A Safety in the End

Ever since I heard the howling wind
I didn’t need to go where a bible went
But then you know your gifts seemed heaven-sent
Just lead me to a choler, dad, that’s the thing
I don’t know how you house the sin

(But you’re free now)
I was never sure how much of you I could let in
(Am I free now)
Won’t you settle down baby here
your love has been
Heavenly father
has brought you a lover
Why you don’t carry other names?
Heavenly father
is whose brought to His autumn
& love is left in end…

When I finally hit rock-bottom late last year, I finally understood what my mom meant when she said: Don’t cry, you’ll make yourself sick. She used to say it when I was a child, whenever I was particularly upset about something, like a feud among childhood friends or a failed final paper. After everything finally imploded, I promptly developed a 39-degree fever & my whole face hurt from the non-stop crying. I stayed in bed for days: miserable, unconsolable, shame-stricken, guilt-ridden. & then I heard this song.

Maybe it was that unexpected scream that Justin Vernon let out right in the middle of the song. Maybe it was that line & the flighty harmonies that came with it: “I don’t know how you house the sin (but you’re free now)“. Maybe it was the 12 years in Catholic school & how the stately nominal “Heavenly Father” – so foreign to me lately – hit somewhere raw & latent underneath, the reverence & awe of it all… but anyway, something made me seize up, stop, listen. What a grotesque, utter cry of defeat. It was as if someone had knocked the wind right out of my chest & I clicked the replay button again & again, let the emotion brought out by this 4-minute song wash over me as I curled up in bed & squeezed my eyes shut.

& so I found myself at the same place that Justin Vernon was at a few years ago after the groundbreaking success of For Emma, Forever Ago & Bon Iver, Bon Iver – at the end of himself.

“This spectacular upheaval of life after these albums provoked an inner storm, a mental sickness of anxiety for Justin. Of course it did. The dream had taken on its own life. It all came to a head on an empty Atlantic beach. I bore witness to my best friend crying in my arms, lost in a world of confusion & removal. Justin could barely talk… The forecast that begins this next Bon Iver undertaking is a reminder of our fragile existence. How when everything appears stable, it may crumble & fall through our fingers. How do we hold on to what is important? How do we make sense of the events that rip us apart? What choices do we have & how do we make them? It was the beginning of an unwinding of an immense knot inside… & the inner-resolution of maybe never finding that understanding.”
(Trevor Hagen, close friend of Justin Vernon)

I recognise that process because it is mine as well. Almost always, it starts with the beginning of the end, where one has gone through an emotional whirlwind & is in thrall to a very human sentiment: I’m done. Completely wrecked, bruised, ruined. & yes, it feels like you’ll never muster the strength to crawl out of the pit, but hey, can I let you in on something? & I only say this after complete annihilation of self & spirit – This too shall pass. Take comfort in the fact that the feeling slowly but surely fades & when it is over, there is a sure arrival to the most quintessential question: Now what?

& before you know it, there it is – & I am beginning to taste the reality of it, finally, a few months into the new year – a soft, glowing hope of what’s to come. Goodness. Restoration. Peace. It is what the darkness promises – a safety in the light in the end.

“This is not the sound of a new man
or crispy realisation
It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away
Your love will be
Safe with me”
(RE: Stacks, Bon Iver)

I am to wait.


52. To A Stranger

PASSING stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon you,
You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to me, as of a dream,)
I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,
All is recall’d as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured,
You grew up with me, were a boy with me, or a girl with me,
I ate with you, & slept with you – your body has become not yours only, nor left my body mine only,
You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass – you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return,
I am not to speak to you – I am to think of you when I sit alone, or wake up at night alone,
I am to wait – I do not doubt I am to meet you again,
I am to see to it that I do not lose you.

Walt Whitman
“Leaves of Grass” (1900)

The allegory of the stranger & the ironic feeling – the familiar, silver, innermost twist – oh, how well I know it. & the wait too, always the wait. Selah.

All The Names Mean Something

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

All The Names Mean Something

the slippery vowels
the sharp edges of consonants
i trace them all
tasting the air
grow stale & sour
with resentment
i trace them all

the shape of space between bodies
the curved spines of withered children
the woman with her mouth gaping
wide like a fish
who stares into the face of her murderer &
silently pleads

Walz. Zitron. Stein. Rodnianski. Liebmann.

I can’t breathe
feel the sound of why heave
laboriously in my chest, wedged
but the stories that sicken are worth remembering
All The Names Mean Something.

Wender. Gringard. Golomb. Waserman.

this burden was never yours to bear
but now your ashes feed the grass
that grows deliciously all over
the city cut from concrete

i am tracing them too
the cobweb of names that hover like a soft scarf
a sigh of forgiveness that warms the streets
to sleep.

The Lesser Known (pt. 2)

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“I was in a really, really bad place a year ago. I was married to the wrong man for twenty years & I remember just sitting in my home knowing that if I didn’t get out of the house right there & then & go somewhere, anywhere, I would have… Well. You know. So I did – I hiked through the English countryside with nothing but my iPod & a backpack. I walked something like a few hundred kilometres – all by myself – & it was wonderful, believe me, just being alone with nature & all that. Then I came across this little town, & I know this sounds strange but when I arrived at Hay, I just felt it sort of… embrace me, you know? There was such an air of love in this place & somehow I knew that I would fit right in. I walked straight to the agent & asked if he had a place for me to rent & somehow things worked out & I’ve been here ever since. It’s been ten months. I rent out this little room to interesting travelers like you. I sell my knitted hats & scarves at the square on Market Day. I sing on the street – Ed Sheeran is my favourite. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink anymore. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. Happy.”

(Chrissy, Hay-on-Wye AirBnB host)

The Lesser Known

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“Recommendations? Oh dear. I’m afraid I don’t do those. I think if you wandered into this little shop by yourself, you’d have the curiosity & capacity to explore & know what you’d want to read. I’m a 58 year old man, so for anyone to come in & ask me what I think they should be reading, well, I don’t think I’m in any position to do that. Just read a little bit of everything… I certainly try to do that. See, the thing I love about poetry is that very few people are reading something that someone obviously spent a lot of effort writing years & years ago. There’s something special about that, don’t you think? Anyway, so what would you recommend?” 

I’ll be writing more about my trip (or more aptly, my “pilgrimage”) to the magical kingdom of Hay-on-Wye soon but meanwhile, here’s a quote from a conversation I had with Chris Prince from The Poetry Bookshop. I agree with you Chris – there’s something very special about that indeed.