By Douglas Manuel, Spalding School of Writing Poetry Faculty
The fact the decade was ending snuck up on me, much as old age often does: no impact at all, and then, suddenly, one’s perspective on flights of stairs changes, and one’s lower back finds the key of pain a little more often. I quote T.S. Eliot far too often: “I grow old … I grow old.” So yes, because of the stupors of routine and/or the acute observation fatigue I often feel (Our current political situation is a heavy stone I remove from my chest daily.), I did not feel the sighing swirls of decade’s end until the onslaught of end-of-decade lists saturated my television time with my family and my internet time as I turned tight, slow corners through the roads of my online neighborhoods. It was then, as cultivated nostalgia fed my senses, that I took my eyes from my screens and to myself, to those weathered roads of memory where the skyline is mostly foggy and the rain is cold enough to sting a bit but light enough to feel like mist.
In this space, I see myself ten years younger, scribbling my way through my MFA, scratching wounds to see which ones bleed the best blood for ink, the best blood for scars. Forgetting forgetting is the art of art. I remember how I still wore a hat of hope in public, a hat I always removed in private–the rhetoric surrounding healthcare and the talk of a post-racial society were crows circling above, revealing to me the pulse of what was to come. But I had read about the audacity of hope. I had hoped audaciously.
Ten years later and now hope usually finds me instead of me finding it, wearing it, proclaiming it. Hope presents itself in a poem I stumble upon. Hope arrives in the eyes of a student sharing a connection my brain would have never ever made. Hope flashes across the sky when a song slices right to the bone of what it means to be human, a voice that weeps with a happy knowing, a melody that all ears have heard before it was sung. My hope is often not a thing with wings–although all love to Dickinson–my hope comes from the chorus of all those voices who refuse silence, all of those voices inspecting their complicity. I’ve been inspecting myself. I’ve been reflecting about, writing about, and trying to lessen my complicity.
In the spirit of decade lists, the spirit of sharing, the spirit of remembering together, I would now like to share three poems written in our last decade that have granted me the kind reprieve of hope. With each of these poems, I will provide a brief discussion of why this poem achieves a singeing swell of hope in my chest and a brief writing exercise utilizing said poem that is rooted in imitation, play, and repetition. The amazing poet and scholar Sarah Vap recently reminded me of Gertrude Stein’s claim that “There is no such thing as repetition. Only insistence.” To my whole body, the following poems insist on hope. I hope these poems are little fires that light the way as you step into and through this new year.
“Untitled” by Rachel McKibbens: When I first encountered this poem, it was through video. A friend shared McKibbens’ speaker’s honest, rhapsodic advice to her daughters, and I was floored as soon as I heard the poem’s first two lines, “To my daughters I need to say: // Go with the one who loves you biblically.” The power of the imperative voice harking the beginning of the next stanzas, the intrepid vulnerability of the speaker, the way we learn so much about the speaker through her advice, and the way the poem slyly shifts focus to the speaker’s last love, the final dearly beloved: All of these aspects of the poem emblazon hope across my mind each time I return to the poem.
When using this poem as a writing prompt, after sharing the poem with students many times, I ask the students to write a poem in which they give love advice to someone they love. Additionally, I challenge them to try to incorporate lots of narrative detail about the speaker of their poem and that speaker’s “last love,” the love that lasts for life.
“38” by Layli Long Soldier: “Here, the sentence will be respected,” begins Long Soldier in this documentation of theft: theft of land, theft of bodies, theft of identity, theft of history, theft of culture. This poem taught me a history lesson that I didn’t know, one that I felt as though I should have known. My dear reader, I can’t tell you how disappointed I was with myself that I didn’t know this history. Oh, isn’t it always what we can’t see, the atrocities in plain sight that we will ourselves not to see, the ones we’ve been taught not to see: these shiftless auras at the edges of vision cutting, cutting, cutting. After reading this poem, I told myself I would teach this poem as often as possible. I want to bring this collision with erasure and the politics of memory and history to others. I want others to feel the hopeful power I felt when I read the words, “Real” poems do not “really” require words.
When I teach this poem, I ask students to take the time to do a little research and find a historical tragedy that has received little attention, one that has been heavily ignored–one that is personally resonant to them or one that they are particularly moved by. After they’ve found this event and learned more about it, I then always emphasize the problems of telling others’ stories without deep introspection of motivations, intentions, and consideration for the agency of other people’s voices. I ask my students to ask themselves if they really feel as though they’re the best person to tell the story they’re about to tell. If time permits, I may even share some of Carolyn Forché’s positions about poetry of witness. After these discussions, I then ask the students to write a poem that bears witness to their chosen event and the people involved. I quote Frost’s claim that poetry is “a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget” far too often.
“Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” by Ross Gay: I don’t even know if I can level any form of praise that hasn’t already been leveled for this breathtakingly tender elegiac poem of longing and appreciation. This poem was first brought to my attention during the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement, when the writing of the 45th’s upcoming victory was already beginning to take shape on the wall of our collective conscious, when my weeping more often than not extinguished the weak embers of my hope. This long, associative litany gives so many jewels, but, as was brilliantly discussed by Maggie Smith at Fall Residency, I especially enjoy all the times the speaker compassionately gestures towards the reader, thanking them for sticking along through this long poem and then saying that “I am sorry. I am grateful. / I just want us to be friends now, forever.” Even as I type these words right now, my dear reader, tears swell in my eyes. How kind a gesture, how beautiful a thought, how vulnerable an admission, how courageous an utterance! And don’t even get me started on the way this gesturing towards the reader plays out in the poem’s last two stanzas. My tears might damage my keyboard.
When teaching this poem, I ask students to write a list of stories about themselves that helped them become who they are now. I ask them to try to find ways to condense these stories into punchy, direct, and digestible images and lines that can be placed in a poem. After I give them time to generate a long list of these compact little narratives, I ask them to compile these microstories into one long sprawling poem that gives thanks for all of these moments. I make sure to remind the students that stories of pain and loss are worth thanks, too, just as Gay’s poem shows. I implore them to consider the thin separation between notions of ode and elegy and to make active gestures towards the reader that break the fourth wall.
I enter this new decade fortified by these poems. I enter this new decade a poet with one published book and another on the way. I enter this new decade as a man I never thought I’d be able to be. I enter this new decade with open eyes sharpened and softened by the crude, cruel edges of loss and hope. I am now reminded of an epigraph by Bertolt Brecht in Forché’s Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness: “In the dark times, will there also be singing? / Yes, there will be singing. / About the dark times.”
Douglas Manuel was born in Anderson, Indiana. His first full-length collection of poems, Testify (Red Hen Press, 2017), won the 2017 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award for poetry. He currently lives in Long Beach, California.