Common chaos, common ground. The chair, and the ass that's in it.
Oooh. Rigoberto said "Prolific output is my weakness." I love, love, love the way that sounds and intend to adopt it as my motto for the upcoming year. I also am addicted to the concept of Kwame-ness, but that's another story.
Last week, I participated in a National Book Foundation-sponsored reading with Mark Doty and Kathleen Graber. During the conversation surrounding the reading, I think it was Kathleen who mentioned the exhilarating idea of a common poetic goal.
Imagine, if you will, that the “community of poets” is a flesh-and-blood reality and not an abstract, and that all our sweaty little stanzas strive to make a singular statement. Auden and Brooks and Komunyakaa and Kwame and Shel Silverstein and Shakespeare and Bukowski and Dr. Seuss and Amiri Baraka and my girls June Saraceno and Suzanne Roberts and Thomas Sayers Ellis and Celeste Doaks and the 6th grade boy who ached through iambic — all trumpeting a common space, a juncture where we breathe in and out as one.
I know —
It’s the moment we introduce our asses to the chair.
We introduce our asses to the chair every single day. Maybe it's a wooden kitchen chair, maybe a sinfully cushioned, ergonomically-perfected extravaganza with levers and gears. We train our bodies to bend in the right places, perhaps just at the hips and neck, and our subconscious instinctively knows that it’s time. It’s time. It’s five am, and the sun is merely considering the sky. Or it’s noon, and our bellies are full of sandwich and soda and we’ve already indulged in our guilty pleasure, the daytime drama populated by characters we’re proud not to have written. Or it’s midnight, and we’re dead tired from our day jobs and lulled complacent by the dull mysterious thumps of the household. Or it’s one of those stunned hours that no one ever sees because everyone is sleeping or dreaming of sleep and even the air seems to be holding its breath. We might even say out loud: It’s time. If we’re the type who likes the feel of a pen scratching breath onto paper, we grab our legal pads. Or we roll a crisp blank sheet into the squeaking guts of an ancient Underwood. Or we punch a button on our Macs, our Dells, our Toshibas, and listen for a minute to that expectant hum. The hum says, It’s time. We create a new file, a blank slate, a hungry mouth we can’t yet feed.
Then we become very, very aware of the fact that we are sitting. And waiting. Our bodies begin to move of their own accord, almost despite us — feet tap, butts readjust, shoulders roll, our heads twist to and fro, fro and to, soaking up the huge verb of the room. There is a window looking out onto where we can’t be. There’s the silent high-tech clock, which damn it, should be ticking if it’s a clock, and we stare at it, we glare at it, willing it to talk its time is a’passing talk, to say buzz or ding-dong or ringaling or to somehow whack us spectacularly upside the head. Because it’s time and nothing is happening.
Then. In a shadowed crevice somewhere in our heads, there’s a teasing fragment of light that begins and then fades before it begins. The faraway edges of that fleeting glow is where everything is — our vibrant scenes, our engaging locales, our daring dactyls, our unforgettable characters, our breathless sonnet, our riveting dialogue, the whole damned story we are waiting for. Shut up! we screech so we can clear that path from the world to our heads, so we can nurture that light, let those voices in. It’s been over an hour now, an hour past the time when it was time and our bodies are metronomes on the seat, swaying almost violently to create a space around us, a space that is flat and receiving, a space that craves the return of the light. Please. Please. Then we are rocking, as Annie Dillard says, like a huge autistic child. We are rocking back and forth, forth and back, and the floorboard beneath us is groaning and briefly we realize that we could have been insurance agents or barbers or realtors or pharmacists or zookeepers or nail technicians or email scammers or blues singers or anyone who wouldn’t be rocking this way right now. And the movement works. And suddenly our heads are filled, are crammed, are brimming, are bulging with voices. Yes.
But they are not the voices we need. There’s our wife narrowing her eyes and hissing “We have to talk,” there are the nonsense tequila squeals of our frat brothers from five years ago and our auto mechanic frowning at our engine and chanting dollar signs and every single one of the voices speaks of something that must be done immediately, right away, our legs must be shaved and damned if you can’t actually feel the hairs sprouting, the pork roast that we’ve been craving for weeks simply must be defrosted, no, bought and defrosted, our Facebook statuses haven’t been updated in 17 minutes and if we don’t return those emails, those calls, those texts, those hundreds of sugary shoutouts that all say our names and tell us that we are alive, we are alive we are alive and needed and needed and many things are asked of us and each and every one of our answers is desired, and we are alive, alive, alive and are voices are dull needles boring relentlessly into the sides of our heads, guilt and need, anguish and judgment, guilt and fear, doubt and trepidation, fright and guilt, bewilderment and dread, aversion and need and need and need. And we need.
We are still sitting, our bodies folded obediently, the whole of us still saying it’s time. And we make ourselves not move. We play deceptive little games with our souls. We bargain with our lives. If I stay here until I have written 50 words, 500 words, a page, five pages, there is no tumor growing in my head. If I move before I write this, whatever it is, I will die within five years. Yes, we have actually said these things, and we sit in our unassuming little chairs, still and expectant until our heartbeats grow louder, begin to blare and become indigo blue soundtracks and again our bodies are rocking here and there, forward and backward, to and fro, forth and back, trying to beg the light back in, to shake those voices loose. All we need is someone to listen.
No. All we need is something to say.
Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017), winner of an NAACP Image Award; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American...