Here Are Our Hands
This is the national ritual of our Monday mornings: "How was your weekend?" someone will ask. Maybe you'll say you finally checked out that art installation by the river, or tried the themed bar down the street.
"Cool, I didn't know that was there," they'll reply. This ends the conversation gracefully, since it invites only banal confirmation: "Yes, it's there!"
But sometimes they're curious. "What did you make of it?"
It could be a similar question, something roughly synonymous: "Did you like it? What did you think?" But this particular phrasing implies something more pointed. Experiencing and creating go together, it suggests. See something, learn something-and then make something. Don't let the world wash over you.
It's a question that wants evidence. Your life is passing: what did you make of it?
I was a big hit at summer camp. Not when I was eight-that was the summer I wanted to do nothing but sit under a tree by myself and read the latest Harry Potter-but when I was eighteen, home from college and working as a counselor.
I wasn't cool, like Jake, who would high-five his campers and do the play-by-play on games of tag, calling kids by their last names like they were pro athletes. And no one adored me the way they adored Kristen, who knew all their favorite songs and led dance parties at lunchtime, singing on picnic tables. But I was popular in my way, once I found my niche: palmistry.
To be clear, I don't believe there's some deeper truth to the creases in our skin. And I don't actually know anything about palmistry as traditionally conducted. All I really know is how to tell stories, so that's what I'd do: I'd look at their palms and tell a story.
"Okay, right here: this is today. This is the little wrinkle for when you come to summer camp. And then-oh look! See how the line goes up? That's when you get your first hot-air balloon."
The camper's face would light up. Then she'd peer closer at her hand and frown. "Wait, what about when the line goes down?"
"Oh, the balloon crashes," I'd tell her. "But it's okay because you're on a tropical island and it turns out it has buried treasure. That's what the freckle means."
I could read stars, too, with the kids in my neighborhood. "There are ancient myths written into the sky," I'd explain. "These three stars are called The First Triangle." They'd gather close and follow my finger pointing at the sky. "When the first triangle was discovered she decided to flee to the heavens rather than be trapped in a math classroom forever. Now she guides every mathematician who stays up late writing proofs."
Stories came naturally to me: hearing them, telling them, finding them in unexpected places. Poetry, on the other hand, was an enigma. I felt a certain wariness about it-mostly because it was hard to understand. But I also found it disquieting that poetry itself didn't seem to be making any effort to improve the situation. I imagined if I were at a party, meeting someone who talked like a poem. I might laugh, at first. Then I'd notice the poet's thoughtful, earnest expression and realize, "Oh! She's trying to say something!" But I'd have no idea what it was. I wouldn't have any of the usual cues that help me make sense of language: no grammatical structures, no topic sentences, no narrativity.
If I had known Josh was a poet when we first met, maybe I'd have been warier of him too. As it was, I only knew we ran track together and he liked talking to me about Spinoza and wanted to explore Philadelphia on the weekends when campus felt small. But it quickly became a theme we returned to again and again in the years that followed: poems, or stories?
"Here's my trouble with poetry," I would say. "It's that it doesn't seem to care if I understand it. No context, no story arc."
"But you know those things are a pretense, right?" he says. "We make story arcs. Life doesn't come with them. I like poems because they're not pretending."
He's right, of course. We make stories naturally but they don't occur naturally. There are different ways to shape events into a story, and no objective standard to tell you which one is right. Poetry lets us look at moments without the imposition of narrative. We don't have to act as if life inherently fits to a story, or that our words convey meaning in the straightforward way that we usually assume they do. "Poetry is language at its most elemental," Josh says. "Maybe at its most honest."
But poetry was not my native tongue, not in the way that stories were. This predilection certainly traces back to my father, who used to tell us "Stories Without Pictures" every night before we went to sleep. My favorite were tales featuring Simon the Inventor, a hardworking but down-on-his-luck creative type with a day job screwing on toothpaste caps and a basement full of half-baked inventions. Dad would lead Simon into some sort of convoluted pickle and then suddenly announce, "End of Chapter 1. Night-night sleep tight!"
"Chapter 2! Chapter 2!" we'd yelp, and he'd oblige, meticulously integrating loose plot threads and restoring Simon safe to his own little bed just in time for another early morning at the toothpaste factory. That's if Dad wasn't too tired from work himself, of course. Otherwise he'd resort to the old standby: deus ex machina. We were na´ve enough-and sleepy enough-not to mind.
There used to be some books that only Dad could read to us. Richard Scarry's Word Book, for instance, featured detailed illustrations but little in the way of actual narrative. When Dad read the Word Book, though, the stories were endless. On every page he gave the characters reams of dialogue, weaving complex tales of intrigue and adventure into scenes titled "Things at the Grocery Store" or "Planting a Garden." When Mom read the same books, it was clear her literary training had come in the heyday of New Criticism: she stuck to the text. "Shopping cart. Tomatoes. Ravioli."
For my birthday one year, Josh gave me Bluets, by Maggie Nelson. I found it beautiful but also somewhat incomprehensible. I understood all the words. I even understood most of the sentences. But all together, what did they make? "The most I want to do," Nelson writes, "is show you the end of my index finger." But why? What does she hope I will see?
A few months into college, I called home and learned that, in my absence, my siblings were experiencing their own education in poetry.
"Dad is making us do this thing called Poetry Corner," Virginia reported. "We all have to pick poems and read them to each other."
I thought this sounded charming. But when I was home for Thanksgiving I realized that Poetry Corner involved sitting in an actual corner, listening as my uncle quoth "The Raven" at great length. My brother, in what he claimed was an effort to continue the "birds of prey" theme but seemed more like an attempt to keep the proceedings as brief as possible, selected a short verse he had memorized as a first grader called "The Vulture":
The Vulture eats between his meals
And that's the reason why
He very, very rarely feels
As well as you and I.
His eye is dull, his head is bald,
His neck is growing thinner.
Oh! what a lesson for us all
To only eat at dinner!
"What do you like about that poem, Skip?" Dad asked thoughtfully.
Skip gave perhaps the only notes of praise that "The Vulture" could plausibly garner: "I like that it rhymes. And it has a moral."
Josh worked at a coffee shop for a while when we were both in grad school. I'd walk over with him for the start of his shift, and write pages on Levinas and Beckett to the comforting sound of coffee cups and his voice at the register: "Can I have a name for that order?"
When I couldn't concentrate I'd go up and order a sandwich from him. "I know your name," he'd say-which didn't mean he'd use it, of course, so I'd listen carefully for my finished sandwich announced by one of his confused coworkers: "Roast beef for. Mazer?"
He never knew exactly when his break would be, but he was determined to make the most of the thirty-minute respite from sandwich-making. So the moment his manager released him, he'd leave his apron and come find me and we'd rush next door to the bookstore. He headed straight for the poetry section, where he'd choose a book-Jorie Graham, Solmaz Sharif-and slowly turn the pages until something caught his eye. "Listen to this," he'd say, reading a poem out loud.
"How do you decide what part you want to read to me?" I asked once. "What are you looking for?"
"Images," he said. "Things you can't help but see. Like the they possess you, almost."
"Can you read it again?" I asked, and the words glistened more the second time.
>> click to read: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
>> back to Issue 22, 2019