I am reading a book called Wallace Stevens and the Actual World. I have been thinking about how to engage the actual world in my own poetry. (That has always been my impulse. It was true before the pandemic, when I was working on my first collection of poetry. And that orientation is even stronger now, as I travel around the country to read from my second collection of poetry, The Certain Body , which was written in the spring of 2020, while I was recovering from COVID.
That spring, New York City shut down; I was very sick; my young family was housebound. At the time, we were living in a tiny two-bedroom apartment in Los Sures, South Williamsburg, Brooklyn. My first symptom appeared on a Sunday. I managed well until Tuesday night, when the physician on call asked me to head to the hospital given what was happening.
All of my blessings–there are very many–meant that until that spring, I had never counted hours, days or nights the way I learned to count them then. I would be sick for a surprisingly long time: what a privilege to be sick for so long. What a privilege to count months and years. What a privilege to stop counting them.
What turned out to be a long-haul with COVID meant a string of good and not-so-good hours for months-on-end and complications that have me thinking they may never go away. Well after the acute phase, what was this thing that lingered on? Why this fever? Why the pain in my back, between my shoulder blades? The pain soon perfecting itself, at the base of my spine? Why this fatigue? This ache in my ankles, hips, and hands? Why the blur of things in my head? Why couldn’t I get out of bed?
Sometimes I would feel very broken. Sometimes I would feel whole again (though, to borrow a phrase from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “not necessarily like any pre-existing whole.”)
If I was given a good hour, I could play cards with my children. Take them to McCarren Park, stopping often to rest before willing myself on to the fields where they could run around. If I was given a good day, I would find my way to collections of poetry written when the world was falling apart.
I read a lot of poetry written after World War I, poetry written during and after World War II. I read a lot of William Carlos Williams (who worked through The Spanish Flu) and T.S. Eliot. Eliot brought me to various liturgical texts; The Book of Common Prayer brought me to Dickinson. Dickinson brought me to Lucie Brock-Broido. Stay, Illusion brought me to Roland Barthes (and, specifically, The Pleasure of the Text). The Pleasure of the Text brought me to Claudia Rankine and Cristina Rivera Garza. On and on, the more I read, the more notes I would take. In the margins of my notebook, there were so many hearts and stars. Every single one would begin a conversation. And that conversation, the work I would do to maintain my part in it, saved me.
In the current phase of my healing, I am reading a lot about trauma, diet, and hope. I read a lot of self-help. I read some things on personal finance. And, from time to time, I read about what might be next, with regards to H5N1. I don’t read as much poetry written during World War II (apart from reading Wallace Stevens all over again). I continue to read things written when the world was falling apart, though.
The emphasis, now, is on filling significant gaps in my reading through the literature that emerged during the worst years of the AIDS crisis. Illness as Metaphor led me to AIDS and Its Metaphors. Susan Sontag led me to Sarah Schulman. The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination led me to Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT Up New York, 1987-1993. I began to watch one documentary after another. Robert Mapplethorpe’s self-portrait (and many of the memento mori that followed) brought me to so many bones (and skulls), so many crosses, so many houses on fire (or houses beginning to flood) and so very many beds.
The bed, the sick-bed, sometimes no more than a stretcher in the hallway of a hospital, was everywhere I looked: Félix Gonzáles-Torres made beds, big as billboards. In “Affirmations,” Marlon Riggs conjures a bed that is no more than a palette on the floor, where a couple might, still, start “feeling things that you never felt before.” Derek Jarman made the sick-bed the center of a rite, out on the beach, surrounded by friends, holding torches in their hands.
For Mark Bibbins, the bed may set fire any second:
As a house burns sparks
land on the roofs
of houses nearby
Some of them will also burn
Some of them will not
Someone asks Are there people inside
Sometimes there are people inside
They may walk out alive or be carried
out alive they may be carried
in pieces they may
be carried in bags they may
be carried in smoke
Others in dreaming may wonder
whether they ever will wake
from the endless dream of sparks
clinging to their roofs
floating through their windows
landing on their beds
In 13th Balloon, Bibbins extends the work Larry Levis is able to do in “My Story in a Late Style of Fire.” He moves beyond the personal (deterioration of a mind, body, marriage, home, and family) to touch on something larger (in this case, fear, terror, grief, and loss happening at the scale of a plague moving through a neighborhood, a city, a country, and, soon, a world). There is something crucial about these beds, the way they make private suffering public. Every time I read about this bed in particular, I think of a stencil of a burning house from the artist, David Wojnarowicz.
Every time I see the burning house, standing, as it does, all alone, no one rushing inside to help, and, for that matter, no one rushing out, I am returned to a passage from Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration:
Piece by piece, the landscape is eroding and in its place I am building a monument made of feelings of love and hate, sadness and feelings of murder.
In May, 2020, I remember the front page of The New York Times marking our movement towards a very grim milestone.
Holding the newspaper in my hands that day, I remember thinking to myself, And this is only the beginning. (Over a million Americans have died in the last two and a half years; in this country, 449 people die every single day). According to the World Health Organization, there have been over four million deaths from SARS-CoV-2 worldwide.
There are many similarities between HIV and SARS-CoV-2. Francisco Illanes-Álvarez, Denisse Márquez-Ruiz, Mercedes Márquez-Coello, Sara Cuesta-Sancho, and José Antonio Girón-Gonzáles outline them in the International Journal of Medical Sciences. For all of the similarities between the two viruses, without any treatment following infection, the outcomes are very different. (The death rate from SARS-CoV-2 ranges from 1 to 4%; without any treatment following infection, the death percentage from HIV is ≥95%).
At the height of the AIDS crisis, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick managed to produce an extraordinary essay called “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You.” When every paranoia might have seemed reasonable (or at the very least, far from unreasonable), Sedgwick was pushing back on the hegemony of paranoia. Instead of being “one among many modes,” a “hermeneutics of suspicion” had become the default mode for critical theory and practice in the United States.
[Paul] Ricoeur introduced the category of the hermeneutics of suspicion to describe the position of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and their intellectual offspring in a context that also included such alternative disciplinary hermeneutics as the philological and theological ‘‘hermeneutics of recovery of meaning.’’ His intent in offering the former of these formulations was descriptive and taxonomic rather than imperative. In the context of recent U.S. critical theory, however, where Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud by themselves are taken as constituting a pretty sufficient genealogy for the mainstream of New Historicist, deconstructive, feminist, queer, and psychoanalytic criticism, to apply a hermeneutics of suspicion is, I believe, widely understood as a mandatory injunction rather than a possibility among other possibilities.
Sedgwick insists on many possibilities, many modes and practices rooted in the “hermeneutics of recovery of meaning.” One of them is the reparative mode. What a good name for the reading I was doing when I was so sick (and the reading I am doing now). With the city of New York up on the cross, to borrow a phrase from The Reverend Phillip A. Jackson, Sedgwick was writing about some kind of Easter. At the epicenter of a plague, she so boldly wrote about hope:
Hope, often a fracturing, even a traumatic thing to experience, is among the energies by which the reparatively positioned reader tries to organize the fragments and part-objects she encounters or creates. Because the reader has room to realize that the future may be different from the present, it is also possible for her to entertain such profoundly painful, profoundly relieving, ethically crucial possibilities as that the past, in turn, could have happened differently from the way it actually did.
If the past could have happened differently from the way it actually did; if, indeed, the future may be different from the present, I want to know how we might make or re-make the bed we want to be lying in, moving forward.
Mid-summer, when the worst was over for us, as a family, I asked my wife if we could burn our bed. I never wanted to see it again. She shook her head. Absolutely not burning the bed, she said. When we moved to Ridgewood, she agreed to dismember it, though: Piece by piece, the four poster frame was laid out on the curb for someone else to burn (or re-build).
Listening to The Crossing’s (gorgeous) Carols After a Plague, the world still feels like it is falling apart. To make sense of this moment, I am reading everything I can get my hands on. I continue to see beds. They are everywhere. And I am so interested in how they are made.
They are not necessarily sickbeds. And they are not sites set aside solely for rest either. Some of them are makeshift, including this one (which is really the backseat of a car, set in a dream-like garden, surrounded by small dogs), from Frieda Toranzo Jaeger:
The small dog in each panel of this triptych reminds me of the one Chen Chen will center in another bed, in another bedroom, in his beautiful “ode to my beloveds and brevities” from the book, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency.
Important to track what the breath does in this poem – the word, “breath,” the word, “breaths,” and the word, “breathgiving.” When reading the poem aloud, it’s also important to track what the ampersand is doing, moving us towards a kind of “breathlessness” without the help of any other punctuation (apart from a line full of exclamation points and the occasional parentheses). That, too, is important. The relative absence of punctuation, I mean. Makes me think of Gertrude Stein’s pronouncement about commas, in particular, from her Lectures in America: “At the most a comma is a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath.” Reading this piece aloud, I don’t want to stop and take a breath; I want to keep up with all that this love is drawing into itself (and under the covers):
& with a jiggly leap into the bed here he is
& what could be more
breathgiving than these pugly (meaning
beautifulest) wrinkles & nostrils &
couldn’t we just gobble
up our little never bashful
but wait I’m not supposed to say that
with my chinese breath
but (& eternally) fuck that
isn’t this a fantabulous day & isn’t his smile very
dog & aren’t the three of us the busiest
goofballs & the strangest heartthrobs
& the gabbiest unstrangers &
some abracadabra mixed
with kablooey & unbamboozled
except by each other & fantabulously
puggly & oh
& so & gobbleable &&
& why should we ever leave this bed
Some of the beds I have been seeing lately seem to float. They begin to blur. They recede and may as well disappear to foreground more important things and people, as in this piece from Jennifer Packer:
In “The Beginning of the End” (2020), I love how Frieda Toranzo Jaeger moves away from the bed entirely. (Maybe that house has burned down, too?) The disappearance of the bed (and the bedroom) creates the possibility of the-bed-and-the-bedroom constituting itself just about anywhere, even here, in the actual world, which is on fire:
The act of embroidering multi-colored thread onto the knit of this painted white canvas, suturing together beginnings and endings so that it’s hard to tell which is which, centers and re-centers so much: art, art-making, love, love-making, queerness, futurity, feminism and yes, pleasure, even and especially in this state-of-emergency we call home, this ongoing state-of-emergency we call here and now.