Article - Autumn 2021

The Bird That Sang I Am

Poems about the place where we belong

By Christian Wiman | November 25, 2021
Lumina/Stocksy
Lumina/Stocksy

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A few years ago, I edited an anthology of poems called Joy. This fall I’m publishing a new anthology, Home, which I had intended to be a companion book. In many ways it is, but in one major way it’s not. In Joy a long and wide-ranging search led me to an increasingly focused sense of what the word might mean. With Home a similar search caused the governing word to disperse into more definitions than one book could contain. This frustrated me at first. A word that means everything—home is a house, a country, a language, a love, a longing, a grief, a god—means nothing. Gradually, though, I found the linguistic slippage provocative. That a word could have meanings so various and contradictory meant something was deeply—and still—at stake. A certain circularity is to be expected—and not embraced, either, but endured. “In the realm of primal words,” as Josef Pieper says, “we are always on the verge of tautology.”

Poetry, though, can push thought beyond tautology. “I have learned and dismantled all the words,” writes Mahmoud Darwish, “in order to draw from them a single word: Home.” Note the progression: first he learned, then he dismantled. First he carefully assembled a structure adequate to his love and longing, then he suffered its destruction to get back to some original source. As with other primal words—poetry is one, actually—the cost of knowledge is loss.

Darwish was Palestinian (he died in 2008) and often linked the past of his homeland to Eden. But as both the quote and the mythologizing impulse suggest, an existential homelessness preceded the political one. To be a poet is to be an exile. (“All poets are Jews,” said Marina Tsvetaeva provocatively.) Or rather, one doesn’t become a poet unless one senses (suffers) the aboriginal exile that is consciousness. This happens early on, in a home that isn’t one, perhaps, or a home that, though entirely protective and enveloping, nevertheless disquiets somehow, or can’t quite include the consciousness that has come to inhabit it. Poets are those whose souls will not let them keep this disquiet quiet. But this is ultimately a difference of degree and not of kind. Eventually, for everyone, in every home no matter how secure, that little drone in the distance—that drone that is distance—becomes a roar.

who told you you could settle in?
who told you this or that would last forever?
didn’t anyone tell you you’ll never
in the world
feel at home here?

—Stanisław Barańczak, “If China”

But someone did tell us, didn’t they? Existence whispered in our ear at some point, with or without words, for each of us knows, even if we have never known, that pull toward “a place of first permission,” as Robert Duncan put it, some time so replete with being it seems timeless, wordless, “everlasting omen of what is.” Certainly Barańczak’s poem suggests such knowledge. Its conclusion is less question than cry, and the syntax makes that cry cosmic: “you’ll never / in the world / feel at home here.” Yet if there is no such thing as a true home for us in this world, how is it that we have such a strong sense for what it is? For that’s the other thing to note in the Darwish quote. The cost of knowledge may be loss, but some definite-but-not-quite-definable gain radiates through the space cleared by that loss. Maybe home, for us moderns, is like time for ancient Augustine: we know what it means, we know it intimately, utterly, in the very cells and silences of our bones—just as long as you don’t ask us.

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“The only home is memory,” writes Terry Tempest Williams. Is that true? To some extent. Barring some dire trauma, which can scorch even the Eden of pre-consciousness, and excepting for the meteoric but probably hyperbolic outlier (Osip Mandelstam: “My memory is inimical to all that is personal”), it’s likely the case that any notion of home we have is also a matter of memory. Perhaps there really was a time when humans were, as Eric A. Havelock argues of “Homeric man,” so rooted in timeless life, so much “a part of all [they] had seen and heard and remembered” that their existence was essentially a “surrender accomplished through the lavish employment of the emotions and of the motor reflexes.” But we have eaten of the bread of Augustine, Hegel, Freud. Our lives are constructed, as are our homes. We build them out of homes we’ve known, even if our efforts are reactive.

Home

A road ran
past our house. I
ran faster.

—Andrea Cohen

Since Romanticism, and in particular William Wordsworth (to whom Freud expressed a debt), most people have assumed some ultimate source of self and home in childhood. I have done so myself in things I have written, even though I don’t think we’ve somehow discovered the truth about this aspect of human consciousness. It is a truth, and like most truths, it can become inert if uncontested.

Nostos

There was an apple tree in the yard—
this would have been
forty years ago—behind,
only meadows. Drifts
of crocus in the damp grass.
I stood at that window:
late April. Spring
flowers in the neighbor’s yard.
How many times, really, did the tree
flower on my birthday,
the exact day, not
before, not after? Substitution
of the immutable
for the shifting, the evolving.
Substitution of the image
for relentless earth. What
do I know of this place,
the role of the tree for decades
taken by a bonsai, voices
rising from the tennis courts—
Fields. Smell of the tall grass, new cut.
As one expects of a lyric poet.
We look at the world once, in childhood.
The rest is memory.

—Louise Glück

You wouldn’t say the nostalgia of this vision is uncontested. It’s given an acid bath in irony. (Nostos is Greek for homecoming, specifically a heroic one.) But it’s still nostalgia; it still locates, and grieves for, some meaning and being that are sealed in an unrecoverable past. In essence it’s Romanticism minus the joy. Wordsworth believed childhood was a time of spiritual permeability and intensity compared to which adult existence was a pale shadow. But he also believed that the mind and the world, in some primary way, rhymed. To become aware of this could lead to what the philosopher Richard Kearney, in a different context, calls “sacramental sensation,” which is “a reversible rapport between myself and things, wherein the sensible gives birth to itself through me.” What this means practically is that memory might not simply be occasioned by the physical world—a madeleine, say—but actually inhere within it. What it means existentially is that life is not some linear frog march between pure being and pure oblivion; the past isn’t inert and sealed off but volatile, available, even salvific:

O joy! that in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That Nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!
The thought of our past years in me doth breed
Perpetual benediction: not indeed
For that which is most worthy to be blest;
Delight and liberty, the simple creed
Of Childhood, whether busy or at rest,
With new-fledged hope still fluttering in his breast:—
Not for these I raise
The song of thanks and praise
But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised,
High instincts before which our mortal Nature
Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised:
But for those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;
Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence.

—Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”

Granted, this kind of confidence is probably not available to us, and I have singled out Glück’s poem partly because I have sympathy for, and resonance with, her bitter vision. I also find the extreme self-consciousness (“As one expects of a lyric poet”) chastening, given the tendency of so much modern poetry (especially American poetry, especially American men’s poetry) to be too automatically elegiac, too self-pleasuringly sorrowful, about the past—all those “triggering towns” where “women cluck like starved pullets” and everything is ambered in bourbon. But I do find Glück’s vision of home and memory limited and limiting, not enlivened enough (or abraded enough) by the possibility of revelation, communication, joy. “Memory is a strange Bell—,” as Dickinson writes, both “Jubilee, and Knell.”

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A related note: you can look a long time without encountering a modern poem of direct, uncomplicated domestic fulfillment. A sense of home not fraught with actual or impending loss. “Every single minute brings someone closer to something he will not be able to bear,” writes Simone Weil. Setting aside the random sociopath who dies quietly in his sleep, the point is hard to argue. One waters one’s plants and sets out the doily, one “arranges the rows of cans / so that they softly say: / ESSO—SO—SO—SO” (see Elizabeth Bishop’s lovely “Filling Station”), but always there is that distant roar.

The Niagara River

As though
the river were
a floor, we position
our table and chairs
upon it, eat, and
have conversation.
As it moves along,
we notice—as
calmly as though
dining room paintings
were being replaced—
the changing scenes
along the shore. We
do know, we do
know this is the
Niagara River, but
it is hard to remember
what that means.

—Kay Ryan

What that means is an end to everything we have and love, the whole kit and caboodle of our carefully constructed lives crashing down some Niagara of intake forms, formaldehyde, and tag sales, oblivion swallowing it all down without so much as a burp. This undertow, the ticktock mortality of poetry (of life), the sense that even our joys come to us through a scrim of sorrow and longing, can be oppressive if it’s all you learn to hear.

But there’s an interesting paradox in this poem: we must remember what is ahead of us, as if our deaths were in our past. (“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting,” as Wordsworth says.) Another interesting thing: time as a river is a common metaphor, in which there is never a now one can seize and hold. Rivers run toward seas, though (in this instance an immense lake, but close enough); implicit within the image is a much larger life with which the one river eventually merges. “People still persist in thinking that life is flat,” wrote Vincent van Gogh, “and runs from birth to death. But life, too, is probably round, and much greater in scope and possibilities than the hemisphere we now know.” I find that a powerful intellectual consolation but a difficult thing to genuinely feel—except in certain moments. Poems can be such moments. “The Niagara River,” with its two undertows, momentarily transcends the limitations to which it seems to concede. It briefly releases a reader from the confinement it describes as absolute.

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And here I’m approaching an idea that recurs repeatedly among modern people, the notion that art itself can be a home, or at least the surest way toward it.

Only in the most

Careful details of the most extreme
Philosophies, the most careful stones
Of the breathless cathedrals, the claims

Of the most elaborate musics
On our souls do we start to dissolve
As though we had a home, and lived there.

—Vicki Hearne, “On R. L. S. and Happiness”

As though. Hearne was too rigorous a philosopher to make the equation complete. Other modern artists have not been so professionally reticent. Wassily Kandinsky believed that an invisible reality underlay every detail of the one we see. World is not world so long as it’s merely that. “The world sounds,” he wrote. “It is a cosmos of spiritually affective beings. Thus, dead matter is living spirit.” He believed abstract art capable of making—or bringing forth, really—this “sound.” In his book on Kandinsky, Seeing the Invisible, the philosopher Michel Henry goes a step further: “Because art brings about the revelation of invisible reality in us, and with absolute certainty, it constitutes salvation and, in a society like our own, which disregards life … it is the only salvation possible.” Once more my reaction is mixed. I find this intellectually provocative and spiritually dampening. Piercingly accurate and entirely wrong. (The only salvation possible?) And once more the vertigo inspired by thinking about art (and God) is relieved only by the real thing.

Bassey the bassist
loves his lady

hugs her to him
like a baby

plucks her
chucks her

makes her
boom

waltz or tango
bop or shango

watch them walk
or do the ’dango:

bassey and his lovely lady

bassey and his lovely lady
like the light and not the shady:

bit by boom
they build from duty

humming strings and throbbing
beauty:

beat by boom
they build this beauty:

bassey and his lovely lady

—Kamau Brathwaite, “Blues”

There is no “lady” in this poem. There is nothing being built. Yet one feels (I feel) a great loneliness eased and some kind of untouchable (but reachable) shelter in the sound. Feels is the operative word. Perhaps the key to these quotes that have given me both provocation and pause lies back in the 14th century: “By love He may be gotten and holden; but by thought never.” The anonymous author of that quote from The Cloud of Unknowing is referring to God, but he might have been referring to home (or joy, or love, or art) as well.

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Best of any song
is bird song
in the quiet, but first
you must have the quiet.

—Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir

Enough abstractions, then. Home may be hard to define, but it is primarily, blessedly, relentlessly physical. In fact, any idea of home that is not first physical is not only doomed; it is itself both engine and agent of that doom.

Even while I dreamed I prayed that what I saw was only fear and no foretelling,
for I saw the last known landscape destroyed for the sake
of the objective, the soil bludgeoned, the rock blasted.
Those who had wanted to go home would never get there now.

That’s from the same poem as the birdsong that emerges out of—and cedes to—primal silence. Berry’s poem is at once lyric, love poem, elegy, ode, and jeremiad. It’s also an incandescent exception to the rule of ambivalence about home. Berry has famously staked his claim (and life) to one place in Kentucky that his ancestors have loved (and plundered: he faces this fact squarely) for centuries. Describing how his attention has been honed, and his feeling for people, language, and the physical world deepened and sacralized, he says, “I had made a significant change in my relation to the place: before, it had been mine by coincidence or accident; now it was mine by choice.” (I am reminded of Paul Ricoeur’s definition of his own Christian faith as “chance turned into destiny by virtue of a constant choice.”) That freedom of full commitment enables not only love but also a lucid and liberating grief.

“You see,” my mother said, and laughed,
knowing I knew the passage
she was remembering, “finally you lose
everything.”

What passage? Berry’s poem never says. The lost words—the stamp of meaning they suggest—become birds, which become flowers, which become the blue sky. Ordinary details of an ordinary day, though all of it so lit with the “inextinguishable delight” the mother took in the world and has now bequeathed to the son that he is freed not only to grieve her death, but also, on the next page, for this:

The lovers know the loveliness
That is not of their bodies only
(Though they be lovely) but is of
Their bodies given up to love.

They find the open-heartedness
Of two desires which both are lonely
Until by dying they have their living,
And gain all they have lost in giving.

Each offering the desired desire.
Beyond what time requires, they are
What they surpass themselves to make;
They give the pleasure that they take.

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But some people don’t get such a choice. Some people are driven from their homes by force or disaster, are imprisoned or impoverished, or have demons in their heads who are disinclined to heed their host’s “choice.” Some souls are so displaced that place itself becomes a gall to them. Home, if it exists at all, is some hard and buried sphere of soul that one seeks only to keep intact, while the self scurries around on the burning surface trying to survive.

Balance

He watch her like a coonhound watch a tree.
What might explain the metamorphosis
he underwent when she paraded by
with tea-cakes, in her fresh and shabby dress?
(As one would carry water from a well—
straight-backed, high-headed, like a diadem,
with careful grace so that no drop will spill—
she balanced, almost brimming, her one name.)

She think she something, stuck-up island bitch.
Chopping wood, hanging laundry on the line,
and tantalizingly within his reach,
she honed his body’s yearning to a keen,
sharp point. And on that point she balanced life.
That hoe Diverne think she Marse Tyler’s wife.

—Marilyn Nelson

I have been reading and teaching this poem for 30 years and am still shocked by its terrible perfections: the “balance” between the powerlessness of Diverne—who is twice displaced, alien both to the white life of the plantation and to the other slaves—and the “power” she wields with her body; between the language of slaves and that of the educated poet descended from them; between evil so infernal its embers still smolder in our streets today and the singular, wily, willful, triumphant life emerging from it. Because make no mistake: this small poem is a large triumph. Diverne, who is quite real (see Nelson’s The Homeplace), survives, as do the children who emerge out of this ambiguous union, as does the feeling they and their descendants have that Marse Tyler, too, is part of their past, their place, their family, their “home.”

History reveals its essence only to those it excludes. That’s the conclusion drawn by Lázló F. Földényi in an essay speculating that Dostoevsky, exiled and imprisoned in Siberia, might have read Hegel’s lectures on the completely rational arrangement of world history, specifically a brief passage in which he lops off Siberia and Africa as irrelevant to his ideas because no history had happened there. Dostoevsky, to whom history still seemed to be very much happening, who could in fact feel its irrational lashes on his flesh, might have been, Földényi suggests, not simply appalled but propelled into the ideas animating his later work.

It becomes necessary … to accept the possibility of a miracle—that state at which the exclusivity of space and time ceases. And if Hegel permits continent-sized chunks of land to become detached from history, it means that history itself does not contain within itself divine boundlessness: there is yet something that surrounds history which is beyond it. Namely: what is necessary will be contiguous with what is impossible, what is natural will be contiguous with that which is beyond nature, what is lawful will be contiguous with the arbitrary, politics will be contiguous with theology. And yet what is beyond the borders is always seeping through the borders, to within.

History, then, can’t explain all dimensions of human experience. To become conscious of this doesn’t lead to an end of suffering; it might, in terms of loneliness, momentarily increase it. But it might also lead to genuine enlightenment and even, Földényi writes, “a kind of redemption—namely, an inner balance [!], an inner healthiness—instead of suffocating and undermining a person from inside.”

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What is the right relationship of security to precarity? Between those who have (literal) homes and those who don’t? How should the man or woman sitting in the sunlit back yard, sipping gin and watching the children play, relate to the Syrian child photographed bloated and face down on a beach in Turkey (2015), or to the half million U.S. citizens who on any given night are homeless, or to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Stephon Clark, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner (how insidious the et cetera one is forced into at some point). Primo Levi has an answer:

Shema

You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.

Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.

—tr. Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann

The Shema, in Jewish tradition, is a liturgical prayer that derives from verses in Deuteronomy and Numbers. It amounts to a confession of faith and is to be recited every morning and evening of the devout person’s life. The Shema, in this poem, is an anti-prayer, less a pledge of faith than a promise to haunt. It asks (demands, really) that certain forms of human suffering be so inscribed on the hearts of those who have not known them that there be no oblivion powerful enough to erase the fact of their having been. Levi placed this poem at the beginning of his memoir of Auschwitz, If This Is a Man, which also contains this searing passage:

Auschwitz is outside of us, but it is all around us, in the air. The plague has died away, but the infection still lingers and it would be foolish to deny it. Rejection of human solidarity, obtuse and cynical indifference to the suffering of others, abdication of the intellect and of moral sense to the principle of authority, and above all, at the root of everything, a sweeping tide of cowardice, a colossal cowardice which masks itself as warring virtue, love of country and faith in an idea.

How does Wendell Berry’s poem of domestic tranquility hold up against Levi’s invective? Berry’s poem, after all, is very much about virtue, love of country, and faith in an idea. But none of this is a mask in Berry. Not only is the poem bitterly and tenderly conscious of human suffering, but the very way in which its final truth is articulated underscores its existential diffidence.

There is a day
when the road neither
comes nor goes, and the way
is not a way but a place.

This is such a rocklike utterance, feels so arrived-at and earned and durable, that you hardly notice the evanescence it suggests. To say “there is a day” implies an otherwise. There are a lot of restless yesterdays behind these lines and, inevitably, some dark tomorrow. (Think how differently the poem would read if the line were “There is a time.”) It’s as if Berry has built one of those momentary architectural marvels made entirely out of the landscape into which, like a life well lived, it eventually disappears.

The circle of responsibility is larger than the circle of guilt. The former includes, even for the man or woman sitting outside sipping gin, Auschwitz, and the transatlantic slave trade, and the next Texas-sized mass of ice shearing off Antarctica. We are attuned to, mingled with, even dependent on forms of existence that seem alien to us. We owe a debt to deaths we never know. This doesn’t mean one need brood over human misery like some back-yard flagellant. Peace is not something for which we need forgiveness, unless it’s tainted with pure forgetfulness (you “forget that you have forgotten,” as Berry says). But should a certain defensiveness creep in, should you find yourself wondering what a strangled Black man or a drowned migrant have to do with you, then it’s time to say the Shema.

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With all its eyes the natural world looks out
into the Open. Only our eyes are turned
backward, and surround plant, animal, child
like traps, as they emerge into their freedom.
We know what is really out there only from
the animal’s gaze; for we take the very young
child and force it around, so that it sees
objects—not the Open, which is so
deep in animals’ faces. Free from death.

That’s Rilke in the “Eighth Elegy,” a poem I find (like Rilke in general) both illuminating and frustrating, elusive and true. First, the truth. We live adjacent to things. There is some posture of departure inherent in our being. The cost of knowledge is loss.

And yet this is not the entire truth. We are not as separate from nature as this poem suggests. We too are made of matter, and I’ve known dogs who knew more about death than some people. (“Dogs are in general more skilled at belief than we are”—Vicki Hearne.) There are minds, and there are moments, that do in fact “have before [them] that pure space into which flowers endlessly open.” There are clearings we come into that really are a “Nowhere without the No.” It’s lovely the spiritual clarities that Rilke—and the translator, Stephen Mitchell—manage in both of these instances. You almost feel the freedom you’re being denied.

“It is an elegant paradox,” says Kay Ryan, “that close application to the physical somehow does release the mind from the physical.” As Rilke’s poem shows, this can happen with abstractions too. But a couple of questions nag. First, why should such linguistic accuracy bring such release? Because it is not mere accuracy but intimacy, perhaps? Because there is some connection between reality and the language we use to inhabit it? “There are things / We live among,” writes George Oppen, “ ‘and to see them / Is to know ourselves.’ ” Is it possible that when Czesław Miłosz says that “language is our only homeland” and Francis Ponge says “the silent world is our only homeland,” they are, in fact, in complete agreement?

The second question that arises from Ryan’s perception, though (and that speaks directly to the Rilke poem), is what exactly such accuracy or intimacy frees us for. What we are freed from is clear enough: our alienation from nature, our ticktock mortality, the oppressive linearity of that damn river. But what does such a moment free us for? If the answer is nothing, if this momentary clarity is entirely self-contained, then poetry (all art) is little more than diversion and illusion. The claims made for art by Kandinsky, and even more so by Michel Henry, are absurd. Poems are simply “machines for the suppression of time,” as Claude Lévi-Strauss said of both myths and music.

I don’t buy it. I believe that Marilyn Nelson’s “Balance” is a miracle in the old-fashioned metaphysical sense of the term. Something in her mind and something deep in time merged—and saved both. When Atsuro Riley conjures out of sound a drainpipe big enough for a small child to crawl inside, and a child lonely enough to stay there, and shapes and shades that reach from rural Alabama back to Plato’s cave, one feels a whole life has been rescued from whatever terrors made him seek such shelter in the first place.

What the boy called inside weather called him back. He was hooked right quick on the well-bottom peace of the pumicey concrete and how sounds sounded in there, and re-sounded. Tight-curled as he had to get—like a cling-shrimp one day, a pill-bug, a bass-clef, a bison’s eye; an abalone (ocean-ear!), antler-arc, Ark-ant, apostrophe another—sure as clocks a cool clear under-creek would rise, and rinse him through, and runnel free. Hanging in a green-pine O outside were sun-heat and smaze and BB-fire and Mosquito Abatement. Inside there were water-limber words (and a picture-busy nave) and shades of shade.

—“Flint-Chant”

 

Sure as clocks, that’s how Riley describes the sound the boy learns to make in this cast-off drainpipe in Alabama, this little “Nowhere without the No.” I don’t know if the grown poet still carries this saving space in his own soul. But I know at least one reader who has.

Robert Frost famously defined poetry as “a momentary stay against confusion.” It’s certainly that. But it’s also a momentary stay for confusion. Not the confusion of complete chaos, but the confusion of complete being. Wonder is a truer word.

The Bennett Springs Road

I knew it was there, if I’d had time to look:
the sweet water falling over rock,
the leaf-mold floor, secret to all but light,
the tall boles stationed between day and night.

This is the heart of the mountain, not the crest.
Season and century league in some high place,
impulsive powers that beat the peak to sand
and scatter Appalachian on the wind.

And lie at last by the little stream that brings
all gods to truth. On the road to Bennett Springs,
tired of the paltry ridges, I lay down
the last of my youth where all the gods had grown,
became the water falling over the stone,
became the forest-father to red men,
became the tribe of stars, both daughter and son,
the mother of moss, the bird that sang I am.

—Julia Randall

9

That is a very natural place to end this essay. At the “heart of the mountain, not the crest,” beside “the little stream that brings / all gods to truth,” and with a bird that “sings very close / To the music of what happens” (Seamus Heaney) and the music of what happens is exactly as clear, exactly as incomprehensible, as the ongoingness of God (“I am that I am”).

But I am writing in an unnatural time. I decided to turn my attention to the idea of home just when fate decided to confine me to a literal one. My new anthology was completed entirely in quarantine, and though there are no poems that specifically mention that misery, its influence is everywhere. If it’s true that only those who lose a home know what one is, in recent months many of us have learned a burning corollary: nothing tests one’s attachment to home like being confined to it.

Misery? Certainly there has been some. The loneliness of not seeing friends and family, the spiritual withering caused by the wrong solitudes, the collective domestic irritations that accumulate in a closed house like an infestation.

But that’s hardly the whole story. I have a huge hillbilly pool smack dab in my driveway. And two 11-year-old girls who have grown inches and eons since the door to our house shut. And a new pup, a little volt of soul named Rosie who was rescued, at four weeks and four pounds, trawling through trash in Georgia. I have a study half-filled floor to ceiling with disjecta membra from this project that, as Paul Valéry said of a poem, and as seems to me true of a home, can never be finished, only abandoned.

Why this personal note? Because “one only reads well that which one reads with some quite personal purpose” (Valéry again). And because, in a land of masks, certain kinds of candor matter more than ever. And because, amid the miseries of separation and isolation, and though my life has been somewhat frantically nomadic, there are still days when chance and choice can coincide, and I look up from my work to hear a sudden splash of laughter and a pup’s companionable yaps, and the way is not a way but a place.

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