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Even If Parts of You Go Missing Forever



“Poems come out of wonder, not out of knowing.”  —Lucille Clifton


One of my favorite quotes from The Torah is one which has tested me many times: “A righteous man falls down seven times and gets up.” My father is fond of this proverb, although he always rephrased it as “a righteous person.” Unfortunately, today in the secular world, “righteous” is often attached with the prefix “self-“, and veers toward moral superiority, an utter correctness. Righteousness, as I learned it, is not about being correct or superior; it is about perseverance in those times one is knocked down, left breathless, bewildered, hanging onto the edge, on the brink of an abyss. And sometimes all one can hear is the abyss calling for her or him. Sometimes it is deafening.

Righteousness isn’t a grand gesture, but an intention to go against the abyss. I think of a man like my father who has lived paycheck to paycheck his entire life, who has suffered innumerable setbacks, who has beat cancer not once but twice, and who each time has risen up because the arising itself is a righteous act. It is a retaking of ground beneath, having conviction in one’s own feet. It is survival, albeit survival one step forward. Like quite a few Jews, my father does not believe in heaven. This is it. This life we must face. This we must do.

But why?

What propels us upward, forward?


* * *

As I wrote in “Orchids We Have Been: On the Transformative Power of Longing“, the first part of this series on his work, Kaveh Akbar has that gift of close listening, in ways we often (but don’t even know we do) refuse. In their conversation on Divedapper, poet Ada Limón reveals to Akbar that:

“…your brain is really not evolutionarily wired to be happy. It’s wired for survival. And it’s wired to think the worst and it’s wired to constantly protect the body, so suddenly we’re asking for an impossible feat, to try to choose happiness again and again.”

While I recommend reading the whole interview, which is fantastic, these lines in particular have stayed with me. I was left wondering: Is to understand yourself survival and to understand another happiness? Does understanding another complicate one’s survival? Or does it sustain us?

Survival is knowing your limits and abilities, your needs and desires. It is understanding yourself as best as you can, which is an endless sailing toward a perfect marriage between the “I” of you and the “you” in which you carry hard-wired in your being, that which would cry out don’t give up even in a vacuum.

And the “you” doesn’t stop there. Here by using “you”, I am addressing you who is the reading this, and the poets Ada Limón and Kaveh Akbar, and the general you in all of us, and myself too. It is that ghostly “you” which makes us both lonely and less lonely sitting in a room as we write at our desks, board our trains of endless commutes that sail us toward elsewhere, our minds drifting toward, we hope, new ideas. It is also the “you” of others we want to understand, perhaps to aid in our survival, but also, especially, out of a need for connection, love, happiness.

The “you” is endless.

And so it’s not just a question of why.

It’s who.


* * *

It’s scary
to think your bones might outlive you
might wash up on some gritty shore
and become soup bowls or hairpins.
To be useful while prophets decompose
in the ground seems nearly profane.

— Kaveh Akbar,

Portrait of the Alcoholic with Shattered Pelvis”


In quite a few of Akbar’s poems, the struggle against the “you” and its perseverance manifests sometimes as earthly confession, sometimes as larger revelation. In “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Craving,” he addresses his uncontrollable craving as “you,” which is not merely an addiction but an attachment so powerful that if “you/could be anything in the world//you would.” The “you” is genuine as it is deceiving, but moreover, the possibilities of this particular “you”, this particular beloved, are infinite. The speaker explores the darker side of unconditional love (“My hands love you more/than me, wanting only to feed you and feed you”) while exposing its powers of manipulation which it performs on a spiritual level (“You were the preacher and I the congregation/And I stage and I the cross and I choir.”) This is a love poem, a save-the-last-dance in which a mirror is held up in the writing of it.

There is a strange freeness to the unrestrained bard who asks: “Remember the cold night we spent/ spinning on my lawn?” But of course the speaker is not free. He is trapped by a force that will not relent; he’s dancing, but he is dancing at the edge of the abyss. Hallucination invades reality, and this of course cannot last. Even if “we sang until morning”— for he shares this moment with the beloved in collective first person— morning still comes. Morning always brings a reckoning. The poet himself must arise where the poem’s speaker leaves off, when “only the silence remains.”

In another poem, “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Shattered Pelvis,” there is little of that former freeness in which the “you” and the “I” are spinning on a lawn, unencumbered. Space tightens and strangles the “I”, while shrinking the size “you” occupies. The former beloved is no longer directly addressed. Something has happened to the speaker, and a painful excavation is underway in which a “monster will be difficult to find,// but once discovered he will be so easy/ to kill.” Who is this monster? The former “you”? The “I”? Both? Or what might be born from such a love? In any case, morning has come, and the reader is thrust into the moment between Akbar’s falling down and rising up, the moment in which Akbar is stepping back from the edge, but we can still hear the haunting call of the abyss.

While the speaker is “unmoving/in this bed… struggling to produce// a single miracle,” the reader senses a much larger self-examination in which the poet must leave himself in order to address his own setbacks. This is not hindsight. We are there with him, with the “you” of the poet himself who is looking back at the “I” of the speaker in the thick of it all. We are there in that small, tender moment when he remembers reaching into a pond full of tadpoles and longs for the one that “stayed in my palm, drying/into almost-paper. If it had asked me/to let it live I would have, my spirit/ flea-weak and cloddish.” Here is a dissembling of the self and bones now gone that won’t grow back. In the end, the speaker asks: “how do we want/ to be forgotten?” and replies back “I know my answer—” But of course the speaker, like the incident that got him here, is not forgotten. The poet has not been destroyed. The poem itself triumphs in a moment the speaker feels he did not. That collective we— the before-and-after of the self, the speaker and his former addiction, and a larger question of humanity— saves him as it holds him responsible. I/you/we are not alone. We want to leave behind something in this world when we are no longer in it, to not only show we were there, but also to “be useful while prophets decompose/ in the ground.”

Here two portraits are gashes on the page. They bleed the conflict that arises between an all-consuming love and self-presevation. There is a joy here in the desire to arise from the abyss, the kind of joy that isn’t some two-dimensional song. But it is joy nonetheless, even if parts of you go missing forever.


* * *

Lately, I’ve been thinking of how much conflict there is in the world, and I know that there will always be. We are just as much the explosive forces that made us, and if there are “higher beings” who shield themselves from us, I believe they have just as much volatility, though they might use it in more productive ways, for more peaceful outcomes. It would seem in order to navigate conflict and chaos, humans must make meaning, that we create reasons for why things are, why we are here, that we can’t accept life might have no meaning, that survival is the only thing, really, that propels us forward. That survival is the will itself: there is no why. And that very well might be.

And yet I remember my grandfather building a large, open enclosure outside his three-room house. It resembled a cage, but it was not a cage because nothing could close one in. He built it so that the wild amazon parrots crossing back and forth over the U.S.-Mexican border might come to rest or take shelter during a storm. I remember one parrot who was easy to recognize because he was missing a toe. When my grandfather came outside, the bird would fly over and land on his shoulder just to, as best as I can describe it, clown around. The happiness in their encounters was evident both in the parrot and my grandfather. I remember my cousins and I standing there with handfuls of seeds and nuts, but the parrot would always go to my (empty-handed) grandfather first. Over the years, various flocks became part of our family in a way, but these parrots remained wild. While play actually might help a creature hone in on its survival skills, my point is that happiness is not a human creation, nor is it always a condition that cancels out self-sustainability. We did not invent joy in order to give us a reason to live; somehow, somewhere along the way, we understood this feeling is possible, and understood it enough to want to share in it.

And while joy is not the opposite of conflict, I do believe conflict is a necessary condition of being alive. I ask myself if humans evolved into other kinds of forces and collided, might we destroy each other and other living things? Or would we have that natural ease, that respectful balance, with others like that which came from my grandfather and that parrot? But we are already destroying each other and other living things. Because as I’ve been told, without a clear explanation, we are human. We don’t have to go as far as we do, but we do. Why?

Not why but who.

A righteous person falls down seven times and gets up.

“To be useful while prophets decompose,” Akbar writes, “in the ground seems nearly profane.”

And what is usefulness without failure?

What happens when one chooses the profane?


* * *


Forgive me—
I tried to write a poem.

— Kaveh Akbar, “A Failed Poem


Written in a series of couplets, the speaker in Akbar’s “A Failed Poem” has driven half a day to write a poem about a beached whale’s death and then asks for forgiveness for doing so. This is a poet admitting something most people, let alone poets, would not admit: intention, the original intention. This is far as we go in terms of personal confession, however. “A Failed Poem” concerns the death of whale, and whales, after all, are some of the most intelligent yet enigmatic creatures in the world. Our relationship with them is complicated and contentious, although there have been some incredible interactions between humans and whales in the wild, such as the story of a humpback whale tangled up in fishing lines and saved by divers:  “When the whale realized it was free, it began swimming around in circles… swam to each diver, nuzzled him and then swam to the next one.” There’s the story of the baby humpback whale who was found stranded and successfully returned to the ocean off Queensland’s Gold Coast.

And there’s the story of the twenty or so pilot whales stranded off the Gulf of California. Although rescue crews managed to draw some of the whales deeper into the ocean, those whales would go back to the beach where the rest of their pod lay dying. One whale in particular began flapping its large tail hard on the wet sand, as a rescuer explained to the camera that the animal was in deep distress, that this was just before its final moment. Watching a whale die, when it had been lured back into the water but was unable to desert its pod, was not easy to watch; it chose death, knowingly. Pilot whales are known for their intense social bonds; there’s another instance where a mother carried her dead calf for days in her mouth, and “kept on trying to bring it up to the surface so that it could breathe.”

“A Failed Poem” is not an easy read, nor is it a failed poem. It spares not one word unnecessary, and all of its couplets are cutting. The speaker documents the failure of a rescue crew to save a whale (who is “she”) and “to spare her the already gathered gulls,/ the scientists decided to open her veins,/ cutting where tail met body.” The death of a whale, something which seems so large and abstract, for a poem so small echoes the inability to save “her blistered body heaving,” the real body, which personifies death at its most unfathomable. As the poem slowly unravels, the would-be ethnographer is now invested in something much more emotional and incomprehensible. Every turn is more surprising than the next, as each couplet changes the direction of the poem. Whether or not we are rooting for the whale, we know the odds are against her and yet there must be something else within her death; it must not, cannot, be meaningless.

The speaker himself is a lone wolf, and yet he is not. We feel his loneliness even though there are others present, scientists nearby drinking “from a hose they were using to spray her,” this nuance he questions as an irony. There is no overt “you”, but the reader is very much there with the speaker, and as a collective. We become both accomplice and witness in reading this, for partaking in the spectacle in which it “took nearly an hour for the blood to empty.” We too fail that whale beached, like so many immense, otherworldly dreams. Like so many wonderful big dreams. We all have stood helpless before the dying whales who appear in our weary chambers, and those deaths transform us. We name them tragedy, and sometimes we rethink that name and call them phenomenon, nature at its most secretive and terrifying.

I resist writing to Kaveh to ask if this really happened. If he saw this happen. At its core, “A Failed Poem” captures the abyss here on earth, when death seeps unknowingly into our lives “without narrative.” Just as those “downwind” do not the origins of that scent in the air of  “wet coins, coconut meat, tallow,” the speaker imagines that “people breathed it in,/ felt quite glad.” A joy, one might say, of the unknowable natural world, one we might take for granted, and one in which we take part, whether conscious of it or not, of just how close, how strangely close, the abyss.


I don’t know if I’ll ever discover what it is exactly that propels us forward. I don’t know the exact reason why a group of pilot whales would choose the “profane”, to echo Akbar’s sentiments, over self-preservation. I know somewhere in there it’s a question of “who” rather than “why.” I know that the abyss is real. I know it changes and manifests in many different forms. But I also feel a connection for those no longer in this world, the world in which we as the living must do. Like the pilot whale who can’t let go of her dead calf, I too have brought up the departed to the surface to breathe, even when I knew they were gone, even when it was too late.

While I’ve failed at many things, the greatest gift my father gave me is trusting that inclination to go on, and it is a force stronger than when my beliefs crumble. Perhaps this is the “you” that I carry within, which cries out don’t give up, and yet remains largely unknown to me. Perhaps it is the unknown within us that preserves us most. This is not to say it always leads to success. It is simply to say when faced with setbacks in my own life, I got up, even if I lost bits of “I” and “you” along the way. And perhaps this is where I have gained another you, a no quotations marks you, a strange and silent you who gets up because you’ve accepted you are part of some larger conflict; you have a beginning and an end, but the conflict does not. You arise and turn the page because there is so much you do not know and how you desire to. You are because you do not know, because as Akbar writes there exists that eternal “struggling to produce// a single miracle,” and that calling is louder than any abyss, and so you step back from the edge. And so you arise.


This is the second installment in a two-part series on the work of Kaveh Akbar. Read the first here.