One Great Things about On October

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“I want to trace the shift of the season, gather evidence of every leaf that gives way until the branches stretch bare.”

This is how it starts. With something you can’t get out of your head, so you start obsessing, driven to follow it to its end. Like a new love, you are spinning and everything seems like light through the trees. And so you start documenting. The way the speaker grabs her camera, documents the light, the leaves, the changes. Exactly as writers sit down to record the shifts in the mind.

As writers, we are preoccupied. And those preoccupations drive us on the page. Jill Talbot follows her particular preoccupations — October, the leaves, the man — in meandering wonder in her essay “On October” in Pithead Chapel. Each section relates to every other section precisely because she obsesses. Reading “On October” is like watching a mind walk a well-worn path, but seeing small details that would be missed if one were hacking their way through an overgrown and rarely used trail.

Longing leads the way through this essay, stepping tenderly through landscape and memory and fact that crunch underfoot like fallen leaves.

II.

“I do not want to write here that Kerouac died in October, but he did.”

I don’t want to write this here could be a refrain for most writers when they are wrestling with their work. There comes a moment when we wrestle with our obsession, don’t want it to be so. Want to be rid of it. We want to chuck it all, start over with something new.

The new love has worn off, the light dims, and you start to question everything. You sit down to write and everything feels murkier. You want the facts to be different. But every time you start writing, there they are again.

But we worry, even in our disillusionment with the object of our obsession, that it will end. “I worry that October will end before the leaves tell me it’s so. I worry October will end.” So, like the speaker, we go on collecting. Still, she heads out with her envelope to “collect some of what’s fallen.” We can’t shake our obsessions, we can only embrace them, follow them, give them space.

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III.

“I will stop writing this man. Now, all these years later, it seems less like a promise. More like a wish.”

And in that wishing, always a return.

A writer’s essays are more than the sum of their obsessions, but they are there, like leaves tucked into book pages you find years later when you pick it up to re-read or flip through looking for a quote. Talbot writes, “According to scientists, leaves don’t fall, the trees throw them off.” But in spite of that throwing off, the leaves return. In a new season. In a new color, a new tenderness. The tree grows and changes, new trees grow from its fallen seeds, but the cycle continues. The leaves return, looking for light.

“Leaves bring back a lost season, and I keep writing, building a map so that I can spread out the pages and point to a phone call, a room, or even a breeze, and say, here.” Isn’t that what drives us to keep turning to the page like cartographers? We chart new discoveries in old lands, follow trails to new places, record it all as a way of saying, I was here and here and here.

Important as our obsessions are as writers, they are important for readers as well. Over time, a writer’s obsessions teach us how to read their work. We start to feel like part of an intimate conversation. We see the writer’s mind across many works, learn the terrain, make connections of our own. It is a joy to follow Jill’s work as it walks through familiar landscapes pointing out the minute details we would otherwise miss: the way the light look at night just before the sun sets, the train whistle that sounds almost like a bird, the dusty road that stretches out into the hills we hadn’t noticed before.

Always in words,
Meghan

PS – This essay is read best with First Aid Kit or Julien Baker playing in the background.
PPS — Want to make more connections with Jill’s work? Here’s a poem on October at Split Lip Magazine.

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One Great Things about Part Three of Layli Long Soldier’s “Ȟe Sápa”

poemWhere do I start with this poem?

I mean literally where does one start to read this third section of Layli Long Soldier’s “Ȟe Sápa”?

This seemingly simple page—a square created by four lines with the same repeating internal rhymes—creates so much room for consideration.

One of my two favorite ways to read it is: “To see this space / is this place / The space in me you see / see how you place me in you / This is how you see me the space in which to place me / This is how to place you in the space in which to see”. The other is to simply stare at the middle of the square made by these lines and be overwhelmed by its space, asking myself about the place the poem puts me in.

The first time I read this section of poem over a year ago, I simply didn’t get it. It made me empathize with the people who “just don’t get poetry.” I felt at first as if I was being toyed with. It struck me only recently, that this poem had been serving as a container for my ego and that I couldn’t get past that. I spent so long asking of it what it could be telling me that I neglected to see what this form or this particular arrangement of lines is showing me.

The act of reading poetry is an exercise in the stripping of cynicism. It is a confrontation of the words themselves as they’re arranged on the page. What meaning we derive from them is inherently personal—after all, we can only carry our own unique constellation of experiences. In making meaning, however, we draw connection—to not just the poem or the writer, but to the broader work of humanity.

This poem, as much as anything else, is a poem about how we read. It asks what we’re willing to see and how we choose to see it. The moment I let go of my own conception of what a poem is supposed to be or how one is supposed to look—in short, my cynicism—the poem began to unfold endless meaning.

Of course, more context helps. It might help to know that Long Soldier’s poem is a dedication to the Black Hills mountain range that stretches from South Dakota to Wyoming. Perhaps if we knew that, we could say something clever about the shape of this section of poem mirroring the shapes of those states and the nature of arbitrary boundaries. If you knew that the Black Hills were wrenched from the Lakota Nation, of which Long Soldier belongs, you might even say something incisive about what the form of this poem says about the relationship white folks have with land and putting up boundaries—or the humanitarian atrocity of rounding up Indigenous folks and confining them to reservations, hidden from view and erased from public and political discourse.

Any and all of that is probably be true.

To me, these four lines are about the words on the page. They are, in equal measure, about everything that’s been deliberately left out. I see rhymes and the repetition of the same rhymes, too—an elegant, self-referential trick reminding us to look within.

Yours in words,
Dujie

 

One Great Things About “My Father’s Dying in Emojis”

There is something almost telepathic about the way Jennifer Jackson Berry’s poem affects me, something nearly alien in its method of communication. To borrow a phrase, I’d almost say the poem is “like a mood that passes through you.”

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I first read “My Father’s Dying in Emojis” in Pacifica Review; years later and I still think of it. I feel as if my experience of time and story-telling has been altered by the poem’s completely image-driven text. Too often we divide and simplify poetry by labeling it narrative or lyric, as if music alone couldn’t tell a story, as if there weren’t rhythms buried in our favorite tall tales. Berry efficiently turns this binary on its head and creates the most wrenching narrative using emoji translated into their lyrical (and unaltered) literary equivalents. What is a kind of digital-age, visual cliché becomes a mood, a moment, a movement of loss. By taking emoji off our screens Berry creates something amazing and new on the page, a hybrid language that is innovative as well as traditional, a lyric of loss told through a modern lens.

“Splashing Sweat, Pensive Face.

Warning Sign.”

The piece opens, and immediately the meter propels you. The story unfolds in flashes, a poetic and emotion-filled slideshow. Every emoji described is both instantly identifiable (Hear-No-Evil Monkey, Black Sun With Rays) yet surprisingly juxtaposed against the others. Each one shifts the scene forward a little, each one brings its own emotional complexity. It is a poem that shouldn’t succeed but does due to Berry’s ability to pinpoint the core importance of every image and place them so effectively. There is no confusion over what is happening, how the narrator reacts and feels. Readers are led along, practically possessed.

The repetition in the penultimate line (“Poultry Leg, Poultry Leg, Poultry Leg.”) is strange and wondrous as the repeated “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry” from the famous Robert Haas poem. I am given over to grief and gorging, to a paltry, weak-kneed state. In the end when we are left with a “Leaf Fluttering in Wind,” I am struck by the frailty of it all, an E.E. Cummings-esque loneliness, the emptiness and brevity of everything. That ending, haiku-like, blows me wide open.

So often while looking down at my phone I miss the poetry of the world around. Never did I expect to find awe while looking at the small screen itself. What is your favorite emoji, from the poem or otherwise? Are you able to look at any of them in the same way, or are you, like me, transformed?

Yours in words,

Michael

One Great Things | March Book Giveaway!

Here at One Great Things we are (obviously) obsessed with reading & we want to spread our giddiness as far & wide as we can. One thing we want to do is share some of our favorite books with you! Every month we are going to giveaway one of our favorite books. Just tell us your One Great Things recommendation in the comments of this post or on Twitter & we will randomly choose a winner. 

This month we are giving away a copy of Leesa Cross-Smith‘s novel Whiskey & Ribbons!Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 8.44.47 AM

The accolades for this book are too many to list here, but check them out here (& get a playlist to accompany the book)! Here is what author Alexander Chee had to say about Whiskey & Ribbons:

“Cross-Smith’s thrilling debut novel, Whiskey and Ribbons, is as immediate and compelling as music. Her three lovers tell their stories, each turning over what we think we know, creating a moving triptych on love, desire, and grief, and the unexpected families life makes for us.”

One Great Thing about “Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder (Complicated Grief)”

Screen Shot 2018-03-21 at 4.10.29 PMDear friends —

The violence of loss is palpable in the pared down couplets of Chelsea Dingman’s poem “Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder (Complicated Grief)” in Phoebe Journal. Each line cuts like an unexpected wind across exposed skin. It incants in a way that wracks and wracks against the reader, violent grief from everywhere.

Nature is the common thread through this particular loss. A woman bent in childbirth, “orphaned forget-me-nots,” a doe that visits and then doesn’t, a growing belly, emptying trees, blackbirds with “threadbare wings.” In its relation to nature, the poem becomes a study of deep, unending grief. It dissects loss, points to how it infiltrates from everywhere, from even the places you think you can trust. This poem pulls back the skin to reveal how sometimes grief gets into your marrow, replaces life with empty space, becomes something unshakeable. The core of you now built of loss.

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“Let me know,” “let me know” the speaker begs. In the wake of loss, we beg to know. We want a warning of what was to come. And in the begging the speaker is exhausted even with the idea of loss: “I’m tired / of mourning what is lost here…” This grief has gone beyond the waves we all know and has become a diagnosable condition.

One of the symptoms of Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder is “persistent feelings of emptiness.” This poem does what a DSM-5 definition cannot. Dingman’s language shows how grief leaves the speaker hollowed out like the dead creature the blackbirds circle, hollowed out like branches as “The green season recedes,” hollowed out like a womb, hollowed out like a child you can’t hold (“The child who hanged herself / inside me before birth”), hollowed out like violence with no necessity or mercy.

The poem ends with the hollow of questions that plead, like beating against the trunk of a tree waiting for it to answer. I would argue that this poem does what the best poetry does: it gathers us, both writer and readers, into a space where we can sit side by side silently, with the wind echoing through our own particular hollow spaces, asking unanswerable questions.

Yours in words,

Meghan