backsplash among the riotous colors of her day. But if she stops to think about the words—the images they describe, the phonetic sounds, the rhythm— she will understand something deeper about herself, and about others. She will become less certain. She will begin to question herself.
Perhaps nowhere is this more clear than in The Age of Huts Compleat, where Ron Silliman uses numbers (the Fibonacci sequence—perhaps in a bid to subject the well-thought-of subject of mathematics to the lesser appreciated English?) to push us deeper and deeper into what we think at first are shallow images. I first meet the nurse in the fourth paragraph of the sequence. Silliman addresses her as, “the nurse,” who “by a subtle shift of weight, moves in front of the student in order to more rapidly board the bus.” The image is detailed but simple. There’s nothing going on here. A nurse moving in front of a student. The detail of the nurse subtly shifting her weight is remarkable. Instead of seeing a nurse simply moving in front of another passenger, I see how the nurse does this. She shifts her weight. The movement is intentional. The second time I see the nurse is in the next paragraph of the sequence. Silliman deepens the meaning of the image with further flourishes of detail. “The nurse, by a subtle re-distribution of weight, shift of gravity’s center, moves in front of the student of oriental porcelain in order to more rapidly board the bus.” The image is the same: the nurse shifting her weight, edging in front of the student. However, her actions, and possibly her intention, as well as the natural order of things have all shifted. The nurse is now shifting gravity’s center. She is changing the natural order of things. She is defying the laws of physics to obtain what she wants: to more rapidly board the bus. Not only this, but Silliman awakens me—if I am paying attention—to the possible intentions behind the nurse’s actions. Words like “oriental” call to mind race. Is this a racist action? Why is he choosing to point out this detail? Does the nurse feel entitled to board the bus before someone of “oriental” persuasion. Or is she just in a hurry?
The third time Silliman shows me the nurse he uses the same image, the same actions—like the obsessive compulsive thought that keeps me awake at 3 a.m. But this time, the scene deepens again:
The young nurse in sunglasses, by a subtle redistribution of weight,
shift of gravity’s center, moves in front of the black student of
oriental porcelain in order to more rapidly board the bus home,
before all the seats are taken.
Silliman shows me more about the players and more about their intentions. My student now is assuredly black, not “oriental.” But is the student black and oriental, or does the black student study oriental porcelain? Have I missed something about oriental porcelain that I should know? Now I am also uncomfortable in my understanding of how I expect nurses to behave. Don’t nurses always care about others over themselves? Isn’t that why they chose to be nurses? Why then is this woman acting as though she is more important than the other bus passenger? Is this in line with who I imagine nurses to be? Does this nurse feel entitled to move ahead of the black student? Is she racist? Entitled? A she? Yes! Who said this nurse was a woman? Now I must question my assumptions about the nurse. I look back over what Silliman has written. I revisit. I reflect. Nowhere does the writing say the nurse is female. Or white. Yet, that is what my mind has seen. How can a racist action exist with so little information being supplied? Putting in place those prejudgments of the nurse has already altered my view of the same scene, the same actions, and the same outcome. Silliman says as much, finally, in the tenth paragraph of the Fibonacci sequence:
Repeating on paper that stanza one hundred times, each with a new
pen, watching how the width of the ink’s path shifted the weight and
intentions of reference, penumbra of signification from act to act.
The enormous comedy of the emotion imposed on the peasant’s bent
It’s funny, he thinks, the way that looking at the same information over and over, writing it over and over, with subtle variations each time can change the “intentions of reference,” and the “penumbra of signification from act to act.” What we see is in shadow, only vaguely apparent. I must look again and again at all the subtle changes before I can ever really understand what is happening.
Now, reading about the nurse and her intentions—or non-intentions— I must become uncomfortable with the way I have been assuming things. I must begin to wonder how many other times I have done this. I must wonder if I do this all the time. I must wonder how many things I have misunderstood. This is what poetry does. It is the “between the lines” made into the lines themselves. Poetry reveals to us the words underneath the words. Poetry reveals ourselves to ourselves.
I cannot change until I become uncomfortable. Like the moth, if I am not uncomfortable, I cannot shed my skin. I cannot become.
When I am a Promethea, I feed
scarce as it has become
When I am a Promethea, I weave
with my own loom.
Silk is bound to the petiole
Twig is bound to the branch
When I am a Promethea, I fasten
the leaf corners
around my shoulders
to transform, in quiet
When I am a Promethea, I hide
inside my leaf in winter
knowing more about botany
than the cowbird. To be safe.
When I am a Promethea, I hide.
Or I don’t want to see
what I am
Meet the Poet
H.K. Rainey is the author of Memory House and Sotto Voce. Her work has appeared in Jacket Magazine, the Sand Canyon Review, deadpaper, The Walrus, Bang Out SF, Corium Magazine, Full of Crow, Rusty Truck Magazine, New College Review (Tuscaloosa), Cider Press Review, Mad Rush, sPARKLE and bLINK, Bird’s Thumb, and the anthologies Word Trips: Poems from the First Coast (Hidden Owl Books, 2007), So Speak Up! (Oakland, 2010), The Lost Frames Compendium (Ed. Youseef Aloui, Paper Press) and Conversations at the Wartime Café: A Decade of War 2001-2011 (Ed. Sean Labrador Y Manzano). She has appeared in several San Francisco Bay Area reading series including Acker’s Dangerous Daughters, the Bang Out Reading Series, Contingency, Quiet Lightning, Bitchez Brew, Lyrics & Dirges, Lip Service West, San Francisco’s Litcrawl, Oakland’s BeastCrawl, and Works in Progress. She produced and co-curated the Anger Management Reading Series in San Francisco and Oakland. Aside from her literary work, H.K. is a consummate traveler, taking every chance she can to hit the road and photograph new and inspiring places. She is an Education Coordinator for the Florida Department of Corrections. She lives and writes in the Jacksonville area..