Amanda Moore's "Everything Is a Sign Today"
Thoughts on what is still transcendent, along with some larger thoughts on poetry.
Everything Is a Sign Today
Feather in the grass, stippled and striped: hawk, I think. And then a man blocking the sidewalk, child on his back, both of them pointing binoculars toward the treetop where I know a great horned owl nests, though I've never seen it. All these birds: creatures I might never have known had I not spent my childhood filling her feeders, naming each genus from our perch at her kitchen table. A falcon swoops down beside me on the path gripping some rodent in its talons, twisting the body to kill. Like the time a heron a few feet from our picnic blanket plucked a whole mouse from its burrow and swept away. She had been delighted, said we, too, should grab something special of our own that day. Turning toward home, I bend to collect a wrinkled postcard at the curb: an advertisement for the Monet exhibit. How I loved those paintings when I was younger, all of them nearly the same: haystack, haystack, haystack. The only difference the season and time of day, which is to say they are like this grief these months later: all the same but for the light. from Requeening (Ecco, 2021)
When it happens, one of my favorite experiences of living in New York City is when I find myself running or walking through Central Park and see a crowd of people gathered at the base of a tree. Usually they are by the reservoir, where birds swirl and turn in great, mesmerizing arcs above the water and through the sky that exists in the absence of the brick or concrete or metal of buildings. I’ll be running and I’ll see them — a group of a dozen or so people, some with binoculars, some resting cameras with large, wildly long lenses. They’ll all be looking up. They’ll be there — looking up, searching, looking up again, pointing. When I view them from a distance, it will be the backdrop that stands out: this jagged skyline of buildings, and how it approaches and approaches and approaches and then stops. And how, with the vast city as their background, this group of people will be standing in the small and gentle emptiness it affords, which is to say something like — though not quite — nature, trying to look at a bird.
There are Red-tailed Hawks in Central Park. There are Peregrine Falcons. There are sandpipers, woodpeckers, and warblers. It is true that you can see a Baltimore Oriole in New York, and in many other cities. There are owls in Central Park, sometimes one of each. Sometimes more. There are two Great Horned Owls there now. There was one Barred Owl, Barry, who sadly passed away. He lived in a hemlock tree. His eyes were dark and held, all at once, a sense of youth and kind of old age, a bright light and deep well of sorrow. Once, for a brief moment, a Snowy Owl stopped by and said hello. There are gulls and sparrows and all sorts of folks. There are pigeons, too. Remember that they are doves.
I’m thinking of all of this because of the way today’s poem begins, and this image it soon offers, early in its lines:
And then a man blocking the sidewalk, child on his back, both of them pointing binoculars toward the treetop where I know a great horned owl nests, though I've never seen it.
There’s joy in such an image. Tenderness, too. And wonder, right? The stillness of looking. The desire to see something, just to see it. The other day, running with my friend along the Hudson, we saw a hawk soar right over us, taking these deep, muscular and graceful flaps of its broad wings before alighting on a branch high above the river. We had to stop, just to see it there. We, as Moore writes, “had been / delighted.”
The book today’s poem comes from — Requeening — is as full and attentive and lush and sorrow-struck as any book of poems I’ve read in a long time, threading as it does between beekeeping and illness and motherhood and loss. The opening poem, “Opening the Hive,” holds this image at its heart:
I open this small universe and set it in motion, a new heart ready to be fed and broken and fed again, gathering strength to reseal and take into itself what we leave behind: fingerprints through broken comb and crushed drones.
It’s an image borne from attentiveness, isn’t it? It’s this attention that makes today’s poem one I love. It’s there in the title — “Everything Is a Sign Today.” In order for anything to be perceived as a sign, one must actively witness the world, and then believe in the miraculous, the mysterious, and the enchanting — the lively and unseen connection between what is and what could be.
Consider the end of today’s poem:
I bend to collect a wrinkled postcard at the curb: an advertisement for the Monet exhibit. How I loved those paintings when I was younger, all of them nearly the same: haystack, haystack, haystack. The only difference the season and time of day, which is to say they are like this grief these months later: all the same but for the light.
In order for this luminous moment to occur, so many things have to happen. It’s not just as simple as these lines occurring in a poem. No. The “wrinkled postcard” has to be seen, which requires a state of constant witness, a willingness to consider the debris and detritus of the world as something worth “bend[ing] to collect.” And then the connection — the link between the postcard and “those paintings [I loved] when I was younger.” Something special happens after these two things occur, after witness and connection, willingness and linkage. It’s then that the poem makes room for the miraculous, for that thing our brains and hearts do when we allow them to, when we make space for enchantment or mystery. It’s then that Moore writes, of these seemingly similar paintings, once viewed as “nearly the same”:
The only difference the season and time of day, which is to say they are like this grief these months later: all the same but for the light.
All the same but for the light. The moment I read that line, it instantly did that thing where I knew it would never leave me. It’s the kind of line that makes you remember — if you ever forgot — why you might turn toward a poem in a moment of need, or in any ordinary moment. It stills me, turns me back toward a knowledge of light as something that radicalizes each ordinary moment, and reminds me that, if we pay attention to even just one thing for an extended, gentle moment of the sun moving from one part of the sky to the next, we might see more than we saw in that first passing glance. Might stay awhile. Might look again. Might see in each little thing a whole world, and see in this whole world each little thing.
And why, I’m thinking, is that act of just simply looking important? In her poem, “Next Lines,” written in the aftermath of the loss of a mother, Moore writes:
it's time to help the season work its magic: count the promise of apple blossoms, inhale the decay of warming mulch. Make note: this audacity won't last long.
I think that’s why, right? Because it’s a brief thing, this life. And somehow so full of what it is full of.
I’ve been reading the French writer Sylvain Tesson’s On the Wandering Paths, translated by Drew Burk, with a forward by Daniel Hornsby, whose book Via Negativa is one of my recent favorites. The book details Tesson’s travels by foot through rural France, and is awash with moments of ordinary witness. He writes:
…we could perhaps still seek out another way via these paths. All it required was to resume this long and walk and extend our greetings to the small number of wildlife that presented themselves during our travels.
Later, he describes a moment in conversation with Moore’s poem today:
A nighthawk suddenly shot out right in front of me. It was something I’ll never forget. I would jot down several lines in my notebooks on any occasion when the spectacle of an oak in a golden field aroused in me some sort of affectionate greeting by way of the flapping of one of its branches in the wind.
In thinking of both Moore’s book and these moments from Tesson’s travels, I can’t help but think of how the New York Times recently published an op-ed by Matthew Walther with the title “Poetry Died 100 Years Ago This Month.” I feared the title might simply be bait, but I read the piece anyway, which is a celebration of the centenary of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” yes, but is also a piece that does double down on its title. I wondered if it would. It did. In the piece, Walther writes:
Of course, poetry isn’t literally dead. There have probably never been more practicing poets than there are today — graduates of M.F.A. programs working as professors in M.F.A. programs — and I wager that the gross domestic chapbook per capita rate is higher than ever. But the contemporary state of affairs is not exactly what one has in mind when one says that poetry is alive and well — as opposed to, say, on a luxe version of life support.
Walther then makes the point that our contemporary relationship with the world is one where we do not pay attention, seek mystery, and actively exist in conversation with the transcendent — like Eliot did, or Milton. He writes, later:
But modern life, disenchanted by science and mediated by technology, has made that kind of relationship with the natural world impossible, even if we are keen botanists or hikers. Absent the ability to see nature this way — as the dwelling place of unseen forces, teeming with images to be summoned and transformed, as opposed to an undifferentiated mass of resources to be either exploited or preserved — it is unlikely that we will look for those images in the work of Homer or Virgil and even less likely that we will create those images ourselves.
I imagine that twitter has already had its day with this article. And, as I’m not on twitter, I don’t know if Walther has dug his heels further in the ground or has engaged in some lively and generous discussion with his critics. I do know that there are aspects of this article’s point that I agree with — namely, just the facts that are stated before the argument is made. That the modern world is one rife with distraction. That technology does affect our attention, and at times our isolation, our feelings of loneliness. That we sometimes lead disenchanted lives, or that we have to struggle not to.
However, it is always weird to me — and I use that word weird intentionally, as it feels right — when people create arguments that seem to be gleaned solely from their subjective preferences, arguments that only treat specifically the subject that they are most interested in (in this case, Eliot’s poem and what it represents) and then gloss over or generalize what they seem prejudiced against (in this case, all of contemporary poetry). It is weird to me when people do this because it makes me distrust them as critics. It makes me wonder why the person didn’t simply say: I love Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and have read some contemporary poetry, but certainly not enough to make a vast generalization about its state of being. As of now, I find it lacking in the transcendent engagement displayed by poets of ages ago. Does anyone agree with me? If not, can you point me towards some contemporary poetry that does the work of the mysterious, the enchanting, the critical, and the transcendent?
Instead of that kind of approach to criticism, the essay’s author seems to retreat into generalization — which is often the opposite of generosity. It’s a strange decision to me. It makes me think that the critic’s role is to climb an untenable mountain and shout down at us, rather than model for us how we might live — and love — this life. It also makes me sad. It makes me very sad. How have we become so hardened?
In response to that essay, I think of my friend George Kovalenko’s line:
Remember how we used to wonder rather than know?
This is a line written in the contemporary moment, borne out of an implicit understanding that, perhaps, the way we approach the world is not right. It is a line put into a poem, both of this world and out of it, enchanted and disenchanted, critical and mystified. A poem can do that, can’t it? It can speak toward that “contemporary state of affairs” mentioned by Walther, and try to reposition our gaze even as it names the problem.
A poem can also do what Ross Gay’s “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” does, as well. It can offer a language of not just praise and enchantment, but also of real labor and honest attention paid to nature. It can do that here:
I am here to holler that I have hauled tons—by which I don’t mean lots, I mean tons — of cowshit and stood ankle deep in swales of maggots swirling the spent beer grains the brewery man was good enough to dump off holding his nose, for they smell very bad, but make the compost writhe giddy and lick its lips, twirling dung with my pitchfork again and again with hundreds and hundreds of other people, we dreamt an orchard this way
And then such a poem — still the same poem — can move to the consequences of the very things mentioned by this aforementioned essay, the consequences of our collective loneliness and unease and disenchantment and sadness, and it can offer these consequences in real terms, with real drugs, and real sorrow:
and thank you for not taking my pal when the engine of his mind dragged him to swig fistfuls of Xanax and a bottle or two of booze
A poem can do that, can’t it? A poem can live in this world. It can grow out of it. It can be different than what a poem once was. And it can, perhaps, be left to its own devices, irreducible to the language of best and worst and dead and alive — this language that left us the world we live in, where we so often suffer.
And so, I don’t really know what the point of an argument about poetry being alive or dead is. I’m not sure I know what the point is of anything that attempts to make the claim that a vast swath of any artistic practice is dead. I know we consume so much and are exposed to so much, but I live here, in this world, with these poets who are writing these poems. If we assume poetry is dead, what would happen, I wonder, if poetry becomes alive? Would we stop engaging with mystery because it was engaged with perfectly, all at once, in a poem? Would we give away our wonder because we read the perfect enactment of such a feeling?
It seems to me that poetry — if I am allowed to insubstantially define it as a conscious act of making sense and nonsense and art out of attention, ordinariness, extraordinariness, wonder, love, mystery and grief — is part of our human condition. And as the world changes, then perhaps our poems respond in kind. Perhaps they become less of what they once were and more of something else. And perhaps, in this elongated present, they are simply more. Yes, there are more poems to read in any given moment on our screens these days, and there seem to be more people writing them. But there is also just a more-ness to our poetry — an allowance of what a poem might address or offer its expansiveness toward. I know that we can turn our attention toward the world — and all of its more-ness — even as it tries to turn off our ability to pay attention.
There was a time when this notion of “more” made me jaded. As a young poet, I sometimes wondered if there would be room for me. I saw so many poems, so many poets. I wondered about publication, even fame. I don’t wonder about that anymore. I am grateful to be here. I make my pasta in the evening. I crush my cherry tomatoes with a wooden spoon. I just read Larry McMurtry’s All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers, and wrote down the sentence: “The door to the ordinary places was the door that I had missed.” I have heard poems spoken in dark rooms and have felt my chest give way inside my body. It’s never enough, the world, and still we live. It’s not about poetry being alive or dead, better or worse, good or bad. When there’s something about the soul on the page, you have to treat it with generosity. And before you ask if or how or anything about the soul, I just have to believe the soul is on the page. I have to. Otherwise, how could I ever look you — yes, you — in the eye?
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