Ars Poetica

Maybe poems have always been about remembering and for some reason I was fighting it. Like I didn’t want to care about remembering things. I mean no one wants to read something about how one person’s life is so precious, but I do think I thought poems could be about the world and therefore not about me. And, you know, I still want that—more the world, less me, but also kind of all of me here, to haunt you and live in this book after I die. Roaming the earth and getting pulped and roaming some more.

David Berman, one of the first poets I loved, died last week and I keep reading “Self-Portrait at 28” over and over again. I wish I could write this poem as a David Berman rip-off but I can’t get in the mode. I can only note that I first read that poem when I was 21 and now I’m so much older; now I’m 37 and to think the words “Self-Portrait at 28” is something different than what it once was. I didn’t read that poem when I was 28, but I’m certain there was a moment when we all re-enacted the ending. When my voice was what filled my cat’s thoughts, as Berman’s speaker’s voice fills his dog’s thoughts in the poem:

             You see,
his mind can only hold one thought at a time
and when he looks up and cocks his head.
For a single moment
my voice is everything:
Self-portrait at 28.

The trick is that we get David Berman’s portrait through himself seeing his dog seeing him and telling it to us. For a single moment. There are some things poetry is ill-suited for, but it’s extremely good at describing the single moment. I guess that poetry can’t help but be precious then, and also that it’s always a metonym: let’s get at this moment and use it as a thumbnail for all the other moments.

The first lines of that poem are “I know it’s a bad title / but I’m giving it to myself as a gift.”

I remember first hearing the term “Ars Poetica” in poetry class, College of Charleston, circa 2002, and thinking that ars poeticas seemed like the worst because they suggested there was nothing to write about: if we’re making poems about poems instead of about the world, and the world isn’t worthy of note, and there’s no experience of a thing to point to, then why stay alive?

Whereas now I’d like art to consume as much of life as possible; if art is the katamari ball and life is all the objects in the world, the objects that have not yet been subsumed into the katamari ball are always too many and make me anxious.

Writing about memory instead of about the world makes me scared—who will read this poem, I think, I mean, who are the people I don’t think of as the readers for it but who might nonetheless see it? But I’m going to write this here—let’s make it performative, a speech act:

If you’re reading this and I should forgive something you’ve done, I forgive it. If you’re reading this and I should ask your forgiveness, I’m asking it.

I take a walk with a lover. We get bagels; we take them to Grand Army Plaza; we sit on a bench; I don’t spill anything on myself. He tells me about Mormonism and I have nothing to offer since he knows everything about Catholicism. I say that maybe we’re missing something with confession. Now people go to therapy, but therapy doesn’t involve speech acts: my therapist can help me, but she can’t forgive me. Forgiveness is pretty social.

I mean: sin exists. There is that Flannery O’Connor story in which a very young boy has barely left his house, and his grandfather, who is his caregiver, has also has barely left the house. The grandfather has been to Atlanta once and is afraid of it; they’re in rural Georgia; the grandfather agrees to catch the train with the boy and take him to Atlanta for the day. The grandfather doesn’t know how to do a lot of things outside of his normal routine; he is scared. When they’re in Atlanta, very much a big frightening city, they get lost. The young boy accidentally knocks someone over, if I’m remembering it correctly, and suddenly people are yelling at him, demanding he pay money, threatening to throw him in jail, etc. The boy is terrified. The grandfather, who had been distracted by something else and so had been walking a bit behind, sees this happening and pretends he doesn’t know the boy, even when the boy points at him and appeals to him. The grandfather, who does not have any money, walks away, leaving the boy alone with people yelling at him that he must pay. The grandfather eventually finds the boy again—he feels regret after—but that doesn’t change it, and O’Connor is so dark and brutal and good. It’s like she’s taunting us, daring us into Catholicism—you think sin doesn’t exist? Let me think of something horrific; there is no way this isn’t sin. And we nod in horror.

Men leave their wives for younger women all the time, sometimes leaving their kids as well. Even in commie circles. And every time I definitely think this is a sin.

When I left a partner, my first therapist afterward asked me if I missed my partner and when I said yes, she said, “well, he bore witness to your existence for five years,” which was true. But she also said that as though it were explanatory.

The next time I fall in love, the person I’m in love with will never remember how the cats used to crawl into a hole in the box spring of our old bed, for instance, and sleep in the box spring so that if you couldn’t find them, you’d eventually look under the bed for two weighty pockets of fabric hanging down lower than the rest, and you’d poke the fabric and find their soft heavy bodies and they’d mew and stir as you woke them.

And when I go out now with people my own age, I think wow, you’ve lived a whole life already; it’s not like you’re ever going to be able to explain it all to me.

James Baldwin just kills off Rufus, the character the narrative has thus far followed, a third of the way through Another Country. Which is a weird brutal move you can’t do in poetry either—you have to have narrative to build the protagonist. In poetry we’re ready for one moment to be special and unlike the next. In fiction we want to believe the continuity of the narrative—that’s the premise for narrative working—but it doesn’t occur to us that the narrative can still continue without the protagonist. I.e., there is a social world. For a single moment your voice is everything to someone somewhere—but that’s why it’s just a single moment.

I’m eating my bagel at Grand Army Plaza. There should be more of a concept of sin in the world, we say; we should just get what sin is right. When do you reach the age of accountability in Mormon theology? Eight. When do you reach it in Catholic theology? Seven. My lover is nine years younger than me so I’ve had ten years’ more sinning than he has, in total.

Part of me doesn’t doubt that the sins last longer than the rest of it: if, for instance, Flannery O’Connor created a story about a grandfather who sinned by forsaking his grandson, that grandfather’s sin lives longer and wider than, say, the tumbling buffalo that David Wojnarowicz dreams, since the tumbling buffalo involves no sin, and since, because it involves no sin, in or out of the frame of the dream, we want to hold it in our brains as long as we can—look, this buffalo has survived since the 80s, penetrated out of its dream world and off of Wojnarowicz’s lips and onto a tape diary and from the tape diary into a paperback book printed in many thousands of copies and from that book into my brain and from my brain into this poem, to do battle with the awful grandfather in the Flannery O’Connor story, but, god, all you feel when you read the O’Connor story is a pit of sickness in your stomach. What if you woke up so guilty; what if you’ve been so guilty and it wasn’t justified and the shame of it just hung there.

What if sin is less ephemeral than all the rest of it? I guess that must be how someone came up with the concept of Hell, which certainly must have predated Heaven.

I tell my lover that I want him to make me Mormon, and he replies that he never got to the level at which you can do that, but his brothers did.

Anything that made me Mormon would also just be a speech act. Speech act upon speech act, all to apologize.

I watch Fleabag, a show about guilt, and I cry more than other people seem to have cried when watching it. Also: the hot priest, the confessional—I feel like Twitter missed that what’s actually hot about the hot priest is the promise of forgiveness.

The metaphor is that sexuality holds out a promise of forgiveness, or of not in fact needing it—I’m supposed to need forgiveness for this sex sin, but since the rubric that dictates that is bullshit, in fact perhaps I don’t need forgiveness at all—and what calls the question is when our main character pursues the hot priest, someone who can forgive with a speech act, and winds up on her knees in a confessional booth.

And the promise of forgiveness is, perhaps, the promise of being able to love your lover rather than fucking and simultaneously spiking the camera—that is, turning to it and looking at the viewer, when previously you have not looked at the viewer—to comment on the fucking, a move that’s better than some moves and worse than others and that felt overly familiar to me as I watched the show.

Fleabag takes the camera spike trope from The Office and subsequently so many other shows—main characters turn to face the camera and address the camera cleverly and sarcastically to comment on the antics of everyone around them, of the world they’re living in—and show it for what it is. Spiking the camera is about depression. Maybe in the British office the depressive camera spike is a welcome critique of office culture: our straight man looks to us, the viewers (framed as a documentary crew), instead of those around him—don’t we all feel like this in the office, wouldn’t we all like someone who is not crazy to talk to, someone to share a glance with? Maybe in the American office, more depressingly, it’s a very un-self-conscious sort of generalized depression—humor equals a constant light mockery and distance from one’s surroundings; it’s almost like that bit in Mark Fisher, where we’re all imagining a Big Other—we think someone likes things as they are, when in fact no one does, but we constantly project onto our environment some sort of culture that everyone consents to and likes except for ourselves. Derisiveness is the only mode we can operate in, and so we get Steven Colbert and every other wry news show that is like it, too, where the world is the office. We’re all being winked at by the smartest person on the sitcom, and we get him, and he gets us, and everyone else doesn’t get it. Something about it feels very late nineties / aughts / pre-Occupy, when, finally, like Fisher predicted, a sort of veil lifted in political life and many of us saw each other there, hating the same things, and stopped looking only to the imagined viewer.

But Fleabag is different from The Office. It posits spiking the camera not as a clever default from a witty protagonist, but as a depressive symptom. Being too clever for everything around you, wanting to have a nonexistent viewer who looks at the world and helps you disengage from it through your shared cleverness. Which makes clear, maybe, that people liking the American version of The Office is pathological, and that instead you should watch Fleabag and weep for hours.

It’s the priest, the priest who’s both a real human and a person you want to fuck and also someone with the power to forgive, who can see that you’re doing something weird by addressing the camera, and can, with a lot of effort on your own part, get you to push the camera away, and eventually say goodbye to it, and then, from there, behave as if you’re in a non-self-conscious piece of art, a piece of art that isn’t meta, i.e., so that you aren’t even in art, you’re just in the world. The show ends.

I feel jealous that the screen can break it down like that, since poetry doesn’t work that way and instead all we can do here is address the audience.

When I was jogging upstate, listening to Judee Sill and looking over the Hudson at the Catskill Mountains at sunset, at the rays of light peering through the clouds up by the mountaintops, it occurred to me that maybe all of religion, or at least Judeo-Christian religion, is a really elaborate metaphor about mountains and perspective. Which seemed embarrassingly silly—like, really, all this because people were like whoa, mountains, I can see so much from up here! Someone must be up even higher! And when I’m in the valley, light comes through seemingly in proximity to the mountains! Galaxy brain. God is who can see it all at once.

It’s the notion that, for better or worse, someone has a ledger. That things aren’t in fact, moment by moment, and continually washed away, that instead everyone is held to account and somewhere we’ll be happy on account of the good things we did earlier, and elsewhere Jeff Bezos, say, and his peers will have their blood spilt eternally. Even if all of this happens only in some abstract way, just from someone looking down from just above the summit of a mountain for a very long time.

Which I guess would be some comfort. Someone, I guess, would watch the dog in David Berman’s poem, watch him hear the speaker call him. But it already doesn’t work: if God is about mountain tops, God still doesn’t have access to the full range of sensory and psychic experiences of the world.

Maybe someone watches us with the ledger, but the ledger doesn’t record much. Instead you’ve got to write the poem. David Berman writes the poem about the dog running in a field and hearing his name: for a single moment / my voice is everything / self-portrait at 28. But the dog calls back, spiking the camera, if David Berman is the camera man and I am putting myself in David Berman’s shoes. You fill the dog’s head and the dog fills yours. The reader overhears it. God looks down from a mountaintop and likes what he sees, his vision obscured by nothing but the dog’s furry head and your head, also furry.