You Occupy Everything
August 27, 2019
I was in love the first time I wrote a poem. Or rather, the first time I was in love, it was like a poem—the act of it, I mean. My whole self, unnamable and mostly untraceable, a living song of frustration and wonder. I was 14 and the Indianapolis trees were unspooling after another rough winter. I felt simultaneously pretentious and threadbare, Icarus on the upswing or the downswing—I’m not sure which, because everything seemed to be coming together and undone in the same fluttering fashion.
The object of my affection wasn’t as clumsy or as confused as I was. Like Neruda said, “I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too” in the coyness of 9th grade courtship. “Hard to get” was the phrase we used back then and I guess it’s still true. At some point in my week-long romance, one of the older dudes I played basketball with told me to stop acting like a girl and handle my business. That shot of macho was the end of the wonder. That was the end of the poem.
This piece was inspired by a poetic sculpture I worked on in 2016-18 in collaboration with the artist Dario Robleto called The First Time, the Heart. Among many other things, the sculpture focuses on the history of the visual recordings of the human heartbeat. As Robleto put it, the isoelectric line and waveforms that render the heartbeat are the most vital and universal iconography we have. Waveforms and flatlines speak to a larger consciousness beyond language. Every heart has a story to tell, and every heart tells that story in the heart’s secret language, which is poetry.
There’s a much longer conversation to be had about the startling range of Robleto’s work and the beautiful activity of the man’s capacious imagination, but collaborating with him gave me permission to embrace the heart—its anatomical complexity, its metaphoric sincerity—in a space without philosophical judgement. The more I thought about the heart as signifier and symbol, the more I leaned on poetry to articulate the heart’s inadequate point of view.
Unlike love, poetry is language in balance. It is words arranged in unexpected patterns that can be translated or expanded upon in habitual, yet surprising ways. It’s a system of wants surrounded by a bass drum, then dropped into moonlit waves. Like the best memories, poems situate us in the secret moments of our lives before unfolding with surprise. Like the best love songs, poems force us to reconsider our internal geographies. On a fundamental level, poems create symmetrical movements of sound and feeling—lungs out of vowels, voice boxes out of consonants—as a way to frame the many textures of disbelief and delight around us. Poetry gives us the body language for things we don’t have vocabulary for.
I fall in love about 100 times a day—with flowers and cars and patterned shirts and women and men and guitar riffs. It’s easier to list than to categorize. The Greeks had four types of love. Modern psychologists have expanded it to seven: Eros, ludus, storge, pragma, mania, agape, and philautia, or selfish love. The last one shouldn’t be called love at all, but the first six shaped the following poems.
No love is the same, which also means no poem is the same. At the same time, poetry has the same anatomical and linguistic structure as love. A poem happens in that ether, between the lover and the loved, as our complex systems of emotions, attractions, and awarenesses come together. Poetry attempts to speak the unspeakable about the world, about violence and intimacy. Especially when it’s the heart trying to talk, our bodies trying to find the right language for something that is so vital and primal that it goes past words. I’ll say this one more time, but in reverse so it makes more sense to nonpoets: being in love is a poem.
Standing on the Verge of Getting It On
This land of shiny belt buckles & high heels.
This geography of I like it so much. This
topography of I want it so much. Here, we
walk up the backside of a treble clef. Here,
on your magnificent lip & demonstrative hip,
we speak the turnt out language on the edge
of the beat’s bruise. Almost. Sorry. Those heels
glimmering in their mosaic glint. Yes. I love it
that you’re taller than me. Yes. It starts
with big lights & frisks in the half-disc nights.
Almost. Sorry. These trees, these pee on me.
Yes. Sorry. Sometimes the tongue slips
& it feels like a step down the throat of the trumpet.
The cavalcade of wants, slim décolletages
in the affluent fruits of forgetting.
The haberdasher forgets a necessary button
& the talk babbles from local riffs around it.
People, what you doing? like the bubbly part
of a slow jam. All the sidled words
in the world can’t save this falsetto of us.
& You? Hair ties high noting wrists in the long
arch & excavated bites in the land of rough
play—red & smitten by the bright lake,
a city of fights right behind us. Your hips
look like two question marks coming
together, yes, which is the definition of verge
as I explain it to my heart, all its adjacents
in the leathery reliquary of getting it on.
I’d love to say that I started writing poetry because of some divine or inexplicable moment of wonder—a moment in which my love for something became so profound the act of loving itself turned words into a poem. I’m thinking of Neruda again who said “my words become stained with your love. / You occupy everything. You occupy everything.” Because that’s what I’m advocating for here, that the act of loving a thing is actual poetry, occupied by itself.
I wish I had come to poetry in some revelatory way, but that wouldn’t be true. I started writing poetry because I was in love with the woman who sat next to me in my philosophy class. I’d never spoken to her. We’d barely even acknowledged each other, but I knew—in that sanctimonious and privileged way 19-year-olds think they know these things—that we were supposed to be together.
I should probably cop to the fact that I have no game whatsoever. I was never that person who could start a conversation out of oxygen and magnetism. I was and am that person for whom the external world is exhausting, and it requires a lot of work to be social or communicative off of the page. So when we finally talked one day after class and she told me she liked poetry, I immediately said “What a coincidence; I write poetry,” even though I’d never written a single poem. I hadn’t even read any poetry other than the “poems” Jim Morrison published, like this one:
I’ll tell you about Texas radio and the big beat.
Soft driven, slow and mad.
Like some new language.
Reaching your head with the cold, sudden fury of a divine messenger.
My first poem was something in that octave, full of drama and pretense. Love as deception and lack of disclosure. I know I’m not the first and won’t be the last person to pretend to like poetry in order to impress someone. Like love, poetry is impressive and exotic to those who engage with it. It looks good on the shelf. But poetry is nobody’s hypeman or prop and resists being cast as such.
So it’s no surprise that our love affair ended up with her ghosting me for her ex-boyfriend after a few months of mania. When she was gone, poetry remained to comfort me. I began writing it honestly and in earnest then. Coincidentally, I just realized I never wrote about the person who inspired me to write my first poems until now, even though she taught me how to drive a stick shift in rush hour traffic in Boston.
I’m on this plane somewhere over the Atlantic, on my way to see you and I didn’t buy WiFi because I’m on a budget. I also forgot my bougie eye mask AND I’m on American where they don’t give them out, so you know I’m not sleeping.
I should be finishing these neverending graphic novel edits, but I’ve got the manifesto for Bellwethers in a few weeks. I’m stressed about it because I want to burn the place down and show everyone how a poem is a manifesto by its very existence, whether the poem wants to be a manifesto or not.
Most of my stress is coming from the absolute audacity of the word “manifesto.” The sound of the word itself is like the needle screech across a record. It makes my whole syntactical world goes silent.
Virgo Status means I have about a million momentary and transparent manifestos, but most of those have to do with making sure all the labels are in the same direction or that everything around me matches—perfect matching, not contrasting. I’m imagining a manifesto to be something irrefutable, something that prescribes an event or action, and I’m not sure what that means for me right now. How do you get past the old, familiar lines in the sand in order to delve into invented lines in skin?
Old man river over here: the only real manifesto I’ve ever believed in was Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” and I’ve accepted it as law since 1987. And all of its irrefutability comes from Prince himself, his amorphous sexuality, his complete abandon in the song. His ability to love all parts of himself, the same way poetry does, especially when it is turned inside out in mouths that don’t love it. So what does that mean?
Now I’m thinking about how we used to read poems in funny voices to dismantle early 20th-century poets’ pretense. Eliot went down that way. Pound, WCW, Auden…all of their verses unraveling as we sounded like cartoon characters reading them. Yeats was the only one whose music stayed in the pocket. His lyricism was bigger than any mouth that might voice it.
Maybe all of this means I should be thinking lyrically instead of manifestly. Ha. Wait…I came up with this earlier:
Poetry could save America if America would let it.
Poetry could save America if America would let it.
Poetry is bulletproof, hater-proof and kinetic.
It barely rhymes.
Wake Up, Young Lovers
—after Talking Heads “Swamp”
To the exciting swing of dip & slaver
To the wild habits fainting on their shelves & fluster
To the open road in the middle pocket of the morning
All those beauties in solid motion
All those beauties going to swallow you whole
To too far to go & all circling in the crease
To brass door locks & heavy door stops, mumbling French hallways
To the truth of the long hall of birds & their clean dictums
Wake up, young lovers. The whole thing is over & it still seems like a poem
It’s dark underneath the pillow case’s fascinations
& the light gets all over everything
You already watched each other sleep & now what in the TV glow?
Slick pigments, hand in hand
Blinking eyes adjusting to ghostwritten waists
Lights on, nobody’s home as the last chin tilts this way
Nobody’s home for the brush of bangs in the blue haul
Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts
Blushing invitations in the hibiscus evening,
tingling promises about whatever mattered
earlier in the forked fixation. I think it included
fingers & long tongues. I think it included
going to meet my dissatisfactions & their
underserved possibilities. These grand & good
understandings & ribcaged inquiries, half-mooned
with moon tattoos & heart-thumping festoons.
I can’t wait to lick all of it with my mediocre
metaphors. Listen, please, because I love you
like a solo loves a guitar: these extravagant
exhales of you & me, these minor spotlights,
amalgams & sideways hearts finger-point back
at us like finger pistols because gravity is brighter
in sign language—back to the yellow bent center,
staring at the yelling sun. Meanwhile, thin-tipped
hills smile a horizon & one of my eyes stays closed,
dreaming the thick reverie of us as thunderstorms
over those hills blinker the sky. My bright,
my verdant & incessantly needed induction.
I need every thought of you in the procession.
There’s a reason people think poems are flowery and about love: because so many hearts have tried to tell their own stories with varying degrees of success. There’s also a reason that people use the word “poetry” to describe things that defy our language—poetry in motion, such and such is pure poetry. The word poetry is used to make illegible things legible and what is more illegible than love? That’s why there are so many love poems. That’s why so many people—including me—have tried to use poetry to express our most intimate selves in these temporary vortexes.
One of the reasons my love poems have mostly failed is because—and here’s the manifesto part of things again—I was imagining that I could use poetry to explain love when doing so is simply writing the heart’s autobiography. It sounds trite, even as it’s true: just like poetry, love is sacrifice and it gives itself over in its most candid postures.
Poetry is love at its most transparent—it’s heartbeats and quick breaths and everything that comes after. Maybe the actual manifesto here isn’t even mine; it’s that line from Neruda—“You occupy everything”—and we all should accept the inherent poetics of our most important (biologically, anyway) emotion. Rather than hiding from it, we should tumble into the song and find salvation in the aortic impact.
This text was adapted from a talk given at The Drawing Center as part of the series Bellwethers: The Culture of Controversy, a series of talks co-curated by Alison Gingeras and the editors of Affidavit, Kaitlin Phillips and Hunter Braithwaite.