Bianca Stone's "Reading a Science Article on the Airplane to JFK"

Thoughts on seeking forever the right way to know this.

Reading a Science Article on the Airplane to JFK

Today I flew over the Midwest
filling out a questionnaire
on the emotional life of the brain
and personal capacity for resilience
against despair. I was making
a sculpture of my limbic systems
in a huge conceptual neurosis.
Under the simulated
middleclass environment
of the fuselage
the snow was falling.
And in everyone’s skulls
complex regimes went on and on and on.
I seek forever the right way to know this.
That there are bridges
not built in me. That there are areas
that do not light up—
You are at a party having a conversation
with an interesting stranger.
You are in a restaurant and the service is bad.
You have experienced profound grief—
how do you react to this?
Down on the ground your family
writhes. Down on the ground
you are surrounded at Starbucks
with a terrible glow.
And you have seen someone you love,
with a colossal
complex vehemence, die.
And it is pinned under glass
in perfect condition.
It is wrapped around you
like old fur. You’ve looked at the sky
until your eyes touched
zodiacal fantasies—right there in the void.
You know this. That the body lays down
while the mind bloats
on intellectual chaos.
And you have just eaten
a bag of cinnamon-flavored chips
and assessed that if you met
a wonderful new person
who ran from you in horror
you would fill their space
with calculated desolation.
Thus, you are waking up
having traveled through time.
You are looking down
at the Statue of Liberty
garden gnome with her arm in the air,
her head full of strangers—
And you hear crickets. Lined up.
Playing their creepy violins.
And you want to be good.
And you want to be liked.
And you want to recover.

from Someone Else’s Wedding Vows (Tin House / Octopus Books, 2014)

This is my newsletter, so I can say something like what I’m about to say.

I think this is one of the best poems ever written. And I know best means nothing, is the same as good, is subjective, reinforces a hierarchical approach to ordering, reinforces order itself — which sucks, I fucking hate order — reinforces shitty structures, okay, okay, okay.

It’s just one of my favorites.

I want it to be one of your favorites, too.

This was the poem that first introduced me to Bianca Stone’s work, and it was one of those poems that stunned me with its apparent simplicity — the uneven lines that seemed natural, a voice so conversational, brought out of the ordinary. And yet, when I come across poems like this, I am always in the process of reducing them to what seems mundane or basic about them. Why is that? This is a special poem that does special things, like, say, alternating between breadth and accumulation. Notice how the opening line is a line of breadth:

“Today I flew over the Midwest”

The Midwest, as a term, denotes an expansiveness that does not do justice to the specific, varied lives and places and roads and homes and cities and towns that fall under the broadness of such term. When I hear The Midwest, I think of flatness stretched out for miles. I think of that overused political term “flyover country.” I think of width for days. These are wildly generalized things to think, yes, but I still think them. I have to push myself not to, break from what I have been told to think. But still, I think of the plane of this poet’s speaker floating over that expanse of space.

But that breadth is immediately contrasted with an accumulation of specifics. Not just a questionnaire on “emotional life,” but also “resilience,” the act of making “a sculpture,” the idea of a “a huge conceptual neurosis.” And there’s that breadth again. That hugeness. Those opening lines — that contrast between what we perceive as expansive and what we perceive as specific — set up so much tension in this poem. Think of those moments when you are stuck in your head, caught in the specific anxiety of your life, while all around life goes on. And think of how sick you get of life in those moments. Fucking life, just going on. How could it? And why does it seem so ordinary, so disgusting? Doesn’t life see me, working my shit out? It never does.

When we talk about the idea of a poem working, that example of the dynamic between the breadth with which this poem inhabits and the specific interiority of the speaker’s mind — that is a way that a poem works. There is a problem in the speaker’s head, that specific problem of seeking “forever the right way to know this,” while all around — whether in the “middleclass environment” of the plane (what a way of putting it!), or “at a party,” or “surrounded at Starbucks” — there is a world that goes on, a world that does not have that problem, a world that simply continues. And so what is left? Solitude, anxiety, despair, want.

But this poem isn’t even that simple. Ever since I first read this poem, I have tried to mimic it, copy it, borrow it. All to no avail. I’ve tried everything to write this poem in my own way because I feel this poem. Few last lines have stilled me as these have:

And you want to be good.
And you want to be liked.
And you want to recover.

One of the reasons these lines still me is because of the use of the second person. And that, that small and subtle shift in person about a third of the way through the poem…well, I think it’s so remarkable and deft. It’s deft for the naturalness with which it happens. There are the lines “there are areas / that do not light up—” which are spoken from the first person, and then, immediately following the line break after the em-dash — in technically the same grammatical sentence — we have a switch to the “you,” the second person. Talk about what a poem can do. All at once, we, the readers, each of us individually, occupy the poem. We become it. We are at the party. We are experiencing grief. We are at the Starbucks. We are in the plane looking down at the Statue of Liberty.

This poem could have been written in the first person, in the singular. It could have read entirely as a confessional. And you know what? I think it would be great. I think it would be a gorgeous, despair-filled poem about a singular experience and relationship to the self and the world. And yet, that switch to the second person is a kind of outstretched hand. It is the speaker saying “and you, too, I imagine.” It is the speaker speaking softly to the self at the same as speaking softly to the world. So often, when I include a “you” in my work, it is a “you” of accountability, or blame, or longing. These are necessary, human feelings. They make for stunning poems. But so rarely do I, in my own poems, include a you of inclusion, a you that imagines my singular anxiety shared amongst others. A you that doesn’t ask people to bear witness to my own experience. A you that is wholly unselfishness. A you that says this poem is for you just as it says this poem is about you just as it says this poem is about me. I should. I want to now.

Bianca Stone’s work reminds me of a Jason Bredle poem that goes “It begins when you don’t feel like you can take it / anymore.” Or another poem of his, where he writes: “Suddenly you realize you’re in the middle of it and it’s heartbreaking.” It’s that feeling, right, that suddenness of understanding your individuality, of wanting and not wanting, of being the embodiment of tension and contradiction. I think we all live in that space at least, what, 56 times a day? It’s beautiful when a poem does too.

It’s hard, though, to speak just of craft or the second person or tension or whatever with a poem such as this. Most of what I want to do is just point out details and lines and say look, look at this! But even those are also moments of craft. I mean:

And you have seen someone you love,
with a colossal
complex vehemence, die.

How can you love with a “complex vehemence” — who has described love in such a perfect way?

Or this:

the body lays down
while the mind bloats
on intellectual chaos.

How succinctly does that describe the body’s relationship to the state, the longing to simply give in to the demands of the world, demands that some (or most) days feel senseless and inescapable, while the mind races for new solutions?

Just as I am stilled by the final three lines, I turn frequently to these four:

I seek forever the right way to know this.
That there are bridges
not built in me. That there are areas
that do not light up—

Perhaps no poet has better put what it feels like (for me) to live in this world. Maybe for you, too? The idea — after looking around, after walking through the city, after not laughing at a friend’s joke when everyone else does, after not crying at a funeral, after crying at a wedding, after thinking you are the only person who sees the television at the party and wonders why no one else thinks what is on the news is important — that you are wired differently, built for another world. Which is why, I think, the poem picks that moment to move to the second person. It’s too hopeless not to. It needs to include something, because otherwise, why would it exist? It needs to live, and in order to live, it needs to live beyond the self.

I think the phrase “seek forever the right way to know this” is one of many missions of poetry. And I think most missions of poetry that are worthwhile are also worthwhile missions for life. To seek. And not just to seek, but to seek forever. Implicit in that is an acknowledgment that the seeking will never find the “right way to know” that it so desperately wants. It’s a contradiction, which makes for wonderful poetry and also makes for real life.

I return to this poem again and again for these reasons. I return, first and foremost and always, because it makes me feel less alone, and feeling less alone is the best kind of feeling in a world that makes me mostly feel more alone. But I return, too, to be reminded of the way a poem can both inhabit a specific self and then transcend it. I return because it helps me learn how you can simultaneously be so critical of the world and yet gentle to the self. This poem ends with a litany of want. There is despair there — there is always despair in want — but there is also a kind of validation. To want is to imagine a world that validates your humanity. For so long, I was taught that this was a kind of selfishness. But look at the world that Bianca Stone conveys. It is full of “a terrible glow.” People die. Love has a “vehemence.” There is “calculated desolation.” What kind of world is this? It is a real one. We live in it. To want, while living within it, is to enact a kind of love, a love the world so rarely has.