I’d like to talk about a poem written by someone I consider a great living poet. It’s the title poem in the eponymous collection. Oh, no; that’s very ambiguous. The poem and the book have the same name, like a son and his father. Better? Also, it’s the ultimate poem in the collection. Which is to say the last, which is also in the sense of “the best or most extreme example.” I say this because of the number of frissons it gave me compared with those I experienced in any of the preceding poems. There are many poems in this collection that made me shiver, but I won’t discuss them all. They made me feel vulnerable; they were very good poems—good enough that I only really need to talk about one of them. I’m not sure if this particular poem had more of an effect because I read it last. Time will tell.1
Favoring full disclosure, I will tell you that I once sat behind the poet and watched his hand touch the back of a woman’s neck. At the time I didn’t know who he was. All I knew was that I was watching a man do my favorite thing that a man does. I don’t know if any of this influences the way I read the poem, but in the end I very much like and want to understand his strange and arrested poetic voice, and admittedly I do look to the Neck Event for help. That casual, deliberate sensuality seems so incongruous alongside the abrupt language he uses (to his distinct advantage); but reality, like voice, is a mask on language. Thus I think back on it unfairly, because other readers of this poem and all the rest have perhaps never seen the author’s hand caress any part of another person’s body. If that gave me an undue head start on the shivers, I apologize. I know that modern readers do sometimes like to take every facet of an artist into account before allowing for any shred of enjoyment.
Reader, insists the poem, you and I, in desolate monotony, make the choice to go on living with the knowledge of going on living.
The poem, for which I was well primed, exhorts its reader to raise herself to a painful and demanding echelon of awareness and of empathy and sensitivity. It’s because this request is buried between rich layers of heartbreaking inclusion and description that it tears at the mind. Reader, insists the poem, you and I, in desolate monotony, make the choice to go on living with the knowledge of going on living; it is a choice that has been made right after the decision became a choice. Suddenly I was thinking of a place I drive past often called the Valley TMJ Center. It has something to do with treating jaws that don’t perform the way a person would want them to. Suddenly I was imagining a woman, any woman, in that place. She has to go there on the regular to keep something up that I take for granted. Suddenly I had an awareness of my jaw, which now took conscious effort to hold up, whereas in all my hundreds of thousands of previous hours of life it had kept itself in place without me having to do a thing. All the work had gone on blissfully before, in the basal ganglia or the medulla oblongata—I don’t know which, and won’t look it up right now, but may later.2
How does it feel to have to maintain the body? I’ve had an injury, a bad one at that, but never a chronic administrative concern that required routine maintenance, and certainly not something as crucial as a jaw, unless I am to count the existential awareness provoked by the poem. But I have to count that. I, along with the great poet who described it to me, had wandered unsuspecting into the wet concrete knowledge of my Möbius strip of choices in order to continue living. And also to remember, a little bit playfully, tongue probing eagerly for cheek, the several times I had considered choosing not to.
But then, out of nowhere, my daughter—who is very small indeed—walked by with a doll and told me that she loved me, and that she was preparing to throw a party for me upstairs, that she had another doll who could be mine for the duration of the party, and then I was aware of only happiness and delight. Our house has just one floor.
All this is to say that before today I have often considered Death, but always seen a man dying in my mind’s eye. Never a woman. I had never imagined the inside of a jaw, either, mine or anyone else’s. Never thought of the woman touched on the neck by the famous poet, only the poet himself. There she is. I see her now, delicate: the sloped neck, the soft edge of her bobbed hair, the cheekbone. There is something chronic about her, and me, and everyone else, whether or not it needs attending. It goes on and on. My daughter’s hand touches my arm below the sleeve like an animal’s careful breath, and away I go.
I had to go to reddit to satisfy my curiosity about what part of my brain holds my jaw in place and keeps my head from rolling around on my neck. Explain it to me like I’m five years old, I told the minds at the Explain Like I’m Five subreddit; how does it work? “There are areas (nuclei) of your brain that are responsible for what’s called subconscious somatic motor control,” says user armadilloeater3. “You can override all of these nuclei, but when you're not paying attention, they take control. Imagine,” armadilloeater continues, “having to consciously think about breathing.” I don’t want to, but I do, in and out, in and out, the breath jockeying around in my throat for attention. “The nucleus that you specifically asked about is the Red Nucleus, which controls involuntary muscle tone, which ensures that your muscles are always supporting you, even if you aren't consciously thinking about them.”
Under the watchful eye of a nucleus in the rostral midbrain, my muscles are always supporting me, even if I am not consciously thinking about them. I’ve never given much thought to my muscles before; I’m open to the possibility of anthropomorphizing them. They assume the form of mild psychiatrists, their faces impossible to study. They look at me with encouragement.
Under the watchful eye of a nucleus in the rostral midbrain, my muscles are always supporting me, even if I am not consciously thinking about them.
I go back to the poem and read it again. The poet says goodbye to his readers near the beginning. This brazen gesture effects profound relaxation. As the speaker communes through the text, the poem enfolds the reader like an old docent brings guests into a museum, a place to see everything from inviolate truth to the creation of a consciousness to an egg to an animal that stands in the snow.
I come with the docent to the poem but not to look at any of this. I’m here to look at the mind that creates the moments that live in the decision, to see the mind take each moment and turn it, like a card from nowhere, into a magic number for awareness. Was this your card? I’m already asking to see the sleight of hand again, and I won’t have to look at the card to know it was my number.
My favorite word in the poem was cough. There is a dead pixel on my screen that was never there before. The Red Nucleus? It sounds like a splinter cell of soldiers-cum-biologists.
This is the only poem I can remember that has made me feel like more than one person. When a friend recommended it to me, he said, “I wonder what it feels like to write something like that.” I’m thinking about a radio pausing for a station identification that fails to come across the band, of a completely nascent mind-state, a creative space with form and color emerging, like Proust’s description of waking up:
not knowing where I was, I could not even be sure at first who I was; I had only the most rudimentary sense of existence, such as may lurk and flicker in the depths of an animal’s consciousness . . . but then the memory . . . would come like a rope let down from heaven to draw me up out of the abyss of not-being, from which I could never have escaped by myself: in a flash I would traverse centuries of civilization, and out of a blurred glimpse of oil-lamps, then of shirts with turned-down collars, would gradually piece together the original components of my ego.
It’s helpful, when you enjoy something, to admit what you don’t like about it. In another light, this poem takes on a tacky feeling, of too much stuck on. Where some, like me, see a will bent toward complete admission into the narrow space where language moans as soon as it is touched, still others will see, at best, an exercise; at worst, a shopping list.
But being me, the only ego I can be at this time, my favorite poetry prompt is “Write a poem that is about everything.” Having no way to know whether the author with his capable hand set out to do that, I am confident that he did write a poem about the everything that was, at that dread and wonderful moment, everything. It scales up its own exuberant universe, a modern rococo worth waking up in many times again. In an era of language characterized by so much starved precision, this poem, “Come on All You Ghosts,” by Matthew Zapruder, overflows its every word into the reader’s eager ear.