- Tonya Foster
- Peter Gizzi
- Raquel Gutiérrez
- Sueyeun Juliette Lee
- Jimena Lucero
- Jo Mariner
- Anthony McCann
- Tanner Menard
- Fred Moten
- Eileen Myles
- Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué
Poet, essayist, and feminist scholar Tonya M. Foster is the eldest of four New Orleans daughters. She teaches poetry at San Francisco State University.
After the Call
“Hello,” you say, and your voice is ghost
of your voice as I recall—an abrupt sigh,
a leave-taking of breath among breaths.
“Don’t go,” I want to simply say.
Instead, I say, “I love you.”
Remember. Death is not
the arbiter of this life,
and among a calculus of shadows, we laugh—
our singular selves cascading seas
towards the waters, encompassing—we
laugh to keep from dying at the dinner table.
to keep from dying on the stoop
to keep from dying in the cell
to keep from dying in the street
to keep from dying on the sidewalk
to keep from dying beside the produce
to keep from dying on the message table
to keep from dying on the asphalt
This life costs all that we can bear.
We laugh to keep
Perhaps this is
Perhaps this is a semantic situating
These are the sentences to which we are bound
They situate love in the everly of being
being in the long after of the Great Dying
being in the of of the Holocene
being in the cathexis of petty and petulant tyrants
And what is this poem?
And what is repetition?
And what in this poem is repetition?
And what in this poem is repetition but uncertainty?
And what in this poem is repetition but the certainty of syllable?
And what in this poem is this repetition but a minting in the ear and the mind
of the music of your isness in all this leave-taking, love?
Peter Gizzi’s recent books include Now It’s Dark (2020) and Archeophonics (2016). Also in 2020, Sky Burial: New & Selected Poems came out in the UK from Carcanet.
I wandered all night with my corpse… passed over the scene… I was waking and I was dawning… to watch moonlight cross a face… the features change in shadow… the changing features of a mind… when I spoke to the corpse it was as though I spoke to the curtains or the rug… the body lay there in permanent discourse with the object world… the curtain… the rug… the candle… the ring… now on speaking terms with the corpse… and they were singing to each other… I was happy to be free with my corpse… this was the total… the ongoing… I was deranged and deregulated… I was free of property… I was earth… and it was myself circling the sun… to be simply here then simply gone… to follow the moon’s path… the scatter on water… to become that report… passing over trees and garbage alike… decomposing and flowering… and the life of rot and the body there… immobile… that the trees and grass are speaking to it… for it… the bones… the head… the gone gaze in the eye…
Raquel Gutiérrez calls Tucson home.
I was always a ledger
The category of devaluation
determines the kind of death you might have
It could come sooner than later and it can come
with the indignities no one ever accounts for
I was always a ledger
I want to bring you together with you
and cast aside the the sunlight imbued
with worry, the evening star sightings
weighed down with tax bill on the horizon;
can we get twelve people to agree
that one person matters more
than what they can afford to live? The cost of living brings death
into the room, a small room.
A very small room.
Sueyeun Juliette Lee lives in Denver, Colorado. Her next book, Aerial Concave Without Cloud, is forthcoming from Nightboat Books this year.
I don’t have anything particularly wise to say about death aside from the fact that it arrives. Sometimes with a lot of unwelcome fanfare and preparation, and other times with the most violent jerk.
I’ve been intimately close when it arrived. Seeing someone take their last breath–the struggle of it and slow release. Feeling their heartbeat recede under my open palm pressed against their chest… these are not things that can be erased from the red text of my body. I’ve read it over in me, many times, and though the physical recollections have diminished, the mark remains.
I’ve also been far away when it appeared. The call first thing in the morning, the baffling inability to hear what is being said… then the cold calamity of how the body tells you what your mind can’t admit. I remember that sensation more than the words that poured into my ear.
I have been indifferent to a death. Losing someone after a long illness while watching them disrespect the incredible sacrifices and care being poured into them, the utter selfishness they exhibited in their decline, the mess they left behind for everyone else to worry after…I did not mourn. My body simply refused.
Other times, I was numb for being baffled. My mother’s friend was murdered in her deli in DC. In Korea, she had been a dancer. In the US, she wore vibrant makeup and taught my sister fan dances. Her murder was whispered–or I recall it as being whispered–everywhere throughout the household. I walked like I was admonished to walk whenever my father was home–quietly. I watched grief like a black soot descend and ink itself across my friends’ eyes, their faces.
Death has stunned me with its beauty. My first time fishing, I caught a heavy mackerel and struggled to drag it to the shore. “It’s suffering,” he handed me a thick stick to use as a cudgel. I looked down at the thrashing, silvery gray mystery I held down between my knees. I clubbed in its skull. The powerful muscle of its body relaxed, a slow trickle of thin bright blood pooling into its silent black eye. The flawless white rim.
What do we witness when we witness a death? I witnessed the “orderly” processes of the body as it shut itself down. The pallor that crept up into her face as the blood settled in the base of her head. The way her eyes sank back. How her lips relaxed, the pearlescent smallness of the teeth behind them. I witnessed how we all responded, the silence that devoured us. The sensation–collectively–that we were being gently watched by something overhead which dissipated. At other times, I saw how we continued in our various ways. I watched babies grow, take steps, drop grapes from the kitchen table, the way they rolled across the floor.
I think I mostly watched myself.
The pain inside my chest–I observed it. The black bucket that was filled to the brim inside my throat–I struggled to keep it upright when I spoke or breathed. The concave collapse of my stomach–I tucked my chin against my chest to examine my newly emergent ribs. The insufferable ache I felt in grief while watching the shifting summer light drop through the leaves on a sycamore tree’s trunk. I watched myself move through these various moments, I observed myself and my body try to integrate the reality of a death. I watched myself as my brain made sense of these things by imagining I had been dragged into the “wrong” universe, that I’d been split from the “right” one where the deceased continued to live. I observed this placid certainty in my body of being in the wrong world–my belief as simple as gravity.
I watched the way I watched others, and I watched myself saying the “right” things at the “right” times. I watched how my friend’s bereaved husband reached for me one night when I was there to help with her children. I watched as I didn’t turn him away. I watched the way I was quiet when I intuited I should be silent. I watched all these things. Perhaps I am now writing about grief, and not death. It’s hard to disentangle these things.
without apology, I wrote your name in the snow where strangers likewise disappeared
(no silver branches (stark sky
I admitted you without requisite dutifully yet the earth its well of darkness such hungry hands cried out
I think “death arrives.” Like rain. It simply falls on us. I keep thinking of this William James comment on consciousness, and it feels true of death.
The first fact for us, then, as psychologists, is that thinking of some sort goes on. […] If we could say in English ‘it thinks,’ as we say ‘it rains’ or ‘it blows,’ we should be stating the fact most simply and with the minimum of assumption. As we cannot, we must simply say that thought goes on.
It arrives. Perhaps it’s too unbearable to think, death goes on, as we think of it as a conclusion, not a transition or movement of its own. It arrives.
And maybe because of this, I keep writing about what we do, not what it does. What death does is simple, I think. What we do is so extravagantly diverse and complex. I watched us. I watched myself.
Were you ready?
Is that your intention moving forward?
I don’t want it to be.
How will you prepare?
I will always be a child before it.
2020 feels like a year for death. I’m writing this as a thick smog blankets Denver. After the pandemic emptied the streets, after protests against anti-blackness filled them, after the clouds of tear gas blanketed them with the endless twitchy roar of helicopters overhead hour after hour after hour. And now in the midst of massive statewide wildfires, mask-less couples drink beers at the restaurant patio down the street, masked joggers sprint past, and a greasy white smoke falls faintly on them all.
The sky has a pale yellow cast from the smog.
Death can be a clarion call. Do something! This must never happen again! And, perhaps even more fundamentally, I never want to have to see that again!
We are collectively such unwilling witnesses.
It’s hard to write about death without acknowledging that not all deaths are marked the same.
Our society is remarkably comfortable with death when it happens to people who aren’t white, cis-gender, or heterosexual. As a rule, our society is more accepting of death when it happens to sex workers, folks with criminal records, who are here without legal documentation, anyone who is struggling with addiction, mental illness, being unhoused or poor.
I know that our society doesn’t value these deaths because it takes hundreds of them–of the most viciously violent and awful deaths–to raise public outcry. And by our society, I have to be even clearer and say, the white majority that continues to run this country. The heads of state, the CEOs, the celebrities with twitter accounts, the business owners, lawyers, news editors, administrators, bureaucrats, city councillors, heads of neighborhood associations, voters, people who make charitable donations to causes they care about, who shop at the grocery with you, etc. They don’t respond to these deaths unless they are extravagant, perfectly documented, virally proliferated.
These deaths, in another light, are murders. The calculated executions by a white supremacist social system that does not value the broad array of human life.
I once tutored a white police officer. She showed up for one of our sessions laughing and showed me a picture of a corpse her coworkers had found that morning of an addict who was street homeless, frozen to death in an alley. As she laughed, she peered into my face. This death, this person’s death, was a way for her to exert some power over me. There had been a subtext to our sessions, and I intuited suddenly what it was. She didn’t like that I was so young, a person of color, studying poetry of all things, and she was coming to me for help. I kept my face placid. I didn’t give her what she wanted, but I gave her what she already hadn’t liked. I made my PhD student Asian face inscrutable–and handed the phone back to her. “That’s what we do. We laugh.”
Death is not “the great equalizer.” Death in this broader social context demonstrates great inequity.
Death, the truest mirror. It shows us what we’ve wrought to one another. It shows us what we make of life, what attitudes and values we’ve allowed to dwell and take root inside of us.
I wonder, what can we do with death when it arrives, but witness it.
What are we willing to really see?
Jimena Lucero is a poet, actress, & cultural worker. Her short film Silver Femme screened at the 59th Ann Arbor Film festival. She was a 2019-2020 Emerge-Surface-Be fellow at the Poetry Project. Her writing appears in The Recluse, Nightboat’s Echo, EOAGH, Colorbloq.org, and more. Jimena’s work is rooted in trans liberation, disability justice, and future building.
en el mar, te quiero mucho mas:
my father would dip me in coney island waves
& let go
of his hold on me.
all of the ocean & with him, i still slipped away.
he thirsted for a bottle of whiskey.
i thought he thirsted for grief.
i waited by the mossy rock for a signal of his return.
he was a mythical trickster,
but I still cried for him.
Jo Mariner is a US-born poet now living in London whose poems look for, observe, invite transformation . . . imagine beginnings . . . beginning never easy, never over. The poems are published regularly on Poems for Listeners.
When I try to speak about my relationships with death, I feel it is impossible. I am trying to translate meaning into a language that limits ideas, limits my experience.
For me, the dead I have loved are both gone and not gone. I do not mean I REMEMBER them – have memories of them. I do not mean I recreate them out of nostalgia or need. I mean I have them with me — here, right here. You see what I mean about our language. It has not been grown to describe these thoughts about my relationship with death.
My thoughts are more than ideas; my whole body is involved. Perhaps this is because, I have learned someone was with me in my mother’s womb – someone who left before birth. This idea in not couched in language, nor did I learn it from words. I learned this from piecing together (re-collecting) childhood nightmares; the inescapable visceral paralyses caused by phobic fears; unexplained physical reactions – deflations, expirations, piercings, pressures; memories of unquenchable yearning toward forgotten things; and a stubborn conviction that the lost must be found. My experience had no words; my memories had no words; my nightmares had no stories. Even physical feelings were wordless.
My experience lived in the realm of the ineffable. But the intense and persistent feelings related to my early separation were real nonetheless. The undercurrent of my life has been learning about this loss. For me, seeking to know myself has been seeking to know and understand loss through death.
In my life, have held, in my mind, and sometimes in my arms, dear others who were close to death. Also those recently pronounced dead. I cannot say I am aware of a moment that is death. Yes, I have felt life leave the body, but importantly, I have felt life.
When this happens . . . let’s make words for it … I will say when “death-way opens”. . . when I have been there when the death-way opens for someone, I have felt the weight of the body relaxing. I have seen the tensions held for a lifetime in the tiny muscles of the face let go. I have felt my sadness and helplessness. But, I have been more in love than afraid, and I stay at the threshold of death-way watching . . . holding the way open. It feels a solemn place and from this vantage point I know time differently . . . the past is present; the future is present. Presence.
While I am at this open way, which is not a place, but a time and also a place . . . when I stay there, I am remarking the remarkable . . . I see life, not the one life (or the one’s life) only — but life, the whole of it — in one life .. . all of life in that one life that is changing . . . still, still changing.
Am I sentimental/ romantic/ religious / stoic / or calloused about death? I don’t think so. But I have an experience of death that leads me to say: something is surely lost / but something real still exists.
These relationships are not always comfortable. They can be annoying if I do not pay attention to their demand, A dead grandmother who pestered me in dreams and thought-domination until I asked her WHAT she wanted. (Her answer gave me the missing pieces to a three-generation puzzle. And we exchanged promises that we both honour to this day.) Sometimes it takes daring — being willing to challenge ideas of what is safe or even “good”. These are not relationships that are kind to privilege or pretence. They do not coddle. But the death-way brings transformation to me to me as well as to the dead . . . hopeful transformations and administrations of love. (I try to express this in the poem Death Brings Me)
But the various effects of relating to these “my others” don’t matter to me really . . . what matters to me is the holy unknown . . . finding ways to open myself . . . and keeping the way open.
Death brings me
back to where she stopped / finally / finally / loose ends /
black ribbons streaming in stormy feeling /
/ no reason to say what had been done / what damage suffered /
no use justice / no use softening / no water from eye no open arms / all dialogue over /
directed at no ear / no heart quivering with hope or latent love /
for a moment longer/ restless ghost warmth rises / lingers only on the skin
/ habit and tension let go / true bones show at last /
also fear is absent / unsafe is now safe
/ her body nearly cool just a place /
now is free to have hollow huge desire /
now becomes a planet / pulls wayward moons /
remember to touch / / to tell her she is beautiful /
perhaps some cell at last can hear /
perhaps some dreams / soft and hardly noticed
wait / one last chance to be seen
Jo Mariner March 2021
Anthony McCann is a poet and non-fiction writer. His most recent book of poetry is Thing Music. Shadowlands, his 2019 prose work on the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, was a finalist for the California Book Award and the Reading the West Book Award. Anthony is on the faculty of the School of Critical Studies and the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the California Institute of the Arts. He lives, dreams and hides in the Mojave Desert.
Though I still see you in today
and today against my throat.
It’s not a friendship pass: We go there—
we get scrubbed. And launched above the phone
face down with someone else—on a body’s feeling lines—
the window with itself. But believe me,
that substrate poured from your own eyes,
and is sung, then raided,
by particulate birds: Mock, mock, mock,
and the house breathes it back
through the sweet stink of food
so you hear its own voice.
It’s like the happiness of leaves.
And limbs that bangle down
to love all of space until saint-time expired.
Then it’s Photograph Mesa, then Photograph Bluff
with light beside death, all Pleistocene-washed.
Till someone dusts us off.
Someone hurt and mild.
And as often as the clock. Someone who’s alive.
Which is to say “deliverance” but not for you or I—
that banquet is long finished—which poisoned,
rendered us and dumped you over in my body,
my whole weight pinned to earth
through which tubes this image flows
to your vanishment as breath. It’s like blue nighttime
of that day, when the day was just your shirt
with light, cold light and leaves,
where I sees water and You leaks.
Though I’d hoped to say “your voice”,
that wind, its tree and grass
of soft fingers on wet throats, then touching living hands.
Because I want life— but for the living,
each lying on its back, each
stored dry for just this moment
to reconstitute as fact
when we heard a child speaking,
just singing to itself,
and there is this song and lips
and No Country in our throats.
tanner menard is a poet & composer, a Louisiana Creole & a member of the Atakapa Ishak Nation. They have published ten albums of ambient music, a chapbook & have been three times nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In 2019, The Wire Magazine called their collaborative chapbook & album with Andrew Weathers an influential modern composition. They are an MFA Candidate at Northern Arizona University.
Fred Moten works in the Department of Performance Studies in the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. His fields are black studies and critical poetics and his special concern is the entanglement of social movement and aesthetic experiment. Over the last twenty years, Moten has addressed this concern in a number of books of poetry and criticism, the latest of which, co-written with Stefano Harney, is All Incomplete (Minor Compositions/Autonomedia, 2021).
What if “death” – which is the neutral term given here for the loss of some one of us that is inflicted upon that one and some other/s of us by some one/s or other/s of us within and by way of the institutional determination that the one who is lost is not worth keeping – isn’t quite the right word for that to which we respond? What if “death” is a calculated reduction of the genocidal, geocidal brutalities we survive? What if what “death” misnames is a brutal response to our survival? These questions concern the terror of counting, of being counted, of being accounted for and accountable in a moral and political and libidinal economy that is utterly committed to the vicious conversion of sharing into ownership, which is the omnicidal regulation and exploitation of existence, its submission to a vicious equilibrium. In this regard, individuation is the fruit and the guardian of that commitment and “life” and “death” are individuation’s anti-social self-management.
If, on the other hand, you don’t believe in any body, and you don’t believe in any thing, then “death” fades (with life) into degeneration’s regenerative work and play, which makes a different kind of problem for thinking when the ruse of (“life” and) “death,” given in and as the materiality of murder, is manmade, massive, naturalized, sanctioned by capital and induced by and in and under the protection of the state. Geocide and genocide, then, not individual calculation; a general rather than a restricted economy, which the collection of the “deaths” of single beings – and all the mattering and not mattering of single (black) lives – hides in (self-)righteous nomination and enumeration. The interplay of individuation and “death” obscures the complexity and shared incompleteness of what is lost. It obscures rather than highlights the specific – which is to say open and striated sets of – differences, which don’t just remain but proliferate, past the inadequate metaphysics of the lost and kept, or the lost and found. The open set of differences that I call my mama, or my mama’s or my mamas, survive them in dispersion and disbursal. My grandfather planted trees. I’m still (not) my (grand)mama’s baby. They were all killed by the same machine that is killing me and my children and insofar as that is true even in the midst of their regenerate survival, the word “death” (in its pas de deux with the word “life”) does them a double wrong by whitewashing their absence and erasing their presence.
What if the death of those who are only said to have had an individual life upon what must be claimed and owned as their demise is the trick of the carceral, governmental, political picturing and construction of a cryptal funnyhouse? What if individual lives and deaths, contorted in a constant economy of collection and division, are conceptual dematerializations, abstractions used to control and obscure the possessed, possessive assault – when Phantasie and le réel disappear in one another – on entangled sociality, which is given in finitude’s shared endlessness? What if the regulatory calculation, which is of necessity the miscalculation, of transformation is elemental to racial-sexual capitalism’s ge(n)ocide machine? What if the brutal imposition of contingency, along the racial and sexual lines that subdivide the sensing differential in the name of (The) Man, is tantamount to the monetization of (how we ornament) disorder? What if “death” – as conceptual tool and real abstraction – is how debt’s entropy is held and stolen in a credit economy? The venal, viral mathematics of “death” is already given in the terrible distribution of one life at a time. To just generally disbelieve in any thing and any body is to sense the incalculable, the un(ac)countable, the sexy, the nasty, the no-count, unvalued, hopelessly attractive, viciously intractive, existential mess of works and needs that bosses and owners constantly submit to civil butchery. The Man – in his endless sending of his capitalized, militarized replicant, The Drone – will kill every one of us because He can’t kill us all. It is not well for Him to know that more than we do.
Eileen Myles (they/them) is a poet, novelist and art journalist who lives in New York and Marfa Texas. Their most recent book is For Now a talk/essay about writing soon to be in paperback from Yale Press.
I should say from the start there’s nothing worse than a zoom birthday party. Everyone is flat and in their little cage and everyone is smiling and you don’t generally use the raise hand function so a kind of awkward dominance takes charge. Whoever can act like they are actually there will participate and the rest remain smiling clenched lunging in when they see their chance. I was at my girlfriend’s party in the spring I’m the old boyfriend because her friends are all her age. I wanted to slink away and later her friend had a birthday party and I was with her on the couch and they were all reminiscing about college which was not that long ago. I mean they were still talking about it. I would do that too with my college friends but that’s not who I would invite to my birthday party for instance. Adam’s party I anticipated with terror. It was his students and then a handful of us older great writers. It was a nice mix. I was glad to be part of the old crowd. The kids were cute and surprisingly after the shock of doing the math and understanding this was going to be long it kind of kept opening somehow. Tom and I who had just worked together on the “Joe is Joe” thing were now a team and we kept changing our backgrounds and going away and making food. We live in such a sci fi world now. But my partnership with Tom made it comfortable. I acted comfortable saying hello to the other famous writers. Trying to anyhow. I’m always afraid no one hears me on zoom. I’m sure I seem afraid. What’s up with Eileen. I’m a block that’s bad in groups. I need formality but still I wonder how they feel. Criticizing me. Somehow the length of Adam’s began to work. It was no fucking hour long zoom. Everyone was reading poems from all over the place. Translations limericks. One kid sang. Several sang. Adam was clearly beloved by his students. He both loves having older friends and is very good at being older with a group. He’s the ideal teacher his adulthood being composed collectively. But it was a nice feel to be in. He wanted me to read something long. Longer than anyone else. And I’d read it at least once before, I think twice. I was particularly embarrassed by Tom’s presence since he had been there both times having commissioned it in the first place. Not to write but to read it. There goes Eileen again plus in the eyes of the other older writers. I was a hog. Finally the length of the event felt extremely permissive and expansive and even my overly long story seemed okay why not it’s Adam’s party and anyone can leave if they want. I read it and felt people were not jumping on next and I said so who’s reading next and I think people were crying.
I feel like I carry things though I don’t feel them. I stayed till the end. Didn’t know what the famous older writers thought. Erica read something and then freestyled on it and it was an awesome luxurious work and edgy and loose my favorite thing I ever heard of hers and she has lost a lot lately being involved in the church that burned down. Lesley has been dying for a while. She lives in San Diego. Is a gardener from Zimbabwe, white, a film critic, living with cancer, writing about it, raising chickens, a marvelous cook someone who conferred adulthood on me by her friendship. In San Diego I’d sit with her and Jeffrey and watch movies after dinner and they fell asleep. Their home their relationship was family to me. The school we both taught at had excellent health care and Lesley has gotten every excellent experimental therapy there is and in the fall her wonderful book about cancer and travel and gardens and food came out (Diary of a Detour) and by the time it was released the cancer had gone into her throat so some of us read for her. It was awkward. I somehow didn’t get introduced and was reading with a more famous writer (I thought) and she got introduced and the woman who was running it wasn’t an ex but an obsession – mutual I think and years ago like 10 or 15 we pursued each other in a circle and nothing ever happened which I think was how it was supposed to be but I felt snubbed by her in that zoom way. I said hi to her in the sea of blocks and she did not respond or introduce me though everyone’s intros were there somewhere but the other readers bios I think were read aloud. So I felt shorted as I do. There was a lot of expansive yacking and I felt a little out of control but I hit it once or twice Lesley seemed moved but at the end when it was down to one or two of us I ran away rather than lingering with Lesley I apologized in an email after to which she said something like let’s keep in better touch but I didn’t. So I’m back in the sea of squares. A wonderful thing is happening. Lesley the most unlikely meditator became part of a group in San Diego and now she is having a tonglen circle done for her. We meet most days of the week and we sit and then we breathe in Lesley’s pain and breath out warmth and light and then we do it for everybody (including ourselves) and then we do a little more regular meditation and then we talk. And it is the same awkward little bursts. Lesley is there sometimes. Her name in white against a black cube and other times she is actually with us in a quick little haircut looking small and distant. And I want her to take care of me! I have an overwhelming desire to have her say hello Eileen I love you. I want to extract something from her in this moment. I am needy. I want her devotion. I want her forgiveness. People are listing their memories of themselves with her just like I did in the note I sent her on my phone after we got off the zoom abruptly. I don’t even think I left abruptly. I did it the way zoom just shuts us all down. But I didn’t follow up. She and I were in touch in October and it was two months later that she sent a message with one word to everyone: Farewell. It was on this blog where she kept in touch with all of us and it was there that she announced that nothing could work any more she had tried it all and now she was home and it was hospice and she had her garden and Jeffrey and she was ready to go. I bombarded her with all forms of messaging right then. Like a rogue elephant which is what she called me once in an introduction it was the finest tribute of all. And later I joined the tonglen group where I sit and suffer awkwardly. I breathe in Lesley’s pain and sometimes have really vivid stabs of her like I feel I have touched her spirit in some way (I want her acknowledgement of it). Other times I feel more when Ruth leads us to the part that is for all beings who suffer. I feel a sob then because it’s true. This practice makes me know that truth almost more than anything. And any day in New York. It’s why I love New York. Just now I thought Lesley I love you so much and I want you to forgive me for living. It’s the same feeling I’ve always had. I’m alive too much and somebody else is suffering dying. It’s hard to believe (still) that one day it will be me. I watch everyone throw their memories at her and I can’t do that again. I’ve already done it. I’ve already been an elephant. It’s our joke, she made it and I want to make it again and again like a baby. Let me always be in the poem you made of me Lesley. Forgive me for being alive. Let me see myself rattling in your suffering like a thing in the wind and let me love you right now right there. She was here today with Jeffrey in the background and Jeffrey had a swipe of light on his forehead. I want to ask Jeffrey if she loved me. Why did Lesley love me. It seemed she did. There’s a room in her house she called my room. She probably said that to everybody but I believed her. Whenever I passed through town I stayed there. It was so cozy. I remember the smell of their house and the feel of the bed and morning coffee and dinner with Lesley and Jeffrey. Lesley nagging Jeffrey. She had had the bad men and now she had Jeffrey and she loved him and she nagged him. He exasperated her. They were such a pair. There they both were today and Lesley looked like a perfect master. She had some grey kimono on and a white strap or rope crossed her chest like some form of decoration like a kind of valor. it was probably her pajamas but she looked well – handsome and stoic. You look beautiful and zen I told her and described Jeffrey too. Lesley made some comment on my green teeshirt. At last. Me. My favorite color I shared. I told her about New Year’s Day at St. Mark’s on her birthday. I enthused. I am such a child. But isn’t it good to be childlike around the dying. I am still the world. Then these two women Huda I think was one’s name and it was a family of Lebanese Iranian immigrants that had lived with or around Lesley and Jeffrey and they helped them go to school and find jobs and ways of surviving in America. What an open-hearted person. I think about what I can do with my apartment while I’m in Marfa. That too. I told her I was going to Marfa. She said give Marfa my love. Yes yes. This is what I wanted. A little job. The Lebanese woman told her about her family. Someone was 19 someone was ten. Lesley was in awe at their advanced aged having been children when they stayed with her. The woman kept going you will win, I know you are strong you will get better. Lesley was unmoved and warm. Everyone else was smiling and crying. I was crying. This woman’s hope and obliviousness was what everyone wanted. And for a little while I imagined a miracle happening right now. Lesley is not dying, she is getting better. Just like that. A miracle is happening now. Huda’s inspirational patter, her belief was the solace we needed. Tell us a beautiful lie, say that death isn’t true. And Lesley will stay. I will have my friend and I can stay in my room and she will love me some more. I am grateful for her life and my life. Living itself. All things suffer but all things live. Live now Lesley, live live.
At her birthday party which was only a couple of days ago each of us lit candles in our little cubes. I had tiny candles birthday candles and the wax burnt my fingertips lighting one off the other, singing the song for her, recording it, saying our wishes when she wasn’t there, saying them when she came back all over again.
It must be like being dead or maybe she loves us for this clinging to her life and her death the fat candles and the thin candles each of us in our cubes alone and together lighting them up.
I said yesterday or two days ago in one of the tonglen gatherings well we finally had that damn birthday. Because Lesley’s 70th birthday was January 1 last year (2020) so it wasn’t a good time for everyone to come so she delayed it until March and as the birthday neared covid became more and more a reality all over the world. Lesley had lived for years in Australia teaching. Had taught in the UK. She had friends in Africa of course friends in Scotland. Friends all over the world. So it was a massive undertaking a massive gathering and everything else was getting cancelled and Lesley held on for as long as she could but finally it was true her party would be cancelled in March. Her seventieth birthday party didn’t happen we did 71 instead when she was dying the other day. But maybe not. Maybe the miracle will happen. She has CLL (Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia) but she will live.
Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué is a poet and writer living in Chicago. He is the author of three books of poetry, including most recently Losing Miami (The Accomplices, 2019) which was nominated for the Lambda Literary Award in Gay Poetry. His fourth poetry book, Madness, is forthcoming from Nightboat Books. He is also the co-editor of a book of selected sketches by the artist Gustavo Ojeda, out from Soberscove Press in 2020.
If we remember that every portion of us was already present in the world before our being alive—something we must remember not just because it is a natural “law” of conservation of matter but because it teaches us so much about how to live and die—we can be certain that every portion of us will remain present in the world after our death. Our living is a molecular event that also becomes a social event that will become a molecular event again. I find comfort in this knowing that I was and always will be just a suggestion among infinite of how the natural world could recombobulate and recombine, that my living is and was just a form for living, just one way that the elements swung in an ever-long history. Knowing this is how I calmed myself from a years-long obsession with death, influenced by what I might call an atheist’s anxiety, that stymied my ability to think, socialize, enjoy, live, and sent me into a furious depression. Knowing this was what I called certainty.
I have long since believed that to live and die without spirit or other worlds required and facilitated having a certain ethical relationship to the earth and the Earth. Knowing the advent of myself as a product of the earth and the Earth’s coalition, I could say that my death meant simply a new cohabitation therein, a reformulation with regards to this place—a phrase that seems limp in light of what I am saying, which is that the earth and the Earth are the only place, and that to be placed is to be part of the earth and the Earth. I think it’s not only the moral and the logical but the necessary response to this cohabitation that living with the earth and the Earth be seen as a relationship of mutual regard, what we’ve euphemistically called “sustainability,” and of a commitment to non-exploitation, the opposite of exploitation, which isn’t generosity, but actually care. That is all to say, to understand how to die without going, you have to learn to care for this place.
And so with all this in my mental pocket I could newly manage three defining anxieties of my life, grave events past, anticipated, and present: my father’s death when I was 11, the certainty of my own future death, and the changing climate in response to human technology and cruelty. Anyone who knows my writing and anyone who knows me personally understands that these three events propel me and impede me in all things I do. To think in terms of the infinite life of molecules and the certainty of my being part of this place somehow made these things possible to cope with.
It also made these events, my father’s death, my future death, the current climate apocalypse (as in, change) finally grievable. Grief is the emotional life of changes in form. It’s not always sad, or grim, or desperate. It’s how it feels to move from one form for living to another. To think of these events as changes in form, to think of loss itself as a change in form, a change in the way of being placed in this place, was to give myself permission to grieve without obsession. For those who like Freud, it was thermodynamics that broke my melancholy. It follows that one’s dying is one’s world grieving for them.
All this talk of form means I have to say what I’ve implied throughout this: that poetry has a capacity to do death, to do care, to do “The Ecological Thought” (to quote Timothy Morton), to do grief, and to do thinking of life in ways that other forms cannot always, because poetry is a genre forever at the forefront of thinking about being in a form. Poetry’s uncertainty touches the certainty of e/Earthly living and dying with a finesse we rarely achieve otherwise but constantly need.