The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

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JUNE 2020 Issue
Books In Conversation


“As soon as I finish, I think there I am again. Perhaps it’s the military brat in me. No matter where I go, I’m me in a new place.”

Happenstance led me to Jason Schneiderman. In the final hours of an AWP bookfair, while many publishers were unloading their backlists for lower prices, I passed the Red Hen Press table and was drawn to a jaunty, posterized drawing of a man in a suit with a briefcase and sassy shoes. This was the cover image for a book of poems called Primary Source (Red Hen Press, 2016). Based on the juxtaposition of that cover and title, I assumed the poems inside would be quirky and smart. They proved to be much more than this, for it was immediately apparent that Schneiderman has a rare and distinctive voice in American poetry. His tone, which is transparent and serene, functions as a flexible instrument that lends his poems an unusual texture. This achievement is matched by a deftness of form. His well-sculpted lines are as spare and pleasing as the grafted limbs of a bonsai tree. Thankfully, such mastery of tone and form do not preclude a sense of humor. Even in their most serious moments, Schneiderman’s poems are liable to wink at their readers, suggesting a playful irony that tempers earnestness. The result is enviable—and enchanting. I often return to Primary Source to cleanse my palette and receive a jolt of inspiration.

With Hold Me Tight, the poet’s newest collection, Schneiderman does not rest on his laurels or try to repeat the formula of his former books. As he admits below, each of his projects is markedly different from the one that precedes it. This acknowledgement demonstrates the poet’s searching intelligence as he finds new ways to mine persistent obsessions. Nonetheless, the same attributes that distinguish the contents of Primary Source are fully-evident in Hold Me Tight. What Schneiderman praises in other writers might as easily be said of himself: “I’ve watched a lot of poets work to that point where they can write poems that just feel like they’re speaking or that this is just what they do. Technique often leads to the appearance of ease, as well as that sense of flow, which is how I understand duende.” The conversation below occurred across five days in May through a series of email exchanges. Schneiderman’s responses show him to be a gracious and invested citizen of poetry who cares as much about clarifying his aesthetic as he does about articulating forms of human suffering.

Tony Leuzzi (Rail): Congratulations on your new collection of poems, Hold Me Tight, a book you have organized into five sections, each with its own character and focus. As a result, this collection reads like a series of interconnected chapbooks: “The Book of Wolves”; “The Chris Burden Suite”; an untitled collection of individual poems; “The Book of Lasts”; and the long opening poem called “Anger.” Can you take a moment to discuss the aesthetic and/or thematic impetus behind each of these sections and explain how they work together to make Hold Me Tight a cohesive work?

Jason Schneiderman: Once I mostly knew which poems would be in Hold My Tight, I had two models in mind—either the book would blend the various sequences together, sort of like the way the various melodies keep coming back in Swan Lake—or I would let each sequence remain intact. I settled on keeping the sequences together because each sequence seemed to make more sense as a fist than as interlaced fingers (if you’ll allow the poems to be fingers for the purposes of this metaphor). I found that each section had its own self-contained arc, and that each section had its own tonal and emotional coherence. Your idea of chapbooks is spot on. “The Book of Wolves” was the hardest sequence to keep together, in part because what “wolf” means keeps shifting—sometimes the wolves are wronged innocents and sometimes the wolves are vicious predators, and sometimes the wolves are neither or both. “The Chris Burden Suite” very clearly needed to stay in a single unit.

What unifies the book for me is that each section is really about what it means to live together. I thought that in the early days of the coronavirus, we would begin to see the powerful interdependence of humanity—that your access to healthcare is my access to health care—but the protesters with guns at statehouses make it pretty clear that they are doubling down on “every man for himself.” But, for me, the central concern of the book is that you can’t get away from the way that humans need each other and you can’t get away from the ways that humans do violence to each other.

One of the things I love about a book is that the poems are read against each other. The way I often explain it to students is that whatever comes first informs your reading of what comes next. So, if you start with a poem about the Holocaust and move to your grandparents, your grandparents become an example of the Holocaust. If you start with your grandparents and then move to the Holocaust, the Holocaust is what happened to your grandparents. It’s often a very subtle distinction, but I think that as you build the book, each poem rests on the one that came before. I’m making it sound a bit more calculated than it is. The process is actually very intuitive. I felt out the shape and sensed its completion long before I could say anything coherent about why that shape was correct or what impact I wanted the final shape of the book to have on the reader.

When I was younger, I couldn’t write long poems to save my life, but the attempts at long poems would often fragment into sequences that seemed satisfying. Once I realized that the sequences could extend across books, I liked the idea that my work could have a unity across the books as well as within each book.

Rail: I definitely see how the main concerns of the book are “the ways that humans need each other” and “the ways humans do violence to each other.” As you say, we can’t get away from these realities, which, as your poems demonstrate, are often interconnected, or even concurrent. This means much of Hold Me Tight hovers between despair and affirmation. You’re able to pull this off so well because you always strike an appropriate tone, which respects both realities as part of the human condition. Back in December, you and I talked about the importance of tone in poetry. It represents an attitude or approach that is hard to define but instantly recognizable, even when a poem is translated (well) in another language. You admitted, for example, how crucial Wisława Szymborska and Dan Pagis have been to your understanding of tonal production. Can you articulate a theory of tone? Or discuss your considerations of it while writing the poems in Hold Me Tight?

Schneiderman: One of the things that I love about poetry is that it’s a space where thinking and feeling aren’t separate operations, but basically the same thing. And I think that’s what tone is—the combination of thought and feeling; or the way you feel about what you’re thinking; or the way you’re trying to make your audience feel about your thoughts. I was rereading the New Critics recently for an essay and I was shocked by how sneering their tone is. I mean, they have all these brilliant ideas, but the tone is awful: condescending and annoyed. They strike this repeated, petulant note of fine, I’ll explain this one. more. time. It’s actually a tone I can find a bit charming in the past—I sort of found a little frisson of naughtiness in their haughtiness—but I know I would have found it insufferable if I’d had to actually be in a room with one of them giving their paper as a lecture.

I think that form can be a kind of asbestos glove that lets you handle topics that would otherwise burn you, and I think tone provides a kind of reassurance. Szymborska and Pagis, like Kafka, manage this incredible reserve and calm in the face of the tragic. I find that they know how to calibrate their tone so that the reader trusts them. Szymborska’s “Pi” is one of my touchstones. Bidart has a similar quality: he can tell you anything because he has such a clarity of tone.

I’m not sure I have a theory of tone as much as I have an intuitive sense of it. I have always wanted to be a warm writer, a writer who signals his gratitude to the reader for reading him. I think tone can let a reader know you value their presence, or at least I hope it can.

Rail: Despair and affirmation are further reflected both in the title of the collection and in the astonishing cover art. Might you offer reasons for naming the collection as you have, and why you chose Artemisia Gentileschi’s famous seventeenth-century painting “Judith Beheading Holofernes” as the cover?

Schneiderman: I’ve loved that painting for ages, but it never occurred to me as a book cover, and certainly not for this book. The designers at Red Hen Press had come up with that gorgeous black shatter screen with the title in the center, but the image they had selected wasn’t quite right. I knew that I wanted a classic renaissance triangular composition so that the eye could travel around the title. I asked a visual artist friend for some images, and one of them reminded me of “Judith Beheading Holofernes.” As soon I revisited the image, I knew it was right.

The painting plays with the title in a wonderful way. It actualizes the violence, but it’s also very formal in its composition. The words “Hold me tight” turn from a plea for tenderness to Judith’s holding Holoferne’s head tightly as she saws it off. The screen also obscures the image so that the cover catches your eye, but the violence only comes into focus slowly. I love watching people walk past book, notice it, and then get drawn in.

The history of the image fits the book too. The story I learned as an undergraduate is that Artemisia Gentilischi was raped by her tutor, and insisted on trial so that there would be a record of the injustice, even though she had no hope of winning (Wikipedia has a slightly different account, so I’ll need to investigate further). Her paintings frequently depict women being abused or getting revenge, and she is a feminist icon. Judith is also a Jewish hero, and the story of her beheading Holofernes is one of those rare Jewish triumphs in among the martyrdoms. I love the way that the painting encapsulates a history of protest, resistance, and (in)visibility.

Rail: “Anger,” the nine-page poem that opens the book is one of the most satisfying moments of verse I’ve read by any poet in years. How did this poem come about? Were you conscious when writing it that it would be the lead piece in the collection?    

Schneiderman: Thank you! I don’t think I had any plans for it when I started, except to get it written. To some extent, the poem actually traces its own writing—the narrative is true—even though I know that the poem has very little autobiographical information in it. I was thinking of Sharon Olds’s “Satan Says,” where the psychological stakes are clear, but the facts are not revealed. The poem never says what I’m angry about, and that was one of the hardest parts of the poem, to see if I could write it on my own terms.

Most of the poem was deeply personal, but the Pulse nightclub shooting gave the poem its ending. Reports that the shooter was essentially trying to murder his way out of his own desire for men resonated so strongly with me. I feel like the dominant effects of life with social media are fear and shame, and I suspect that most violence and rage is a way of covering up fear and shame. I know empathy is not an obvious choice for responding to a mass murderer, but I think that empathy and condemnation can exist together. It often feels like American culture will do anything it can to refuse a sense of interdependency, and this poem was my way of insisting on that slightly old saw of Terence that nothing human is alien. But that insistence can’t be simple. It has to be complicated and difficult and scary.

After I wrote it, I was watching the TV show Wanderlust, and there’s this episode where Toni Collette has a therapy session in which she experiences about three years’ worth of epiphanies in a single hour of psychoanalysis, and I thought, oh that’s what I wanted the poem to feel like. I wanted to give the reader a sense of discovery that condenses years of exploration and epiphany into a few pages.

My husband (Michael Broder) published the poem on Poems in the Aftermath, which was a poem a day project from his press, Indolent Books, in the wake of Trump’s election. It immediately seemed to strike a chord, and I was really gratified by the feedback and the response. In all of my other books, I’ve felt like I’m out of step with the world, that I’m a poet because my own perspective is so radically weird. But starting with “Anger,” I had this sense that I was touching on something that other people felt, and it’s nice to be in synch with the zeitgeist, even if I would never wish this experience on anyone.

Rail: I’m not surprised you were “in synch with the zeitgeist.” There’s a persistent sense of NOW in these poems, which is relevant to current social, political, and economic anxieties occurring in the United States and beyond. This relevance is never over-obvious and your approach is not shrill. Still, many portions of Hold Me Tight read like apt micro-allegories of collective fears and desires. I see this especially in “The Book of Wolves”: in “Peter and the Wolf Orchestra” wolf musicians break from the hegemonic oppression of the larger ensemble to form their own orchestra, which reframes Peter as the villain; “Little Red Riding Hood, Season 12” critiques the exploitation of women and mass consumption of violence against them; “Parable of Wolves (3)” alludes to abuses of power dynamics in academia, particularly those between teacher and student. While writing Hold Me Tight, did you consciously consider how veiled or explicit you would be with regards to certain cultural conversations? Did you at any time, for example, look at one of your poems and think, “No this is too obvious” or “This is not obvious enough”?

Schneiderman: Thank you! There’s really no one-to-one correlation between the poems and any particular event. In the wolf poems, I tried to capture the ways in the culture is thinking about predation and victimhood. I’m not aware of any political position that isn’t motivated by a sense of having been victimized, and of course, the cruelest acts are often endorsed by the belief in one’s own innocent aggrievement, which isn’t to say that all positions are equally valid, or that feeling aggrieved is the same as having been wronged. The parables can be entered from multiple positions, and I hope that they open up the more the reader comes back to them. My biggest fear was that a reader might think the wolves mean one thing, and then overdetermine the wolf section as taking a particular stance. I almost cut “Parable of the Wolves (3),” since college professors are so roundly abused as is, but I thought it was very funny and a nice ending to the section. For National Teacher Appreciation day, someone sent me a meme with all the teachers from Harry Potter, with “not you” written on the picture of Dolores Umbridge, which made me laugh; that’s the spirit I was going for in that poem. And for the record, I identify a little too strongly with Professor McGonogall.

Rail: Your poem “Storyteller” from “The Book of Wolves” section of Hold Me Tight is another stunner. After the initial declaration that “Little Red Riding Hood is the most told story / in the world,” your poem pans in on the School of Storytellers where a girl is crying because “She’s just been told that she will never learn / any other story,” that her life’s responsibility is to tell countless variations of it. This is a calling and a condemnation, as “no one escapes the School of Storytellers.” While the poem deals specifically with storytelling, poems tell stories, too. I’m wondering if you believe poets (and indeed all artists) are presented with the same gift and burden—to tell the same story over and over again, through whatever medium or means they can. If so, what are the implications of this?

Schneiderman: I have this theory of the absolute scale of artists. For example, Assassins is a 10 on the absolute scale of Sondheim, while A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a 1. For Almodòvar, Bad Education is a perfect 10; Julieta is a 4. Every artist has their own quirks and tricks, and sometimes they smooth them out and sometimes that let their freak flag fly. We love Kafka for the absurd bureaucracy, the bodily confusions, the muffled emotional responses to horrific circumstance. I’m great at seeing what forms the identity of other people’s work—but I have no idea what would be a 10 on the absolute scale of Schneiderman (or a 1 for that matter). It’s a bit like the joke I used to make about why I have no gaydar: it’s like trying to use a compass at true north. But that may be true for all artists—we just do what we do, and it’s great when that’s what other people want.

When I was in graduate school the cliché was that we were all trying to “find our voice.” There’s been a lot of push back against that metaphor in the last couple decades, but I think it’s actually a really useful metaphor. I’ve watched a lot of poets work to that point where they can write poems that just feel like they’re speaking or that this is just what they do. Technique often leads to the appearance of ease, as well as that sense of flow, which is how I understand duende.

I was teaching Introduction to Children’s Literature at the time I wrote “Storyteller,” and I had started the class with the multiple versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” in the Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature. I started there so that I could get a grant to take my students to see a production of Into the Woods. But about six or seven versions in, I got really sick of “Little Red Riding Hood.” I even had my students write their own versions—which seemed like a great assignment when I devised it over the summer—but then I went from bored to overwhelmed to drowning. My friend (to whom the poem is dedicated) had just published a memoir about her complicated relationship with her mother, who had been a well-known storyteller. The problem with getting what you want is that you don’t know the bad parts until you are waist deep in them (like reading and grading 25 versions of Little Red Riding Hood). The poem was a way to bring all those moments together.

As poets, a lot of us have characteristic concerns that have a gravity we can’t escape. With each book, I’ve tried hard to reinvent myself, and find a new way to write—but as soon as I finish, I think there I am again. Perhaps it’s the military brat in me. No matter where I go, I’m me in a new place.

Rail: So, with each book you’ve tried to reinvent yourself but, as you say, when you finish you think you are “there again.” What or where is “there” for you? What is that story you find yourself retelling again and again?

Schneiderman: In the first scene of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, we watch a man accuse his wife of infidelity, and as she’s about to leave him, she says, “There’s a right thing to say if you can think what it is.” I think that may be the story I tell myself over and over again. There was a right thing to say, but I didn’t think of what it was, and now something is broken that I can never fix. Or maybe that’s what my poems are: me thinking of the right thing, but too late to make the change in the world. In the play, I hear the wife telling her husband that he has to be better—that he has to let go of his petulance to make things better—but he won’t, and I think that’s the story I keep coming back to—the story of how we messed things up. The story of how we said the wrong thing. I keep trying to figure out how we can hold our pain alongside our desire to do better? How can we acknowledge what hurts us in a way that builds up, rather than tears down?

Of course, if you know The Real Thing, that first scene is a play within the play. The infidelity and the separation are doubly unreal, so maybe Stoppard is trying to tell me that being able to say the right thing is a fantasy two layers deep, a fantasy written by a character he wrote into a play. But I think of that line all the time. There’s a right thing to say. I can’t stop until I find it.

Rail: I enjoyed “The Chris Burden Suite,” which is situated in the center of the book. Admittedly, I did not know who he was before reading these and was intrigued by what I found in a Google search. Any number of these poems are intriguing apart from their connection to the artist, but so much more rewarding in relation to his identity and work. I could pluck choice bits from each of these pieces—they feel like pieces as well as poems—and revel in their oddities, their strange clarities. Several of them make interesting propositions about art and the experience of art, as in “’All the Submarines of the United States of America,’ 1987,’” where the intention of the installation differs from one’s response to it. In “A brief essay…” you write: “I highly object to the commodification of my life by artists who claim to collapse a boundary that I, personally do not fund problematic. My silence is my silence, not a musical piece.” As a whole, the suite feels a bit more independent than the rest of the book. How do you tie these poems to the collection?

Schneiderman: I love visual art, and I’ve written a lot about visual art across my books. “The Chris Burden Suite” began at the retrospective of his work at The New Museum, and what initially fascinated me about him was that when one of his students faked his own suicide as his MFA thesis, Chris Burden quit over the school’s refusal to expel the student. Burden—who often risked his own life and other’s lives in pursuit of art—had this very strong ethical boundary that I couldn’t quite fathom. How is being shot OK, but pretending to be shot is not? That drew me into these questions about what he was trying to do in his work, and where he was drawing his lines around the ethics of art and his faith in art.

I’m often a bit annoyed by performance art that tests the boundaries of the audience’s duration or the artist’s body. I was once on a panel where a presenter was very excited by Orlan’s decision to stop having plastic surgeries and start photoshopping herself, and I was like, oh come on, she just ran into the limitation of her own body—which was always the point of her work. Photoshop is a cop out, and yet, I’m glad she stopped the plastic surgery. Similarly, I am fascinated by Stelarc, and while I forced myself to look at the suspension pictures when I was an undergraduate, I can’t bring myself to look at them now. I never actually liked the work that Matthew Barney was doing, and yet I’ve seen the entire Cremaster cycle (in the theaters!), and I watched the entirety of Drawing Restraint 9. I’m also fascinated by the ways that performance is documented—is the picture of Zhang Huan’s “To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain” the art? Or was the performance the art? And if the performance is the “real thing,” then why is the picture so compelling?

Damien Hirst has said, and I’m simplifying and paraphrasing here, that he made “Medicine Cabinets” because he wanted to show that he believes in art the way other people (notably his mother) believe in medicine. That sense of complete faith in art is what compels me (and repels me) in Burden’s work. Faith is a frequent subject in my poems because I did believe, and now I don’t. I miss faith. I value it in others, but it scares me as well. That Burden believed so completely in what he was doing made me lean into his work, even as I knew that none of his decisions were ones I would ever make.

So how does it fit into the rest of the book? For me, Chris Burden’s art raises questions of how to live. It raises the question of how what you believe to be true and right shapes how you move through the world. Writing about Chris Burden’s art lets me have both sides—his faith and his courage with my fear and my trepidation.
Rail: Section four of Hold Me Tight consists of individual poems that, unlike the rest of the book, are not tied to a particular concept or theme. But even then, your sequencing of those poems promotes intertextual connection. I’m thinking particularly of “Writing About ________ in the Age of Google” and “In Memoriam, Fanny Imlay (1794-1816). Placed side-by-side, both of these poems deal with forms of redaction. As a practice, redaction often engenders suspicion and/or implies suspect motivations. However, in both cases here, it serves, or partially serves, as a gesture of redemption. Would you mind talking a little bit about the impetus for each of these poems? How does the deliberate omission of naming in both poems serve your larger purposes in Hold Me Tight?

Schneiderman: I actually didn’t notice that those two poems contain redactions! Thank you for that insight. Much of my process is intuitive, but when you point it out I think, oh, right, that’s what I did.

In both of those cases, I was thinking about how grief works. A few years ago, preparing to teach Frankenstein, I read Daisy Hay’s The Young Romantics, which is a marvelous book. Obviously, the action all takes place in the 1800’s, so all of the characters have long since died. I hadn’t even known there was a Fanny Imlay until I had begun reading the book. Fanny seems like a minor character at first; just a footnote to this household of famous writers. Mary refuses to let Fanny (her half-sister) come with her to Europe when she runs off with Percy, even though she lets Clara (her step-sister) come along. Fanny, beyond the unfortunate name (American slang for bottom; British slang for vagina), seems merely put upon, basically a go between William Godwin and the Mary-Percy whirlwind. But when I reached the point in the book where she kills herself in a hotel room, I nearly burst into tears on the subway. Suddenly, the entire narrative seemed to reorient around Fanny, and she became the heart of the story. My own reaction shocked me, and I couldn’t get her out of my mind. I realized that I actually identified quite strongly with her, this unassuming person born into a household of stormy personalities. Everyone else is moving fast and breaking things, and she finds it so unbearable that she takes herself out of the story in the only way she knows how, leaving a note asking not to be remembered at all. My grief seemed outsized—not only do I not know Fanny Imlay, I know very little about her, and even if she had a very long life, she would have been dead long before I was born. But yet, her story was what moved me the most.

“Writing About _______ in the Age of Google” was actually inspired by another event. I’m an editor at Painted Bride Quarterly, and we had been steadily digitizing our back issues, when we got contacted by a rather distraught poet, who I’ll call Poet A. Poet A had gone to his MFA with Poet B, and Poet A had told Poet B a rather personal story about his maternal uncle. Poet B had written a poem recounting Poet A’s story, with none of the names changed, and then for some 15 years, the poem had sat there in a literary journal, read by our subscribers or anyone who came across the journal in a library of collection. But now that the poems were digitized, Poet A’s mother had come across the poem while googling her brother’s name. Poet A’s mother was convinced that “Poet B” was a pseudonym for Poet A, and that he had been publishing poems about his family, and that the poem was preventing Poet A’s uncle from being hired for jobs, because it came up on a google search of his name. Are you still with me? Poet A contacted us at PBQ asking us to take down the poem. We tried to reach Poet B, but he didn’t respond. Ultimately, we took down the poem from the web archive, but obviously left it in the print edition, because how on earth could we remove it? The funny thing is that I remember this story perfectly, but I have absolutely no memory of the story about Poet A’s uncle.

Around that time, there was one of those “Darwin Award” stories circulating online, about someone who had died trying to launch a firework from his head. The story was supposed to be funny, a sort of this guy was too stupid to live, and I probably would have found it funny, except that I was aware that by including the name of the poor guy, anyone who loved him would have to encounter this ha-ha story about a person they had loved. I realized how severely the conditions of storytelling had been altered by everything online being searchable. In a lot of ways, I think that this everything-all-at-once of the internet is terrible—I miss those days when what you said in Poetryland stayed in Poetryland. So the poem removed his name in order to respect his death, but also the acknowledge that the poem isn’t really about him. It’s about how I’ve seen the world shift, and what I make of that change.

Rail: My last question regards the last section of the book, which is called “The Book of Lasts.” These poems, in an often wry yet serious manner, function as elegies for a dying world—or as predictions of things to be inevitably lost because of the way we live in the world. Rather than speaking/singing of inevitable apocalypse in a tragic register, you hint at greater losses through various metonymies, whereby portions or fragments to be lost are conjured with the kind of tone we were discussing earlier, through a perfect Szymborska-like balance between sincerity and irony. My favorite of these is the penultimate poem, “The Last War,” which poses a “solution” to war by eliminating disagreement. In doing so, its speculations resemble dystopian fictions where all evidence of free thought has been systematically erased. What can you tell me about this poem and, perhaps, some more general thoughts about the section as a whole?

Schneiderman: “The Last War” took me forever; I had a really hard time finding the right ending. I had to acknowledge what I would miss in the world if there were in fact no more war. I’m not a pacifist (though I’m getting there), because I do think there are things worth fighting for. The beginning of the poem imagines a sort of universal humanist reset, in which the pains of history are not merely forgotten, but in which heritages of oppressor and oppressed are quite literally divvied up evenly among all people. That fantasy of a reset, or a do-over, or “turning over a new leaf” is a common one—maybe even a necessary one—but it’s just a fantasy. And I realized that if that reset was possible, it would have to be perpetual, and that’s where I think that poem reaches its shiver inducing climax, where the Orwellian erasure reaches a moment of zealotry. Years ago, I was learning about the Library of Alexandria, and I kept coming across different accounts of its destruction. Of course, as a scholar, the burning of the Library of Alexandria stands out as one of the great losses in history. But as I kept researching I found out that we don’t know who destroyed it because so many people and groups wanted to be credited for it. Historically, the destruction of all that knowledge was a point of pride rather than a burning shame. I think that also entered the poem.

The sequence of last things had begun fairly abstractly with poems like “The Last Mirror” and then got closer and closer to me. Writing “The Last Ace of Base Enthusiast” was a lot of fun, but I also wondered if anyone under 30 would even know what I’m talking about. I think that the poems allowed me to move into an elegiac mode while celebrating the thing before it gets lost.

When I grew up, I had a great sense of living after great tragedy. The Holocaust and the civil rights movement felt like the major shaping events of the past, and I was young enough to feel that the collapse of the Soviet Union heralded a better future. Protease Inhibitors came out when I was in college, and I got to see AIDS go from death sentence to chronic condition (at least for those with health care and a tolerance for the classes of drugs on the market). I had both a sense of optimism and a sense that I was lucky to have missed the worst. Cue the Trump administration and Covid-19. I think that part of the sequence was my bafflement at the emergence of American Pessimism. I’m shocked by how pessimistic we have become. I was in a store the other day and EMF was on the playlist, and I heard the lines “Right here, right now, there is no other place I’d rather be.” I just thought, my god, I can’t imagine that being on the radio today. But then, again it was on the loudspeaker.

I hope that those last poems are me making peace with where I am in time and space, and offering that peace to my reader. The final poem in the book is trying to find the equilibrium that has tentatively arrived in the first poem in the book. Equilibrium is finding a way to live with the fact that life keeps going, but that it will also end. Equilibrium is not falling over. Peace is harder. Peace is so much harder.


Tony Leuzzi

Tony Leuzzi is an author. His books include the poetry collections Radiant Losses, The Burning Door, and Meditation Archipelago, as well as Passwords Primeval, a collection of his interviews with 20 American poets.


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JUNE 2020

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