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“…Nothing of me
Is here because this is not my house,
This is not the driver’s seat of my car
Nor the memory of someone who loved me
Nor the distant classroom in which I
Fell asleep and dreamed of lamb. This
Is dirt, a filled hole of earth, stone
That says return to stone, a broken fence
That mumbles Keep Out, air above nothing,
Air that cannot imagine the sweet duties
Of wildflowers and herbs, this is cheap,
Common, coarse, what you pass by
Everyday in your car without a thought,
This is an ordinary grave.”

- Philip Levine

Is it long as a noodle
or fat as an egg? Is it
lumpy like a potato or
ringed like an oak or an
onion and like the onion
the same as you go toward
the core? That would be
suitable, for is it not
the human core and the rest
meant either to keep it
warm or cold depending
on the season or just who
you’re talking to, the rest
a means of getting it from
one place to another, for it
must go on two legs down
the stairs and out the front
door, it must greet the sun
with a sigh of pleasure as
it stands on the front porch
considering the day’s agenda.
Whether to go straight ahead
passing through the ranch houses
of the rich, living rooms
panelled with a veneer of fake
Philippine mahogany and bedrooms
with ermined floors and tangled
seas of silk sheets, through
adobe walls and secret gardens
of sweet corn and marijuana
until it crosses several sets
of tracks, four freeways, and
a mountain range and faces
a great ocean each drop of
which is known and like
no other, each with its own
particular tang, one suitable
to bring forth the flavor
of a noodle, still another
when dried on an open palm,
sparkling and tiny, just right
for a bite of ripe tomato
or to incite a heavy tongue
that dragged across a brow
could utter the awful words,
“Oh, my love!” and mean them.
The more one considers
the more puzzling become
these shapes. I stare out
at the Pacific and wonder –
noodle, onion, lump, double
yolked egg on two legs,
a star as perfect as salt –
and my own shape a compound
of so many lengths, lumps,
and flat palms. And while I’m
here at the shore I bow to
take a few handfuls of water
which run between my fingers,
those poor noodles good for
holding nothing for long, and
I speak in a tongue hungering
for salt and water without salt,
I give a shape to the air going
out and the air coming in,
and the sea winds scatter it
like so many burning crystals
settling on the evening ocean.

- Philip Levine

Dreamed I was walking through a field of corn
And it was all men and women, chained where they were born,
The blades of the reaper turned in the sun
And nothing I could do would help anyone.

Went up on a mountain, looked as far as I could see,
The world was as dead as a petrified tree,
Only the sea moved up the shore
And all was winter for evermore.

- Philip Larkin


All my life, of rivers
I have heard
the longing cries, the rut-oar
of shifted wind
on gongs of beaten water:

the Ten Mile of Hornpout,
the Drac hissing in its bed of sand,
the Ruknabad scribbled over by nightingales,
the Passumpsic breaking up all down its length in spring,
the East River of Fishes, the more haunting for not having a past either,
the Mississippi coursing into the Gulf through the silt of all its days,
the snake-cracked Tangipahoa, lifting with a little rush from the hills and dwindling in the undernourished greenery.


On one bank
of the last river stands
a black man, on the other
a white man, on the water between
a man of no color,
body of beryl,
face of lightning,
eyes lamps of wildfire,
arms and feet polished brass.

There will come an agony upon you
beyond any
this nation has known;
and at that time thy people,
given intelligence, given imagination, given love, given…

Here his voice falters, he drops
to his knees, he is
falling to pieces
no nose left,
no hair,
no teeth,
limbs dangling from prayer-knots and rags,

he sits down and waits by the grief-tree
of the last river.”

- Galway Kinnell

“Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to…”

- Donald Justice

“Two women and a small girl— perhaps three or four years old—resting in the shade of the fir trees. From far off the roar of the world coming back one more time. First a few words tossed back and forth between awakening men and then the machines talking to themselves in the language they share with the heavenly bodies— planets, dust motes, distant solar systems— that know what needs to be done and do it. So long ago, you think, those days, so unlike these, blessed by favorable winds and forgotten in the anthems we hummed on the long walk home from work or the childish fables we tried to believe. No one notices the small girl and her caretakers are gone and no one huddles in the shade of the fir trees. The air, brilliant and calm, stays to witness, the single cloud lost between heaven and here stays, the mountains look down and keep their distance, somewhere far off the sea goes on working for itself. By the waters of the Llobregat no one sits down to weep for the children of the world, by the Ebro, the Tagus, the Guadalquivir, by the waters of the world no one sits down and weeps.”

- Philip Levine

It was when or because she became two kinds
of mad, both a feral nail biting into a plank
and a deranged screw cranking into a wood beam,
the aunt—I shouldn’t say her name,

went at the fullest hour of the night,
the moon there like an unflowered bulb
in a darkness like mud, or covered in darkness
as a bulb or skull is covered in mud,

the small brown aunt who, before she went mad,
taught herself to carpenter and unhinged,
in her madness, the walls she claimed
were bugged with a tiny red-eyed device

planted by the State or Satan’s agents, ghosts
of atheists, her foes, or worse, the walls
were full of the bugs she believed crawled
from her former son-in-law’s crooked mouth,

the aunt, who knows as all creatures know,
you have to be rooted in something tangible
as wood if you wish to dream in peace,
took her hammer with its claw like a mandible

to her own handmade housing humming,
“I don’t know why God keeps blessing me,”
softly madly, and I understood, I was with her
when the pallbearers carried a box

made of mahogany from her church to a hearse
to a hole in the earth, it made me think
of the carpenter ant who carries within its blood
an evolved self-destructive property, and on its face

mandibles twice the size of its body,
and can carry on its back, as I have seen on tv,
a rotted bird or branch great distances
to wherever the queen is buried–Kingdom:

Animalia, Phylum: Arthropoda, Tribe: Camponotini,
the species that lives on wood is, like mud, rain,
and time, the carpenter’s enemy, yes,
but I would love to devour the house I live in

until it is a permanent part of me,
I would love to shape, as Perumthachan,
the master sculptor, carpenter and architect
of India is said to have shaped, a beautiful tree

into the coffin in which I am to be buried,
I know whatever we place in a coffin, the coffin
remains empty, I know nothing buried is buried,
I don’t know why God keeps blessing me,

I don’t know why God keeps blessing me.

- Terrance Hayes

“As the years have gone by I have wondered if we want another language for emotion, if we would rather speak of deep and shallow, because the things that move people to tears are sometimes joyous and because the attempts to ward off sadness so often ward off depth instead.”

- Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“Sadness the blue like dusk, the reminder that all things are ephemeral, and that because there is time there is change and that another name for change, if you look back toward what is vanishing in the distance, is loss.”

- Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“A physical therapist told me that chronic pain is treatable, sometimes by training people to experience it differently, but the sufferer ‘has to be ready to give up their story.’ Some people love their story that much even if it’s of their own misery, even if it ties them to unhappiness, or they don’t know how to stop telling it. Maybe it’s about loving coherence more than comfort, but it might also be about fear – you have to die a little to be reborn, and death comes first, the death of a story, a familiar version of yourself.”

- Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“I sometimes think everything comes out even in the end, but an end that arches beyond the horizon, beyond our capacity to perceive or measure, and that in many cases those who trespass against you do so out of a misery that means the punishment preceded and even precipitated the crime.”

- Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“Malcolm told me a story about pronghorns, the North American creatures sometimes confused with antelopes. They can run at speeds of nearly sixty miles an hour, much, much faster than any of their existing predators. Some biologists think they’re still outrunning the dangerous species that went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene, specifically the cheetahs that existed on this continent. Malcolm asked what each of us is still outrunning and whether we can tell when our predator has been extinct for ten thousand years.”

- Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“The whiteness of the page before it is written on and after it is erased is and is not the same white, and the silence before a word is spoken and after is and is not the same silence.”

- Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“It’s easier to imagine the experience of people most like you and nearest you – your best friend, the person who just slipped on the ice. Through imagination and representations – films, printed stories, secondhand accounts – you travel into the lives of people far away. This imaginative entering into is best at the particular, since you can imagine being the starving child but not the region of a million starving people. Sometimes, though one person’s story becomes the point of entry to larger territories.

“This identification is almost instinctual in many circumstances. Even some animals do it; babies cry in sympathy with each other, or in distress at the sound of distress. Neurologists now talk about mirror neurons. You see something you crave, you feel something painful, and areas of your brain respond. You haven’t only witnessed something but also translated it into your own experience, you have felt with and for that other. But to cry because someone cries or desire because someone desires is not quite to care about someone else. There are people whose response to the suffering of others is to become upset and demand consolation themselves.

“Empathy means that you travel out of yourself a little or expand… The root of the word is path, from the Greek word for passion or suffering, from which we also derive pathos and pathology and sympathy. It’s a coincidence that empathy is built from a homonym for the Old English path, as in a trail. Empathy is a journey you travel, if you pay attention, if you care, if you desire to do so. Up close you witness suffering directly, though even then you may need words to know that this person has terrible pains in her joints or that one recently lost his home. Suffering far away reaches you through art, through images, recordings, and narratives; the information travels toward you and you meet it halfway, if you meet it.”

- Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

Part of the opacity of visual art for so many people is that each work of art functions as a statement in the long conversation of art making, responding to what has come before by expanding upon or critiquing or subverting it. To walk into an exhibition can be like walking into the middle of a conversation that doesn’t make sense unless you know who’s talking and what was said earlier or know the language that’s being spoken, though some artworks speak directly and stand alone.

Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

After you have practiced for a while, you will realize that it is not possible to make rapid, extraordinary progress. Even though you try very hard, the progress you make is always little by little. It is not like going out in a shower in which you know when you get wet. In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking you get wet little by little.”

- Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi

“We know the facts, but we don’t always realize them with that imaginative, emotional engagement that makes them vivid forces and deciding factors.

“…The moment when mortality, ephemerality, uncertainty, suffering, or the possibility of change arrives can split a life in two. Facts and ideas we might have heard a thousand times assume a vivid,urgent, felt reality. We knew them then, but they matter now. They are like guests that suddenly speak up and make demands upon us; sometimes they appear as guides, sometimes they just wreck what came before or shove us out the door. We answer them, when we answer, with how we lead our lives. Sometimes what begins as bad news prompts the true path of a life, a disruptive visitor that might be thanked only later. Most of us don’t change until we have to, and crisis is often what obliges us to do so. Crises are often resolved only through anew identity and new purpose, whether it’s that of a nation or a single human being.”

- Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“I asked for help. I was not much in the habit of doing so… It’s partly because we imagine that gifts put us in the giver’s debt, and debt is supposed to be a bad thing… But there are gifts people yearn to give and debts that tie us together.

“Sometimes to accept is also a gift. The anthropologist David Graeber points out that the explanation that we invented money because barter was too clumsy is false… Before money, people didn’t barter but gave and received as goods ebbed and flowed. They thereby incurred the indebtedness that bound them together, and reciprocated slowly, incompletely, in the ongoing transaction that is a community. Money was invented as a way to sever the ties by completing the transactions that never needed to be completed in the older systems, but existed like a circulatory system in a body. Money makes us separate bodies, and maybe it teaches us that we should be separate.

“I once read an account about a wealthy Turkana man in Kenya who offered to slaughter a goat in his guest’s honor and then used one of his impoverished neighbor’s few poor animals instead of a goat from his own large herd. The guest was perlexed, but the man who had offered his neighbor’s goat eventually explained that he was thereby weaving him into the web of obligation and future gifts, strengthening his ties and his position, earning for him goodwill that was better than goats. The goods would continue to flow in both directions, but the immaterial goods mattered more and in losing his goat the poor man became a little richer. The host became someone he could go to for help and eventually did, receiving far more than a single goat.”

- Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“…it was not the disease of leprosy itself that caused so much damage to hands and feet. The disease strangles nerves, kills off feeling, and what you cannot feel you cannot take care of: not the disease but the patient does the damage…

‘Pain, along with its cousin touch, is distributed universally on the body, providing a sort of boundary of self. Even after surgery, [leprosy patients] tended to view their repaired hands and feet as tools or artificial appendages. They lacked the basic instinct of self-protection that pain normally provides.’

Physical pain is often lonely, felt only by one person who must trust that others will believe and emphathize… Empathy is the capacity to feel what you do not literally feel, and Brand taught his young patients a kind of empathy for extremeties that no longer seemed part of themselves. ‘I feel you,’ people say. If pain defines the boundaries of the body, you participate in the social body with those you empathize with, whose pain pains you – and whose joy is also contagious.

Some empathy must be learned and then imagined, by perceiving the suffering of others and translating it into one’s own experience of suffering and thereby suffering a little with them. Empathy can be a story you tell yourself about what it must be like to be that other person; but its lack can also arise from narrative, about why the sufferer deserved it, or why that person or those people have nothing to do with you. Whole societies can be taught to deaden feeling, to disassociate from their marginal and minority members.

Empathy makes you imagine the sensation of torture, of the hunger, of the loss. You make that person into yourself, you inscribe their suffering on your own body or heart or mind, and then you respond to their suffering as though it were your own.

…To injure, to kill, to cause suffering in others, requires first that withdrawal of empathy that would have made such action painful or impossible, and to intetionally cause pain in others requires you to kill yourself off a little in the process.

…You errected a wall between yourself and annihilation or horror and sometimes it then walled you off from life.The wall itself sometimes grew like a disease if left untreated. Those with leprosy lose only physical sensation; it is the rest of us who tend to lose moral, emotional sensation around their suffering. Which is to say that leprosy was for millennia a psychological disorder of whole societies, though it was a bacterial infection of only a minority.

…To feel for someone enlarges the self and then that self shares risks and pains. Perhaps it’s impossible for anyone short of an enlightened being to carry the weight of all suffering, even to recognize and embrace it, but we make ourselves large or small, here or there, in our empathies. I met a Thai Buddhist saint once who for twenty years took on tiny tokens and charms people gave him so that he would carry their suffering. Eventually he wore a cloak of a couple hundred pounds of clanking, chiming griefs at all times, and then it became too heavy or he’d carried it far enough, and he put it down.”

- Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another. The child I once was read constantly and hardly spoke, because she was ambivalent about the merits of communication, about the risks of being mocked or punished or exposed. The idea of being understood and encouraged, had hardly occurred to her and neither had the idea that she had something to give others. So she read, taking in words in huge quantities… gorging on books, fasting on speech, carrying piles of books home from the library.

“Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure, that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading.

“…This is the odd compact with strangers who will lose themselves in your words and the partial recompense for the solitude that makes writers and writing. You have an intimacy with the faraway and distance from the near at hand.”

- Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby


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