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There’s a poem by the late poet Jane Kenyon that runs through my mind on mornings like these. “I got out of bed/on two strong legs,” Kenyon writes. “It might have been/ otherwise.” She goes on to write of flawless peach and birch wood, of laying down for a noontime nap with her love, of having dinner together at a table with silver candlesticks, and finally acknowledges how one day—in spite of her plans and the dreams she has in her bed in a room with paintings hanging on its walls—it “will be otherwise.”

I first read the poem in the late-90’s when I was a graduate student and teaching poetry at Goldwater Hospital. It was the first time I had been around so many people with physical disabilities, and the presence of all those disabilities unnerved me. My first months working there, I often found myself on subway platforms walking in tight circles and being fully aware of the strength of my legs, of the tightening and lengthening of my hamstrings and quadriceps, of the give of my calf and the arch of my foot. “Two strong legs,” I would mumble to myself, over and over, disappointed that for so many years I had taken those legs for granted.

It was around this same time that I traveled down to Washington D.C. to visit a friend and went for my first and only time to the Holocaust Museum. We had walked around the city for hours and hours, and we made it to the museum just before closing time, allowing ourselves not nearly enough time to take it all in, or maybe it was just enough time; maybe all the time in the world would not have been enough, would have been too much. The museum’s impact was heart-wrenching, so heart-wrenching, in fact, that I still find myself caught off-guard—my breath catching in my throat—when I think about it.

It is the shoes that have stayed with me, thousands of them, shoes from the Nazi’s victims—piles and piles, large and small, ornate and simple, men’s and women’s and children’s, leather, cloth, hardly worn, worn through the soles—and I remember standing in the empty place between the piles and thinking of all the feet that had been in those shoes; feet that had blistered, that had been rubbed by a lover; feet that had kicked balls and had turned back home; feet that had soaked in the tub and walked through strange streets and gotten damp from puddles; feet that had danced; feet that belonged to legs; feet that had bones with marrow, that had veins with blood pumped from a heart.

And that is where it always ends for me: the heart.

On Wednesday, Stephen Tyrone Jones, a security officer at the museum, went to hold the door open for an elderly man. The 88-year-old, James W. von Brunn, who as a self-proclaimed white supremacist had a history of anti-Semitic efforts, then opened fire on the museum, fatally wounding Jones. A photograph outside the museum depicts the inadequacy of mourning: a few lilies stuffed inside a water bottle, their petals already falling. I think of those who will walk by that water bottle today, think of the legs that will carry them, of the breakfasts they ate, of the rooms they sleep in.

My husband kissed me when he left for the office just a bit ago; my daughter is napping; my hands are lemon-y from the sponge I used to wipe the counter; and now, like Jane Kenyon, like Stephen Jones, I do the work I love. These days—especially with the death of a dear friend’s husband a couple of months ago—I am more aware than ever that it will some day be “otherwise,” but it makes my heart sick to think that sometimes that happens because of the sheer disregard for human life displayed by von Brunn and far too many before him.

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PLUS, another great poem by Painted Bride Quarterly contributor Arlene Ang:

What Happens to the Postwoman When She Stops Delivering the Mail

~@~

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Provocatee

It is 11AM on a Tuesday, and I am confused. I am teaching my Intro to Poetry class, a group of twenty-two people who are recalcitrant, skeptical and defensive—certain only that they registered for the course because “it fit my schedule.” It is my self-appointed duty to ensure they end the semester not only acquainted with contemporary poetry and the basic tools needed to unpack much of it, but it is my duty to serve as a cheerleader for the pleasures of sympathetic or what I call submissive (as opposed to passive) reading.

On this day I am confused because one of my students has asked me a question of such simplicity that in the face of it, I find myself recalcitrant, skeptical and defensive. We are reading a poem called “Fictions” by William Kulik. It is a prose poem that begins, “In that novel you bought at the chain, a young woman looks back on her life.” The poem wends toward the memory of a fight between parents (a memory provoked by the novel) and ends with “you and your brother huddled in a corner of the room hugging crying Mommy daddy please stop we love you we’re sorry.” The difficulty of reading a poem like this in an introductory class is not so much that it is written in second person, a move intended to blunt the taint of solipsism evident in a speaker’s epiphany of childhood trauma brought on by having read a book featuring characters with whom he identifies. We can’t get enough of such navel gazing, in fact. The difficulty is not so much either in having to undo the convolutions and folds of meta- and subtextual narrative. The difficulty, I find, is in answering the question regarding coincidences between A) the novel within the poem, and B) the literal level of the poem. The young woman in the “novel” is a mother of two boys. My student wants to know if the two boys in the novel are the same two boys we encounter at the end of the poem. I’m speechless. Of course, these boys are not the same people. I stammer. Perhaps this is a difficult poem, I say. Let’s try something easier. Let’s consider, for example, Shakespeare’s foils and narrative echoes. Foul ball. They haven’t read Shakespeare. What now. Listen, the two sets of boys represent one of the several coincidences crafted by the poet, which are designed to conduct the charge of equivalencies the climax of the poem relies upon. Am I making any sense here?

Later, at home I describe the classroom exchange to my wife. She suggests it is an example of a member of one culturally privileged class (me) feigning inability to comprehend the patent, unsubtle reasoning of a layperson (my student). I don’t get your point, I say. She says, take your head out of your ass. But we’re talking about coincidences. The point is coincidences do not simply occur. Constructing associations between events and between characters is a generative act. It requires use of the imagination. Coincidences are like metaphors in that they are subject to the same logic that requires the reader to reconcile two discrete occurrences. It takes creativity to identify a coincidence, which is neither meaningful nor meaningless. In a poem, coincidences, like metaphors, are intended to provoke the reader to extrapolate an ever-greater complex of associations.

Child psychologists say that children are naturally synesthetic. This is something we grow out of. We grow into the discourse of teasing out, reasoning, favoring the perfect over the slant rhyme. We accumulate the calluses of rough-handling objectivity. Perhaps it is a fiction of autobiography, but I feel I’ve always been inclined to identify a thing in terms of its family of relations, however oddball such relations might be. I’ve always been provoked by the overwhelming oneness of things. I admit there is something egotistical about begging provocation. If we divide society into the subjective class and the objective class, I am antagonistic toward the latter. I am not proud of this. But provocation is nuanced and delicate. When I say I want a poetics that provokes, I mean I want a poetics of flux and intonation, a poetics that challenges this primal binary of subject/ object, a poetics of equivalencies rather than one of resolutions. Whether the poem uses the second person or is written in the present tense, it should do something to seduce me into submitting the defenseless child of my subjectivity to its care. I want to be indiscriminant, prodigal, promiscuous, yes, submissive in the safe house of the poem. I have to trust the poem is not going to let just any old body in.

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