About a year ago, I wrote a poem, “The Wind in Galway,” where one of my last lines read, “Ruin is both a verb of destruction and the noun it leaves behind.” I had been thinking of a trip to Ireland, and these old stone forts on the Aran Islands, preserved obsoletely, useless for defense. Now, I think of my friend George, whose family comes from Lebanon, and how he described Beirut as a city consistently wearing its past, a constant and tangible proof of violence, both of history and of the present, settlers coming in to wreck their own havoc. A ruin is not passive. Think of how Thomas had to tenderly slide his fingers into Christ’s wounds to know there was killing done, and living still. I live in New York City now, a city cloaked in scaffolding, which, almost ironically, stands less for construction and more for protection, to catch the evidence of destruction – a lone chunk of trimming sheered off an old building – and save it from being visible, from quite literally striking a passerby on the head. We reckon with the visible, become wary of the ways in which we can be struck. When my grandmother died not long ago, I sat in the front seat as my father drove me through Rochester, his hometown, to see her one last time before the coffin closed. On the shores of the Genesee River, the old Kodak plant towered above a city warring with its decay. The smokestacks poked sky with nothing to hide behind. I asked my father why they still let off fumes, created their own kinds of clouds, however transient and fleeting. He said they still had to run the plant in the event that someone would come back and use it. The company has been bankrupt for years. Over a decade before, when his father – my grandfather – died, I was just a child. I kneeled beside my father before the casket and touched the dead’s wax of skin. I wanted to know why he felt like a toy. I was ruined by this ruin of a man ruined by a long stint at life. I wanted more than that a death. The awareness of a soul, some ghost beside the body to give the living comfort that there is something other than the simple preservation of the tangible. But I know now that a room can be ruined by the absence of another, that we are, each of us, consistently and constantly in the act of being ruined. In America, there is a love of ruination. The abandoned post office sandwiched between towers newly built, vines growing round windows dusted with the hard ash of absence, an old diner crusted with the coagulated yolk of egg and the smell of coffee burnt again and again. We praise these places for their authenticity, as if, in viewing them, we are made into people far more genuine than before. There is character in a past preserved in its past-ness for the present. But there’s a falseness too, a dangerous disingenuousness in all of this. Think of Delillo’s “Most Photographed Barn in America” from White Noise. I think we want to be reminded. To be American is to live with ghosts. To be American is to know you don’t belong. To be American is to live forever amidst the attempts we make to hide away our ruins. The ones, I think, that matter, that most need to be reckoned with.
It’s still morning in the Bronx, and I walk down the stairs a block away from Bronx Community College, tug my coat tighter against my body, and make my way to the University Heights Bridge, where I will cross back into Manhattan to take the 1 Train, after which I will crawl aboveground into Harlem and walk five blocks to my apartment, passing just-waking-uppers and hungover-breakfast-goers. I just taught Terrance Hayes’ “The Same City” to my class of poetry students, framing it as a poem of reinvention, a tool for noting how we can each see the same thing differently, over and over again. In it, Hayes writes, “Let me begin again. / I want to be holy.” I asked my students to write poems that began “It happened this way,” only to, at the start of the next stanza, and the one after, and the one after again, write, “No, it happened this way.” There are infinite amounts of ways to imply, to enforce difference. To move through each point of view. To speak in present, and then past. To forever look more inward, or out. The word hole stems from the Old English holian, which means, “to hollow out,” or, as a noun, hol, “a hollow place, a cave.” What’s interesting is the nature of the word holy, which dates backs to many definitions, one of which is “whole.” I want to dwell here for a while. The walk is long and I am bent near the shoulders. It’s a Saturday morning, and I spent last night trying to rest early, in my bed at a reasonable hour, only to toss and turn and fitfully spend the hours I had allocated for sleep somewhere in between waking and dreaming. A bed is a sort of hollow we fill with nostalgia, a place where the present moment can make someone more aware of what is missing, or what or who has been gained. An altar of sacrifice and consummation. When I was a child, I wrote a prayer I uttered every night to myself before sleeping, making sure to cover my bases. I tried not to wish for myself more than I wished for others. I tried to apologize more than I asked why is this happening to me. I’m not sure if any of it worked, but I felt better about myself then than I do now. In a word, I felt more forgiven. By who or what, I don’t know. Holiness is a lost concept, but I do not think holes are. To dig a hole is as human an act as we can muster. To carve out space, to make our own hollows. When I assigned that exercise to my class, one student asked, “But how? It only happened one way.” He was right and wrong. It happened one way. It happens, now, into forever, in different directions. To dig a hole is as close as we can get to the roots that bind us to each other, to all of our unknowing, to figuring out the why and the how and the who cares and the I do. Each stanza in that exercise is another shovel. When my lover left, I felt wronged. When my lover left, I spent afternoons looking into some middle distance down an alley between buildings. When my lover left, I felt wrong. When my lover left, I crawled into the bed, the hollow, the hole, the holy place we had carved together. When my lover left, I tried digging different holes. I tried to remember the prayer I made myself as a child, but couldn’t. I had to write a new one. To dig a hole to bury myself in. To dig a hole to find myself again.
Near Inez, Kentucky, sitting atop what used to be a mountain, standing above the cute curling of the Honey Branch, which trails off Little Beech Fork, is Big Sandy Federal Penitentiary. There once was a jagged shelf of rock and bramble, and now, a flat swath of mined land where concrete walls reinforced by steel keep nearly 1,500 inmates at bay. All throughout Appalachia, mountaintop removal mining has cleared miles upon miles of trees, feet upon feet of mountains that took millennia to be carved out of the earth. So think of the word mine, to dredge up, explode, demolish, implode, drill down through the earth in search of minerals, ore deposits, whatever is necessary. And now, think of the word mine, for someone to be given this earth and feel the need to make it mine. Think of what kind of strange semantic disillusionment occurs when what used to be a mountain is now a place of possession – possession of the body, and the body as a kind of institution, a statistic used to assure other bodies that they are safe, so that they can walk kind and careful through the world and be assured that no one will take what’s mine. Possession can be a worse crime than theft, or the same crime. To hold what has no right to be held, to make mine what has its own mine-ness. We owe too much to others to want this world to ourselves, to want someone else to ourselves. The word mine owes almost all of its origins to a language of destruction. Mining through earth in order to topple it. Laying explosives – mines – as a method of killing. To undermine. To destroy. To make mine in order to own. We stem from so much violence. Our history is a history of such a fact. Even birth, that act of becoming someone else’s by being born through them, is something of violence – a fissuring of tissue, a language of pain, tears, screaming. In other words, we cannot have everything, but we want it all. And if we don’t, we encounter too many who do. To invert the mine is to wait. To let a small river collect its water from a lake atop a mountain in order to carve out another one. This takes years we do not have. It takes a kind and gentle patience. Things are happening. So slowly and incrementally, but still. Be still, then, and wait. Accept your lack of ownership. Most everything will happen without your permission, and completely without your knowledge.
In a high school class, I teach a lesson on word roots. I write comfortable on the board, ask the students to break it down into three parts: its prefix, com, its suffix, able, and its root, fort. Com means with. Able means able to be. Fort means strength, or a place of it. Put together, the word literally means, “able to be strong with.” We consider this, jokingly. How we use the word lightly, applying its meaning to a couch, a chair, a place of rest. How binge-watching television shows through the afternoon in a dimly lit room is a kind of comfort. Inside, though, I think of a woman, and what it means to say, to her, “You make me feel comfortable.” Or, with you, I am stronger. My capacity to be myself to the fullest is not diminished, never. Growing up as a competitive runner, it took me a long time to understand why my father always, in the middle of my races, would scream, “Get comfortable, Devin, drop your arms, breathe.” Now, I know. To find a place of self-strength in the middle of your turmoil, to rescue yourself from a world forever pushing at your brevity, your shortness of breath and life – this is a kind of love. A necessary one. I thought of his words when I ran my fastest marathon, which is a test more of patience than endurance. You hold back, sleep, until one moment you pour your energy towards, a giving in to exhaustion. If you go too soon, you will be a victim to your own depletion, made aware of how little you have to give, and how choice it becomes to give at the right moments. At the very crest of a hill in the 21st mile. When you are asked if you love someone, and why it matters. When you are asked if you love yourself. The day of that marathon, a headwind rolled over the miles, and it rained, a kind of unneeded Seattle. What I remember most is feeling good and strong in the 17th mile, and how I made a move to go, to hammer until the finish, and how my friend laid a hand on my shoulder, our feet humming along at 10 miles an hour, and said, no, not yet.
The Middle French word tendre can be translated either as a verb, “To offer,” or an adjective, “Soft,” or “Delicate.” I think of the stereotypical feminine, how a woman was and is often thought of as a soft and supple offering, that it is the man predominately doing the tenderizing, bent next to the grill hammering into his steak, or at the foot of the bed, woman bent over, hammering into her to make her his own. What bad words can do. Have done. Each word treads through history, bolted to its meaning. Though old and canonical, Raymond Carver’s words will forever resonate with me, when he wrote, “It’s the tenderness I care about.” Think of Ondaatje’s poem, “Kissing the Stomach,” and how he writes, “History / is what you’ve travelled on / and take with you.” And later: “We’ve each had our stomachs / kissed by strangers / to the other / and as for me / I bless everyone / who kissed you here.” Think of erasing the d out of tender, and the Spanish word tener, which means, “To have, to hold.” Here, I think, is where the real meaning of tenderness lies. To know there is nothing we have other than our own history and to hold, in the present, the knowledge of another’s history. Your body in my bed is not a kind of tenderness. But your body with all of its history, and me with all of mine, and my lips on your stomach in acceptance of what I cannot, should not change, and you saying yes, if you want to, again and again. And then me, resting on my back and lifting up my shirt. We are not strangers. We are not offerings to one another. We are both hammered into some kind of softness by this earth. We cannot resist that tenderizing. But we can be tender toward each other, knowing what is worth holding just a little while longer.
In another poem, I wrote, “How lonely and lovely are the same word with one letter upturned.” I remember finishing the poem while I sat on the stoop of my old apartment, bathed in the dim headlight of a lantern above. Around me, windows blued and blurred with the electric glow of televisions. I looked up and found one or two lights dying in the sky, and on the streets that intersected down the way, cars moaned in passing. The city was at war with inversion, living its life with more stars amongst its quarters than there were stars in the sky. I had been thinking of my friend George, how we sat on another stoop miles north of where I was to smoke our cigarettes and drink our beers, waiting for nothing but the next pull, the next drag. I did not feel lonely then, sitting beside one person in a town with only a few homes to a block. So little happened. If we listened, we could hear the wail of a siren miles away, and if we craned our necks, we could manage a glance at the skyscrapers dotting the horizon, a reminder of the so-much that lingered there. I don’t think we ever mentioned how scared we were of parting, that there was a sadness in the leaving that finally came when I had to catch the last train back and he had to go to bed. But I feel it now. Maybe because George is something like a thousand miles away, this time south. Maybe because the only sure thing that travels distance is time, and each time we see one another now, there is the ever-present reminder of what was lost in our getting there, what could never be returned. I ended that poem with, “How lonely, companionship, how lovely.” There is space always between us and the ones we love. Even in our closest moments. Think of math, of asymptotes, of one thing pushing infinitely toward the other and never reaching, only, in the span of forever, getting closer. Think of what it means to spend a lifetime reaching for another only to never touch them. Think of the molecules, minute and beyond microscopic, we push into the space between fingers and palms. How beautiful and sad that is, to always be so close.
In the beginning was the word, yes, and here I am in a beginning as close to the end as every beginning is. Word is both cause and effect, what drives us to pain and what gives voice to it. Word hurts. Word is sound, and sound suffers – ache of stifled breath, guttered moan of angst, whimper. Tell me where we would be without language. Feel the insecurity that comes when you cannot give the uncanny a name – sweep of field bathed in magic light, salt shimmer on seaside rock, a shadow’s bold and unmerciful geometry trapezing off a fire escape. I have been to four therapists, and each has asked one more question than I wanted at the time, sometimes two. Their mission: to never let you stop speaking – your inner language holds the cure. Articulate a language from anxiety. Build a different house of lyric bones. Get out of bed, you fuck – only the same familiar words sleep there with you. But there are some things that cannot be give a name, and, therefore, an understanding. The Bible begins with the word because it knows it will be all you have after you finish reading – no god, only faith that from language comes existence.